Tales of an accidental life? (9)

Copyright © 2020 Denis Scott. All rights reserved.

Ras to Jas – Work, play and no rest

Google Maps

As far as I can recall, loading and unloading the Lumen only took about forty-eight hours at most for each.  With the journey from Jeddah to Ras Tanura taking less than a week; this meant that each round trip took about a fortnight.  Bearing in mind that the deck officers had to work their normal four hour watches every day while at sea, plus supervising entering and leaving port. In addition cargo watches were worked six on, six off while in port and at sea, tank cleaning was carried out using high pressure automatic hoses while some tanks were loaded with sea water in order to ballast (balance for stability purposes) the ship.

For once, the engineers had an (arguably) easier life.  Shift work was less common.  The modern engine room had its own control room where all the gauges and meters were linked to alarms which sounded in the duty junior engineers cabin if any readings outside permitted levels were recorded out of normal working hours whilst the vessel was at sea.  The junior then had a time limit of a few minutes, I cannot remember the exact number, to get down to the engine room control room, switch off the alarm and investigate its cause.  If they didn’t switch off the alarm in time, an alarm would sound in the chief or second engineer’s cabin.  Which made for a very angry senior engineer.

For the deck cadets life was hectic, we were utilised to the full, especially after my colleague was promoted and I became the only cadet.  In practice, as I became more experienced supervising the tank cleaning by the crew became my responsibility. Plus, with the aid of an engine room fitter, carrying out the ballasting, which was done as soon as we left Jeddah after unloading, was carried out by myself.  Cargo watches also became a regular task although I nominally I was overseen by the second or third officer for those.  The hours of work tended to be a minimum of twelve hours per day, add in socialising time, eating and throw in a bit of sleeping time here and there and everything else (such as study time) went right out of the window as the expression goes.

Socially, the hectic working pace did nothing to reduce my drinking.  The saving grace was the heat I was working in.  I am extremely fair skinned (went from being a blonde baby to a red haired teenager and brown haired adult, now balding grey).  As a result I go from red to blistering at the hint of a ray of sun (more of this in a later post).  Unfortunately for me, the dangers of skin cancer were not widely known at that time and a bronze tan was all the rage amongst young people so I spent most of my time on deck during the day dressed only in shorts.  Over the months, after losing a lot of skin from my chest and back, rather than going brown my body went an insipid sort of yellowish bronze which disappeared with days on my return to the U.K.  I was always amused by the fact that I would be out working on deck in the full sun while the rest of the ship’s company, deck crew included were allowed to stay inside (‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ as the old Noel Coward song goes).

The ship’s bar was still the centre piece of social engagement.  The Indian crew did not have a bar but those that wished it were permitted an allocation of two cans of beer a day.  Film nights were still a major attraction.  I remember the first film I saw at sea was Midnight Cowboy with the theme song by Glen Campbell.  The film was fairly recent and although it sounds ridiculous in today’s age of multi-screen, satellite T.V. and streaming I was really impressed at the opportunity of seeing such a recent film. In addition, ‘horse race’ nights were staged, when giant dice were thrown to move model horses along a marked out course on the floor and small bets were placed. 

This period was also my introduction to the British version of the ‘Indian curry’.  Until this time I was not enamoured of spicy foods.  The British curry of the period usually consisted of some bland curry powder being added to a dish to make it hotter.  On the Asian crewed ships there were two kitchens known as galleys (one for the officers and one for the crew).  The officers meals were served by the Goan stewards and consisted mainly of traditional British fare (but cooked by Indian chefs).  However, every lunch and dinner included the option of a curry as an entrée.  Over the months I got into the habit of having a daily curry as my palette adapted.  These curries were not the same as those eaten by the crew but were similar (though probably milder) than those served by Indian restaurants in the U.K. today.

Having said that my work on the tanker was arduous is not a complaint.  My lack of finesse and coordination was not an issue in a world of giant valves, pipelines and shifting hammers.  I had finally found something practical that suited me in life.  I have discovered over my lifetime that understanding flows comes fairly naturally to me.  The layout of the vessel’s cargo pipeline system (a reaches b via c), the location of junction valves and the measurement of oil or water levels in tanks quickly became second nature.  This coupled with the absence of mundane tasks such as clock changing and chipping and painting doors or lifeboats made my working time on the Lumen really satisfying.  As a teenager I felt like a valuable cog in an international chain (fossil fuels had not yet become the work of the devil).  In addition, the heavy workload meant that my supervision was limited.  On my first trip on the Port Chalmers, the cadets cabins used to be inspected three times a week by the senior officers when at sea.  One first mate used to leave a small coin on top of a door in our cabins and then put on his white gloves to see if it was still there on his next inspection to make sure we had dusted every nook and cranny.  There was none of this pettiness on the Lumen, the workload pressures were too great.  I also found that my preference for night work also meant that supervision was limited.  As long as I handed everything over correctly to the next watch in the morning, everyone was happy.

There were a few mishaps in the work over the months.  On one occasion, we had a first mate whose first action on waking up was to reach over and get a cold beer out of his fridge before getting out of bed.  Ballasting involved filling the cargo tanks with water, making the ship settle lower into the sea thereby making it more stable.  The pumping of water was controlled to try and balance port and starboard equally as the ship went lower.  Too much of a tilt one way or the other had two results, firstly the ship was momentarily less stable and secondly and in terms of my survival and future career more importantly, it used to result in the mate’s fridge switching itself off.  In the Gulf this meant his beer got warm very quickly.  I was on deck, controlling the pumps and valves for ballasting with the fitter early one morning before breakfast when the mate came running out from the accommodation, red faced with exertion and rage.  He screamed abuse at me, pointing out that his fridge had shut off.  He made it plain that such an action meant that I was a total incompetent.  I made matters even worse by explaining that as a teenager on his second trip to sea I had discussed my actions with the deck Serang (a respected seaman in his fifties).  The mate exploded, not only had I ruined his first drink of the day, I had also undermined the whole British Empire.  He returned to his cabin and a hearty English breakfast accompanied by an ice cold beer, following which, all was forgiven and forgotten.

On another occasion we were loading mogas into some of the ship’s cargo tanks.  Rather than electronic gauges, as the tanks filled we would stand by the outlet at the top and lower an ullage stick in to it (a rigid length of wood or other material, usually graduated in units of volume, for measuring by ullage the quantity of liquid in small tanks which have been …, Cross Dictionary.com).  As the height of the oil rose in the tank, the person dipping the stick into the tank would shout out the reading to someone standing by the valve ready to close that tank when it was full.  I was standing holding the stick as the gas of the fuel we were loading rose out of the tank.  Suddenly I heard a shout and stepped back as mogas shot out of the top and hit me.  I had become ‘high’ on the petrol fumes and forgotten what I was doing.  I still get a little nostalgic occasionally when I am filling my car with petrol.

The regular journey from Jeddah to Ras Tanura and back took us from the red sea, along the southern coast of the Arabian peninsular and in to the Persian Gulf, through the now famous Straits of Hormuz.  The straits are a narrow bottle neck through which almost 20% of the world’s traded oil passes in tankers (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2019).  At its narrowest, the straits shipping passage is only two miles wide which is a negligible distance in modern terms.  The current political situation highlights the importance of the straits with the main islands there belonging to Iran.  Ras Tanura was, and still is one of the world’s largest oil refineries, although we never left the ship there.  Whether that was because there was nothing to look at, or because we weren’t allowed, I don’t know.   

One incident that did occur to me in Ras Tanura involved the local doctor, or rather his absence.  My cholera vaccination which lasted for six months was due for a booster jab.  I was instructed to go to the ship’s bar where the doctor had set up his equipment to vaccinate various crew members.  When my turn came, I approached him, sleeve rolled up and received my jab (if you haven’t already guessed I’m a bit of a wimp over such things.  It’s not a matter of pain but it’s the idea of voluntarily allowing someone to stab me in the arm.  I am a total control freak).  He gave me the injection, which seemed a bit brutal and over vigorous to me.  I sat in the bar and chatted to a Dutch tug captain who worked at the port.  After the doctor had packed up and left the tug captain said to me ‘he was a bit rough wasn’t he?’

‘I thought so’ I replied.

‘The doctor’s much more professional’ he said.

I was shocked, I told him I thought that the person who had injected me was the doctor.

‘Oh no’ I was told, ‘that was the doctor’s Indian driver.’

As you can see, I lived.

Back in Jeddah, despite the workload I made sure to pay a few visits ashore.  One of the things I bought (apart from vast amounts of pistachio nuts; I loved them and they weren’t generally available at that time in my area of England) was a Toshiba radio cassette player.  Up until then I had nothing to listen to music wise.  Now my world opened up.  I am amazed that in the space of my life time, entertainment has gone from large vinyl record turntables and sound systems to cell phones and tablets working as computers.  Even the cassettes I started to carry round in my luggage are an unnecessary burden today.

Jeddah itself was a vibrant and wealthy city even then.  It has a long history as a wealthy Red Sea port.  The wives on the ship also used to go ashore there.  Local women tended to be few and far between but the reception the women received was always polite.  The only advice they were given was not to wear trousers and to keep their elbows and knees covered.

One day, together with the two wives I visited a Swedish ship berthed in Jeddah.  The ship’s chief steward (purser) entertained us with fresh seafood he had bought from the marketplace and other items.  That evening, I was due to start ballasting the Lumen after we had sailed but I felt violently ill.  I told the fitter I was working with (George) to keep an eye on things for me as I was going to bed and to wake me in the early hours when things on deck got busy.  This was and is unheard of for me.  I have never been certified sick in my life and have missed less than a day a year from work through my working life because of sickness.  I went to my cabin, waking sometime later.  It was pitch dark, it should have been day light, about 4 A.M.  I checked my watch it was 9.  I was baffled for a moment, why was it dark at 9 in the morning?  Then I clicked.  It was 9 the following evening, I had been out of it for about 24 hours.

I got up and went down to the deck control room where I found the fitter to demand he explain why he hadn’t woken me.  He told me he had tried, then, to keep me out of trouble he had gone to find the third officer (Bob, the cadet who had joined the ship with me and was now promoted having passed his exams).  They had both pulled me from my bunk onto the floor and tried to wake me, even bouncing me on the floor to no avail.  Bob, concerned for my survival had then gone and called the chief steward, who was responsible for medical matters at sea.  He had notified the captain.  I was returned to bed, still unconscious, and left to recover.  I now felt perfectly okay.  I went, somewhat apprehensively to apologise to the captain.  He was very good about it, he had spoken to the two wives and stated that he was satisfied that the seafood must have disagreed with me.  The chief officer (of fridge fame) was less forgiving and banned me from the bar for a month.  The result of this was that my cabin became the centre of parties on the ship for the next two weeks before the chief officer relented and the ship’s social life returned to the bar.

On the 14th July 1974, Bob and I left the Lumen at Ras Tanura and were taken by taxi through the desert to the local airport at Dhahran.

Author: Denis Scott

I live in the English East Midlands and now write light hearted fantasy stories under the name E. D. Robson although I may branch out to non-fiction (possibly semi-autobiographical) and other forms of fiction. I would like to say that I write full time but I actually spend most of my time either swimming at my local pool or watching television. I have always found that I need to work in fits and starts (catching myself by surprise and getting going before I can procrastinate) although I have found this non method to be fairly successful when people allow me to apply it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s