REMINISCENCES | The trouble with deck cargo

Photo: WK Webster

On our long passages back and forth to the antipodes, we never really liked to carry cargo on deck. Outward bound, we would sometimes be landed with hazardous goods (lashed to the rail so we could easily chuck it overboard if it overheated, leaked or exhibited warning signs.) In those days we regrettably thought about the ship before the environment, but we were only carrying a few tons of the stuff, not the whole shiploads of frightful chemicals that are being lugged about today.

The boatswain hated having his decks cluttered up, when he had cargo gear to overhaul and decks to holystone. Just occasionally there was a heavy lift, like a steamroller or railway engine, which tended to get in the way of deep-sea activities, its lashings wrecking the ambience of our deck golf course and spoiling the look of our snow-white pitch-pine decks.

We would occasionally be landed with livestock, like racehorses or thoroughbred cattle for breeding, which lived in their stalls on the afterdeck, stolidly munching their oats, tended by their own cattleman, who would soothe them in heavy weather. The cattle would lie down and remain comfortable, chewing their cud, regardless of the raging seas, but the stupid horses would insist on standing, so had to be supported with wooden beams, which restricted their lateral movement. I once got leaned on by a horse when I was helping to clean out its box and thought I was going to be squashed to death, but the cattleman told me it was just being friendly.

These days they probably all travel by air, First Class. I remember being told that one of these racehorses was hugely famous and worth as much as the whole outward cargo.

“Deck cargo was something best left to others.”

My uncle, who was a master with the British India, told me they often carried several hundred camels, loose, on his forward and after well decks on the slow Gulf mail steamers. They loaded them with slings under their tummies, with their legs sticking out at all angles. With their legendary endurance, they probably didn’t need much food on the voyage.

I was astonished to discover complete instructions for the carriage of camels in my old 1968 edition of Thomas’ Stowage. According to this bible of cargo care, they weigh from 16-25cwt, they can be tethered to a line spread fore and aft along the decks and some are very vicious, “given to biting any stranger within reach”. The wounds so inflicted, says the writer (possibly with bitter experience), are very apt to become septic. So be warned.

Homeward bound, we would often carry stacks of wool on the hatches, all covered up neatly with tarpaulins and lashed down securely, but needing a careful watch lest funnel sparks set them smouldering. Old chaps would tell us tales of how deck cargo used to be to the master’s account, but that had disappeared with the advent of modern ship management and owners wanting all the profits for themselves.

The habits did, however, live on and I can recall one over-enthusiastic master who, when the wool sales were on, would bully the mate to order up far more wool than we could accommodate on, or in the hatches, as we prepared to sail for home. Then we would find little stows of wool bales all over the ship, in alcoves or alleyways – anywhere it could find a bit of shelter. You would find that you couldn’t open a door, because there were half a dozen double dumps (technical term for very big bales) parked outside.

He was then able to boast to the passengers, or anyone else who might listen, about the “record” wool clip the ship was carrying, just like wool clipper captains did in the days of sail.

Deck cargo was something best left to others. On our way up and down the Thames we would see timber ships, which had absorbed sea water washed aboard on a stormy passage down from the Baltic, listing at an alarming angle. They can’t have been much fun to live in; we used to say their crews probably ended up with one leg longer than another. They looked very alarming, but were said to be perfectly safe, unless you rolled downhill and couldn’t stop.

“The ships are getting bigger and bigger which means that the cranes that handle the boxes on and off the quay have to get so high that they wear warning lights for aircraft.”

People used to carry deck cargoes of esparto grass from the Plate that were stacked so high that the watch had to be kept from a temporary wooden platform lashed on top of the bridge. I think that the regulators eventually did for that trade.

You have to wonder when the same regulators are going to get to work to prevent deck cargoes of containers getting so high. The ships are getting bigger and bigger which means that the cranes that handle the boxes on and off the quay have to get so high that they wear warning lights for aircraft. It’s all very necessary to facilitate world trade and enable us to wear cheap Chinese trainers.

I was around when there were earnest debates about the safety of putting the new-fangled containers two-high on deck. Now there are 400-metre-long ships carrying them nine high, and there is some astonishment when nearly 1,900 forty-footers stuffed with Chinese exports fall into the North Pacific one stormy night.

As I said, we didn’t like deck cargo much, and I bet if you asked them, the crew of that ship don’t either.

Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world? Each week, we will feature new personal experiences from across the globe. Submissions to: [email protected].

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.