Chapter 7

After this, if the expression is appropriate, things calmed down a little. Not the weather nor the heaving of the ship. but the activity. I found myself the only occupant of the bridge, and I didn't like it one little bit. The injured deckhand had been taken aft, while the Skipper and Mate were somewhere trying to discover what was wrong with the rudder. Then the bridge filled up - Cal the Second now in oilskins, Big Patsey and his watchmate - they all decided that not only was the rudder jammed, the chain itself was broken. The chain looped around the wheel windlass, ran down a hawsepipe on either side of the bridge housing, and aft via a series of iron rods, chains and adjustable connectors to the rudder quadrant. The break was high up the port hawsepipe, and the only way to get at it was to smash the pipe with a sledge hammer. This itself was a dangerous operation, as all the work had to be done on the weather deck; it was constantly swept by a waist high torrent of water. Whoever was wielding the hammer had to be lashed to a rail with a lifeline. and no one could stand the strain for long. While this was going on the connectors were slackened off, and even this simple job had a high risk element, as everything was right at deck level.

There were only five of them attempting to free the chain, although the Chief made occasional forays to the bridge. But his main job was to keep an eye on the engine room and check that we were not taking in any water. The Skipper kept calling out 'Where are those other bastards?' but those other bastards, the Christmas crew, were down the fo'c'sle 'Shit scared fartless' as Patsy put it, apparently around a bottle. My own terror having subsided a little, I offered to help but all I was allowed to do was to hold the portable lamps so that work could be done behind the steering wheel. But I did manage, when no one was looking, to clamber aft and return with pots of tea all round. Eventually, by superhuman efforts, the steering gear was again useable, although the rudder remained jammed. Fortunately the dynamo had kept going, and we could have light. If it had failed, our position would have been parlous indeed! Light from the deck lamps gave a few yards precarious visibility, in which we could see the mountains of water rising to engulf us a bare second before they struck. Beyond our ring of light there was nothing - nothing but the blackness and the wind. We were at the centre of the universe.

When daylight come, the true bleakness of our position was revealed. As far as the eye could reach, there was nothing to be seen except grey heaving waters with scud blown horizontally from the peaks. No breakers, just the heaving mass of water and our small ship lying helpless in the midst of it. The old shellbacks reckoned that the wind had been so strong it had flattened the sea. A little less in ferocity, they reckoned, the seas would have broken and more than likely, one would have sunk us. In the old days, they said, we had wooden ships and iron men, but now its iron ships and wooden men by the look of the lot we have in this crew. By this time, the fo'c'sle hands were appearing and demanding breakfast, and what is more, they got it. How the somewhat elderly cook managed it I do not know, but he did. Of course, all the skrimshankers had some excuse for not appearing in the dark hours, and it was interesting to find so many who had strained backs or weakened limbs. Surprising that we hadn't noticed them before!

But we were still in trouble. The rudder remained jammed, each sea pounded it more firmly in position, and all efforts to free it failed. There was little that could be done until the wind and sea eased. Sometime during the morning, the Skipper said that he would go beneath the lifeboat himself and try to free the quadrant. This was not something that in all humanity be could actually order anyone to do, as it was clearly somewhat of a dangerous nature. So he tied a line to his waist, told the cook to stand by the galley door, hold the line firmly, and shout if a sea was about to break. For a moment or two little Tich knelt down on the heaving deck beneath the damaged boat that had been lifted clear of its chocks and lashed down. Then there was a cry from the cook 'Look out!'. The Skipper held on to something, miraculously was not swept overboard, and then dashed to the safety of the galley door only to find that the cook had dropped the line and fled. Eventually things calmed down sufficiently to allow the winch to be brought into action, and with a warp, the rudder was freed and we could resume our voyage.

The next day, it was decided to `give the boat a passage', in other words, dump it over the side. This we did. Most of us wanted it to be rammed and sunk so that it would not be seen by another vessel and a false alarm raised on our safety. But Tich would have none of it. A great pity. It would have been nice to see a piece of the Gaffers property being broken up. Perhaps that was why Tich wouldn't do it.

Even when we started fishing, things still didn't go well. The living was only fair, nothing went right, and the crew were a poor lot indeed. There were other problems as well - food, water and bunkers. The cook told me that the crew were so greedy that be could hardly cope, and if the trip was to be a long one, as seemed likely, stores would run out. Fresh water was tanked somewhere down in the bowels of the ship, and drawn up to the galley by a small hand pump. On previous trips the water had become contaminated and was hardly drinkable. This had been reported by the Chief for attention, and he had been assured that the system was in good order. But we were beginning to have doubts again. Cookie reported the low state of the stores, but the Skipper went on fishing. He had to - things were looking disastrous. Eventually, the Chief said that there was coal enough for one more day's fishing and then we must start for home, and hope that the weather remained fair. This put our departure to Christmas Eve. For our Christmas dinners, whilst rounding Cape Farewell, we had the scrapings off the bones of the previous day's salt beef, and slices - very small slices - of cold plum duff. The cook's stores for a prospective ten days steam were little more than half a sack of blackening potatoes and a small bag of dried peas. No flour, no tea, and only minute amounts of anything else. For bulk we had bard tack; ships biscuits kept in reserve. And the water was practically undrinkable.

Some of us had the habit of taking a few extra luxuries, maybe eggs bought in Scrabster, and these would be used for private supper during the night watches. On this occasion I had four tins of baked beans left, the one-helping tuppence halfpenny size, and half a bottle of coffee essence. These I shared with the Skipper in our cabin - maybe that is why he was so friendly at the time. Although there was ice and fish stowed away, the holds couldn't be opened as the consequent rise in temperature would spoil the catch.

Fortunately, although it was January, the weather did remain fine during the passage and so conditions were not too bad. The engine room staff were the worst affected, as not only had they to do hard work, it was hot and thirst making as well. They managed to distil some water from the condenser, but it tasted like red lead. Several of us began to suffer from what in later years I learned to my cost to call Gyppy Tummy. Eventually, we made the Pentland Firth and were able to take on coal, water and food, but only the barest minimum quantities. Needless to say, poor Tich was not with us the next trip.

Later, the Chief told us that the bilge water had been seeping into the fresh water tanks - not a particularly healthy state of affairs. But then Harry Thompson was back, and life became a little better - we had a night in Scrabster! Of course, during the past year there had been occasions when this had happened, but now it was almost a regular thing; one night at least and more on the slightest excuse. All this was a luxury for the crew, for many a man spent a lifetime fishing without setting a foot ashore away from his own port. So we got well known in Thurso. Harry used the bar in the Pentland Hotel and let it be known again that lesser mortals such as ourselves were not allowed there. As I did not drink (in those days), I had to be content with a visit to a cinema and supper in the local icecream parlour, kept by a family of alleged Italians, although they spoke with a strong Glaswegian accent.

Although we now carried the bond, there was little abuse of the privilege of being able to obtain a bottle of spirits, and in any case, no one could afford many. From time to time, of course, there was a small party. In deference to my Methodist upbringing I was always assured that they took a drink for medicinal purposes only, while on one occasion Cal the Second, feeling somewhat mellow after a few gins, said 'Sparks, I only drink this stuff as it keeps my water clear'. And years afterwards, I still believed it. Once, however, a rather serious party developed down the cabin, and Harry the Cook got completely sloshed and passed out cold. So he was picked up by the arms and legs and with an 'All together as she rolls', flung into his bunk. All harmless fun, except for Harry. He was never the same again.

For me, it was the occasion when I finally demonstrated my ability to do every job on the ship, except the Trimmer's. For the next morning, I became the Temporary Unofficial Assistant Cook, in charge of the galley, as Harry was feeling a little `off-colour'. To be quite precise about it, he couldn't get out of his bunk. The Skipper of course steadfastly refused to have any official knowledge of what had been going on, although for some reason best known to himself he appeared on the bridge when the rather talkative watch came on duty.

By this time, having come a bit of a Jack of All Trades, including cooking and a little simple navigation, I also thought myself a dab hand in the engine room. This was a cavernous place, only dimly lit in daylight by a few ports high up in the deckhead, and requiring a careful descent down a long ladder that tended to be a little oily. A fall from this could be nasty; at best you could land on the hard iron deckplates, and at worst, thrown on to the revolving propeller camshaft and crushed. Using its full title, the Vertical Triple Expansion Reciprocating Steam Engine, stood some twenty feet tall, from the deckplates to the top of its three enormous cylinders, that drove the thick pistons up and down, up and down, with a constant thud, thud, as the propeller turned. So the engine room was a noisome place, and even if the main engine stopped there was still the whine of the steam driven dynamo, and often as well the clang of the donkey engine pumping out the bilges.

Naturally, the reciprocating parts of the engine required regular lubrication, and a considerable amount of wrist and arm dexterity was needed to bob a long-spouted oilcan up and down in unison with the oil cup without it being knocked and bent. Near the main control wheel was the telegraph on which the bridge rang down the orders with a clang, clang, clang as the pointer went round to one of the romantic reading signs, such as Full Astern or Quarter Ahead. Immediately the order was signalled, it had to be acknowledged by pulling round a large and polished brass handle to meet the pointer.

To get to the real heart of the ship, the stokehold, it was necessary to do a shoulder-hunched sideways traverse down the narrow passageway by the hot, curved side of the boiler. There, three fireboxes with an avaricious appetite were waiting to be fed with coal, shovelled from a deck level doorway, or opening, in the bunkers, With the firebox door open, it was necessary to shield one's eyes from the heat, especially when the clinkers were being drawn out. Probably the worst job of all was that of the trimmer, who had to pass through the hot stokehold, climb a vertical ladder that reached almost to the deckhead, squeeze through a small hatch into the bunkers, slide down the heaped coal, and then shovel a pile into each lower opening so that the fireman could reach it. All this in a temperature that could be actually freezing. And of course, he had to ensure that the coal was used evenly from each side so that the vessel did not develop a list.

Being a helpful as well as an inquisitive type, I spent many an off-duty hour down in the engine room, and was eventually allowed to try my hand at oiling; at least by Cal, although the Chief was not so keen. Under the false impression that I should take exercise, I tried stoking. This is easy I thought, as I flung shovel after shovel full of coal into each fire. But I was soon disillusioned when the engineer pointed an accusing finger at the falling steam pressure gauge. At this, the duty fireman gave a somewhat nasty grin, and showed me how to spread the coal over the surface of the fire by a cunning twist of the shovel. All I had done was to damp it down. The nasty grin was because I had used enough coal for three firings, and all he had to do for the next hour was to rake a little. Saved him work!

But soon I was reasonably proficient, and when we were steaming slowly during fishing operations could keep a full head of steam. But I was never allowed to enter the bunkers proper, it being considered just a little too dangerous for a young lad. Once a watch, each fire had to be raked out and the ashes dumped, first into a bin, and then the bin emptied over the side, either through a special chute in good weather, or on to the deck in bad. This was another unpleasant job for the trimmer, for he had to go out on the casing and haul the bins up the ventilator straight from the heat of the stokehold to the wet or frozen outside.

I was able to suit my fancy and do these odd things when off watch, for I was privileged by always having a full night's sleep. But the watch keepers never really obtain a real sleep on a regular basis. The three-bridge watches received a fairly long spell off every third night, and could obtain a rea- sonable rest. But the two-watch engine room staff had to do a twelve hour day on duty, and from the off periods had to be deducted meal periods, and everyone had to have just a little time off to read, smoke or yarn. So it meant that they never received much more than about four hours for a clear sleep. And of course, if the bridge watches were only doubles instead of trebles, they too were in the same unfortunate situation. But the body could adapt to such irregularities.

Life was not all hard work and fishing; there were other interesting things to see. Sometimes, glancing idly around when the weather was fair, one would perhaps unexpectedly see a ten foot fountain of water spout up from the sea, followed by the huge black head of a whale as it came up for air. One calm day at Greenland, while laying motionless at a buoy, a small school of them appeared and swam around us so close that we could hear the snorting, rushing sound of spouting air and water as they blew. A pair of them, babies, played a game of tag heading straight towards the ship until a collision seemed inevitable, only to dive in the nick of time, to be `caught' by the mother as they appeared up on the other side. We were able to pelt them with small pieces of coal as they passed round the bows, but whether that added to the excitement of the game is somewhat conjectural. They probably couldn't even feel it! On another occasion, while on a homeward passage across the Atlantic, an enormous school of them crossed our track heading southwards; as far as they eye could see, there was a continuous speckle of black heads as they came up to blow. One of them seemed to be the size of a bus as it leaped almost clear out of the water.

Unfortunately, these magnificent creatures were hunted during the summer months by whaling fleets, each consisting of a factory ship and three or four hunter/killer vessels. The latter were even smaller than ourselves, about the size of a decent tugboat. I never actually saw one shoot at a whale, but on several occasions we passed one of their victims floating in the water, marked by a flag mast stuck into it, awaiting the arrival of the factory ship. On board this, the flesh was flensed and the carcass dumped overboard to feed the fishes. Unfortunately, unfortunately that is for us, the residue tended to be trawled up again in a very rotting state indeed, and the stench was quite unbearable. So much so that later at Iceland, I saw the crew tell the Skipper that unless he moved grounds he would finish up like the poor whale. Once, heading westwards and just over halfway across the Atlantic, an owl in the last stages of exhaustion flopped down on our deck. How it managed this was remarkable, as we were four or five hundred miles from the nearest land. Some of the crew took it under the whaleback, gave it water and food at which it perked up a little, and placed it under an upturned basket for safety. For quite a while it stayed there, right until we started fishing. By this time, it had gained sealegs and wandered around the deck a little. Unfortunately, nature took its course and it decided to fly again, but soon realised the futility of it and turned back. We were shooting the lines at the time, and our speed was just too much for it; it was unable to get back and fell into the sea. Surprisingly, the hardened mariners on board were quite upset about it.

One of the more disenchanting features of a seafaring life, at least in those days, was the sense of being cut off from the rest of the world. Two or three weeks away, anything could happen - and did. Governments could be overthrown, monarchs assassinated, filmstars divorced and you would not know a thing about it. By the time you returned home it was all old hat, and no one would mention it. The advent of wireless and broadcasting had not alleviated the position to any great extent, as the receivers then available had only limited range. This lack of news was brought home to me on my third or fourth trip, when one of the hands told me that when I arrived they all thought that there would be a supply of news. 'But what has happened? Amy Johnson flew to Australia and we didn't hear about it until we got home.' So I started to copy the British Official Wireless Press broadcast for shipping and post it up in the cabin. These bulletins were boringly official and dull in the extreme, which is why I had not bothered before, but at least they were better than nothing.

Apart from the news of events as they occurred, we also felt isolated from the constant evolving changes in society at large. No one had any great intellectual aspirations, but just to know the latent dance tune or sensational murder or fashionable scandal would have been nice - so we had to rely on old newspapers and such magazines and Tit Bits and John Bull to keep up to date. Naturally of course the News of the World was held as being a bit of an authority, at least on certain matters. Jealousy most likely.

All this meant that one had to make the most of the thirty six or forty eight hours in port. Presumably the married ones made full use of it, but no one could spend all the time in bed, and in any case, the wives wanted to be taken out. There were music balls to be visited, cinemas as well, and of course pubs, around which much social life revolved. For my own part pubs were out, at least - so I went to the pictures quite a lot; at least you did see a little more sophistication. In the course of time I found that I was losing touch with the friends with whom I had been brought up, not that I had been close to many, but it was clear that I was drifting into another sphere.

When the brief visit home was over and sailing time came round again, finding your own ship was always a bit of a hit and miss business, to say nothing of an athletic achievement. The docks were really too small for the large number of vessels, especially before the Number Three extension was built. This problem was compounded by the fact that bunkering facilities, ice and coal, were in the inner dock and as naturally there was a limited number of stations, ships had to await their turn before being moved to wherever space was available. In addition to this, there were always some that were not sailing, under repair, unused and so on, which meant that the docks were full of a motley array of vessels. Some broadside-on to the jetty, some head-on or stern-on even, but most lying further out in the dock, two or three deep. But not in ordered rows. On no! In an unorganised jumble, like leaves in a pond. The sailing instructions would say that the ship would be lying at so and so, but this was always an optimistic statement and necessarily vague. Consequently, one had to search the area and if yours was well out in the dock, it would be impossible to see the name, and all you could do would be to spot a funnel with the right markings and hope for the best. For it meant that you had to clamber up and down over the intervening ships to find out, and this could mean climbing vertically up a bow using the anchor as a foothold, or perhaps dropping down on to a lower deck from an overhanging one. Not always an easy feat, and one that often required assistance. But then you were all in the same boat, or rather you hoped you were. And it was made more difficult if you had come from a lengthy farewell session in the pub.

There is one other very vivid memory of sailing time - the smell. Always there had been some painting to be done, and the paint smelled extremely strongly of red lead, a most nauseating odour. In addition, down in the stokehold the boiler fire had been raked out when cold, leaving an enormous pile of ash. As soon as we had passed through the lockgates, the trimmer set to and hauled the pile up on to the deck, to be added to a smelly heap already there. Naturally, the combination of paint and smelly ash plus the renewed movement of the ship gave rise to a certain feeling of revulsion. And if that had been combined with another feeling due to an excess of beer, it must have been awful - fortunately I had not yet experienced the latter. As it was, it was bad enough.

All that spring and summer in 1939 we crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, so that we became part of the familiar shipping scene, at least on the wireless, for often I spoke to the regular passenger and cargo ships on the more southern routes. Cunarders on their way to Halifax, and Manchester Line vessels bound for Montreal were familiar friends, as were the Royal Greenland Company's ships paying their annual visits to remote settlements. There were about six of these vessels and were usually rigged for sail and steam, sails presumably in case they got into icefields and couldn't use their engines. All seemed to be named after female members of the Maerske family, whoever they were.

Another interesting feature was the occasional news of the beginning of the real conquest of the Atlantic by air. Quite often a message would be broadcast to all ships asking for news of any sightings of an aeroplane attempting the crossing. Sadly, some never made it. In July of 1939 I had actually heard the airship R100 on its one and only flight to Montreal, and in August of the same year while steaming up the coast of Greenland there was a cry of 'There's an aeroplane!' Aeroplanes were still a bit of a rarity, and one at Greenland - well, astounding. Someone suggested that I called it up on the wireless, and much to my surprise I received an answer. It was a German Dornier Val flying boat on its way to New York, via Iceland and Greenland. That flight is regarded as a milestone in the estab- lishment of regular Tans-Atlantic air services.

During the following winter there had been a mysterious messages broadcast by Rugby, addressed `Lemon - Quest'. Now I knew that the Quest bad been Shacklton's ship on his Antarctic expeditions, but what it was doing now was the puzzle, and why it did not have a proper callsign. By April we learned from the Official Press messages of the epic wintering on the Greenland icecap by August Courtauld and the efforts to relieve him, and that Lemon was the operator, Captain 0. Lemon, R.E. So the dull press messages did have a use after all. Later that summer we heard also of the traverse on foot across the ice cap by Rymill and Hamton, and were able to send them a congratulatory message when they were on their way home on one of the Maerske ships.

On one of the outward passages during the autumn the weather was unusually fine for almost a week, no wind at all, and just a light swell that caused the bow to plop down every ten minutes or so and send up a slight shower of fine spray. As we neared Cape Farewell, the spray started to freeze and we looked like a Christmas tree, very pretty to admire from the bridge but rather a nuisance. Then the fo'c'sle gang started to comment on the amount of ice we were carrying. The Skipper took little notice of this until one of the older deckhands said that he was rather concerned about it. So the Skipper ambled along the foredeck, (the weather was as fine as that) and to his horror, found that the fore side of the mast was coated with ice as thick as the mast itself, a full six inches on the whaleback, with the anchor over the bow completely covered. We were clearly top heavy, and down by the bow so much so that the speed was visibly reduced - if a sudden squall had arisen we could have been in danger of turning turtle. So then it was all hands to chopping, and on this occasion all hands included the cook, the engineer and myself. It was quite a thrill to peer over the bow and see the water parting six feet below while still in mid Atlantic.

By November, the Marconi Company were making noises that it was about time I took some leave, and so I left the St. Keverne and my life an a codman. For this style of fishing ceased entirely within a couple of years. It had been a happy ship, much happier than others in which I was to sail.