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SS MAHSEER. LIGHTNING NEVER STRUCK TWICE

On the first of my two deep sea voyages on Thos and Jno Brocklebank’s, SS Mahseer as second Radio Officer (R/O), the Chief R/O Harry Jefferson and I, replaced the rather worn and outdated aerial changeover panel with a very smart modern replacement. (Modern for 1963 that is).

For those not familiar with the purpose of such a device it was the means by which the main and emergency transmitting aerials were connected to the transmitters and receivers in the ships radio room. In those days on the Brocklebank ships that I sailed on, the Main and Emergency aerials were very long wires mounted as high as possible above the ships superstructure.

Unlike the Marconi Marine manufactured unit of the time that was enclosed inside a metal case, the aerial changeover panel that we fitted was an open plate of mild steel, slightly over 2 feet square with a number of porcelain insulators mounted at right angles to its surface. The insulators were similar to, but very much smaller than those you see on the top of today’s electricity sub-station transformers. The aerial feeder wires were connected to the top of these insulators.

Connections between the aerials and the transmitting and receiving equipments were made by a pair of knife lever switches that the R/O could rotate in order to connect the selected aerial to the required equipment. The panel was mounted on to angle brackets that in turn were welded to the bulkhead, the outside of which faced the number three hold. The panel additionally was earthed to the bulkhead by a thick rubber covered flexible cable.

The wireless operating position in Mahseer’s Radio Room, was to the right of and below the aerial changeover panel, so that it could be seen and was easily accessible when operating the ships wireless installation. The work of installing the new panel was completed successfully in Colombo during the time the ship’s station was closed down so everything was in fine working order prior to our return journey home.

Now Harry was a man who had previously served in the Royal Navy during World War 2 and had seen active service on the Russian convoys to Murmansk. He was well built, had a fine head of greying hair and a moustache that was animated, particularly when he laughed which he did very often. He could find humour in most situations, was not excitable and was rarely put out no matter what problems were encountered.

On Brocklebank ships carrying two R/O’s the radio watch keeping duties were shared between them. If a meal break occurred during a radio watch-keeping period then the R/O on watch would be relieved to allow the meal to be taken. It was again usual during my time at sea for there to be two sittings in the dining saloon with the junior officers eating at the first sitting.

One late afternoon on the return journey home when still in the Indian Ocean, I was on watch and was relieved by Harry to go to dinner. The weather was stormy and the ship was moving about quite a bit. This never curbed my appetite because apart from my first trip to sea (Home Trade) when I was violently sea-sick travelling from Newcastle to Antwerp I never suffered any ill effects from bad weather. As food was part of your wages I always did my best to be very well paid!

What was on the menu that day I cannot now remember although pork chops seem to come to mind, but as I was walking up the internal staircase from the dining saloon to the radio room after my meal, I was feeling very contented and ready to finish off what remained of the watch.

When I entered the radio room the electric lighting had been switched off. The Radio Room was illuminated only by the daylight coming in through the single porthole on the Port side of the ship. All the equipments were powered down and there was a very strong smell of ozone similar to the one you get from the ionisers and fly killers you find on the walls of a butchers shop.

Harry was sitting totally still and was gripping the edge of the operator’s chair. His face was completely drained of colour so it was difficult to say where his white shirt ended and his neck and face began.

He told me that as he was watch keeping, the ship’s main aerials (being much higher than the emergency aerial) had been struck by lightning. The energy had carried down the aerial conductors and had found a path to earth across the insulators of the new changeover panel. He described the initial noise within the radio room when the strike occurred like a clap of thunder followed by a pyrotechnic display as the electrical charge on the aerial discharged across the panel on its way to earth.

Harry couldn’t say how long the arcing had continued (probably fractions of a second) but he did mention that the arcs seemed to cross all the insulators on the face of the panel at the same time.

His instinctive reaction when the lightning struck was to pull all the power supply breakers to the equipment and to switch off the lights. After that shock set in and he just sat in the darkened radio room trying to recover. Fortunately apart from being shocked in the medical sense, he was unhurt.

As we brought the station back to life we were pleased and relieved to find that apart from a little bit of scorching on the surface paint of the changeover panel all the ships radio equipments were undamaged, possibly a testimony to the way they were constructed in those days and also because they did not contain the voltage sensitive semiconductor devices and integrated circuits of modern equipments. I don’t think anyone else on board knew the ship had been struck until Harry related the story to them later on that day.

Although I later sailed through a number of storms in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, I never experienced a similar event and I have to admit I am happy to report that as the saying goes lightning never struck twice.

Strangely enough, although as I have said Harry had a great sense of humour, to my knowledge he never ever made a joke about that incident at least not whilst I was his junior.

copyright © John Leary