by

C.R.F. KINGON # 2692 – 1980


The year was 1987 and I was on my 2nd voyage on the good ship “CONSTANTIA”. This was a 6 hold general cargo ship, built in the late 1960’s. She had served Safmarine well through the years but those years of hard work around the world were beginning to show.

Hatches had a nasty habit of coming off the rails as they were being closed, generally when there was a need to speedily shut them so as to protect water-phobic cargo from an approaching rain shower. Tween deck covers too, had similar quirks to their operation. The hydraulic cargo winches needed to be coaxed along with cargo operations frequently interrupted to bleed off an air lock in the system. Often the brass bleeding nut would sheer presenting an impressive fountain of hydraulic oil over the masthouse. Fortunately the ship also served as a cadet training ship so there was generally a young “gentleman” around to usefully do the little Dutch boy impression and stand with his finger on the hole while a replacement nut was found.

Down below the engineers also had their fair share of fun with never a dull moment. One learnt to be prepared for any eventuality whilst on watch as one never knew when the engines or steering gear might stop or the gyro compass might start looking for another North.

This trip also had no functioning air conditioning, as 2/0 I had a corner cabin so I was generally able to manufacture some sort of cooling breeze with my two portholes but I had to keep a weather eye out for any rain squalls. The third mate (Chris Liedtke 1981 #2741) had got married in East London at the end of the first trip (berthed at 0600, wedding at 1200, reception onboard at 1600, sailed at 1800) and had brought his wife onboard for the 3 month round voyage. The rest of the officers dared not enquire over their sleeping arrangements in a cabin without any air conditioning….

Despite all this, the ship was an amazingly happy one. Perhaps it was the fact that we all felt that the only way to overcome the hardships was to smile and be happy. Perhaps also it was the Liner trade that we were on, calling at Singapore, Hong Kong, Keelung, several ports in Japan and Korea. In those days the rand was worth a little more than it does today and there was still bargain shopping to be done. Also we had a bunch of eager-beaver cadets onboard and no one wants to destroy a young man’s enthusiasm, do they ?

One Sunday, whilst homeward bound across the Indian Ocean towards Durban, Sparks picked up an urgency message shortly before Noon. Sunday on Safmarine ships is traditionally ‘bar lunch’ day when uniform is dispensed with and casual rig is allowed. The Old Man, one Graham Grenfell (1956/57 #1999) was thus called away from his relaxation following the rigours of Sunday Rounds. The distressed vessel, the “Palm Trader” a cargo ship of some 9000 GRT, was about 160 miles from the Constantia. Course was altered towards her and speed increased to maximum, a little over 19 knots.

We found the Palm Trader shortly after dark that night and drifted overnight whilst the Greek master conferred with his owners as to what he should do. He had no main engine power due to incorrect lube oil being supplied in Singapore, seizing the engine. He was also taking water in no 2 hold. He was also having difficulty in raising his owners himself as his radio power was weak so our Sparks relayed some messages for him.

During Sunday afternoon one can imagine that the ship was abuzz with the prospect of passing a tow line and some no doubt had visions of towing the PT in to Durban. Being a cadet ship there were several copies of Danton’s Seamanship onboard and the section relating to towage was well thumbed. The lawyers onboard were already trying to calculate what salvage bonus would be involved and what share each would get. Whether the 3/0’s wife should get a share as she was on articles as a Stewardess was one question that really got the sea-lawyers going.

In the early hours of Monday morning the entire deck crew and all the cadets turned to to prepare for the tow. The Cadet Training Officer, Guy Barker (1979 #2636) took the bridge so that the Chief Officer could supervise. The insurance wire (50mm diameter and 240 metres long) was taken from its reel in the fo’csle where it had been quietly minding it’s business for nearly 20 years, and ranged down the starboard deck. One end was secured to 3 sets of bits on the poop deck and then the bits themselves were secured with backing wires around the poophouse. The other end was passed through the stern panama lead which had been well greased. The resulting 110-odd metre long bight of wire would be controlled with a snatchblock and mooring line from the windlass and paid out under control. By 0930 preparations were complete.

The Master of the Palm Trader was still vacillating over what to do, a salvage tug had been dispatched to his assistance but was still some days away and he was barely controlling the water ingress into no 2 hold. Eventually he agreed to our passing a line under Lloyds Open Form, the operation commenced at 1430 and by 1600 we had the PT under tow.

The connection was accomplished by steaming 2 cables off the PT’s port side and firing a rocket line over her. The PT crew then bent on a messenger which we heaved across, they then connected a mooring line which we also heaved across and connected to our wire. The PT then heaved on their mooring line and thus we passed the wire to them. The PT had already secured their port anchor and broken the cable, therefore they were able to quickly connect our wire to the cable with a joining shackle and then veer away on their cable to 7 shackles which brought the total length of tow line to approximately 400 metres.

We were fortunate with the weather as there was a low swell and SE’ly wind at force 4 for the connecting operation. We set course for Port Louis in Mauritius making some 7 knots. We towed the PT for a little over 5 days averaging 6.7 knots. We peaked over 9 knots at one stage but had to reduce when the wind got up to Force 7. We eventually handed the ship over to the salvage tug Apollon about 100 miles north of Port Louis at midnight on Saturday night and resumed our voyage towards Durban. There was an expectant hush when everyone gathered for bar lunch 12 hrs later – would Sparks once again find us a distressed vessel ?

We all got our salvage bonus a lot sooner than we expected. By agreement of the entire crew, our Lloyds Open Form rights were sold to the salvage tug for a set fee. Once all the costs of the operation had been deducted the spoils were allocated to all the crew under the usual salvage formula. So we had our money in our hands a few months after the event and did not have to wait years for the arbitration process to run it’s course.

One particular incident stands out in my mind which reflects something of the Bothie spirit. It was on the Monday night, the first night under tow. I relieved the 3rd at midnight and could hear that Sparks was still hard at in his “shack”. Sparks too had his own problems with radio gear that was getting a little long in the tooth. The best time to make contact with a radio station was at night when the signal carried much better. A little after 0100 he came through to the wheelhouse with a flimsy in his hand. This was a very junior sparky who was actually on his first voyage on his own – which meant he had about 8 months sea time under his belt following his shore training. He asked if he should wake up the Old Man as he had just received a message. I enquired what, in broad terms, was the message about, conscious of the fact that Sparks was well aware that radio secrecy did not allow him to divulge ships messages to anyone other than the Master. He said it was Safmarine with a whole string of questions about the tow and the Palm Trader. I said maybe he had better wake the Captain.

So Sparks cautiously woke him up. Graham Grenfell flung open his door and asked him what the problem was. Sparks held out the flimsy to him.

“Read it to me !” GG barked, “I haven’t got my glasses.” So Sparks read it to him whereupon GG wordlessly took the flimsy from him, and started to close his door.

“But Captain !” stuttered Sparks, “don’t you want to reply now ? The conditions are good now, but by dawn I won’t be able to get through and we will have to wait until tomorrow night probably.”

Graham forgot he wasn’t wearing his bifocals and stared at Sparks through his eyebrows: “That’s the beauty of the system, isn’t it ? Good night !” and shut the door.

The Constantia made one more round trip to the Far East before she left the SA shores for the last time and headed for the knackers yards in Taiwan, a few months short of her 20th birthday. A sad ending for any ship but more so for one that had risen to the occasion and helped another vessel in distress when she herself was not in the prime of life. After the previous 5 months of unexpected stoppages, during the week we had the Palm Trader under tow the Constantia had not failed us once.