The Death of A Lady
It had to come some time, but why on my tour of duty !. December 14th 1999 marked a bad day in the annals of my seafaring career and also that of all of us on board. That dreaded message from the office, ‘Please call Superintendents Department as soon as possible’.
These messages are only bad news. So, onto the phone and, ‘sorry old son’ the voice said, ‘ but I have to inform you that Clydebank has been sold to the breakers, after completion of the ship’s present employment, you should proceed to India where arrangements are being made to beach the ship at Alang breakers yard’. Silence from my end. Not much to say really. A few pleasantries, Merry Xmas and all that,
(Redundant just before Xmas ??, who knows), and off to break the good news to all.
At this point it is worth mentioning that the ship had a full complement of passengers (8) determined to enjoy the Xmas and Millennium celebrations at sea, the ship was on charter loaded down to her marks, only three weeks out of Europe to East Africa and Indian Ocean islands and a long term rubber contract to fulfil from Indonesia to USA. Absolutely no thoughts of scrapping / sale etc. Bemusing really. Anyway, down to the officer’s bar, (where else ?), ‘got some bad news chaps’, and proceeded to inform all of the decision to scrap the ship. Of course the questions and speculations were rife. The officers took all in their stride as was to be expected but the passengers were, for the most, by degrees, angry, upset, philosophical and disappointed. Who could blame them really.
Sailing from each of the ports after the news had leaked out was to prove very emotional and not a little upsetting. Leaving Mombassa, Spica, a company contracted to prevent stowaways boarding lined the quay with all their employees to wave a sad farewell. Of course, being a founder member of the cynics club, I could also say they were saying farewell to a regular and lucrative source of income !!.
Departing Reunion was equally emotional. The ship had been dressed overall with all hands on deck. Wives, officials and stevedores on the quay to bid a fond farewell. Now just seven more days and the end of the line.
Next an urgent message from the local agents dealing with the ship’s entry into India. ‘ Gujurat is a dry state, please declare a nil bond and ensure there is no alcohol on board on arrival’. What no booze !! tut tut. Here then follows the most bizarre experience of my seagoing career. 100 litres of Gin, 80 litres of Vodka 120 cases of Beer plus much more, all deposited into the Indian ocean. Lots of sad faces. But hark, do I hear the Psst of a can ?, surely not especially after explicit instructions from yours truly.
Needless to say, Uncle George the electrician, being a canny ,or is that mean, Scot had sequestered an emergency supply and a jolly good job to as on arrival the first demand from the boarding Authorities was for a Xmas ‘gift’.
Arrival Bhagnavar, the port of entry for Alang, produced a ten strong boarding party comprising Customs Officials, Agents and Surveyors, together their respective carrywalas all determined to relieve the ship of a many moveable objects as possible in the shortest space of time. It all ended up, after a five hour battle, with honours even. I was granted permission to proceed, and promptly moved the ship down to the holding area. There were six other ships waiting their turn to beach but ships, like house transactions, require the moneys to be paid over before the final act, hence the queue. Twenty four hours later, I received word from the Owners that the moneys had, in fact, been paid and I was authorised to take any further instructions from the new owners. ( Nerd Shipping, would you believe !!).
These further instructions came shortly after and I took the ship down to ‘Death Row’. This is an area a couple of miles off the beaching area, to wait for high water thus ensuring the ship went as far up the beach as possible. You see, the method is to stand off the beach a couple of miles, wind the engine up to full speed and see how far it is possible to get the ship up the beach before grinding to a halt. You can imagine ten thousand tonnes, travelling at some twenty miles per hour takes a lot of stopping. It doesn’t quite work out like this, but the basics are correct.
So, the word comes down, ‘sorry captain, there’s no Pilot available tonight, just follow my instructions, weigh anchor, and let me know when you are ready’.
At this point I would point out that it is 4 am, there are some 170 breakers facilities within a three mile stretch of the beach and from some two miles out all I can see are lights, lots of them !!. More bleats on the radio, ‘are you ready Captain ?’. ‘OK’ said I, just where do you want me to point the ship at ?’. There follows lots of directions from the Beaching Master in the form of courses to steer and the only other question, ‘is your engine up to full speed yet ?’.
Now, you have to remember that all my professional life I have been trained to avoid the beach like the plague. Owners tend to take a dim view of any groundings, which usually result in ‘Termination of Employment’ unless a suitable con job can be dreamed up by the offending party. Well here I am, 4 in the morning, pitch black, eighteen knots plus and headed for the beach. At the mile mark I can make out the silhouettes of many ships in various stages of deconstruction. The ship to beach before me was a 150.000 tonnes tanker. Have to go up alongside her. Can’t miss really. Out of the gloom she appears and as my ship touches the bottom, she takes a big shear to starboard, straight towards the tanker.
Didn’t quite panic, not that sort of chap really, a quick wheel over, straighten up and,…… strangely, no fuss, no drama, just a gentle slide to a stop. Main engine trips out of its own accord on overload but as the after end of the ship and generator sea suctions are still in the water at least we have electrical power.
‘Abandon Ship !!. All hands to the boats’, all very dramatic but the only way I and the crew can leave the ship in safety. Thirty seven men and one woman. Some of the men having been on board for a year or more can accumulate a lot of gear. ( Just go take a look in your garage !) The boats are duly loaded, the senior engineers go down the engine room and shut the ship down, all the lights go out, the fans stop, all those noises that have become familiar over the months, all stopped, very strange. The emergency generator, air cooled suddenly cuts in automatically but provides only emergency lighting. This will trundle on until the fuel runs out.
As the forepart is the only part of the ship in the water we have to leave by lifeboat. ‘lower away’ is the cry, both lifeboats down to the water without incident, on towards the beach, past the bow towering high above us, proud even now. Boats now beached and lots of help to unload into waiting transport.
A final look back, 27 years of trading, countless ports, myriad of personalities involved with her, both on board and ashore. Many hundreds of thousands of miles travelled. Seen all the emotions, joy, sorrow, fear, despair. Seen all that nature can throw at her and survived them all.
But this, the final cargo, the final port, the final voyage, the final ignominy. so very, very sad,
The Death of a Lady.
6th January 2000 22.53 hrs GMT.