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Blue Bar No 2

by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2

Continued from My St. Clears Voyage, Part Four


Abadan is a huge oil refinery, at that time operated and owned by the Anglo Iranian Oil Company. The smell of oil was quite strong until one became used to it. We tied up at a cargo jetty as opposed to the more numerous tanker berths, which lined the eastern side of the river bank. I can't now remember whether we used our own "Jumbo" derricks to off load the locomotives, or whether we used a shore based facility. Probably the latter, Abadan being such a huge facility in such an isolated area, I imagine it would have been necessary for them to have been self sufficient in these sorts of things. Whichever it was, the locomotives and the aeroplane boxes were the first job to be done, then the hatches were opened up, and most of the general cargo discharged (some of it was kept for discharge further up the river in Basrah.) Whilst it was our job to open up the hatches and remove the tarpaulins hatch boards and hatch beams, once this was done the locals took over, and we went about our normal ship duties.

As I mentioned earlier, the ship had taken on extra oil bunkers for the long journey to Abadan. To do this, one or two freshwater tanks had been used to house the extra oil. Now that we would be operating at normal distances with regular fuel supplies available, the Chief Officer wanted to revert the tanks to fresh water use. To do this, they had to be thoroughly cleansed of the thick coating of oil that had stuck to the sides of the tanks, and then the tanks had to be "cement washed". This is a process of mixing cement and water into a reasonably thick paste, and "washing" it on to the walls of the tanks, either with a brush, or with rags dipped into the paste. Myself and another Ordinary Seaman were "chosen" for the job.

The ship's carpenter, ("Chippy") who is responsible for the daily "soundings" of all water tanks, took us to the place where we could access the tanks. It was somewhere below deck, and near to the steering flat, so we didn't have far to go. We wondered what we were in for, when we were told to bring large pieces of old tarpaulins, a bucket full of paraffin and loads of cotton waste for cleaning up. First of all, there was a large steel plate to be removed. This was held in place by about thirty or more large nuts around its perimeter. (It was oval shaped.) Since the tank had not been used for other than fresh water before, the nuts had been painted over several times, and the paint was quite thick. Once we removed the nuts, we then had to prise the plate from its sealing gasket - no easy job! When we were finally able to remove the plate, the awful nature of our job became all too apparent. The plate itself was covered in thick oil and had to be taken straight up on deck.. The inside of the tank was pitch black, and a portable light had to be used to see what was required to be cleaned inside.

The insides of the tank were very confined. Since we were entering it from one deck down from the main deck, it was about eight feet high. It was probably several feet wide, and the same in depth from where we entered. The outside bulkhead was part of the ship's side, and had the RSJ's of the ship's framework were riveted to it making the work of clean up that much harder. Under ideal working conditions, this would not have been an easy task. Up on deck the heat was probably in the eighties or even nineties, and already we had discovered that quite often, some items of ships gear were just too hot to touch without gloves on.

Down below decks, it was even warmer. Within the confines of the tank, it was worse than entering an oven because not only was there the almost unbearable heat, there was the residual fumes of the oil to contend with! To remove the oily sludge from the tank walls, we had to use handfuls of cotton waste soaked in paraffin. This would wash the sludge from the walls, and into the base of the tank. From there, we were supposed to scoop out the sludge in buckets, and take it up on deck to be put into 40 gallon drums for removal from the ship. When all the oil sludge had been cleaned out, we would apply the "cement wash" to the clean walls. There was no question of the oil ruining our clothes. The simple means of avoiding this was to wear only the oldest pair of shorts and shoes one could find, or even a large piece of waste cloth tied on like a nappy!!! plus another piece of rag waste tied tightly around one's head.

With the stifling heat, the intoxicating fumes from the oil, and the copious amounts of paraffin needed to dislodge the sludge, two or three minutes inside the tank was all we could take at a time. We emerged, a lather of sweat, covered in oil, after one or two turns in the tank, we were as drunk as lords! (I suppose this had the same effect on us as "Glue, or Petrol Sniffing" has on people today who do it for kicks!) Whatever, our presence in the tank could not be sustained, and the Bosun put a stop to it. He told us to get cleaned up, and to take the rest of the day off! Even the clean up took a couple of hours. We had to literally wash ourselves down with paraffin, and then "shower" until the stains and stench of the oil and paraffin were completely removed from our bodies. Food was out of the question.

It might be as well here to mention that an actual "shower" was out of the question. What we did here was to fill our bucket (each crewmember had his own bucket for washing both himself and his clothes in) with hot (or cold) water, stand it in the washroom and stand in front of it naked and wash from it. We usually ended the "bath" by pouring the remaining water over our heads for a final "rinse"! Quite often whilst at sea and in the tropics, (and sometimes whilst we were in port if it was warm enough,) we would perform such ablutions on deck, standing our bucket on the flat top of one of the "bollards", or "bits" as we sometimes called them. These are the short posts fixed to the deck on both the fo'c's'le head and around the stern of the ship that we used for attaching the ropes to when tying up the ship.

Since the time we had entered the Persian Gulf, the galley had been sending the Seamen's Mess two buckets of iced lime juice per day, and another two buckets for the Firemen's Mess. Iced water on a British merchant ship was an undreamed of luxury. The buckets were brand new enamelled buckets filled with iced water and concentrated lime juice. Because of the very "tart" taste of the lime juice, liberal amounts of sugar were also added to make it more acceptable to the taste. There was enough in each two buckets brought to the mess for everyone to have a couple of mugs full. Along with the excellent food served to us each day, this was a much appreciated "extra". We were also given salt tablets each day. These were to be taken to help counteract the harmful effects of the loss of body fluids caused by the continual and copious sweating that Europeans experience in that sort of climate. After we had cleaned up, we asked for some extra lime juice, and several mugs of that seemed to ease the discomfort quite a bit.

There were no such things as cooling fans to be had for the crew's quarters, some of the officer's cabins had them, and there was a large ceiling fan in the saloon. Needless to say, there was no forced draught cooling system at all in the ship such as we had experienced on the larger troop ships. Quite often at night whilst at sea, and in the tropics, we would go and sleep up on deck, but whilst in port in Abadan, even that was not possible. Not only were they were working the cargo all night, there was also the problem of the flying (and biting!) insects. The noise of the winches made sleeping down aft pretty near impossible with their constant rattle as they lifted stuff out of the hatches. Despite the din of the winches and the stifling heat, we usually managed a few hours of sweaty sleep.

Shore leave in Abadan didn't have too many options. There was a Seamen's Mission on the wharf, and another club a little way outside the dock area. Thinking it might be a little more "up market", since it was up town so to speak, we headed for there. It was certainly a nice place. It was air conditioned, and I had never been in an air conditioned place before. Despite the comfort of the place, there is only so much one can do in such a place, then it becomes time to leave. As we emerged into the afternoon sunlight, the heat hit us as if we had walked into a wall. Even just an hour or so in the club had cooled us off to such an extent, that we had forgotten just how hot it was outside. We were in two minds whether to go back, but the outside world had to be faced at sometime, so off we went.

Since our efforts at cleaning the water tank had failed, the Mate had recruited four or five (or even more) local boys to do the job. They didn't appear to be more than about twelve years old. They had one boy cleaning in the tank, and two boys hauling the waste up to the deck, whilst another couple of boys rested on deck. They were certainly more attuned to the heat than we were, but they could no more resist the fumes of the oil than we could, and the boys who were "resting" on deck were almost intoxicated out of their minds! We felt really sorry for them. Such work practices would not be allowed in this day and age. They finished the job whilst we were in port, and I remember feeling how glad I was not to have had to return to such a job.

The cargo we carried below decks was quite varied and took several days to unload. After about ten days, we left Abadan, and steamed even further up river to a place called McGill Pier, which is the port for Basrah. On the way to Basrah, the ship ran aground. What happened was that the steering gear stuck whilst the wheel was over to starboard. There was nothing the helmsman could do, and as it was some time before the ship could be stopped, the ship ran into the bank on the starboard side of the river. When a ship is traveling at sea, it pushes a "wall" of water in front of it. This "wall" becomes quite noticeable when the ship is in a narrow waterway. (I had noticed it in the Suez Canal.) Today was no exception, and the wall of water that preceded the ship went right over the river bank and flooded a house which unfortunately happened to be in its path. I suppose that being "light ship" after most of the cargo had been discharged in Abadan, and as a consequence, the ship was not right down to her marks in the water, the "wall" of water was not as great as it would have been had we been fully laden. All of which was not much of a consolation to the house owner. Even before we had come to rest on the bank, the pilot had put the engines in to Full Astern mode, and the ship quite easily withdrew from the river bank. It seems the fault was within the steering gear engine, and a part had to be repaired or renewed. In either case, we just lay at anchor in the Shatt al Arab river for the next few days which was really not exciting at all.

It wasn't long before the the word spread that a ship was anchored in the river, and traders' boats began coming alongside. They were a mixed bunch of small boats, but the money they had to offer for goods was quite a revelation. They were holding up wads of American Dollars and asking for things like (especially) motor car tires, and new tarpaulins, but really, almost anything could have been (and probably was) traded. They would pay us much more for cigarettes than we had paid for them. Beer and spirits were high on their asking list, but we didn't have much of that for sale. Even so I suppose we all made a bit of money out of our spare cigarettes to finance our shore leave in Basrah. Basrah was (if possible) an even worse place to go ashore in than was Abadan. To get into town was a taxi ride, and when we got there, there was even less to do than there had been in Abadan! We only stayed there for a couple of days, and we weren't sorry when the time came for us to leave, and return to Abadan. On our return to Abadan, we tied up at the same wharf that we had occupied previously, and began to load our outward cargo. The cargo was to be drums of bitumen which is a by product of the oil refinery. St. Clears had six hatches, three on the fore deck, and three on the after deck. All the lower holds of the three forward hatches were accessible from each other, as were the lower holds of the after hatches. The 'Tween Decks of all hatches ran right through the ship from for'ard to aft.

The drums of tar (bitumen) were loaded into alternate hatches, i.e., in the holds of numbers one and three hatches, and in the holds of numbers four and six hatches. The "in between" hatches, (numbers two and five,) were loaded with ballast. In this case, sand was used for ballast. In effect, we now had in the forward holds alternately, barrels of bitumen, a pile of sand, and more barrels of bitumen. A similar arrangement existed in the after hold. Both the fore and after 'tween decks remained empty. I don't know whether this arrangement (of alternately stowing barrels of tar, sand, and more barrels of tar) was deliberate, but it was certainly to be fortuitous later.

My St. Clears Voyage is continued in Part Six: From Abadan to Karachi