Having left British India with a First Mate’s Certificate in September 1964, I was 2/O in 1966 on the 5,830 ton Cunard cargo ship Parthia, plying the North Atlantic from London, Le Havre for the champagne and cognac, Glasgow for 5,000 tons of whisky and then the Eastern seaboard of the USA, returning to London with a general cargo and, in particular, crates of machinery.

On one eastbound crossing in February 1966 we were crossing the Newfoundland Grand Banks, about 600 miles south of Halifax on the Continental shelf where it can be extremely rough. I was on the 12-4 watch and we were experiencing a gale Force 8 on the port quarter with huge short seas, which was forecast to increase to Force 10. We were corkscrewing through the ocean, there were frequent rainsqualls reducing the visibility to very little, and the steering was in automatic. At about 2.00am I was happily sitting on the chart table with a cup of tea smoking my pipe, sliding from one side to the other, peering into the radar as I reached the starboard side of the chart table, and then sliding to the port side as the ship rolled back. On one of the slides to starboard the ship took a huge lurch and I went sailing over the radar and landed on the deck, spilling my coffee and breaking my pipe. The ship had broached to and was now rolling violently in the short steep seas. My first thought was that the auto-pilot had disengaged, but when I tried to put it in to manual nothing happened. The inclinometer showed we were rolling 38 degrees either side and I thought we were going to turn turtle. Thirty-eight degrees either side seems like 90 degrees. I then put the telegraphs on STOP. There was no response. Clanging the telegraph backwards and forwards made no difference either – there was just no response from the engine room. Had the 3/E/O injured himself when we broached to and couldn’t get to the engine controls?

Our excellent captain eventually made it to the bridge and I quickly told him what I knew. A crewman was sent down to find the chief engineer, but he was nowhere to be seen and, worse still, there was no one in the engine room. Some 20 minutes later the engines thankfully stopped, the rolling became less and the chief engineer arrived on the bridge.

What had happened was that shortly before 2.00am the 3/E/O saw the overload lights come on for the steering motors. He left the engine room to go to the steering flat and, on inspection, couldn’t see anything wrong except that the overload lights were still on. He then called the chief engineer from the steering flat and explained the problem. The chief engineer arrived in the steering flat just in time to see the stock of the rudder come up through the bottom of the ship and push the steering engines on either side. The 16 ton rudder was now hanging loose and crashing into the aft peak tank and the rotating propeller. The rudder could not break way as the yoke was preventing the stock from falling back though the shaft. It eventually broke off after about four hours. It transpired that the cause of this disaster was that a welded lug holding the pintel in place had broken.

As a result of the violent rolling, it took the chief engineer and 3/E/O a long time to get to the bridge and engine room respectively, but it is certainly must be a contender for the longest response to a telegraph order ever experienced at sea.

The story does go on, but suffice it to say we sent out an SOS, which made the headlines on the 8.00am news on both the BBC Home and Light Services. The weather deteriorated to Force 10; a Canadian Coast Guard ship, Absecon, managed to get to us after 12 hours – the only ship that did - and stand by; and a huge tug, Foundation Vigilant, took three days to reach us from Bermuda and, under Lloyds Open Form, took us in tow to Southampton – a total of 17 days from leaving New York. 

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