David tells us about his working life firstly on trawlers and then on supply boats. A career that took him all over the world and included being involved with the unions, encountering pirates, and providing footballs for children in Mozambique.
I was born in 1952, not to a seafaring family as such, my father was a carpenter but he was always involved in boats. We spent a lot of time down at the river at Great Yarmouth and I suppose that’s where my interest really started.
I grew up in Gorleston and went to Herman Junior School and the Alderman Leach School. The careers officer was ex navy and he really wanted all the boys to join the Royal Navy. I wanted to join the merchant navy originally but the qualifications that the companies wanted well, there was no way I was ever to reach those at the school I was at.
My father had a longshore boat and when I was eight I was allowed to go with him. My Uncle, Arthur Matthews was a shrimp fisherman and a longshore man, they had a shop on Gorleston high street. He had, what was in my eyes, a big boat and when I was about 14 I went longshore fishing with him. That’s when I really got into going away from the sight of land.
Trawling and long lining
We started trawling, which involves dragging a big net along the sea bed. It’s hard work on a boat, causes lots of damage with the chains and nets and bits and pieces coming over the side of the boat. Long lining was actually liked more because it was easier on the ship, easier on the fuel costs and you caught a better quality of fish. I was taught how to bait hooks and coil lines and eventually I was allowed to work at the rail pulling the lines in. These lines could be anything up to four, five, ten miles long even with hooks every six foot.
In the summertime we would be looking for dogfish, spur dog, rock salmon and in the Easter period we would look for skate. We’d go along the Norfolk coast, Winterton, Hemsby, Cromer, Happisburgh out to the Sheringham Shoals, which is where we’d look for skate. The dog fish would be further off land in the summer, off the indefatigable banks up to the Humber and out to Dogger Bank.
In the winter we fished for cod. Short sharp sessions, away early in the morning, depending on the tide, fish for the cod, land it, get back, ready for the market next day. So that was our year.
They said to me that if you want to be a fisherman and want to go to sea then you had to go to sea school. I took my uncle’s advice and went to the marine school at Herring Score in Lowestoft. I left school at Christmas 1968 and joined the sea school in January 1969.
Once there you did basic safety induction and then you were sent to a company and did a trip of normally between 10 to 14 days. If you survived it and enjoyed it you returned to sea school for three months before returning to the company, in my case it was East Coast Fish Sales, and you were sort of apprenticed to them. You started as a deckie learner and depending on how you progressed you could be made up to be a deckhand.
During the three months at sea school you were taught rope work, basic navigation skills, lights, net mending and how to read a compass. Even though it was a long time ago there are elements of things that I learnt that I still used up until the time I retired, when I was teaching cadets.
‘And when both lights you see ahead, starboard your wheel and show a red.
If to Starboard Red appears it is your duty to keep clear But if upon your Port is seen a steamer’s Starboard light of green there is not so much for you to do as Green to Red keeps clear of you.’
‘When in danger or in doubt take a turn and go about’.
Those little rhymes and ditties stuck with me all my working life. I tried to explain them to cadets in the 90s and the 2000s and they didn’t understand them at all. They could read the rules, knew every full stop but they didn’t understand what they were reading, that’s what I found.
On the big trawlers you would tow a net like a giant shopping bag along the sea bed. The top edge of the net would be longer than the bottom of the net. The bottom of the net had big rubber rollers or rubber rings on it, with chains spread between them. There were two big boards called doors because they kept the net open. Then there was a wire off each of those called bridles. These were connected to the net, the doors could weigh a tonne a piece and had angled brackets so that when they were pulled through the water they would sheer away from each other. The vibrations from all this would cause the fish to come up off the bottom and the net would scoop them up. The overhang of top of the net meant that even if the fish swam up they couldn’t swim past the net, some did, but the majority were caught in the net.
The main fish out from Lowestoft was flat fish, plaice, sole, turbot. There were companies such as Boston’s that would specialise in cod more than flat fish.
We would basically fish anywhere from the Smiths Knoll lightship about 25 miles east of Great Yarmouth all the way up to the Norwegian coast. We would fish the clay deeps off Denmark, along the Whitby coast, the Wall of Death, the Sole Pit off the Humber, and as I mentioned earlier, Dogger Bank, places like that. Some did experiment with going west of Shetland and west of the Faroe Islands but the market at Lowestoft wasn’t really geared up for that type of fish, coley, black fish, they really wanted flat fish.
The hours were long, we had a good sized crew, there was a skipper, a mate, a third hand, which was like a second watch keeping officer. There would be three ABs [able seaman] a cook, and two engineers. When it came to shooting haul everybody would help including, sometimes, the engineer and cook, even though it wasn’t part of their job. But they would come out and help more so in the summer though than in the freezing winter.
We would then haul and shoot away again, this would take roughly 20 minutes to do. The fish then had to be gutted, washed, and packed away on ice. Everything was washed down ready for the next haul. The final clearing up was done by the last deck hand who was going to be on watch that next tow and that changed every tow. We might’ve had two hours or an hour and a half off before we done it all again. At the Humber ports they had enough crew that they could have 18 hours on and six hours off, so they could rotate all the time. But they were dealing with bigger quantities of fish than we were.
Pay wise you got a wage and a poundage, so you got a basic wage regardless of whether you caught fish or not. I think that it was about £30 and then we got a pound and a few pennies per 100 pound of the gross. You could earn good money and I mean I did earn good money there’s no two ways about it. The mate and the skipper were on a share. Skipper would get about 10 percent and the mate would be on about seven I think but this was on the net after expenses.
The expenses covered many things from fuel to food, baskets, radio equipment, DF which no one used. In the end this had to change.
If you go back to the days of sail, and herring drifters, they used to bring the nets in by hand, using farm workers who were coming to the end of their farming season. They would use a pole put into a capstan and then walk around turning the capstan which had a rope on it. This was attached to the bottom of the drift net and helped pull in the net. Then when they got steam they didn’t need these men, as steam drove the capstan. The owners then made a charge for this as they had to put in a steam generator but they didn’t have to pay for the extra men. So in my opinion the owners were just ripping you off all the way along.
This became really apparent, I think, when the Humber ports, the deep water trawling industry finished. Men that had been there all their lives came away with nothing, absolutely nothing. They’d been fishing there 30, 40 years and they said, ‘Well your ship has gone’. No retirement money, nothing. No redundancy money, nothing. You were all seen as part time workers because you were there for the voyage, therefore you qualified for nothing.
There was no pension scheme, some of us paid into the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, but I don’t even know where my papers are these days. But there was nothing, if the skipper thought that you were good enough you came back. If he didn’t like you then you didn’t come back. You had to find another ship.
You had to supply all your own safety gear and bedding. The crew’s food was paid for out of major expenses. We had no freezers as such so we would dig a hole in the ice and bury the meat in it. You would eat the things that went off quicker first and leave the beef until last. You had fish every day for breakfast and anyone who asked for cereal was seen as a bit of a softie. You might get bacon and eggs the first day but after that it was fish.
So conditions weren’t great really, although you worked hard you played hard too. We were at sea for 10 to 14 days and off for 60 hours then back out again.
On inshore boats it was different. I mean obviously you still bought your own oilskins, boots, gloves and knives. You were away in the morning and you just took a small amount of food if you were back in the afternoon. You would dash out, shoot the lines and get them back in again, especially in winter, before the next gale of wind came and you would have fish ready for the market the next day.
In the summer time when we were fishing for dogfish we would be away longer so we’d take food with us and there was accommodation on board. They were only small wooden ships, unlike the big deep sea ships.
An industry in decline
The industry started to fall away rapidly in the early ‘70s. The price of fuel went up and that affected the price of nylon, which is a by-product of crude oil. The price of nylon affected the price of nets, everything went up.
You were still paying for all the extras. Radio, it was a legal requirement to have a radio, but they were charging you for the radio. They were charging you for the DF, directional finder, which nobody used. At one point they were even charging you for the lifeboat which was crazy.
I drifted away from the fishing industry in the early ‘70s and got into the offshore business. I came back to it in ’74 and finally made the break in 1976.
The industry carried on into the ‘80s. My last voyage was 14 days on a fishing boat and I picked up something like £25. I’d been working day and night and I thought, ‘I’m a young man, I’m married, this is just not enough now, time to get out’.
A change of job, Island Offshore Shipping
Island Offshore shipping wasn’t much better than the fishing boats to be honest with you. It was a venture that was set up by two architects, and the idea was to take ex wooden hull mine sweepers and use them for standby rescue work. A brilliant idea in principle. But the management was just terrible and it really didn’t last long at all. A lot of the people employed were friends as opposed to being qualified officers. The few qualified officers that they did have were good and have remained lifelong friends. These wooden hull boats had two spare engines so you thought that you would have all the spares in the world. No. They were alloy because of anti magnetic mines, and needless to say they all went missing. They went into storage and were never seen again. We worked the Hewitt field for Phillips off Bacton, back of the Happisburgh Sands.
To me I saw some of these unqualified people as dangerous, they were unqualified and I was really concerned the way things were going. I was the only one with a genuine certificate, and I felt that if anybody’s going to take the blame it would be the person with the certificate. So I left and went back to fishing again.
After a few months they asked me to go back, this time they had qualified people and we provided a much better service. In 1976 it all crashed down because the people behind it; the two money people, hadn’t been paying the bills and the whole company went bankrupt.
I tried to get into a real company, but nobody really wanted fishermen as officers. They were quite happy to have them on deck but not as officers. They saw the certificate as rather lowly. But when you look at it a fisherman could take a ship from Greenland to Bear Island, up to the Arctic and back again. It’s no different to anybody sailing across the Atlantic or the Pacific, it’s just the same. But that wasn’t to be they didn’t like those certificates.
In December 1976 I called up a company called Stirling Shipping and was told initially that there were no positions. Then there was a shout across the room and they wanted to know where I was. I told them that I was in Great Yarmouth and then a woman, Kathleen Duncan, came on the phone and asked me what qualifications I had. When I told her that I had my mate’s fishing ticket she asked me if I could go down to the Stirling Brig and see the captain. I met the captain, Bertie Brown and was told that I was sailing that afternoon. There had been a problem with a guy who had walked off the job, he was under the impression that he was going to get the mate master’s job and when he didn’t he walked. This was a Thursday and Thursday afternoons was when the boat sailed with the food for the platforms for the weekend, so they were desperate for a mate.
So that’s how I joined Stirling Shipping and I stayed with them until 2005. Well, they became Seacor in 2000 but still retained the name Stirling on their ships. The amazing thing, when I joined them I told them that I needed to see my wife, who was working in town, to tell her that I wouldn’t be coming home that night, as I’d just stepped off another ship. They told me not to leave the ship, and they sent a taxi to pick my wife up, spoke to her manager to explain and she came to the ship so I could see her before sailing. When my wife got home there were flowers on the doorstep and a letter from Kathleen Duncan apologising for taking her husband away. Where would you see that today? Absolutely nowhere.
The other thing that I don’t think that you would see today was concerning pay. We used to do six week tours and you generally got paid at the end of the tour. So you got 12 weeks pay, for six on board and six on leave. When I got my first pay I got paid for the 12 weeks, but I thought that this was wrong as I had only been there a month. I thought that I ought to tell them, so I called them up and told them. They told me that, no, the guy who walked off hadn’t signed the log book, they didn’t have a mate for the first two weeks and as I had agreed to sign the log book for the missing days, they would pay me for the full 12 weeks.
Another big thing at that time was that you had to be federated and to get into the federation was very difficult for fishermen. If you didn’t go through the merchant navy route you couldn’t get in. It was coming up to Christmas and they waited until the very last moment on Christmas Eve before the federation shut and then told the federation that they had an non federated mate sailing and if they couldn’t get me federated by four o’clock then they‘d need to get a federated mate. They knew that this was an impossibility so I got federated by the back door should we say.
That was a big thing for me, it meant that whereas previously on the fishing boats if we didn’t catch fish we didn’t get paid. Now I was getting paid on a regular basis it didn’t matter how many containers we carried I got paid a wage. I also started to pay into a pension scheme which at the time I thought was a lot of money but now I’m retired I’m glad I did. You were looked after, there was medical severance, safety equipment was supplied. They paid for you to do courses, whereas the fishing industry, nothing. There you had to do everything yourself, beg for a job to go back out again. So this was major change for me and it was the best move I ever made really.
I joined the Stirling Brig in December 1976, working out of Great Yarmouth and then we moved to Ijmuiden in 1977. If I wanted to keep sailing as mate I had to get a Home Trade mate’s qualification. I had a mate’s qualification but it was a fishing one and it couldn’t be transferred over. So I went back to school, Lowestoft College again, same place, same teachers, same lecturers. I did more or less the same course too, the only difference was that I went to London to do the exam. I then went back and joined the Stirling Eagle as Mate.
Within the merchant service you have what are called ‘Foreign Going’ certificates and ‘Home Trade’ certificates. A Foreign Going certificate enabled you to take a ship anywhere and Home Trade ones enabled you to sail or take trips on a home trade basis. The rules were a bit crazy, for example you could take up to 3000 tonnes gross anywhere in the world but 3001 tonnes you couldn’t, crazy rule that was. The two certificates weren’t that much different just a bit more maths and celestial navigation separated them.
I got paired up with Brian Tyrell who I had been with at Island Offshore Shipping and we sailed the Stirling Eagle out of Aberdeen. These boats which also included the Brig, The Oak, The Rock, The Ash and the Sword were 55 metres long and they were lovely little boats. You had a skipper, a mate, chief engineer, second engineer, three deck hands and a cook. We would then carry supplies to offshore installations, whether that be a platform fixed to the seabed producing oil and gas or a drilling unit exploring for oil and gas. By today’s standards these boats were pretty basic, but compared to Island Offshore ships they were a palace. I had my own cabin with a sink and I shared a toilet and shower with the second engineer. On the fishing boats you couldn’t wash every day, but on these boats you could wash twice a day. We had an officer’s mess and a crew’s mess with a galley in between. The crews were all British and because Stirling Shipping was a Glasgow company I would say that a good 90 percent of the people were Scottish with a good proportion coming from the islands, Stornoway, Lewis, Harris, Barra. They were really nice people and I had some great times with these guys, great seafarers.
When you’re working with people and you’re in a gale you need people around you that you can trust. Some of it is life threatening and you need to know that they can do their job. Everybody is looking after everybody else, it was great times then.
We worked mostly for Amoco out of Aberdeen, working a production platform called The Montrose Alpha. We carried whatever they needed, water, food, tools, diesel, cement, powders, bayerites, bentonite and then later we started to carry mud.
With Island Offshore we carried 25 tonnes of water and thought that we were the bees’ knees. By the time I finished we were carrying 1000 cubic tonnes of drinking water. On the fishing boats if you carried eight tonnes of water that was a lot. But of course today with the modern boats it’s a different story, some of them have amazing pieces of kit, saunas even, but they cost millions upon millions to build.
I got the opportunity to get command in 1979 when I was 27. Funnily enough it was to go to Holland back to the Stirling Brig. At this point I still only had my mate’s certificate but because of tonnage regulations I could actually sail as a master as it had low tonnage. I was given this opportunity, took it and never looked back. For the next 40 years I was master of offshore supply ships.
This, again, was a whole new learning curve for me. All of a sudden you’re not one of the boys, you’re a captain. You are responsible for the people under you, to the owners. You’re running budgets, you need to please the people that you‘re working for, in this case Pennzoil. You had to keep them on side without jeopardising the health and safety of the crew. So a big learning curve really. But I enjoyed it, I’ve always enjoyed it. Some people can’t take responsibility but I have always felt that I could handle it. I always felt confident and never looked back. Yes I made mistakes but we never had any injuries as such. We had a great time.
Working with the Dutch was more than interesting shall we say. They had a different attitude to the British. We got invited to a barbecue on one of the platforms. I mean would you think that you could have a barbecue in the middle of the North Sea half way between Great Yarmouth and Ijmuiden? But we did. It was amazing actually. We got to know these people on first name terms and that was great because we could work together and do a good job, a really good job.
But again if you wanted to get on you needed to go back to college. So my final trip out of Ijmuiden was in December 1980 and then I studied for my master’s certificate and in April 1981 I was back at sea again.
I was on the Stirling Ash but just for a short while as they wanted me to join a toluene carrier, the Stirling Sword, which worked out of Peterhead. The Stirling Sword worked for BP or BNOC as it became. They had found oil in the Moray Firth, but this oil was very waxy. They were concerned that during the journey to the Nigg Terminal to pump it ashore it might solidify. So they needed a carrier, a pour point depressant they called it, to keep the wax content down. The Stirling Sword got the contract. We carried the toluene solution in a tank surrounded by a water-filled coffer dam. People say to me, ‘What’s toluene?’ Well, if you take super glue as an example, why doesn’t superglue go off in the bottle? Why doesn’t it stick the sides of the bottle together? Because it’s got toluene in it. When you put a line of super glue on something the toluene vaporises off and leaves the glue behind which sticks immediately.
When the toluene mixture was mixed with the crude oil it would keep it fluid enough to get it into Nigg Bay instead of ending up with a 60 mile long candle. The trouble though with toluene is that it’s inflammable, it has a flash point of about four degrees. We went on courses and learnt how to deal with it, how to carry it. We had an inert gas system on top of the toluene and a nitrogen blanket when we pumped out the cargo. The tank was filled with nitrogen so it was inert all the time. Every now and again we would get it cleaned out. The tank would be vented, tested, power washed out with a Butterworth Unit. When everything was clear and tested we could go back to normal running and we didn’t need to carry the inert blanket in there. We used to load this cargo in Grangemouth and then sail into the Moray Firth, and sit off Dunbeath or Lybster, little towns off the northern side of the Moray Firth until they were ready for it. Then we would dash out and pump it up.
That was a great job to be honest. BP agreed of their own accord to give us a bonus for carrying it. They said that it was too difficult to always work out who was on board doing the carrying so we all got it, so for three years I did very well out of that. No complaints whatsoever. We were very careful with the stuff and we never had an accident at all with it, and everything went well.
At the end of the three years the contract finished. They brought in another ship and by then different chemists decided that they could actually mix this pour point depressant with diesel so there was no safety concerns so they didn’t have to pay a bonus.
It was rumoured that the company was going to buy a ship from Norway. Now if you wanted an offshore supply vessel the place to go was Norway because they had the best. So when I heard about a boat that was coming from Norway, called the Edda Sartor which later became the Stirling Albion I put my name up for that. I really wanted to have a go as it was controllable pitch propeller with bow thrusters and stern thrusters. Other ships had been fixed pitch. We picked this boat up in February 1984. With controllable pitch propellers the engines were running at a constant speed. As you move the controls the blade on the propeller turns to give you a greater or a lesser bite in the water. Up front there was an 800 horse power bow thrusters and at the stern there was a 600 horse power thrusters, all coupled up through a Liaaen Poscon system. It had a joystick so anybody who could play Xbox games with a joystick could do this. It was a whole new world of ship manoeuvring and it was a brilliant, brilliant piece of kit for the time.
I stopped on this ship for 10 years, and near enough with the same crew. We would all join up on another ship later on. Again we worked for Amoco out of Aberdeen and for Shell out of the Shetlands. We worked out of Peterhead for BP and Great Yarmouth for Amoco and Conoco. There were only four of these boats built, for whatever reason, and they were built through a loophole in the tonnage laws. They were 61 metres and had a draught of 6.45 metres. They were very deep boats and really good working ships. On passage they’d roll on wet grass, they would roll anywhere. We carried thousands upon thousands of steel pipes, barytes, cement and water. To get these powders up to the rig they would send down a hose, normally a four inch hose for powder and two to three for water and fuel. You would couple it up to the connection on deck, pressurise the cement tank and when everybody’s ready and all the valves are open on the rig you would just blast air up the hose to prove it. Air would come out of the vent. You can’t put anything into a tank unless you vent the tank. Doesn’t matter whether it’s your petrol tank on the car or a water tank on a ship or a bulk tank on a ship. You need to get the air out.
The cement was used to cement the steel pipe into the seabed and it would be in powder form. It would then be blasted up the hose. We would then decrease the amount of air going into the tank to balance it out and get the maximum flow rate that we could. Water and fuel, in fact any liquids, were pumped up direct with a centrifugal pump.
The deck cargo was nearly all containerised apart from the steel pipe. In the beginning it was loose on pallets but so much cargo was lost that they moved it onto containers. The size depended on what you were carrying, for instance food was always carried in six foot insulated containers.
The basic principle of getting stuff up and down is the same. A crane lowers a hook, you hook the on the container, they lift it, empty it, and put the empty one back down. Pipes were taken up exactly the same way, but instead of one hook you‘d have two, one on each end of the pipe. On a platform such as the North West Hutton the platform would be about 200 feet high. Jack ups and semi submersible drilling rigs are much lower. I should explain, a jack is a triangle with three legs that go through each point of the triangle. This thing floats. It gets to the position where it’s going to work and they jack the legs down to the seabed. Then they let it settle and jack a bit more and a bit more until it’s at the right working height. There is an air zone between the bottom of this triangle and the sea. The drilling derrick which is stowed inboard at the back end of the triangle, is jacked out over the sea and they can then start the drilling operation.
A semi submersible is something that is afloat. You have two huge canoes with three big legs on each canoe and a platform built above it. This is then anchored into position by the anchor handlers and they then drill from that. It’s neither fully afloat nor fully fixed to the seabed. It will rise and fall a given amount, with the weather.
We worked mostly in the Shetland Islands and beyond, up to the Magnus Field, which is the furthest oil rig in the North Sea. We worked out west of Shetland which is now the Schiehallion Field. It was a very difficult place to work. Weather could turn rapidly, big gales and huge seas.
We also worked for Shell on the Brent Fields and Brent Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta and Dunlin were on the eastern most side, a short distance away from the Norwegian sector. Just off there is a plateau that’s around about 800 feet deep if I remember rightly and then it just plunges away to about 1400 feet.
In 1993 the Braer ran ashore on the south end of Shetland. That first quarter of 1993 was one of the worst continuously bad weather periods that we’d seen in a long long while. Hundred mile an hour winds at that time were not uncommon, absolutely not uncommon. We were off working towards the Alwyn platform, and the weather came on to blow. It was increasing. The shipping forecast had told us that it was coming. Shell had their own meteorologists and they told us that it was coming. You’d have been an idiot not to realise that it was coming.
That night it moved from 20 to 30 knots and seas were running at 10 metres. By midnight we were into over 100 mile an hour winds and seas running on an average of 15 to 18 metres. Just after midnight we’d had a huge wave come through, the wind speed had increased and when these things happen you have to shout to make each other understand what you’re saying. You‘re not being rude, it’s just that the noise level, the wind is screaming, screaming, screaming through the rigging. The ship is dancing all over the place but as the wind speed picks up the big waves flatten out. The tops are blowing off and everything’s just white mist coming towards you. So in some ways it settles down, still big waves but you’re not twisting so much.
And this huge wave came through later on that night. What you get, if you have a big low pressure, and you imagine a soup bowl, so the bottom of the soup bowl is the bottom of the low and then up the side of the soup bowl the pressure is rising. So when that came through that night, we were running down the edge of the soup bowl. And the pressure’s falling, falling, falling. It was down to 945 and the needle on the barometer was bouncing on the pin, it could not go any lower on our barometer. And it was screaming now, really screaming. By coming up to midnight it had died away, everything just went quiet. And the sea became like molten lead it was black, it was oily, the sea’s rolling in from all directions, but they weren’t breaking and the wind had just dropped. And I’d seen this before and I said to the mate, ‘Turn the ship, we need to be heading the other way’. Because what you do in bad weather you put the ship head to sea with a minimum speed that you can maintain steerage, and that’s where you keep it. You do not go too quick, you’ll do too much damage. If you do it too slow you will lose control of the ship it will fall broadside, you could be swamped.
If you turn before it and run before it if you don’t go quick enough a sea could come up behind you what they call pooping, drop on the deck and all of a sudden you have thousands of tonnes of water that weren’t there all over the deck now. So we turned, and we watched it and we were all there on the bridge, and then the wind started to pick up again, and it increased, and it increased and increased really really rapidly. ‘Quick rise after low often notes a stronger blow’. So we’d gone down the low to the bottom and all of a sudden the pressure was rising, rising, rising, rising vertically. And the wind screamed through, and they recorded 127 mile an hour that night and the sea that came through measured by laser at twenty seven metres. And that is a big lump of water.
Some ships took damage, some took windows that were smashed in and that was just one bad night. To the best of my knowledge no one was seriously hurt. When we returned to Lerwick some of the cargo was beyond recognition. When we were in Lerwick once again the wind speeds had picked up, the cranes were down on the quay, lashed down on the quay. Winds of 100 miles an hour blowing off the cliff tops and we were called up to Shell’s office.
There was a captain, John Meen off the Highland Champion, a Norwegian guy, another captain and myself. They told us that we needed to sail. We were looking at the anemometer on the wall and that was over 40 knots. Cranes are down there, waves breaking in the harbour, ‘What do you mean you need us to sail?’ They said that the well on the Brent Cormorant had been opened up and they needed mud. Well what idiot opened up a well? John Meen said to me, ‘Dave, do they do risk assessment in your company?’ ‘Yes John,’ I said. John said, ‘So what do you think, Dave?’ ‘Too risky John,’ I said. So we all retired to the bar and had a beer.
The poor guy from Shell stood there dumbstruck. He thought that we were going to sail. There was absolutely no way that we were going to sail. Two days later the winds were forecast to decrease so we went. We rounded the south end of the harbour at Lerwick, and were about an hour out when we took a huge sea on the stern and all the cargo was flattened like IKEA flat packs so we turned round and came back again. There was hardly a stick of cargo left. Containers were flattened, boxes flattened, stuff floating all around the deck. And that’s because you had people that were telling you to do something that they know nothing about.
I had more than one argument with this over my time in the industry. Now there are rules for working in adverse weather conditions, but at that time there wasn’t. When you had 240, 250 miles to sail and you were told to sail, and go for shelter. Well there’s not a brick wall between the top end of Scotland and the Shetland Island, there is no shelter. There is nowhere to go. But they wanted you up there in location so that when the weather did break you could work. The danger was that you could get hurt or the ship could get damaged.
There was many an argument over the years until it finally came to a head and adverse weather working conditions were brought in. And the knowledge and experience of the people that were on the ships was taken into account, whereas before silly sailing orders were issued.
While working for Shell the masters that were on the ships were taken up into the office and given a lecture on where we were going to go and what we were going to carry and the time allocated for the voyage. This particular time I was told that my voyage would be 4.25 days. They had even got it down to .25 of a day. Oh great. They allowed six minutes to load each container on deck. They allowed a certain amount of time to go the 240, 250 miles, regardless of weather. We were allowed 15 minutes to get from the 500 metre zone to alongside the rig and set up. So many minutes per container up and down, so on and so on. This is January. In the North Sea.
Twelve days later we came back again and the Suit as we called them (time and motion people) said to me, ‘Oh where have you been Captain? What have you been doing?’ Well I told him, the harbour had been shut for three days, so we couldn’t get in. I’d spent another three days sheltering off Shetland because of the weather and it’s been like that the whole time. His reply was, ‘Yes but you should have been 4.25 days’ at which point I got up and walked out.
The man could not understand why you couldn’t work in 50, 60, 70 mile an hour winds. Why when the harbour was shut you just couldn’t come in. It didn’t do them any favours and they lost the respect of people that were working for them and it just generally went downhill from then. And that was just one company. All the companies were the same.
There had been incidents of cargo being lost and at the end of my time on Albion Shell were looking for bigger ships, ones that would work in worse weather, safely.
So they came up with a design called a ‘well deck’ design. A supply boat with all the accommodation, all your controls at the front end and the back end is clear. There was a rail round it obviously but it was an open deck. If you imagine a shoebox, then put a pointy end on the shoebox and on that pointy bit put some accommodation and a wheelhouse. Then all the cargo is in the shoebox.
This went out for contract and I got involved for Stirling. I was given some privileged information from some people in Shell. I managed to get hold of a set of plans that were being drawn up and all this went to the architects and they designed the Stirling Spey, Clyde, The Forth and The Tay. All four were going to be ‘well deck’ boats, 86 metres long with a 900 square metre clear deck but built in a shoebox. A tunnel ran round the side, so there was a walkway round the top of the shoebox. All the cargo was kept inside the shoebox. The crew could walk down the tunnels either side, come out through doorways, hook on containers, go back in the doorway, back up the tunnel to safety. The hose work was all connected on the top deck and because you were so high that was quite safe to be honest with you. Stirling won the contract for two ships so The Forth and The Clyde were built. They were really strong well built ships. They had 6000 horse power plus two 1000 horse power Stern thrusters and a 1000 horse power bow thrusters and a 1200 horse power drop down azimuth bow thruster. This was a propeller on a telescopic tube that dropped down through the hull. It sat in the housing in the hull and when you went to use it you would lower this down and you could move it 360 degrees, whereas the tunnel thrusters only thrusted left or right.
You had a DP system, dynamic positioning. In the early days you only had the one reference system. So DP1 had one system and no back up. As time went by we had to use a DP2 system so we fitted the Alstom DP2. You had twin desks, a Fanbeam, GPS navigation. We would log on to satellites, the machine would do that itself. You could bring in that satellite, bring in the Fanbeam reference points and bring everything into the computer desk. You could still have a manual control, set it all up, press a button and the ship would take over. It would keep the ship within a five metre box basically. We could work in up to five metre seas, 25 knot winds and they would hold stationary in that.
We put up with some serious weather in those boats and they were safe.
Whereas before we had been working 18 hours and six, it then moved to 17 and seven. But then as they had spent all this money they wanted 24 hour working. So for my side I would work from 6am until midday with a second mate and two ABs. Then the mate would work from midday until 6pm with two ABs and another second mate. Then I would do 6pm until midnight and he would do midnight to 6am.
This caused a few issues in the beginning. First of all your mate has to be a competent ship handler. Then there was always the area of responsibility. The master was responsible for anything and everything that went wrong. My argument always was that if I was in bed with a duvet over my head I don’t know what the mate is doing. How can I be held responsible for something that I have no control over?
This issue was never really resolved. No one would come off the fence and say one way or the other.
As the master you were the representative of the company really, even more so after the Herald of Free Enterprise when it was found that there were many errors in procedures and directors and company managers were all in the firing line and SMS [safety management system] came in.
The first change was that we were given a QA book, which I had to sign for, three papers, one which was kept for the ship.
We never had any say over what crew we got as captain. We had a say whether they stopped but initially you would get whoever they sent up. I was lucky in all my time with the crew, except some in Africa that we got rid of straight away, but the rest of them especially the Brits, excellent.
In the company that I worked for we were given a budget for food and we paid in cash and we were also responsible for the expenses on board the ship. This meant that we had accounts to keep and maintain, as well as the health and safety training to maintain. This training involved fire training, tank rescue, breathing apparatus training, and first aid training. You were responsible for millions of pounds worth of ship and equipment and you needed to be sure that not only did you do the job for the contractor properly you also looked after the ship for the owner.
The owner of the ship, well that’s a thing isn’t it. The company I worked for was owned by two millionaires and they came and visited you and it was a very friendly thing. But as time moved on the ships became owned by faceless people, many miles away in places like Dubai and Singapore. I worked for people and you never really knew who owned what. And when you see ships registered in Luxembourg, Luxembourg owners, well Luxembourg is a landlocked country so how do they get to register ships? Then there was the problem of where did you stand? Under what law? Whether you came under British law, territorial law or the flag you were flying under. It became to cheaper to register ships in places like the Isle of Man, Barbados, Bermuda and Antigua.
One of the things that I got involved with was the union. I was never a big union man, but it was the ‘80s when there was all sorts of pay and negotiations going on and crews were getting laid off. There was a ferry strike on and the RMT as they are now wanted British sailors to come out on strike and back the ferry workers.
In actual fact, while my guys were walking up and down with their placards the ferry was sailing to the Shetland Islands so it made a mockery of the whole thing.
Anyway I got involved with the union and a few of us got elected to represent the fleet and we got involved in negotiations. They wanted us to go from ‘one to one’ which was working one month then a month’s leave to ‘two to one’, working two months and then a month’s leave. Now when people read this they’ll go, ‘Oh he’s only working six months of the year’. But what you have to remember is that when I worked I worked 24 hours a day. I was responsible 24 hours a day. I lived on the job. I slept on the job. You ate on the job. You never got away from the job, and you could be called at any time day or night.
So, no weekends, no bank holidays, no paid holiday leave, no Christmas, nothing. You were away, that was it. And on ‘two to one’ you were taking a massive pay cut to be honest with you.
They got rid some of the British guys and brought in Portuguese guys, great guys no arguing that fact at all. But we ended up in the Chamber of Shipping in London with the union and after an argument or two we actually came out with a £10 a week pay rise. This upset a lot people, not necessarily our owners but other officers had given up a lot to try to keep their jobs but we just stuck it, argued it out and ended up with a pay rise.
And because of that I was asked to become a full time liaison officer to represent the masters and officers for Stirling Shipping. From that I was invited to go to the biannual general meeting for the Nautilus Union in Harrogate. It was the first time that I had ever been to one of these things and I was listening to a speech concerning ferry officers sleeping on board. They wanted us to vote on a motion to say that these guys could go ashore to sleep rather than sleeping on board.
I thought, ‘Well I’m sleeping on board, living on board 24 hours a day. There’s cargo going up and down, the noise of the port and I’m sleeping there, why should I vote for that?’ So I actually got up and spoke against the motion, and I told them what we were doing. When the red light came on for me to stop speaking, the general secretary Brian Orrell, told them to turn the light off because they hadn’t heard this before and he said that they needed to hear it. And I continued to talk. I lost my vote, it went for the ferry workers but that’s beside the point. From there I got more involved with the union.
Over the years I had a lot of work to do for them. I got asked to join the National Offshore Oil Committee, which became the National Offshore Oil Forum. The first day they proposed me as chairman which was a bit of a shock, but I accepted it. I attended meetings and had an interview for the radio that was broadcast after the shipping forecast. Our main concern was to fight for safety. Safe working conditions, adverse weather conditions, safety hooks as opposed to Crosby hooks. I like to think that we did some good. I praise the guys that I worked for and our particular group. I think we done some good for that.
The union did stand up for a lot of us. So when it ended with Stirling Shipping in 2000 they came in and fought our corner. The company basically split up and in 2000 it was sold to Seacor, an American based company. Seacor came in and in five years they asset stripped and as each ship was sold people were made redundant. The union fought the cases and everyone got their redundancy, but the last people that went were treated very badly. The last crews that went didn’t get the redundancy that was being offered they just got the basic, none of the extras that everyone who had gone before got.
Myself, I was one of the lucky ones. A couple of us were under the old National Maritime Board agreement so we came out with what we should have done and we came out of it very nicely. Once the Norwegians took the ships over they did not involve British sailors.
My biggest gripe I think all the way along is… we are a seafaring nation. The people that run the ships out of the UK are not British. We can see that as we record this conversation, P&O have just made 800 people redundant in the blink of an eye. The sea schools have closed and it’s sad to see. If anybody asked me if I’d recommend going to sea for a living today, I’d say no.
In 2005 when we finally went and the Norwegian crew took over, I was lucky that a friend worked for Tidewater and told me to get to the office. I had an interview which basically was, ‘Do you know anybody else that can come?’ I had reputation of being a bit out spoken but we always completed the work and we had a good safety record. I was given the job and once my redundancy had been settled I went out to West Africa.
My first ship was the Madonna Tide in Congo, Brazzaville Congo. They talk about the Democratic Republic but there is nothing democratic about West Africa, absolutely not. I’d travelled, but never to Africa as such, it was a real eye opener. You fly into an airport that’s made up of plywood and the officialdom and rubbish that you have to deal with is amazing. We used to fly into Brazzaville on a letter to say that we were welcome, then when we got to Pointe Noire the letter was no good and they needed money, they needed 5000 Congo Francs for me to bring the lap top in. It wasn’t a lot of money, a 1000 Congo Francs is about a pound, so it wasn’t a big deal but it was the fact that all of a sudden you had to find this money.
I was picked up to meet the agent by a drunken driver and taken to a flea bitten bar but was told not to worry as I wasn’t staying there, which was good. I was taken to what was basically a B&B which was clean and tidy so that was okay. It was behind steel doors and I was told to stay there and I did. The next day nobody came, and the next day nobody came. The next day I opened the steel doors for a look and I thought that I had walked into a war zone, sand roads, broken buildings, cars driving on what passed for a road. Roads were practically non-existent, every time the rain came it washed the sandy roads away. Amazing. Different world altogether.
I phoned Aberdeen and told them that no one had seen me for 48 hours and that if no one came I wanted out of there. My passport had been taken away, turns out this is normal. They sent up a driver and took me to the office, everything was explained and they apologised. After that it was not a problem. Once you knew the system of how it all worked it was great.
You were doing exactly the same as what we’d been doing in the North Sea in the freezing cold and wind and rain but here the sun shone all the while. I was in Porte Noire and it was one of the better jobs I’ve ever done. I was there for six years and as I working outside the country for 183 days a year I was entitled to get my tax back, foreign earnings deductions so I was financially better off being there.
I met some great people there, we had a West African crew. We did have to train the guys up though as they knew nothing. If we hadn’t trained them we would just have had to get another bunch of guys in so the best thing was to train them up and get them on our side. We did and everything was great.
We were working for Total, who provided all the labour to load the ships. They were great guys and they would do anything, if you offered them a sandwich and a Coca Cola we could get the world for that. But great working relationship with them no problem
It was a rundown place, there’s no two ways about that. There was as much money going into Congo as was going into Dubai but they were worlds apart. There was lots of oil and gas off there but as in all West African countries those at the top have got it and those anywhere underneath that have got nothing.
One day I asked one of the crew members, ‘So what’s the seasons here?’ ‘Ah Cap, we have nine months small rain, three months big rain’ and that was it. That was it, everything was bare and barren and then the rain would come and the trees would burst into flower overnight. Amazing. Once we got used to it, walking around the town was safe. The biggest danger was at the end of the month if the police hadn’t been paid then they would try and rob you on the street. The same at the airport.
Coming towards the end of my time in Congo things improved, another supermarket was put in with real goods. There were little shops on the side of the street which were just no more than pallets though. Everybody had mobile phones and they were all pay as you go. Everywhere you went there was a girl sitting on a corner in a little wooden hut selling mobile phone cards.
Then there were the people you needed to know to be honest with you. There was a bar that we used and it would be inundated with girls because they were after money, nobody had jobs as such. If we wanted a round of beer the girl would order the round and she would get a drink for that but she never took the drink. At the end of the night she would go in and pay the bill and all the drinks that she had she got as cash. And that was her food money for the next day.
Malaria was a big thing out there. One girl never turned up to work one night and we asked where she was. They said that she was sick. We asked them to take us to her and she was sat on a chair and when we picked her up she bent double, there wasn’t a bone in her body she was just completely wiped out with malaria. I asked where the medication was and they said that they didn’t have the money. So we took her to hospital and I think for about £50 we kept her in hospital for three days. They keep you in overnight, put you on a drip, threw you out on a morning, you go back in the afternoon, put you on a drip on the evening and that’s how they fix it. So for £50 we paid for her medication. One of our ABs lost his mother and his son in the same month to malaria.
The kids there didn’t have footballs so we bought footballs and threw them on the beach for them. I say beach, it wasn’t a beach it was a dirty oil slick where the fishing village was. The kids went absolutely crazy when these footballs came flying over.
Offshore it was just the same, the N’Kossa platform was producing gas at a phenomenal rate. And yet there were no lights in the town half the time because they had no power, no electric station. Total offered to run a pipeline in to fire a gas powered power station but not enough backhanders were passed and it was just forgotten about.
We moved from there up and down the coast. We were in dry dock in Cameroon, we were up to Abidjan two or three times for dry docking, Dakar in Senegal. Cameroon was another particularly dangerous place, it was not safe there at all. Congo we could walk about, Cameroon you didn’t. You went in approved taxis. One time there was a group of us going ashore so we needed a second taxi. When we got in that second taxi the guy said, ‘This is a very special car Captain’ and I said, ‘Oh why is that?’ ‘We have four way air conditioning’ he said, ‘What’s four way air conditioning?’ He said, ‘None of the windows shut captain’. And that was the way it was and you just had to accept that. You had to accept that wherever you went you had to be careful and not to go off the beaten track at all.
The last time I was in Abidjan the coup was on, they were shooting each other up and down the street. The day before we were walking around the town no problem, the next day the TV aerial had been blown off. The UN had armoured vehicles there.
We got to come home for Christmas, but they couldn’t get the ship out. Eventually it was taken out to Ghana then on to Dakar. Just off Dakar was Gorée Island. This was where the slaves were kept before they were shipped off to the Indies we had a tour round there.
Total were the ones doing most of the work along the coast of West Africa. Even in Angola. Getting into Angola was difficult, the whole process was a problem. Applying for a visa, sending passports off in advance, getting to Heathrow, waiting landside until you got a call, dash to the door, grab passport, jump on the plane. You had to have a return flight booked within 72 hours and if you didn’t join the ship you were supposed to fly back again. But you used to jump on any ship until your ship came in.
When I was in Angola it was reportedly one of the most expensive places in the world for ex-pats to live. And yet the locals were living in bombed out buildings. Offshore again is deep water and the best thing to do for drilling is drill ships. So you have highly sophisticated ships that have a drilling rig built in the middle, highly specialised DP3 ships.
I kept on the Madonna Tide until 2011. We still had the Cameroonian crew, when the last job was out of Angola to take her down to Namibia, a place called Walvis Bay. This was with a view to do some modifications and then take the ship to Brazil. I was up for this, the ship was under 3000 tonnes so I could take it anywhere. There was a concern whether the West African crew would be alright once they lost sight of land, these guys had never been so far away before. We picked up the Anguilla Current that flows up the African coast. This current carried us out into the Atlantic, increasing our speed. As the current dropped away we turned and made our run in to Brazil. Every 300 miles or so we changed course a little bit to take account of that. I had one of the Cameroonian crew on the bridge with me one night and I said, ‘do you see that up there, the colours? And he looked up with the binoculars and I told him that it was a satellite. He dashed down and told all of his mates and they all came up to see it. We could see the space station on an app and this kept them all really interested as no one had really shown them this before.
When we got to Rio they were all sent home. I was offered a contract but I thought that this was not for me. The Brazilian union ran it and you were just a figurehead, if anybody was hurt it was your fault. You weren’t allowed to say anything or reprimand anybody. I thought that this is just not the thing for me, so I opted to come out and thought that the best thing was to go back to Africa.
I was offered a ship in Mozambique, a beautiful country, if you go to Maputo it’s very European, not forgetting that they hadn’t long been out of a 30 odd year civil war.
We were based in a place called Pemba. I used to fly to Johannesburg via Amsterdam and being a Brit I had no issue getting into South Africa. From South Africa to Pemba we got the visa, money was paid, visa was stamped and that was it.
I changed to the boat, the Wise Tide2 which was the first diesel electric Azimuth driven boat that I’d been on. It was an absolute joy to drive and play with. The accommodation was disgusting, absolute bomb site but the ship itself was absolutely brilliant. The problem there was that you had Somali pirates just up the coast. We had six Mozambique marines with AK47s and 150 calibre machine guns. They were controlled by two South African ex special task force operatives and the whole operation was run by ex British Officers shore side. Each of the three ships had the same. The drill ship offshore had the same and then there were two guard ships offshore with the same again. I was told the Drillship was a million dollars a day to hire so there was no way they were gonna let any Somali pirate try and capture this. It was the safest place to be. We did many drills for a pirate attack. The South Africans weren’t allowed a gun because they would then become pirates because they were strangers in that country.
But great country, great country, really enjoyed working there. The waters were deep, over 2000 metres deep. They found gas at five kilometres down. So you had 2000 metres to the seabed and then another three thousand meters down to the gas. Huge amounts of gas. But what do you do with it? There’s nothing there. They were gonna build a town on the border between Mozambique and Tanzania but then they started to get trouble, rebels, the usual thing. By the time I left it had all stopped, but the gas is there, they know the gas is there. It’s money in the bank and I should imagine that they are looking very closely now about getting it out.
In Mozambique there was nothing there so we had to go to Durban to pick up specialised cargo and load up the stores. All our food came from South Africa, we weren’t allowed to buy local although the fruit and veg on the market looked excellent. The bread was out of this world. I used to buy these Portuguese rolls off the children on the market. I used to argue with this little girl every day, I’d eventually pay for 12 and get 10, she won every time. She had a little boy who she ordered to put the rolls into the bag, telling him not to touch them with his hands. She was a real business woman, excellent.
The kids there had nothing. Again we bought footballs for them to kick about, they were so made up with them. I have one little story, it was my 60th birthday when I was out there. My wife always puts something in the bag, so I had banners I had balloons, I had my cards. Just on that note whenever I was away I always made sure that there were presents for my kids, my wife, I always left stuff in the house for them, and my wife Chris always did the same for me.
So there I was in Mozambique with a bag of balloons. I’m 60 years old and what do you do with a bag of balloons? So I took them with me and sat on this wall above the hill shanty town. I started to blow these balloons up and as I was doing this a little gang of girls turned up and they all stood there looking. I started to hand the balloons to them, if you’d done that in this country you’d be accused of being some sort of, I don’t know, weirdo. But they were made up, you’d never seen children so happy with a balloon that was going to be deflated within minutes. There was one little girl in a white blouse and a tatty blue skirt. I’d given out all the balloons and she started to walk away, and I called her back. I said, ‘Look, look, look’ and I had one balloon left and it was blue. I pointed to her skirt and I said, ‘Blue’ and I pointed to the balloon and went, ‘Blue and eventually she said to me, ‘Blue’ and I gave her the balloon, that made my birthday. Amazing. Really was.
It was a marvellous place, never any trouble although towards the end the Masai were coming in selling bits and pieces and causing problems there.
South Africa, Durban, a funny but interesting place. When we were in Durban for a couple of months dry docking a ship I asked what I could do on a Sunday. They organised a car for me to take me to Ushaka World. I had said that I would walk there but was told that I couldn’t walk anywhere. The taxi came and the driver asked me what my middle name was, so I told him. He told me that that was the password and that when they came to pick me up if the driver didn’t know my middle name then I wasn’t to get in the car, even if he had the taxi company uniform on. I wasn’t to leave the gates of Ushaka World. I did enjoy Ushaka World and went there every Sunday.
We were taken up to the Seaman’s Mission where we could get internet and the ladies there told us that if we wanted to go shopping they would organise a bus to the shopping centre. They said that they wouldn’t leave us and that we mustn’t get on any other bus. But that’s Africa for you really I suppose.
My time before I retired was spent in Nigeria, but before that I ended up in the Falkland Islands. That was an interesting one to be honest. It took forever to get there, I think that we landed at Cape Verde, done a crew change on the plane and then flew down. We joined the ship and we were doing standby light supply. They found oil, they found gas but it’s literally in the middle of nowhere, so again, what do you do with it? They know it’s there but it’s capped, a lot of it was political to stake a claim, the same with the fishing down there. Everything was to stake a claim.
Argentina said that if we dry docked and went into Argentina anybody to do with oil would be arrested. We couldn’t go there. The feeling that I and the others got was that the people of the Falkland Islands didn’t want us there. We had to stay in a hotel for the night before leaving and it was made very clear to us that we were not to go out drinking, we were not to go wandering about. They wanted that oil stake, the territorial claim but they didn’t want the people there who were dealing with it. We actually froze up down there. One of the few times I’d frozen up, we froze up in the North Sea but we had ice on the deck down there.
So from there I ended up in Nigeria. I’d gone from the Norwegian coast down to the Falklands. I’d gone from Brazil to Tanajib in Saudi Arabia, another place I didn’t like. And then I ended up in Nigeria, so I’ve been hot, cold, hot, cold all my working life I suppose.
The final job before retirement then was in Nigeria. Nigeria, everybody hears about the pirates, everybody thinks about Johnny Depp with an eye patch and a parrot. It is not the case, not the case at all. These guys are extremely serious, extremely well armed RPGs, M16s, AK47s, uniforms, masks and they are all big guys, they’re meant to look threatening, they’re meant to look frightening.
We had to get a visa from London and it lasted 90 days. The whole operation there is, I don’t know how to describe it really. Anybody with a uniform deemed it their right to demand money from you and it was very difficult to overcome that. You would run the gauntlet at Port Harcourt airport again everybody wanted money.
Public health would be there waving a syringe at you. ‘Do you have yellow fever? Do you have your card?’ and they were upset if you had your yellow fever card as you didn’t have to pay any money. You would then go to three or four different people to get your visa stamped. Eventually you got your bags and customs would say, ‘You can’t bring that in’, you’d say, ‘That’s my clothes’. ‘You need to pay tax on your clothes’ would be their reply. If you brazened it and argued it out they would leave you alone. If you backed down they would take money off you.
We were picked up from the airport, put in a mini bus, a jeep at the front, four machine guns, flashing lights. Jeep at the rear, four machine guns, flashing lights and we would scream down from Port Harcourt to Onne Port and put into a compound covered in razor wire with more machine guns and armed guards and they tell you that it’s safe. It is safe if you don’t go outside the gate.
I was doing exactly the same job there, you wouldn’t believe the state of some of the platforms there, they were falling to pieces. They were trying to bring them back on to stream again after they’d been shut down, a lot of them had been shut down because of pirates.
Our food turned up in a canoe, swilling about in the bottom of the canoe. Everything stunk of diesel and fuel because everyone was stealing fuel and selling fuel. When that dried up the people on shore side didn’t get their cut so that’s why they picked on us. You also had river pirates to deal with too and at each location you went to there was security. But that was just one ship with two guys and basically if you were attacked they would stand off, inform shore side and then come and get you once they thought that the pirates had left.
All the ships have a steering compartment and a fo’c’sle head and these are watertight compartments. In the event of an accident they can be shut off to hope to keep the boat afloat. The steering flat was a safe haven. In there we had tinned food, bottled water, black bags for toilets, a radio and a satellite phone. We used to practise pirate drills, where we‘d need to be in that safe haven within five minutes, No more than five minutes. You would shut this big hydraulic steel door and put a pin on the other side so that the door couldn’t be opened. There you would sit and wait until they had either stolen all the fuel, stolen everything you had or left you alone.
Once you got the all clear you would then come out. In the meantime the ship is just drifting around. Whereas in Mozambique we had security on board here it was the one ship with the couple of guys and every time I saw them they looked to me to be not quite with it shall we say. Just two guns up against maybe 10 or 12 pirates, high speed launchers easily doing 75 knots. With the high price of fuel today I would say that there will be trouble because everybody will be looking to get fuel to resell on the Nigerian fuel market. When the price of fuel is down then the object was to kidnap Europeans and ransom them for money.
As I said everybody wanted money and it was no different when you were leaving. Trouble with seafarers is that you clear immigration inward at the airport and at the port too. I had done three months and got home for six weeks but needed to go back because the other guy needed to be off and I was there for four months, My visa had run out and nobody wanted to pay the expensive upgrade. Eventually they told me that a guy was coming to relieve me so we formulated a plan.
The stairways on the outside of the ship which led up to the wheelhouse had big steel gates on them. When we sailed all these were put down and locked. All the doors were padlocked and pinned. Every door inside the accommodation was lockable and boltable so in the event of a pirate attack we ran down and we would bolt the doors. Anything to slow them down and stop them from getting to the bridge.
My relief turned up and my bags had already been taken to the accommodation door. The second mate then said, ‘Immigration Cap, Immigration’ and the plan went into operation. They brought the immigration guy up the outside of the accommodation, shutting and locking the gates behind them.
I ran down the inside of the accommodation bolting the doors as I went, picked up my bags, stood by the gangway and when I got the signal ran up the gangway with one of my bags and the crew carrying my other bags to a waiting taxi.
The immigration guys see me running across the quay and they’re shouting, ‘Stop, stop, stop’ because they knew that my visa was out and they wanted money. And they would keep me until the money had been paid. So as I dived into the car and raced off they were still trying to get past all the gates. I was then put into a mini bus and driven to the airport. None of my management turned up, they knew that this was my last trip but nobody came to say goodbye, nothing.
I got to the airport and a fixer was waiting for me and as I got out of the car he nodded, pointed his finger and I followed him. In the airport it’s, ‘Open your bags, what have you got for me?’ I used to fold up small denomination dollar bills, one dollar bills and gently pass them across like a handshake. You get to check in, bags get checked in. The guy would come up, ‘Do you want your bags to go on the plane?’ ‘Yes please’, ‘No sir, do you want your bags to go on the plane?’ Oh my friend, shake hands again, a few more dollars gone.
I walked towards immigration, an open area, and they are like sharks patrolling a gold fish pond, they’re all over the place. My fixer looks at me, shakes his head and I stand still. He goes up to the chief immigration officer, big smiles, pats him on the back, shakes hands, walks away, looks at me and nods. I walk through.
A chief immigration guy comes up, looks at my passport, ‘Everything’s good Cap’ walks me to the desk, they put passport on the desk, they look at me, gonna say something, then the guy goes, ‘Everything’s fine’.
Walked to customs, they went, ‘Everything’s fine’. Walked to security, ‘Everything’s fine’. And I was through the airport. And that was paid all the way through. And that’s how I got out on my final trip.
It upsets me when I talk about it because I miss it. I miss it every day. I don’t miss the hassle but I miss the camaraderie, the ship handling. I miss the people, the Nigerian crew. The second engineer was called Precious, I suppose to his mother he was precious but this guy looked like he’d head butted a bus and come out of it the wrong way. The chief engineer was called Friday and another, the oiler, was called Sunday.
I mentioned earlier that my wife, Christine, packed cards and gifts for me when I went away. We got married in 1976 and we’re still married today. So she’s put up with me for a long while now!
It took me a long time to adjust to retirement it really did and I often wanted to go back. People have asked why I don’t buy a boat, I’ve had enough of boats, too expensive. I bought a motor home and then we had Covid so we haven’t used it yet.
It’s just a way of life for people like me. All your friends, all the people that you sailed with. There is nobody to go and have a walk up the road with, go for a beer with, talk about this job or that job, this weather or that place. It was just, you finished and your friendships, your crew are scattered, in my case all over the world, from Philippines to Brazil, to Ireland to the Hebrides. Great guys I sailed with and I’ll never forget them.
David Bland (b. 1952) talking to WISEArchive on 24th March 2022 in Potter Heigham. © 2022 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.
More information about the fishing and offshore industries.
As I said earlier, each particular type of fishing boat had a different setup but the principle was the same, the two big doors which were extremely heavy. You would shoot this away and lay broadside to the weather so that the ship was blowing away from the net. That would keep the net streamed away while you were getting it over the side. When you coupled everything up and started to lower it down the skipper would increase the speed, turn the boat in a slow circle and make all this spread out. Then we would pay away the wires to about three times the depth of the water. If you imagine you now had one wire from the front and one from the back. To bring these together a big hook with a wire was put on top. It was then put onto a winch and heaved up to bring the forward wire to the rear wire and put into an extremely heavy collapsible steel block. That would be clipped down and everything would be coupled up in this block, called a towing block. When you looked at the two wires it would be like two fingers spread out and that was your net travelling along the seabed. The wires were marked at different lengths so we would line up the marks, everything travelling level and that would be it for the next three hours.
Offshore industry boats
We carried all sorts of cargo to the rigs, everything that the men there needed to survive. The amount of steel pipe that we carried and is buried in the seabed is colossal. These supply boats were relatively small ships when compared with the anchor handling supply ships. Today they would have massive winches with 500 tonne static pulls on them, 20,000 horse power, some even up to 26,000. They would shift huge amounts of chain, four inch chain anchors weighing10, 15, 20 tonnes depending on the type of anchor, type of seabed and how they were going to position these semi-submersible rigs.
If you wanted an offshore supply vessel the place to go was Norway, because they had the best. They spent money and had really good ships. The Boreas boats were twin engines with what they call a gill jet unit up the front end, so it’s like a bow thruster. It was a water jet that can control the bow and by turning a control lever you could manoeuvre this jet in the direction that you wanted the bow to go when you revved it up. The pump kicked in, pumped the water out from the opposite side and moved the bow port or starboard. In later times you could move that unit through I think, 16 different positions. Most times we only ever used it to manoeuvre to port or starboard, just to control the head and maintain position. This was because at that time you were tying up to rigs, so you’d run roughly two or three cables off a rig, drop the anchor on the run, keep coming towards a rig and at the last moment you would turn, swing underneath, pick up a rope, get that rope on, get the second rope on then heave up on the anchor chain and come ahead until the rope was tight. So you had basically what they call a Mediterranean moor, two ropes either side at the stern onto the rig anchor out at the front and there you sat until the job was over. Then you’d release the ropes, heave up the anchor and then proceed onto the next job.
I mentioned that I really wanted to have a go at the ship the Edda Sartor that became the Stirling Albion. This was a controllable pitch propeller with bow thrusters and stern thrusters. Whereas the other ships had been fixed pitch, you engaged the gear and then revved up like your car, the propeller would turn kicking the ship one way or the other. So if you came ahead on the starboard engine the boat would swing to the port so the stern would come starboard. If you went to stern on that engine that’d have the opposite effect. So by splitting the two engines you could make the boat go sideways, by putting the thrusters in the opposite way you could make the boat crab across the water.
When you’re trying to maintain a position alongside the rig this is what you needed to do. But you don’t have three hands. This is a snag. So you needed to be quite dextrous to manoeuvre this for any length of time.
So when they got Albion she was a different thing altogether. She was an SK61 boat which meant that she was 61 metres long and at that time she could lift 800 tonnes of fresh water. The boat was different in the fact that there were controllable pitch propellers so the engine is running at a constant speed. As you move the controls the propeller blade turns to give you a greater or lesser bite in the water. Up forward we had an 800 horse power bow thrust, which was a tunnel that went through the ship with a propeller through the middle. There was a 600 horse power thruster at the stern and all this was coupled up through a Liaaen Poscon control system. We had a joy stick and instead of tying up you could come in with your main engine, turn the ship, switch over to the Poscon system and manoeuvre the ship with one hand and you could fix the heading. So if you wanted to the heading to be north you could fix that heading and no matter what you did with the joystick the heading would remain north. It would go sideways, it would go forwards, it would go backwards but the computer would always read the compass and maintain that northerly heading. You could change that through the operation by twiddling it around. So if you needed to go broadside to the rigs you would need to go east, you could do whatever you needed to do. It was a whole new world of ship manoeuvring and it was a brilliant, brilliant piece of kit for the time.
So there are anchor handlers, supply boats, seismic boats that investigate if there’s a possibility of oil and gas, standby boats. There are so many elements to the offshore industry, it’s just a whole world of its own to be honest.
Drilling, jacks and semi submersibles
I spoke about the jack ups and semi submersible drilling rigs. The approaches to drilling are totally different. With a jack up because it’s not moving they can lower down the first steel pipes, the casings, 36 inch pipe which would be put in the seabed. They could then drill down through those as everything is fixed.
On something that’s moving with the sea, you need something that’s going to move, so you have what are called riser pipes, which are 50 foot long and weigh about 30 tonnes a piece. So on a semi submersible you send a drill bit on a big steel pipe, they couple up more and more pipe as they go deeper, deeper and deeper. If you drill a hole in a wall or a piece of wood you get swarf, you get wood cuttings which you need to remove. If you drill into the seabed how do you remove these cuttings? Why doesn’t the hole collapse behind you? You dig a hole on the beach, it collapses behind you.
What you do is you pump mud down the drill pipe into the hole. They use water based mud, bentonites, and the mud weight is calculated to compensate for the pressures of the seabed and keeps the hole open. They then pump cement down the middle of the first bit. Then they drill through that cement into the seabed again. So again you need lots of water based mud to keep the hole open while you run the next lot of casing. They then couple up the riser pipes, pull all this out, a big template goes on the seabed and then a well head unit which weighs about 80 tonnes. They all couple up and are lowered down bit by bit until it sits on the template. Then they can drill again, through the well head unit. There are blow out preventers there and if you get a kick back they can shut everything off.
You can now use oil based mud, so we used to carry that too. This would be pumped down, bring up all the residue from the well and go across something like a flour sifter. That mud would be reused and the cuttings would be dumped. Today these cuttings have to come back to shore to be reprocessed but back then they didn’t bother.
All these muds had to be kept mixed so we had agitators in the tanks. The mud engineers would mix all these powder and bits and pieces to get the right weights. Every now and again you would do a mud change. We had two big empty tanks built into the ship. We would back load the dirty mud, pump up the clean mud and bring the dirty mud to shore where it would be reprocessed.
I’m not a driller or a drilling engineer but I just understand the principle of how it worked and what we carried.
Dynamic positioning systems (DP)
In the early days you only had one reference system, the DP1. So we had DP1 boats, there was no second desk, no back up. We never had a problem with that.
As time went on you needed back up so you had the DP2. If one desk failed you had a second one. So for example on the Stirling Spay we took out the Kongsberg DP1 and fitted the Alstrom DP2. There were twin desks, you had GPS navigation and fanbeam. On the oil rigs we would hang a piece of plastic soil pipe covered in reflective tape. The fanbeam would fire out a laser which would hit the reflective tape, bounce back and it would give you a range and an angle. The angle and the distance from the fanbeam to the target would be recorded. If that angle or distance changed then the computer would drive the ship to maintain that position.
It took a bit of setting up to get it right but once the technicians had set it up and we came to use it it was extremely good. We could log in to satellites, the machine did it itself. You could bring in the satellite, bring in the fanbeam, bring everything into the computer desk, still have a manual control, but set it up, press a button and the ship would take over. We would sometimes work in seas of up to five metres, 25 knot winds and they would hold stationary in that.
Once you moved into diesel electric from fixed pitch propellers they became even better in my opinion. It was like a dimmer switch on the wall, as you increase the power the light becomes brighter. So imagine having the same thing on your ship. You had three big diesel engines feeding power down to giant azimuth 360 outboard motors underneath the hull. They were linked back to the DP and you could control them on your computer system, very very clever, very very good.
Things progressed to highly sophisticated DP3 ships. These have a drill rig built in the middle of them and they could maintain position over the drill pipe. With these ships you have two separate engine rooms now. If there was a fire you can seal it off and there is still another engine room that can supply sufficient power. All these drill ships and highly complex dive ship, pipe laying ships they all have DP3.
Wise Tide II