My wife, Sebrina is constantly asking why I lean so heavily towards fitting commercial-grade equipment when the market has some much more glitzy examples. My standard answer is to recount that “fishing boats look like fishing boats for a reason.” Then it was finally time to elaborate.
30,000 Tonne Geared BulkCarrier
I first went to sea in 1976, now a good while back. My disclaimer is that memory is fallible. There is always embellishment in the retelling; most of this is second hand, taken from the Mate’s description told in the ship’s bar that evening. Just one incident that made a lasting impression on my mind.
We were off the coast of SE Africa, Durban, or similar. A 7 hatch geared bulk carrier bound for Indonesia. About 5.00 am, 4-8 watch was partway through. Two crew were on the Bridge with the Second Engineer, a motorman, and me (the Cadet) down below. The sea was moderate, and a full moon was shining: a typical, slightly boring night watch, routine chores to do, and some maintenance ongoing.
The Bridge noticed a shadow across the sea somewhere off the port bow; lookout confirmed same. It was moving towards us as we were similarly sailing towards it at maybe 9 or 10 knots. But there were no clouds that evening and no significant wave activity so why a shadow? With the horizon 10 or 15 miles distant, and the ship moving at 10, events quickly materialize. It was not a shadow. It was a wide, soft-edged depression, a hole in the sea. A wall of seawater behind it, seemingly leading slowly up and up and up. I think the Captain was called at some point and then all hell let loose.
Ship’s general muster alarm sounded. The Engineroom phone rang, I saw the Second engineer lift it, and I saw the telegraph twitch, double ring astern. Second shouted at me to get another generator on, as I went for the switchboard, the turbochargers back flowed with the engine load coming off. They screamed in a way I had seldom heard. Bodies came flooding into the ER, sliding down handrails and leaping the last few feet. The engine was slowing rapidly now all fuel cut off. Everyone was seemingly running everywhere but seemed, to my novice eyes, to know their tasks. I did what they told me with no clue as to why; ignorance of youth has its advantages.
The shaft stopped at some point in the pandamonium. Then bugger me she went astern on start air, someone must have opened up the receivers as they are normally shut at sea. Slowly fuel was turned on, and the pop-off valves lifted, smoke and debris everywhere. At some point, I saw cylinder head seals blowing also. The prop shaft was now being driven astern by a tortured engine but not so fast.
The deck was tilting forward slightly at this point, not pitching as she would in a seaway, just tilting. Engine going astern, though, with less mess as she drew the smoke through her systems; I think the scavenge blower was on at this point as the turbochargers weren’t making much noise. Then the whole engine room began to shake. That had happened before, light-ship going up-river to load grain in Rosario. The propeller tips coming clear of the water. Then it slowed, then it settled, it began to be calmer, the telegraph rang again, and order slowly restored.
In the retelling, we had come across a freak wave or, more likely, the coincidental result of two large waves from different directions combining their power. A trough in front of a peak with an amplitude of maybe 80 or 90 feet. A monster. What the Bridge did was take our speed off, slow us down give us time to react. When we sailed into the trough, driving the bow underwater. That wave came up to halfway across the number 2 hatch. That is a lot of green water. It took the last of our forward momentum, which I surmise is when the prop came shallow in the water. Then she ever so slowly rose up and over and back into calmer, flatter waters.
Another Real Example
Two of my friends, Paul King and Eddy Williamson, had a similar experience on a bulk carrier named Derbyshire owned by Bibby Line. Lost with all hands in the N Pacific south of Japan.
The inquest determined explosive compression collapsed sequential bulkheads resulting in a total loss within minutes. I remember seeing Eddy at the offices of Ocean Fleets on Odyssey Road, Birkenhead, UK. He’d signed for Bibby Line and made 4th Engineer due to join one of their bulk carriers, Derbyshire. I remember their faces as young men, their 1970's fashionable clothes, even as my face grows older.
Fishing boats look like fishing boats for a reason.