REMINISCENCES | Raining on the righteous

UNITED KINGDOM WEEK
Photo: Hapag Lloyd

It’s an obvious point and one that probably occurred to Malcom McLean at some stage, that you can leave a container out in the rain and nobody minds if it gets wet. But in pre-container days, rain was a big deal and could markedly affect the smooth running of our voyages.

For a start, much of the cargo we carried needed to be kept dry, lest it lose value and end up as a sad entry in the damaged cargo books. And while we couldn’t alter the weather, it was the ship’s responsibility to make sure the cargo didn’t suffer as it was moved between the shed and our capacious holds, all open to the elements.

Except on our very newest ships, the company had a somewhat old-fashioned attitude to cargo access equipment, with wooden hatch slabs under tarpaulins and huge steel beams, all of which had to be removed to work cargo and eventually replaced, when the wharfies knocked off. This took a lot of time that was not used to shift cargo in and out of the ship. It was just one contributor to the fact that our lovely Commonwealth cargo liners spent much longer tied up in port than they ever did at sea.

We were, however, equipped with big canvas rain tents that could be dragged over the hatches at lunchtimes, or if rain threatened to disrupt procedures. People on the docks seemed to be hardier souls in North Europe or the US, but in Australia and New Zealand, the wharfies had a marked aversion to getting even slightly damp and would be demanding “tents on!” at the slightest sign of precipitation.

“The wharfies were happiest of all, because they got paid for doing nothing, looking occasionally at the weather forecast and hoping that the stevedore would call it a day, put the hatches on and let everyone go to the pub.”

In some ports there was a set ritual where, before the critical eyes of the foreman stevedore and the union representative, a cigarette paper would be laid on a flat surface – if more than six raindrops fell on it in a two-minute period, it was raining too hard to work and the tents would be on in a trice, the happy dockers trooping ashore to the shed, where they could happily play cards.

With exception of the stevedore and probably the master, nobody really minded rain delays. The master might be in receipt of pointed messages from the office asking when our departure might be, but we were usually quite happy as the delay could mean we would get a weekend in port. The wharfies were happiest of all, because they got paid for doing nothing, looking occasionally at the weather forecast and hoping that the stevedore would call it a day, put the hatches on and let everyone go to the pub.

Rain did really matter with some cargo, more than others. If you were loading a frozen cargo, should that get wet and frozen down, you would need grabs and crowbars to discharge it. Wool had to be kept dry and newsprint and paper would be the subject of endless “we fail to understand” messages, should it be found in a soggy condition. So we worked quite hard to make sure that nothing, other than the odd drop, ever got below.

“Many of these gleaming new ships, with their amazing hydraulic access equipment, would have markedly shorter lives than their predecessors, as the container revolution got under way and made them redundant.”

About that time we started to see some very advanced tonnage being used by our competitors, with hydraulic hatch covers able to shut out the weather in minutes rather than struggling with rope and canvas in a sort of marinised version of “carry on camping”, should there be an unexpected shower. I can remember being sent over to ingratiate myself with the mate of a Hamburg Sud “Cap” ship berthed nearby to investigate their equipment. He kindly gave me a full demonstration of hatches that had integrated beams, with built-in insulation and that could be opened and closed with the touch of a button. It made our efforts with wooden boards and plugs, bags of sawdust, canvas and rope seem very old-fashioned.

I wrote a report on what I had seen, which, after being translated into more diplomatic terms by the master, was sent off to London. I don’t know that it did any good, but some of our newer ships, we noticed, were rather better equipped in years to come. It would be something of a sad irony that many of these gleaming new ships, with their amazing hydraulic access equipment, would have markedly shorter lives than their predecessors, as the container revolution got under way and made them redundant.

Of course, the rain would stop and eventually we would get away on our deep sea voyages. But even then rain would cast its spell as the mate and boatswain would get very shirty if you steamed through an avoidable shower when painting was going full blast on deck. Steaming through the inter-tropical convergence zone, with lots of showers about, we would be weaving around all over the ocean, particularly if the captain was playing deck golf with the passengers and wished to stay dry.

But it’s all history now, just another consequence of containerisation, with boxes that don’t mind getting wet.

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.