A Memoir from Ted Euers
PART TWO: BY SIMON EUERS (AUSTRALIA)
Lead Photo: MV OWERRI
Having arrived home from my first trip, I was lucky to be back for Christmas. At the end of my leave, I left the Harrison Line and joined the Elder Dempster Line (EDs) signing on the MV Owerri on 27 December 1956, the Owerri being one of their new ships. EDs sailed mainly to the then British colonies of West Africa. They had a big presence in Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria, very similar to that which Burns Philp had in New Guinea. The Owerri was docked in Queens Dock in Liverpool for a few days, so I was able to go home each night before we sailed. I had a lot more confidence than when I joined my first ship and soon found my way around. My cabin was very comfortable with portholes both forward and at the side. My workshop was in the forward mast house. Apart from the officers, engineers, myself and the bosun, the crew were all West Africans.
Sailing day was the usual hustle and bustle, dockers loading the last of the cargo, the crew cleaning the ship ready for inspection by the heads of each department. Once they arrived, we would all make ourselves scarce while they tested the ship’s equipment. This was followed by a lifeboat drill. Shortly after this, the tug boats made fast fore and aft ready to tow us out into the River Mersey. One last blast of the ship’s siren and we were on our way and our own, bound for Freetown, Sierra Leone. The ship’s service speed was 14 knots, a lot faster than my first ship which was a slow 11 knots and had a steam reciprocating engine where you could see all the moving parts, whereas the Owerri was a motor ship whose engine was completely encased like that of a car. The trip took about eight or nine days from the time the Liverpool pilot left us until we reached the African coast. After leaving Liverpool in the middle of winter it was a relief to see the sun. Mind you, it did get too warm sometimes until we got used to the hot weather.
We were in Freetown for only two days. The routine which EDs used on the African coast was to pick up about 80 dockers to work the cargo at each port until we called again at Freetown homeward bound. This workforce had a head man called Peter. He was a small, slightly built, smartly dressed person who assigned a man to work with me as carpenter’s mate and four or five men to work with the bosun. The rest worked the cargo under Peter. They all lived on top of No.1 hatch, with the two derricks stowed horizontally and a huge tarp spread over them. Each man had his own stretcher to sleep on. One side of the forecastle (the front of the ship) had a permanent galley, toilets and showers, especially for them.
LOADING LOGS IN SAPELE
After leaving Freetown our next call was Accra, the port for the Gold Coast, which is now Ghana. I had to go to the local clinic for a typhoid injection. The nurse who looked after me was young, she looked about 20 but she was a very big lady and she seemed to be eyeing me. I was quite nervous and glad to get back to the ship.
The next port wasn’t a port as such. We anchored about 1km off the coast and large surf boats came out to meet us. Each boat took one sling of cargo and then headed for the beach. We couldn’t see what happened when they got there because we were too far out. We had two or three cars to discharge, and I thought this was going to be interesting. They lashed two boats together and landed the cars with two wheels in each boat. Quite an achievement considering the ship and the boats were rising and falling with the swell.
The next port was Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. On our approach, the Customs and Immigration launch came out and I was surprised to see they were black officers, not white as in South Africa. When we were alongside and tied up the only white person to come aboard was the ship’s agent. We finished discharging in Lagos and a week later sailed for Sapele, a small village 12 hours sailing inland from the coast. A day out from Lagos we approached a massive delta. The land was very low-lying, we could only just see it. The chief officer and I were on standby when the ship slowed to just slow-ahead. The mate said we were waiting for the pilot.
We could see for miles in every direction over a flat sea. Not a sign of a ship or boat anywhere. After a short while, the mate pointed out a speck on the horizon. “Here he comes,” he said. Thirty minutes later we could see a man and a small boy paddling a canoe, they were local natives. When they came alongside Peter and some of the boys lowered a couple of rope slings and lifted the canoe with the passengers onto the deck. The mate said the man would guide the captain and the boy would take over the helm and steer the ship. Within 30 minutes we were on our way again. I was still standing by on the forecastle as we entered the Ethiopia River, one of the many that flowed into the delta. The river was wide enough for two ships to pass, with dense jungle on each side. After a while, the river narrowed and there were small clearings on both sides where families were living. Their only connection with the outside world seemed to be by the river in their canoes. We were well into fresh water by now and approached a junction where the river was divided into two separate rivers, both about the same size. This was where the pilot’s knowledge was needed.
As we turned slowly into the river the bow missed by inches the bank on the left dividing the two rivers. There were massive dents in the mud banks where other ships had missed the turn and had to back off and have another attempt. We finally arrived at Sapele, 60 miles from the sea. It was difficult but with a lot of manoeuvring, we were able to back into a side cutting and tie up alongside a timber factory wharf. At each end of the ship, our ropes were tied around trees to keep us steadfast. From here we couldn’t see the town, only the jungle and the factory. The shore crew soon started to load packs of plywood in some of the hatches and huge logs in the others.
After a week loading, we had to stop because the ship had reached its maximum weight and we were low in the water, more than the river could support. We were about three-quarters full. The captain had to allow for sunken logs from the log rafts, some of them 6ft in diameter. For some reason, we left Sapele mid-afternoon which meant we couldn’t make the open sea before dark. We had to anchor mid-stream which meant using a stern anchor which was on a wire rope, as well as a bow anchor so that the ship couldn’t swing. So, we were motionless in mid-stream just 50ft from each bank overnight. The bosun, who had been up the river many times, told me how vulnerable we were in this position. The last time he was here, natives managed to get aboard and were disturbed trying to steal the gramophone cabinet from the officers’ lounge. Once we were securely anchored the mate told the bosun he wanted floodlights along each side of the ship to try to deter any midnight visitors. At first light the next morning we moved off, none the worse.
We reached the sea early in the evening, put the pilot and his young companion plus their canoe over the side and sailed for Lagos and civilization. It was a matter of backtracking to the same ports we had called at outward bound. On top of the plywood and logs, we now had to load bags of cocoa beans and palm kernels which were bound for Lever Bros, for soap making. On sailing day we had a big surprise – 200 long-horned cattle waited on the quay for us to load as deck cargo. The foredeck was covered with straw and then the cattle were loaded two at a time. With a rope sling around the base of their huge horns, they hung limp in mid-air until their hooves touched the deck. A few hours later we had them all roaming freely around the foredeck, and they were soon ‘on the nose’. Fortunately, they were bound for Accra, only 24 hours away. Once they were landed and the decks were hosed down, we spent the next two days loading and sailed for Freetown, our last port of call, where a small amount of cargo was loaded.
Peter and his crew left us after being with us for six weeks, and we sailed for Tilbury where we were paid off on the 24 March 1957, having been away for a very interesting three months.
About July 1957 I joined a new company called Manchester Liners sailing from Manchester to the East Coast of Canada, this was ideal for short trips, I was home every month.
After sailing from Manchester, it took one week to cross the North Atlantic. In the winter we would call at Halifax and St John’s and in the summer, it would be Montreal and Quebec once the ice on the St Lawrence had melted. When we arrived on the Canadian coast it took one week to discharge our English cargo, one week to backload and one week to sail back to Manchester, being away only one month. There were two disadvantages. One was, after a few days’ leave, I had to travel back and forth between Liverpool and Manchester daily by train, taking an hour and a half each way. The other was the weather in the winter when crossing the Atlantic. There were only one or two pleasant crossings a year. In the winter we would go around the South of Ireland to avoid the Icebergs and in the summer, we would go around the North of Ireland, which was the shortest route.
The ship I joined was the Manchester Spinner which was about six years old and built in the same shipyard where I served my apprenticeship. She was finished when I was in my second year.
I never thought I would one day be her carpenter. The home port being Manchester meant that when arriving and leaving we would sail through the Manchester Ship Canal (locally known as ‘The Big Ditch’) to the River Mersey passing Liverpool on our way to the open sea. The Manchester Ship Canal was man-made, 35 miles long, starting at Eastham locks, upriver from Liverpool. Large ships could only lock-in 1 hour before high water and 1 hour after high water, high water lasting 1 hour, making a total of three hours, twice a day, to negotiate the lock either way. The rest of the time the river was too low. Once you locked in, with a tug at each end, they would take the ship through a series of locks until reaching Manchester. This would take 10 or 12 hours either way. Luckily with a tug on each end, I didn’t have to stand by the anchors all that time, only when approaching and leaving each lock. From memory there were 4 sets of locks  , counting the main Eastham lock, where you were locked out to the river. There were bridges over the canal, the main one being the Latchford Viaduct Railway Bridge and some road bridges. On each side of each bridge a trip wire was set up to make sure ships’ masts didn’t hit the bridges. The locks were very interesting to watch so at weekends there were many sightseers watching the ships pass through.
Liverpool tugs would take the Manchester-bound ships into the first lock at Eastham. The lock gates would close behind the ship and the lock would be flooded, the ship would rise sometimes as much as 5 metres until she was level with the water in the canal, and then the canal tugs would take the ship all the way to Salford Docks at Manchester.
The Manchester Spinner was a well-designed ship with a top speed of 16 knots. I stood by her for a week travelling backwards and forwards each day from home until she finished loading. Sometime in that week, I was told that the company still upheld an old Navy tradition of a tot of rum for the crew each Friday. They would queue up outside the Chief Steward’s office with glass in hand and receive their weekly quota.
On the day before sailing after all signing on for the voyage, I was told to report to the Chief Steward’s office with a brace and bit and a bottle. When I arrived there were two Customs officers and a 5-gallon wooden keg of rum on the table which I had to tap with my brace and bit. I drilled a hole in the top of the keg and inserted a tap then turned the keg on its side and did the same at the bottom of the keg. We turned the keg upright and one of the Customs officers took my bottle and filled it three-quarters with rum. This ceremony took place before every trip. Then the Customs Officer unsealed the Bond for the voyage. The Bond is a storeroom where duty-free goods were kept while the ship was in port.
We left Manchester the next day, 8 August 1957, for my first trip down the canal, which was amazing going through the locks and dropping down 5 – 6 metres each until reaching sea level at Eastham.
When finally arriving at Eastham that night we were told we had missed the tide and could not lock out until the next morning, so we tied up for the night. This suited me fi ne because the canal was only about two miles from where we were living, which meant I was able to go home for one more night.
We locked out into the river the next morning and I was on standby for the next three hours. It was a strange experience sailing past the shipyard where I had served my apprenticeship and had watched many ships pass in those five years. Now I was sailing past myself. After dropping off the Pilot at the Liverpool Bar, which was about twenty miles out to sea, we turned North and went around the North of Ireland, out into the North Atlantic bound for Montreal. After 5 days we entered the Gulf of St Lawrence: it took almost 2 days to reach Montreal. With the USA on our portside and Canada on the starboard side, we passed Quebec where the river started to get narrow even though we still had 80 miles to go. By now we could see small towns and villages on both sides.
They say, if you count the white churches on the US side there is one for every day of the year. I don’t know who counted them! We arrived at Montreal and started to discharge our cargo. In the late 50s, Montreal was as far as deep ships could go. The locks into the Great Lakes could only take ships up to 2,000 tonnes. They had started to build a new seaway, but it would be years before ships as large as the Spinner could enter the Great Lakes.
We were all on standby ready to leave Montreal when it was discovered two of the engine room crew were missing, so we ended up sailing without them. The story goes that they were in one of the dockside bars discussing how much time they had to get back to the ship. They thought that one of the men drinking at the bar was the Company Pilot so the ship couldn’t go anywhere without him, and they would make their move when he did, not realizing that he was not the Pilot. After the ship had sailed, a Company Agent organized for them to go by taxi to Quebec, some eighty miles away. Needless to say, they had to pay for the taxi and had a hefty fi ne to pay. When we arrived at Quebec, they were on the wharf waiting for us, very red-faced.
We only stayed in Quebec one day then sailed for Manchester. Being summertime, it was a very pleasant trip.