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Blue Bar No 2

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

Blue Bar No 2

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


Like all other occupations, sailors have their “sayings”, and the saying that “Things Always Happen in Threes” is just as common at sea, as it is elsewhere. Sure enough, it was to prove the case for us. We had already lost two blades of our propeller on two separate occasions, and had spent the last two weeks wallowing around in the North Atlantic being tossed about like the proverbial cork. Instead of dying down, and allowing us to proceed on our way, the weather decided to get worse. Having been buffeted from one end of the ship to the other, we did not think it could get any worse, but indeed it could, and did. The third blade went in a slightly more ominous fashion than had the other two. As with the other two occasions, it happened late at night. (This was about the only consistent thing that happened to us!) We had just come off watch, and hadn’t been in our bunks for very long. In hind sight, it would be easy for me to say that the ship was being tossed about more than usual, and that would probably be true. Not only were we rising and falling more often, we were rolling from side to side quite violently. Almost without us realising it, the movements of the ship became much more erratic.

Instead of the almost rhythmic rise and fall of the ship, accompanied by the racing of the propeller at the top of the cycle, and the crash and slowing of the propeller at the bottom of the cycle, the ship now began to judder, as if being hit by intermediate waves. The circular motion was also much more evident. The circular motion being the feeling that instead of just going straight up and down, the ship was being thrust from side to side much more violently, as indeed it was. It seems that the ship was still heading into the seas, but the wind had changed direction, and with the ship being without cargo, and high out of the water, it was an easy target for the wind to push around. I suppose the effect of the wind on the waves had also changed, making life on board the ship very uncomfortable.

When it finally came, the stern of the ship lifted right up, and out of the water. It seemed to hang there much longer than it had on previous occasions. The pause was quite noticeable and caused us (there were three of us in the cabin) to sit up and look at each other. We were not left looking for too long, The stern of the ship came crashing down, and as it did, the ship rolled right over to port, so that instead of crashing down on to the keel of the ship as it had been doing, it crashed down on its side. We were thrown, momentarily off our feet. Our expletives were drowned out by an almighty bang, and what I can only describe as a metallic groaning sound. The ship’s engine stopped almost at the same instant, which meant that it had not been shut down by an engineer as a reaction to a situation. The situation itself had caused it to stop. It wasn’t difficult to work out that yet another blade – or even both the remaining blades - had fallen off the propeller, as the engineer’s inspection verified. We discovered later, that not only had the third blade fallen off, the huge impact when the ship had “bottomed out” had actually bent the tail end of the propeller shaft, and it had been this (bent shaft) that had stopped the propeller from rotating so suddenly.

In the early hours of January 31 1946, the Captain ordered the Radio Operator to send out an SOS, and within a few hours, we heard via the radio operator that a deep sea tug by the name of Foundation Franklin had left Halifax Nova Scotia to look for us. 1

As soon as the engine stopped for the last time, the wind and weather dictated the ship’s attitude. The weather was as bad as it had ever been, and we were immediately swung around until the ship was yet again, beam on to the seas. This of course, is the most dangerous position the ship could be in, but there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. All thoughts of steering were out of the question. Without even the little bit of way the propeller had previously been able to provide, the rudder was useless. Watches were still kept of course, and the “Man on the wheel” kept a look out on the wing of the bridge, whilst the regular lookout was kept on the Monkey Island. As soon as the engine had stopped, and in accordance with International Maritime Law, we raised two all round red lights in a vertical line on the halyards above the Monkey Island. This signal says that the ship is not under command, and it is therefore the duty of other ships to keep clear. During daylight hours, these would be changed to two black, round, balls, one on top of the other.

Because of the appalling weather, and the fact that we had not seen the sun for many days now, it had been impossible for the Captain to pinpoint the position of the ship, so the job of finding us was a combination of dead reckoning, a certain amount of guesswork due to the influence of the wind and tide on the drift of the ship, plus the skills and experience in these waters, and in this type of weather of Captain Brushett, the tug master. It was to take the Franklin two days to find us.

The ship was now completely at the mercy of the weather. It was dark, but the watch on deck had lookouts to keep. We sat in the messroom for a while, pondering our situation. The only real certainty was that we could do nothing to change it. There was even some nervous talk of ships rolling on to their “beam ends” and which was the angle of roll from which a ship was not likely to return. All a bit scary really, but this mood did not last for long. In a surprisingly short length of time, we decided that as there was nothing we could do other than gauge the roll of the ship, and brace ourselves each time it seemed to roll over to extremes; especially on those occasions when, at the end of the roll, the ship would pause as if considering whether to come back or not. It was now well into the middle watch, (twelve to four.) Those who had just come off the eight to twelve watch decided to turn in, but we in the four to eight thought it hardly worthwhile. We sat in the messroom, “swinging the lamp” – literally – until it was our turn to go on watch.

When we did finally go on watch, it was one man on the Monkey Island, one man in the wheelhouse and wing of the bridge, and the third man on stand by. Even at eight AM, it was still only half light but gradually, we had been able to see more and more of the weather. From the Monkey Island, the view was quite spectacular. It was impossible to take more than a few paces without grabbing hold of something, so mostly, I stayed behind the “dodgers”, wedging myself in the most comfortable position I could find, and as far out of the wind as it was possible to get. The “dodgers” are narrow strips of canvass mounted just above the apron. It is surprising, the amount of wind they can deflect whilst still affording a view of what is ahead.

From the Monkey Island, which was the highest point on the ship, it was possible to see “the big picture”. The seas were truly mountainous. The ship was now completely beam on to the waves. As each wave rolled by, it would first of all, raise the ship until we were well above the surrounding seas. It would tilt the ship over at a crazy angle and then disappear beneath the ship. As it rolled away into the distance the ship would sort of slide down the side of it, back into the trough, rolling violently back to the other side, where the process would start all over again. The gale force winds were blowing the tops of the waves, and turning the water picked up from there into sleet. Due to the cloud, the wind, and the sleet, it was impossible to determine a horizon. As the ship rose to the top of each wave, all that could be seen was more cloud. When we slid to the bottom of the troughs, nothing could be seen other than the previous wave, and the next one as it approached. On either side, even from the height of the Monkey Island, the waves towered above us, completely blotting out any possible sightings of the horizon. As the ship wallowed in each trough, The sides of the waves looked like huge, fluid scrolls of liquid grey marble, streaked by the white slivers of foam blown down from the crests of the waves.

The discomfort and concern caused by the weather was further compounded by the actual noise of the storm. Once we were inside the quarters with the heavy teak doors shut, it was not so bad, but out on deck, the noise of the wind, and the constant rush of water over the decks made life quite difficult. Mostly, of course, we stayed indoors, but the food had to be brought from the galley which was in the centre castle, just below the funnel; and of course, not only us, but also the firemen had to go on watch. For traversing the decks, we had rigged up life lines. These were ropes suspended at about waist height, and ran from the poop to the mast house, then to the centre castle. The same ropes were rigged up on the fore deck. Whilst travelling from one part of the ship to the next, it was essential to keep a firm hold on them to prevent oneself being thrown of one’s feet. Other ropes were suspended nearer to the outboard side of each deck just in case!

Having mentioned the galley, it must be said here that in my opinion, the hero of the whole ordeal was the cook. I think his name was Tom. He was a tallish man from the Bristol area. As soon as the weather deteriorated after leaving Liverpool, the “storm bars” went up in his galley. These are railings that can be fitted to the galley stove to prevent the pots and pans from sliding off. They can be configured to whatever sized pots the cook has on the stove, and are essential to prevent mishaps. The stove was an oil burner, so the cook didn’t have to keep a coal fire burning. It was impossible to have a pot full of anything on the stove, because the roll of the ship would have immediately deposited at least a quarter of it on the galley floor. Instead, he could only fill pots about half full, and either have more pots, or do it more often. It would have been so easy for him to have cut the cooking down to a minimum, but right throughout the trip, we never once missed a meal, and the food was great. Not only did he see to our daily needs, but later on in the trip, when we found ourselves working round the clock whilst securing the tug, he had pans of hot stew ready for us at all hours, day and night.

There was no let up in the weather, and for the next two days, we just learned to cope with it. Surprisingly, this was not too difficult. We had light, heat, and food. We just weren’t going anywhere! Sleeping almost fully dressed became the norm. From those heart stopping moments when the ship seemed to want to stay over on her side, we just learned to accept that one roll took longer than another, and either went to sleep, ate our meals, or got on with the job.

1 Here, I am indebted to the Canadian author Farley Mowat, whose book “Grey Seas Under” describes in detail the many rescues made by the tug, Foundation Franklin, which was owned by the Foundation Maritime Ltd. Towing Company of Montreal. In his book, he describes the Franklin’s encounter with the Empire Abbey in the story “Death of a Captain” on page 227. It is from this story, that I have been able to ascertain the times that the SOS was sent out, the date and time of arrival of the tug, and the timing of the other events which eventuated in our arrival in Halifax Nova Scotia. Although we knew that the tug had left Halifax and was looking for us, I have no recollection of the exact times or dates, and so I have obtained as many times and dates as I can from the book.

"...And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!" is continued in Part Five: Foundation Franklin