STORIES OF A MERCHANT SAILOR
by Gordon Sollors
How many of us remember the first time we wrapped our
little fingers around the spokes of a ship's steering
wheel? I don't
mean those occasions when, as deck boys if we chanced to
working in or near the wheelhouse whilst the ship was
safely tied up
in port, we would surreptitiously stand at the wheel,
we were actually steering the ship. I mean the "real
after a few days, weeks, even months if the voyage was
we finally talked one of the AB's who happened to be on
to four watch on a Saturday afternoon to ask the second
mate if the deck boy could have a few minutes at the
wheel during the watch.
My own "first time" was a
It took place on the same ship
that I wrote about in the last
issue. I was a deck boy on the
MV British Faith .
loaded aviation fuel in
and were part of a homeward bound
January 1943. For this Saturday afternoon in
weather must have been relatively mild, otherwise I feel
sure that I
would never have been allowed near the wheel.
MV British Faith
Jock was a softly spoken AB who
often went out of his way to explain things to me.
It had not occurred to me to ask about having a turn at the
wheel until he mentioned it. I suppose that everyone has
to start somewhere. Jock said he would ask the second
mate (twelve to four watch) if I could come up there on
the next Saturday if the weather was decent. Sure enough,
Jock arranged for me to go to the wheelhouse on the next
Saturday afternoon at two thirty. I suppose that even in
wartime, and in convoy, people have to learn to
steer, otherwise there would have been a severe shortage of
capable helmsmen before too long.
Saturday afternoon came around -- the weather was
reasonably decent, (there were no waves breaking over the
fo'c's'le head!) I finished clearing up the dinner things
and made everything ready for "smoko" tea at three
o'clock. I wanted everything to be right so that no one
would be asking, "Where's that bloody peggy?" I put on my
best pair of dungarees, - now called "jeans" - and a big
woolly jersey - I had been told I would be cold, standing
at the wheel for some
time. I had also been told I would only be at the wheel
for about ten minutes for the first time. I took the
large brown teapot to the galley, all ready to be filled
with hot water and taken to the mess on my way back from
my first steering lesson. I was most anxious that I
should not be seen to be neglecting my "Peggy boy" duties
for such frivolous things as learning to steer!
At the prescribed time I presented to the second mate and
humbly asked if I could have a turn on the wheel, as "Jock
was willing to teach me" The second mate was a big man,
and without a word to me he put his head into the
wheelhouse, (he had been on the wing of the bridge) and
said to Jock "Here he is Jock, keep an eye on him!"
Jock went to some lengths to explain to me about the
'midships spoke, (the one with the brass cap, or sometimes
Turk's Head on), and the amount
of helm she was taking at that time. Since it was my first
time at the wheel, he also went on to explain in as much
detail as he thought I could absorb about the relationship
Lubbers Line, (the mark on the
brass rim of the compass, or sometimes, a little pointer fixed
inside the compass denoting the ship's head,) and the mark on
the compass card (number of degrees) which was the given
course. He also explained to me that although we were in
convoy, we were steering a given course, and not "keeping the
ship ahead fine on the port bow" or whatever.
I eventually stood at the wheel of the ship and felt myself
to be the most important person in the world, being
responsible for steering this load of about five or six
thousand tons of aviation fuel back to Britain single-
handed! (I think the
British Faith could be carried with
ease on part of the fore deck of one of today's supertankers!)
Jock stood at my side, keeping a fatherly eye on my
As the ship swung off course slightly, he was there to advise
on how much helm to apply to "bring her back on course".
Each time the head swung away two or three degrees, say
port, I would apply two or three spokes of wheel to
starboard until I could "feel" (and of course, see) the ship
answering the helm. At the crucial moment, I would
'midships the wheel, and watch for the next swing away
from the prescribed course. A quick look at the ship ahead
confirmed that it was still "fine on the port bow" where it
was supposed to be. I felt great! This was real power! After
what only seemed like a few moments, the second mate
popped his head into the wheelhouse and asked, "How's he
doing Jock?" Jock was pleased to reply that I was doing fine.
The second mate then told Jock he could go and have a
smoke for a few minutes. I felt ten feet tall!
Jock had only been gone a few moments when I started to
get confused between the movement of the lubber's mark
and the compass card. As the ship swung say to port, the
compass card (which actually remains "still") appeared
be swinging to starboard. I immediately put on port
making the situation much worse. I was so engrossed in
what was going on within the
that I didn't hear the
second mate rush into the wheelhouse. I soon felt his
weight as he shouldered me off the wheel yelling a few
choice epithets ending up with "Get Jock up here
As I left the wheelhouse, I could see that the ship was out
of line, but gently swinging back on course. The second
mate had been keeping a watchful eye on my steering, so I
had not been allowed to stray too far. I was devastated, and
went aft to the galley where Jock, oblivious to the drama, was
having a quiet smoke. I told him what had happened, but he
was off before I had finished.
No damage had been done, even the other man on watch
who was on lookout, had not noticed anything untoward.
Jock kept it quiet, so I was allowed to live down my own
The next time I stood at the wheel of a ship was "for real",
and more than a year later. The ship I was on in the
intervening year was the
I was an Ordinary
Seaman on her, but she carried
not even the AB's had to steer.
On April 1 1944, I joined the S.S. St. Clears as a
Senior Ordinary Seaman.
We had aeroplanes (in boxes) on
top of all hatches, and a giant steam train on either
the fore deck. Plus two more steam engines, one on either
side of the after deck. We were bound for
Abadan, and the
cargo would be taken from there overland by rail, to Russia.
As a senior ordinary seaman, I was expected to take my
turn at the wheel. The subject of my ability at the wheel just
never arose. It was assumed that as a senior ordinary
seaman, I "had the knowledge". We left
joined a large convoy. Bound, as we discovered, for
Port Said and the
Suez Canal. Whatever had
happened to me in the intervening year I can't say, but my
steering, without any further coaching turned out to be at
least, OK Having had one disastrous experience, I was
better armed to avoid another!
After about three weeks at sea, we arrived at Port Said, and
duly took our place in the queue of ships in the southbound
Port Tewfik at the other end of the Canal.
of stories went around about Canal Pilots who sent down
helmsman after helmsman until the entire deck department
had been tried. In our case at least, such stories remained
just that, - stories! I took my turn at the wheel, and was
overjoyed at the experience. Here was me, not yet
seventeen, steering this lot through this famous waterway,
I could hardly believe it! It was a wonderful experience,
sailing as it were, through the desert with groups of
soldiers every few miles along the banks, in gun
emplacements, calling out to us to throw out any old
firewood! Nights are cold in Egypt!
After the Canal came the
Red Sea, the
Persian Gulf, and the
Shat al Arab River
to Abadan. By this time, I even
considered myself to be "experienced". Steering ships in
these confined waterways never ceased to be a thrill for me.
After Abadan came
Dar es Salaam.
I have travelled these waterways many times since, but
the experience of steering a large ship through them never
ceased to thrill me.
The largest ship I ever steered was the
Empress of Scotland.
with returning Canadian soldiers in September
1945. Four days for the voyage each way, at a speed of
twenty odd knots. Using a
we were allowed
about two degrees "latitude" off course. More than that and
a red light flashed in the wheelhouse, warning the
helmsman that "big brother" was watching! If one was
careless enough to stray about five degrees off course, then a
bell rang out, telling all and sundry that the helmsman
This photo which is from the
British Columbia Archives
Empress of Japan
as she looked in 1931.
26,000-ton passenger liner
was the pride of the
Canadian Pacific Railway's
Pacific Fleet and
during the 1930's she sailed between
Vancouver, B.C., Canada, and the Orient. When WWII
was requisitioned by the British Admiralty,
lightly armed, and
converted into a troopship.
After Japan's entry into the war,
Empress of Japan was renamed
Over half a century after this photo of
Empress of Scotland
was taken on September 9, 1945,
there was a huge welcome awaiting
the troops. The river bank was lined with cars and cheering
people. Tug boats and fire boats were on the river, playing
their fire hoses all around the 'Empress'. We sailed past
the city and tied up beneath the huge cliffs of
where a military band played appropriate music as the
The nicest steering experience was steering a Liberty Ship up the St. Lawrence River
to Montreal in the summer of 1947. On Liberty ships,
there is a duplicate wheel on the
which can quite easily be connected.
Steering a liberty ship from such a high vantage point
whilst travelling at a steady ten knots up this most beautiful
waterway was unforgettable. The weather was hot, but up on
the Monkey Island, we had the benefit of a cooling breeze.
The pilot would give the helmsman a landmark to keep "fine
on the port bow" or whatever, and retire to the wing of the
bridge. I felt as if I was steering my private yacht up there!
Of course, to offset all this grandiloquent rhetoric are
those countless, boring hours one has spent whilst on the
wheel, gazing almost mesmerised into the little cavity of the
the large brass dome which contains the
or listening to the chatter of the
gyro compass as it signals
yet another departure from the straight and narrow. All
this whilst one is trying to take one's mind off the boring
subject of steering the ship whilst one is thinking about the
beautiful girl friend one was chatting up in the last port of call.
Gordon's pages are maintained by Maureen Venzi
and are part of
The Allied Merchant Navy of World War Two website.