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Blue Bar No 2

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

Blue Bar No 2

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


Up until now, we had rarely seen the Captain on the bridge. This is normal practice on Merchant ships. The Captain of course, is always in command, but at sea, and for practical purposes, the every day running (navigation) of the ship is left to the Deck Officers, The First, Second, and Third Mates. Each officer takes a watch. Traditionally, the First Mate takes the four to eight watches, the Second Mate takes the twelve to four watches, and the Third Mate takes the eight to twelve watches. The Captain is always on the bridge when the ship is entering or leaving port. Apart from those occasions, we would mostly see him during the eight to twelve watch in the morning, when the least experienced of the officers, the Third Mate was on watch. As long as things were going OK, the Captain would often then go below. Sometimes he would put in an appearance at the all important “noon day sighting”. This is when the navigating officer, the second Mate would take a sighting of the sun with his sextant, to determine the ship’s longitude, and from this reading he would then plot the ships’ position. Since we hadn’t seen much of the sun during our voyage, not many “noon sightings” had been made. However, now that the ship was sailing in these reduced conditions, the Captain quite naturally spent a lot more time on the bridge; it was his attitude to the helmsman during his continued presence there that led to quite a bit of trouble.

With the ship going so slowly, and the continued atrocious weather – it was getting worse rather than better – steering the ship became almost impossible. Sometimes, we would stand at the wheel, with it hard over to either port or starboard, waiting for the ship to respond. It was really a question of having to wait until the stern of the ship “hit a low”, when the propeller would be under water, which meant that it could put some “way” (forward movement) on the ship, which in turn, allowed the rudder to do it’s job. It wasn’t that the wheel was any harder to turn because of the rough weather. In fact, most merchant ships in those days had what today in automobile terms; we would call “Power Steering”. This means that when the wheel was turned one way or another, hydraulic fluid would be forced down small pipes to the steering flat down aft, and cause the steering engines to turn the rudder. All we had to do was to watch the compass, and turn the wheel accordingly.

I will start from a position where the ship was “right on course”; (in practice this was really hardly ever the case.) Even with the ship generally headed in the “right direction”, each time the bow would rise up out of the water, the wind and swells would cause it to swing (or “yaw”) wildly from side to side, sometimes as much as ten degrees or more either side of the desired course. (We are talking about a seven thousand ton ship here, rather than a yacht on the Solent.) We soon learned that with the bow in the air, the stern – and therefore the propeller and rudder – were in the water, and this was the best time to use the rudder to “coax” the ship to one side or the other. Usually, it was best to try to steer into the wind, since being light ship; the wind had the greatest effect on which way the bow would fall. With all this in mind, during those few precious seconds that the bow was in the air, and the stern in the water, the helmsman would try to anticipate the ship’s next swing, and turn the wheel accordingly. Sometimes this meant going directly from hard a port to hard a starboard. Not as easy as it might sound, even with “power steering”, because once the wheel was hard over either way, it had to be then pulled back to ‘midships before it could be turned the other way, all this lost precious time. Sometimes you would be lucky, and the ship would land within a reasonably few degrees of the prescribed course. Mostly it didn’t, and you would be left with the wheel hard over in the same direction that the weather in all of its unpredictable moods, had decided to take the ship anyhow! On these occasions, there was nothing else to do but to put the wheel hard over to the other direction as quick as possible, and keep it there until the ship decided to respond, or until the weather allowed the ship to respond. It was a feeling of complete helplessness.

Nobody likes to be as far off course as we often were, but there was precious little we could do about it other than to stand there, with the wheel hard over, waiting for the first sign that the ship was about to respond. Whilst all this was going on, the ship was pitching and tossing quite badly. When you are up on the top deck (as we were in the wheelhouse) you can appreciate even more so, just how the ship was being tossed about by the weather. Without the wheel to hang on to, one would have been thrown across the wheelhouse deck on many occasions. I think the officers on watch appreciated the situation of the helmsman, but unfortunately, the Captain didn’t.

It is understandable that being responsible for the ship, and the lives of all on board, he had much to think about. His first order was “AB’s only on the wheel”. This meant that the Ordinary Seamen in each watch were not allowed to take a turn on the wheel. This in itself was no great hardship; it just meant that we had a wheel every watch instead of every two out of three. However, it wasn’t long before the first AB came down off the wheel to tell us that he had been “logged” (fined) by the Captain for his inability to steer the ship properly. When he had protested, the Captain fined him for insolence! On one occasion, he even sent a man off the wheel, demanding that the next man take his place. Whatever mood he was in, or whatever responsibilities he had, even he realised that he could not go on replacing men on the wheel. Within a short space of time, several helmsmen had been logged; those who had answered back had also been logged extra for insolence. I can’t remember what the amounts were, but it was probably ten shillings for each offence.

I know from my own experience that the officer on watch did not approve of what was happening, but there was little they could do about it. The Captain is Master of his vessel, and his word is law. When my own turn came, the Mate tried to signal me to “cool” it, but when such things happen (especially when you are an eighteen year old and ready to take on the world!) the indignity of being told that you are unable or unfit to steer the ship weighs much more heavily than the thought that the Captain may have been under undue stress!!! During those moments when even the Captain had to go below, the officers on watch would talk to us, and tell us to remain calm until at least the weather subsided, when they would “have a word”, and try to “sort things out”. Otherwise, we were all for “seeing the Shipping Federation”, and “having something done about it” when we reached New York. I’m not sure if any of us realised just exactly what could be done, but we all felt (not unreasonably,) that the Captain had unjustly treated all those who had been fined. (Of course, when talking amongst ourselves, we expressed ourselves in slightly less diplomatic terms than that!!!)

Further drama occurred when – again, during the hours of darkness – the ship experienced another “big bang”. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we were all more worried than last time; I think the general feeling was one of resignation! Again, I was down aft, and in my bunk. I think we all knew what had happened. The fact that the stern of the ship was constantly rising out of the water, causing the propeller to race, was by now, just part of life. One gets used to the sensation of being lifted up, poised as it were in mid air for a second or two, and then that sensation of the bunk falling away, with the body “catching up” with the bunk on the way down, coming to rest with a sudden jolt as the ship “bottoms out” in the cradle of the swell. Despite the continual, and often violent movement of the ship, it was not too difficult to get to sleep; and so it was that as soon as the routine movement of the rise and fall of the ship was disturbed, a “different” noise occurred, and we all woke up.

Once again, there had been that extra loud metallic “bang”, the engines had stopped, and the ship was handed back to the vagaries of the weather – which soon became obvious, as the movements of the ship became even worse. Once more, we made a quick trip up to the deck clad only with the minimum amount of clothing thrown on for a “quick look”. When we arrived on deck, the engineer was already there, torch in hand, lying on the deck with his head and shoulders protruding beyond the rails overlooking the stern. It didn’t take him long to confirm that yet another blade had fallen off our propeller, but with almost a sigh of relief, he informed us that it was the blade diametrically opposite to the one we had already lost! This meant that we still had two blades, but because they were diametrically opposite, the ship could at least carry on as she had been, keeping her head into the weather, and maybe now that the “imbalance” was gone from the propeller, we might even be able to afford higher revs. which in turn, would give us better steering!

I doubt if the engines were ever put to “Full Ahead”, but at least, our previous ability to keep the ship into the wind was being maintained. The steering did not become any easier, nor did the Captain’s temper become any sweeter. No more men were logged for an inability to steer the ship, so it may have been that the Mate had spoken to the Captain on the matter. It became just a matter of standing behind the wheel – even hanging on for dear life on some occasions – and applying the helm one way or another until the ship decided to respond. There was really no effort being made to steer a course as such, it became more a sense of pointing, or trying to point, the ship in the right direction. From the snippets of information we were able to glean from the officers, what with the ferocious gale force winds, and the currents, we were actually losing ground quite steadily, and had been for some time; but as long as we did so with the bow of the ship pointing in the right direction, then that seemed to be the best we could do under the circumstances.

"...And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!" is continued in Part Four: ON THE BRINK OF CATASTROPHE