Only the Depth Varies

Strathardle in Bay of Biscay Jan 1971

A TALE OF MY EARLY DAYS AT SEA

“When you’re an Apprentice, lad, your always in the shit, it’s only the depth that varies.”

I forget which of the Chief Officer’s, under whose guidance I sailed during the four, fascinating, years of my seagoing apprenticeship, imparted that piece of wisdom but I can certainly attest to the truth of it.

Strathardle was my first ship, one of three sister “Superstraths” (the others being Strathbrora and Strathconon), built in 1966-67 by Mitsui Zosen for P&O. The “Superstraths” were hailed, at the time, as a new generation of fast, modern cargo liners that would transform ocean transport. With a length of 171.6 metres, a beam of 24.3 metres and driven by a 15,000 kW, B&W medium speed diesel engine the vessels carried a deadweight of 12,500 tons at a maximum speed of 22.5 knots. They had seven cargo holds, refrigerated lockers for chilled and frozen cargoes and the latest in cargo handling technology including eight 5 tonne SWL Hagglund deck cranes, two heavy lift derricks and hydraulically operated,  folding, Macgregor steel hatch covers on both main and ‘tween decks.

Strathardle was only four years old when I signed on in the Royal Victoria Dock on 11 January 1971 and she looked fast, efficient and exciting, but already the writing was on the wall for cargo liners of her ilk, with the container revolution well underway.

Her first Master, Captain J.A. Clifford, had commented very favourably that she was fine ship with a great deal of thought having gone into her design; but he was less favourable when describing her seakeeping qualities, particularly her tendency to roll with a vicious jerk and to behave more like a submarine, going through the waves instead of over them. The latter I had the pleasure of experiencing myself two days out from London when we encountered a nasty storm crossing the Bay of Biscay. I swear to this day that she rolled so far on one wave that I saw the wheelhouse inclinometer hit the stops, but I was too young and inexperienced to be frightened.

I was sharing a cabin with a second trip apprentice called Dave who had brought a fish tank with him. Our cabin was on the starboard side and my bunk was on the outboard side of the cabin. His bunk was on the inboard side and between us was a desk. The fish tank sat on the desk on a foam rubber mat to stop it sliding and Dave had screwed hooks into the bulkhead and securely lashed it. Because the power point was on the outboard end of the desk, however, the tank sat right beside my bunk. Having completed the graveyard watch and handed over to Dave at 0400 (at which time we were only just beginning to feel the full effects of the storm) I retired to my bunk. The water in the fish tank was somewhat agitated but I paid no attention to it and was soon fast asleep.

I awoke when Dave returned to the cabin shortly after 0800. How I had managed to sleep through those past four hours I don’t, even now, understand. The ship was now rolling violently. I knelt on the bunk to look out of the window. As the ship rolled to starboard I was pressed hard against the glass, my eyes staring straight at an advancing wall of water. Then the wave lifted her like a toy boat her and flung her back over to port, at the same time catapulting me off the bunk and onto the floor.

As I picked myself off the floor and hung on to the desk in order to remain upright I noticed the fish tank. During the night it had emptied itself, the water slopping out with each roll. But as the waves were hitting the ship on the starboard beam the biggest rolls were to port so, fortunately for me, the water had drained out on the inboard side of the tank, flowed across the desk and then drained right into Dave’s bunk. I started to laugh but choked it off as I saw the look of horror on Dave’s face as he took in what was happening to the fish. The tank was not quite empty; there were about two inches of water left in the bottom. On each roll the water sloshed back and forth across the bottom of the tank to form a momentary wedge against the lower end. As the water went so did the fish, the larger ones swimming on their sides to keep their gills immersed. Now I did burst out laughing. His bunk full of water, his seasick fish swimming for their lives, Dave just couldn’t see the funny side.

That storm turned out to be the worst I ever experienced in my career at sea and several of the older hands said it was also the worst that they had ever seen. But it is not the most memorable event of my time in Strathardle. That occurred close to the end of my second trip, in June 1971, when we were in Hamburg discharging part of our cargo of Japanese manufactured goods.

It was late afternoon and I was on cargo watch, keeping a careful eye on the German dockers, noting the times that they started and stopped work and  standing by to close ‘tween decks and hatches as required. I was standing beside the coaming on the port side of number 5 hatch when the Chief Officer, Mr Falkner, came over to me and pointed out that we had developed a two degree port list which he desired me to correct. And when I had done that would I please close number 5 hatch as soon as discharge there was complete.

“Aye, aye Sir,” and I was off to start the first of my two tasks. I was, however, also carrying two Motorola UHF radios which I was supposed to be returning to the Radio Office for replacement batteries. Instead of doing that I placed them down on the hatch coaming beside me and set about correcting the port list.

Precisely what the Chief Officer asked me to do to correct the temporary list was to telephone the engine room, ask the duty engineer to start the fire pump, pop a fire hose into the sounding pipe of one of the ballast tanks on the high side and let enough water flow into it until the ship returned upright. Having spoken with the duty engineer and asked him to start the fire pump. I unrolled a fire hose along the deck, took the cap off the sounding pipe, placed the nozzle into it and walked aft to turn on the hydrant.

Ten metres above me the Chief Engineer (an Australian called “Aussie” Case) was enjoying an afternoon smoke in his cabin and had opened the window better to enjoy the early summer fresh air of the Hamburg waterfront. He was standing in front of the window watching the last few slings of cargo go ashore when he noticed an apprentice on the deck below turning on a fire hydrant.

The fire hydrant was stiff so I took a firm grip on the wheel and gave it a good, hard yank. This had the desired result, the wheel turned and the hose filled with water. Suddenly, to my horror, the hose reared up off the deck and the nozzle started thrashing about and spraying water everywhere. I grabbed at the wheel and desperately tried to turn it off but, of course, it was stiff and I was too late to stop a jet of dirty dock water spraying right up the front of the accommodation and directly into the Chief Engineer’s window. As the jet died and the hose collapsed with a clang as the nozzle hit the deck I could hear him cursing and see him shaking his fist at me as he disappeared into his cabin to change his soaked shirt.

Too late of course, I realised that I should secure the hose to the sounding pipe, so I went to the rope store for a length of line and lashed the nozzle in place. Then I gingerly turned on the fire hydrant again.

Okay now for the second task, the closing of number 5 hatch lid. The hydraulic power pack for the hatch covers was located in the mast house between numbers 3 and 4 hatches so I made my way there and turned on the pump and then went to the hatch lid control box next to number 5 hatch. The golden rule before closing hatches was to walk round the coaming and check there were no obstructions. Before the Chief Officer had approached me about the list I had been standing beside the hatch and I was certain there was nothing lying on the coaming. So certain, in fact, that I had my back to the hatch lid as I pushed the button. Behind me the hatch lids rumbled and groaned as they unfolded.

Then I heard a nasty crunching sound. “Some idiot,” I thought “has left a piece of dunnage on the coaming.”

I turned round and there, to my horror, was a hatch lid wheel sitting squarely on top of the two, now flattened, Motorola UHF radios that I had placed there. I pushed the raise button to lift the wheel and then rushed over and picked up what was left of the radios.

A desperate thought went through my mind. I could throw the radios over the side and disclaim all knowledge of them. No one would be any the wiser. I took one stride towards the rail when something made me glance upwards. Back at his window, now closed, was the Chief Engineer, this time with a huge grin on his face. I was sunk; I would have to face the music.

I closed the hatch lid and trudged upstairs to find the Chief Officer to report the breakage of the radios. He was far from pleased and gave me to understand that I was of uncertain parentage, of extremely limited intelligence and would be lucky to survive the remainder of the trip alive if such stupidity were to be repeated.

I was feeling pretty low as I made my way back down to the deck. However there was still work to do, discharge was completed and the remaining hatches had to be closed. As I made my way forward along the deck I noticed that the list had not improved. Wait a minute though, was it a port list or a starboard list. Oh no!!!! What had started as a port list was now a starboard list. I ran for the fire hydrant. It was stiff and I could not turn it off. Beside the hydrant was a wheel key. That would give me more leverage to turn the hydrant. I grabbed the key fitted it to the wheel and gave it a hard, sharp tug. The valve slammed shut ……….. and the wheel snapped off at the spindle.

With a sinking heart I made my way down the engine room to report the breakage. The Chief Engineer was there to greet me. I took one look at the expression of barely suppressed rage on his face and prayed that the deck would open up and swallow me, but it didn’t.


“I’m sorry Chief; it just came off in my hand.”

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