REMINISCENCES | A rude awakening

Iron Monarch (Photo: South Australian Maritime Museum)

My fascination with all things maritime was triggered in 1960 by our family’s journey from Southampton docks to Australia when I was eight years old. Mum, Dad and seven kids were all transported in “steerage” as 10-pound poms aboard the Sitmar liner Fairsea. I was fascinated with my new surroundings and spent my days roaming the ship – every nook and cranny, which included a for’ard hatch upon which I was practicing the use of my new found sea legs when the ship plunged into a wave in the Bay of Biscay, whereupon I upended myself and knocked myself out (lesson number one: always have a hand for the boat). Gradually, though, I learned to move with the swell and slide down every ladder. The smell of diesel permeated my being and I fell in love with the notion of shipboard life.

We settled into our migrant hostel in Adelaide. I was immediately off and about the port, collecting foreign currency, walking under the wharves alongside the bulk of the ships in port, visiting the maritime museum and once even tried to stow away on a P&O liner.  My father was ex-Royal Navy and when I announced that I wanted to go to sea at the age of 15, his only advice was to enter the merchant marine rather than “the services”.

After six weeks initial training at the maritime academy in Newcastle, I was placed on the roster and joined my first ship as a deck boy, the 35,000DWT bulk carrier Iron Clipper. At the time she was the largest bulk carrier operated by BHP on the Australian coast. My initial training included steering the ship for an hour a day, which was interesting, seeing I was not old enough to drive a car!

“The ratings give some indication of the era. Donkeymen, firemen, greasers, ABs, buckos, peggy wipers, and…two deck boys.”

Other duties included the making of pilot ladders and the servicing of the MacGregor hatches, but it was my second ship, Iron Monarch, that was to make its mark on me as I completed all of my years sea time on her as a deck boy.

The old “Monarch” was built in 1943 and around the 5,000-ton mark. Converted to an oil burner, she was a full steam ship with steam winches, derricks, and hatches. There were around 18 on deck (scaleybacks) and 16 or so down below (dirtbirds) – the ratings give some indication of the era. Donkeymen, firemen, greasers, ABs, buckos, peggy wipers, and…two deck boys.

One of my daily tasks was to go down below and get the engineer on watch to shut off steam to the whistle. I would then climb the ladder at the front of the funnel (rain or shine) and polish the six-foot brass whistle with my mixture of brasso and Worcestershire sauce till it shone like a beauty. Then came the for’ard and aft ship’s bells before I headed off and made smoko for the crew.

Ships orders came for a run from Port Kembla to Freemantle with general cargo. The preparation for the ship to go to sea was quite physical. First, we had to pick up the steel bearers with the winches and lay them across the hatch. Onto these were placed the 16-foot Jarrah hatch boards (lifted off the deck and managed by hand). This was then followed by three sets of tarpaulins, each one tucked opposite to the last. These were stretched and tucked into the cleats with long horizontal steel bars before we hooked the locking bars over the hatch and tightened these with spanners.

Finally, the chippy would insert the timber wedges into each cleat and hammer them home. Once the hatches were secure, we would raise the derricks to mast height and secure them with the hoops and locking pins aloft, taking care to also use seizing wire so the pins could not come adrift.

On a good day, Monarch would manage nine to 10 knots, but any blow would knock that back a few. We headed south down the coast and around Wilson’s Prom, past Port Phillip Bay and Cape Nelson into what was commonly known as the “horror stretch” – which was the patch between Nelson and Kangaroo Island. The swell was always on the beam coming from the south and the ship would roll and roll and roll, and even seasoned campaigners were known to get a bit queasy.

“I was scared stiff but certainly grew up in a hurry and gained much from the experience.”

On this occasion we went south of Kangaroo Island and headed into the Bight. Some days into this leg we encountered a severe southerly blow. I was turned in when I was woken with a loud rap on the door at 2 a.m. and the bosun calling all hands on deck. The ship was rolling and pitching terribly, and this was accompanied by loud screeching noises and a terrible banging and shuddering.

Below the main deck were the “tween” decks. These were also covered with hatch boards and on top of these were large coils of stainless steel cargo, each weighing several tons. These were dogged down by three sets of chains clipped to the deck and tightened with bottle screws.

As we rigged the floodlights down below, the cause of all the commotion became apparent. Many of the coils had broken free and were now sliding across the hatches and slamming into the riveted plates. Any one of them could have caused the rivets to fail and present a much more serious danger. One by one we had to charge in during a lull, insert the long crowbars to lift them slightly, feed new chains underneath and stand clear as they swung back across the deck. Then repeat until we had managed to lasso each one and dog them down. It was a frightening experience and definitely one where life and limb were at risk.

Finally, exhausted, we retired to lash ourselves to our bunks as the ship continued to pitch and roll some 500 miles from land out in the middle of the bight. A day or so later conditions eased and when we surfaced on deck, we found 44-gallon drums full of fuel oil that were lashed to the engine room housing rail on the main deck, three decks up behind the funnel. The fuel oil was awash over the decks. We had to attack that with stiff brooms and Soogee but it was like trying to sweep on an ice rink. For’ard and aft, all the mooring lines were gone, together with coils of wire for the back springs which were on steel drums bolted to the deck – gone.

I think the trip across the Bight alone took us over eight to nine days and I still have this photo of a fresh-faced young deck boy in a Beatle suit and thin tie as we all headed for the pub in Fremantle. We felt invincible, but I do remember during that voyage writing what I thought was my last letter home, even though I knew it would never be received.

It was a time of great solidarity and comradeship, where men (and boys) go to sea in ships. I was scared stiff but certainly grew up in a hurry and gained much from the experience. If my mother only knew!

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].

Philip Eley

Philip Eley is the founder and Chairman of Adelaide-based Plan 4 Financial Services. He was named as a Fellow of the Financial Planning Association in 2010 and was the inaugural Federal President of the Hillross Adviser Association. He has undertaken specialist courses in Self Managed Superannuation, Estate Planning and holds a Diploma of Financial Planning.