4 December 2011

Sea Life 1952-1953. SS Springtide Part 3.

 First draft: Part 3
Montevideo lies on the northern bank of the River Plate estuary, The estuary is about 48 nautical miles across at the mouth. First, on the northern bank of the River Plate lies Montevideo. Further up the River Plate estuary on the southern bank lies Buenos Aires in Argentina. Passing Buenos Aires and going up the River Plate for about 40 nautical miles, we come to a tributary, the River Uruguay. Looking on Google Earth map, we head up the river Uruguay for 50 nautical miles and come to Frey Bentos, 40 miles further north from Frey Bentos sunflower was originally planted in Uruguay by Russian settlers. This part of the river is the Uruguay border with Argentina, the Uruguay river is still very wide and deep. Large ships, much larger than us, go up to Frey Bentos. When I lived in the UK as a young man I remember popular Frey Bentos tinned corned beef, sold by most grocers.

I have no idea where we picked up our cargo of  sunflower seed. The central and north-western area of Uruguay is riddled with tributaries and tributaries of tributaries. Many tributaries are shown on the map, they seem to be wide and deep. Somewhere in this maze of tributaries it was, I think where we went. I remember, we went up a narrow tributary, more like a canal, flat land either side, the water must have been deep to accommodate us. We moored alongside a wharf and picked up the bagged sunflower, taking a few days. In the distance was a small town. Nothing much else. A large area of land must have been needed to grow this amount of the sunflower seed that we loaded.

Further up the river we reversed and returned. Did we have a pilot? I don't remember him, we must have had one.  I seldom went up on to the Bridge, except to deliver received messages, I don't remember the pilot. We wended our way back down the rivers to Montevideo.

Arriving in Montevideo we bunkered and left, sailing northward up the coast of Brazil We were about 10 days or so out from Montevideo and we struck trouble. We were close to the Equator, still roughly following the coast of Brazil but a long way out from the coast, we were starting to swing more westerly from our northwestern route to cross the Atlantic to the north African - European side.

Our engines started to give us problems and eventually failed. Our engine tubes had blown out and we were completely disabled. We were 400 miles off the Brazilian coast, in deep water and unable to anchor.
Fortunately the weather was calm and predicted to remain calm. If foul weather blew up we would be at the mercy of the sea and wind.

The captain prepared a message for head office for me to send. I reminded him our transmitting equipment was only short range and it may be a while for me to make an intermediary ship contact to relay the message. We then then needed to get  an intermediary ship to relay the return reply. We discussed the problem, I suggested an "XXX" message addressed to all ships; one level down from an SOS message. This was agreed to and I transmitted the "XXX" with a short message containing our position. We were immediately answered by a British ship, a few hours away. I answered, more fully describing our problem including our size; he answered he would standby.

We were then answered by another ship, a Brazilian Navy deep sea  tug. This tug said he was more than big enough to handle taking us in tow. He was based at the port of Receife in Brazil and could be with us in 48 hours. The captain digested the information and agreed to the navy tug to tow us, I transmitted the message to the tug. An hour or so later the tug indicated he was leaving port and affirmed he would keep us informed of his progress. The British ship again made contacted with us and asked if we needed him any longer, the captain  said no and I transmitted this, and our thanks.

Meanwhile the crew went about their normal tasks and the off duty ones tried some fishing but were not too successful in such deep water. Soon sharks started to appear, mainly young ones and some of medium size, curious of us. The crew started fishing for sharks and were able to hook them, the only trouble was that the medium sized sharks got exited and snapped at the hooked young ones and ate them. The experienced crew members suggested, stop fishing and wait. The big sharks moved away looking for other prey but the younger ones stayed around. These would be in the vicinity of a metre long and some a little larger. Later when  the lines were again put out down the ships side the younger sharks started jumping up at the meat on the hooks. A few of them became hooked before the bait hit the water. These and others were pulled up on to the deck, the 2 cooks then took charge and quickly killed the ones that were picked out by them. We all had shark steak for dinner that night. The remains were tossed over the side and their kin in the water had a good feast of the remains. Some of the young ones also tossed back were wounded and bleeding. The larger sharks had a good meal of these ones too. It was a dangerous business on deck with live sharks jumping around snapping at anything including bare feet. Even today I can remember 'how to do it" including the cook's slash of the knife. It is imprinting on my mind. The picture might be of yesterday instead of more than 50 years ago.

The following day more sharks were caught and these disappeared into the galley, dressed and put into the cold store. Later an exited crew member shouted something like "come and look at this". In the water was a long dark shadow; it certainly had a visible head and tail and it was certainly large. It was moving, drifting slowly just under the surface of the water. It came along the side of our stationary drifting ship. Everyone was amazed and trying to decide what it was. By its general appearance... was it sick... dead?

Its body was certainly moving to and fro from the ships side. As it drifted back alongside the ship, I counted the stanchions (vertical posts) of the ships rail and quickly worked out in feet that "it" was 36-38ft long. Recently with the Springtide story it in my mind, I searched on the internet and in my favourite stopping place, Wikipedia, I found  that it would almost probably be a Whale Shark. But I cannot remember the round bands and spots on its body though. Maybe the pictures in my mind will return, they often do. After some time the "Whale Shark" suddenly seemed to come to life and slowly swam away at right angles to the ship.

During these 48 hours waiting for the Brazilian tug to arrive I kept the communications receiver running exchanging information as needed. Mainly this was advising the tug of our estimated position given from the Bridge. Currents drifted our ship and the tug  had to compensate its course. Slowly as the 48 hours went by the tug's signal increased in strength. The Captain, towards the end of the period, had put a watch part way up the mast. The tug was sighted on the horizon, the angle was measured and I notified the tug.

I then, by radio exchanged the orders given by the Tug-master to our ship. A tow line was passed across from the tug and hooked up to our forecastle. Two members of the tug's crew on the Tug-Master's orders came across to us and made the connection. One remained as watchman for the towline and the other relieved him periodically. We slowly picked up speed and we headed for Recife. I think it took us 3 days to reach Recife.

We were towed to a berth, Marine engineers came on board and inspected the damage to the engines the Springtide's owners had made the arrangements.. The damage was major and they estimated we would be here for 3-4 weeks, the work continuing 24 hours a day. The ship's owners had, as normal when in port, appointed their preferred shipping agents to take over and handle all the Springtide's needs. Our cargo, sunflower seed was inspected daily and was said to be sweating, ventilation was provided to keep this in check.

Just across the square was a small, friendly bar where we could have a quiet beer. A little further down the street was a cafe with clean tables where fish and chips, or steak and chips with all the trimmings could be had, the owner speaking good English. Here in Recife not much English was spoken, just Portuguese the language of Brazil. The population of Recife in the early 1950s was about 500,000 and a pleasant small city, but now in the early 2000s the population had now increased to 1.5 million and the with the growing outlying metropolitan area the population had now reached a total of 4.5 million.

The ship was very noisy during the engine repairs both night and day,  reverberated thoughout the ship, sleep was difficult. From what I could gather, the ship's engines were fully pulled apart and all the embedded tubes replaced, a slow procedure. Our repairs were completed in just over 3 weeks and then we put to sea for testing. We returned to Recife, we were deemed seaworthy and the following day the Springtide left Recife with orders to reduce our normal 8 knots down to 6 knots. We had no more incidents and arrived at our destination, Antwerp safely. We all signed off from the ship here in Antwerp. Complete with supplied ferry and train tickets, a headed via London. My Discharge Book noted  this was 20 April 1953. This also noted that this was my 4th ship. I had been a Radio Officer now for almost 2 years.

 During this voyage I had had my birthday, I was now 19 years old.

Note: I probably remember more about the Springtide than any other ship. Everything about the Springtide, its crew, the places we visited and the ship's problems were all, in their own way,  unusual. 

2 December 2011

Sea Life 1952. SS Springtide Part 2.

First draft: Part 2
We sailed until we reached 2 degrees West. There was no message so we followed orders and prepared to anchor. We moved in closer to shore into shallower water, we would be about 1-2 miles off shore. There was a town in the distance which was Almeria and we lay in Almeria Bay.

Watches were kept in the normal fashion  over the 24 hours, we were strictly at sea. The Captain asked me to check the traffic list every hour for any messages during daylight  hours but, no need through the night. We heard nothing. Off watch hours were  spent by some of the crew trying their hand at fishing but with little luck. In the late afternoon fishing boats could be seen in the distance heading home. One of boats as they got near to us veered towards us and one of the crew in broken English asked us if we needed help. We indicated no, then one of our crew shouted "any fish for sale" and they indicated "yes" and the cost. The Captain from the bridge indicated for the fishing boat to come alongside. Quickly the Captain worked out the price of a box of fish priced in pesetas, and settled the deal in British pounds. The crew hauled the crate on board and the cook and his assistant came from the galley and loaded the fish into their crate and the crew heaved the fishermen's crate back to them.

While this was happening the Captain had come down from the bridge and instructed the cook to put the fish in the freezer and we would eat tomorrow night. The cooks were not to waste the food already in preparation for dinner that evening. The fish lasted us 2 days.

We had been anchored here for 54 hours before we received further instructions. We were to head for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands and refuel, our instructions would await us at the shipping agents. Shortly after after receiving the instructions we raised anchor, the Captain drafted a message acknowledging the instructions and I sent the message  by  our usual means. We headed for the Gibraltar and then out into the Atlantic, we then headed southerly, out from the coast of Africa for Las Palmas. The journey took us about 11 days, I think, from Valencia and allowing for our wait at our Almeria anchorage.

We speculated over the next few days, where would we eventually be heading for. Not one of us guessed or came near to guessing our eventual destination. When we were advised, I remember, there was silence all around.

We arrived in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, our first job was to refuel immediately. We then tied up alongside a stone wharf. A surprise for everyone, the sister ship of the Springtide was tied up just in front of our berth. She was the Springdale, a carbon copy of our ship. Round about 2009 I managed to find separate of photographs of both ships and yes they were exactly the same. I never found out were the Springdale was bound or were she had been. Thinking just now, as I write, was we, the Springtide  bound where the Springdale had just been? I don't suppose I shall ever know.

Our sailing orders were waiting for us. We were to go down the African coast to the port of Takoradi in Ghana, near to Nigeria. There, we were to load exotic timber logs... mahogany, teak, rosewood, meranti and some types I didn't know. Most of the logs would be 1 metre in girth with a few larger. All the logs were to be stowed below decks in the ships holds for protection.

Shortly, we left Las Palmas and sailed for Takoradi to pick up our cargo of exotic timber, the journey was in the region of 2,300 nautical miles and took us in the vicinity of 12 days. We did not berth alongside one of the wharves but  anchored within the harbour. The timber was towed out to us across the harbour and then loaded into the ship's holds by the ship's derricks. We were here for a relatively short time only, 4-5 days, loading our cargo.

 As far as I remember, I went ashore once only . A boat went round the harbour periodically picking up and delivering passengers. When I went ashore there was a few crew members going ashore, too, one I remember was called Bill, a friendly fellow. "Hello" Sparks, he said,  "going up town on your own, join us if you like", I did. It seemed a way to town, so I was glad of company. There was not much to see. The old town encompassed the harbour. We wandered back to the harbour. A cheerful muscular local shouted to us, he said his name was "Glasgow'". Apparently he had lived in Glasgow for some time and his nickname locally became Glasgow. I remember, he talked for sometime, with nostalgia of his time in Glasgow.

By this time we had  became conversant of our new destination. It was to be in South America. We were more than surprised, I can't say we were stunned, or maybe, just a little. In the south Atlantic it was summer,   being in the southern Hemisphere. Summer, we all felt happier in our small ship of 889 tons. The first thought of everyone including me was the low free-board of the Springtide; seawater often slopping over the side, even in moderate seas. Our destination was to be Montevideo, Uruguay. A small country just north of  Argentina and south of Brazil.

During our visit to Takoradi a fruit and vegetable seller called on the Springtide and during his round he called at my cabin and asked if I wanted anything. I thought for a moment and said any pineapples? He indicated yes. I then asked if had enough to last me a week to 10days. He said he would return the day before we sailed. On the last day he returned with my order, the pineapples in various stages of ripeness, he told me to string them up on a line across the cabin and they should last me 10days.

Next morning we sailed with our shipload of exotic timber stowed below decks. Our journey was in the vicinity of 4000 nautical miles across the South Atlantic to Montevideo. Just over 3 weeks sailing time. My pineapples slowly ripened, over the coming days, filling the cabin with a sweet aroma of the ripening fruit. Each day I would peel the ripest fruit and usually consume most of it. After a week I was starting to get sick of pineapple and they were getting close to over ripe. I started to eat only half of a pineapple,  remains went over the ship's side. The last pineapple went over the ships side untouched.

As we proceeded on our course, traffic on the radio from both land and sea became weak until I could only hear weak signals in the evening and later. Few ships sailed our course. As the days passed I began to hear ship plying the South American coast, and the radio coast stations dotted along the coast. Music stations could be heard too, pounding out Latin music which over the years I began to like.

We were now getting closer to the coast of Uruguay, so I sent my TR to the Montevideo coast station giving our EST for 2 days hence and again when our ship was closer giving our estimated time of arrival. Soon, it seemed we were entering the harbour, which was like a huge bite taken out of the coastline. The city is very pretty, with the colourful houses of the city perched on the low hills surrounding the harbour. Montevideo is a city of 1.5million inhabitants. Settled first by the Spanish in the late 1700s and later by large waves of immigrants from most European countries including the UK. The sub tropical temperature in Uruguay is similar to NZ but rain more evenly distributed over the year. There are no high mountains so snow is very rare.

The logs took quite a time to unload though the hatches so we were here for sometime. Each evening quite a number of the local inhabitants came down,  in the cool of the summer evening, to look at the ships tied up along the wharves. Sometimes they stopped to try out their English and ask questions. One of the crew had bought a small, young monkey in Takoradi. It used to like to run along the ship's railings, jumping on and off its master. It was quite quite tame and popular with the local strollers. One evening a family came past and stopped to watch the monkey and its antics; their children were fascinated. The man wanted to buy the monkey for the children. Jim said no to the offer, I remember earlier, him saying he wanted to take it back home to the UK. The man kept trying, up and upping his offer. Jim, picked up the monkey and starting to move away from the rail. After a few words with his wife, the man in desperation shouted his final offer and Jim paused. The price the man offered was very high. Jim was tempted, we could see. After a short conversation, the man pulled out some notes and offered them  to Jim. I could hear a crewman standing next to Jim, say, whistling, American dollars. Jim holding the monkey stopped, quietly for a short while, then quickly parted with the monkey and took the proffered money. I can still picture the scene as it was played out so long ago. Even Jim's anguished face as, at the end, he turned  from the ship's rail and walked quickly away.

Some days later we finished unloading the exotic timber. Our next stop was west along the coast from Montevideo and up a river to pick up a load of sunflower seed for Antwerp in Belgium. We had quite a long way to go.

1 December 2011

Sea Life 1952. SS Springtide. Part 1.

First draft: Part 1.
I was unable to use up all my leave of 15 days.There was a package with orders for me to join the ship Springtide at Barry Docks in Cardiff, Wales. I took the early morning train going by via Crewe. Where just about everyone need to change trains, in those days, if your destination was south. At Crewe, there was always the inevitable wait for the connection  for your destination. Sometimes hours waiting time if your incoming train had been running late and causing you to miss your connection.

When I did arrive at Cardiff station together with my luggage, I caught a taxi down to Barry docks and the wharf where the Springtide was berthed. I got quite a shock when I first saw the Springtide; she seemed so small, just like the small coaster's I had sometimes seen hugging the coast line and crossing over to the continent. She was so dirty, too. I learn't  later, she was only 892 tons nett weight. The ships I had been used to, were much larger than the Springtide's small size. The black dirt, well I was soon to learn that it was coal dust. She was carrying a cargo of coal and our destination was to be Valencia in Mediterranean Spain. When I arrived in Cardiff that day, it was cold and damp, the sky was overcast; even wearing a heavy overcoat, the dampness seemed to penetrate everywhere. The mention of Cardiff today, always brings that cold grey day back to me.

The bridge and the accommodation was all aft,(to the rear of the ship), just like an oil tanker. The taxi driver dumped me and my luggage at the foot of the gangplank. A face peered over the side and looked  down on me and my luggage but said nothing. I said "I'm the new Sparks, can someone give me a hand with this lot". I didn't have to shout, the face was not far above me and the sight reinforced my view, of how small the Springtide was. He grunted and came down the gangway  grabbing some of my stuff and I took the rest. We went on board and he paused, felt in his pocket and then he (we) went up a ladder to what looked like a large metal box standing, welded between 2 lifeboats, overlooking the rounded aft deck. He took a key out of his pocket and opened the door on the side of the 'box", this was to be my cabin.

We dumped my stuff in the "box" (cabin) and he grunted "I'll show you the wireless room. We made our way for'ard  towards the bridge and tucked to the rear of the bridge was the radio room. He gave me the keys and left me to it. I then made my way to the bridge and the chartroom to see about signing on. There was no one there. I wandered around and still no one, so I wandered back to my "box" and unpacked my stuff. Later as I sat contemplating, I heard a voice with a foreign accent calling me, I answered. An oily  haired dark man stood there, he said the first mate wanted see me, "up in the chartroom, soon". We went there together. The chief officer was also an accented dark haired man, he smiled, shaking my hand, saying "I have waited for you to sign on".  I told him I had visited the bridge earlier but could not find anyone. He shrugged and said "we busy, Captain not here". I signed  on the Springtide on November 26th 1952.

At the start of Dinner that evening Captain August Keskull came roaring into the mess. I knew it was him before I even saw him, he was just one of those people, shouting not talking. Captain Keskull was a large bulky man and his head was completely bald, not a hair on his large round pink head, his eyes pale blue. His eyes swept the table and settled on me, "ah!, Sparks, you have arrived he shouted, "now we can sail and get out of this miserable place". He did not give me time to reply, his eyes swept on to the First Officer. " Ah, Chief how did you get on today, all work finished" he shouted. Not a question but a statement. I think, I hoped the chief had finished. Everyone else kept their heads low, almost in their dinner plates. It was very clear who was in charge here.

Leaving Cardiff, next morning, we sailed on the tide and in the rain for Valencia in Spain , within the Mediterranean. We passed down the Bristol Channel and rounded Lands End into the open sea towards the Bay of Biscay. Crossing the Bay of Biscay it was still raining, then as we completed the crossing the sun started to shine. The run down to Valencia  took us  9-10 days and as far as I can remember, good weather for early winter. Our speed was in the region of 8 knots. The Springtide started to look cleaner after all the rain, The superstructure looked grey, although still not white, looked much better when not covered in coal dust.

The crew was considerably varied on this ship. I was told it was 11 nationalities, the ones I remember were Estonian, Lithuanian, Latvian officers, some British, a Japanese Cook and French 2nd Cook, the rest I don't remember. The 2 cooks were very funny and always shouting and arguing, neither could speak more than a few words of English.

The ships radio transmitting system was for medium frequency (MF) only, that is once we were well clear of the UK communication would be difficult with our short range equipment. The procedure here was to relay any out going messages via another ship within range which had high frequency (HF) transmitting equipment capable of world-wide communication. To do this a CQ call, "calling all ships" was broadcast using the code QSP, meaning "can you relay a message for me". Sometimes a contact was quickly made, other times the call took a while and had to be repeated before someone answered.

With incoming messages it was a similar reverse procedure. Each watch I would monitor the UK traffic list  for our ship's call sign. This could be done, the ships communications receiver was capable of receiving over world wide long distances. In this case, if our call-sign was listed in the traffic list I called for a relay of the message by another ship for us.

Note: This was the normal procedure in 1950s, and onwards into the 1980s. Today in the 2000s Morse is no longer used and my job of Radio Officer became redundant. Today Satellite communication is normally used.   

  I remember Valencia  as a pleasant city with wide open squares and plenty of seating. We unloaded our coal in about a week and we left light ship and dirty holds. I don't remember much more of Valencia except for the typical Latin, whitewashed or coloured walls of the  tall 3/4 storied street houses.

We left Valencia with no known  destination, strange, I know. Sometime later there was a message from the ships owners. I cannot quote the message word for word but in essence it said "sail Eastward no further than 2degrees West. Anchor until we contact you". 

To be Continued