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.