‘Hard-a-port, hard-a-starboard, d’you know where you’re going, Lol?’
Many years ago, when I was 2nd Mate of the M.V Greenpeace two of my crewmates would burst into the wheelhouse with this question every lunchtime. They’d grab the ship’s wheel spin it back and forth while spewing mickey-taking questions and one-liners at me until they went back to work twenty minutes later. I laughed so much that tears blinded me – not an advantage when you’re keeping a lookout – but it was the high point of my afternoon watches.
I should point out that the ship was on auto-pilot then so turning the wheel made no difference to her course. Just as well, or we’d have carved an interesting zig-zag across the oceans and terrified any other shipping (shipping that was already alarmed by an elderly green tug with rainbows painted on it).
The ship I’m on now doesn’t have an auto-pilot, she has sailors to steer her – and me. I’ve sailed as Chief Officer on this fine vessel several times over the years but, this time, I’m Additional Chief Officer. In other words, a spare part. I fill in the gaps where there isn’t enough Captain or regular Chief Officer to go around. One of my functions is Quartermaster. When the ship is coming alongside a pier/quay, I take over the wheel so that the sailor can go and get his ropes ready for mooring operations etc. I’ve done this a lot in the last couple of years and as we can go alongside more than half a dozen times a day, I get a lot of practice. And I’ve got the biceps to prove it.
All qualified deck department sailors, from deck hands to Captain, must have a Steering Certificate to prove that they can do the job. Steering a ship is utterly unlike steering a car, and there are strict rules about it. When the officer of the watch (Captain or a Mate) gives a helm order, the helmsman (or helmsperson) must repeat it back. When the ship is on the course, the sailor must say so. For example, if the ship is on a compass course, the Captain might say, ‘Steer two-seven-zero.’ The helmsman will answer, ‘ two-seven-zero.’ And then when he’s brought the ship onto the course, he’ll again say ‘ two-seven-zero.’ All very clear and precise, isn’t it?
Now picture the scene, a small ship full of passengers is heading in towards a pier on the Bristol Channel. Out on the wing of the bridge, the Captain is gauging the vessel’s angle of approach and controlling her speed via shiny brass engine room telegraphs. In the bridge, I’m keeping the ship on course and listening for further helm orders shouted to me from outside.
‘Starboard ten,’ the Captain calls.
‘Starboard ten,’ I reply and turn the wheel until ten degrees of rudder angle shows on the indicator. ‘Starboard ten,’ I repeat when I’m there.
‘Thank you. Can you see that blue lorry on the quay?’
I peer over the bow at the land. ‘Yes,’ I answer.
‘Good oh. Steer for that, then. Unless it starts moving.’
‘Aye, aye. Steer for the blue lorry unless it moves.’
Interestingly, there is a bloody great mast in front of the bridge windows. This means that when you’re steering for a fixed point ashore (a church, a light or a blue lorry), you can’t actually see it because it’s hidden by the mast. This ship likes to hug the wind. If the wind is coming across from starboard, she’ll constantly fall off course to starboard and you can see whatever you’re aiming at appearing from behind the mast to port. You can’t take your eyes off the mast, and where the mast is pointing, for a second. As soon as any part of the blue lorry becomes visible to port, you have to whack on some port wheel to counteract the swing. How much wheel and how long you keep it on for depends on several factors – wind, tide, speed of the ship. It is really difficult to explain. It becomes instinctive, the how, when and how much of steering. Perhaps it is all in the wrist action.
As we get closer to the quay, the helm orders get bigger.
‘Port ten,’ is ordered. I swing the wheel over. The ship begins creeping to port. The swing speeds up, the rudder angle is still ten degrees to port and then I’ll hear, ‘Midships and steady.’ Hah! Not only have I got to take off the ten degrees of port but I have to spin over to ten or fifteen or maybe even twenty degrees of starboard rudder to stop the swing. And you can guarantee that, just as I get to starboard twenty, I’ll hear, ‘Hard-a-port.’ This ship is no lightweight, she is heavy to steer. Believe me when I tell you it’s a full body workout!
I did get told off recently. We were coming in to a pier one evening and the Captain said, ‘steady on that funny-shaped tree where the hill goes like that,’ he waved his hand to indicate the dip in the hillside. I spun the wheel to bring the ship round.
‘Oi,’ said my Captain. ‘You’re supposed to repeat it back to me.’
‘Sorry,’ I laughed. ‘Steady on the funny-shaped tree where the hill goes like that.’ I waved my hand to indicate the dip in the hillside. The Captain couldn’t see, he had his back to me but he seemed satisfied.
Last year the BBC’s One Show came to film our ship. In the days leading up to that event, a bigwig from the office was aboard. He spent a lot of time in the bridge and hung around while we were bringing the vessel into and out of port. Unfortunately for him, that was also the time we’d recently watched the Cruel Sea.
‘I say Number One,’ the Captain would ask. ‘Do you see that bally great chimney over there?’
‘Yes, sir,’ I’d reply in my best clipped wartime accent. ‘The bally great chimney on the port bow?’
‘That’s the one. Steady on that.’
‘Steady on the bally great chimney. You do know there are survivors in the water over there don’t you, sir.’
‘Yes, Number One, but there’s a ruddy U-boat underneath ’em.’
‘Aye, aye Captain. I’m steady on the chimney now, sir. God help the poor chaps in the water …’
‘You won’t talk like this when they’re filming, will you?’ The bigwig broke into our seafaring fantasy with a look of horror on his face. ‘Please don’t talk like this when the BBC come aboard. Please?’
No sense of humour some people. Still, we didn’t keep it up when the cameras where around, we didn’t want to face charges of brining paddle-steaming into disrepute. But the minute the film crew left …