Coffin Ships - By Malcolm H. Mort

Having successfully completed the Advanced Marine Automation and Control training course at a Maritime Technical Training College, I later attended the Head Office for an interview with the Personnel Manager of the Shipping Company employing me. He congratulated me on my success and said that the Engineering Superintendent, due to me being very conscientious and having a good sense of humour had decided to send me to the MV Chelsea Bridge as the Electrical Officer when it returns to the UK in a couple of weeks.

As things turned out I joined the M. V. Chelsea Bridge at Port Talbot, at 10 am on the 4th May 1972 and introduced myself to the Chief Engineer, and the Electrician who were wearing green PVC Tank suits and white safety helmets with miners‘ electric lamps fitted to them, together with a battery attached to a leather belt around the waist. The Chief Engineer smiled and said, “We have a special sport on this ship called, Duct Keel Diving.” A Duct Keel is an internal passage of watertight construction (two longitudinal girders spaced not more than 2.0 m apart) running same distance along the length of the ship, often from the forepeak to the forward machinery space bulkhead to accommodate cables and pipelines. A “sport” I was to get to know quite well. Within a few minutes I had signed on as the Ships Electrician and then quickly introduced to the electrical layout before being handed a Green PVC Tank-suite by Donald to be taken down the Duct Keel for a detailed introduction.

The Electrician laughed, and said, “We have been down that filthy, stinking oily hole since 4 O’ Clock this morning jacking the big ballast and pumping out valves open and closing them with this hand operated hydraulic pump. I have a long journey ahead of me to Glasgow and feel bloody knackered, with being soaked in sweat in this damn tank suite. I’m going to get this damn thing off and have a shower and then I’ll show the new Lecky the Engine Room Main Switch Board and Control Console as soon as he has signed on. I will be catching the first available train to Glasgow with my resignation as, I’ve got an offer of work on the Oil Rigs with better money and a lot less trouble. Come to think of it, did the Engineering Superintendent tell you about the Duct Keel Electro-Hydraulic Pumping System persistent low insulation problems,” He asked?” I answered, “All he said, was it was controlled from the engine room console by following the pipe line diagram and operating the switches and looking at the signal lights showing when the valves were being opened or closed”. It’s as simple as following a road map. The Chief Engineer remarked, “The 3rd Engineer who knows the hydraulic system in the Duct Keel is staying on for a few more months as he needs more money to get married before their child is born. The electrician laughed and said, “I can’t see that happening with all that he drinks in the lounge when we are playing bridge and drinking in rounds. The other thing is, by not mixing and playing cards, is the lonely life of sitting alone in your cabin trying to handle the stress of this job. To add to the noise and engine vibration, which you even feel in your bunk, there is the noise of the plates, cutlery and glasses rattling on the saloon tables. Then there is the feel of the power thrust each time a cylinder fires with a bloody great shuddering thud. The other annoying thing is the engine room alarm system and control console with the dater logger, with every alarm repeated in our living accommodation and on the bridge. Although ship owners installed automation to save money by reducing crew sizes, they failed to consider the stress it placed on the electrician and other engineers with specialist knowledge when the automation sometimes gave false alarms due to moisture in the atmosphere, which is one of the problems with electronic systems together with vibration and high temperature changes. The Chief Engineer commented, I’m nearly beyond such concerns, as I’ll be handing over to my relief Chief Engineer as soon as he arrives. The 3rd Engineer who is staying on will introduce Malcolm the new Lecky to the duct keel after he has signed on. I have to go down to the engine room to see how the Second Engineer is getting on with removing and lifting No 3 Cylinder connecting rod from the crankshaft and chaining it up inside the engine. Tomorrow morning we are sailing for Pepel in Sierra Leone on 9 cylinders at 70 Revs per minute to load iron ore for Japan.” “That’s slow,” I commented for a big beast of an engine like ours.” We usually run at about 108 Revs to stop the exhaust manifold temperature from rising too high, said the Chief Engineer.

Suddenly the Ships Master came in to the lounge accompanied by someone from Immigration and asked us who were signing on to individually approach the table where he and the immigration man had now sat down. Within a few minutes I had signed on as the Ships Electrician and then quickly introduced to the electrical layout before being handed a Green PVC Tank-suite by Donald to be taken down the Duct Keel for a detailed introduction. Suddenly the ships Master called the Chief Engineer to the table and told him that the company wanted him to stay on the ship until the crankshaft had been repaired in Japan and then fly him home on leave. He wasn’t very happy, but he was a company contract man who was buying his house on the company scheme. As you can see said Donald the Southern Irish 3rd Engineer, this deck hatch in front of the aft engine room and living accommodation is the aft entry down a long vertical rung ladder to the Duct keel, which is a long passageway carrying the electric cables, water and oil pipes from the engine room forward bulkhead to the forecastle. It is a very dangerous place at the bottom of the hull to be in. As two people have already lost their lives by being overcome by gas fumes, I am showing you the safety procedure you must follow. Firstly, you open this hatch cover and secure it open. The next thing is to switch on the Duct Keel ventilation fan for at least 20 minutes. You must never attempt to climb down the long ladder to the void spaces between the holds at the bottom of the hull without having a safety line attached to you and somebody standing at this hatch the whole of the time you are down there. You must use the gas-testing detector, which “Bleeps” if it is unsafe to open the Duct Keel Door. Slightly crack the door open and test before fully opening it. Then test again before fully entering the Duct Keel tunnel. While you are in the Duct Keel the fan must not be switched off and the person must not leave the deck entry hatch. Just before he entered the hatch, he told the Engineering Cadet Apprentice that we would not be down there long and asked me to stay where I was until he called me from the bottom of the ladder. Within 35 Minutes we were back up on deck again and then had a shower followed by a couple cans of Larger from the bar with the new Chief Engineer, and the people who were waiting for the arrival of Taxi’s to take them to the Railway Station to catch their respective trains home. During the conversation between the new Chief Engineer, named Mr John Roberts and the one who was leaving, the question of failing to pump out the duct keel arose. John Roberts laughed and said “In that case I would be the first in the motorised Lifeboat and leave Lecky and the 3rd Engineer to swim for it. The 3rd Engineer laughed, “Only if this damn thing does not sink before getting the bloody Lifeboat engine started.” The Chief Engineer said, “I’m sick and tired of the frequent mechanical breakdowns with the bloody 16 hour field days as we call them giving us precious little time to relax. It worries me when I feel so bloody tired as I walk around the engine room thinking that I need a couple of matchsticks to prop my eyes open, hoping that we will be able to arrive at our port of cargo discharge or loading at the specified time.” The 3rd Engineer laughed and said, “It’s a case of six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work. On the seventh day thou shalt get thy backside down the engine room stairs and do even more.

At 10 am the following day the Pilot came on board and with the Master and Chief Engineer being satisfied with everything, we sailed until we discharged him into the Pilot boat alongside of us. The engine room telegraph sounded and its pointer moved to Half Ahead, I moved the telegraph handle to acknowledge the signal, allowing the Second Engineer to restart the main engine and bring its speed up to 60 RPM as I wrote this occurrence in the Telegraph Log Book with the time showing the full away start of the voyage. At lunch time I came up from the Engine Room, had a shower and changed into my uniform to have my lunch in the saloon, to the sounds of the thudding of the main engine together with the rattling cutlery, drinking glasses and plates. Later I felt the vibration when lying on my Day bed or on my bunk. It was something I would just have to learn to live with. Which left me wondering what it would be like with the main engine running at 108 Revolutions Per Minute. On the third morning of our voyage the main engine sudden suddenly stopped without the warning of the alarm panel indicating the possible cause. The attempts to restart it by the Chief and Second Engineers proved futile. Then up went the battle cry of “Lecky”. All faults are electrical until proved otherwise. Looking up at the telegraph I noticed that the indicator was not indicating anything. So I telephoned the Bridge and was told by the 3rd mate that their Telegraph Indicator was pointing “Full Ahead.” I told him that I would be up on the Bridge with my small tools in a couple of minutes. When I arrived on the bridge and told the Master I’d have to take the cover off of the telegraph. He asked if I knew what I was doing. I smiled and said, not until I’ve looked inside. With him standing over me with a very concerned look as I removed the cover, looked inside and said, “What is this I see before my eyes, a little Selsyn which appears to have lost its pinion gear. Feeling carefully around the inside base of the telegraph I found the gear and three little instrument screws and said to the Master, “Now for a bit of electro trickery and suggested that the 3rd Mate telephoned the engine room and relayed what they told him to me. I offered the gear to the Selsyn with two screws, screwed in to its boss by three threads, so I could waggle it about a bit, leaving our telegraph on full ahead. I told the 3rd Mate that I was meshing this gear tooth by tooth until the engine room pointer read the same as the bridge with an engineer telling him over the phone what I was achieving until I got the both pointers synchronised. I then put the third screw in and tightened them all up, tested the telegraph and replaced the cover. Since it worked all right the Chief Engineer re-started the engine and got underway again within an hour. The Master said Thank God you knew what to do. I was concerned about us drifting around out here and needing Tugs with this damn great thing. If you had not fixed the Telegraph, I shudder at the thought of the costs.

A few weeks later we arrived at Pepel in Sierra Leone to load our iron ore cargo for Japan which passed without any problems, except for the engine noise and vibration in our living accommodation persistently annoying people by causing sleep loss, which made some of our Chinese crew members tired and a little short tempered. In due course we arrived at Kobe and had our crankshaft repair done quickly and efficiently without having the crankshaft removed from the ship. We then sailed to the designated berth and discharged our cargo. Unfortunately when the crane driver was lifting a Bulldozer out of one of the holds and was turning the crane to put the bulldozer down on the dockside, the Bulldozer struck the hatch structure surround one hold causing considerable damage which they were unable to repair, compelling us to go elsewhere to get it repaired. After the repair we went back to Pepel to load iron ore for Port Talbot. However on the way to Pepel we had a problem of water flooding the Duct Keel which caused low insulation to the electro hydraulic pumping system, compelling the 3rd Engineer and I to spend considerable time working in the Duct Keel to pump out water ballast to be able to load our cargo at Pepel. During the voyage, one of our Alternators caught fire and the rotor burned out. This matter being handled by an Engineering Superintendent in the main Office, told the Chief Engineer by phone to have it stripped down by me and landed ashore on arrival at Port Talbot.

After discharging our cargo at Port Talbot, we sailed for Pepel with our very disappointed Chinese crew who had been expecting to be relieved on our arrival, claiming to have done their service time. In effect their sense of goodwill ran out when they threatened to go on strike unless, they were discharged and repatriated from Pepel because they thought the ship was, noisy, much vibration and Jinxed.

From what I remember we had arrived at Pepel and started pumping out our ballast when the valve system failed, resulting in the 3rd Engineer and I having to go down the duct keel with a tool to open the valves manually. We came up from the duct keel at breakfast time, and after having a hot shower in the engineers working shower outside the engine room door, I changed my clothes and went to my cabin. There I met the Chinese Chief Steward, who started shouting at me about the way “British Officers were treating poor Chinese crew who were on strike.” Then he raised his arm in temper to strike me. I grabbed hold of him and threw him out of me cabin, leaving him lying on the floor, before closing the door. A few minutes later the Master and Chief Engineer came to my cabin and asked me to join them at a crew meeting on deck. To my surprise the catering staff were at the meeting with knives, a machete, a hammer, chipping hammer. The Master asked me to publicly apologize to the crew for hitting the Chief Steward. This I did willingly and offered to shake his hand, which he rejected. It was then the second cook asked what was going to happen to me. The Master told them. I was being sent home to face an inquiry. I then went to my cabin with two engineers with orders to remain with me while I packed my bags. We were told not to unlock the door unless the Master and Chief Engineer were together. Before leaving the ship I learned that one of the cooks leading the strike had political significance where the crew were concerned. Eventually a taxi arrived and I left the ship with the engineers carrying my luggage. It took me to a Diesel Locomotive shed were I climbed into the drivers cab with the driver of a very large twin bogey diesel electric locomotive which took me to a waiting taxi about an hour travelling distance away. From there another taxi took me to the airport. Within 2 hours I was onboard a plane flying home.

At a later date my sacking case was heard by a Merchant Navy Tribunal with the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers Association representing me and resulted in my acquittal.

This incident did no damage to my career prospects because my next employer was P&O Bulk Shipping Division as an Electrical Officer on the SS Ardtaraig which was a very large 28,000 SHP Steam Turbine powered Super Tanker with an Unmanned Engine Room. In particular it had an emergency alarm panel in our cabin area, which we found stressful with its bleeps on various occasions during the night leading to people waking up after dreaming the alarms were sounding. However during this voyage the 500 HP electric boiler fan caught fire and burnt out and we were compelled to keep watches as we were compelled to reduce speed and rely on the 300 HP fan until we were able to get the motor sent ashore and rewired. I lost the help from the Second Electrician with the daily planned maintenance work I was doing and got behind with it because I ideally needed a person with electrical experience to do installation testing while working apart from each other.

Such was the tension on some people’s nerves. This raises the point about the honesty of a personnel officer who is looking for a crew for an unpopular ship with a high turnover of crewmembers. The reality of life being that this person can only be as honest as he needs to be in the circumstances to allow him to keep his job.

As things turned out for me I was discharged from the Merchant Navy in October 1975 as being unfit for further seagoing service as a 3rd Engineer due to the onset of Arthritis in the lower part of my spine. After attending an Engineering Management Resettlement Course at the Polytechnic of Wales I was issued with a green disability-working card and employed by a Cardiff firm of Aeronautical and General Engineers as an Engineering Inspector working on MOD Radar and Jet Engine Test Beds, manufacturing and maintenance contracts to Def Con 0521.

About that time I discovered that very large ships like the Chelsea Bridge, Kowloon Bridge and the Derbyshire were being referred to as: Coffin Ships. However the name Chelsea Bridge was changed to Iron Sirius and she was transferred to an Australian Management Firm and then sailed under the Australian Flag.

Before going to sea I was as a Certificated Mines & Quarries Colliery Electrician and was working on the night that a Miner was killed in a Coal face by a roof fall. The walk with all of us behind the stretcher treading our way up a very steep incline at Nantgarw Colliery, Mid Glamorgan is something I have never forgotten. The sight of these very large so- called monster coffin ships can be seen anchored awaiting loading or discharged by looking out across Swansea Bay from the Mumbles Road where the trams used to run many years ago.

A considerable number of years ago I became involved with the BBC Wales World War 2 People’s Project and interviewed a number of Cardiff RNIB Blind and sight handicapped members with their stories being used by the South Wales Talking Magazine Association.

For many years, I was the Hon Welfare Officer and member of the Merchant Navy Association (Wales) and feel it is respectfully fitting to end this story based on some of my seagoing experiences by stating that each year we hold a service at the Seafarers Memorial which is a large steel model of the structure of a wrecked ship’s hull with the feature of a person’s head at the bottom of the hull. The memorial is situated by the Senedd, overlooking Cardiff Bay. The first part of the oration says, “Let us dedicate a moment of silence to all our shipmates in the Merchant Navy, the fishing Fleets and Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service who, in Peace and War go down to sea in ships on deep waters never to return.”

In December 1975 the 227,556-ton oil and ore bulk carrier Berg Istra, sailing under a Liberian Flag, blew up in the Moluccas Sea and was entered in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest vessel to become a total loss. Only a few people knew about her sinking with no one being able to explain the cause of her loss. Such ships were the start of the big ships like the MV Derbyshire, lost in a typhoon to the south of Japan in 1980.

In the 20 years following the loss of the Berg Istra about 340 large bulk carriers were lost at sea,

Taking with them 1,300 lives.