REMINISCENCES | The fog of lore

John Atkinson Grimshaw's Glasgow, Saturday Night
John Atkinson Grimshaw’s Glasgow, Saturday Night

These days big containerships can be found rushing through thick fog in the Dover Straits at 23 knots, visibility nil and thinking nothing of the terror they spread around them aboard ships which are less well equipped. Fog at sea is still horrible stuff, but not as beastly as it used to be with our single primitive radar sets. Nobody really trusted this equipment, so it was dead slow ahead on the telegraphs, doubled up watches and lookouts forward, looking and listening for the sound signals of other ships, while our own siren blasted into the murk every couple of minutes. “Tense” was the word to describe it.

My generation was the first to have been trained in the use of radar, learned, in my case, aboard an ex-WWII motor launch in the Thames estuary, which would roll around even when moored at Woolwich Arsenal and make us professional mariners all seasick. Stuck in little wooden cubicles below decks and breathing cigarette smoke and diesel fumes, we learned, between vomiting, to plot the movement of other ships on big sheets of paper with circles inscribed upon them. It was significant that on days when the visibility was thick (which was most of the time, it seemed) we stayed alongside as even with all our radars and eager plotters, the skipper wouldn’t trust himself in the traffic of Sea Reach.

I seem to recall there was some sort of exam at the end of it and bearing our new certificates, we went back to sea, where the masters we sailed with, (who hadn’t done the course) would sneer at our supposed technical superiority. One I sailed with wouldn’t even unlock the radar set, which had a little lockable shutter on the front. He said it would dilute what navigational skills we had, and what had God given us eyes for?

The radar manufacturers clearly were doing their best, but it didn’t help having masters who refused to use it and also keeping it in a wheelhouse dripping with salt spray and condensation. On our ships it was supposed to be looked after by the radio officer, but if he was a Marconi man he refused to touch any other make of set, so the poor old second mate got tasked with it. We had no training whatsoever in maintaining this equipment and apart from advice to stay clear of the cathode ray tube, lest it make you sterile, we were on our own. I recall trying to get our set working again one night, dropping my torch into the works and smashing one of the valves, while the Marconi Sparks fell about laughing as I tried to fish out all the broken glass, and the Old Man made sarcastic comments.

One of the best radar stories was of one of our ships running down the US Atlantic coast in thick weather; engines on stand-by, lookouts all posted and the master with his head in the radar. He saw an echo, rapidly closing on what appeared to be a collision course and the ship was stopped to let it pass ahead. It continued on its suicidal track regardless. All way was taken off the ship, but the echo remorselessly homed in at its steady speed. Furious signals were sounded on the siren, and every eye strained out into the fog, the expectation being that the sharp bow of the approaching ship was about to impale the wretched ship. The master, he confessed afterwards, was praying. The third mate was hoping that his lifeboat was fully operable.

All of a sudden there was a roar of machinery and the sky momentarily darkened as a US Coast Guard surveillance airship, which was used to watch for Soviet submarines, passed over the vessel.

I was privileged to be in London’s Royal Docks in about 1960, when one of the last great smogs afflicted the capital. These were no laughing matter and killed thousands every time they happened, which puts into perspective all the current breast-beating about air pollution and “emissions”. It was an astonishing feeling of being in an atmosphere which smelt of sulphur, so thick you could almost cut it with a knife.

If you looked down, you couldn’t see your feet and even in the accommodation we had soot pouring through out heating vents. You put on a clean white shirt and it was black an hour later. Outside, all was silent as the grave, black as midnight even at midday, with no traffic moving on road, river or in the docks. No cargo could be worked, as the crane drivers couldn’t have seen the ship, let alone the hold.

The police at the dock gate had chalked lines along the road which you could follow until you reached a sign for your ship, but you had to wait until a number of you had gathered, then you set off in crocodile, hanging onto the coat of the chap in front, led by a policemen with a torch. I never verified the tale but it was said that in the Albert Dock, half the Chinese crew of a Ben liner ended up in the dock, meekly following their police guide, who had sadly become disoriented, and had plunged into the oggin.

This was one of the last big London smogs, a seasonal feature which ended in the next few years, with the prohibition of coal fires and a lot of “de-industrialisation”. They were able to scrub down the blackened buildings and make everything a lot cleaner. And even fog, with better radars and means of easily identifying other ships, isn’t one tenth of the trouble it used to be.

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:

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.