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Blue Bar No 2

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2

Continued from My St. Clears Voyage, Part One


My first sight of St. Clears was just as I had imagined her to be. She was a modern cargo boat, with flush deck and single centre super structure, which housed the funnel and the bridge. She was already loaded almost down to her 'marks', and the Dockers were still very busy on board, loading huge boxes on each hatch (which were already battened down and ready for sea,) two large boxes almost covering the entire area of each hatch. We soon discovered that the boxes contained fighter planes in 'knock down' form, i.e., they only required assembly of the parts contained in each box, and they were "ready to go".

I was delighted to discover that our 'Fo'c's'le was aft, and not, as the name implies, actually up for'ard. This was the first time I had been on a ship where the (Deck) crew slept aft. (As I later discovered, it is not all I had thought it to be, with the constant whine of the propeller shaft whilst at sea!) I was further delighted to find out that we were berthed only three to a cabin - undreamed of luxury! Because of the watches we would be keeping - two AB's (Able Seamen) and an Ordinary Seaman to each watch, and the others on Day Work - we sorted ourselves out into one watch for each cabin. Our Mess room was at Main Deck level, and the accommodation was one deck down.

We soon discovered that despite the advanced state of loading, the ship would not be sailing for at least a couple of days. Because the airplane boxes occupied the space usually taken by the derricks, the derricks had been 'topped' right up to the vertical position, and we had to make sure they were firmly lashed there. There was still much to be done on deck, and we set about the job of clearing things away, and taking on board stores of all sorts. Food of course was the main item, but there were also plenty of Deck and Engine room stores to be brought aboard. Since the Dockers were responsible for lashing the huge boxes on the hatches, we were confined to other duties.

Welders were brought aboard, they were engaged in welding short sections of pre formatted railway lines complete with sleepers, on either side of both the fore decks and the after decks. At some stage, the huge heavy - lift floating crane came alongside, at the same time, four steam locomotives were shunted alongside the ship on the dock side. The Dockers carried out the very slow and precise job of loading the locomotives. This was done under the watchful eye of the Chief Office. They placed one on each side of the fore deck, and one on each side of the after deck, four in all. Then began the job of securing them against any movement that could have been started by the ship's motion whilst at sea. Large steel chocks were placed under the front and back of the wheels where they rested on the short lengths of railway line. These were then welded into place. Then the job of lashing the locos began. They not only had to be lashed to prevent any forward or sideways motion, they also had to be lashed and shored to prevent them toppling over in the event of heavy seas causing extreme rolling of the ship. The job of securing the locomotives took quite some time, and several drums of small diameter wire were used for the job.

Eventually, St. Clears had a complete cargo, and at last we could clear away, and make ready for sea. Having loaded these four huge steam engines, (plus, no doubt, many other items already below decks in the holds containing large masses of steel,) it became necessary for the ship's compass to be adjusted before we could proceed to sea, since such large placement of bulk steel would have caused the ship's compass to swing away from it's proper (magnetic) setting. This compass adjustment was to be carried out outside the confines of the River Mersey, and off the coast of North Wales. Compass adjusting is a highly specialized job, and for this purpose, we took on board a person who specialized in such work. I think we called the practice "Swinging Ship".

We locked out of the docks, and into the Mersey, then sailed for several miles out of the river to a place within sight of the coast of North Wales. Here, the Compass Adjuster took over, and directed the ship to sail in several directions, each course plotted very carefully as he took bearings from different points on the shore line. After each short course and bearing, he would come into the wheelhouse and adjust the long bar magnets which are placed under the compass and within the binnacle. As it happened, I spent over one hour at the wheel during these adjustments. Not only was this process most interesting from my point of view, it worked as a great introduction to my steering skills on the ship.

This was my first trip as a Senior Ordinary Seaman on a ship where I would be expected to take my turn on the wheel as a matter of course. My last efforts at steering a ship had taken place some eighteen months previously when I had been a Deck Boy on a tanker called the British Faith. Then, I had been allowed to take a turn on the wheel under the watchful eye of an AB on a Saturday afternoon whilst the ship was in a homeward bound convoy in the North Atlantic. That episode had ended in disaster when I had become confused between the moving compass card and the stationary "Lubbers Mark" on the rim of the compass. I had begun chasing the compass card, and thus sending the ship off course. Fortunately, the Second Officer had been keeping a close eye on what I had been doing, (the AB had been allowed to go down below for a smoke) and charged me off the wheel before I could have done any real damage.

Since then I had not been on a ship where the crew, other than designated Quartermasters were called upon to steer the ship. I was certainly not going to tell anyone that I had never actually taken a turn at the wheel before, so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I went up to the bridge at two PM just as if I had always done it. My previous disastrous attempt at steering was not in vain. I had thought about it many times since, and this time, I had a very clear image of the compass card and the "Lubbers Line" in my mind. I had repeated over and over again to myself that "The Lubbers Line, despite its appearance of being fixed, is actually the part that moves", and that "The compass card which (especially in this case of compass adjustment) often swings around considerably, is the one that stays still".

As it happened, the Compass Adjuster was very friendly, and helped me considerably (I often wonder if he knew just how much!) by telling me that he would keep the ship on a certain course for a minimum of time whilst he took bearings, then he would give me instructions to keep "…that lighthouse (or whatever) fine on the port bow…" whilst he made further adjustments. The weather was also quite good, and with all the different changes of course, I soon found myself becoming quite competent at altering course, and holding a desired course for those few essential moments whilst "The Man" did his work.

During the time I spent on the wheel that day, I heard The Captain telling the Pilot that the ship was a turbine ship, and that this fact had to be taken into consideration when "conning" the ship especially in confined waterways. My impression was that extra care needs to be taken, and allowances need to be made because the propeller neither starts nor stops its rotation as quickly as that on a triplicate expansion (piston engine) ship.

I had always thought that turbines were only fitted in the larger and faster passenger ships, (Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth among others,) and of course, on many of the ships of the Royal Navy. From memory, I don't remember the St. Clears being particularly fast. I think our speed when travelling alone was somewhere in the region of ten to twelve knots which was fairly average for cargo boats built in the 1930's. Maybe it was a question of reliability or economy.

Another interesting aspect of St. Clears was that the boilers could be fired with either coal or oil. The ship was owned by the South American Saint Lines, a firm that was based in Cardiff, right in the middle of the Welsh Coal Fields. In the years before the war specialist bunkering companies kept large deposits of coal in various parts of the world to provide bunkers for the world's coal burning merchant ships. The ships of the South American Saint Lines would take out a full cargo of coal to be deposited at various ports on the River Plate and in the Falklands. During these outward bound voyages the ships would burn coal in their furnaces. Having deposited the coal, the ships would then use oil bunkers for the return trip to the UK. For this purpose, the ships were fitted with fuel oil tanks as well as coal bunkers.

During this trip we used oil exclusively. For our outward bound voyage, some of the ship's freshwater tanks were filled with fuel oil to give the ship a greater range without the need to re fuel. As we were soon to discover, the ship was bound for Port Said, the Suez Canal, Port Tewfik, Aden, and eventually Abadan and Basra where there is all the oil we would need. With hindsight I can only imagine that the people who organized these things were at that time, more intent on preserving large quantities of oil in Europe for the pending invasion, than keeping large quantities in places like Port Said. I imagine that with convoys of some twenty or more ships arriving in port at the same time, it would have been stretching resources to have to bunker them all at once.

My St. Clears Voyage is continued in Part Three: A Regular Helmsman