Home' Work Boat World : December 2016 Contents The end of an era
By Michael Grey MBE
When an era has ended, the chances are that nobody realises
the fact until a long time afterwards. In one of my books I have a
photograph of a battered old sailing ship, w hich clearly has seen
better days, lying at anchor in an unspecified port in what we are
led to believe is the first half of the 20th century. “The end of an
era” pro nounces the caption with perfect hindsight, although the
people aboard her probably had no inkling that their ship would
be so defined. If they had realised, they probably would have
been quite angry .
How many ending eras have you been part of, all unawares? I
can recall just a few, once again with the perfect wisdom
conveyed by a backwards glance. One that comes to mind was at
the end of the 1950s, loading heavy machinery and general cargo
for New Zealand on some bleak berth in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Across the dock was a black painted ship, conspicuous by her
ugliness, not that any American steamer came up to our elegant
looks. There were strange gantries on deck which were being used
to handle gigantic boxes on and off the quayside.
We looked at this ship, which had docked in the mo rning and
had departed by dawn the next day and if we co mmented at all,
it was to wonder how anyone could have designed such an awful
looking craft. None of us, for a single second, noted the
connection between the astonishing speed of her turnaround
compared to our five days alongside, as the dockers struggled to
stow great wooden crates and slings of long iro n into the wings
of our holds. It was just a nondescript, ugly brute, of no
The arrival of containers
But looking back, w hat we were looking at was the dawn of
deep-sea containerisation and cargo handling technology that
would, just a few years later, consign all our lovely
Commonwealth cargo liners, our eight weeks on the New
Zealand or Australian coast and our whole way of life, to the
scrapyard. That brutal looking Sea-Land containe rship across the
dock was the future. We didn’t have a clue, but looking back at
this mo ment in time, we ourselves had seen the end of our era.
We were, in the 1960s, at the end of an era in other ways too.
We might have been trained to operate fast and sophisticated
ships, but in many ways our training was something of a
continuum from older notions of seamanship and navigation.
Our reliance on “lead, log and look-out” persisted into the days
of radar assistance, but our work for our master ’s certificate took
in hours of study of the magnetic compass and its foibles. We
had been trained to splice rope and wire , to overhaul the huge
quantities of cargo gear which wreathed our capable vessels. We
knew how to sail boats and stitch canvas, to undertake
prodigious tasks using tonnes of dunnage. Cargo care was beaten
into our brains by fanatical mates, as we worked our way through
an apprenticeship, served entirely at sea.
We knew that the ans wer to any question by a board of trade
orals examiner involving emergencies was prefaced by “take
three stout spars”, and we knew, in theory at least, how to sling
a kedge anchor between two reinforced lifeboats. We had read
how to rig emergency steering gear, and knew what do with a
derrick and a couple of hatch-slabs in the event that the rudder
fell off. It wasn’t just theory either – we read accounts of how
they had managed to sail a disabled 10,000-tonne steame r half
way across the Atlantic by rigging up hatch tarpaulins as
makeshift sails and a jury rig. I remember going around the
‘Cutty Sark’ in London on a day off and noting that the third
mate’s cabin aboard this old ship was almost indistinguishable
(apart from my electric light) to the one I was living in, aboard a
rather elderly cargo liner, then in the Royal Docks.
It’s all about scale
It was the sheer uplift in the scale of shipping which did for
that era and broke any links with the old ways. On a quarter
million tonne tanker, there would not be a scrap of canvas, let
alone a stout spar to help you, if it all went pear shaped. On a
big containership, guided by satnav and urged on to rush up the
channel in thick fog because arriving late was u nacceptable, the
days of dead reckoning and the legacy of old seamanship faded
fast. There would be no possibility of the sort of intervention of
the old-fashioned seaman, in the era of the megaship and its
precise, com modity-driven operations.
In his strangely prophetic book Supership, which was
published in 1974 about a voyage to the Gulf aboard one of the
new generation of VLCCs, Noel Mostert perfectly captured this
dramatic break with a past that had been more human scaled
and manageable. He writes about walking to the forepart of this
vast ship after dark and being terrified at the industrial brutality
of the acres of steel around him, the total absence of any human
being as he took the elevator down to the unmanned engine
room. He writes of the transition from one era to the next, the
young officers who had never know n anything other than their
present life, their seniors who had known something very
differe nt, but gone foreve r.
You might think of other dramatic changes that are going on
around us, even today. The end of the era of high priced oil and
its unimaginable consequences might exercise your mind in the
offshore industry. A “low carbon” era is dawning, perhaps,
although I wouldn’t put money on the imminent death of
hydrocarbons. The era of the “unmanned ship”, I am told,
might be arriving. Maybe there will be a picture, one day in a
book (books won’t die out) portraying the very last seafarer.
Now that really would be the end of an era, although when it
happens, I would bet that nobody realises.
Submissions wanted! Do you have an exciting, amusing or downright dangerous anecdote from your time in the maritime world?
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I REMEMBER IT WELL...
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