Tales of the Deep continued…
I would like to, if I may, share some of my adventures on board the M.V. Geopotis. A Single Trailing Suction Dredger which operated in the area of Chilichup in Indonesia for about 6 months.
For the next 10 to 12 weeks we continued to dredge the allotted area, and to the best of my memory, were able to increase the depth by about 15 to 20 m. Watch followed watch as it does, dredge for 4 hours, travel to the dump ground and deposit ‘cargo’ and back around again for another bite at the sea bed. On Saturdays we returned to the wharf at around 14.00hrs and shut everything down and connected to shore power. Minor repairs were carried out and everyone took a break. Chillichup was, at that stage anyway, a very small village, and had the ‘mandatory’ bar/hotel which we often frequented.
The dredge carried two ‘drag heads’ both around 9 tons each. I was led to believe that there was always a spare drag head, due to the fact that it was always possible to ‘lose’ a drag head if it snagged whilst a dredging operation was being carried out. At around 14.00hrs one afternoon whilst we were doing the last dredge run for our shift, and doing about 3 to 4 knots, we felt a distinct lurch to the starboard, almost came to a stop, and then as if ‘released’ from some obstacle start to slowly move forward again. I remember noticing that the ‘sound’ of the main suction pump in the engine room had changed somewhat. Bridge brought the vessel to a halt and the anchor was dropped.
We went up on deck to see what the fuss was all about, and found that drag head had indeed snagged something and had been ripped off. The suction pipe, which by this time had been raised to deck level, looked a sorry sight with no drag head at the end. The whole drag head had been ripped off and lay somewhere beneath the waves! We returned to base camp so to speak, and a dozen or so shore side fitters descended on to the Geopotes. My memory is hazy about how long it took to ‘bend’ the now slightly oval pipe back into a circular shape, and attach the spare drag head back on. Methinks it took about 3 days, after which we went back to doing the dredging thing!!
There was another ‘minor’ incident that I would like to share which caused a bit of a heart flutter! As mentioned earlier a fair few munitions would be dragged up on each run, and it was quite common to find ‘clips’ of two pounders which I assume, were used on what are/were called ‘pom-poms’ during WW2 along with small to medium land mines in the holding tank. On this particular occasion we were on deck taking in the sights (!) when dredging was stopped, and the pipe raised to deck level. A large round lump of metal had blocked the drag head. The head was brought in above the deck and a couple of deck crew were pointing and talking about this piece of metal. One of them decided to try to remove it by picking up a 38lb hammer and giving it a few good wallops to dislodge the errant piece of metal! Most of the Mates standing watching all this carry on, howled disapproval and quickly, well actually at great speed, ran the other way screaming a number of expletives, basically questioning the IQ of the person who was wielding the hammer! This gentleman was thereafter nick named ‘Kamikaze’. The said piece of metal turned out to be a ‘small’ WW2 land-mine about 18inches in diameter. As one can understand, all work came to a grinding halt, and we were told the local Army guys would be over shortly to evaluate the situation. About an hour later, some gentlemen in Uniform came on board and stood around the drag head, looking, pointing, shaking their heads and rubbing their chins, as they do! Sometime later it was declared that the land-mine was ‘live’ and should be removed. Understandably, there were not a lot of volunteers for this daunting task. Even Kamikaze did not seem too keen to put his hand up! Once again we ended up at base camp where the blocked drag head was replaced with the spare one. I seem to remember that great caution was taken whilst loading the blocked drag head onto a large flat bed truck, which slowly moved away. How the Army guys removed the land mine was never shared but it was back shortly prior to setting sail for Adelaide. Meanwhile it was back to doing the dredging thing.
It is said in the classics that all good things must come to an end sooner or later. I think it was in the 11th week that the ‘higher ups’ decided to cease dredging in Chillichup and relocate the vessel to Port Adelaide, where we could have more fun rearranging the sea bed for vessels with a higher draft.
A couple of days prior to leaving Chillichup the ‘village’ organised a bit of a party for the ships crew. And for those of you who think is was just one big ‘pis*up’, it was not! We all drank sensibly that night and a good time was had by all. Music as such! Was provided by an electric gramophone, most songs were Indonesian songs, we had 4 ‘English songs’, the favourite song was “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill-by Fats Domino and this track was played many many many times that night. Being an ex Bank Line- Doxford-Andrew Weir type of person I taught the locals and a few others the soul stirring benefits and mind boggling capacities of the “Doxford Dance’ to the tune of Blue Berry Hill! and I wonder whether it became part of the village scenario? Whenever I hear that tune these days it takes me back to my halcyon days at Chilichup doing the dredging thing.
This story ends on a somewhat sombre note. A couple of hours after we left Chilichup and headed for Port Adelaide, the bridge slowed the engines down and appeared to take a hard turn to starboard, this continued till we were basically going back to where we had started. At times like these rumours fly left right and center! One was that the Port Adelaide trip had been cancelled and we were to do another 3 months at Chillichup. The truth of the matter was that a young Indonesian lad of about 18 had stowed away and hidden himself in the 2.5M diameter suction pipe. The story goes that the 2nd Mate started to do a deck inspection shortly after we left Chilichup. Whilst ensuring that drag heads and suction pipes were battened down correctly etc, he had spotted the lad in the pipe.
Much (heated I might add) discussion about the stowaway followed whilst we drifted off Chilichup, but the final decision was that the Captain had no choice but to ‘hand him over’ to authorities. This occurred and we finally turned and headed out towards Port Adelaide. I signed off at Port Adelaide and was flown home to Brisbane.
As all of us who have travelled the open spaces know, it is not the ship itself, but the human beings that we have interacted with in the course of its great wanderings that make all the difference.
Perhaps Tennyson puts it better:
“There gloom the dark broad seas. My Mariners, Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—-”
Thanks to Alan Rowlinson for making it possible for me to share a small part of my sea going career with you good people. May all be well with you.