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Blue Bar No 2

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

Blue Bar No 2

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


There must have been considerable radio discussion between the tug Master and our Captain. This time, we would do as the tug Master had wanted in the first place, and use the “sea length” of the anchor cable to connect his wire to the ship. This would avoid the chafing of the towing cable at the point where it left the ship.

For those who may not know just what the “sea length” is I will explain. A ship’s anchor cable is divided into lengths. Each length is about fifteen fathoms (ninety feet) long, and each length is joined to the next length by a large heavy shackle. When a ship goes to anchor, the Pilot with his local knowledge can judge the length of cable required in the depth of water the ship will anchor in. He will advise the Captain some thing like “We will need to drop the starboard anchor, and use (say) three shackles. Thus when the third shackle is seen going over the windlass, the Mate (or the Ship’s Carpenter more likely, since it is usually his job to operate the windlass,) knows when to put the brakes on the windlass, and hold the cable. This (three shackles) would allow plenty of cable to lay along the bottom, and hold the ship where she lays. The “sea length” is a much shorter length than fifteen fathoms, and is designed for just such an emergency as we were in at the moment. I’m not sure of just how long the “sea length” is, but it is probably in the region of about six or eight fathoms – somewhere in the region of about forty feet.

To separate the "sea length", we first had to lash up the anchor with a very secure wire lashing to the nearest pair of bits. This involved many turns of wire through the large anchor shackle, and around the bits. Once the anchor was secure, we could then lower the anchor under power by means of the windlass until the wire held it. Once we were sure that the anchor was securely held by the wire lashings, we could then start bringing up the anchor chain slowly, and under steam, until the "sea length" shackle became visible. As the windlass brought up the cable, we had to grab it with the long chain hooks normally used by us when “stowing” the cable in the chain locker, and lay it along the deck. Thankfully, anchor chain is by its very nature quite heavy, and for the moment, we could just lay it out on the deck, and choose a spot for us to work on the "sea length" shackle.

The "sea length" shackle is a special shackle. We thought that the shackle pin was held in place by a dowel of Lignum Vitae wood that is very hard, but would be relatively easy to drill out when needed. The Carpenter applied his trusty hand drill to the spot where we knew the dowel was, but he wasn’t getting very far. In the process, he discovered that the dowel was indeed, made of brass, and not Lignum Vitae. The Engine Room was asked for advice. They sent up an engineer with better drilling equipment, and better drill bits. The Engineer advised that the best way to get the dowel out was to drill in as far as he could from either side, we could then knock out the large shackle pin and separate the cable. Whilst he was doing that, we set about securing the cable that was immediately attached to the anchor to yet another set of bits.

All this took several hours. The weather was atrocious, and the light was fading. Electric cluster lights were no good because of the continual seas washing over every one as we worked. The Mate came up trumps again with a “tot” all round, and because we (sailors) had little to do whilst the Engineer was removing the dowell, three or four of us were allowed to polish off the remainder of the bottle in the shelter of the fo’c’s’le head, and have a “smoko” at the same time.

Even though the engineer had successfully removed the dowelling from the shackle, the actual shackle pin took quite a bit of dislodging. He tried hammering it from all angles, but decided that if he hammered too much, he was just “splaying out” the end of the shackle pin, making it much more difficult to remove. He sent down to the engine room for a sack of cotton waste and a gallon of paraffin. He wrapped the cotton waste around the shackle, doused it with paraffin, and set it alight. To those of us with little or no knowledge of basic physics, he explained that he was hoping to heat up the shackle at a greater rate than the pin, thereby swelling the shackle so that the pin would be easier to dislodge. Doing all this with seas breaking over the fo’c’s’le head was no mean feat, but after several attempts, he was successful, and the pin was removed.

We were then able to use the other end of the cable that was still attached to the anchor. We took the cable around two sets of bits, lashing it to its own part to avoid any slipping, and then ran it through the fairlead. Once it was through the fairleads, we could then re attach the tow rope, making it fast with the several “U” bolts that we had used before. The remaining cable that was still around the windlass, was then dragged back, and secured to its own part, and the windlass brakes tightened up so the cable could not be dislodged in any way, and induced to go backwards and into the chain locker.

Describing all this has taken a couple of paragraphs, but the actual work took us the best part of a whole day and a night. Freeing up the shackle pin, and then having to handle the heavy anchor cable in freezing winds, with seas breaking over us all the time just took up far more time than any of us could have imagined. We had breaks for meals and “watch below”, but the work had to go on. Certainly, more than a couple of bottles of rum were consumed in the manner I described before. The Cook was marvellous, having food ready for us almost at the drop of a hat. Whilst there were up to a dozen of us sailors available, this meant that we could relieve each other. Even in an emergency, there is only so much room for about six men to work in so we split up into two watches, and saw the job through that way. The Mate and Second Mate relieved each other at intervals, whilst the Captain and Third Mate did the same on the bridge.

It was with much relief, and not a little bit of satisfaction that the Mate made a final inspection of our work, and the tow line, which was now attached to a length of our anchor cable was lowered over the fo’c’s’le hand rails. Even doing this took time. We could not just let about ten feet of anchor cable plus many more feet of towing cable go over the side. It all had to be lowered over, and the ropes we used to lower it were left attached to it. There were probably ten to fifteen feet of anchor cable over the side, and then the towing wire took over. Handling all this heavy stuff had been a long and difficult task, and we were pleased to see the job finished and actually working.

Without us even realising it, the weather had started to quieten down a bit, and so by the time we had the towing wire fixed on the morning of February the eighth, the tug was ready to start the serious work of getting us to Halifax. We had assumed the probable time of finishing, and so the men whose turn it was to go on watch were ready for it, and we returned to our normal watch keeping. The Foundation Franklin kept up a steady pace, and I think we were probably making about three or four knots. By now, although the seas had calmed down considerably, there was still quite a strong wind blowing, with the ship making way, we now kept a man on the wheel.

We made good progress throughout the day, with the weather getting better all the time. The use of the short length of anchor cable now strengthened our tow by making sure that the towing wire did not have to chafe against the fairlead. With the better weather, thoughts of yet another break in the towline were receding. All through the day of the ninth of February, we made excellent progress. Ship life was returning to something like normal after the very turbulent experiences we had been through during the past two or three weeks.

At some time during the day of the tenth of February, tragedy struck again. Word came from ’amidships that the Captain had died. Obviously, the trying circumstances that we had been through during the last three weeks, had been a very stressful time for the Captain who despite being at the mercy of the weather, is always responsible for his ship and the welfare of the crew. It is true that he had spent days on the bridge, only going below for brief periods. The strain must have been considerable. It seems that the Captain’s “Tiger” – his personal cabin Steward – had gone into the Cabin for some reason or other, and found him lying on the deck bleeding profusely from a wound in his head. They think that even with the calmer weather, the Captain may have lost his balance and fallen over, hitting his head as he did so, and had not had the strength to summon assistance immediately.

We signalled the tug and presumably head office. The Chief Officer, Mr Schofield, took command of the vessel, but of course, he still had to do his regular four to eight watches. Life went on. The question of our “unjustified” loggings was brought up. The Mate – we couldn’t get into the habit of calling him anything else – was now in a position to do some thing about it (as he had promised to do,) but none of us had thought it would have been in this manner. As it turned out, within a day or so of us arriving in Halifax, he told us that all loggings had been deleted.

"...And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!" is continued in Part Seven: Halifax at Last