7 CHAPTER SEVEN (Gratis Grain.)
The rail journey from Sydney to Perth whilst being extremely long was very tedious due to the rather barren and little changing landscape. So in contrast the relatively short leg from Perth to Freemantle was invigorating with its glimpses of the deep blue Ocean and wide white sandy beaches.
The recently promoted senior apprentice new better than to have undue expectations but nevertheless he felt a certain glow of anticipation at the prospect of joining a different ship. He thought that any ship must be an improvement on the ship he had recently left in Newcastle NSW.
Just as he arrived at Freemantle, his previous vessel, the Comliebank’ as it was named thirty five years before, left Newcastle light ship with a skeleton crew on its final journey to Karachi before being scrapped.
‘Tealbank’ was the name of his new vessel. She was a “Sam; boat or to be more correct a ‘Liberty Ship’.
Many of these ships were built in world war two by the Americans for the sole purpose of freighting men and goods to England to assist in the struggle against the ‘Nazis’. They were constructed in a continuous length with a bow and stern added later. Their all welded construction made them unique in their time, as did their three-cylinder triple expansion steam engine that proved satisfactory in many ways. After the war was over, many of the surviving ships were turned into general freighters and were in service for many years where they were well received by crew due to the comfortable American requirements for accommodation and ablutions.
He was met by one of the two junior apprentices who carried his luggage to his new cabin.
“I’ll be getting along so I’ll leave you to unpack. My name is Andy Rutherford and if there’s anything you need to know – give me a shout.” John simply replied, “Cheers. I’m John.”
It was the first time he had had his own cabin and in fact his own room since, as long as he could remember, he had to share with one of his brothers, sometimes both.
Before he unpacked he discovered a door, which led to his own toilet and shower, a legacy of American requirements that the British were slow at catching up. His pleasure was further heightened when he noticed that his bunk was as half as wide again than his previous berth which being to the ‘Board of Trade’ standards was very minimal.
It seemed that the standards applied only when building the ship and not, when revised, to current usage.
He decided to take a shower and wash off the grime of the journey and marveled at the abundance of hot water. Hitherto heat and quantity had been strictly controlled by the engineers and subject to availability, whereas due to this ship being steam powered, a plentiful supply of hot water was normal.
Freshly showered, he reported to the Chief Officer who welcomed him aboard and excused him of duties for the rest of the day but advised him to turn to at six thirty the following morning as the ship was due to sail at midday.
That evening after a few beers ashore the apprentices joined in a game of cards in the Officers Lounge and from the banter between the players the new senior apprentice gleaned that their full cargo of grain was a gift from Australia to India and as a consequence their departure had been delayed for a blessing from an Indian Holy man who was arriving with the Vice Consul from Sydney.
Sure enough at 10 o’clock sharp, a brass band turned up and began to play. A short while later the Indian parties arrived accompanied by several uniformed dignitaries. A brief ceremony took place with various people signing the ‘manifesto’ and the Holy man throwing handfuls of grain into the sea.
The ceremony duly completed the participants repaired to the Captains Quarters for refreshments.
In what seemed a fitting tribute, the brass band solemnly marched off and adding to the occasion in true Australian style they played, ‘Waltzing Maltilda.’
The ship sailed right on time bound for Singapore where they were due to pick up fuel. They were hoping to take aboard sufficient to enable them to reach Shanghai after they had discharged the grain in Southern India’s main port of Madras.
It was unusual to find out their destination so far in advance but there being only one port of discharge, assisted in forecasting loading schedules. It was rumoured but unconfirmed that they were to load a full cargo of rice in China bound for Europe.
The trip to Singapore was uneventful, with the apprentices being occupied with the lifeboats and hosing out the anchor locker. Years of mud and debris needed removing to ensure that the anchors didn’t jam when needed.
After the anchors had been weighed and stowed, the hawse pipes were stuffed with sacking and sealed with cement plugs to prevent the chain lockers from flooding. Frequently, debris entered the lockers when the anchors were used so periodically they needed cleaning out.
It was when engaged in dealing with the lockers that one of the apprentices noticed a two-meter square manhole that appeared to have been closed for a very long time. They decided to investigate. Between their other duties it took four days to unscrew the ninety-six ¾ inch bolts as it all had to be done by hand. At last the final bolt was unscrewed and the heavy rusty lid was pried open.
It was pitch black and a bit spooky when they peered down and they tossed a coin to see who would go down the iron ladder disappearing into the gloom. The cargo clusters of lights wouldn’t reach and nobody could bother to get an extension lead.
Andy had lost, so armed with a feeble torch he made his was below.
Watching from above, they could just make out his movements as he descended. A great cry of horror came from below followed by an un natural silence. The weak illumination had disappeared.
Suddenly Andy’s head poked out off the darkness and he was grinning like a ‘Cheshire Cat.’
“That frightened you I bet.” He climbed over the coaming and sat on a pile of rope to light a cigarette.
“What did you see?” asked John.
“Nothing much, just a big pile of wire netting and as far as I could see nothing else.”
“Suppose we’d better tell the Mate,” offered the junior nicknamed ‘fatso’ because he weighed about ten stone and was a little over six foot tall.
It was the duty of the senior apprentice to report to the Chief Officer at the end of each day’s work, to update him as to progress. During his debriefing the apprentice told the Mate of their discovery.
“ That’s interesting – must have been there since the war.” Said the Mate.
“ Probably anti torpedo netting, they used to hang the nets over the side so that any torpedo’s hit the net first thereby protecting the hull. How many were there?”
“Not sure Sir,” replied the apprentice, “What do you want us to do?”
“Tomorrow first thing, get them up to the tween deck and let me know when you’ve finished and I’ll take a look.”
It took them all morning to get the nets out. There were ten all told, each about twelve meters long by six meters wide. The top had large brass shackles on each corner and the bottoms had hefty ringbolts woven into the netting. In one corner of the now empty locker were twenty concrete weights each having a polished metal hook somehow secured to the weight. They were to find out later that the shiny hooks were stainless steel and that the enormous shackles were solid bronze.
The Chief Officer arrived just as they had retrieved the last net.
“Well done lads.”
He examined the find and turning to John, he instructed,
“Replace the lid and secure the bolts. You’ll need a bit if grease. We’ll get rid of the nets in Singapore. They’ll not be needed now.”
They arrived at Singapore and berthed along the fuelling jetty that was several miles from town. This hardly mattered since the bunkering would only take a few hours and would be completed before dawn the next day when they would immediately sail for Madras their port of discharge.
Just after arrival the Chief Officer sent for the senior apprentice.
“I’ve arranged to get rid of those nets. A lighter should arrive around midnight. It needs to be done by hand so as not to disturb anyone. Make a note of how long it takes and you can have the same time off tomorrow.
When it’s finished, the shore wallah will give you a package which you can hang on to until after we have left in the morning.”
As the apprentice was about to close the door, he added,
“Call me if necessary but remember I don’t like to be disturbed.”
Just after midnight the apprentice awoke to a tapping on his door, ‘Sahib, there’s a man asking for you.” Said the Goanese night watchman.
He called his juniors in the cabin next door, quickly dressed, and accompanied the watchman to the foredeck where his visitor was waiting. A whispered greeting passed between them and they made there way to the forecastle.
It worried him that the transaction seemed so clandestine. He appreciated the need to keep noise to a minimum but his naivety had suffered since coming to sea and his experiences had made him much more worldly wise. This was tested a little later when they were lowering the nets into the lighter and the deck floodlights suddenly came on.
One minute he was lowering and the next he was pulling on the net and shouting. “Stop thieves.”
He felt a mixture of foolishness and relief when the Chief Officer appeared and enquired, “Everything alright?”
It took nearly two hours before the last net was safely aboard the lighter, which disappeared into the darkness.
As arranged the Boss man gave John a thick package and swiftly made for the gangway.
The three young apprentices made for the pantry and brewed a pot of tea. Bread was toasted and the welcome ‘supper’ served to replenish the energy lost in dealing with the nets.
The junior apprentices were very curious as to the contents of the ‘package’ and were told it contained the specification sheets and the shipping documents but everyone suspected that the contents were more interesting.
After a cigarette it was decided to turn in, as they would be on duty when the ship sailed early in the morning.
The arrival in Madras was a bit of a let down. No fanfare or welcoming committee. It was almost as though they were unexpected as they were directed to a rather isolated berth against a deserted shoreline
The Captain went ashore to complete the formalities and returned an hour later looking like thunder. He summoned the Chief Officer to his cabin where they spent the next couple of hours.
The Chief Officer eventually returned and called a meeting attended by the Chief Engineer, all the deck Officers, and the senior apprentice.
“ The Captain has given me certain instructions that will involve all of you so please pay attention.”
He passed round a newly opened pack of cigarettes and took one for himself, which he lit before continuing.
“It seems that as we weren’t carrying a commercial cargo, nobody reserved a berth or unloading facilities which would mean us having to wait for a further ten days before we started discharging. The Owners would not be happy, as the Port, in the circumstances, will not accept de-murrage.
The Captain has liaised with the authorities and arrived at a compromise. There are no railway wagons available or any shore side stevedores, so we will unload ourselves. Everyone directly involved will receive an extra payment of five Pounds a day with a bonus of £2 and ten shillings a day for completion in less than two weeks from the start of unloading.”
He took a deep pull on his cigarette, which was shortly followed by a slow exhalation of a cloud of blue smoke.
“ We will be provided with steel grabs for each hold and the wheat can be piled on the quay for later removal. Any questions?”
The Chief engineer spoke first.
“For my part I don’t have a problem. A full watch of engineers will have to be maintained including the fitters and electricians. I will need the Captain to sign off on any overtime if applicable.”
“Understood and agreed Chief.”
The Chief Officer slowly looked round the room and asked,
“Any one else?”
Everyone murmured in surprise when the senior apprentice answered.
“Yes Sir. Will we be working round the clock?”
“Good question,” the Chief Officer acknowledged, “I have yet to decide on final details, but a lot will depend on two things. Firstly, how many grabs are available and secondly the progress.”
His telephone shrilled and he listened, occasionally nodding and finishing up with ‘Very good Sir, I can’t see any problem.’
“We have five holds holding roughly a thousand tons each. Eight days gives us about a hundred and twenty five tons per day per hold. Two shifts results in sixty-two and a half tons per hold per shift. Therefore the discharge rate is a little less than eight tons per hour per hold. There should be ample time given that the grabs hold approximately a ton and a half each.”
Nobody could find fault with the math’s but the more experienced knew that the theory does not take account of heat, fatigue and breakdowns.
All the apprentice could think of was the extra money and he couldn’t wait to tell his mates.
The Second Officer was more wary. He asked,
“This extra payment – will it be on top of overtime and will it be an ex gratia payment or subject to tax?”
Without hesitation, the Chief Officer answered.
“Three yeses and a no. The extra payment will be in cash being paid by the Indian government. It will be in addition to and will not affect overtime. Any more questions?”
He didn’t wait for a reply and said to nobody in particular, “ I need to sort out the bosun,” as he left the room.
The discharge began at ten next morning. A barge containing eight steel grabs arrived at first light and having sufficient gangs of workers on board they had unloaded the grabs and manhandled them into position on the quay long before the crew had rigged the derricks for discharging,
Meanwhile the apprentices had removed the three heavy tarpaulins and stacked the hatch covers on the outside of the deck.
Once everyone had got used to the idea it had been decided that there would be two shifts of six hours each starting at seven in the morning and finishing at seven in the evening.
A gang at each hold comprised of two winch operators and a foreman. No tallymen were necessary as the complete cargo was to be unloaded.
The apprentices decided to work both shifts and take turns at being the winch instructor. They had agreed to start at six thirty and finish at seven thirty to enable a break for breakfast and lunch.
Before starting, they rigged up the best hatch tarpaulin with one side secured to the deck coaming and the opposite side tied ashore so that any spillages would slide onto the jetty rather than between the ship and the quay. Seeing how successful this was the Chief Officer instructed this to be deployed at the other hatches.
At first there appeared that little impression was being made and even with all five holds discharging it seemed a very daunting task. Slowly the pile started to rise as their targets were met. The apprentices were relentless, having youth on their side as well as a keen desire to finish first. Taking up the challenge, the crew at the other hatches fought for supremacy, being secretly encouraged by the Chief Officer.
On day three an ancient bulldozer trundled along the quay and tidied up the pile to form a single mound. It was to stay on the job until complete. The driver wanted to know what the sign bearing two large H’s implanted in the grain adjacent to the apprentices hold meant. The apprentices said they had expected to discharge in Calcutta so the sign was ‘ Hooghly Heap,’ whereas the more abstruse explanation for the repeated letter ‘H’ was later admitted and revealed as ‘Hungry Hindu’s’.
Divine assistance was sought several times a day as work stopped at other hatches while the prayer mats were laid out in the direction of Mecca.
In recognition and ‘out of respect’, they said, the apprentices stopped as well and used the break for visiting the loo, smoking and taking tea and toast known as ‘tabnab’s’.
No divine assistance was available for the three lads, however they were friendly with the electricians whose expertise ensured that the winches where the apprentices operated, were much faster than normal and a lot more responsive.
However this was countered by some of the crew who had been assigned to shovel grain from the corners into a more accessible pile. Their deliberate lack of speed tended to hamper the rate of discharge until the Chinese carpenter was allocated to their team.
The humble Indian sailors suspected the Hong Kong carpenter to be a member of the ‘Triad’s’ and having heard the rumour that the next port was Shanghai they became quite subdued. The rumour was enough and didn’t need reinforcing but they eyed the carpenter’s leather belt containing a heavy hammer and a curved sailors knife, with a degree of apprehension even though not a word was exchanged.
The ship completed discharge a day before expected and within two hours put to sea bound for China.
After clearing the estuary the whole crew including the apprentices but excluding the watch keepers were given the rest of the day off.
A very generous gesture had it not been Sunday.
Eighteen months and another ship later the apprentice, now recently promoted to third officer, once again arrived in Madras, berthing at a regular berth in the City’s teeming docks.
On the first Sunday afternoon, accompanied by the Second Mate he decided to stroll to his previous location. It took over an hour in the stifling heat and to his dismay the mountain of grain still lay untouched on the quay. Most of the surface had started to grow but judging by the smell the core had started to decay and was undoubtedly unfit for consumption by humans.
He was mortified to think of the extremely hard work they had put in to unload the grain not to mention the futile efforts of the Australian farmer workers. He considered the ill fed and mostly starving local population before deciding that it really was true that there is ‘no such thing as a free lunch.’