This article was written back in 1992 for which I was able to interview the master who had taken the ship down there, and the master who had carried out the Grey Rover tow. Since then I have been told that the Black Pig was actually a former Argentine supply vessel operated with moderate success in the islands after the war - but I like the name so there it is.

It is now, as everyone will be aware, ten years since the Falklands War. The campaign made military history, the invasion forces sailing from the UK in numbers of British Merchant vessels, and supported by container and cargo ships. Some of these STUFT vessels, Ships Taken Up From Trade, became household names, the Canberra, the Uganda, the Stena Seaspread and the unfortunate Atlantic Conveyor. Numerous other ships, ferries, cargo ships and offshore support vessels, were known only to fellow British mariners who followed their progress, their movements detected from occasional mentions in the subtext of news reports, and technical data in the maritime press.


The Oil Mariner back when it worked out of Aberdeen - on its way down river from what was then the Texaco berth.

After the war the major units of the fleet sailed home, to be greeted euphorically by the British public. However they left a garrison together with both sea and air cover on the islands, which necessarily had to be maintained and supplied, and to assist with this activity other STUFTs were chartered.

The MOD had been impressed with the versatility of the North Sea supply vessel, one or two of which had been employed in a variety of rolls in the aftermath of the conflict. So they invited tenders from supply vessel owners for a craft capable of maintaining moorings, towing, assisting with berthing, carrying personnel, fuelling and watering other vessels and anything else they might think of at the time. The contract was won by the OIL anchor-handler Oil Mariner in 1983, and, some nine years later, she is still there, still being called upon to do anything and everything, and accepting that her nickname, "The Black Pig" has been conferred on her more from affection than antipathy.

The Oil Mariner was built at Ysselwerf in Holland in 1974, and was at the time a state of the art North Sea supply vessel. She is powered by two English Electric Diesels giving a total of 6700 BHP. For nine years she worked for a number of the major operators including BP, Burmah, Texaco and others, supplying semi-submersibles and carrying out anchor-handling operations. By today's standards she has no freeboard, her working deck is small, her tailgate which allows the tow wire to traverse is insubstantial and her hydraulic anchor and towing winch is painfully slow in operation. Like the majority of British supply vessel designs of the time, the engines drive fixed pitch propellers via clutches and gearboxes and the bow thruster is a five ton Gill Jet.

Also in line with the fashion of the time is her  slim accommodation block rising out of the forecastle, providing cramped cabins for the officers. On the main deck, in the limited space left around the winch are the remainder of the crew cabins, two small mess rooms and the galley. During anchor-handling operations the whole area rumbles and pulsates to the sound of the hydraulic motors which drive the winch, and the Caterpillar diesel which drives the thruster. On the bridge there is just room at the aft end for a seat for the driver to operate the controls, the Chief Engineer being banished to a tiny deckhouse ahead of the winch from which he operates the work and tow drums.

Before taking up the charter the ship had it's distinctive sharp bow blunted and fitted with rubber fendering, to allow her to push as well as pull. Later a hydraulic crane and an A-frame were to be added.

Captain Stuart Mackay was appointed Master for the first tour of the new charter, and it was his first task to get her to the Falklands. He joined the ship in April 1983 in Portsmouth and found her lying alongside a small river tanker, the "Cubus". It turned out that the Mariner was to tow this craft out to the islands where it was to be employed as a back-up unit for the storage of aviation fuel.

The ship set sail, with the tanker in tow on 22nd April and the voyage proceeded without major incident, apart from a tendency for the auto-pilot to signal hard aport at erratic intervals for no apparent reason. They arrived at Ascension where they anchored on 16th May. Here they repaired the stern gate which had suffered severe chaffing from the tow wire as a result of the frequent unplanned changes of heading. The means of making this repair was to build up the gate with weld metal, an operation which used up all the heavy duty welding rods on the island.

On inspection the tanker's pump room was found to be flooded due to a leaking vent on the deck, and this was plugged with cement before the resumption of the voyage. The satellite communication system had also become inoperative and spares were rapidly flown out to the island from UK.

Once these repairs had been completed the voyage was resumed, but on 26th May the tow parted in heavy seas, and it was two days before reconnection could be achieved. The tanker was unmanned and unpowered, and it was necessary for men to be landed on it to recover the bridle which was hanging in the water. The Captain could only watch with bated breath as the Mate, Bob Hockham, hung over the bow, alternately being lifted high into the air and then completely submerged as the tanker pitched in the long Atlantic swell. It was some relief that the tow was eventually reconnected, the boarding party recovered, and the voyage resumed.

By this time the weather was worsening and the tug and tow were being continually lashed by high seas. Three days late the tow parted again and had to be reconnected. In a latitude of 46S  part of the bridle broke, but the remainder held, allowing the voyage to continue by now under overcast skies, giving no opportunity for sights.

In a latitude of 51 degrees South the tow parted again, which by the ship's dead reckoning was only 68 miles short of the islands, and 7590 miles into the voyage. There was no fuel remaining for the inflatable boat to allow transfer of men to the tow, so there was no alternative but to call the islands. The United Towing tug Salvageman was sent out to help. The Salvageman captured the tanker after six days, and the Oil Mariner went on to the Falklands where it arrived on 21st June after a voyage of 59 days.

Once in Port Stanley the Mariner received a signal from the Chief of Staff. It read " I have followed your epic journey with much interest. The last leg, running before a force nine gale with a port list on the lighter looked particularly hairy. But you coped admirably, as you have done throughout your 59 day passage. Your calm professionalism and good seamanship is a credit to the Merchant Navy. Well Done."

Once in the Falklands the ship commenced with it's new duties. They were far removed from what the crew had been used to. Initially it fuelled the warships in Port Stanley and San Carlos, and collected rubbish from the vessels at anchor. This was a thoroughly unsophisticated operation, consisting of filling the deck through chutes from the larger vessels, and then taking the resultant pile of ordure out into deep water for disposal. To carry out the latter part of the task squads of soldiers with shovels were recruited.

The ship was also used to dispose of much of the debris left from the war. Derelict armour and crumpled pieces of airplane all slid gently over the stern roller and disappeared beneath the waves, as did containers full of small arms, and finally tons of out of date ordnance. These were spectacularly detonated, to cause water spouts hundreds of feet high.

They were also engaged to take containers of aggregates out to the West Islands where a long range radar station was being constructed. On arrival they would go alongside the Ocean Fleets "Lycaon" in Albermarle Harbour. The larger vessel would crane the containers off the supply ship onto her helideck, after which Chinooks would skyhook them to the top of the mountain.

Since there was very little in the way of recreation for the military the Mariner was also engaged to carry out cruises with small groups of soldiers to places of interest including the outlying settlements. The then Governor-General and his wife also took the opportunity of taking part in one of these cruises.

The Mariner was also the official conveyance of the Queen's Harbour Master when he needed to go round the Russian and Polish trawler fleets to collect harbour dues, and was further involved with these large factory trawlers when they called for assistance due to injuries to the crew. Stewart Mackay well remembers bringing in a badly injured Russian seaman in the early hours of the morning, and the sadness felt by the whole crew when they later found that he had died. Although the tasks involving the Eastern block trawler fleet tailed off as the Falkland Islands council began to carry out their own administration using new and sophisticated harbour launches, in 1988 the Mariner was called to the aid of a Polish cargo ship, helping three Polish fishing vessels fight the blaze for ten hours. Despite their efforts four Polish crew members died in the blaze.

A high, or low, point, depending on which way you look at it was target towing. For this operation a gunnery observation crew was embarked on the ship which then went to sea towing a target a quarter of a mile astern.  From some far distant point the warships loosed off salvoes of shells, and the positions of the waterspouts were relayed back by the observation crew. The crew of the Mariner took no comfort from the fact that they themselves were the aiming point for these exercises.

During this time crew changes were a long business. Not for the Mariner's staff a quick flight to Aberdeen and a taxi ride to the harbour. They embarked on a VC10 from RAF Brize Norton and then caught the Uganda for the nine day voyage from Ascension to the islands. The crew being relieved them made the same journey in the opposite direction. Captain John Rankin, still one of the Masters of the ship describes those early journeys. "The enforced cruise without input or comment concerning the passage became the worst element of those early tours, despite the hospitality of the RFA and MN personnel." Today, as do many ship's crews the world over, they board a big jet and stagger out many hours later, having glimpsed their ship as the aircraft descends to the new Falklands airport.

At the end of 1983 the Mariner was involved in setting up the Falkland Islands Port and Storage System or FIPASS. To make the port six North Sea barges were sent out on a submersible ship, floated off and towed into position. They were then secured to piles and linked to the shore by a causeway. This essentially temporary port is still in position and one of the Mariner's duties is to assist vessels to berth alongside it and to leave it.

During 1985 she assisted in the positioning of an SPM, installed so that the variety of STUFT storage tankers employed since the war, would no longer be necessary, and of course, once the SPM was in position it became one of her tasks to carry out the usual assisting role. Preparing hoses, passing lines and generally nursing the calling tanker through all the problems of mooring to an offshore buoy. In addition, due to concerns about possible pollution from the offshore facility the ship was equipped with skimmers, booms. dispersant and spaying equipment, and the Masters were sent on an anti-pollution course.

As well as all the other duties so far described the Oil Mariner has a primary function to maintain the Admiralty Moorings which are scattered round the various sheltered waters in the Shetlands, and also at South Georgia. Most of us have probably glanced through the Admiralty Manual of Seamanship in the past, and will dimly recollect the diagrams of the various types of mooring available. At the outset of the charter both the Masters were to spend time at the Admiralty Moorings School at Rosyth and had these dim recollections turned into live knowledge which they were to use to advantage in subsequent years.

The annual voyage to South Georgia takes place during the Southern summer, and the Mariner checks and repairs the moorings at Grytviken, at Leith Harbour with its derelict whaling stations - the scene of the first British/Argentinian confrontation - and at Stromness. On these voyages the ship must cope with massive sections of Antarctic ice which drift casually about, released by the warmer weather, and with totally unpredictable winds which can whip up to gale force in minutes, from any direction, and which bring with them hail or snow storms which can reduce visibility to zero.

In December 1990 the RFA support vessel Gold Rover had the misfortune to lose it's rudder, and it was decided that the Oil Mariner should tow it to Montevideo for repairs. Apart from being already on charter to the MoD she was by far the closest tug of any size to the location of the damaged vessel, though those in charge of the operation appear to have looked longingly at higher horse-power vessels which would have cost large sums to relocate. This, it seems, is a sign of the times. In the 1970s in the North Sea hundreds of rig moves were made using under 8000 BHP in a single hull. Today the operators and insurers appear to be unhappy with less than 20,000 BHP divided between two ships.

However, back to the Gold Rover. Suitably moderate weather conditions to allow the tug and tow to clear the islands without incident were predicted for 29th November, so, at 1010, with the Alexander Towing tug "Indomitable" at the stern the tow commenced.

Once in clear water the Indomitable was released, and the two vessels began to react to each other in their new relationship. Despite the fact that the Gold Rover had streamed a drogue buoy on five to six shackles of her stern anchor cable, she still sat well out on the quarter from the Mariner. This is a familiar situation for all tug-masters. The wire trails away over the quarter, and every-one is forced to adjust to the tow being somewhere other than behind the towing vessel, where logic dictates that it should be. On 2nd December in increasingly strong stern winds the Gold Rover began to shear from one quarter to the other. In view of this situation John Rankin, the Master at the time, hove too overnight and continued the following day.

The voyage continued without incident and the tow was anchored off the River Plate on 8th December. The Mariner restored the Gold Rover's stern anchor and waited for the Uruguayan Naval vessels which were to take over the operation.

The following day they arrived and quickly decided that it would be better for the Mariner to take the Gold Rover further up the river, to a point where the harbour tugs could take over. Eventually at 2100 on Sunday the Gold Rover anchored once more, and the Mariner was released to return to the Falklands. She arrived on 14th December, the crew deriving immense satisfaction from the completion a the job, for which they had appeared to be anything but first choice.

Those familiar with North Sea supply vessels may find it surprising that the ship has operated successfully without major mechanical problems in such a distant and isolated part of the world.

This success is in part due to the military air bridge between Brise Norton and Stanley, in part due to the reliability of the ship's plant, and in part due to the extremely long service of some of the ship's staff, who have become totally familiar with all her idiosyncrasies. She is administered from OILs Marine Operations Office in Aberdeen, but only a few of those working there remember the ship leaving the UK. Hence, in the last nine years she has only been actually seen by the Superintendents who conduct occasional inspection visits in the Falklands, and supervise the drydockings carried out every two to three years in South America.

These have taken place in Montevideo apart from the last one which was carried out at Punta Arenas. As long as groups of huts on the Antarctic subcontinent are discounted, this is the Southernmost port in the world. The Punta Arenas drydock was the occasion of the ship's third special Lloyds survey which it passed with flying colours, and also for a complete rebuild of the English Electric prime movers. These compact V16s, which it is rumoured were originally developed to power railway engines, had done a few more hours than is recommended before carrying out this task. In fact, 38,000 more, so there was some concern at what would be found when they were taken to bits. No-one need have worried. Internal wear was minimal, and after the refurbishment the engines are considered to be good as new.

After the completion of this major overhaul the ship returned to the Falklands and resumed her normal duties. She went down to South Georgia in the Southern summer and checked out the Admiralty moorings, and she continued to fuel the visiting warships and the Castle Class Patrol Vessel.

Today she is still working there, berthing and unberthing passing National Environmental Research Council Vessels, assisting the Maersk Gannet and the Grey Rover to become attached to the SPM, supporting a variety of diving operations, acting as a crane vessel for small craft, berthing the weekly container ship and acting as a hostile for simulated missile attacks. Her job remains that of doing whatever there is to be done, and so far nothing has proved beyond her.

The MoD are almost certainly planning the summer moorings programme for 1993, the OIL management is probably planning for the next special survey in Punta Arenas in about 1997, and the ship's Masters are vaguely considering their retirement in about 2002. Beyond that who knows, but it seems that as long as the British remain in the Falklands the Black Pig will be pottering about helping them out.

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