Engine Room Tales …..

kindly contributed by Michael Smith – N.Z.

Bank Line ships – Kiddapore Dock

I clearly remember the day I arrived at a berth in Kidderpore Docks to find that the deck Serang had organised two of the crew, to assist in taking my large metal suitcase up the gangway to the 6th Engineers cabin.  As most of us know the first day is a blur, I signed papers on board, met various other Officers, and was asked by the 2nd Mate whether I would like a pay advance.  I naturally said ‘yes please’!  It was then off to the Shipping Office accompanied by Captain Wigham and the 2nd Mate to ‘officially’ sign on to the Teakbank. Funnily enough I do not think that anyone mentioned that I was signing ‘ 2 year’ articles! 

The 2nd Engineer who I will refer to as ‘Jack’ from here on in, showed me around the engine room and told me that we were on ‘Port’ watches, 00.00hrs to 08.00hrs. And that at sea, I was to be on the 04.00hrs to 08.00hrs ‘Sea’ watch with him. Often referred to as the 2nds watch.    I went home for a while to say my last goodbyes to inlaws, outlaws, and family and friends and was back by 18.00hrs.  Jack demonstrated the ‘blowing down’ of the lubricating oil filter on the Generators which was to be done every 6 hours.  I stuffed the process up the first time, but from then on it was a breeze.  During my first port watch I was tasked to ‘splitting the ends’ of the exhaust gas boiler tubes, all of which were to be renewed by a shore crew the next day.  Unfortunately, half way through doing this task, I managed to wallop my left hand instead of the cold chisel with the hammer.  That brought my exhaust boiler work to a grinding halt for the night!  However, it did provide me with the opportunity to learn more about the engine room which was to become my new home for many a month. The next day we moved to a berth along the Hoogly River.

Allow me to digress for a while please.  I did a 4 year Apprenticeship at The Shalimar Shipbuilding Works in Howrah.  During my last year I was moved into the Ship Repair Department which was something I always wanted to do. I was fortunate to be placed on the M.V. Irish Rowan, (and many other vessels) for about a week, she was a 6 cylinder ‘J’ type Doxford with a center scavenge. I stayed on board when the vessel moved berths, and hence, was fairly conversant with all that needs to be done, to get a marine diesel engine ready for maneuvers.   

Finally, a few days later, we received orders to sail to Chulna to pick up a cargo of Jute and Gunnies for New York.  We had ‘broken’ Port Watches the previous night and at around 03.30hrs the 4th engineer, John, woke me and told me the Circus was about to begin.   An hour or so later he showed me how to go about ‘testing’ the Steering Gear.  As I walked back to the engine room along the deck after testing the steering gear, I remember seeing the sky tinged with a pink red sunrise.  The tugs slowly dragged the vessel out into the Hoogly and the first of many ‘telegraph commands’ rang to Half Ahead.  My own Great Wanderings, had well and truly begun.

It was a day or so later after leaving Chulna that we received news that there was to be a ‘crew change’ in New York.  Most of the Officers had been on board for about 14 months.  I recall that Captain Wigham had been there a lot longer.  The vessel needed bunkers, both heavy and diesel, so Bank Line decided to bunker the vessel at Cape Town. It took around 12 days to get to Cape Town and in the process I learnt what it was like to be sea-sick!   I remember Jack telling me that I would get used to the ships motion, and that he had seen more waves in a teacup!! We were in Cape Town for about 8 hours, here I was introduced to the gentle art of sounding the heavy fuel double bottoms tanks as the fuel poured in. Glad to report there were no spills! (that I know of!!!)  Leaving Cape Town we headed for New York, it was sort of being on the ‘home stretch’ for most of the Officers.  Sam the 5th engineer signed off in Cape Town, I was promoted to the exalted position of 5th.  So the engineers sailed ‘short handed’ when we left Cape Town for New York.

It was ‘watch on—watch off’ for the next 28 days.  I got 2 hours ‘overtime’ each day after breakfast, and my tasks included reconditioning/replacing galley burners which ran on heavy fuel.  8 days out of New York, we ran low on heavy fuel and the heavy fuel transfer pump refused to ‘lift’ the fuel from the double bottoms up to the crude oil tank.  The crude oil tank puts the crude fuel through a PX Purifier, then a separator up to the Heavy Oil Service Tank.  We then switched to Diesel Fuel and the Doxford ran on diesel till we arrived at destination.

Then a funny thing happened.  The bridge rang ‘Stop’ on the telegraph and informed we were about to pick the pilot up.  Half hour later, with the pilot safety on-board we approached a ‘U’ shaped dock where we were to berth Starboard side to.  Bridge rang ‘Stop’ and moments later, rang ‘Full Astern’, Jack who was on the controls, was not very happy fellow merely because, any large marine diesel takes a while to come to rest even after the fuel is shut off.  It finally did however, and Jack banged the lever that permits compressed air to the cylinders into Astern, gave it some fuel and a blast of air.  The engine started again but, was still in the Ahead mode and so started in the Ahead mode again! He tried 3 or 4 times, each time it refused to go Astern, and continued to go Ahead!!! The Chief who was in the engine room at that time, looked very concerned as the bridge rang ‘double Full Astern’ 3 times, which normally translates into ‘we have a problem Houston’!! He told me to follow him as he raced up to the the ‘middle platform’ with a large hammer and started to beat the living daylights out of the casing, of what I now know to be, the Roto Valve. At the same time screaming at Jack to ‘give it another go’, which Jack did, but which produced the same result.   Funny that!

Meanwhile of course, unbeknown to us, (no one ever tells the engineers anything!!) the vessel was fast approaching the end of the ‘U’ shaped dock, two heavy duty Tugs were straining to slow the vessel down with ropes attached to the aft bollards.  

Most/all marine diesels are unidirectional.  They can be started to run clockwise or anticlockwise as needed.   I need at this stage to give a brief explanation of what a Roto Valve does.  My understanding is that a Roto Valve consists of a cylinder, in which a ‘free floating’ piston can move up or down allowing ‘different’ ports to be exposed, which in turn directs compressed air to the appropriate cylinder depending on whether one needs to ‘go’ Ahead or Astern. The piston had jammed in the Ahead position, probably due to the fact that we had been at sea close to 38 days.

Many attempts later, and copious quantities of ‘Release All’ it did finally go Astern, but we were at berth by then! But folks who read this know where this story is going!

Some say that the bow did not nudge the end of the ‘U’ shaped dock, some say it did, but only just, whatever that means!!   We engineers will never know the truth because: ‘no one tells the engineers anything’!!!  Besides, when one is chomping at the bit to go home after 15 months at sea, mind sets are somewhat different.  Many had started to celebrate by having a few wee drams after we picked the pilot up.

to be continued………

( To contact Michael please email him directly at  antares.smith22@gmail.com or leave a message below – thank you)

all comments welcome!

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