I imagine that most people who served in the Merchant Navy can relate stories about the Captains that they sailed with and the strengths and foibles of those individuals.
I can remember all of the Captains that I sailed with on my Foreign Trade voyages, although strangely I have the utmost difficulty recalling the names and faces of the ship’s Masters that I sailed with on Home Trade voyages. Possibly that is due to the shorter voyages, my failing recall abilities together with the fact that you did not serve long enough with them for them to have a major impact on you.
One Captain I sailed with on both Home Trade and Foreign Going voyages, who I have never forgotten, was Captain Morris who went by the nickname of “Crikey”. Whether he was aware of this sobriquet or not I cannot say but he was well known throughout the Brocklebank fleet by that name.
The nickname was derived from his use of “Crikey” whenever he was angry or displeased. His language was never salty and “Crikey” was the most extreme word he ever used to indicate his displeasure.
He was a tall, well built man, probably in his early fifties when I sailed with him but already his hair was completely grey and from recollection very closely cropped.
Although reasonable in his day to day dealing with the Radio Department on board T and J Brocklebank’s SS Manaar, he tended to be extremely formal towards us and in my experience would not engage in what might be considered small talk. I never heard him relate any amusing story or attempt to crack a joke. There was however a very human side to him that was revealed to me on one voyage, when, berthed at Calcutta, I learnt via the shipping Agent that my father had died suddenly and Captain Morris did all that he could to ensure that I was repatriated to the UK (at company expense), without delay to support my mother. On a later voyage when my wife was on board, he showed every consideration to her, ensuring she felt comfortable and welcome.
This story relates to the two occasions when I earnt his displeasure and was severely “Crikied”.
On Manaar, the Cossor VHF transceiver (transmitter and receiver) unit was located in the radio room. This equipment was used to provide voice communications between the ship and port and harbour authorities. It could also be used by the ship's officers to telephone home when the ship was in range of a coast station that offered a telephone connect service.
The control unit for this equipment (telephone handset, volume control and channel change switch) was located on the bridge (one deck up from the Radio Room) and was connected to the transceiver by a long, multi-cored cable.
That Cossor VHF set had facilities for the connection of a second control unit that could have been located inside the radio room but for whatever reason, Brocklebanks had decided not to install it. There was however a length of unused control cable, coiled up in a loop that was connected to the transceiver at a second control unit outlet socket.
Manaar’s radio room was located on the boat deck on the port side so whenever you wanted to check the VHF's performance or to carry out repairs on it, you either had to run up to the bridge to listen to the loudspeaker or you called the bridge on the intercom to ask them to operate the controls. This in my view was a most unsatisfactory situation and inevitably extended repair and maintenance times.
When on a Home Trade (coasting) voyage around the UK, I made a request to one of Brocklebank’s Radio Superintendents for a loudspeaker that could be connected in the Radio Room to the VHF transceiver. After about a week, I received a very nice, Eddystone loudspeaker which had a circular metal case. I found a low resistance wire wound potentiometer that I used as a volume control and a double pole single throw toggle switch (on-off) amongst the ship’s radio spares and connected it to the appropriate wires on the spare control unit cable. I was very pleased with the result because it meant that faultfinding and testing on the VHF's receiver was now so much easier. My first trip junior lent an enthusiastic hand with the preparation and installation of the loudspeaker but I omitted to make it absolutely clear to him that it was only to be used for testing purposes.
The circumstances of the first “Crikey” came after the loudspeaker had been installed when we were still coasting. My junior was on watch alone in the radio room. Things must have been quiet because he decided no doubt out of curiosity, to listen to the VHF whilst keeping watch on 500 kHz (the International Distress Frequency). The first thing I knew of this monitoring, was when I was summoned to appear before the Captain and given a Crikey broadside because from his point of view we were monitoring transmissions that were none of our business. He also demanded to know what right I had to install this loudspeaker without his knowledge and authorisation.
I explained that the loudspeaker was installed with the knowledge and approval of Brocklebank’s Radio department who had supplied the parts and that it was an aid to fault finding on the equipment. I said that I did not question his complete authority over Manaar's radio service but pointed out to him as diplomatically as I could that the International Radio Regulations covering the use and operation of the VHF equipment only allowed the navigators to transmit and receive messages because of my license to operate.
I think a combination of hard facts, a robust defence by me plus an acknowledgement on both our parts that there was something to be said for the others point of view, resulted in my departure from his day room with honour satisfied for both parties. When I returned to the Radio Room and spoke to my junior about the incident his only comment was to claim he didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
The second “Crikey” was double-barrelled because it was delivered to both the Second Mate and myself simultaneously. Before the deep-sea crew had signed articles, Manaar’s coastal trip had included a visit to Glasgow. In Glasgow her ancient radar had been replaced by a smart modern English Electric set that had all of its transmitter and receiver equipment mounted in a small cabinet that was fixed to a bulkhead above and to the left of the chartroom table. The chart room was located immediately behind the Bridge. The new radar was so much better than the big beast that it replaced. The display on the new radar wasn’t Gyro stabilised and the radar itself was not equipped with any sort of electronic plotting, but overall it was a vast improvement over the old set.
The problem from the Captain’s point of view was that it didn’t have a timer with an audible alarm that sounded every six minutes. To the best of my knowledge such a feature was not standard on any radar sets of the day and certainly had never been part of the radar equipment I had trained on or sailed with previously. It was certainly never a feature of Manaar’s old radar and was certainly not something that Captain Morris had enjoyed whilst he was Manaar's Master.
Protest as we might the captain was adamant that the radar was deficient and the Second Mate and I were collectively responsible for putting matters right. I think at the time this Crikey was delivered we were at the early stages of her deep sea, outward bound voyage without recourse to any shore side parts or support. Today with integrated circuits and a vast electronic hobby market Worldwide, the components to manufacture a small timer would be easily obtained. However in 1966, at sea, the options were limited to say the least. Over a few beers the second mate and I racked our brains to come up with a solution to the problem. Sadly, every avenue we explored was either impracticable (water clock) or impossible because of the lack of suitable components. We even scoured the ship for wind-up alarm clocks belonging to the officers and crew but this turned out to be a dead end because the clocks we found were either unsuitable, had glass faces that could not be drilled or the owner would not donate it to the cause.
The outlook looked bleak and the Second Mate and I faced the prospect of a long trip under a black cloud of Crikey displeasure and disapproval. It was also likely that without this feature, the Captain’s confidence in an otherwise perfectly functioning Radar would be undermined.
In 1966, Manaar was in her sixteenth year. During that time the ship’s radio department had accumulated a load of junk electronic components and used spare parts that previous Radio Officers (R/O's) had stored away in the ship’s radio lockers against the prospect that one day these items would come in handy. (I am guilty of being a hoarder because my Ham Radio shack is full of stuff that my wife considers to be junk but which I look on as treasure!).
Anyway, (back to Manaar), after rummaging through numerous boxes, salvation came in the form of a small 12 volt DC motor that had a series of shafts with meshing speed reduction gears. I also found a couple of micro switches with actuator arms and two relays that would operate on 12 volts. I think the second mate found a bell that we could use. I had no idea what equipment the motor and relays had come from as they carried no manufacturing marks but I said a silent word of thanks to the R/O’s who had saved them for this day of need.
After a lot of head scratching, circuit drawing, some metal bashing and a lot of trial and error, I produced a device that was not elegant but was capable of ringing the bell for a few seconds, at approximately six-minute intervals. Once the bell had rung it then re-set itself for the next time period. Being unable to find or fabricate a 12 volt power supply we opted to take power from the Aldis battery that was located on the Bridge, near to the Radar display. (The Aldis lamp was a device to allow ships to communicate with one another through the use of visually transmitted morse code).
We had nothing to use to stabilise the voltage of the battery so the timing interval of the bell's ringing was a bit variable depending on the state of charge of the battery. The ship’s Carpenter made us a box from plywood, which he then sanded and varnished so that the finished article looked professional and did not look out of place when fixed to a bulkhead alongside the rest of the bridge furniture. On completion of the unit, the Second Mate and I were totally confident that we had fabricated the ultimate Crikey deflector.
On completion of the timer but before its handover to the Captain, the Second Mate and I anticipated the fullsome praise, glowing appreciation and undying gratitude that we would receive when we rang his bell so to speak. When the Crikey deflector, was demonstrated, he managed to contain his enthusiasm and accepted it with words along the lines of “I told you it could be done”!
I left the Manaar at the end of that voyage so have no idea if the timer remained in service or was quietly forgotten about and allowed to gather dust on the Bridge.
I have to admit to retaining a grudging admiration for Captain Morris since my time on Manaar over fifty years ago, not because of any of the foregoing incidents, but because during the whole of my working life, when I have been angry or needed to sound off, I have never been able to restrict the word(s) used to “Crikey”. That requires the sort of iron self-control and discipline that I never had.
I did however learn several valuable lessons from being Crikied the second time. Firstly, necessity really can be the mother of invention. More importantly, I learnt that one skill an effective manager had to acquire and apply was to recognise when words of praise and thanks should be given to a subordinate for a job well done. I came to appreciate that it costs nothing to acknowledge good work but in my experience such recognition is appreciated and remembered by the recipient for a long time after the event.
For so many reasons, Manaar remains to this day my all time favourite Brocklebank ship. I even keep a framed photograph of her sailing down the Hoogley river in India on the walls of my Ham shack at home. How sad is that?.
copyright © John Leary