A Story by JohnL

Pre WW2 coalburning ships and their crews had a hard time. This is the story of one such trip.



SS Obeche was not a large ship. About six thousand tons displacement and much of it rust. She had a good engineer and crew who between them kept her running reasonably smoothly, but if the company wouldn't pay for paint; it was no good hanging outboard with a dry brush. This was the picture I received from the first mate, Ivor Svenson as we travelled together from the shipping office in Newcastle to the Humber in the March of 1937. She plied between the Humber and the South Americas, sometimes making trips in excess of 6000 miles non-stop. This, my first was about the longest – 6300 miles from the Humber to Valparaiso - and we were to complete it without bunkering. Coal therefore had to be stored in places usually reserved for other purposes and every available space would be filled either with coal or, if it didn't leak, with fresh water. 
Unless you have lived with restricted water supplies, it is difficult to imagine the effect it can have on your life and I, Fred Carlow, making my first trip under these conditions anticipated the prospect with some trepidation. Bunkering is one of the events sailors of coal burning steamers dread. Dust penetrates every nook and cranny and when extra supplies are stored virtually under your bed in the fo'c'sle then it stands to reason that you will get the benefit. Men who turned in clean, awoke dirty. Couple this with salt-water bathing and you'll catch the situation. There is however a situation worse than bunkering, - that of running out of fuel or fresh water at sea. Much of this Ivor told me, some of it I had in fact experienced as I worked towards obtaining my Third Mate’s ticket. Nothing however prepared me for the event.
We left The Humber by night having coaled up to the full, with extra pens built on deck that would be emptied into the bunkers as the stokers used up what was available below. Grimsby to starboard – Spurn Head a shadowy outline to port. Within hours we were passing Margate and Dover. As we turned, I was reminded of Masefield’s “Butting through the Channel in the mad March days.” I worked out that I would be on watch crossing Biscay, not a cheerful thought as the sea was rising and the ship already pitching its bow at the stars. All went well however and soon we were past Finisterre and Cape St Vincent, crossing the entrance to the Mediterranean to make landfall with Africa. In 1937, I was a young man and had never had a trip beyond Europe. To hold course at Cape St Vincent was high adventure indeed.
As we approached the Equator round the bulge of Africa, it became hotter. Ivor grumbled as we passed Senegal, then Sierra Leone out of sight to port, that we should have been heading to bunker in Dakar or Freetown. Instead, I was charged with emptying the deck coal into the bunker chutes to clear the deck. I pitied the deck hands, barrowing in this heat, and the stokers feeding furnaces below. True there was unlimited fresh water to drink, but all washing and laundering was carried out in salt water from over the side. Fresh was for boilers and bellies. The fo’c’s’le where the crew slept was fœtid and if you were in any way squeamish, it paid not to get too close to the men either. Being an ordinary seaman was not an easy, or a particularly hygienic life in the thirties.
The coal reserve was depleted to the degree that all the deck coal was now below in the bunkers and the only reserve, albeit the largest, was ‘tweendecks. Water was all around us but not such as could be drunk. The day would, indeed has come, when with modern evaporators, a ship’s boilers and its crew could be well satisfied by the manufacture of all the fresh water they could require and more, but it was not so in the ‘30s. Some days, someone desperate for a decent wash, would open the c***s to the steam winches to drain off the rusty condensed water from that source but they were long since run dry. I was beginning to be fearful. Oh for a good soaking – a real torrent. Damn the masters for insisting on a non-stop voyage. Thank God we were not in sail, I thought, for now we were approaching the dreaded doldrums. Those who ran out of water in sailing ships with no power other than non-existent winds were in deep trouble. It occurred to me that if our water got too low, we would be in just that plight with no boilers and no sail if a wind did blow up.
The Doldrums is the region where the Northeast and Southeast trade winds meet and the only air movement is upwards. I asked Ivor and he told me not to worry – all would be revealed. Two or three days went by and we dipped the tanks, which proved dangerously low. 
The captain altered course ten points South and the air became hotter. Some cloud appeared on the horizon. It looked heavy but one thing was obvious. It was well off our course. We passed by with the lovely, fat, wet clouds fifty miles to port. As they passed our port quarter, it was like saying goodbye to champagne. Next day, more appeared, this time not too far to starboard and ahead. In our imagination we made them ooze wetness though they were a good thirty miles off. There was not a breath of wind.
“Hose down the decks” came the command from the bridge. “Block the scuppers and make them secure.”  
Suddenly the ship became a hive of activity. The swan necks were removed from the deck. These are the suitably named pipes bolted to the deck to allow air into the main water tanks which spurt when filling to indicate that the tanks are full, Now, removed, they left a two inch hole flush with the deck which led straight into the tanks.
“Uncover and bung the lifeboats.” The Captain was out now and I was aware that our course had surreptitiously altered onto a heading that led directly into the cloud clustered about five miles ahead, grey and threatening.
In the after well deck, all the crew who could leave their posts had assembled, naked as the day they were born. It was a surreal moment. There was a change in the temperature and the air became moist. Torrential rain could now be seen powering down from the clouds and as we entered what was a torrent, there were hoots and yells as twenty or more naked men pranced around the deck with soap, washing themselves and each other in an orgy of personal hygiene. The washing took place aft as we didn’t want soap in the drinking water.
The for’ard well deck was filling up I couldn’t believe the rapidity of the collection as the blocked scuppers held back the flow and retained thousands of gallons which, even as we watched disappeared into the thirsty tanks below. Quickly I nipped over the mid-ships upperworks to the after well and joined in the revelry as the duty crew came from below to enjoy the uninhibited communal wash.
Three times in the next two days we chased clouds ‘til the tanks could hold no more and we had the cleanest crew at sea. Each time, the boats were baled with buckets or siphoned, and the filtered water transferred to the drinking tanks then the boat covers were replaced and bungs removed once more.
I could not but reflect on the life of the Shellbacks – the men in sail. We were bound for Valparaiso in Chile, which is on the far side of South America. In steam we could avoid the worst and capture the best effects of the Doldrums. Not so the men in sail, who had no Panama Canal but had to cross right through the windless zone with no other motive power. They could be becalmed for weeks, sitting on a surface still as glass, in sight of the water that we could reach but which they had to watch, tantalisingly close, fall to join its salty cousin. It was not unknown for the longboat to be launched and thirsty oarsmen to row for hours towing the immense weight of their ship. Having successfully crossed the Doldrums, they had then to round Cape Horn through the world’s stormiest waters where the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Southern Oceans meet. Making and gathering sail in wind and spray, taking the ocean green over the deck sweeping sometimes right through their Spartan accommodation, the men of sail battled on. Nothing was ever dry, warm or comfortable. This was wetness, a blessing, a curse, too little, too much. Controllable? Sometimes partly, but beware, even now. No force on earth can fully control the sea.

© 2008 JohnL

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Added on June 1, 2008



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