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SS MANAAR. I NEVER SAW THE LIGHT

I was able to visit a game reserve in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) back in the early-sixties and was lucky enough to see a wild leopard after much pointing and whispering by our game warden guide who spotted this well camouflaged animal without the aid of binoculars, way into the distance, whilst it was lying down resting at the base of some bushes. You, dear reader might at this point be forgiven for asking what has this to do with a story about a light. My explanation is that I wanted to make the point early on that each individual person develops their five senses differently according to their environment, circumstances and inclinations.

Whilst at sea as a Radio Officer (R/O) my hearing which was always good, developed to the point where I could read very weak radio signals even though these might have been subject to fading and severe interference at the time. However I stood in awe of the navigating officers who were able to see and identify small objects or coastline features at considerable distances even when conditions were poor.

One of my favourite pieces of ship borne equipment on all of the ships that I sailed on was the Direction Finding (DF) receiver. It was the one electronic navigational aid available in the 1960’s and fitted to all ships above a certain tonnage that was mandated by International Shipping Regulations because of its importance to Safety of Life at Sea.

The Marconi Lodestone DF receivers on the Brocklebank ships I sailed on were all installed in the radio room with the radio bearings being taken by the R/O. The ones I used only provided relative bearings. Later equipments were capable of being Gyro stabilised in which event they would also indicate true bearings. Other DF’s made by the Marconi Marine company were fully automatic and installed in the chartroom behind the Bridge. I never sailed with either of the later types of DF equipments.

I used the DF equipment many times during my sea going career to confirm where we were when the weather was bad around the coast and when we were outside of the range of the ship’s radar. The accuracy of the DF had to be checked and calibrated at regular intervals in order to keep the ships wireless license up to date. Failure to do this could result in the ship being refused permission to sail.

This story relates to the time in 1966 when the SS Manaar’s DF was used so that she could arrive at Jeddah (in Saudi Arabia) at night.

If you search for Jeddah on Google Earth and look at the many photographs that are displayed you will see what looks to be a very well developed, almost cosmopolitan city. My memories of the 1960’s port (viewed only from the deck of the ship) is of a place devoid of any remarkable features and one where non Muslims were barred from going ashore unless engaged on important ship’s business. It was also a port where the religious police came on board to seal the ships Bonded Stores to prevent the consumption of alcohol.

Jeddah was and presumably still is the main sea port of entry to Saudi Arabia for Muslims wishing to participate in the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj).

The approach to the port of Jeddah back in the 1960’s was treacherous. It may still be the same to day. I do not know. Back then the route into the port was marked with the half submerged and rusting wrecks of the many ships that hadn’t made it.

On the voyage in question the Master, Captain (Crikey) Morris decided that we had to arrive at Jeddah at night on a certain day rather than wait until daylight hours. It is possible that the port was expecting a pilgrim ship which would have meant a considerable delay to Manaar before she could go alongside to discharge her cargo.

Whatever the reason, Captain Morris decided to sail down the Red Sea parallel with the coast but in safe waters and at the appropriate position turn to Port (Left) through 90 degrees and sail in. I have probably oversimplified the operation and if so I hope that any one with navigating knowledge or experience who might be reading this will forgive me. The exact point along the coast when the ship made its turn was to be judged with the help of Manaar’s DF equipment, taking radio bearings on an aeronautical beacon located at Jeddah’s airport which was situated immediately behind the port. The beacon was recorded in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) List of Radio Determination and Special Service Stations as reliable for maritime navigation with a range of 150 miles.

I was told by the navigators that as we moved much closer to Jeddah having made the turn, the position of the ship could be checked with visual bearings taken on the light fitted at the top of the beacon’s mast. All I had to do was to take radio bearings on the beacon to assist in deciding when to turn.

It was usual practice when using the DF to set the ships aerials into a predefined standard arrangement so that the same electromagnetic conditions would apply around the DF’s loop’s (that acted as its aerials) as applied when it was calibrated. It was also practice to lower any private broadcast receiving aerials that might be erected close to the loops that could affect the accuracy of the bearings.

I was confident about the accuracy of the DF equipment on Manaar that voyage as I and the navigators had taken check bearings on a radio beacon when coasting around the UK before sailing deep sea. This however was the first and as it turned out the only time that I ever took bearings from an aeronautical beacon. I remember that I started to take the bearings after the last of the normal radio watch keeping periods of the day. I cannot remember exactly when but I suppose I commenced taking bearings when the beacon was off the Port Bow.

The radio bearings were taken every five minutes. It helped me enormously that the Jeddah beacon transmitted its long dash and identity radio signal continuously.

Having taken the DF bearing and applied any corrections, the results were passed to the Bridge via the Radio Room Intercom.

As Manaar’s DF bearings on the beacon approached the two seventy degrees (relative) turning point I believe that the ship reduced speed so as not to overshoot. On two seventy degrees, the ship turned ninety degrees to port (left) so that the beacon was then dead ahead. Manaar then steamed slowly towards Jeddah and the coast with the navigational staff keeping visual and radar lookout. I imagine the echo sounding equipment was also working overtime. I continued to monitor the beacon on the DF but I cannot remember how often any further bearings were requested after we turned to Port. I suspect not very many.

After what seemed an age I was told by the bridge that it was then possible to see the loom of the beacon's light and that visual bearings were then possible. I was told that the loom was the glow around the beacon caused by reflected light from the atmosphere but not the direct light emitted by the beacon itself.

With some relief I went on deck to look forward across the Bow. Although I knew, having been told by the navigators, that the light was dead ahead, I could not see what the navigating officers clearly saw.

I believe that Jeddah’s pilot station was extremely surprised to be called over the VHF by Manaar and told that she was very close to the port and that their services were required. I think Manaar tied up alongside the jetty around dawn.

After the pilot came on board but before we finally arrived at Jeddah, I confirmed with Captain Morris that I was no longer required and on being told to stand down, I gratefully turned in having been on and off watch and taking bearings for over twenty two hours. Although Manaar made a successful passage and arrived safely at Jeddah that night, I never did see the light.

copyright © John Leary