Lifeboat drillAt about 1930, the estuary pilot left us. My official log does, however, record that I was on the 4-8 watch that evening, next morning and afternoon. From then until we left the Bay of Biscay, daywork and seasickness. She was rolling her guts out. Sykes and I were told to help the deck crew move some drums on the after welldeck and then he and I were left to put extra lashings on them. I think it took us three days. I wore my Sifta Sam gear – and how old-fashioned it would look now: wellies, and brand-new, long, shiny oil skin, down to below my knees, and sou’wester. If it was really wet, I remembered advice Dad had given, gleaned from a friend of his who had, before the War, sailed on the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s Reina del Pacifico. I wound a dry towel round my neck, so effectively stopping water from getting in that way.

I also had a half hour on the bridge, watching Griff at the wheel and beginning to learn the technique. The worst part of seasickness, of course, is when your stomach is empty and you begin to retch – it is like a knife in your innards. I tried to eat cereal just so there would be something to come up… No sympathy from anyone, of course, and I suppose the Mate, Mr D T McLachlan, charitably ignored us while we carried out the task he’d given us.

The good news? I was never sick again deep-sea. Just an initial queasiness when I joined one or two new ships, and, I’ll be honest, a fragile stomach sometimes down a hold at sea or painting in the accommodation during rolling or pitching.

In retrospect, there was a funny side: remembering how the dogs behaved on deck, especially when trying to cock a leg to urinate or do the other. The dog would lift a leg, the ship would roll heavily to port and the dog would almost topple over. It would cock the other leg and then just before delivery, a ponderous roll to starboard… dog nearly collapses again. And so on.

I recorded our first day’s run as 287 miles. On Saturday morning, (still by ‘official’ log), Fearnett and I were both just about recovered and cleaned the halfdeck for inspection, then going on deck to rig and tidy up various aerials. After an engine-room fire drill, Fred took us around to show us the fire appliances and where vital keys were kept. After this, we overhauled a destroyer and Sykes had his first practice of dipping the Red Ensign aft (a nautical version of saluting or doffing your cap).

By evening, the sea was almost calm. Triumphant and re-invigorated after our stomach ordeal, Sykes and I played darts in the smoke-room and did some dhobeying. Average speed 17.17 knots; distance 412 miles. I had already learned long before going to sea that it was incorrect to say that a ship does ‘15 knots per hour’. As Squire Thornton Stratford Lecky stated in 1881 (in his famous ‘Wrinkles’): “Landsmen and seafarers in some instances confound the ‘knot’ with the ‘nautical mile’, and regard the word ‘knot’ as used to discriminate against the ‘statute land mile’. This idea is quite erroneous! The ‘knot’ is the world’s unit of speed, the ‘mile’ is the unit of length. One knot, two knots, etc, are speeds of one nautical mile, two nautical miles, etc, an hour. This defi nition should never be forgotten.” And while a land mile is 5,280 feet (as decreed by Elizabeth I), the nautical mile is 6,080 feet, a cable 600 feet.

By Sunday, November 6, normal service resumed as I noted in my diary: stomach under full control. We passed Gib about 0600. And I’m afraid Sykes and I fell for one of the oldest tricks when Fred had told us we might as well write home as the mail boat would come out of Gib to collect our letters while we steamed past… A bit cruel, I thought at the time!

However, it was great to be so near Spain as I had studied Spanish at school though I had never visited the country. So to be sailing within sight of those towering, snow-capped mountains and to hear on the radio the language and music as we sailed south and then east… so tantalising. Average speed 17.88 knots; run 429 miles.

And then into the Medi for the first time, and on Monday, up at 0600, the clocks having gone half an hour forward overnight. After visiting the Mate on the bridge to get details of our tasks, I cleaned out the halfdeck and Sykes and I took the dogs for a walk. Then we made some ‘No smoking’ signs for ‘our’ deck cargo which turned out to be petrol.

After breakfast came an engine-room fire drill. Up I went to the boat deck to meet my party of Chinese sailors and firemen. There they stood, each carrying a small axe. I could speak no Chinese, they no English, apart from being able to say their number in English. Well, allegedly say in English: I remember one sailor reporting to the bridge after his spell as focsle-head lookout one night, smiling and saying, “Nummatatee.” I tried several times to decipher this, eventually helped by the 3rd Mate who heard this and laconically said, “Number thirteen.”

Anyway, after the drill, the Mate gave us a list of hatches he wanted opening to check whether the vehicles had shifted during the bad weather (the holds were not full). After a while, he told us we were too slow and the bosun and two sailors came along to speed up the process. We went down with the Mate to look at the cars. Not too bad, I suppose: two Land Rovers had shifted so that they were jammed up against each other and a car had worked loose, ending up against some dunnage.

After lunch, we closed up except for number 5 where the 3rd Mate, Chippy and ourselves reinforced lashings on Land Rovers. Before closing number 4, we pulled out some unused dunnage to make awnings for the deck cargo.

And then at 1630, my first ever trick at the wheel (since the Woodside ferry). As the rules state: “Candidates for the qualifying examination will be required to produce a Steering Certificate to show that, apart from periods of instruction, he has taken turns at the wheel for periods totalling at least 10 hours in steering ships (not fishing boats) of 100 gross tons or more. The Master of each ship in which turns at the wheel are taken, should certify the time spent until the minimum period is reached…”

There I stood on the grating, facing the magnetic compass with Kelvin’s balls (the corrector spheres), the gyro compass slightly to my left, clicking away. It didn’t take me too long to pick it up, remembering to watch the ship’s head: when she began paying off to port, a touch of starboard wheel. Barely a slight sea, a gyro course, so the compass divisions were easy to see. I learned how the feel of the brass cap confirmed when the wheel was amidships or had a full turn on; and the half-turn spoke had a handy cross carved into it so that even at night it was easy to judge. After half an hour, the Mate signed my homemade Steering Log… and I completed eleven hours on February 1 the following year. No one told me how to acknowledge helm orders… so I ventured to use the forms of words I’d learnt in Tim the Coastguard’s old Admiralty manual.

For example, “Port 10.” To which I’d answer, “Port ten.” And then, “Ten of port wheel on sir.” Or, “Hard a starboard.” I would repeat this and then, when the wheel was hard over, say, “Wheel’s hard a starboard sir.” As no one ever contradicted me, I stuck to it. Average speed 17.57 knots; run 413 miles.

Contrary to the magnetic compass, the gyro compass, unaffected by the Earth’s magnetism and that of the ship, always points to true north and is based on the principle that the spindle of a high-speed fl y-wheel will take up a position parallel to the Earth’s axis, if it is free to do so. The bridge gyros were merely repeaters of the master gyro whirring away deep in the ship’s innards. Another advantage of the gyro is that it is unaffected by magnetic storms, which are linked to the sunspot cycle and can affect the magnetic compass by around a degree for perhaps 20 minutes.

Next day, I was called as usual at 0600 when we were passing Cap Bon, Tunisia. After breakfast, we overhauled six French MTLs of the French Coastal Patrol of Algeria; then it was my turn to learn the ritual of dipping the ensign down aft as we passed the leading vessel. Later, this could be amusing if you dipped and no one on the warship acknowledged at first – and suddenly you saw someone running frantically aft on their vessel to return the favour.

Port SaidLearning the hard way
Sykes and I spent most of the day rigging awnings over the deck cargoes, knocking off at 1630. And this caused the first note of complaint to appear in my diary. “The Mate says we’d made a slipshod job of the first one… Our first voyage and we are expected to be expert carpenters, joiners, housemaids and sailors.” I must admit, looking back, jobs on deck should have entailed a first-tripper working with an experienced middy, surely? Still, learning the hard way is still learning. Sicily in sight that afternoon. A warm day with a calm sea. Average speed: 17.62 knots; run 414 miles.

Up at 0530 on Wednesday, November 9. We finished the second lot of awnings (no complaints) and then Sykes and I went with a Chinese AB to hand (haul in) the Walker’s Cherub log which was streamed from a bracket fixed to the port quarter bulwark. Power to the winches aft of number 6 hatch, then pull in some slack on the logline, unhook from the governor, and put two or three turns round the drum end. Chuck the end overboard so that as we heave in, it pays out and streams astern, unravelling kinks and turns. Once we have the spinner on board, take the turns off the drum and haul in again. Then coil it down. A satisfying job – learning how to do something useful.

The reason for this was obvious at 0930: the whistle and klaxons went for MoT (Ministry of Transport) sports, as we called boat drill.

The Ministry requirements were that cargo ships had to carry sufficient lifeboats under davits on each side to accommodate all hands. I grabbed my lifejacket and rushed back to number 4 boat, the Mate cursing latecomers (not me). Then we went round to number 1, the motor lifeboat, to make her ready for lowering. Fred, the 2nd Mate and the appointed crew were to go down in her. The 2nd Wireless Operator went also to test the portable radio. Off they motored, about half a mile away from the ship. I wandered round to the forepart and noticed how calm and peaceful everything was with the engines stopped. A sparkling deep-blue sea, the Old Man’s canaries singing away, and Life was good. Back to our awnings, wearing an old panama hat I’d found in the halfdeck. When the boat returned, I took a few photographs with Dad’s ancient, 1930s bellows Kodak camera. Plenty to learn that day, as Sykes and I then accompanied the Mate to the rudder house to test the emergency steering from aft. The 4th Mate also came and explained everything to us. First they transferred to steering from the wheel on the after docking bridge, and then to the cumbersome, but effective pumping method.

After finishing with the awnings, we had lunch and were then put on repairing signal flags and polishing with emery paper the little plaques on the vents. At the wheel again at 1630.

That evening, I discovered that the Old Man, T R Walker, had lost his ship, the Menestheus, by fire off the coast of the USA. On April 16, 1953, there was an engine-room explosion which injured the Mate, and the 2nd Mate, instead of setting off the alarm, tried to treat him, losing valuable seconds.

Average speed 17.75 knots; run 405 miles.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - February 2016 Issue
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