Four Men In a Boat .. Chapter 8 by ” Shipmate”

8 CHAPTER EIGHT (Chinese Riddles.)

Most of the passage to the Orient was given over to getting the holds ready for the expected cargo.

Diligent sweeping and removal of residues of the grain preceded washing down with supercharged hoses that needed three men to operate.  Two men restrained the hose while the third directed the nozzle.  From time to time they had to stop washing down to clear the ‘strum’ boxes.  The ‘strum’ boxes were sort of strainers in the bilges that helped prevent the pumps from becoming blocked.

Due to the large amount of water used, the holds became quite flooded and the cleaning party had to be on constant guard against the bulky timbers floating in the floodwater.  The danger was increased as the ships continuous rolling caused the water and timbers to surge from side to side, crashing into anything in the way.

It took three days to complete the cleaning and all the holds were pumped dry.

  The weather was fine and sunny providing ideal conditions, so some of the hatches were propped open to help dry the holds in addition to the breeze from the ventilators.

 Their passage took them into the Andaman Sea and through the Straits of Malacca where just beyond Singapore the helmsman was ordered ‘hard to port’ bringing the ship round to a course that would lead between the Chinese mainland and Formosa, a large island, which was to become the Taiwan that we know today.

After the customary weekly inspection by the Captain and the ship’s Officers, to break the monotony, the apprentices decided to pass the rest of the Sunday fishing.  It was fishing in no ordinary sense.  A length of wire rope about twenty feet long was fastened at one end to a large coil of rope.  A meat hook fashioned with a barb, was secured to the other end.  Fixed to the hook was a large chunk of meat and a heavy shackle was used as a weight on the rope.  The whole length of the line was paid out astern to compensate for the ships speed.  The line was then fed over the ships railings and wound round the windlass drum.  A bit of rag was tied to the rail beneath the rope to reduce chaffing.  To alert them to a ‘ bite’, a metal bucket of water was suspended from the line between the ship’s rail and the windlass.

The bucket moved in time with the ship’s motion on the waves but when the bait was taken the line would become rigid causing the water to spill from the bucket that would noisily rattle around indicating a catch. 

After waiting patiently for several hours, during which time they often had to re-bait the hook, the bucket started clattering about.  There was little finesse.  Using the electric windlass the line was hauled in.  A large object could be seen threshing about and jumping or being pulled clear of the water.  The threshing stopped as soon as it became vertical.  It was a hammerhead shark about ten feet long.  The line continued to be remorselessly wound in by the windlass that was stopped just as the shark reached the railing.  Excited lascar crewmen explained that once vertical, a shark became almost paralysed by its organs pressing on one and other.  Boat hooks were used to drag it aboard.  Having regained the horizontal it also regained its strength and began writhing about and aiming bites at anyone who approached.

The Chinese ships carpenter decided to act.  Using a twenty-pound sledgehammer he subdued the predator with a single blow and finished it off with a second well-aimed hit.

Whether from a nervous twitch or from temporary recovery, two days later, as one of the seamen passed, it lunged in his direction.

This time the Carpenter made sure and dined on a favourite Chinese dish – ‘sharks fin soup.’

They finally became aware of their imminent arrival when the sea changed from the deep clear blue of the East China Sea to an opaque muddy yellow of the vast estuary of the river Yangtze.

After a busy passage up the river they arrived at the port of the City of Shanghai.

A mid stream berth between heavy wooden piles became their temporary home as they awaited loading.

Not unlike many river ports throughout the middle and Far East the banks were used to raft-up multitudes of small boats, which were used as ferries and lighters by day, and to house families at night.  The river was teeming with traffic with little regard for minimizing pollution. 

The next few days were something of an anticlimax as the authorities used every trick in the book rather than admit that they were not ready for loading.  Chinese Officials in white overalls inspected the holds and shook their heads when any European was present.  They picked up imaginary bugs and sealed them in glass tubes before leaving to return later with notices printed with Chinese characters in bright red.  They pasted the notices at the entrance to each hold and although nobody understood the writing, a crossed out staircase was difficult to ignore.

It was a blatant attempt to avoid demurrage but having no choice the holds were once more washed down before a repeat performance by the health inspectors condemned the ship yet again.

This time the Captain and Chief Officer strenuously objected and the result was a compulsory fumigation scheduled for the following Monday.

The crew and Officers alike were delighted but no doubt the owners took a different view.

The fumigation process involved a complete evacuation of the ship causing all of the personnel to be billeted and fed at an Hotel nearby.

Poison gases were sealed in the holds for thirty-six hours and a further thirty-six hours was allowed for the gas to disperse.

The unsuspecting deck and engineering Officers went ashore in a coastguard launch and were escorted to the Astor Hotel where they had been allocated shared rooms.  The less revered Asian crew were given opulent suites to themselves and provided with winter clothing for pre-arranged cultural trips.

The Captain avoided sharing a room with the Chief Officer by bribing one of the staff with a bottle of Scotch and they both managed to spend their days away from the Hotel on the pretext of ships business.

The Astor Hotel was once a premiere Hotel of the Far East along with ‘Raffles’ of Singapore but was taken over by the PRC (Peoples Republic of China) in 1947 and due to diplomatic tensions between Britain and China it was later ceded to the Shanghai Institution Business Administrive Bureau before reverting to an international Hotel after refurbishment in 1959 and became known as the Pujiang Hotel.  It’s situation near the North end of Waibaidu Bridge on the North Bund, offered a strategic location fairly close to the port.

During the period shortly before the ‘fumigation incident,’ the Hotel had been requisitioned as a dormitory for the Chinese Navy’ and used for foreign businessmen but it had become a little run down and poorly staffed.

The Ship’s Officers assumed the guards on the doors were to prevent entry but it later became obvious that it was to stop exit.  That they were virtually under house arrest didn’t bother the sailors overmuch.  Due to their relatively short stay and the hotel facilities, which included free beer, it was much preferred to what little sight seeing was available at that time.  They quickly noticed that apart from the bar staff, the other Hotel staff went home at around seven in the evening, leaving the sailors alone.  This had certain disadvantages such as the heating being shut down but it took a long while for the water and rooms to cool down.

One evening, the apprentices explored the cellars and came across a locked door. 

Curiosity got the better of them so they found a large box of keys at the reception and kept trying until at last the door was opened.  They returned the rest of the keys and used a torch they had found to locate the lights.

An amazing sight greeted them.  There were three cellar doors in all and judging by the absence of dust on two of the doors they decided that those two were probably used for storage.  The third cellar stretched the whole length of the building with great brick pillars acting as foundation supports and the complete area was covered in dust and cobwebs.  Further exploration suggested some sort of shooting gallery as one end was stacked with sandbags and four unhindered lanes each contained a continuous wire that held a frame for mounting targets which could be wound back to the firing bench.

In the vicinity of the bench area were three locked cabinets that were easily opened by the smaller keys on the bunch borrowed from reception.

To their delight two of the cupboards contained 0.22mm rifles and the third had several boxes of cartridges and cleaning equipment.  The rifles had been taken to pieces and heavily greased and packed in oiled waterproof cloth.

They decided there and then to get the gallery working.  The two junior apprentices went off in search of industrial cleaners.

By eleven o’clock when the lights went out most of the cleaning was completed.  The senior apprentice had removed the preservers and assembled four of the rifles that he put back into the cupboard and locked the door.

The next day the time dragged and to avoid suspicion they attended the bar before the evening meal taking care not to over indulge.  True to form the staff left for the day apart from the bar staff that were kept busy by the new residents and visiting sailors who were mainly Chinese together with occasional Swedes and Americans.

Luckily the bar was situated on the top floor so the chance of being heard was remote.

The senior apprentice had done some shooting on a range and was conversant with safety practices so to start with they decided to use a single gun.  A drawer was opened in search of targets and they came across the club membership book.

It proved very useful as the first nine pages contained the membership rules.  The body of the Journal held records of achievements including dates and scores.  The last entry was dated September 1953.

The back pages were given over to the names and addresses of the former members.

They started at night using a single rifle and when they left nearly three days later, all four lanes were in use by all the ships Officers, pretty much throughout the day.

On the last night they cleaned all the equipment and dissembled the guns stowing them packed in oilskins as they found them.  The cellar was locked and the keys returned.

As it was to be the last evening they celebrated and lit candles when the lights went out at eleven.  Staff joined in the party, which must have gone on late before the cold started to creep in.

The Senior Apprentice was woken in the early hours to find that his bath had a thin film of ice forming on the surface.  He leapt out having sobered up and hastily dried before diving beneath the bedclothes.

The return to the ship was a bit of an anti-climax.  Nothing had apparently changed.  It was all systems go on the loading front and a shore berth had been allocated for immediate loading.

It was while making ready to move that the discovery was made.

Hatches are secured once the tarpaulins are in place by metal hatch bars being laid against the covers on ‘u’ shaped cleats.  Wooden wedges are hammered between the cleats and bars, forcing the bar to tightly grip the canvases.  The wedges always are pointed aft so any wave effect only drives the wedges in further.

The wedges hadn’t been moved.  Neither had the canvas covers that were placed over the ventilators, as it was unlikely that the securing knots had been replicated or that the vent covers had been replaced following ventilation from the supposed fumigation.

Of course all this was reported to the chief Officer who said, ‘so what,’ or ‘I’m not surprised,’ or words to that effect.

Within ten minutes of tying up ashore the first sacks of rice started to load.  Labourers teemed aboard like worker ants and the complicated loading continued around the clock.

The rice is loaded in half-hundredweight sacks.  There are two requirements.  It has to be kept dry and it has to breathe.  The first requirement is necessary because any damp will cause the rice to swell up and erupt from its confines in the holds.

  Complete ventilation is achieved by building timber airways as loading progresses.  In the absence of adequate ventilation, heat can build up, resulting in deadly internal combustion.

A third unwelcome effect from carrying rice is often experienced and would later create a good deal of unpleasant work for the apprentices and crew.

In all it only took three days to complete loading, thanks to the hoards of shore people used in stowage and the erection of the vent tunnels.  From the last empty sling returning to the quay it took only about twenty minutes before the ship was underway and headed down river towards the open sea. 

As the senior apprentice carried out his duties on the bridge he reflected that it was less than ten years earlier that the Royal Navy ship H.M.S. Amethyst had fifty four men killed after being attacked without provocation, by the PLA (peoples liberation army) during the Chinese civil war.

H.M.S. Concord had approached Shanghai from Nanking at 27 knots and attempted to tow the stricken Amethyst without success.

Later Amethyst managed to escape down river and out into the estuary and was immortalized when in 1958 she was used in a film of the incident, starring Richard Todd.  As she had been imobilised her sister ship was used in the recording of moving shots.

Hong Kong was the Far East base for the Royal Navy who sent two ships namely, H.M.S London and H.M.S. Black Swann, to escort the stricken Amethyst.  They were fired upon with casualties and were subsequently ordered to return to rejoin the fleet.

Amethyst was held to ransom for several weeks while the PLA unsuccessfully attempted to get a signed statement that the ship had fired first.

One night she slipped her cable and headed for the estuary producing prodigious amounts of black smoke to confuse her aggressors.

Once safely clear of the estuary she signaled to H.M.S.Concord, which is remembered in the service, as a typical example of British understatement.

‘…have rejoined the fleet to the South of Woo sung…No casualties…No major damage…GOD SAVE THE KING’.

A Tribute to the incident is to be found in the Memorial Grove at the National Memorial Arboretum.

It is represented by four Ginkgo trees to honour the four ships that took part.  Seventy-Six Euphorbia shrubs encircle the trees: one for each life that was lost.

The Memorial has been sculpted with a moving description, which reads,

‘Yesterday is history, Tomorrow a Mystery, but today is a gift, that is why it’s called the Present.  (Anon.)

TO BE CONTINUED……..

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