Four Men in a Boat story, cont…


The voyage started at Ellesmere Port near Liverpool in the UK with the destination, St John’s in Newfoundland.

The new Third Officer had recently arrived at the local railway station by train from London’s Euston via Liverpool and was brimming with excitement at the prospect of crossing the North Atlantic.

  Had he be able to see ahead just twenty-four hours after they sailed, he wouldn’t have been so buoyant.

He arrived at the gangway to discover that it was un-manned which was not normal.  Rather reluctantly, he entered the Officers accommodation and eventually came across a member of the crew who, by the way he was dressed, indicated that he was about to go ashore.

‘I’m the new Third Mate,’ he advised.  ‘Is there anyone about?’ 

‘Welcome aboard Sir.  I think you’ll find a party going on in the Chief Engineer’s cabin.” 

 He replied, pointing to a corridor.

The new member of the ship’s company left his luggage on the wide landing.  There were stairs on each side and also a corridor leading aft.  He knew from experience that the engineer’s cabins were usually on the port side and the deck officers were situated on the starboard side.  On most ships, the higher one’s rank the nearer the front of the main accommodation block their cabin would be situated.  Accordingly he took the starboard corridor and didn’t have far to go before the noise of a party in full swing could be heard coming from a double door cabin that turned out correctly to be that of the chief engineer.

He knocked and entered.  Apart from cigarette smoke the first thing he noticed was that none of the occupants were in uniform, which made it impossible to tell who was who.

A bearded man sitting on a bunk threw him a can of beer and shuffled up on the bunk to make room for the new arrival.  Self-consciously because of his uniform, he merely said ‘Cheers.’  And sat down on the bunk.

A chorus of ‘Hello mate,” went round the room and the jokes and singing continued unabated.

The bearded chap next to him confided.

 ‘We don’t wear uniforms round here until we actually sail which as you probably know is tomorrow.’ 

He added kindly, ‘nobody will be bothered though.’

Soon the atmosphere and beer began to have its effect and seemingly in no time at all he felt included and relaxed.

He was able to identify the Chief engineer who was rummaging through the desk for some more cigarettes.  Hearing him talk to his neighbor he noticed the Scottish accent and that he seemed to fit the stereotype of other chiefs he had met, even down to the balding head, big hands and well-developed paunch.

It was quite a shock to him to discover later, that the bearded chap, who made room for him on the bunk, was none other than the Captain.

Right on schedule at six o’clock the following morning, the ship left its berth with two tugs on standby.  Progress down the River Mersey was fairly quick due to the ebbing tide.

By the time they dropped the pilot off, the wind had increased to a force five to six and veered to the West.  Heavy swells were displaying the occasional white crest and causing spume to picked up by the wind and sprayed across the decks.

The ship left the mainland behind them and headed in a southwesterly direction down the Irish sea before turning to starboard on a course, parallel to, but thirty miles off of the south of the coast of Ireland.  The great Atlantic waves relentlessly lifted her up and almost immediately sent her crashing down again like a toy.  She was light ship, bereft of cargo

 To make matters worse, a north Atlantic storm was approaching from the west. 

The majority of the crew had sailed with each other before and it was the sign of a ‘ happy ship’ that they had elected to continue to sail together.  One of the few exceptions was the Third Officer whose predecessor had taken leave with the imminent arrival of his first child.  Getting to know people was a significant part of the process of working and living at close quarters with the rest of the crew but also having to take into account the question of rank.  Until the familiarisation process had been completed, certain unease at the unknown remained.

It was this that the Third Officer was experiencing during his first relief watch since sailing.  Generally, Officers keep watches on a four hours on and eight off basis, starting at midnight until four for the Second Officer, four until eight for the Chief Officer and eight until twelve for the Third Officer with the Captain available at any time but remaining free to take over a watch should any of his officers go sick or become otherwise incapacitated. 

The Third Officer also did meal relief at lunch and dinner times for half an hour, an extra duty that was seldom abused.

 So when the Chief Officer failed to return to the bridge on time after their first dinnertime at sea, his relief was worried that the action of his senior Officer would set an unacceptable precedent.

  Dealing with this would require almost unimaginable diplomacy to avoid any acrimony during the voyage. 

 A further half an hour passed causing the Third Officer to wonder if the normal routine was somehow different on this ship but concluding that the matter had to be dealt with if he was to eat before his own watch began.

He considered his options.  Call the Captain.  Ask the duty watch to investigate.  Do nothing.

He was loath to call the Captain because he did not relish any conflict involving his senior officers, besides it might be the Captain’s or Chief’s birthday.  Similarly he did not want to involve a member of the crew in Officers business.

Just as he became resigned to missing dinner as his own watch was rapidly approaching, the telephone rang in the chartroom.

‘ The Captain here Third!  I’ve arranged some food to be brought up to the bridge.  The Chief Officer and I are seeing to the Chief Steward whose suspected of having a heart attack.’

‘Thank you Sir,’ was all the Third Officer could think to reply.

He was grateful that he had sat on the fence regarding the matter of his relief.

‘I’ll keep you posted but if you need me I’ll be in the Chief Stewards cabin.’

The weather got steadily worse with huge seas, having crossed the Atlantic, being pushed up by the Continental shelf.  The wind was howling in the rigging and salt laden spray filled the air.  Occasional rogue waves crashed into the bows causing a shudder to travel along the stiff welded steel plates.

 Professional routines kicked in and the Officer of the watch set about instructing the crew to ensure that the hatches were well battened down.  The anchor restraints secured properly and the ships ventilators were facing away from the wind.

Around mid-watch the telephone rang again.

‘Captain here.  He’s taken a turn for the worse.  Bring her around and head for Cork.  I’ll be on the bridge at midnight when the Second takes over.’

Any alteration in course required a manual helmsman so the stand- by was notified.  He arrived and took the wheel steering their original course for a little while, to get ‘the feel ‘ of the helm.

 When turning one hundred and eighty degrees it has to be accomplished as quickly as possible.  The skill came in choosing the right moment.

 The Officer had to judge when a slight lull appeared to occur and once started there was no going back.  All departments were forewarned and in the next few minutes, utter chaos broke out as the ship wallowed abeam and at mercy of the giant rolling waves.

Eventually the seas began to break over the stern as she settled on her new course experiencing a slightly corkscrew effect caused by the sea’s motion.

The entire deck crew was kept busy checking for leaks and damage and re-arranging the ventilators.

An entry of the change of course, the ship’s position, and the crew’s findings were made in the Logbook.

The change of watch at midnight saw three Officers on the bridge including the Captain who kept in the background until the routines were completed.

‘The Chief Officer and I will continue to attend to the Chief steward so I need you to share his watch.  I’ll leave it to you to decide how to do it but I will need an E.T.A. (Estimated time of arrival) at the pilot, hourly and on the hour.  Any questions?’

Receiving a negative answer he left the bridge and the two remaining Officers decided to extend their watches by two hours each.

It was nearer to one in the morning than midnight when the Third Officer got to his cabin.  It looked as though burglars had been.  He was mortified to find his mascot, a goldfish flapping in a puddle amidst broken glass in a corner.  From there on until Newfoundland it lived in his washbasin. 

The next half an hour was spent clearing up other debris and replacing books on shelves and clothing back into cupboards.  He noticed with dismay that cherished photographs had fallen from his desk and ended up in a soggy heap amongst the broken glass, gravel and water from the goldfish.

As arranged with the Second Officer, the Third Officer reported to the bridge at six in the morning.  The Second was justifiably weary from his unbroken stint of six hours.

He advised his relief that the Captain had been informed that they should arrive at the rendezvous with the pilot boat around eight thirty but would need to alter course sometime before that would bring the sea back onto the port beam. 

 ‘Fortunately it won’t be for long, unfortunately, I’ll be trying to sleep.’

He drily volunteered before leaving the bridge for his well-earned rest.

The Third Officer went out onto the lee wing of the bridge for his first cigarette of the day.  He had difficulty in lighting it due to the ferocious wind and had to shelter behind the dodger. 

 Between the ship and the distant land, the sea boiled with white crested waves smashing relentlessly against the South Coast of Ireland.  He reflected that his next alteration of course, while undoubtedly uncomfortable, would be much less traumatic than the alteration of the previous night. In the event it turned out to be calmer than expected.

 At eight o’clock, the start of his normal watch time, an assistant steward brought him a welcome pot of tea and a couple of rounds of buttered toast which helped to pass the time until he was due to make the turn into Cork bay to pick up the pilot.

 He ordered the pilot ladder to be made ready on the lee side and advised the engine room of the alteration of course and the imminent reduction in speed.

Following verification of their position, the subsequent manoeuver bringing them round to enter into Cork bay, caused a short period of severe rolling but the eventual shelter of the bay provided a welcome relief.

The Chief Officer appeared on the bridge looking disheveled and very tired.

‘We lost him,’ he exclaimed.  ‘The Old Man’s gone for a shower.  He actually passed at three thirty in the morning but I felt it was only right to sit with him until we arrived in Cork.  I had just dozed off when you altered course.  His valet wasn’t aware that anything had happened so he brought in his tea as usual.  The sudden lurch to starboard caused the Chief Steward to sit up and his arm flopped out as though to take his tea.  I was dumbstruck and the poor valet had such a fright I thought he was going to join his boss.’

The pilot boat converged with the ship and soon the pilot had boarded and was escorted to the bridge

A radio message had been sent ahead earlier so the Pilot boat was accompanied by the health authority’s launch, whose uniformed officials, collected the body together with the personal effects and dealt with the necessary paperwork with the Captain, while the ship proceeded at slow speed.

Well before noon the pilot boat picked up the redundant pilot and the ship resumed its original course to the West bound for the Americas.

For several days the routines were carried out and nothing remarkable happened that is until they approached approximately the position where the ‘Titanic’ had foundered.

During his evening watch, the Third Officer noticed a vague shadow on the radar that would disappear only to re-appear a little later. 

He decided to call the Captain and as a precaution ordered a helmsman to the bridge.

The Captain arrived and spent a few minutes peering into the radar.

‘Hard to Starboard,’ he ordered the helmsman.

He turned to the Third Officer and informed him that the image was indeed an iceberg.

‘Well done for calling me you may see several of these in these waters,’ he said.

The Officer of the watch went into the chartroom to record the position of the sighting.  Chartrooms are lit with low wattage red lights to minimise the loss of night vision and from the gloom the third Officer heard the Master order ‘As you were’ to the helmsman the obstacle having been safely passed.  On his was back to keep watch on the bridge he passed the Captain returning to his quarters.

‘You’d better keep the helmsman on for the time being.  Goodnight.’

With ice around, regular radar observations were made, so after ten minutes or so the duty officer wandered over to the radar to check.

He was astounded to see a signal dead ahead.  The clutter near the center of the screen displayed a convex shape that indicated only one thing.

‘How’s the helm?’

‘Hard to starboard Sir,’ the helmsman replied.

‘But I heard the Old man say as you were!’

Oh, I thought he said as you are.’

The ship was going round in circles.

With no time to call for help the Third Officer took evasive action and managed by the skin of his teeth, to avert collision.  He was glad it was dark so he couldn’t see how close they came although he swore after that he could feel the chill of the ice.  Twenty minutes later the course was resumed and he breathed a sigh of relief.  The radar showed that the iceberg lay astern well out of harm’s way.

Perhaps it was the tension caused by the event, but for whatever reason, the incident went un-recorded in the logbook.

The next day dawned bright and clear without anything in sight.  The occasional bird was seen indicating the approach of land.  At around ten o’clock, as was his custom, the Captain joined the Third Officer on the bridge for ‘Smokeho,’ a euphemism for tea and toast.  They discussed routine matters and the Radio Officer briefly appeared to pin the latest weather forecast on the notice board.

The atmosphere on the bridge was not unfriendly in anticipation of their imminent arrival in port with expectations of mail and a rest.

The Captain asked if the Third Officer had anything to report.

‘Nothing that’s not been logged Sir,’ came the reply.

‘Follow me,’ said the Captain leading the way into the chartroom.  A rectangular frame, not unlike a three-dimensioned picture, graced the bulkhead.  On close examination graph paper could be seen together with an electronic pen.

The graph paper moved slowly past the pen that drew a line on the paper.  All that could be seen was a nominal straight line produced by the pen, varying a little either side of the line.

The Captain asked, ‘do you know what this is?’

The Third Officer conceded that he had never been on a ship with so many instruments but no doubt he would familiarize himself with them as the voyage progressed.  His traditional training would suffice meanwhile, he exclaimed.

The Captain keeping a straight face and in a serious tone said ‘ ‘It’s a course recorder.’

‘Well I’m blowed – they think of everything,’ responded the duty Officer suspecting the deck head to cave in around him at any moment

The Captain reached over and rewound the graph paper to show about twelve hours earlier and the vertical straight line became a series of horizontal scribes which the Captain said were a record of course alterations.

 ‘See this line here?  That’s when we avoided the iceberg.’ 

 He sipped his tea and looked directly at his duty Officer who had just caught on to what was coming next.

‘Explain these other lines.’

A multitude of responses occurred to the Third Officer in barely half a second.

The machine is faulty.

The helmsman misheard.

I took evasive action because there was no time to call you.

Do you want my resignation now or when we get there.

All he said was,

 ‘Sorry Sir, it won’t happen again.’ 

 Turning to hide a secret smile the Old man said,

 ‘It had better not,’ and he promptly left the bridge.

The Third Officer felt a little non-plussed and determined not to be caught out again.  His previous ships compared to his current ship had only the basic instruments and unlike the other navigators on this ship, he relied on his sextant for working out the ship’s position rather than the ‘Decca’ that everyone else used.

He mentally listed other instruments that he was unused to and decided to own up to his ignorance and ask the Second mate for instruction.

It turned out that most of the implements were aids to navigation of some sort together with information recorders of several kinds enabling instant access to required particulars without having to wait for someone to supply the figures.

There was one exception, which consisted of a peculiar device resembling an electrical meter with multiple registers.  The readings were to be taken every two hours and recorded in a dedicated book.

As he had joined the ship just before sailing, the third Officer wasn’t aware of its purpose and determined to find out but meanwhile diligently entered the series of numbers against the appropriate time. 

It turned out that the Company had agreed to participate in researches by Manchester University.  The engineering department was carrying out some government sponsored investigations into stresses and fatigue in metal.

While docked earlier in Ellesmere Port, sensors were welded to various deck plates and had been connected to the instrument.  A continuous recording was made of the effects of the extremes of weather in the North Atlantic in winter.  The records for future evaluation by the University would be examined and the resulting effects on the metal construction would be made available.

After the novelty had worn off, the routine checking by the watch- keepers became boring and the log was only periodically made up sometimes guessing at the readings.

Upon returning to England, three excited boffins were waiting on the quay in their Land rover and lost little time in boarding as soon as the gangway was lowered and formalities had been completed.

They sought out the Deck Officers who had just started to celebrate arriving back in the U.K. and were welcomed and invited to join in.

There eagerness to access their instrument’s records diminished proportionately to the quantity of beer they took and after a while as they joined in the revelry, their quest was put on the back burner.

Their secretary didn’t drink and agreed to drive them back but this had the unfortunate result of encouraging the boffins to delay their true purpose on board as they continued to enjoy the party. 

Whether they managed to recover the contrived data is not known but judging by their inebriated attempts at negotiating the gangway when they came to leave, they had thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

The following day some people turned up and retrieved the sensors and the instrument from the bridge and that’s the last anyone heard of the matter.

Other instruments were invaluable especially the radar.  Without it the mist and fog would have caused major delays and the ever-present growlers and icebergs would have remained unnoticed until too late.  In spite of all the warnings periodically broadcast by the Canadian authorities local conditions often differed.  On a sunny day the huge floating masses of ice were a splendid sight with ever changing profiles as shadows created a vast three-dimensional image.  The sun’s rays were sometimes brilliantly reflected by the glittering masses that would occasionally fracture along a fault line.  This is known as calving when an enormous chunk breaks away from the mother iceberg.  The offshoot dramatically cascades into the sea causing a huge wave and forming a kaleidoscope of colours as spray bursts into the cold air resulting in a brief but beautiful colourful rainbow.  As the rainbow diminishes, an awesome pale sapphire blue would often be witnessed from the newly revealed fissure.

 An abundance of sea birds would frequently use the icebergs for resting and large congregations of seals could be seen cavorting in the naturally formed inlets.

The approaches to Newfoundland were in many ways similar to the highlands of Scotland.  A rugged coastline populated by dense pine trees high up on absurdly steep hillsides and right down to the waters edge, their deep green contrasting with the azure blue wasters.

As the ship reached higher latitudes the trees became frosted with snow until eventually the whole landscape became pure white and remained that way, sometimes from November until April.

One of the benefits from this area of low population is clear skies that are free from pollution.  As a consequence the stars are extremely bright and together with the blankets of reflective snow make the long nights free from complete darkness.

St John’s is the Capitol of Newfoundland and Cornerbrook on the western coast is the second largest town with a population of around twenty five thousand.

The pine forests supply the main exports of timber, pulp and newsprint, all produced locally and exported mainly to the East coast of North America.

A cargo of newsprint was loaded and bound for New York, Washington and Philadelphia, a trip that would take around two to three weeks.

Before returning to Newfoundland a special request had to be attended to.

The ashes of the late Chief Steward had been sent from England for scattering at sea from his last ship, in accordance with his families wishes.

His widow had requested an informal ceremony due to the steward having no particular religious beliefs.

It was a calm and sunny day when the ship left New York on her return journey to Newfoundland.  The Captain decided to assemble the off-duty Officers and crew on the poop deck at noon for the brief ceremony.

The engines had been put on half speed for the duration of the occasion.  In accordance with tradition the Captain read a short prayer as he scattered the ashes into the Ocean.

Without warning the ships engines stopped creating a lasting and eerie silence.

The vessel slowed, eventually loosing way.

The gathering was bewildered and stood around in baffled silence.

The Captain finally instructed the Chief engineer to investigate the cause of the engine failure.  Ten minutes later the familiar sound of the engines starting broke the silence and normal progress was resumed.

In spite of exhaustive researches by both the electricians and engineers, no plausible reason for the stoppage came to light. 

Later in the Captains Office, he and the Chief engineer discussed how to account for the incident in the official report.  After a great deal of discussion, two words sufficed.  ‘Cause unknown’.  A cold shiver ran down the Captain’s spine.

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