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Blue Bar No 2

MY ST. CLEARS VOYAGE, Part Six
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2


Continued from My St. Clears Voyage, Part Five


FROM ABADAN TO KARACHI


We left Abadan on the 6th of June. Since Abadan is further east than Europe, we did not hear of the invasion of Normandy until later in the day. We had all known it as "the second front" which was the popular term for the expected invasion. We were all pleased that at last, it had started, but from memory, I don't remember anyone being either particularly happy or sad that we were not involved. Several of the crew had been involved in other invasions - North Africa, Sicily, Italy etc., and knew what it was all about. Like the rest of the world, we listened with at first nervous interest to the progress of the Allied armies, and were relieved when it was sure that the Allies had indeed, established themselves once more on continent Europe. Once the armies had established themselves, I don't think we had any doubt about the eventual outcome.

We soon became aware that our destination was to be Karachi in India (now Pakistan of course) and we settled in for the three or four days steaming that it would take to get us there. Whereas when we had first entered the Persian Gulf, it had seemed confined and very hot, now, after leaving the even more confined Shatt al Arab river, The Persian Gulf was truly a "breath of fresh air", and it was pleasant to get away from the odour of petroleum products that was always apparent in Abadan. Again, the sea was like glass, and I experienced the pleasure of coming off watch at midnight, and sitting on the bollards on the after deck with a mug of hot tea, (even in the tropics, a mug of tea works wonders!) looking at the sea and the stars, and wondering at the beauty that surrounded us.

Looking over the ship's side, we could see that where the ship's bow wave was breaking the surface of the water, the resultant "froth" was showing signs of the presence of phosphorus in the water, and leaving a glowing trail which could be seen quite clearly in the existing light. This in itself is not an uncommon sight, and we had all seen the resultant display as the glowing phosphorus contained in the disturbed water of the bow waves glowed in the dark. Sometimes, even the dolphins left a trail of glowing phosphorus both on the surface, and below it as they leapt out of the water, and then dived back into it around the ship.

It was during one of these late night sojourns that I experienced probably the most remarkable sight that I ever saw whilst I was at sea. The sea was like glass, and although we did not have a full cargo, the propeller was completely submerged, so it was not breaking the surface of the water as it rotated, and the usually frothy wake was completely non existent until one looked a few hundred yards astern of the ship where the disturbance caused by the rotation of the propeller finally rose to the surface and showed a somewhat subdued wake.

However, between the ship and the point some few hundred yards astern where the wake broke to the surface, we could see the outline of a complete underwater tube, which was being created by the rotation of the propeller. The "tube" was "glowing" with the phosphorus that was also being created as the water was being disturbed by the propeller. The "tube" could quite clearly be seen, just as if someone was holding a giant glass tube beneath the surface of the ocean. What was even more remarkable, was the quite distinct Archimedean spiral that also appeared, completely contained within the "tube", so that the "tube" now looked like a giant steel rod that had a screw threaded on it, and which was being held just below the surface of the water as we travelled. The whole sight was truly amazing, and kept us up much later than we would normally have stayed up, in order to savour the moment.

As a ship's propeller rotates, the leading edges of the blades, even though the blades are completely below the surface, create something called cavitation. Cavitation has quite a detrimental effect on the metal in a propeller blade, but in this instance, the bubbles of oxygen created in this manner were giving us a show to be remembered. We steamed on, unaccompanied, and (thankfully) unmolested for a few more days to reach Karachi.

It had been almost two years since I had been here last. On the previous occasion, I had been the Bridge Boy, and Staff Commander's Messenger on a large troop ship; as such, my duty had been to stand in an "out of sight" position on the bridge until I was required to run an errand for the said Staff Commander. Even so, I had been able to enjoy the view of the port as we approached. This time, I could hardly believe my luck at being yet again at the wheel of the St. Clears as we entered Karachi. From my limited vision from within the wheelhouse, there was precious little to see, other than the foremast, and what was immediately ahead of the ship. First there was a course to be steered as we approached the shore line, then as we entered the waterway that took us into the dock area, the wheel commands changed to more reflect the position of the ship, and the pilot's immediate manoeuvres to bring us alongside. For the relatively short run from where we had picked up the Pilot, to our berth in the docks, the experience for me was not quite so exciting as had been the case whilst traversing the Suez Canal or the Shatt al Arab river on our way to Abadan. Exciting or not, during my remaining years at sea, I never tired of the opportunity of "being on the wheel" as the ship berthed or traversed a waterway.

As soon as we had "Finished with Engines", I left the bridge and joined the crew who were now directed to uncover the hatches. Although by this time, some stevedores were beginning to arrive from on shore, the Mate made sure that we uncovered the hatches. I think most Mates preferred the crew to do this job because he knew that we would remove the tarpaulins, fold them up properly, and stow them in an "out of the way" place. This would make sure the stevedores did not use them (or part of them) as awnings for the winch drivers who, admittedly had to sit in the hot sun all day, just operating a winch. For this purpose (personal awnings) most winch drivers used their own initiative, and either brought something aboard with them, or scrounged a spare bit of canvas from somewhere on the ship. It may seem a bit ungenerous, but generally speaking, in any port, the crew did not allow the shore based stevedores to use ship's equipment, or ship's conveniences such as crew mess rooms or toilets. We removed the tarpaulins, hatch boards and beams from the hatches that were to be worked, and the job of unloading the barrels of pitch or tar, began.

We had not expected to be in Karachi for more than a week or so, but things didn't quite work out as intended, and we stayed longer. When we went ashore that night, we heard from other British Seamen in the Club there that a Fort Boat had exploded in Bombay sometime in April, causing the loss of many lives, and huge damage to the port area. The story we were able to get hold of said that a fire had started on a Fort Boat, which also had a hold full of explosives and ammunition. Before the fire could be contained, the ammunition exploded almost causing the ship to lift out of the water. Other ships had been affected by the blast, parts of ships had been hurled through the air, damaging the lock gates. Somewhere along the line, either the Fort Boat concerned, or another ship, had been carrying bars of bullion. It seems these were scattered far and wide over the area of Bombay. Remarkably we heard, all of the gold bars were found, and returned to the relevant authority! I think overall, something like nine or ten ships were either sunk or damaged in that incident.

Within a couple of days, some of the problems we were to have with the barrels of tar began to show up. As the unloading began, everything went according to plan. As the top layers of barrels were removed, they found that some of the barrels lower down had buckled as the heat had caused the tar to melt, and become fluid. This, coupled with the sheer weight of the barrels on top, had caused them to give way. As they buckled, so the tar escaped, and spread all over the barrels in the lower tiers, and on to the floor of the hatch itself. They even found that some of the barrels had been stowed improperly on their sides, and the tar had began to run quite freely out of these. It was the same in all the hatches. It was then that the value of having sand as ballast became of prime importance, because the sand prevented the tar from running into the adjoining hold.

As I said earlier, on the foredeck, although numbers one, two and three hatches had separate hatches on deck, down below, the hold was all one space, so the lower hold covered all three hatches without any dividing bulkheads. The sand that had been loaded in numbers two and five hatches, was now all that was separating the pool of tar that was building up in number one hatch, and number three hatch, and it was the same down aft, with the sand in number five hatch separating the tar that had escaped from the barrels in numbers four and six hatches.

Whereas when they started unloading, they were slinging about six barrels at a time with their "can hooks", once they found that many of the barrels had split open, they had to dig each barrel out of the tar (which by now, with open hatches, was cooling off, and setting a little firmer) then sling each barrel separately, and discharge them, sometimes on by one. Not only did they have the tar to contend with, the dunnage that had separated the tiers of barrels had also now become part of the viscous mess, and just had to be broken as pieces of it came out with the barrels. This slowed up the discharge of the cargo considerably. As the barrels were lifted out of the hold, tar was dripping from them, and as the barrels were caught in the breeze, slivers of tar were landing all over the deck and superstructure of the ship.

The fore part of the bridge soon began to look like a roadway, with tar slicks all over it. We had to stop the unloading and spread tarpaulins to cover the complete fore part of the bridge, also over each deck space adjacent to each hatch, and over the ships' side adjacent to each hatch. To do this, we had to use all our "older" tarpaulins, and fortunately, the ship's chandler that sold us new, replacement tarpaulins, also had a supply of "older" tarpaulins that the ship bought to cover all the affected areas. It was a very messy situation, and instead of unloading the ship within a couple of days, as it should have been, the whole job took much longer. The Captain was not a happy man! When all the barrels had been discharged, we left Karachi, and proceeded to Bombay which was only a couple of days sailing. Whilst the quickly erected tarpaulins had saved the superstructure from being completely covered in tar, There was still a considerable amount of tar on there which had to be cleaned off, and this was to be our next job whilst the ship was in Bombay.

As mentioned, we had heard about the "Ammo ship" that had exploded in the port, and even the brief accounts that we had heard were borne out when we viewed the devastated area. It had occurred in April, and this was early July. A very strong acrid small still hung over the dock area. The docks themselves had been patched up and brought into working order again, but the Dock sheds and cranes had been flattened, and in other instances just piles of twisted metal remained; indeed, it all resembled some of the English Dock areas that had suffered repeated air raids from the Luftwaffe. I'm not exactly sure just why we went to Bombay, because we didn't load anything there, but the ship certainly needed cleaning up before any cargo could be loaded. The crew (Deck Department) were set about cleaning up the fore part of the bridge. Even though the tar, now that it was quite cold, was easy to pull off, where we were able to pull it off, it left a black stain. The entire superstructure so affected had to be repainted. The ship's side was in a much worse state, and shore based workers were brought in to scrape the tar off, and repaint. Gangs of workers were sent down into the holds to remove the tar from there, which by now had settled into a layer of tar, something like one or two feet thick. It was not completely hard, and it was not runny, and it was this "half way" condition that just made it harder to remove. Anyway we thought, that was going to be the problem of the shore based cleaners, and we got on with our own job of cleaning up, and repainting the superstructure. We had only been in port for a day or so, when all the crew were called to a meeting in "The Saloon". The Saloon is the place where the officers have their meals, and is only used by ordinary crew members for "signing on", or "paying off" the ship. Being "summoned to the Saloon" meant that something special was about to be announced. We were, indeed, curious.






My St. Clears Voyage is continued in Part Seven: A Dangerous Assignment


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