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Blue Bar No 2

MY ST. CLEARS VOYAGE, Part Eight
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2


Continued from My St. Clears Voyage, Part Seven


BREAKDOWN AT SEA



The complete voyage from Bombay to Mombassa, because of the "zig zag" route we had to take to avoid submarines, took us about two weeks. It was all smooth sailing, and we had become used to the noise of the half immersed propeller splashing at the stern of the ship as we slept. We were awoken one evening to discover complete silence. Not even the beat of the propeller as it lashed the waters in its efforts to drive the ship forward could be heard. We knew that we were not due to arrive in Mombassa for another three or four days, yet this "quiet" was the quiet that we experience when the ship arrives in port overnight, and all the engines stop.

The engines had indeed, stopped. The problem was not an engine breakdown as such. What had happened was that the pump that pumped the oil to the burners in the furnaces had broken down. Even the hand operated emergency pump was out of action. The engineers had concluded that it would be just as quick to repair the steam pump, as it would be to repair the hand pump. The only problem then would be getting up a sufficient head of steam to re start the steam pump. The phrase hadn't been invented yet, but it was a sort of a "Catch Twenty Two" situation.

With no power at all, the ship just lay there, high in the water, with no steam for propulsion, and no steam for the generators, which gave us our electric lighting. Since we didn't use any Navigational lights, (i.e., port, starboard, masthead or stern lights,) because of the war situation, at least they were not a problem. Fortunately, the weather was really calm. The sea was like a sheet of glass, and unfortunately, the moon "lightened" things up considerably! Certainly, we were a "sitting duck" for any raider that happened to come upon us where the ship was between the moon and the raider! We would have given them a splendid silhouette to shoot at!

All Hands were called out. The engineers had decided that the oil pump could be repaired with in a couple of hours, and in the meantime, all the dunnage on the ship was to be brought to the bunker hatch, and cut into useable size pieces to be thrown into the furnaces in order to generate a sufficient head of steam to start the oil pump once it had been repaired. The magical figure for a "sufficient head of steam" we were told, was twenty pounds per square inch. Even this seemingly straightforward task required a fair bit of organisation. Our priorities were to arrange for lights, first for the engineers to work by as they repaired the pump, and then for us in the 'tween decks as we collected and delivered the dunnage to the bunker hatch.

Most ships carry several "Storm Lanterns" for all sorts of emergencies. We had half a dozen or more in the Lamp Room in the forward mast house. Storm Lanterns are sturdy, all purpose lights that can either be hung up, or stand on their own bases, We found quite a few in the Lamp Room, but they all had to be filled with paraffin, and their wicks checked. These lamps were soon distributed to the 'tween decks so that we could locate the stacks of dunnage, and carry it to the bunker hatch. Unfortunately, whilst all the other hatches are accessible from the 'tween decks, the bunker hatch is not. This being the case, all the timber had to be first passed up on to the main deck from the 'tween decks, and then carried along the main deck to the bunker hatch where it was dropped down to the waiting firemen below.

This also had its problems. The noise made by dropping the timber down about thirty feet, was considerable. Since the ship was virtually becalmed and empty, the empty hull amplified any heavy noise we made. These noises we were told, could be picked up by any lurking submarine, and traced back to their source! We were ordered to pass the timber down by rope in order to make less noise. Even with our heightened awareness of the need to keep quiet, planks were dropped, and metal objects made resounding noises as the engineers repaired the oil pump. Each separate noise echoing round the empty hull, and sounding probably much louder than it actually was.

Whilst all this was going on, the "Watch on Deck" (the regular duty watch) were kept on lookout. The man on the wheel was put on lookout on the wing of the bridge, whilst the other two were put, one on lookout on the fo'c's'le head, and one on lookout at the stern of the ship respectively. I think we were all somewhat apprehensive, and it was known that the Captain was also a bit jittery. At one stage, someone spotted what he thought was a light, but nothing came of it. In the part of the world we were in, many Arab Dhows operate between Aden, the Persian Gulf, India, and East Africa as they have done for centuries. Since no merchant ship would dare show a light, it was assumed that it had been an Arab Dhow.

The collection of timber went on for some time. Hauling it up from one part of the ship and carrying it to the bunker hatch whilst trying not to make any noise, made the task much harder than it really was. Once the furnaces were started up, (they were not started up until the engineers were confident of a result) the Mate started speculating as to whether the timber we had collected was enough to raise the required head of steam. As a contingency measure, we were told to gather a few of the older hatch boards from the 'tween decks, and have them ready to heave up on to the main deck, ready to be dropped down the bunker hatch for burning.

They were not needed; as daylight came, we on deck could actually hear the oil pump start up as the magical figure of twenty pounds per square inch of steam was raised, and the oil pump started pumping oil once more to the burners. With one boiler back on burning oil, it took some time further before that boiler could raise enough steam to take over from the wood burning boiler, and so it went on until all the boilers (I think there were three) were fully "back on line", and enough steam could be raised to start the main turbine. I think we all heaved a sigh of relief as we heard and felt the main engine start up, and the familiar "splash - splash" of the propeller blades striking the water could once more be heard. We returned the hatch boards we had collected to their proper places, and battened down the bunker and main hatches as the ship got under way again, heading for Mombassa.

After all the excitement in Bombay about "getting the ship ready for an important cargo", Mombassa was something of an anti climax! We lay alongside for a day or two, then we were directed to steam to Dar es Salaam, a port just a few hundred miles to the south, and the main port for the Tanganyika Territory, an ex German Colony that Britain had taken over after the Great War of 1914 - 1918. (Now known as Tanzania, after its Independence from Britain, and some sort of political and territorial amalgamation with the island of Zanzibar.) I can't remember what (if anything) we loaded at Mombassa, but it can't have been much.

Dar es Salaam is one of those really picturesque places, with an inner harbour, reached by sailing through a narrow waterway from the outside ocean. We went alongside, and started loading what we understood to be NAAFI Stores for various ports between Dar es Salaam and Suez. Whilst we were there, it turned out that a British Merchant Ship had been torpedoed recently, not far from Dar es Salaam, and the survivors had been picked up and brought there. We really knew no more than rumour about all this, but whilst some of our crew were in a bar one evening, they were approached by some locals and asked if "…they were from "that ship"…". (One didn't mention ship's names in those times, and it was unlikely they would have known the name of the ship anyhow - we certainly didn't.) Since we were the only ship in the harbour at the time, they replied "Yes" whereupon they were treated to all they needed, and offered all sorts of hospitality by the locals. It was only later that they made the connection with what we had heard, and they quickly pointed out to their benefactors that they may not, indeed, be the people they were thought to be! Even so, the locals gave our crew members a good time before seeing them back to the ship.

We left Dar es Salaam, and once again I experienced the pleasure of sailing through a narrow waterway. I wasn't on the wheel this time, but I enjoyed sailing in the close proximity to the shore. Once we had dropped the pilot, we headed to the north and east. It wasn't long before the coast line was out of sight. With the recent knowledge of a British (or any) ship sunk in the area, we were extra careful on lookout. It is surprising what you think you see in such circumstances. Even on the darkest nights, the horizon is usually visible, and keeping one's eyes glued to the horizon can be quite tiring. In renewed efforts not to miss anything, it is as if lights were appearing from all over the place - but then, anything that was going to be a threat to us would hardly be displaying lights!




My St. Clears Voyage is continued in Part Nine: From Berbera to Haifa


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