I was never involved in handling distress or urgent traffic when I was a ship’s Radio Officer. I remember once in the Indian Ocean, between watches and when standing on the boat deck, seeing a German cargo ship very close to us that was dead in the water with all of its lifeboats swung out over the side and floating in the sea. My first thoughts were that the Auto Alarm had failed but on dashing into the Radio Room and doing an auto test found it to be functioning correctly. When I called the Bridge on the intercom I was told that it was just a full lifeboat drill!
When sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean at night it was not unusual to receive SOS calls from ships in the Atlantic or in the North Sea! When that happened it was usual practice to inform the Bridge, log the call but for the ship I was on to take no further action because of the distance between us and the ship in distress.
The Thos and Jno Brocklebank Ltd Steam Ship (SS) Manaar was the last of three sister ships to be built to a broadly similar design (Mahseer, Matra and Manaar). She was the third of that name to have served in the Brocklebank fleet. She was powered by three in-line steam turbines (high pressure, medium pressure and low pressure) fed with steam from three independent high pressure, oil fired boilers.
In February 1966 Manaar was bound from the UK to Colombo. In the early hours of the morning I was awoken from a particularly deep sleep by one of the ships quartermasters and told that the Captain wished to send an urgent telegram.
Pulling on a few warm clothes because it was distinctly cold outside, I left my cabin and went through the accommodation door on the port side and climbed the companion ladder to the bridge.
The Captain was in the chart room poring over the chart table writing out a message. Unusually, the Chief Engineer was also on the bridge alongside the Mate and the other navigating officers.
“Sparks”, said the Captain, “the ship has suffered a complete engine failure and although we are not in any immediate danger we are drifting at the mercy of the wind and tides. I want you to send a message immediately to Head Office (in Liverpool) reporting the situation and requesting instructions regarding tugs. We do not need to broadcast a distress or urgency message as yet but I want you to send the message without delay”.
Those few words grabbed my attention like few others could and if I was in any way sleepy when I climbed up to the bridge, that news made me fully wide awake.
The Captain then returned to his message checking the technical details with the Chief Engineer. When he was satisfied with the text, he handed it to me and I left the bridge without delay.
I must have shinned down the companion ladder from the bridge to the boat deck and in what I suspect was less than a minute had entered the radio room and had started to power up the equipment. Noting the time for the ships wireless log entry I switched off the auto alarm and started to listen on the International Distress Frequency of 500 kHz for signs of radio activity. From recollection there wasn’t much traffic on the air at that time mainly because it was still a long time to dawn and the first of the normal radio watch keeping periods (8 to 10 AM).
Manaar at this time was off the Kent coast in the straights of Dover with the UK on the starboard (right hand) side.
In the 1960’s the Post Office maintained and operated a number of coast stations around the coast of the United Kingdom (UK) whose purpose was to provide communications facilities and handle telegram traffic to and from merchant ships that were within their operating area. These coast stations operated on a continuous basis.
The nearest UK coast station to Manaar when I received the Captain’s message was North Foreland radio (call sign GNF) that was located on the Kent coast. All that I had to do to turn the captain’s text into a telegram was complete a word count and create a standard preamble that included the destination address. As the time was then outside of a silence period I did the final tuning of the medium wave transmitter, sat in the operator’s chair and gave GNF a call on 500 kHZ.
I do not know to this day why GNF did not reply but I must have called many times over a period of five minutes without receiving any reply. Thoughts of a transmitter or aerial failure were dismissed as all the transmitter’s meter readings were fine and the aerial ammeter showed a healthy aerial current. What to do next never became an issue because Humber Radio (GKZ) on the Yorkshire coast called me with the offer to take the message, suggesting I move up to his working frequency. This I accepted gratefully and retuned Manaar’s transmitter and receiver to the chosen working frequencies in order to send the message.
The text of the message was straightforward and I was given an acknowledgement by GKZ without the need to confirm or repeat any words or figures. We signed off and I noted the time for the ship’s wireless log book. Moving the main receiver back to 500 kHz to maintain a listening watch, I used the bridge telephone to report that the message had been successfully cleared. I then shut down the transmitter.
All that remained to be done on my part was to write up the ship’s wireless log recording the time on watch, the times of the unsuccessful calls to GNF, the time of GKZ’s call to me, the time when the message was successfully transmitted and receipt acknowledged and the time when I reverted to the ship’s auto alarm. As it turned out those entries were the subject of a great deal of scrutiny later in the voyage.
Funny how an adrenaline rush leaves you with a thirst. My first action after leaving the radio room was to head back up to the bridge for the latest information and if my luck held a mug of tea to go with it.
When I returned to the bridge the Chief Engineer was no longer there and I managed to get an update from a navigating officer who was on the wing of the bridge.
Apparently during the process of raising the water level in the boilers the engineer on watch had been distracted and the water level had risen to the point where both water and steam had entered the turbines. Most damage had been incurred by the medium pressure turbine where the turbine blades were closer together. The distortion of the blades had caused the engine to stop. Manaar’s engineers were hopeful of bypassing the damaged turbine to enable the ship to sail at reduced speed either to a UK or foreign port where the necessary repairs would be carried out.
The reply from the company would provide instructions to the Captain on what action to take. The navigating officer told me two other things, which were of great interest. Firstly that a Duty Officer was always available day and night in Liverpool to take action in the event of a problem such as ours and secondly the Captain wished to avoid appointing a rescue tug on his own initiative because of the salvage implications.
The Captain was still on the bridge and having heard me talking called me into the wheelhouse to quiz me on where the reply to his message might come. The outcome was that I agreed to monitor all the traffic lists of Portishead Radio, Humber Radio and North Foreland radio until the reply was received. That is what I and my junior did but with each traffic list coming and going with no reply, tension on board rose even higher.
Manaar continued to drift with the tide and was being blown ever closer to the UK coast by the wind. Mid morning a tug arrived offering a tow and the first thoughts of those on board were that this had been organised by the company. A few minutes on the VHF radio disabused the Captain of this possibility because it was clear that the tug knew of the ships dilemma but wanted to claim salvage. The speculation on board was that they had monitored our message to Humber Radio and had come in search of us using their knowledge of the tides and the position given in the Captain’s telegram. After a lengthy discussion over the VHF the Captain declined the tug’s offer and we continued to drift at the mercy of the wind and tide. The tug remained on station with Manaar.
At lunchtime when the expected telegram from the company had still not arrived I was summonsed to the bridge and given a second telegram to send. This broadly repeated the engine failure information of the first message with an updated ships position but additionally informed the company that it had failed to reply to the first message. The Captain also reported the offer of the tow from the tug.
This was sent through GNF without any problems at all. If I remember correctly we received a reply at the time of the next traffic list. The reply was along the lines that the first telegram had not been received; that investigations were being urgently conducted as to the reasons why, that the captain should agree to sign Lloyd’s agreement with the tug master and that Manaar was to be towed to Rotterdam for repairs. That is exactly what happened.
I believe that the entire ships company gave a collective sigh of relief when the towline was passed on board and Manaar started to move slowly away from the Kent coast towards Rotterdam.
It transpired that the ships engineers had made Herculean efforts to bypass the damaged turbine and restore steam to the other turbines but had been defeated by the lack of equipment.
I suppose we were in Rotterdam for about three weeks for repairs to the medium pressure turbine. This extra time added to the voyage for me was very welcome as it provided many more opportunities to explore the City.
A few days after Manaar docked in Rotterdam I was called up to the Captain’s Day room and told to bring Manaar’s wireless log book. In addition to the Captain was a man who was introduced to me as Brocklebank’s marine superintendent. Sadly I do not now remember his name.
Over the course of the next hour in what seemed at the time to be more like an interrogation, I was invited to explain the actions I had taken after being given the Captain’s message. I was also required to go into considerable detail as to why I had chosen to route the telegram through Humber Radio instead of North Foreland Radio. The entries in Manaar’s wireless log were copied down along with all of the recorded times.
I can remember that when I was finally allowed to leave the Captain’s Day room I was sweating from the intensity of the interrogation I had experienced. However I was clear in my mind about the correctness of my actions and the fact that all of the events surrounding the transmission of the Captain’s telegram were accurately recorded in the ship’s radio log. Whatever caused the loss of the first telegram would no doubt be discovered when enquiries were made of the Post Office.
I never heard anything officially about the results of the subsequent enquiry. What I did hear unofficially was that the first telegram had been delivered to Brocklebank’s Head Office by the Post Office soon after I had cleared it through Humber Radio and that the failure to act rested with who ever performed the Night Duty Officer role in Brocklebank’s Liverpool office. I believe that all company telegrams routed through Post Office Coast Stations were in fact delivered to shipping companies like Brocklebanks by Teleprinter. The audit trail under these circumstances would be cast-iron. Who was to blame for the loss of the first telegram was never explained to me.
That was the closest I ever got to handling distress traffic. After Manaar completed that voyage and returned to the UK I left her and never sailed on her again. However she continued to trade for a further five years until she was sent to Kaohsiung, Taiwan in July 1971. She did in fact have a brief life after she arrived as she was sold (presumably by the breakers), renamed and used for slightly more than a year before being scrapped in February 1974, (at the age of twenty four).
My greatest regret during my time at sea was that I never took any photographs of the Radio Rooms of the ships that I sailed on. I cannot explain why because I always sailed with a camera and slide film. I guess it was always something that I promised myself I would do during my next voyage. I therefore never had any photographs of Manaar’s radio equipment which was a pity because unusually for a Brocklebank ship her equipment all came from the same manufacturer (Redifon) and was all manufactured at the same time. Her Radio room was a joy to behold and her equipment a pleasure to operate.
A few years ago I was trawling the Internet and came across a Merchant Navy web site based in New Zealand. That site is no longer in existence. Trawling through its links I was suddenly confronted with a page identity that was given as GFRG which was Manaar’s radio call sign! Imagine my absolute delight therefore when I clicked on the link to see two very clear photographs of her radio room as it was when I sailed on her. I was immediately transported back in time and could almost smell that pleasant mixture of polish, varnished wood panelling and pipe tobacco once again. It was fate that I should find those pictures after all those years. They are now framed and take pride of place in my Ham radio shack.
For so many reasons, some being very personal, I considered Manaar to be very special and after all these years she remains my all time favourite Brocklebank ship.
copyright © John Leary