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Blue Bar No 2

MY ST. CLEARS VOYAGE, Part Seven
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2


Continued from My St. Clears Voyage, Part Six


A DANGEROUS ASSIGNMENT


On entering the saloon, the Captain, the Chief, and Second Mates confronted us together with, a large local man whom we were told was the ship's Agent in Bombay. We were not left wondering for long. The Agent explained to us that the Government wanted the ship to proceed to Mombassa immediately. This meant that the holds could not be cleaned out before we left Bombay. The message was: "Would the crew clean out the holds whilst the ship was sailing from Bombay to Mombassa?" This would save several days working time in preparation for the next cargo. We would be given a pair of overalls and a pair of sea boots each, to protect our own clothes. The reason we had been asked and not ordered to do it as a matter of every day work aboard the ship was that of course, it was war time, and the German and Japanese Navies had been quite active in the Indian Ocean, thus making working down the hatches whilst at sea quite dangerous.

I was only an Ordinary Seaman, and quite low in the "pecking order" in matters such as this. Quite honestly, at this stage, I didn't even realize the significance of the situation, but a couple of the AB's did, and they made certain representations to the Captain about the danger involved etc. After some short discussions, we were told to go to "smoko" (tea break) and come back to the saloon in half an hour or so.

We left the saloon, and went aft to our mess room, where indeed, we had a mug of tea, and discussed the matter. At least, the AB's discussed the matter, we three Ordinary Seamen did not really have much of an input, but of course we listened with interest. They discussed the depth of the holds (about thirty feet or more from deck to the bottom of the hold by way of a vertical ladder,) and what (if any) chances we would have of getting out of the hold if a torpedo hit us. They even discussed just how long the ship , being completely empty, would take to sink if it was torpedoed! They talked about the excellent food we had on the ship, and that we probably "owed" the Captain even if only for that. However, after all the talk, the sense of self preservation prevailed, and they decided to refuse to the job whilst we were at sea. We all marched back to the saloon.

The AB who had been elected as spokesman for the rest of us explained the fears we had discussed to the Captain and the Agent. There was a brief discussion about how long the ship might stay afloat, depending on where she was hit, but I think the Captain could see the men were determined. An offer of 2/6 per hour overtime was made for all who worked on the clean up, including the Ordinary Seamen. (I think that at that time, the regular rate was 2/- per hour for AB's, in port, and about 1/9d for Ordinary Seamen,) It seemed to us that there was some sort of "deal" being worked out here, because whilst rates of overtime are pre determined according to "The Articles" it seemed that the Agent, who had been responsible for the clean up whilst the ship was in port, was now offering extra money to have the job done whilst we were at sea. In the end, the Agent accepted that he hadn't realized how dangerous it would be to work down the hatches whilst at sea, and said he would wire on ahead to Mombassa to have a work force ready to board the ship as soon as we docked there. With a big smile, the agent departed, and we went back to work. The ship left Bombay the next day bound for Mombassa.

We were "light ship"; the only ballast that we had was the bit of sand that was left in numbers two and five holds. The ship was quite high out of the water, and the propeller was making a fine display at the stern. We sailed without escort. On the first complete working day out of Bombay, the Bosun told us that "They" wanted the holds cleaned before we reached Mombassa! All the Day Workers would be required to work on it, and the two watches that would be "below" at any time, would also be required to work on it. The conditions that had been offered in Bombay, i.e., a suit of overalls each, plus a pair of sea boots, and 2/6 per hour overtime for all as they worked on the hatches. The "watch on deck" would keep up its normal routine of wheel, stand by, and lookout.

The AB's were furious (I suppose I was also, but they were the ones to make the decisions.) We all marched up to the Mate's Cabin, and the AB's demanded to know why this should now be required of us, when only two days previously, the Captain had agreed that cleaning holds at sea in this area was too dangerous? The Mate was clearly uncomfortable, and we sensed that it had not been his decision to clean the hatches at sea, but that he didn't want to "let the side down" by agreeing with our point of view. He in turn, reported our concerns to the Captain, who then met us in the Saloon.

The AB's told the Captain that as agreed in Bombay, we would (all) refuse to clean the hatches whilst the ship was at sea. The Captain appealed for the usual calm, and asked that two AB's remain to talk things out with him and the Mate whilst the rest of us went aft; we did this.

After about half an hour, the two spokesmen returned to the messroom looking rather glum. The story went something like this. The AB's had told the Captain that we would not work in the hatches whilst the ship was at sea. The Captain had been very understanding, but said that the ship was required urgently once we arrived at Mombassa, and if the hatches could be cleaned at sea, it would save time, and a much needed cargo could be on its way that much earlier. The AB's still refused, at which stage, the Captain had started talking about the "Law of the sea", and what it meant to refuse a lawful command of an officer aboard ship - especially during wartime. Whilst the Captain had made no direct threats, the AB's told us that he had been using phrases like "Mutiny on the high seas", and that in Mombassa, the Military would be told of our refusals to work. Mention had been made of "Courts Martial" and even vague mention of people being shot for refusing to obey lawful commands in wartime! The Captain had made it clear that he didn't want things to go that far, but also made it quite clear as to what his options were. He said that if the work was done, the conditions agreed to in Bombay (Overalls and sea boots for all, plus 2/6 per hour overtime for all) would still apply, and no more would be said. The AB's had said they would "go and put it to the "Crowd" - an all inclusive term for the crew - which they did.

Those of us who "went aft" were pretty steamed up about this "double cross" as we had called it, and the general opinion was that we would not do the work under any circumstances. However, when the two Spokesmen returned to the Messroom, and conveyed the Captain's message including the "Courts Martial" and "Mutiny on the High Seas" bits, some of our previous bravado dissipated. Not all were convinced that the threats were genuine, but after a bit more discussion, it was agreed that we didn't want to risk any official intervention, and the Bosun was informed that subject to all the previously agreed conditions, we would do the work. We three Ordinary Seamen, whilst not having any meaningful input to the talks, would, of course have gone along with any decisions made by the others. So, considering we would be getting 2/6 per hour overtime (an undreamed of amount for us) we were almost happy that it was all over.

Throughout the whole affair, the idea of patriotism or patriotic duty had never even entered the discussions. By and large we were generally convinced that there was some sort of deal done, especially with the agent in Bombay to get the ship to sea a few days earlier than they expected. It wasn't too difficult to work out that a few suits of overalls, and a couple of hundred hours of overtime at 2/6 per hour were as nothing compared to the cost of keeping the ship in port for a few days whilst the labour was done there.

I must have been on the twelve to four watch, because I know that I didn't go down the hatches on the first day. After all the discussions, it would have been late in the morning before anything was done down there, and since the watch on deck was not required to go down, I can only assume that I was the watch on deck that afternoon. The twelve to four watch would have been out of it by eleven AM for their "Seven Bell Dinner". This is the early dinner for those going on watch at twelve. They have their dinner at "seven bells" i.e., half past eleven.

When I eventually got down the hatch, the work had been started, and a method worked out as to the best way of cleaning up the tar. We started on the fore deck, in numbers one, two and three hatches. We only took the hatch boards off numbers one and three, we left the beams on so that we could cover up quickly should the need arise. This was where the tar was, and it was at these hatches that we "topped" the derricks in order to lift out the tar as we cleared it from the hatch floor. The first crew men to go down discovered that several large cargo baskets had been left down there. These were large, round wicker baskets, about three to four feet high, and about three feet across the top. Ships didn't normally carry this type of cargo basket, so we assumed that getting the crew to do it whilst we were at sea, had been the plan from day one, and these had been left down there for that purpose.

It was much too hot to wear a suit of overalls, so we worked in shorts and shoes. Although it was hot, the tar was quite firm, and we were able to work from the edges of it with crow bars. Once we could lift it, we could then throw shovel - fulls of sand under it. This prevented the tar from sticking to the wooden "ceiling" of the hatch again, and allowed us to use the shovels (a couple of them had their edges sharpened for the purpose) to cut manageable chunks from the main body of tar. Three or four of these chunks of tar could then be put into the basket, and hauled out of the hatch. On deck, we had three men. Two winch drivers, and a "hatch" man. The "hatch" man would guide the basket up through the beams of the hatch (we had left these on also in the name of expediency, in case a quick "cover up" was needed.) Once the second derrick had the basket, the "hatch" man would then tie a rope that was hanging from the bottom of the basket to a cleat on deck, and let the basket lower away until it had upended over the side, and the chunks of tar were consigned to the deep.

The work was not really all that difficult, but it was very hot, and for the first few days, we were all quite nervous in case the worst should happen, and a torpedo should wend its way toward the ship. However, all went well, and within a few days, we had completed the forward holds. Once the "ceiling" was clear of tar, we then took up the bilge boards, and cleaned them out. This must be the most smelly job there can be on a ship. The sand was left to maintain the little bit of benefit it offered as ballast. Then we moved to the after holds, and performed the same operation.

Another job we were given whilst we were down the hatches was to gather all the "dunnage" that was left over from the original cargo. Dunnage is the timber that is used in a ship's hold to either separate different types of cargo, or to wedge between the cargo and the ship's side in order to prevent boxes from moving due to the ship's motion whilst at sea. Dunnage comes in all sorts of sizes, ranging from planks, to heavy balks of timber that are sometimes used to "spread the weight" of a particularly heavy piece of cargo. Whatever it is used for, it is regarded as a valuable asset, and as much of it as is possible is always kept by the ship. It is often stowed in the 'tween decks, sometimes in piles, or sometimes stowed behind the "stringers". "Stringers" are the permanent boards that are fitted (usually in specially fitted cleats) to the "ribs" of a ship. They are quite robust lengths of wood, and run fore and aft. They keep the cargo from actually coming in to contact with the ship's side. The collection and stowage of the dunnage is a routine and regular job on any ship once the cargo has been unloaded, and the hatches are empty. I mention it here because, a few days later, our knowledge of exactly where the dunnage was, was to prove most helpful.




My St. Clears Voyage is continued in Part Eight: Breakdown at Sea


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