REMINISCENCES | In the drydock

Drydock at the Port of Antwerp

I was reading an account of a visit of a highly sophisticated ship to a repair yard for some very involved upgrading and servicing. It all seemed to run like clockwork, with the technical superintendent lavishly praising the diligence of the yard and its skilled operatives, as the gleaming ship was redelivered into his hands.

Granted that there might be a bit of hyperbole here, but it set my mind scrolling back through the decades to our experience with the annual drydocking of our vessels, which always seemed rather less rewarding an experience. With London our home port, this tended to be spent in a yard up the top of the Royal Docks, which we referred to, for obvious reasons, as “Slimey Weirs”.

With the ship empty, and minds full of foreboding, we would be towed up the length of the Royal system to the drydock at the landward end. It was a truly noisesome place, its only redeeming feature being its proximity to the Custom House pub where Petula Clark was the Saturday evening attraction. Once in the hands of Slimeys, the ship swiftly fell into a state of dirt and chaos, the chief officer and second engineer tearing their hair out as they sought to encourage the yard foreman to pay some attention to their lists of requirements for the various tradesmen the yard employed.

“…when a job required a number of these trades, you could guarantee that the trade needed at a particular time was not available, or they all turned up at once…”

The dock emptied, the filthy wooden shores were put in place and the vessel took the blocks and the painters got to work, scraping the anti-fouling of its green sub-strata and bold barnacles and applying a new coat of what was then pure poison. In the half-dark and dripping space which was never high enough to stand upright, our job was to ensure that there were no obvious “holidays”, although the paint-smeared dwarves who laboured never gave the impression that they would welcome any suggestions.

At the bottom of the dock, our cables were ranged, stern tube seals inspected and rudder bearings adjusted. Aboard, there was an endless argument between the numerous rules of demarcation which decreed that only carpenters could touch wood, laggers lagging, boilermakers boilers, painters paint, and so on, apparently without end.

And when a job required a number of these trades, you could guarantee that the trade needed at a particular time was not available, or they all turned up at once. This effectively meant that large numbers of these skilled tradesmen spent much of their day playing cards or “resting” between their arduous labours. Their respective trades were guarded with a fierce sense of possession – if you didn’t want everyone to go on strike you would forbid the ship’s electrician to do so much as change a light bulb, or permit an apprentice to pick up a paint brush or spanner.

Amid all of this mess, we still had to live in the ship, which was not much fun, as we tripped over cables, found that the power had been turned off when we needed some light, or discovered that the galley had been put out of action for the day. Worse still, after emerging from the filthy dock we couldn’t wash or go to the heads, because they had been locked to prevent our effluents draining into the dock and offending some worker. We were forced to go ashore to a disgusting building which appeared to have been rarely cleaned since Victorian times. An adjacent lavatory, which I entered in error during my first trip as it was supposed to be for Asian crews, offered only a hole in the ground.

“…drydocking in those days always seemed a bit hit and miss.”

The miracle was that the ship was somehow put back together, invariably late and with a list of unfinished work, in time to be towed down the docks to loading berth. As we took on our outward cargo, various scruffy folk would appear to “complete” the job, but the mess they made would last for days, after we had shaken the dirt of London off our decks.

Before we let them flood the drydock, there would be a frantic rush to ensure that the ship was actually watertight and all the plugs from the bottom tanks firmly screwed into place. On one of our ships, which had actually been sold and under new management, her previous mate had become a cargo surveyor and boarded her in the drydock to take a witness statement.

As he walked over the brow he noticed that the dock was flooding, and then sought the master to take his statement. As he sat chatting to the master he noticed that on his desk, neatly labelled, was a line of tank plugs, which somebody had thus far neglected to replace. He politely pointed this out, whereupon there was a frightful scene as the mate was summoned, the dock flooding was stopped and the plugs were furiously replaced.

Had he not intervened, he knew, from working out the stability of that ship over many years, that once the dock had been flooded and the shores removed, she would have probably rolled over. But drydocking in those days always seemed a bit hit and miss.

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.