Tanker times – aboard the Achatina and others, 1927
My holiday ended all too soon and I took the long trail back to Cardiff and reality. I was sent to join the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co. tanker Achatina at Portishead of all places, which lies in a creek near the mouth of the River Avon, on the western side. It was a beautiful day and there was the most beautiful little ship lying quite alone amidst green fields waiting to receive me. It was a good omen, and for once I had no doubts or even any of the usual gloom that accompanies the prospect of starting a new voyage.
My new ship was even better than I had hoped for, and I particularly liked my own little house which was situated on the poop boat-deck. I had a degree of privacy that was unique, almost comparable with the Admiral’s quarters on a ship-of-the-line in Nelsons day, because there was nothing else on this deck apart from the lifeboats. The engineer’s accommodation lay directly below me in two long alleyways on either side of the lone poop deck house. The poop itself, as in all traditional tankers was connected to the navigating bridge house or centre-castle by a long, ‘flying bridge’ cat-walk, and this continued on from the bridge house to the forecastle head.
One of a group of four similar ships, she had been built in Oakland, California about five years earlier. The others were named Acardo, Amalthus, and Ampullaria, beautiful names by any standard. The Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Co. was the ‘carrying’ company for the great Shell Oil Co., founded by Lord Bearsted of the Samuel family. His Lordship was a noted conchologist and so had the delightful idea of naming his ships after shells. Not only that, but he insisted that each ship carry the named shell in a glass case in the dining saloon. In our dining room, nestling on a velvet covered base sat a univalve shell similar to the kinds which were on the beaches of Kintyre in some profusion, and I was told that some of the rarer species were heavily insured and frequently removed to bank vaults for protection.
The fact that the Achatina had been built in the USA meant some improvements to the traditional method of fitting out rooms. To begin with, there was running water with real flush-away pipes to the ship’s side, a feature still uncommon on UK ships. The Achatina was possibly my favourite ship out of the many I served in during my 46 years at sea. She had her faults, but they were of a minor character, and greatly outbalanced by her manifold good points. Captain Purkis, an Isle of Wight man was gentlemanly, friendly, and on excellent terms with his crew. This numbered around fifty, of which the sailors and firemen were Chinese, all recruited from Hong Kong or Singapore. Chief Officer Legge was a Scot from Newburgh, Fife, and an excellent chap. The second mate Mr. Morrill was an extremely humorous Welshman from Flint, and the Third mate was Peskett, from the Home Counties. The Chief Engineer, an elderly Scot named Jock Niven was an Aberdonian of the vintage sort. We became great friends and I look back on him with great affection. The remaining engineers, whose names I have mostly forgotten, were a friendly bunch and there was a general feeling of community about this coterie of officers.
The tanker men I was becoming used to were proud and independent men. Proud of their good jobs and fine ship as well as of the manifestly wealthy companies they worked for. No more of the soul- destroying penny-pinching on ship’s stores such as went on in tramps. The Marine and Engineering superintendents I met while in tankers were not there to bully the ship’s officers or run amuck with a blue pencil on the stores requisition lists. They were there to monitor the seaworthiness of the ship and the well-being of the personnel. This surprised me at first for I was used to those unsavoury characters of the breed that I had met while on tramps, with their arrogant posturing and tyrannical behaviour towards lesser mortals. Tanker pay was several pounds per month in excess of rates on non-tankers, but what surprised me most were the almost fabulous rates paid to Captains and Chief Engineers. Captain Purkis, I was told, received no less than £75 per month, whilst old Jock Niven the Chief got £60.
My wireless room was large and roomy and the equipment was the best I had yet been with. For the first time I had an l.5 KW spark transmitter and an RM4B receiver and a new automatic alarm. This was a type 332/333, the receiver of which was a bright emitter three valve straight instrument, separately housed from the selector which was a purely mechanical unit composed of a quite a complicated arrangement of relays, pawls, and cams, so lined up to make the instrument respond to any three of a series of ten four-second dashes of the Morse Code which had now become an integral part of the International Distress Call. Any ship in distress had now to send those dashes as the very first of the exercise which culminated in the SOS signal followed by the ship’s position. This very new instrument was designed to arouse the sleeping Radio Officer while off watch as the final stage was composed of three very loud-voiced alarm bells, one in the Radio Officer’s berth, one on the navigating bridge and one in the Chart Room.
Theoretically, and under local test conditions, the Auto Alarm worked very well, but, in practice it turned out to be rather unstable, tending to respond to atmospherics, and also to loud and continuous signals from any source. This could be countered to some extent by diminishing the gain of the receiver somewhat, but this practice was frowned on because it reduced the effective range. One way and another, I managed to arrive at a compromise setting of the control which more or less ensured that I got an undisturbed sleep and which also kept the people on the bridge happy. Later models were modified to make them more stable, and this particular type of Auto Alarm remained in general use almost up to the start of World War II, when it was superseded by a much better instrument, the Type M or ‘Vigilant’, which held the ring for nearly twenty years. The inherent weakness of both those early alarm raisers was the magnetic relay with which they were fitted, and which controlled the delicate timing required. The present day instrument, the ‘Lifeguard’, which now replaces the ‘Vigilant’, is all electronic, and the work previously done by mechanical relays is now carried out by valves and transistors.
I now ran up against a significant fact of life on the Achatina, which some would have reckoned to be a decided drawback to ‘the good life’. This was the circumstance that she was a Press Subscribing Ship. I had, of course, known about this before I joined her, because it was a well-publicised fact that the Anglo Saxon Petroleum Co. ships were the only British cargo ships entitled to copy the daily wireless news bulletins paid for by the passenger ship companies for the benefit of their passengers. Those bulletins were first transmitted from Poldhu in Cornwall during the ‘spark’ era, but, later on the arrival of valve transmission, by Leafield Radio.
At the time of my joining the Achatina the new giant station at Rugby had taken over this service, and, of course, any shipping company could subscribe. Outside of the major passenger companies only the Anglo Saxon had elected to do so, which in a curious way put them amongst the elite. But this amenity placed a considerable burden on the shoulders of the Radio Officer on a ‘one man’ ship.
The press bulletins were three in number, and were scattered throughout the day, but the principal one of about two thousand words was sent out at 2.00 AM G.M.T. It meant that the radio officer had to get up in the middle of the night to receive press, which took roughly one hour to transmit. The time varied a bit of course, depending on the ship’s longitude at the time, but, by and large, it was a constant middle of the night exercise, every night, seven days a week, thirty days a month while the ship was at sea, and there was no extra money for doing it. No overtime or fringe benefits, or even time off in lieu. The normal daily watch-keeping of the R/O normally ended at 10.00 PM GMT depending a bit on which part or the world one was in, so an unbroken night’s rest was not possible under any circumstances while the ship was at sea. The bulletin was couched in the language of ‘journalese’ and I usually finished up by rewriting the whole thing in an understandable and readable form. Strangely enough, although I have never been addicted to doing more work than is necessary, I never resented what was a patent imposition on my working day.
I loved the ship and felt that this exercise put me on a higher plane than my less fortunate colleagues on tramps or cargo liners. The name of Achatina was in a special book of Press Subscribing Ships, along with the Olympic, Majestic, Aquitania and Berengaria. Oddly enough, those bulletins were addressed to ‘Captain Olympic’ and we shortened that in our log-books to GLSQ Press (GLSQ being the call-letters of the Olympic).
Remember that in the mid-twenties, individual broadcast receivers were still few and far between, and the range of the BBC stations was still very short. From a morse point of view, Rugby Radio was world wide in range on a frequency of 16Kcs (18750 metres). During the station’s testing period a year or so earlier, I actually heard him send his aerial output figures of 750 amps. This is quite staggering, considering that the average output figures for a ship were around 10 amps in the aerial. The resultant important metre/amp figure would be equally impressive seeing that it is the product of the output current in amps and the height of the aerial in metres.
When I joined the ship she was in the process of discharging a part cargo of benzene (gasoline or petrol) at Portishead and, two days after I joined her she proceeded to Ellesmere Port on the Manchester Ship Canal, where the remainder was pumped out. The actual oil berth is at Stanlow which is situated on the north bank of the canal on the opposite side to Ellesmere Port. There, we got two days or so and I had the pleasure of an evening out in Liverpool with Morris the 2nd Mate and Peskett the 3rd Mate, at one of Liverpool’s famous theatres. It was very pleasant to be back in the old home town again and we took the opportunity of visiting the Bear’s Paw and the Feathers once more.
Before we finally took off on the imminent voyage, I had the unpleasantness of a visit from the Company’s (Marconi) Inspector, who made all his usual nasty remarks in the Maintenance Book. His claim to fame was that he was Chief Radio Officer on the Lusitania when she was torpedoed during the late war, an event that helped the Americans to make up their minds and join in. He looked more like a farmer than a seafarer was big, rugged, and decidedly unfriendly, particularly to the more junior officers of the profession, and probably to all cargo boat men as well. During his own quite lengthy sea service prior to the 1914 war he had never been on anything else but the largest of the liners.
The first trip took us into the Med where we inaugurated a six month period of trading between Constanza in Romania and Alexandria. The job was to keep Alexandria and it’s surroundings in kerosene or paraffin as it is better known, and, to use an old cliché, it was a ‘bobby’s job’.
Four days in Constanza loading the stuff (sometimes a whole week) then a week at sea followed by at least four days in Alex. I never cease to be astonished when I look back on those days, when tankers got nearly as long in port as cargo boats. The ease and utter peace of it all beggared description. No constant roar of steam winches and the babel of the thousand and one languages of the eternal stevedores of whatever nationality. Constanza was a constant delight with its friendly citizens and primitive but very satisfying night-life. In some ways we had a better time in the local cabarets and dance-halls than I ever had in Nassau St. in Antwerp or the Reeperbahn in Hamburg. Constanza had a large community of gipsies in the entertainment business, and the girl dancers were wild, beautiful and very loving if they took a fancy to you. Constanza was quite a small place and I think its port could only accommodate one ship at a time, so we had it all to ourselves. I’ve never forgotten it, although, following that interlude on the Achatina, I was never there again.
The short sea trip to Alexandria via the Bosphorus, Sea of Marmora and the Dardanelles was a constant delight with its endless glimpses of the fabulous lands of Troy, Rhodes and the other Dodecanese Islands, the Cyclades and Sporades. I congratulate myself that I saw it all in the pre- tourist era, and before the day of the package holiday.
In Alexandria itself, the other extreme was equally rewarding. The main street was the Rue Ramleh and the beautiful Corniche, running along the sea front eastwards from the dock area was a delight. I do not think I have ever been in such a truly cosmopolitan city where the principal characters seemed to be anything except Egyptian. Greeks, Italians, French, Turks with a good sprinkling of British appeared to run the city, but there could he no doubt that the seething mass of the population was Egyptian of some kind, from full-blooded Bedouin to the more pale-faced hybrid city bred Arab.
That Alexandria was a pretty evil and vice-ridden city was not to be denied. It had a reputation which was greatly enhanced during the late war for some of the most unspeakable forms of unnatural vice I have ever heard of. Murder was rife in the sleazy red-light district, and this was the direct cause of a major riot during the Great War, when the Australian army ran amuck for several days to avenge the murder of some of their cobbers. The brothel area was literally torn to pieces.
Our very happy trade between Alex and Constanza ended all too soon after about six round trips, after which, to our horror we were ordered to Abadan. This kind of thing was inevitable with tankers, and the Persian Gulf is one of the crosses which patient tanker men had to bear throughout their lives. Although Abadan was an Anglo Persian Oil Co. depot and not a Shell preserve, it was still available to any oil carrier. Shell had a large bunkering depot at Port Tewfik near Suez, at the southern end of the Canal, and this was kept topped up by at least one ship on a permanent basis. What frightened us most was that we might have been selected to become that unhappy ship in place of the Eburna, which had been running between Abadan and Suez for about six months. In terms of sheer maritime discomfort and total colourlessness, it would be hard to imagine anything worse than this run. The Red Sea at one end and the Persian Gulf at the other! As it turned out however, we only did two round trips between Suez and Abadan, taking up altogether about two months. During the first voyage I had the extreme pleasure of meeting once more my old shipmate from our ‘Laurel Branch’ days, Neil Macdonald. He was now radio officer on the British Hussar, a sister ship to my old British Engineer, and, as we landed in Abadan at the same time we gathered on each ship in turn for meals and gossip. I do not think I have ever mentioned before that it was a tradition of the sea that any officer could entertain a friend to lunch or dinner on board his own ship at any time. This was, of course, dependent to some extent on the permission of the Captain and the compliance of the Chief Steward, but I do not remember that there was ever any difficulty about this privilege. I was entertained to dinner on the Hussar by Neil, and well remember his kindly and benevolent Captain Collie, a brother Scot.
This chance meeting led to an interesting incident some time later when we were in the Mediterranean, and the British Hussar was well on her way to Australia, actually nearing Fremantle. At that time, Rugby Radio had a daily schedule with merchant ships for the transmission of telegrams ‘en clair’, on 16 kc/s. Those messages were repeated a second time the next day and required no acknowledgement. One day there was one for the British Hussar, and as I realised that she would be at that time in an area of difficult reception, I copied the message just in case. That same night, following the reception of the main Press bulletin, at around 3.30 AM I gave the Hussar a call on 500 kcs (600 metres) and as luck would have it, he came back first time. “No” he hadn’t got the Rugby telegram, so I passed it on. Then we chatted for a few minutes (having gone over to 705 metres) and exchanged positions, which showed our distance apart to be something of the order of 7000 miles, a quite incredible performance. However, there is an old saying about an old dog for a hard road and we had both taken a chance on something we knew from experience, namely, that early in the morning was a good time for freak transmission distances, and I also knew that the hour or so following the Press bulletin was a relatively quiet period on 600 metres (the international calling frequency of 5OOkc/s).
For the benefit of present day experts it has to be remembered that we were both using transmitters of fixed input power of 1.5 kW and output power of around 10 aerial amps with two valve ‘straight’ receivers, without an H/F amplification stage. That kind of thing was part of our fun in those days. We literally never knew when we were going to be able to communicate with any degree of certainty. It was not unusual to call British land stations incessantly for many hours while within 500 miles of them and be totally ignored.
Conversely, I have sent a series of telegrams to Lands End Radio from southwest of the Azores, a distance of over 1000 miles, with no difficulty. The North Atlantic was notoriously bad for distance getting with medium wave spark transmitters. On the other hand, the South Atlantic and South Pacific were areas of extraordinary distance getting. I am still talking about medium wave transmission in the band around 500kc/s of course. With the advent of valve transmitters on both long and short wave, the whole face of things changed and distance became a minor hurdle in the communication race. I will always be glad that I lived in the days of uncertainty, when it was a joy to connect with anybody at all, and a long distance communication was something to celebrate. We were, to some extent, pioneers in our own right.
I must not leave the Abadan/Suez scene without telling of our attempts at amusing ourselves in Port Tewfik, where we used to lie for about two days discharging our Persian gasoline. Tewfik is right on the end of the Canal itself with Suez town two or three miles away to the western side of the wide bay. The southern section of the canal ends in about a mile of a quite gracious tree-lined boulevard from which the main street of Tewfik abuts at right angles. Apart from this rather squalid street, there was little about the town apart from the usual mud huts of the canal workers. A broken down hotel pretentiously named ‘The Majestic’ was our principal place of amusement, which consisted mainly of hard drinking sessions with the local nondescript bunch of ‘burra sahibs’ comprising of Canal pilots, oil depot overseers and a sprinkling of Red Sea lighthouse keepers. The keepers were a peculiar kind of breed, and barely accepted by the hierarchy of the area. This was because they were recruited mainly from the petty officer branch of the Royal Navy, and as such, did not merit a place above the salt. However, I found them pleasant chaps and had many a beer at their table. In the main they were a solid class who were out to make some money for their retirement.
In Port Tewfik at this time were three small tankers with interesting histories. All were owned by our Shell Company and the first two were the Doewa and Scapha. Those ships were converted monitors from the war years. A monitor in the Royal Navy was literally a floating gun platform, a kind of shapeless buoyant tank with enough lift to support two 15 inch guns. Their use had been for inshore bombardment and, although rather vulnerable, they had done good work on the Belgian Coast during the war when they had enfiladed the German trenches with devastating effect during the Flanders campaign. These two ships were used mainly to bunker regular liners passing through the Canal, although they sometimes did trips to Jeddah (the port of Mecca) and also to the Farsan Islands down the Red Sea where the Shell Co. was prospecting for oil. The third of those ships was the Ortina Shell where our well-liked 3rd Mate had served sometime previously. She was a converted sailing ship of the old clipper type and had been famous in her day as the beautiful Oweenee, a ship I had heard much about in the past, and had seen pictures of her under full sail. Now, here she was in the flesh so to speak.
At this time, in 1921/28 the Egyptians, with the help of the Shell Oil Co, had found oil at a place called Hurghada, near the entrance to the Gulf of Suez. Oil in moderate quantities was being produced and this was then transported to the Suez storage tanks by the Ortina Shell. Our genial 3rd Mate, Peskett, who had already been attached to her, now decided to return to his old ship, and an amicable exchange of berths was completed. Time was found to visit the old converted sailing ship, and Peskett entertained Morris and me to dinner in the splendidly panelled saloon which had been carefully preserved from her days as a clipper. This room was very reminiscent of those on the sailing ship hulks, of the Lonsdale, Wavertree and Oneida in Punta Arenas. The Ortina Shell had of course been stripped of her towering masts and spreading cross-trees, whilst the bowsprit had been cut back drastically. Only the lovely hull remained, with its fine lines and sheer which could not be hidden. Her new propulsion was a large diesel engine which gave her a speed of around ten knots. Following our two trips between Suez and Abadan, we were ordered back to the UK for the nine monthly overhaul, to which all Shell tankers were entitled to.