CONGRATULATIONS ON SOME VERY INTERESTING ARTICLES in recent issues. It seems I often have some tenuous connection with some of the ships mentioned, and the article on the Lakonia tragedy in the December 2009 issue of Sea Breezes is no exception.
When she was the Dutch liner Johan van Oldenbarnevelt just after the end of WWII the Anglo American Oil tanker F J Wolfe almost brought her career to an untimely end. It happened like this. As a nineteen year old Third Mate on the Wolfe we were on passage from Abadan to Antwerp and transiting the Gibraltar Straits westwards. It was approaching midnight and Captain Ernest Tyrrell of the well known Arklow Tyrrell family had turned in leaving me on the bridge with the helmsman (no gyro in those days).
The Wolfe, with her sister ships DL Harper and George W Mcnight were ‘rogue’ tankers with twin MAN engines which gave endless trouble and electric steering gear which was before its time. This gear was apt to short circuit which resulted in the helm being put hard over one side or the other, without warning. We had experienced this some months previously when on leaving Camell Lairds drydock in Birkenhead the steering failed, and with two anchors down we rounded nicely alongside Woodside ferry landing stage to the consternation of awaiting passengers who wisely departed rapidly up the walkway onto dry land and safety. On this night in the Straits, before the introduction of separation lanes, I espied this speeding liner approaching fine on the starboard bow showing her green light and masthead lights and with her decks a blaze of lights. When she was four points on the bow, our steering decided to fail and put the helm hard astarboard. In the light of experience we had the ‘not under command’ signals all ready to be shown – the two black balls by day and the two red lights at night. I promptly rang emergency full astern, switched on the red lights and, if I remember rightly blew one short blast on the whistle. This brought Captain Tyrrell hurtling onto the bridge in his pyjamas.
Agonizingly we stood and watched as we swung towards the liner which gave no indication that she had seen or heard our signals. We passed across her wake a mere cable from her stern. A few seconds sooner and we may well have ploughed into her. When past, the liner called up on the Morse lamp and it was then we found who she was. She was on passage from Holland to the then Dutch East Indies on her regular run.
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