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Blue Bar No 2

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

Blue Bar No 2

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


We arrived in Halifax on the eleventh of February. It was very cold, but quite calm. The Franklin took us to a berth to our starboard side in a place called Dartmouth, which is right across the river from the Dry Dock, which we would now have to wait to enter. We all knew by now that the “tail end of the shaft” - the last part of the propeller shaft – had been damaged, and would have to be replaced as well as a new propeller. Having these items sent from England was going to take some time – probably weeks – so we settled in for a long stay.

No sooner had we tied up than the local press came aboard. Not only had we survived the fiery North Atlantic storms sans propeller, but the Captain had also died, thereby adding to the melodrama. We listened to a couple of the crewmembers “laying it on” to the visiting reporter. “Worst storms I’ve experienced in all my twenty years at sea” said one seaman, and so it went on. The local paper the next day reflected this with headlines which read “Captain of Vessel Dies on Way to Port. Foundation Franklin Brings Battered Ship to Halifax”. It was followed by a column about us losing the propeller, and the subsequent death of the Captain.

Within a couple of days, we all attended the funeral of the Captain. Although the Undertaker had “done him up”, the wound on his head was still visible as he lay in his coffin. We completed the service and left.

Lying alongside in Dartmouth, the ship high out of the water, and in anticipation of several weeks doing just lying there, gave us time to have a look around. We soon discovered that being on the “other “ side of the river had its distinct disadvantages; the main one being that not only did we have to get the rather large car ferry over to Halifax, but more importantly, the last ferry returned to Dartmouth at about eleven PM. To add to these woes, from where the ship was tied up to the ferry terminal was a considerable walk. Not bad on a balmy summers’ evening, but pretty drastic with a freezing wind blowing all around us as we walked. Learning to walk on the frozen surface of the roads and footpaths became an art form in itself. We could not keep our hands in our pockets, as we needed them to keep our balance; consequently we would arrive back aboard the ship with our hands freezing. Rubbing snow into them would help to get the circulation going again. We were not really equipped - clothes wise – for such weather. All we had to wear was our ordinary suits and raincoats. The locals all dressed up much heavier clothing, and also most of them wore those tartan style hats with earmuffs attached to the sides. I’m sure these (ear muffs) made life much more bearable. It wasn’t long before we had bought ourselves such hats, but we couldn’t afford to completely re equip ourselves for the (to us) extremely cold Canadian Winter.

With the weather so cold, work on the ship was fairly limited. We did quite a lot of maintenance to the running gear on the derricks. We did this because the cargo blocks could be removed from the derricks and taken into one of the mast houses, out from the worst of the cold, to be serviced. The firemen soon discovered that the bottled beer that we could buy for about nine pence per bottle aboard ship could be sold to the locals for the equivalent of more than twice that amount.

It seemed that Nova Scotia was a “dry” Province of Canada. There were no “Pubs” as we knew them, and no hotels where one could go for a drink. However, the populace was not denied alcohol altogether. There was a system of “rationing” whereby each resident was allowed a certain amount of liquor and beer each month. I really have no idea just what these amounts were, but through various contacts, we were introduced to the monthly “booze up” parties which were quite popular there. Visiting seamen were accommodated in this respect at the Seamen’s Club on the other side of the river. Here, we could buy beer at the rate of three large bottles per day. On production of Seamen’s Identification (Ships Pass) we were issued with a Membership ticket to the Merchant Seamen’s Club. Each ticket had a date of issue stamped on it, and a “Good until” date. The ticket expired on the “Good until” date. Each ticket had three small squares printed on it for each day of the month. Each line of three squares was numbered, representing the days of the month. As each bottle was purchased, so one of the squares was punched, thereby limiting us to three bottles per day. If you missed a day, those bottles were lost for all time. Of course, we could not take bottles out of the Club. It all had to be consumed on the premises.

Between the various crewmembers, we found ourselves invited to several of the monthly “booze parties”. For our “admission”, we would take along a dozen or so bottles of Whitbread Newcastle Ale that we had saved up from our daily shipboard ration. The Whitbread was liked very much by the locals. At the other end of the “refreshment scale”, we often had to while away a bit of time in a large Milk Bar near the Ferry Terminal whilst waiting for the next ferry. It was in this place that I was introduced to the Juke Box where you could make your selection, from the table where you sat. Each table had a coin box which listed all the song titles available on the main Juke Box. It was possible to insert your money and make a selection from your table. Of course, you didn’t know how many others had made a selection before you (or even if it was the same selection) so it was a bit of a gamble, and often we had to leave to catch the ferry before our selection was played. We soon learned to “give it a miss”.

Local dances of course, were very popular with us, and it didn’t take us long to find out where they were held. Mostly, they were in local Church Halls. Like most other places, local dance halls were good places for us to meet and mix with girls. On entering the hall, we noticed that most of the girls gathered at a certain place near the entrance door. On closer investigation we found that there were large grids in the floor near the doors through which hot air was pumped. This is where the girls used to gather in order to warm themselves up just by standing over them. Most of us formed relationships with particular girl friends, and those we either went to other dances with, or sometimes to the “movies”.

Across the river, at the large passenger vessel terminal, there was quite a bit of movement. We soon noticed the Mauritania, the Aquitania, and the Franconia were berthing there on a more or less regular two to three week basis. Having finished most of their trooping duties for the government, they were now engaged in bringing War Brides to Canada and the USA. Some of our crew members took a special interest in the Mauritania, Aquitania and Franconia. As Cunarders, they were registered in Liverpool, and many of the crew were Liverpudlians. It didn’t take long for some of our crewmembers to get aboard Mauritania to meet old friends, and to have a drink in the “Pig and Whistle”. The information soon filtered back that the ships were on a regular run from Liverpool to Halifax with War Brides. The crossing took about four days, there was a few days in Liverpool, then the ships returned to Halifax with another load of War Brides. The ship was berthing in Halifax in just about something less than every two weeks. During our two month stay in Halifax, several of the Firemen made the return trip to Liverpool and back courtesy of their friends on the Mauritania. On such a large ship, sailing on a busy schedule, their presence would hardly be noticed. Of course, on our much smaller ship, their absence must have been more obvious, but as far as I can remember, no one was hauled up over the business. In fact, several of the Firemen had made the journey and returned before even we in the Deck Department knew about it!

Delightful and romantic as the business of delivering War Brides must have been, there was also a darker, and somewhat sadder side to the business. As our blokes soon found out, as the ships docked, and after the usual Customs and Immigration checks had taken place, it didn’t take long for the wives to get ashore and into to the arms of eager new relatives waiting for them. At least, that was for the lucky one’s. After each disembarkation, there were often one or two tearful and traumatised brides left waiting for someone who just didn’t show up. I suppose there were all sorts of reasons that these women would have been left stranded. From what we were told, most of them went straight back on the ship they had come over on. Some decided to come ashore to see if they could find their husband. At least one young lady met up with one of our AB’s. He was quite a good looking man, and they soon struck up a relationship. I have no idea what her plans might have been, but he brought her back to our ship, and placed her in the now disused, but not dismantled, D.E.M.S. Gunners quarters. These were cabins built in to the ‘tween decks of number six hatch. There was sufficient room to house something like ten or twelve DEMS Gunners. The cabins were all empty, and there was access to them from our (seamen’s) quarters. Food was no problem; the “Abbey” was an excellent feeder, and it didn’t take long to rustle up some bedding for her. They used to go ashore and return just like any other crewmen. We saw her now and then, and it seems that she was really interested in him, and thought that she would be returning to England on the “Abbey” as a stowaway. None of us had any problem with that, and in the normal run of things they would probably have got away with it. Unfortunately, our shipmate (who shall remain nameless) was married, and had no intentions of taking her. There were extremely tearful scenes when, in April, we finally departed, and she had to be left (yet again!) in the lurch, and on the quayside.

I imagine that within such a large programme of transporting the many War Brides both to Canada and America, there would have been a tiny percentage of women left waiting. One hopes there were even less who suffered the fate of the lady on our ship.

After several weeks spent alongside in Dartmouth, our new “tail end shaft” and propeller had arrived from England, and a berth was found for us in the dry dock. By this time, the weather had improved. We had almost become used to walking to the ferry terminal to catch the ferry, and then returning by the same route each night. At least by us docking on “the other side” of the river, we would now be able to come and go ashore without the restrictions of the ferry time table! We didn’t go straight into dry dock, but tied up alongside an old tramp steamer. It was one of Chapmans of Newcastle. To my surprise (and pleasure,) the person to whom I threw our mooring rope as we approached the tramp steamer, turned out to have been in school with me. I went aboard when we had tied up and had a good talk with him about old times.

Now that we were alongside the dry dock, the ship’s generators and galley were closed down, and we had to go ashore to the Merchant Navy Pool for our meals. The food there was very good, and there was quite a choice. The actual job of dry docking the ship is always of great interest. I have only done it on two or three occasions, and each time, I have wondered at the precision needed to centre the ship on the chocks on the floor of the dock, and in at least one instance, we had to “prop” the ship up with large baulks of timber to keep her upright in the dock. The ship was finally put “in place” and the business of raising the dry dock began. As the ship rose out of the water, the full extent of the damage to the propeller and the propeller shaft became apparent. The damage to the propeller was quite visible, the damage to the shaft was a little more subtle, and not really visible from outside the ship to the naked eye. All that was left of the propeller were four rather jagged stumps where once four finely machined blades had protruded. Since we were not going to be doing any of the work, we only took an interest in looking each time we went ashore to see what progress had been made.

Since propellers are made and machined to suit a particular ship’s hull, many ships carry a spare propeller for an emergency such as this. I can’t remember whether we had a spare, or not. It is possible that the “Abbey”, being a “standard” type ship and built during the war, there may have been a “standard” propeller for her available in many places. The actual work of replacement took about three or four days. It was most reassuring to finally see a fully operational, four bladed propeller mounted between the rudder and the sternpost. When the last of the shipwright’s tools and platforms had been cleared from around the stern, we were ordered to docking stations, and the dock was flooded, returning “Abbey” once more to her rightful place, the sea. To perform the “undocking”, we had two “positioning” ropes, one on each quarter. These were held on the bits with “dry” turns, ready to be paid out by hand as the ship rose in relation to the dock. Thankfully, the shore crew took care of the large baulks of timber as they floated free of the ship. Once the ship was clear of the dock, the tugs took over, and to a berth alongside – but still, thankfully, on the Halifax side of the river. We lay there for a day or two whilst the boilers, the generators, and the galley were fired up once more, and presumably whilst tests were made on the engine, and all the new propeller fittings tested. Also at this time, and now that we were once more functional, the ship would have received it’s sailing orders.

Indeed, having been in port for about two months, we were beginning to feel almost like residents! As I said, many of us had struck up relationships ashore, (some of a more romantic nature than others,) and these had to be severed in the kindest possible way – for both parties. Some had to be severed permanently, and some “until our next trip”. On our final departure, there were the quite distressing scenes as the young ex War Bride who had struck up a relationship with one of our crewmembers had to be restrained on the quayside as she saw him leaving for good.

"...And Just When We Thought It Was Safe!!!" is continued in Part Eight: NEW YORK