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

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