John Dock

It was way back in December 1962 and only a few moments before I had received my “buff form” as confi rmation that I had passed for Master, Foreign Going. Standing on the pavement outside the examiner’s offi ce in Cape Town, I suddenly came faceto- face with the decision; “What to do now?” Having fi nally achieved the long reached-for goal of a “Master’s ticket”, what was I going to do with it?

Back then, there were a number of prestigious marine organisations, such as Trinity House; the Hooghly River pilotage; East African Lakes and the Suez Canal pilotage, to name just a few examples. The South African Railways Harbour Service was one of these. There was a long waiting list to join the Service, which required a Master’s Foreign-going certificate as the minimum entry requirement. What would happen if I went along now and put my name down on a waiting list; took a bit of leave and then found something to fill in the time while waiting?

The immediate task at hand, however, was to make my way back to the South African Merchant Navy Academy to inform the staff and my classmates of my good fortune and to phone my wife and let her know of my success. This entailed a short walk past the Victoria Dock clock tower, an edifice surmounting a block of offices containing the headquarters of the Harbour Service and the Railways shipping line, SARShips.

It seemed the ideal time to just “pop in” and see how I could get on the waiting list for the Harbour Service. A short and impressive staircase brought me out on the first floor and facing a large panelled office. Sitting at a large desk was a small, slightly-built gentleman in a white uniform with a broad Commodore’s stripe on his epaulettes, a shock of white hair and piercing blue eyes. I knocked politely on his door and a broad Yorkshire accent bade me enter. He seemed a bit surprised, but no more than I was when the conversation went as follows:

“Excuse me sir, but where can I find out how to join the Harbour Service?”
“Do you have a Master’s Foreign-Going Certificate?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Can you start immediately?”
“Yes, sir.”
“There is an immediate vacancy in Port Elizabeth – do you want it?”
“Yes, sir”.
“Right, go next door, tell the clerk I sent you and start in Port Elizabeth next week.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir”.

With the brashness of youth, I had inadvertently circumvented the whole system (and even his secretary) and blundered into the office of the South African Railways Nautical Advisor, Captain Reg Jackson.

The next few days passed in a blur and within a week, my wife, Anne, and I were settled in an hotel on Port Elizabeth beachfront, and I found myself once again facing an impressive-looking fourstriper in a panelled office. This was the Port Captain of Port Elizabeth, Captain Eric Sharrett, a chubbier version of Reg Jackson and with an equally pronounced British regional accent. Once again, I was referred to “the clerk next door”, a highly efficient Mr Billson, who seemed to be the administrative kingpin in the harbour. He was a charmingly pleasant and effusive man and, after the necessary paperwork was done, he issued me with a set of epaulettes; brass buttons and a cap badge. I would not be entitled to a uniform issue until I had served one year in the Service. I was appointed “Spare Mate” and given the choice of which harbour craft I wanted to report to, but he recommended the first class tug John Dock, lying at the shore end of the Charl Malan Quay, her permanent berth. Off I went once again; found her and boarded by a smart gangplank to her boat deck, where I found myself outside the Mate’s cabin.

The Mate turned out to be a tiny, wiry little man with a trimmed goatee beard. This was Dennis Banks, ex-Stanvac Tankers and a real bundle of energy. The Service still used the old terminology of Master and Mate and, after a very pleasant welcome by Dennis, I was introduced to the Master, Frank Rossouw, ex-Union Castle. He was an extremely handsome man, tall and dark-haired and every inch the gentleman. After the pleasantries were over and the steward had brought us a cup of tea, I received my job description. As a “Spare Mate” I was exactly that. Having chosen the John Dock, I could accept that I was part of her ship’s company. But the first thing I was to do was to find a house and to do so I could come and go as I pleased between our working hours of 06h00 to 15h30.

I was to buy myself two sets of white uniforms. This done, I should buy the newspaper every day so that while keeping out of the way I would have the daily crossword puzzle to occupy me! I should also familiarise myself with the tug and was welcome to join Frank and Dennis on the bridge during ship handling operations, provided I stood back out of the way; watched and learned. Mates wore one stripe and Masters two, so there I was with a third Mate’s stripe and the status of a first-tripper, after all the sweat and tears to obtain a Master’s ticket! I could not really complain as a Mate was paid a salary commensurate with that of a deep-sea Chief Officer.

The John Dock was built by Harland and Wolff in 1934 and named after a member of the Harbour Advisory Board. She was in immaculate condition. Her original open bridge had been plated in with varnished wood and glass, but, otherwise, she was unchanged since building. She was built to double up as both a harbour tug and a salvage tug and her twin coal burning steam-reciprocating engines produced 2 500 hp (2240KW) and gave her a speed of 12,5 knots. At 144 ft in length and 551 tons, she was by no means small. The overall impression was one of power and she served the Service well for 43 years before being scrapped in 1977. Her bridge was a simple one. In the plated section, and set back in a recess, was a large wooden wheel and next to it a radio-telephone. At each entrance to this plated section, stood a large brass Chadburns’ engine room telegraph. The bridge wings were covered by a permanent awning.

One deck below the bridge was the boat deck, complete with a life-boat on radial davits on each side and with the Mate’s cabin to port and the Master’s to starboard. Each of these cabins contained a green leather settee which could convert into a bunk; a desk and chair; a washbasin and a cupboard. Between the two was the chart room. This contained a glittering wood and brasshandled chart table; a radio telephone and a radio direction finder. It also contained a settee and an upper fold-away bunk.

The next deck down, the main deck, housed the officers’ saloon directly under the chart room. This space was fully panelled and contained a large dining table; swivel chairs; a long settee across the forrard bulkhead and a serving dresser. The engineers, of which there were four, each had a single cabin outboard of a fore-andaft alleyway separating them from the saloon, while the officers’ bathroom and heads completed this row. To balance this, on the port side were the pantry; galley; petty officers’ accommodation and their ablution facilities. In the middle of this house was the engine room casing. The deck crew and firemen were housed in the fo’c’sle, a large sailing-ship type companionway giving access for the sailors to port and firemen to starboard.

The catering arrangements were rather odd to a deep-sea man. One of the sailors was a dedicated cook and a deck boy served as the steward. One brought one’s own rations and meals and these would be heated up or cooked and then served at meal times on crested Railway crockery on a Railway table cloth.

I was a bit baffled at first by Captain Jackson’s hurry to get me to Port Elizabeth, but all became clear when the wheels of administration finally promoted Dennis Banks up half a notch to Master of the 1913-built hopper barge “Duyker” (Afrikaans for “diver”, the colloquial name for a cormorant), where he could happily have his own command and practice his single-screw ship handling by hauling away and dumping the local dredger’s spoil.

I then stepped up to be the permanent Mate of the John Dock. This involved reporting aboard for a 6 AM start and receiving the shipping movements for the day over the radio telephone. Together with the port’s other First Class tug, we would move out and take up a position just inside the breakwater. As the ship we were allocated entered between the breakwaters we would accelerate forward, land gently alongside and then slide up under her fo’c’sle. A wire was passed up from our fo’c’sle and made fast and then we would slide back gently until the wire was taut and the ship was effectively towing us alongside. Acting on the pilot’s directions, we would then swing on this wire, pushing in and pulling back and lifting off as required. When the ship was in position we would let go and move across to push in amidships and hold her in position until she was securely fast, after which we would repeat the operation with the next ship.

The manner that the pilot’s directions were given was interesting and it was my job to receive them and pass them on to Frank. The pilot would use a pea whistle and a series of shrill blasts would indicate what he wanted done, and I would reply with the same number of blasts on the tug’s steam whistle to acknowledge. Things became a bit hectic when two tugs were involved, one forrard and one aft. To signal the “after” tug the pilot would use the ship’s steam whistle, to which the tug would reply by using her siren. When berthing the weekly mailboats, the cacophony at times of pea whistles; steam whistles and sirens could be quite impressive. Shortly after my assumption of the job, the Service introduced hand-held portable radios and the harbour lapsed into comparative silence.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - June 2019 Issue
Click here to subscribe