REMINISCENCES | Bad things come in threes

“Disasters are like buses,” says an old saying – “When you don’t want them, they come in threes.”

It was an incident-packed couple of weeks on our elderly Commonwealth cargo liner that cemented this saying into my brain for a lifetime. It was, for us, an unusual trip. No cargo out of the UK, but a ballast run to the Eastern Seaboard of the US, to load for New Zealand. And because of the time of year, we were, to the consternation of the master, and an appalled chief freezer, required to carry a couple of thousand tonnes of slag ballast in, of all things, our refrigerated holds.

So with the discharge completed, it was away to Cardiff, where under the tips that had spent a century or more in loading best Welsh steaming coal, this filthy stuff was hurled into three of our holds from railway wagons. It gave us a flavour of what it must have been like working on colliers.

Away we went across the Western Ocean, during which time, for the best part of a week, all hands were frantically discharging the slag over the side, with shovels and save-alls. I dare say we might have asked why we had bothered to load it in the first place, but we were just apprentices and left such philosophy to our elders and betters. I guess it was to save time and dollars on arrival.

“…while most things that went wrong aboard ship could be blamed on the apprentices, on this occasion the Mate deemed us innocent.”

The first disaster was a day or so out from the US coast, when a hurricane that had been moving north decided to behave in an eccentric fashion and instead of re-curving as forecast, gave us a good bashing. I can still remember the roar of the wind, which forced your eyes shut if you stuck your head out in it, the sight of waves the height of our wheelhouse, water everywhere and salt spray in every breath.

Those who lived forward on this ancient ship were trapped in the forecastle, despite the lifelines that had been stretched the length of the foredeck. The noise of the screws coming out of the water, the thunderous crashes as green seas came aboard. The master, wedged between the telegraphs, calmly issuing helm orders to the man at the wheel. I was eighteen, and too green to be properly frightened, but in retrospect, it was a nasty might and the worst weather I was ever to experience.

It eased with the dawn, and the ship was remarkably free from damage, the worst calamity being the disappearance over the side of the heavy teak pilot chair that had been wedged behind the chartroom to provide more room in the little wheelhouse. Amazingly and very fortunately too, the twin Doxford engines both continued to run smoothly during the crisis, which seemed to be regarded as miraculous by the engineers. Engine breakdowns, aboard a ship built in 1928, were a regular feature, but not when it really mattered that night.

It was a few days later, running down the US coast, that one of my fellow apprentices, asked to clear a flag wrapped around the mainmast, tugged too hard on the halyard and about forty feet of wooden topmast came crashing about his ears. It had, under all its numerous coats of paint, applied lovingly over the years, been quietly rotting away and you could stick a knife into it up to the hilt. And while most things that went wrong aboard ship could be blamed on the apprentices, on this occasion the Mate deemed us innocent. So in the next port a nice new and freshly painted topmast was shipped with a crane, so we were able to fly our house flag properly again.

“A coat of paint and you would never have known.”

With two disasters behind us, we should have been more on our guard , but the real piece de resistance took place in Newport News, where we were loading 45-tonne tractors using our Jumbo derrick at No.2 hatch. This required an astonishing cat’s cradle of wires all around the foredeck, with a drum driven by the windlass running the 12-fold purchase, two cargo winches on an endless topping lift, and all the other winches used for slewing guys and preventers. Controlling this with no appearance of competence was a very large foreman who wouldn’t accept any advice and believed that he knew everything and moreover, that speed was the only criterion.

It was about the third load, and the huge crawler tractor was poised over the quay at its maximum elevation, when the port topping lift winch driver got too enthusiastic and ran all the wire off his mate’s drum on the starboard side. The derrick fell like a toppled giant of the forest, on top of the offending winch, its great fat driver leaping clear with a shrill scream.

The heel of the derrick was wrenched clear of its seating on the foremast, but the real destruction was on the quay, where the bulldozer had buried itself up to its axles in the wharf, and about five tonnes of blocks and wires had landed on its roof. Everywhere was bedlam, with longshoremen shrieking at those aboard ship and those in the hold struggling through the huge tangle of wires to get ashore.

Nobody, amazingly had suffered even a scratch, although if it had happened today the winchman at the very least would have been suing for a lifetime of psychological aftercare.

All hands turned to and spent the next 24 hours re-rigging the derrick. The shattered remains of the winch casing were elegantly brazed together by the Second Engineer as we ran across the Pacific, accompanied by various mutterings about “the Deck Department wrecking the ship.” A coat of paint and you would never have known.

One might imagine that there would have been a flurry of “We fail to understand…” messages from London, but that was far beyond my pay grade as a third-trip apprentice. But there were no more disasters, the three buses had been and gone and the voyage turned out to be one of the happiest.

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.