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On 30th January 1971 – I was called by Marconi to pack immediately and head for London. A large wad of £ notes passed to the Liberian Embassy in return for a fast track VISA for Liberia.

I joined Cluden after a long flight from London via Zurich and Abidjan. For the leg between Zurich and Abidjan I was sat next to a large, coloured Doctor. We spoke French for the whole of the time. I assumed he was a French speaker because he spoke French to the Air hostess who was speaking to everyone in French. I found this a bit of a strain as languages do not come naturally to me. As he left the plane, he called to a colleague, two rows ahead, in perfect English. I looked at him and spoke in English. We both laughed, as we had both struggled to converse in French but each thought it was the language of the other!

It was dark when we landed in Monrovia airport, which was some way from the docks. A taxi had been laid on for me. It was a typical English winter day when I left Heathrow, now we were in the tropics and my attire left me feeling rather warm and over-dressed.  Monrovia airport is situated some distance from the port of Monrovia and it was interesting driving through the darkness, lit only by the occasional village camp fires and candles. You could smell charcoal fires and local cooking. It must have taken over an hour to drive to the port.

As I arrived and boarded Cluden, she slipped her moorings and we were on our way to Rotterdam. It was well after midnight by then and I was shown to the Radio Room and my cabin. Cluden was a relatively modern bulk carrier of about 63,000 tons. She was carrying iron ore from Monrovia to Rotterdam.

Next morning I went to the Radio Room well in time for my first watch to give me a chance to have a look at the equipment and prepare myself for my first watch alone. I was I for a bit of a shock. I found out that the previous Radio Officer had ‘jumped over the wall’. Further, very little of the equipment in the Radio Room worked.

The main receiver, a Marconi Atalanta was protruding slightly from its rack mount case. It was dead. I took it apart and fixed it, replacing a couple of the valves. The bottom of the receiver has a large metal plate with many screws, most of which were missing. I found enough to make it safe and give it effective screening and fixed it firmly back into its rack-mount case. It gave no further trouble.

Next was the Marconi Oceanspan transmitter. I decide to leave that and try the emergency transmitter, this worked and I was able to send the message back to the Agents in Monrovia and to the ports Authority, that we had successfully and safely left Monrovia, that we were on our way to Rotterdam and would the Agents let the Rotterdam Agents know our ETA. Back to the Oceanspan – there were various bits missing and bits cobbled together. Luckily I had been well trained by the Southampton College as to the inner working of the Oceanspan. I managed to get it going with only one of the 807s in circuit, there being virtually no spares of any kind on board. This gave me (a seriously under-powered) HF capability, but at least I was able to communicate with Portishead Radio to be able to get our daily messages. To add to my workload, Cluden was an OBS ship, having to send weather observation telegrams four times a day.

I had worked through my watch and my off-watch time to get thus far.

At the end of my second watch period (1400z) I needed to start the AutoAlarm. It was a model I had not seen before, a Marconi Auto Alarm type M in a single 19” rack mount unit. What a weird thing it was too. All of the timing was done by a rotating cam bar through the middle of the upper part of the unit. You had to engage a bevel starter gear and spin it to get the cam bar to start rotating. If you could spin it fast enough, the servo would take over and keep it rotating for the rest of your off-watch period. I could not get this thing going at all.

Nothing for it but with the manual. Oh yes, Marconi generously supplied you with an Avo 8 as you sole piece of test equipment. They also suggested you made a HF probe following their example sketch as voltages quoted on drawings were often the voltages as found with this probe. Being someone who had many years experience with an oscilloscope this made troubleshooting a little fraught. Eventually the fault was tracked down to a faulty servo drive valve, one I better knew as a television line time-base output valve with an anode top-cap. Hurrah! The AutoAlarm was now working and I could go off watch.

I had only been off watch for a few minutes when the AutoAlarm bells went off. I rushed up to the radio room and dutifully listened on 500kHz but could not hear anything in distress. The Second Mate came into the Radio Room and said that it always did that when you were in the Tropics, due to static and it was best to switch it off. Certainly when you listened on 500kHz during the day in the tropical regions all you can hear is QRN. Only if a ship or coastal station is within about 10 miles would you be able to hear them. I left the Autoalarm on but turned the bells off during the day, during the night things improved and I felt better with the bells on.

By the end of my third watch pretty much everything was working, even though I only had about 30W on HF. That was my first day on Cluden.

The next day was spent making an inventory of all the spares held on board, throwing all the valves and other parts marked ‘suspect’ or ‘used but OK’ into the bin. I made up a great big shopping list and sent it to Marconi HQ in Chelmsford for delivery to Rotterdam.

The Captain was one William Alexander Morrison, who had brought his wife and daughter with him. His daughter, Amber, was about three years old. We became firm friends as she liked all the coloured and flashing lights that were in the radio room. She knew how to start the AKD. The AKD is the Automatic Keying Device which can be set to automatically send out the 12 by 4 second dashes to wake up nearby auto-alarms, followed by SOS and the ship’s callsign. As it sends the routine, lights flash on the front of the box to enable a viewer to see that the correct sequences can be sent. Relays and cams in the box added to the fascination with their audible ticking.

The innards of the AKD were fairly simple and completely mechanical.

There were three Paxolin wheels with raised and lowered section around their circumference. One complete rotation of the wheel took one minute. The first wheel sent the 12 by 4 second dashes with one second spaces, the second wheel sent SOS three times, followed by the ship’s call-sign three times and the third wheel sent two nominal 30 second dashes for direction finding purposes. The whole sequence would be repeated until either it was stopped by the operator or ran out of battery power. It was powered by the radio room emergency 24 volt batteries.

During February of 1971 there were some very severe storms in the Bay of Biscay. Severe enough that on one particular day we travelled minus 29 miles. Under such conditions it was important to keep the bow into the weather for the safety of the ship and crew. Laden Bulk carriers of this type have a freeboard of about 8-10 feet and tend to go through the waves. However, when they are in ballast they have a freeboard of about 35 feet and bounce like a cork.

On the way from Monrovia to Rotterdam Cluden was laden with iron ore and cut through the waves. This meant that she did a lazy roll. This made it difficult to sleep because you were continually rolling out of bed. Sometimes the rolls were up to about 30ºor so. Luckily my cabin had a ‘day-bed’ which was at 90º to my bunk. That was more comfortable.

On most ships the stairways ran fore-and-aft, but on Cluden, the main stairway went athwart the ship. When the ship was rolling badly you had to wait for the ship to rollover fully then run up the stairs which were by then almost horizontal. If you miss-timed this, your stairway would soon be almost vertical.

The extreme rolling of the ship caused us all problems with moving around. We were always bumping into all vertical surfaces, which were, of course, not vertical at the time. Amber, the three year old daughter of the Captain and his wife, did not suffer any problems. She would run about the ship’s alleyways without a care. If the bulkheads were nearer to horizontal, she would run along them in preference to the decks, only to swap to the opposite bulkhead as the ship rolled the other way.

After Rotterdam we proceeded to Norfolk, Virginia to load with coal. This meant crossing the stormy Bay of Biscay again, only this time we were in ballast. Ships tend to bounce a bit in stormy seas. As before the ships always has to face into the waves. A cycle of motion then takes place. Depending on how you think of things, either the ship plunges into the oncoming wave or the wave comes towards the ship. This has the effect of lifting the bow. As the wave travels along the ship more of the bow is lifted until the bow is right up, out of the water. The ship’s propeller is pushing forward quite hard so the ship’s engine is under pressure. When the wave reaches a point about two-thirds of the way along the ship, the bow rapidly falls into the next on-coming wave. This causes a resounding shudder as the bow crashes into the wall of water. This see-sawing effect now lifts the stern out of the water and allows the propeller, now in the air, to accelerate or race until the governors cut in and slow the engine. As the ship hits the water you can see the ship flexing along the length of her hull. This up-and-down flexing of the hull turns into rapid fore-and-aft motion of the accommodation block. This can go on every few seconds, for seemingly days on end.

After this particularly violent storm Cluden sustained much internal structural damage that had to be temporarily repaired. The donkey boiler, high up under the funnel and heated by the engine’s exhaust gases was left hanging by its pipe-work and one fixing point.

One thing left me a little more than curious during all of this rough weather. None of us could stand up without hanging on. All cups, plates and drinking glasses always had to be put on wet beer mats to stop them sliding all over the place. All of the dining room chairs were chained to the deck to stop them wandering about and all the tables were also fixed to the deck. Nothing was still, movement was difficult but my morning and afternoon tea-cup, delivered by my steward, was always full. Never was there a slop in the saucer. It took me some time to find out how he managed this feat. I had often seen him, during the rough weather, scurrying about the ship delivering teas and coffees to various of us Officers, always carrying one cup at a time from the galley. Then one afternoon I opened my own cabin door, there was my steward holding my cup of tea, two-thirds full, filling the cup from his mouth. The way he managed to deliver full cups was to make the cup in the galley, take a large swig from the cup, run up stairs, spit the tea back into the cup and with a beaming smile, deliver the tea.

Footprints in the butter. Cockroaches are a way of life on ship. The warm, moist conditions of the Galley allowed them to breed profusely and there was always a guaranteed food source. We had access to the ‘fridge in the officers galley and often made ourselves cups of tea and snacks. “Always make sure you knock on the ‘fridge door.” I was told. The lining of the fridge was damaged in several places due to age and the physical abuse caused by the excess vibrations of life on board Cluden. The cockroaches lived in the lining. If you knocked on the fridge door before opening, the cockroaches would scurry away and would be out of sight when the light came on. If you forgot, you would see them crawling over the food. These damn things were often over 1 ½ inches long, some up to 2 inches. They left footprints in the butter!

We (the Officers) got so pissed off with the vast number of cockroaches living in all parts of the galley that the 2nd Mate organised a steam lance and completely cleaned the whole place out. We swept up several bucket loads of cockroach bodies.

The food was not that brilliant either. One of the Chief Steward’s favourites was ‘Consommé Lettuce’. This was a thin, slightly brown, peppery liquid with bits of raw lettuce floating about. In general the food was not too good and often a cause for complaint.

Sometime about the end of April we were heading to Port Cartier in the St. Lawrence seaway, Canada. Normal ocean-going ships were not allowed into the St. Lawrence until the 1st May each year because of ice. This was before global-warming had really kicked-in. It still felt extremely cold to us with small lumps of ice in the sea, then the heating system failed. We arrived at Port Cartier to load grain. Sixty-odd thousand tons of grain can be loaded in about 24 hours, so we were not there too long – just long enough to fix the heating system.

Where there is grain there are pigeons. The Chinese crew love pigeon so we lost them to their quest of catching as many as they could. They won’t eat seagull, but pigeon is another matter. Loading grain is by conveyor belt and chute from massive silos, so the crew were allowed to carry on. The grain arrived in great long trains and re-filled the silos. Trains 1 ¼ miles long were quite a sight to see.

The grain was bound for Rotterdam and after that we went to Falmouth for a dry-docking. I caught the train home.

Ports visited:

Savona in Italy

Pozzuoli near Naples

Norfolk VA

Port Cartier Canada


MV Cluden:

Yard Number 829, was named CLUDEN when launched on Friday, 25/09/1964 by Fairfield Govan , for Matheson & Co Hong Kong.

Her main engines were built by Fairfield-Rowan Ltd Glasgow , she was powered by Sulzer Oil 2SA 6cy 13800bhp 15 knots machy aft

Ship Particulars:
Built: 1964
Ship Type: Bulk Carrier
Tonnage: 22341 grt
Length: 662 feet 0
Breadth: 85 feet 3
Draught: 36 feet 8

Callsign: ZENY

Owners: Jardine Matheson, Hong Kong registered.

Bulk carrier.

220v AC Mains

Radio Equipment:

Marconi Oceanspan transmitter

Marconi Atalanta receiver

Marconi AutoAlarm Type M

Marconi Automatic Keying Device