The Baltic Trader - from the stunning "Allen Collection" website

Back in the late 1960s I had done a few deep sea trips with my mate’s ticket, and thought that I had enough sea time in for my Master’s. But when I came to total it up and consult the relevant MCA documents I found that I was quite a bit short. I thought that I might just give the whole thing up and try to find a shore job, as many other seafarers had done, but my mum persuaded me to carry on, and so not wishing to go on a deep sea ship again – ever – I had a look at the companies engaged in short sea trade.

Top of my list was the United Baltic Corporation and so in order to emphasise my enthusiasm for joining them I called at their offices which I think were in Mincing Lane, and was givena  job as second mate on the Baltic Trader. The ship was on one of the less popular runs,  calling at a number of northern ports of the UK, as far north as Dundee and as far south as Middlesburgh, and then calling at three Finnish ports, Kotka, Hesinki and Turku..

The Baltic Trader was powered by two former submarine engines linked to a single screw giving it a massive 2000 bhp, and making it a bit more powerful than the least powerful of the Finnish icebreakers.

This was a new world. As opposed to my deep sea experience which seemed to involve mostly not doing a lot except standing on the bridge looking out at nothing, the UBC people were constantly active. The sea routes were challenging, involving transits through the North Sea minefields , sometimes still being swept, and the Skagerrak and the Kattegat or the Kiel Canal, and then in Finnish ports monitoring the loading of the ship and in my case drawing up the cargo plan using carbon paper to make duplicates – no, quintruplicates, after which all but one would be airmailed to UK to get there before the ship did.

Arrivals and departures from port were equally interesting for former deep sea mariners. Instead of spending hours at stations (for non marine readers, the time spend on the bridge and at either end of the ship during port arrivals and departures) everyone was called at the last possible moment because there was a lot to do, and so the crew had to be rested whenever possible. And between the Finnish ports the Mate and the Second Mate would rest and the Third Mate who had then least onerous of the in-port duties would keep the watch, quite often with the captain and a pilot.

As well as the  routine tasks necessary during most of the year, things became more interesting in the winter. The various routes undertaken by the UBC ships required different levels of involvment on the part of the icebreakers. Those running to Oulu in the north of the Gulf of Bothnia could expect to be pulled into the notch in the stern of the icebreaker and dragged up through thick ice until they arrived at the port. The ones travelling to what was then Leningrad at the top of the Gulf of Finland would hope to be broken out when required by Russian icebreakers, and the ones going to Kotka, Helsinki and Turku might under the best circumstances actually make it to the port, or if not they would join little lines of ships which had broken through the thin ice until stopped by a pressure ridge. They would then wait for the arrival of one of the Finnish icebreakers.


The Finnish Icebreaker Voima from my cine film of the Baltic Trader at work.

One of these impressive ships would steam out to what had become a small convoy, rolling slowly port to starboard, and back, a process carried out by the ballast system of the craft, intended to keep the hull free of the ice. It would then head to the first ship in the group and steam at some speed down one side until it reached the last ship then turn on its axis and steam up the other side, so freeing all the ships, it was hoped. Once at the head of the column it would start off for the port and hopefully all the ships in the line would be able to get going and make progress towards their intended destination. Even after this assistance sometimes the first ship in the line would not be of sufficiently high power to make progress even through the broken ice, and so sometimes a ship further back, possibly a bit more powerful than those ahead,  would break out from the column and make at start behind the icebreaker. If the captain of any other ship  had a bit of courage they could pull out of the line and follow that vessel.

Once in port it was then necessary to somehow get the ships alongside, which often necessitated everyone being out in the cold for a number of hours as the ship and the propulsion were manipulated in order to remove small ice floes from between the hull and the quay. The usual technique was for the forward spring to be deployed and then for the ship to be moved in and out, hinged at the bow, hoping that the ice would be pushed out.

One of the surprising aspects of winter in Finland was and, I assume still is, extremely clear weather, with sunny days and very cold nights. In the day the air seemed to sparkle with tiny ice crystals, but we were never in  doubt that it was cold. The cabins had a small vent in the external bulkhead and the proximity to the cold exterior air resulted in a coating of ice on the bulkhead on the inside beneath it. And back in those days the contents of the lavatories were directly discharged over the side so it was necessary to prevent the pipework freezing up. This was achieved by adding salt to the contents of the lavatory bowl before flushing. At the time “Mary Poppins” was in the cinema, and to the tune of “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”, I wrote  some alternative words starting off with “Just  a handful of salt helps the excrement go down”.

One of the pleasures of the south Finland schedule was travelling between the ports in a channel kept clear by the constant movement of ships along it. In places there were wooden bridges, which would be pushed across in between the passing of the ships, and at the pilot stations the pilots would come out on a  snowmobile and would board by climbing a ladder put down onto the ice.

So, there must have been some disadvantages of working under such great condition, and with such a level of interest. There were. UBC worked strictly on the basis of recruitment from the pool, so if you signed off, although you would probably get another company ship, it might not be the same one which made people on the good runs cling onto them, and the pay was absolutely terrible.

I also took cine film of the ship - it can be found here: Baltic Trader in the Ice

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