Home / A Spell in Drydock

SS MAGDAPUR. A SPELL IN DRYDOCK

So many words in the English language have more than one meaning, spell being one of them. Its use in this story refers principally to a short period of time but in another sense it can mean a charm or incantation. Ships can cast a spell on those who sail on them and I believe that Magdapur cast a spell on me. Even after all these years I remember her with considerable affection because she was a ship that possessed both character and charm.

My only deep-sea voyage on Thos and Jno Brocklebank’s SS Magdapur lasted from mid December 1964 to early April 1965. When the ship returned to the UK, she discharged her cargo at Tilbury and I had a few days leave. On rejoining the ship, I then signed Home Trade Articles to take her coasting that included a visit to Avonmouth. Whilst there she came adrift from her moorings in high winds and collided with a barge and the dockside. As a result of this incident there were concerns that she might have damaged her propeller.

These fears were subsequently found to be groundless when divers inspected the propeller and gave it the all-clear. From Avonmouth we sailed to Smiths Dock in North Shields where she spent almost a month in dry dock having major repairs and updates carried out. This work including fitting some new equipment in the radio room. All of the work included in the refit had been preplanned before the propeller incident.

In dry dock, the ships engine room was shut down with electricity and water being provided by shore side supplies. The downside to this was that we were barred from using the ship’s washing and toilet facilities (for obvious reasons) and had to use a toilet block that was located about fifty yards from where the ship rested. These facilities were excellent, as they were newly built and equipped with all modern conveniences including showers with continuous hot water.

The blight to these otherwise satisfactory arrangements was that the Magdapur’s officers were only allocated a single key to the toilet block and this often went missing from its advertised location. This may have been due to it being in use or as a result of someone failing to return it when it had served its purpose.

It was not unusual to see ship’s officers performing strange ritual dances when nature called if the key could not be found. These strange gyrations could well have been source material for John Cleese’s Ministry of Funny Walks sketches had he observed them at the time. There were suspicions that additional keys were obtained by nefarious means as after a few days, the pressure to find the keys disappeared somewhat. Initially the ships’ lavatories were unlocked but this changed when it became clear that some use was being made of them by people who flushed and then made a high speed escape.

I discovered that the Smith’s Dock project engineer had previously sailed with me on Mahseer when he was third engineer. We had many conversations about old times.

Work started about seven in the morning and went on until after six in the evening seven days a week. The noise was deafening as the dockworkers chipped and hammered, cut away plating on the decks and installed new machinery in the engine room. In the radio room all the power circuit cables to the equipment from the motor generator locker were replaced as were the heavy duty, twenty four volt DC emergency power supply cables from the battery locker.

Unlike the Mahseer where the radio room was on the boat deck, Magdapur had hers located on the Bridge deck immediately behind the Chart room.

She was the only ship I sailed on that had a day bed in the Radio Room. The benefits of having such a piece of furniture in the Radio Room were completely lost on me. This was located under the porthole, along the port bulkhead between the tool locker and the operating desk.

Whilst the Magdapur was admirable in so many ways, the one major downside to her from my point of view was that the Radio Officers (R/O’s) cabin, was located on the accommodation deck on the port side immediately adjacent to the Saloon/Bar. This meant that the R/O’s rest and sleep were regularly disturbed at sea by other ships officers socializing in the Bar who worked different watch patterns.

Prior to the refit, the Radio Room was equipped with a Canadian Marconi Direction Finder (DF) that I suspect had been in service during the Second World War because Brocklebank’s radio department tended to re-use equipment whenever possible in order to keep departmental costs down.

Amongst the range of receivers in the radio room was a Brocklebank manufactured HP watch receiver that I had never seen before but which I had been told about during my time on Mahseer.

As an aside, when on watch, the ship’s R/O had to continuously monitor the International Distress Frequency of 500 kHz so as to be alert to the possibility of Distress, Urgency, or Safety messages. If the watch duties required the R/O to operate on frequencies other than 500 kHz, then it was necessary to maintain a listening watch on 500 kHz using the watch receiver which was equipped with a loudspeaker.

The history of the HP Watch receiver fitted on Magdapur was very interesting because the Brocklebank Radio Department had been commissioned by the Admiralty in 1940 to build a Merchant Ship Watch receiver that produced extremely low oscillator radiations. It was believed, that such radiations were being detected and used by German submarines to reveal the location of the Allied ship. Enclosing the receiver inside a Huntley and Palmer Biscuit tin (Hence the HP designation) reduced these radiations to a negligible level.

I had used Magdapur’s HP watch receiver during my deep sea trip and had avoided diving into its entrails because it worked alright and also because some of the insulation on its internal wiring was beginning to get brittle. (This might have been an early example of me taking note of the sage advice of “If it isn’t broke don’t fix it).

The dockyard unions were strong in the 1960’s and could refuse to allow any of the ship’s crew to assist in the work in any way. However on Magdapur and especially with the electricians doing the work in the radio room this was not a problem and I was allowed to work alongside them without objection on their part. In fact we all became very friendly over the time we worked together. Although I helped where I could, they did all of the hard and dirty work, which involved drilling holes, fitting new cable glands, replacing cables, switchgear and motor generators. I was however allowed to do the testing of the ship’s radio equipments as they came back on line.

The main source of recreation for Magdapur’s officers was a pub/night club in North Shields nicknamed “The Jungle” which we visited several times a week to settle the dust and to relax for a few hours. This venue had a reputation as being a hard place but we were never threatened or experienced anything you might describe as disagreeable. The beer was good, you could get a respectable meal and of course the company was great.

It’s said that for a group of young men, the greater the hardship the greater the camaraderie and this was certainly true during Magdapur’s dry docking. The jokes and stories on board and on shore flowed faster than the beer. The most regularly played record on the Jungle’s Juke box was Sandie Shaw’s “Long Long Live Love” and to this day whenever I hear that song I am transported back in time.

The Deputy Chief Radio Superintendent from the Liverpool Head Office, oversaw the radio room refit. He was a tall well-built man, standing over six feet. A Yorkshire man, he was direct in his manner but very friendly and I got on with him extremely well. He did not live on board Magdapur during the dry docking but stayed in a local hotel returning to his home at the weekend.

When the work was finished and on the last night before he returned back to Liverpool, he treated me to a meal in a Whitley Bay restaurant as a thank you for all my hard work. A gesture like that was a feature of Brocklebank’s radio department management style.

When all of the work was done Magdapur looked fantastic. Her black hull had been cleaned and repainted: her boot topping (the paint on the hull that is just above and completely below the water-line) was a bright red and her white superstructure stood out brilliantly in the sun.

As for her radio room that was a treat because apart from the re-wiring, the worktops had all been recovered with dark grey linoleum. The edges of the desk and cupboard tops were faced with varnished mahogany strips. New storage drawers and cupboards had replaced the old day bed and on top of this new cupboard sat a shiny new Marconi Lodestone direction finding receiver. A Marconi Alert receiver sat where the HP receiver previously took pride of place but in all honesty apart from it being a newer receiver it could not be looked on as an improvement in any way.

Before we sailed, the installation was checked out by a Post Office radio surveyor who passed it on the condition that the DF was fully calibrated before we left UK waters. With all of the work finished I signed ship’s articles again for a short coastal trip that included calls at Antwerp and Bremen.

On leaving North Shields, the navigators and I spent time taking visual and radio bearings on a light ship located at the mouth of the Tyne in order to calibrate the new DF receiver. Calibration was a process to determine by how much radio bearing differed from visual bearings when they were made at the same time. We started before seven o’clock in the morning. The sea was absolutely calm and although there was a slight mist the sun shone and the sky was clear. These were absolutely perfect conditions for that type of work.

Once all of the calibration bearings had been taken we were on our way across the North Sea to our continental ports of call. No doubt I spent a few happy hours during the off watch periods of that voyage, drawing the DF’s calibration curve and typing up the calibration chart. I stayed with the ship until early July when she berthed at the Victoria Docks in London to continue her loading prior to her next deep-sea voyage.

I did not want to leave Magdapur because she had become very special to me. I wanted to sail with her again and even offered to forego some of my accumulated leave to do so. Sadly for me, my offer was turned down by the Radio Department, so I reluctantly went on leave and she departed without me. I never saw her again although I communicated with her by radio many times during my remaining time at sea.

I think I was paid a daily hard living allowance during the month I spent in dry-dock even though I continued to enjoy all of the benefits of shipboard food and accommodation. Looking back over fifty years I ask myself the question, “would I have repeated that dry docking experience if given a chance”? The answer as you might expect would be “You bet I would”!

copyright © John Leary