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Blue Bar

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar

Continued from My Last Wartime Voyage, Part One


I arrived on the ship at about 7.45 AM the next day, and changed into my working clothes. It wasn't long before we were all ready for work. The bo'sun told us we would be sailing that evening, in the meantime, there were stores to get aboard, and the bunker hatch needed trimming and battening down. The stores and the bunker hatch were to be the work for us three. The AB's had other things to do.

We found that the Dockers using the ship's winches had already put quite a lot of our stores onto the well deck, but there was still quite a pile of boxes on the quay to be loaded by hand. There were sacks of potatoes to be put away, and there was a few boxes of salt fish to be stowed. I had heard a lot about salt fish, as it is (or was) a Liverpool delicacy. The fish were quite long, about eighteen inches to two feet. Being dried and salted in order to preserve them, they were quite stiff. It was not long before one of us had "bowled" a potato to another who hit it with one of the salt fish! A rather humorous (if messy) game of "cricket" ensued.

By dinner time, we had most of the stuff in the Steward's locker. Not entirely without another incident. As (bad) luck would have it, we were handing down boxes of tablets of "Lifebuoy" soap from the quay to the well deck when the Captain chose to come aboard. As the Captain stepped onto the ladder leading to the well deck, Aussie dropped a box of soap tablets in between the ship and the quay. Whatever caused him to do it, I have no idea. It was irretrievable. The Captain was livid, and put on a performance which (we thought) was completely out of proportion to the loss of a box of soap tablets. (Of course, the loss is never so great when one doesn't own it!) Unfortunately, this was to set the scene for the relations between us and the Captain for the rest of the voyage.

After dinner, we were sent to the coal bunker to "trim" the excess coal, which was piled up above the hatch coaming, to put on the hatch boards and tarpaulins, batten down the bunker hatch, and to wash any excess coal from the deck. By tea time, the whole ship was "battened down" and ready for sea.

We had already been allocated to our watches, Ginger, Joe, and Errol would be stationed aft for docking, Old Bob, Aussie, and myself would be on the fo'c's'le head for docking. We tossed up for who would take the first watch once we put to sea. We had learned from Joe, that we would be expected to work a "dog" watch. This meant that to all intents and purposes, we worked four hours on, and four hours off. To avoid having the same watches day after day, the evening 4 to 8 watch was split into two "dog watches" of two hours each. This meant that watch "A" would start on the evening 8 - 12 watch; have four hours below, then do the 4 - 8AM watch, and the 12 - 4PM watch. Instead of repeating the cycle, after the 12 - 4PM watch, they would have a break for only two hours, and then they would do the 6 - 8PM watch, thereby breaking the cycle, and come on again at midnight to 4AM.

To someone who had always worked four hours on and eight hours off, (as we understood most British Foreign going vessels did,) the four hour break was very short indeed, and often it felt that no sooner had one gone to sleep, than one was being woken up again. However, like most things, one soon adapts, and I was surprised at just how easily we all moved into the new routine. When we had "tossed" for first watch, Aussie and I had won the toss, and opted for the first watch of 6 - 8PM. Old Bob was indifferent as to which watch we took and left it to us. We had chosen the first watch thinking that as soon as we were clear of the quayside, it would be 8PM, and we could have a sleep. It wasn't to be.

It may be timely at this point to describe Mr. Urquhart, the Chief Officer or First Mate, since we had been allocated to his watch on the fo'c's'le head for berthing. He was not a young man, and indeed he had been retired for some years. (He had previously been a ship's Master in sailing ships, with his own command). After being bombed out of his London home, and with the desperate war time shortage of Master Mariners, Mr. Urquhart had volunteered for service again with the Merchant Navy. We had no way of knowing just how old he was, but we judged him to be well over 70 (which was considered old in those days - but now I am of that age group, it doesn't seem so old!!!) He walked with a stoop, and often his hands trembled. We were to find out that not only was he an old man, he was also "of the old school"!

We "locked out" from Birkenhead Docks into the Mersey at about 7.30 PM. Once out into the river, there was a stiff breeze blowing, and it was much cooler than it had been in dock. Being the more experienced of the three of us, Bob had gone on the wheel; this left Aussie and myself on the fo'c's'le head with Mr. Urquhart. All the large mooring ropes would have to be stowed in the 'tween decks before we finished. Since the same job did not have to be done aft, some of the after crew would help us since it would be heavy work, and would take some time.

Although the fear of air raids in Liverpool had lessened dramatically, there was still a blackout in force, whilst we were in the river, and especially once we got out to sea. We had about four large mooring ropes to drag to the hatch, where we had removed one hatch board, and lower them, fathom by fathom, to the waiting crew below who would coil them up in a safe place until we needed them again for docking.

We were using the windlass to pull the ropes via one of the leading bollards, so the actual pulling wasn't too hard. Aussie and I were making sure that the ropes had a clear run to the windlass. The ropes were wet, and it was dark. Mr. Urquhart occasionally shone his torch so that we could see what we were doing. Something went wrong. Whatever it was, I wasn't aware of it. Aussie let out an almighty yell of "F**k this", and he jumped away from the rope. Such expletives were common enough aboard ship; in fact, they were part of every day language among seamen. I stopped what I was doing to see if Aussie was all right. As I turned to where I knew he was standing, Mr. Urquhart lunged at him with his rather large torch, and struck Aussie fair in the middle of the back several times.

Mr. Urquhart shouted as loud as he could: "Don't you dare use that sort of language in front of me again" Both Aussie and myself were dumbfounded that an officer should even contemplate striking a crew member! Aussie knew he must not retaliate in kind. Not only was Mr. Urquhart an old man, but he was the First Officer, and to have struck him would have had very serious disciplinary consequences. Mutiny on the High Seas etc. It may sound a bit "Captain Bligh" - ish, but it is a very real charge, especially in war time.

Aussie turned to face the Mate and yelled back at him "F**k, f**k, f**k f**k - f*ck you and the rope" his voice rising with each utterance. They glared at each other for a moment or two, and then Aussie rubbed himself down on the spot where his original grief had caused the expletive, and went back to work. They both knew they had gone too far, and it seemed they both realised that the least said, the soonest mended.

By the time we had stowed the ropes, covered the mooring wire reels with their respective canvas covers, re-battened the hatch covers and put the "stoppers" on the anchor chain, it was 10.30PM, or thereabouts. We went below. Not enough time to turn in so we made a pot of tea and sat and talked until it was our turn to go on watch.

By the time we were due to go on watch, we were well out from the Mersey, and into the Irish Sea, off the coast of North Wales. Since Bob had taken the last wheel in the previous watch, we decided that Aussie would take the first two hours of the wheel, and I would take the last two, Bob would have a "farmer". A "farmer" was the term used for the seaman who didn't have a turn on the wheel during a watch. Instead, he would do the middle two hours of the watch on the lookout. This was always considered to be the "easy" watch, because apart from the two hours lookout, the rest of the watch could be spent - usually in the galley - but on "stand by" in case the Officer on the bridge wanted you for any reason. If the "stand by" was needed - possibly to read the log - the Mate on watch would blow his whistle. This now meant that Aussie and I went on watch together, since I had to go up to the bridge on lookout for the first hour. It was not particularly rough, but the sea was washing over and onto the well deck. To my complete surprise, Aussie asked me if I would "piggy back" him across the well deck so that his leg dressing wouldn't get wet, and he would not have to stand at the wheel for two hours with a wet dressing and trousers. (Aussie did not have thigh boots, and it would have been impossible for him to cross the well deck without getting at least his trousers wet.) For the rest of the voyage, I became his official "carrier" whilst the water was washing over the well deck. Coming off watch was not too bad, because if he got wet, he could change into dry clothes once he got into the fo'c's'le. In the event, I only carried him a few times, but when we got out into the Bay of Biscay, where the weather was very much abeam, and the ship was rolling quite heavily, thus shipping more water, he just could not resist "riding" me like a horse, to the extent that on one occasion, he very nearly had both of us on the deck and soaked to the skin!

Joe had warned us that the Captain insisted on using quarter points when setting the ships course for the helmsman to follow. Especially we three younger members were quite worried about this aspect of steering. We had all heard vaguely of quarter points, but other than Joe, no one had heard of a ship other than small coasters actually using them. These days, when setting a course for the helmsman to follow, the navigating officer (Second Mate) always used degrees of the compass. Degrees are much more precise, but as we were to find out, quarter points are easier to see, less "mesmeric", and generally easier for the navigating officer to direct the helmsman. I use the term "mesmeric" because after two hours of looking into a small hole in the brass cover of the binnacle, at the necessarily dimly lit compass card, the degree marks seem to blur one into the other. The only way one could know one's course, was by constant reference to the nearest numbers - from memory, I think the degrees were numbered at about every ten degrees, with a longer mark denoting each fifth degree.

For those not acquainted with the standard magnetic compass, each quadrant has eight major directional points. For instance, in the North to East quadrant, it reads: North; N by E; NNE; NE by N; NE; NE by E; ENE; E by N; E. When using quarter points, these directional points are further broken up into four parts called quarter points so that the North to East quadrant would now read in part: N; N E; N E; N E; N by E; N by E N; N by E N; N by E N; NNE. This progression goes on right around the compass, and the quarter points are represented by the smallest of the diamond shapes on the card. It all looks (and certainly sounds) rather complicated, but for those who have learned to "box" the compass, (all seamen do,) the use of quarter points is not all that difficult, and certainly no where near as difficult as we had thought it would be.

The big advantage came when we were actually at the wheel. Far from being difficult, once one had internalised the current course, steering became much easier; and as even the most assiduous helmsman will tell you, everybody goes off course at some time or other. With each quarter point representing almost three degrees, the latitude was much greater.

As it happened, the Marvia was an exceptionally easy ship to steer, despite the age of her steering equipment. In the wheelhouse, pulleys guided a chain, which was wrapped around the wheel spindle, to each (outer) side of the wheelhouse. As one turned the wheel, the chain was pulled in on one side, and let out on the other. Once outside the wheelhouse, rods of about two metres in length replaced the chain. The rods (replaced by chain where it had to negotiate a corner or a drop in deck level) went to the steering engine, which was right aft, and was steam driven. It was this small steam engine, which actually turned the rudder quadrant.

Like many old ships (she was built in Germany in 1912) she had a plain steel plate rudder (as opposed to the more modern "self balancing" Oertz rudders fitted to later ships). With the constant rolling of the ship, the rudder flapped freely for a small distance from either side of the position it was placed in by the helmsman. To offset this "free play", there was an ingenious device rigged up on the after deck. We called it simply, "The Relieving Tackle". It was the only time I have ever seen such a device, and I thought it was pretty smart.

The rig is not very easy to describe, especially to people who don't understand blocks and tackles, standing parts and hauling parts, but at the risk of blinding the non nautical reader with nautical terminology, I will try.

The main rudderpost rises from the rudder proper, into the steering flat where torque is applied to it by the steam engine in order to turn the rudder. It (the rudder post) further rises through the deckhead of the steering flat, and on to the after deck. On to the top of the post was fitted a large quadrant of about five feet in radius.
Diagram of Relieving Tackle
Diagram of the Relieving Tackle
(Actually, the "quadrant" was more like 120 rather than 90.) As the rudder was turned to port or starboard, so the quadrant would turn to port or starboard. The rim of the circumference of the quadrant was about 10 inches thick with two grooves machined into it. The grooves were deep enough to accommodate a 1" diameter wire cable, one fitted to the port side of the quadrant, and one fitted to the starboard side. To the end of the port side cable, which occupied the lower of the two grooves, we shackled a four-fold purchase block and tackle rigged up with 1" diameter rope. The other end of the tackle was taken to a point on the starboard side of the stern and shackled there. One block of another set of four fold purchase block and tackle was then shackled to the end of the cable which was fitted to the starboard side of the quadrant. The other block of this pair was secured to a point on the port side of the stern equidistant to the block attached to the starboard side. The rope on the first set of blocks was then hauled tight. Instead of making it fast as we would with an ordinary block and tackle, the rope was then fed across to the other set of blocks where it was rove off, and heaved tight from the standing part end of the rope, and then made fast. This set-up allowed the rudder to turn to one side, overhauling one set of blocks, with the rope paying out through the other set of blocks, thus applying constant tension to the rudder post, and damping to some extent, the free movement of the rudder as the ship rolled from side to side.

Whether it was the design of the ship, or whether it was the bit of "free" play still left in the rudder even with the relieving tackle in place, the ship was very easy to steer. From time to time, we had to "take up the slack" in the relieving tackle due to the rope stretching. Even in the quite rough weather we experienced on the trip across the Bay of Biscay on our way to Gibraltar and eventually Algiers, the ship handled very well.

Then there was "The Log". As all Seamen know, the log is a device used by the navigating officer to determine the ship's progress (in nautical miles) through the water, in order to eventually plot a course, and navigate the ship. The complete device consists of a clock type instrument with a dial, which has a single pointer on it, and one or two sub dials, showing the (nautical) miles in tens and hundreds. The pointer moves around the dial of the clock when a coupling, which protrudes from the back of the instrument, is turned. (Something like the "speedometer" on the car, but importantly, it does not register miles per hour, it just shows the distance travelled.) So many revolutions of the coupling would cause the pointer to register one nautical mile. To the coupling is attached first of all, a metal wheel, of about eight inches in diameter. This acts as a sort of "fly wheel" to the rotary motion of a thin rope, which can be several hundred feet long - I'm not sure just how long it actually was, but when you are hauling it in, it seems to be endless! To the end of the rope, is attached a brass cylinder, about two feet in length, which has fins fixed at an angle to its length; as the tube is streamed out from the ship, and dragged through the water, the fins cause the tube to rotate. The rotary motion is transmitted via the rope to the clock, and the clock gives a reading of how far the ship has travelled through the water since it was last read.

The point of this detailed description of how a log line works is that because of the rotation of the rope as it does it's work, ordinary three stranded rope cannot be used for this job. Such rope would twist itself into a hopeless tangle when the log line had to be brought in. It would also not last too well with its continual immersion in sea water. In order to (mostly) avoid this kinky tangle of rope, a special (and much more expensive) plaited rope is used. Even with the plaited rope, some kinks are inevitable, so it is a practice, when "pulling in the log", to disconnect the rope from the meter, haul in the rope, and let it stream out again on the other quarter of the ship. This allows most of the turns in the rope to undo. The rope is then hauled in for a second time, at which stage; it is usually fit to be coiled down.

On two occasions, when the engines had broken down, and the ship was stopped in the water, Aussie and myself were sent aft to bring in the log. Aussie dutifully hauled in the rope, then, anxious to do the "seaman like" thing, and to generally show off our superior seamanship, I paid it out again on the other side of the stern. Although the ship was stopped, and no longer making progress through the water; because of the continual rising and falling of the ship in the swell, the fact that we were not making any headway was lost on me. My main concern was to haul in the rope and let it out again in order to neutralise the accumulated turns in it. It was only when I came to haul it in again that I realised that with the ship stopped, the rope had just sunk straight down in the water, and tangled around the nearest obstruction it could find, which in this case, proved to be the rudder, and propeller! It was done in all innocence, (and of course, in our callow ignorance,) and in our haste to get things done properly. On the first occasion, we had a strong telling off from the Mate, but when it happened on a second occasion, the Captain was furious and threatened us with all sorts of dire consequences. We had used up all the special plaited rope, and being in the Mediterranean in wartime, there was no place to get a new one. From then on, the ship had to be navigated sans log!

My Last Wartime Voyage is continued in Part Three: North Africa