The Thetford Park
Note: This is a chapter from the book Thetford Park, written by John and Pierre Bedard.
In the right company, most sailors will tell you that vessels have a soul and react according to how they are treated. On my run, hundreds of miles from everywhere, little stands between my crew and infinity. I am the tie that binds them to their reality.
Ships are built, christened and launched. We have feelings. We have our little ways. We throw metallic tantrums. We are not human, but we stand with humans as part of a much larger altogether. Standing on the flying wing of my bridge on a dark night, with nothing but the sky and the elements facing you for hours, you can hear me if you listen. Don’t think you are alone. You are not. You never were and never will be.
I am 10,000 tonnes gross and was launched by Vickers in Montréal a little over two years ago. Don’t be fooled by my looks. My design is from the past war, the one meant to end all wars. My crew often claims I was built for a smaller, less well-fed people. Don’t curse me if you have to go sideways entering that door or if you bang your head. I am not responsible for the size of your bunk. “Not my watch, man!” as the Bosun says.
There was an immediate need for cargoes, so someone grabbed a plan that was on the shelf and laid my keel. My craftsmen would have liked to come up with something more modern, but I was needed to replace my fallen sisters, now scraping the bottom of the Atlantic courtesy of the Hun. My life expectancy is two years or so, and that’s with luck. In April of ‘40, the wife of a local politician broke a bottle of cheap champagne on my bow. One month later, equipped with guns, radios, and a dozen or so other items of interest, I sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence for sea trials.
I could have been born to fly a Union Jack and would probably be in better shape now. On the other hand I could have been a Greek. (If I survive the war, I probably will be.) I am not complaining. We will see. My owners are in it for the money. I carry little fresh water or stores. I am losing at least a knot an hour because my bottom needs a good scraping. Unfortunately, a well-deserved rest at drydock remains a fantasy unless I collide with something hard or take a fish and live to talk about it. Then again, the chance of me making it to drydock after encountering a U Boat, given the cargo I carry, is nonexistent.
My upkeep has been haphazard. Rust under the paint, steel cancer, has started to set in. In general, the engineers take good care of my engines, but since an inebriated second engineer let salt water into one of my boilers last year, I will never be the same until I go in for a major overhaul. My bow was pushed in three months back but no one got blamed for that. Tailing another ship in the dark during a storm leads to the odd collision. Someone mentioned that I now look like a boxer, my nose broken in one too many fights. Maybe I am already past my life expectancy and am just riding along for free. Who knows?
I have raced porpoises in the South Atlantic and felt flying fish landing on my decks by the dozen as the sun rose. I have given rides, hundred of miles from nowhere, to sea gulls blown off course by storms. I have been up the Sea of Marmara on my way to Istanbul, and seen their sturdy dhows sporting colored sails. Sunrise and sunset mark my day. While part of a convoy, I met up one night with a hospital ship. A million lights shone through open portholes with spotlights illuminating red crosses on the funnels and the sides, a reminder of happier times, when all ships sailed lit up, inviting all comers and announcing themselves as a glow just over the horizon. Yes! There is still another world beyond the cold trap of the North Atlantic.
Anchored off Pointe Noire on the Congo coast, I have seen and heard natives coming out to load me with logs, paddling their canoes to rhythms as old as the world. I have been to Melbourne where the highly unionized stevedores have one of their own standing all day on the forepeak of a ship they are loading, a finger held high up in the air checking for rain. One drop and they all go home. Work or not, the pay is the same. War or no war, there is always a union man on watch.
I have sailed through the Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay twice. Less drab than anywhere else I have been. The bay seems to shelter you from the war – a breath of fresh air with Dungeness crab and sourdough bread in a world gone mad.
I once took on a load of gypsum in Nova Scotia. Entering harbor with the flood tide, I was left high and dry at the quay six hours later. Once loaded we sailed out with the tide. It was an odd experience to be dry and then wet without being lifted out of the water or on drydock. The tides are up to forty-six feet high in the Bay of Fundy.
My bow wave has pushed aside cadavers in the Bay of Bengal. I have been through a sandstorm off the Southwest African coast, hundreds of miles offshore, sand covering my decks like snow. I have felt relief passing the torpedo booms entering Manchester harbor one day, just to have German bombers knock the hell out off a ship berthed next to me later that night.
I have sailed twice at the tail end of a convoy. My wake has churned through seamen, just like the ones who crew me, who had the misfortune of falling in the drink, covered with oil, coughing, in shock. No screams, just bland, lost looks on their faces knowing that within fifteen minutes they would either be rescued or joining the hereafter.
One night, my crew spotted half a dozen blinking life jacket lights; on and off, on and off in the choppy waves. Faint cries and laments are international. We steamed on as per convoy instructions. In theory, one seagoing tug with cargo nets over the side and navy escorts are there to rescue crew, but I’ve never seen them at work. They may be as mythical as the end of this war.
My pet peeves are few but significant. I don’t like junior officers who gratuitously shift my telegraph from full ahead to full astern. I am not a destroyer. If they want to exhibit their Nelson skills, get a Navy commission. A steady seventy revolutions at eight to ten knots is merchantman nirvana.
I don’t like navigators who can’t navigate (there are many). At sea, a straight line is often not the best way between two points. Rear end to the wind at half or slower speed, will get you there just at fast with less strain. It’s much easier on my spine, plates, fuel and general well being.
I don’t like stevedores who can’t stow. Freight stowage is an important art. Many are careless or just don’t give a damn. Shifting cargo can be corrected for a while by balancing the levels of fuel and water in the tanks. If it’s serious enough it will have you walking the guardrails, and in some cases flip you over. Grain and water is another deadly combination. Have these two together for a week or so and the swelling will split me wide open. Dockers that often drop cargo hurt my holds. Sometimes, without supervision, they will wander around, stealing what they can lay their hands on.
I don’t like carpenters who are too lazy to sound my bilges properly. By the time a problem is discovered it is too late to take action. They also fail to tend my deck gear. In a cold climate, when the machinery is kept going day and night, half a dozen unoiled winches will emit a cacophony of metallic noises that will drive you insane. There’s no such a thing as too much oil.
I don’t like able bodied seamen who fail to properly coil my anchor chain in the forward locker. A jammed chain when you drop the hook can mean a potential loss of anchor and life.
I don’t like loose gear. An oil drum or a piece of unsecured dunnage can shatter what gets in its way like a matchstick.
The black gang is good but they also have a few stumbling hands. Drop cotton waste in my bilges and you jam my pumps. Leave a one inch bolt lying around in the upper levels and someone gets tattooed by it sixty feet below, as dead as dead. When the ship starts rolling on the swells just past the torpedo nets, the shakedown period begins.
It’s when you find all the tools the shore people left laying about, what machinery worked on while in port was not properly secured and what stores will need extra lashing down. Inspections are always carried out before sailing but often the liquor hasn’t been pissed and sweated out of everyone’s blood system; mistakes are made. You will never see an engineer or greaser who knows his business standing in an open area below unless he is looking up. To a novice it is all the same, but an experienced hand knows better. He stands under a grating. Accidents are too frequent and unforgiving.
You and I know that my end will be through sinking or scrapping. Whatever my future, I only want a decent finale. I don’t want to wind up a black shell rusted by the sea – knocks and bumps patched up with pieces of sheet iron, an old traveler dragging from port to port, from one ocean to the next. I’ll become a sea beggar, recruiting crews of desperadoes from waterfront bars and cat houses, loading everything and anything from anywhere to somewhere at any price. I might be a ship you find some day beached on an inhospitable strand after a tempest or that disappears some stormy night swallowed by a rogue wave, a piece of garbage coming out of a sewer line.
I don’t fear what is in store for me, but if you give me a choice, I would prefer joining the thousands already below rather than being turned over to another nondescript flag, neglected and eventually cut up for scrap. When I go, I want an honourable death. I want to go down deep, a couple of hundred fathoms down, bounce around some here and there until I finally rest with the others who preceded me.
Thetford Park is available at Amazon.com.