A chilly morning breeze swept up
Southampton Water into the basin where the Test and Itchen Rivers meet.
Beyond Royal Pier, Southampton docks teemed with shipping. I gaped up from
Ocean Terminal's dockside at a great ocean liner's bows: How could
anything be so big and still float? This gigantic passenger ship was 1019
feet 6 inches long with a 118-foot beam. Her gross weight was 81,237 tons.
She lay tethered to bollards by enormous hempen ropes, apparently
QUEEN MARY was delineated above this
leviathan's sixteen ton anchors in black letters thirty inches high over a
distance of fifty-five feet. Having just completed her annual refit her
livery was freshly painted. The Mary's three funnels were bright Cunard-red
with jet-black toppings which contrasted sharply with her pristine
gloss-white superstructure. Her ebon hull was pierced for two thousand
The hustle-bustle of loading drew my
interest. Cranes slued their slender jibs carrying netted burdens above
the vessel's well deck. Everything from packing cases to cars descended
like enormous spiders into the liner's forward cargo holds.
Lurching with my dunnage up the nearest
gangway, I presently found myself in a long passageway on C deck.
Bulkheads and deckheads had been refurbished with beige paint, a sharp
contrast to the carmine deck. The alleyway was divided up into open
compartments and would be independently sealed by an automatic watertight
door system during emergency drills.
People scurried to-and-fro, wheeling
carts, hefting burlap sacks, sides of meat, fish boxes, crates of
vegetables, and myriad sundries. A great ship was victualling for a sea
I was completely lost. Passers-by
continuously directed me upwards, ever upwards through seven of the
vessels twelve decks, until I reached the engineers' quarters where the
Chief Engineer's writer informed me that I had to sign on.
People helpfully steered me towards the
Port Garden Lounge on Promenade deck. A queue straggled from a makeshift
desk for the bureaucratic gentlemen huddled behind it. Pot plants
abounded, hanging baskets sprouted cascading fronds of variegated
greenery, and wicker chairs lay siege to glass topped tables with wrought
iron legs. Completely immured with glass, the seaboard side gave this
magnificent room a luscious tropical atmosphere.
Time shrank the queue.
"Discharge Book please," the Board of
Trade official sighed up at me. He leafed through my blue linen-covered
book, stamped a page, and scribbled over the violet imprint before
stacking it with some others. "That'll be returned when you leave the
ship. Sign here." He ordered, gesturing at a multi columned manifest.
I picked up a pen and scanned the
broadsheet headed QSTS Queen
Mary. Beneath this legend was a
neatly compiled list of engineers' signatures, ranks, job descriptions,
and salaries. At the very bottom was my name, 6th Junior 7th
Engineer Officer, floater, 78 pounds /month, and a blank space awaiting my
signature. I signed on.
"You're not at the bottom of the heap,
y'know." The BOT man grinned, "Look at it this way - you're holding the
The next thirty hours became a brand-new
experience crammed with technical data. Raising steam boggled the mind.
The Mary had five boiler rooms. The turbines steamed by the three Scotch
boilers in Number One stokehold generated the vessel's hotel service
lights and auxiliaries.
The other four stokeholds contained six
Yarrow water-tube boilers each. When 'flashed up' and put on line,
superheated steam powered the forward and after engine rooms. Both engine
rooms held two main engines, each consisting of four Parsons turbines
linked in parallel to a pinion gearbox connected to a long drive shaft to
spin one of the quadruple propellers. At sea, these 35-ton bronze
propellers would revolve at one hundred and seventy-four revolutions per
minute giving an average speed of twenty-eight to thirty knots.
On Thursday morning, standby was called
for the ship leaving harbour. I reported to the after engine room
manoeuvring platform. Wisps of steam ballooned from the turbine glands.
The bridge telegraph indicators had moved from FINISHED WITH ENGINES to
The Chief Engineer, in full-dress
uniform, was chatting amiably with the Senior Second Engineer. Stationed
by the manoeuvring wheels were the 4-8 watch engineers in readiness for
the first engine movement. Attired in white boilersuits, the 8-12
watchkeepers paced the checkered plated steel manoeuvring platform like
caged polar bears, ready to react any unusual response from the polished
brass instruments. Nowadays all systems are computer controlled, but forty
years ago, my colleagues and I have had some heart-stopping experiences
during these critical manoeuvring periods.
Directed to the port manoeuvring
station, I became subject to the droll humour that haunts the maritime
profession. An engineer whom I'd had never met before, lounged against the
port astern wheel.
"First tripper?" he asked.
"Scotsman," I corrected him.
Before I could parry this ethnic slur,
the platform second engineer ordered my antagonist topside. I studied the
telegraph, nervously. A brass plate fastened to each manoeuvring wheel
dictated the shaft RPM required for each movement. My reflection in the
gleaming brass quadrant pondered on this dilemma: When the order came,
should I answer the telegraph immediately? Or should I supply the
requested speed first and then acknowledge the bridge? Perhaps I
should ask the second engineer.
A loud clamour startled me as the
clanging telegraph demanded the first movement: HALF ASTERN.
I froze. The jangling persisted until an arm festooned with gold braid
materialised above my left shoulder, and a hand on the end this bras
d'or, aligned the brass handle to the green indicator.
The ringing stopped. The Chief's pudgy
finger jabbed at the astern manoeuvring wheel. "Open that valve . . .
Panic-stricken, I clutched the valve
wheel rim and pulled frantically for all my worth. Nothing happened.
"THE OTHER BLOODY WAY!"
I heaved in the opposite direction.
Nothing happened. The Chief blasphemed as he gave the wheel a quick
practised jerk. The valve opened smoothly.
"KEEP OPENING IT UNTIL THAT GAUGE
READS ONE HUNDRED POUNDS!" he bawled over the astern turbines' throaty
whine. Opening the valve further increased the noise in volume and pitch.
The engine room shuddered like forty road rollers trundling along a
cobbled street. The port shaft tachometer read 80 rpm astern.
"All right . . . Keep her there lad,"
ordered the Chief, his voice softer with encouragement. Much, much later,
I was to discover that this gentleman's aplomb became enriched with
diplomacy when dining with our first-class passengers.
I risked a quick glance around the
engine room. Handrails, gauges, lights and floor plates were quivering
with the tremendous vibration. Great billows of steam surged from the
howling turbines. The starboard engine remained at rest. I swivelled my
head back, just in time to catch the next engine movement: STOP. I
answered the telegraph promptly and quickly closed the astern valve. I
glimpsed around, feeling quite smug now that I'd the hang of it.
"The ahead wheel mister!" called the
The puzzled look on my face brought the
Chief back to my side. He eased the ahead manoeuvring wheel open. "Look,"
he instructed, gesturing at the tachometer. "Momentum is still spinning
the turbines astern. You have to brake them by using the ahead wheel."
The next movement commanded full astern.
With immediate response I introduced steam to the turbines.
"THAT'S BETTER!" yelled the
Sound and vibration built to a crescendo
until the telegraph jangled STOP minutes later. I reacted smartly and spun
the astern wheel shut. Lending my full weight to the ahead wheel, I gave
it a great heave. The valve spun open with sudden force. The uproar ceased
quite suddenly. I gulped and hesitantly peered aft. Totally unconcerned,
everybody was attending to their duties. This seemed to be the norm,
except to me. Fuelled by adrenalin my heart thumped with excitement. Here
I was, not yet twenty-one years of age, having the experience of a
lifetime taking a major role in the operation of the famed
Some time later after being relieved, I
got the chance to observe our departure from Boat decks. The liner lay
midstream in the River Test, just opposite Hythe with her bow pointed down
Southampton Water. The tugs, released from their task, chugged jauntily
back to their berths. A chocolate milkshake frothed from the massive
propellers even as they barely spun.
In an hour or so, the telegraphs would
ring FULL AWAY, and RMS Queen
Mary would sail majestically down the Solent past the Isle of Wight on a
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