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Blue Bar No 2

"...And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!"
Part Two
by Gordon Sollors

Blue Bar No 2

Continued from "...And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!", Part One


I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but our watch were in our bunks, and it was night time. The ship was going through its usual gyrations, and we were getting thrown about all over the place. As on all other nights, we turned in, in the knowledge that sooner or later, sheer exhaustion would send us to sleep. In some ways, being lifted twenty or thirty feet into the air, and then crashing down into the sea can even be a little exhilarating. You feel the ship rising, and then at the top of its lift, with propeller racing, the motion ceases for a fraction of a second, then everything starts to come down. For a few seconds you feel as if you are floating on air, then the ship “bottoms out” with an almighty crash, you regain all your (apparent) lost weight, and the whole process starts all over again. It was at the bottom of one of these cycles that it happened. Instead of just the usual jarring crash, there was also an unusually loud and metallic “clang”.

We knew instantly that something different had happened, but we were not sure just what it had been. There were one or two “odd” noises within the ship, almost as if the propeller shaft was groaning, then the engines stopped. Whilst the (comparative) silence was a relief of sorts, it didn’t take us long to realise that here we were, in a very severe storm, and the engines had stopped. Almost `simultaneously, we all sat up in our bunks and looked around at each other. It didn’t take us long to get dressed, and up on deck where we looked for the man on watch who should have been in the messroom, having a smoko. He was not to be seen, so we assumed that he had been called up to the bridge, which, as we found out was indeed the case.

At this time, about five minutes or so had elapsed since the “big bang”, and we could feel the “attitude” of the ship changing, and the movements getting much more erratic. When a ship faces a storm that is too much for it, the standard procedure is to head the ship into the weather, so that the ship is head on to the storm. To do this, the ship needs to have “way” on her. Basically, this means that the ship must be moving forward through the water so that the rudder can be used to steer her “into the wind”. Once the engines had stopped, the ship was no longer moving forward through the water; therefore there was no means of steering the ship, and so she just went whichever way the seas dictated. Unfortunately for us, (and quite predictably,) the seas swung the ship around so that we were beam on to the gigantic swell. With no means of steering the ship back into the weather, we just had to “lump” it! Everything that had previously not been lashed down now began to move, so our immediate job was to “ship” everything that hitherto had been “unshipped”. Fortunately, because of the awful weather we had been experiencing, there was not too much to see to.

By this time, the man on “standby” had returned to the messroom, and informed us that the engineers thought that the “tail end” of the propeller shaft had been bent, and that was why they had shut down the engines. Someone from the engine room was about to come aft and look over the stern, to see if anything could be discovered from a first hand look at the propeller. We were told to get lifelines ready to attach to the person who was about to look over the stern. To look at the propeller, one would need to lean out over the ship’s rails to a fairly dangerous level, so, considering the much increased gyrations of the ship now that we were stopped, lifelines for the person were essential.

The “appointed person” duly came aft, and we attached appropriate lines to him. He was almost lying on the deck, with his head and shoulders stuck out from between the two bottom rails, and he had a large flash light. Within a few seconds, he was back aboard with the verdict that one of the propeller blades had dropped off, but three blades were still intact. Well, at least we knew what the problem was! We assumed that calls would be made for towage into Halifax, or whichever port was nearest. (We had no idea of exactly where we were, as the navigating officer had not seen the sun since we left Liverpool, and all navigation had been done by “dead reckoning” which, as far as I can ascertain, is a sophisticated form of guessing!)

The “appointed person” who had looked over the side, then went back to the bridge and had discussions with the Captain and presumably, the Chief Engineer. We retired to the messroom, and made a strong pot of tea. Hardly had we sat down when, much to our surprise, (and relief,) we felt and heard, the propeller start to turn again. It wasn’t as noisy as it had been, and it wasn’t turning quite as fast, but it was turning, and that meant that the ship could now be steered “into the wind”, and that meant that as long as we faced the weather, there was much less of a threat to the safety of the ship.

As the ship gathered way, we could feel the roll of the ship becoming less violent, even though the pitching and tossing were every bit as bad as they had been prior to the “big bang”. When I say the ship “gathered way”, I doubt whether the ship actually gained any distance, but the action of the propeller allowed the rudder to do its work, and face the ship into the weather. For all we knew, we could even have been drifting backwards, but what counted was that we would have been drifting backwards whilst facing the weather, and that made life much easier and safer for us!

I suppose that driving a propeller that was out of balance must have put some sort of extra strain on the propeller shaft bearings, but this was not our problem, and anyway, we thought, the damage had been done. If we listened carefully, we could detect the imbalance in the turning of the screw, and as long as it was easing the immediate danger to the ship, we were not too concerned about any long term consequences that might eventuate.

When morning came around, we could look over the stern and see our new, remodelled, three bladed propeller for ourselves. One had to be careful in leaning over the side with the ship rising up, and dropping down into the troughs so quickly. However, the “empty space” could quite easily be discerned, and we thought that it would just be a question of time before the weather abated, and the ship could proceed under it’s own steam, and at a reduced speed to New York.

Of course, the talk in the messroom was of previous experiences of propeller blades dropping off, or even, in extreme circumstances, the loss of the complete propeller! Apparently neither incident was as rare as one might have thought! Since a ship’s propeller is a very “personal” item, (a propeller is manufactured for a specific hull shape,) many ships carry a spare propeller, usually in an out of the way portion of the deck. I had seen them on other ships I had been on, and often wondered why on earth a ship should carry a spare propeller since there would be no chance of shipping it whilst the ship was at sea. Well, now I knew.

Another subject that came up with a little more frequency than hitherto was the subject of “Salvage”. I think we all had some vague idea that as long as a member of the crew (usually the Captain) stayed aboard a ship in distress, then any vessel that came to the rescue could only claim towing fees rather than salvage or prize money. Since none of us had any first hand experience of these sorts of situations, we allowed ourselves to remain in ignorance, and got on with our job of trying to get the ship to New York.

To think that we were out of trouble, or even “over the worst”, was optimistic - at least for the Deck Department. Indeed, our troubles were only just beginning. It was true that we could now steer the ship into the weather, but with the very slow revs of the screw, and the still extremely rough weather, keeping the ship on course, (into the wind) was no easy task, and sometimes well nigh impossible

"....And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!" is continued in Part Three: Our Problems Continue