Tag Archives: Paddle Steamer

It’s All In The Wrist Action

‘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 …


Posted by on September 17, 2012 in Shedward Seawards


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Gone Paddlin’

24th August 2012

I missed the 1123 by seconds so caught the 1223 instead. That was my first mistake.

My second was being pleased that my connecting train required no changes and was straight through to Glasgow. Hah! I should have suspected something when it turned up 40 minutes late, but no, I boarded, found a seat and buried my nose in a book. By Leeds I was feeling fractious and uncomfortable and really not chuffed when a large party of merry, middle-aged chaps infested my carriage. Not put off by being scattered around the carriage in different seats, they kept up a constant flow of chatter at the tops of their voices. Then the train broke down. For an hour.

When we finally made it to Newcastle, the happy chappies left but my joy at the sudden quiet was marred when I learned that my train would be terminating at Edinburgh… Scot Rail was going to honour our onward tickets so we could catch 2300 through to Glasgow. Good old Scot Rail. Shame the 2300 had to stop at every hamlet between Edinburgh and Glasgow though. I arrived in Glasgow at 2430 after TWELVE hours on a train. By the time I got a taxi and arrived at my ship it was gone 1a.m and the watchman who helped me aboard wasn’t sure which cabin I was supposed to be in. Never mind, we found an empty one and, though the bunk was unmade, I threw myself into it. Bliss.

25th August 2012

Doon the Watter.

It’s Cowal Games Day so it’s up and at it this morning. It’s nice being welcomed back aboard by friendly faces among the crew – and the regular passengers. It is ten months since I sailed on this ship.

Hundreds of passengers fill the decks as we paddle around the Clyde, dropping some off at this pier, picking up others at that pier. Whenever I go down on deck people say ‘You’ve been here all day!’ What do they mean? The whole crew has been here all day. Surely I’m not the only one that they notice?

Anyway, as the day wears on, many of the passengers are the worse for drink and one is escorted from the ship for being abusive and aggressive but mostly people are in good spirits despite the torrential rain that sets in during the afternoon. I even get chatted up a couple of times at the gangway so it’s not all bad.

26th August 2012

Doon the Watter again.

Last Sunday on the Clyde until October so the ship is full for most of the day. We’re carrying 700+ most of the time. Greenock, Largs, Rothesay, Lochranza and a cruise to Skipness Castle then back the way. When we return to Lochranza, it’s the last time Waverley will call there this year so it’s toilet rolls at the ready. Apparently this is a tradition that has crept in over the last couple of years. The people on the pier fling them at us and we fling some at them – only our loo rolls are large catering ones  and we need to avoid concussing anybody.

My hands are sore from steering the ship. I’m sailing as extra Mate this trip and so, to free up the regular Chief Officer, I’m acting as helmsperson for going alongside and sailing from the piers. The thing is, this is one heavy ship to steer. I have the muscle power but my palms are bruised from the spokes of the wheel. Not that I’m letting on, of course cos I’m tough.

I get two kisses today. On the mouth. But both the passengers concerned are known to me and are openly gay so I don’t think I need to confess all to my boyfriend.

I end the day by escorting a very drunk woman down the quay in Glasgow to the taxi rank. She had refused to leave the ship and had previously been abusing another family until I stepped in. I held her up as she fell over on the gangway and walked with my arm around her, steering her away from crew members that she’d taken a dislike to  and listened to her talking about her children. Then she asked me how old I was and I replied that I’m 47. She nearly fell over again. She thought I was younger than her kids who are in their twenties. Well, it was dark. And she was very, very pissed.

27th August 2012

Bye-bye Scotland, hello Irish Sea.

Bouncy. Uncomfortable.











28th August 2012

Hello Swansea. OK we’re meant to be in Avonmouth but this is close enough. Tomorrow we start plying our trade on the Bristol Channel. Let’s hope the weather improves and that many people will want to come for a day out on a paddle steamer. In the meantime, I’m just glad that my world has stopped bucking and pitching and rattling. Time for bed as Zebedee once said.

I haven’t snuck off to the ice cream kiosk, honest


Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Shedward Seawards


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