REMINISCENCES | Special cargo

Photo: Libraries Tasmania
Photo: Libraries Tasmania

On our Commonwealth cargo liners, amid the run of the mill general cargo outbound and foodstuffs back, we would carry a fair amount of “specials” – cargo that required additional security because of its exceptional value.

I can’t say it was popular, as it required a lot of extra bureaucracy and paperwork, with the ship’s interests being ferociously protected at every stage to ensure that if anything happened to the cargo, it was always somebody else’s fault.

Mails were a regular nuisance, requiring careful locker storage with additional tallying to ensure that what they told us we were carrying actually was on board, transported carefully and eventually discharged in good condition.

The Royal Mail representative and one of our deck officers would stand side by side as the dockers threw the mailbags from their cargo nets into our tweendeck lockers. Then, because our deck officers were not professional tallymen and apt to let their minds wander at a crucial moment, it would be discovered that the two counts were different, so the whole lot would have to be counted again, before the vital Post Office Waybill could be completed and signed by both parties.

Specie – in the shape of banknotes or coins – was another pain in the neck for the ship, with all manner of burly security guards accompanying the cargo’s every move and getting in the way of the dockers, who would never take their role seriously at such times. They would shout out random numbers and confuse the count, or drop the armoured boxes of currency. I suppose today it will be hidden deep in a container, although one suspects that it is a cargo that has long been carried by air.

“The greater the level of supervision…”

Military cargo also demanded lots of security in those Cold War days. On one voyage to Australia we carried half a tweendeck full of mysterious grey-painted crates, thus ensuring that every Soviet spy on the waterfront would have known it was MoD cargo, without ever taking a look at the manifest, which would have revealed something innocuous like “machinery”. You might have thought a more secure strategy would have been to ship them in plain boxes labelled “car parts” rather than making them so distinctive.

On this occasion the MoD cargo was accompanied on the voyage to Australia by its own “passenger”, a cheery RAF Wing Commander, who spent the next month in the bar, drinking the ship dry. The contents of the crates was obviously supposed to have the highest security rating, although their inebriated airman revealed to us all in the bar one night that we were carrying bits of missiles for the rocket range in Woomera. We closely questioned him about the presence of high explosive warheads, scenting the possibility of danger money, but at this stage he suddenly sobered up and said no more.

It used to be said that the greater the level of supervision on the cargo front, the more chance there was for everything to go badly wrong. On one of our ships a great fuss was made of the Rolls-Royce being carried for the Governor-General of Tasmania, an elegant top-of-the-range model which was accompanied by a letter on official notepaper demanding that the “utmost care” be taken with the vehicle.

As Ro-Ro shipping had yet to be invented, the car was to be lifted on and off the ship, with a special car lifting rig stuffed with straw and sawdust to ensure the paintwork was not scratched as it was handled in and out of its stow in No.3 Upper Tween Deck.

The loading and the outward voyage was accomplished without any problem, and upon discharge when the ship arrived at Hobart, it was difficult to get near to the hatchway because of the serried ranks of anxious supervisors. The car was rolled onto the lifting rig, the “cushions” packed around the wheels, the weight cautiously taken as stevedores, senior officers, supervisors and probably a couple of diplomats from the Governor-General’s office, craned forward to get a better view.

According to the reports, the ship’s gear had lifted the car to its maximum elevation and the on-shore winchman was just taking the weight, when one of the wire “legs” parted, the car described a graceful arc and landed back in its stowage place, but on its roof.

One imagines that the “We fail to understand” missives would have been landing like autumn leaves, not long after. I suppose the lesson from this was that too much supervision is self-defeating and anything offering the slightest difficulty should be sneaked on and off the ship, with everyone looking the other way.

Disparaging remarks from the wharfies

It might seem hard to believe in today’s cosmopolitan Australia, but until the 1960s the only cheese Australians ever ate was Cheddar, which they also exported to the UK in great double crates. I used to sit at the bottom of the ladder in a cheese hold and just inhale – wonderful.

Some madman in the UK conceived the idea of trying to introduce exciting British and French cheeses to the Australian palate and I recall taking a special locker full of fancy cheese in an experimental shipment to Melbourne.

The Chief Freezer was tasked with keeping this lot in prime condition for its voyage, which was no small operation as the ship’s reefer plant was usually shut down for the outward voyage, allowing the two freezer engineers unlimited time for sunbathing and deck golf.

It wasn’t easy, as every type of cheese had its own optimum carriage conditions, but he doggedly persisted in his new role as Cheesemaster, nibbling the occasional mouthful on his rounds to ensure it was happy.

The voyage was a success, despite the disparaging remarks from the wharfies about “foreign muck” at the discharge. I thought of this cargo a couple of years ago, as they brought me the excellent cheeseboard in the Melbourne RAC Club. If it wasn’t for us and our Special Cargo, I thought, there would be nothing to eat but Mousetrap.

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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.