Home' Work Boat World : November 2015 Contents The tsunami that wasn’t
By MICHAEL GREY MBE
Today, we are well aware of the sheer frightfulness of what a
tsunami can wreak on the shores of those places unfortunate
enough to be in its path. It has happened rather too often in
recent years and nobody can be in any doubt about the
terrifying capabilities of this natural pheno menon.
It was the late 1950s and we were berthed in an Australian
river port. Compared to today’s ricochet around the terminals, it
was a rather mo re leisured life and we we re anticipating being
alongside in this port for a week or more. The engineers got to
work with some massive overhaul below, while we loaded cargo
in a desultory fashion, which suited everyone (except the
engineers) in the heat of the summer.
“Soon, every bitt and every
bollard ashore was festooned
with our moorings”
The alarm occurred during the weekend when a worried
harbourmaster came to visit our master. Across the other side of
the Pacific Ocean, there had been a gigantic earthquake and the
waves from this huge tear in the earth’s skin were apparently
racing across the ocean and expected to reach the shores of
Australia some time on the following Monday. Nobody knew
what the effect might be, but the consequences of this mass of
water su rging up the rive r could be dire.
The port was almost empty, but a couple of vessels elected to
leave their berths and head off to sea, where they would be far
safer, but for us, with the engines strewn around the plates, this
was not an option. We shall have to ride it out alongside, said
the Master, which fact was relayed down to us lower orders by
the Mate. All hands turned to and doubled and trebled up all
our moorings, with bights on every single end and the springs
looking like a cat’s cradle, such was the cordage that was spread.
It wasn’t enough, said the Mate – two brand new ropes were
broken out from the boatswain’s store and soon, every bitt and
every bollard ashore was festooned with our moorings. The
master inspected our efforts. They were insufficient!
I seem to recall that part of the problem had been a viewing on
the outward passage of the blockbuster film Krakatoa, which
offered a highly dramatised account of the great eruption of the
volcano of that name in the Sunda Straits in 1883. This offered
colourful accounts of the aftermath at sea, with a ship fighting the
colossal waves generated by the explosion, with helmsmen lashed
to the wheel and the heroine bravely tending the wounded. This
may well have affected the judgement of the senior officers who,
after conferring with the boatswain and his mate, announced that
we should have to break out the “insurance wire”, to fasten us
even more securely to the quayside, lest waves of similar
proportions tear us from our moorings.
The insurance wire was a gigantic roll of thick wire which
lived in a huge reel on the poop, under its painted canvas
wrappings. It never normally saw the light of day except very
rarely when the wrappings were taken off and thick grease
applied to its exposed parts, this gradually melting and dribbling
down into the core. Then the wrappings were hurriedly replaced
and the general filth removed from our yacht-like pitch pine
decking. It was so called because (and I still don’t know how
true this is) Lloyd’s of London would remit some premium to a
ship so well equipped.
The wire was about as thick as the boatswain’s mighty
forearm, and it was like wrestling with a python as we all flaked
this filthy monstrosity over the stern and along the quay. It
seemed about a mile long. We then had to fasten it securely,
using winches to heave it around the bitts and lash it. Even
then, after hours of labour, it hung in a huge catenary at bow
and stern and we just couldn’t get it any tighter .
“ The watery
wrath to come”
We were as ready as we could possibly be and as the
advertised hour approached, two of us apprentices with
semaphore flags were sent about a quarter of a mile down the
quay, where there was a tide gauge, to provide the ship with a
few minute’s warning of the approaching doom. We had seen
the film too, but were clearly judged expendable by the Mate.
We were going to miss our lunch too.
We sat gloomily on the edge of the wharf, looking at the
figures on the tide gauge. There was a ladder on the side of a
warehouse and we debated whether we could get onto the roof
and whether it would survive the watery wrath to come. The
alternative was a hill about half a mile away, and it was doubtful
whether we would safely make that distance, even though we
were fit enough.
Almost on cue, the level on the gauge, which had been
falling with the ebbing tide, suddenly stopped. My mate started
to frantically wave his flag. On the deck, fore and aft, all hands
stood by the great festoons of ropes and wires. The tide, which
should have had another three hours of ebb in it, suddenly
began to creep up the gauge. We looked nervously towards the
river entrance, expecting something like the famous wave,
captured so graphically on Japanese porcelain, to come bursting
up the river.
The tide came up another three inches, paused, and with an
almost audible sigh of anti-climax, resumed its ebb. The
tsunami, after its rampage across from the coast of South
America, had done its worst. The worst, for us, was getting the
b..... insurance wire back on its reel!
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I REMEMBER IT WELL...
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