Tug – o – War A free short story based upon truth.
This is a story based upon truth but all of the names of individuals and companies have been changed.
The descriptions of those involved in the story are relatively correct and some old hands may certainly remember parts of the back ground description of the places and the type of work taking place at the time.
The real names of rivers and surroundings have been retained but any other names that are associated with this story are purely fictitious, any similarity to real persons is purely coincidental since it is not my intention to name or to draw the reader of this subject matter into forming an opinion as to who the characters referred to really are.
These stories are dedicated to a first Engineer called Les.
One of the nicest people, that the author has ever had the fortune and the privilege to be able to call his friend.
Working lads all
We find our motley crew working on the River Humber, and the city of Hull being the town of birth for the entire crew.
Everyone has got his job and generally everyone does it as best as he can, even Tom Coley who has only worked for the company for about three months.
Tom had been out of work for some time after leaving school and although jobs were quite plentiful around that time, 1961 Tom simply could not find the motivation to go out and get a job, Hull had plenty of work but it has always been low paid almost across the board.
Describing Tom is very simple really; he is very slim and weighs about nine and a half stone with a waist that many young girls would be proud of, twenty eight inches, he can sometime be quite manic and little wonder why he never seems to put on weight at all even though his food intake is substantial.
He was brought up in a very strict house hold with a father who ruled the house with a rod of iron; Tom was not his fathers favourite in the house with another brother and a sister, quite simply he is used to doing as he is told, his mother sometimes despaired of the relationship between him and his father.
Tom when younger had many friends and some of those friends living close by are still associated with him not long after school and still in the sixties, they go out together and mainly spend time talking in groups or often they use each others house to play cards for small stakes, usually pennies.
The one thing that Tom certainly has going for him is that he will talk to almost anyone; most of the local neighbours know him and often speak to him.
The man living next door had talked to him several times and he had now become quite friendly with Tom, although he was a great number of years his senior.
Tom had left school after passing the age of 15 years old; he had been forced to leave a term longer than most because he had his birthday in January, and he missed the leaving date of the previous term before by about three days.
Even so at the age of fifteen you are still quite young and certainly not very well informed about what you might face in the great big world of employment.
Even though Tom thought as many young people do, that he knew everything he clearly had a lot to learn and working in the shipping industry would teach him a great deal, the only problem was that he did not know that at the time.
Tom got his chance of work and was asked to present himself before the manager of employment in the head office of the company ‘International Towing Ltd’ or I.T.L. which was the name of the company by which he would eventually become familiar.
Given that Tom had been recommended by another employee who had a good reputation with the company, his job was that of engineer on one of the ocean going vessels and to say the least his vessel would dwarf the one he was to work on, several times bigger and also with a much more modern propelling system, powerful diesel engines.
Tom had his interview and got the job with little effort, one thing that was never asked him was, “can you swim” because he could not. Still Tom Coley was now to become second Deckie.
One minor thing that had escaped young Tom was how dangerous the waterways were that he was to work on, and lets be hopeful here that he does work on and not in!
Perhaps it was foolhardy to do this type of job knowing that you could not swim or was is bravery, then again he may well have felt pressured into going for the job because of the neighbour next door and the fact that they knew his parents and were also very friendly with them, in those days work and being in work were very important to them.
Whatever the reason Tom was now a part of the river and shipping scene, on the rivers around Hull, this notorious and very dangerous river have claimed many a life.
The first shift aboard the vessel was a serious learning curve, he was shown a number of things that were to be his duties and a lot more jobs that would be shared with the older and more experienced other Deck Hand.
The tug was a very nippy vessel, and it was said to be able almost to turn on a sixpence, not actually true but they did have quite a lot of manoeuvrability.
Onboard were obviously ropes of various thicknesses and some had a wire section, these types he later learned were known as springs for towing. With a wire only there was a great danger of the wire snapping taught and then breaking as it took the weight of a ship several times the size of the tug pulling it, so the rope section of a spring took up the slack and prevented the taught rope from twanging.
As well as ropes for towing there of course were also thinner but still very strong ropes for tying up the vessel when berthing up after a shift or work period.
These ropes had at all times to be coiled and put out of harms way, like upon the superstructure which is the parts of the tug that houses the boiler room and cabins, the coal to fuel it with and the cabins one forward and one aft. There were also several other small steel building to the bow section, one was used for the galley and the other across from it was a store cupboard.
In the store cupboard was kept all sorts of items including paraffin for the lamps and cleaning fluids and cloths for the brass bells and fittings etc. For the most part the cupboard was mainly used for the storage of paint and associated tools like chipping hammers and paint brushes.
It is said that you start at one end of the Fourth Bridge and by the time you have finished painting it you have to begin again, this is the very same principal that is part of the tug culture too.
Oh yes the chipping hammer, when you think about it that could be very dangerous for Tom, You see whenever the tug is in a waiting time for a tow job or after a tow but still there is some time left in the shift (A shift being 4 hours before and 4 hours after the high tide) then out would come the chipping hammers and paint.
I was saying about them being a dangerous tool for Tom, well you often had to chip the paint from the outer side of the bulwark (that is the rail about 24 inches high all around the perimeter of the tug) to do that you had to lean out and chip away merrily and often the hammer was dropped into the water, it has been known for the person using the hammer to also fall from the tug into the water too. There was a safety measure though, you drilled a hole through the hammer shaft and threaded a piece of string through that then put the string around your wrist, however if the person wielding the hammer fell in then the hammer went with him so both might get lost.
There was a joke aboard the tugs that went something like: If you feel yourself falling into the drink then try to throw the hammer on board, they cost money.
Once chipped you would paint that area with priming paint before leaving the tug no matter what, it was against all that was holy to leave an un-primed surface.
So Tom soon learned about ropes and paint, mostly because the other more experienced deck hand (Known as first Deckie) would as soon as the time was available break out the paint etc.
When you wasn’t cleaning paint work you were at other times cleaning brass, and boy was there some brass to clean.
A big Port and a Starboard light in finest brass, along with a Mast Head Light, and Aft Light for the rear mast and a Towing light (The Towing Light as you would probably expect was displayed when the tug was in the process of towing another vessel)
The brass did not stop there though, there were handles to the forward and after cabin sliding lids, there was a brass bell and what was know as the ships Binnacle or Compass as well as the telegraph that communicated with the engine room, and numerous other small items like catches and fasteners.
If you have cleaned brass then you will know how good it looks soon after cleaning but on water the shine does not last very long, so cleaning should be regular or it is twice as hard to clean if left too long.
It was not always just the job of the deck hand though others like the Mate and the other members of the crew would also take a turn in cleaning and painting, but not the Skipper Denham Paltry (52); he had a serious aversion to anything that even loosely resembled work.
Even though all of the crew were doing their bit to keep the vessel spick and span he would more than likely be down in his forward cabin either smoking or asleep.
The Skipper always seemed to wear the same clothes, his trilby always mounted upon his head and a light coloured rain coat, these never seemed to vary winter or summer.
One thing though that the Skipper was good at, and the crew all agreed and that was he moaned at every one about everything.
He must have been the unhappiest person ever to have life breathed into him, he never smiled and he never ever told anyone that they had done a good job or any such pleasantry.
Not for nothing had he gained the nickname of Old Cod Eye, mainly because his eyes looked just like one of those fishes that we often saw for sale on the fish dock.
The tugs mate was very funny indeed, he said it the way it was and if you did not like that then tough, but he was fair and he was helpful and friendly. He often spoke to the skipper about his attitude and how he often would throw his matchsticks on his cabin floor, not to mention that he also spat on the floor too some times, it was Tom’s job to clean that cabin and he hated it and who could blame him for that.
There was however one good thing about the Skipper and that was sometimes he would leave the vessel and go ashore to do various things, mostly he would have to go get towing papers signed since some companies booked their tow late or had a bad credit rating with the company so the Skipper would have to go aboard the ship to be towed to get it’s Skippers signature on the towing papers.
The whole crew loved it when we berthed up and the Skipper left to go ashore, the mood of everyone aboard changed and it was like a holiday, you know how short they seem when you are enjoying your holiday.
The older Deck hand, Geoff Brand (23) was at first quite wary of Tom, he wondered why he had got the job with seemingly such ease, also of course Tom could not tell anyone of his experience because he did not have any at all. After about a couple of weeks the older Deck Hand began to accept Tom and they became very friendly, he even began to warn Tom of the fact that the Skipper was on the war path, or he was complaining so keep in his good books.
It seemed that poor Tom was the whipping boy for anything that went wrong on board that tug.
The Stoker a Maltese man by the name of Naz Hanna (37), probably the laziest person ever to pick up a shovel or a trimming hammer.
Naz must have kept notes on how to excuse himself for non achievement since he rarely gave the same excuse twice in one year.
Naz many times was in the firing line from the Skipper for lack of steam, the Skipper used to shout from his bridge to “put some more bloody call on that fire, its not hot enough to boil enough water for a cup of tea” The stoker would also leave what I got used to calling the rubbish after burning coal ‘clinker’, this material was cleaned out of the boiler when the Stoker went aboard the tug, he was supposed to go at least an hour earlier to fire-up, the theory was that when the vessel was needed it would have a good head of steam to be able to not only move but maybe even tow something too.
Those bags of clinker should be drawn up through the air vent above the boiler via a pulley system, and the practice in those days was to throw it overboard, there should never get to be too many bags in the boiler room, apart from getting in the way and being a hazard when stoking the boiler, it took so long to get them up on deck since they were so heavy, this also meant that it took a long time to empty them over the side, it may well have been an offence to do this because we never did it when close to any official offices of any kind, mainly when we were well away from the river bank and well out in open water.
Just one other thing yet a very important thing, the wind had to be in the right direction or when throwing clinker over board you would get an eyeful and that was very painful and the pain lasted for quite some time.
Not all plain sailing
There were good times on board even for Tom, he had found that the Engineer and he had a great deal in common, although there was a serious age difference if Tom got a short break from his duties he would spend what short time he had down the engine room talking to his friend. The engineer Jim Crawley (46) was a tall man of about six foot, he looked rather taller since he was so very thin, he was a married man with kids, a very quiet natured man.
Jim was a wearer of dark rimmed spectacles and they too made his face look very gaunt and thin.
He was the sort of person that as well as having a very broad interest in many things, he could talk about so much yet be very interesting, but the one really shining feature about Jim was that no matter who he was talking to he would listen.
One clear problem with Jim was that, if the stoker did not give enough steam then he was unable to supply the power demanded by the Skipper via his bridge telegraph. Jim was in charge of all things engine and also he had charge of the stoker, it was Jim’s job to push Naz if he slacked in his job, however he was such a quiet natured person that Naz got away with murder, when the Skipper demanded power then Jim would prompt Naz to stoke up the boiler, even though Naz was clearly slacking and the Skipper was loosing his temper Jim remained very quiet and passive, not shouting but complying with the demands of the Skipper.
The one problem down the engine room was that it was very hot, in the winter months that was a good thing but in the hotter months is had to be the worst job aboard the tug, perhaps the heat is the reason why Jim never seemed to put on weight although he ate his share during extended shifts.
The Mate Bob Zeal (48) was a very stocky man and he was quite bow legged and walked with a slight limp, he was built like the proverbial brick outhouse and it was doubtful if anyone would argue with him.
Even though the Mate gave clear signs that he was as hard as nails and he had worked the river for the whole of his working life, which is really the reason for his persona. He had a real friendly soft side to his nature though and as I have said he often stuck up for Tom against the Skipper on many occasions.
He certainly asked him one day if he deliberately spat on his cabin floor and how would he feel about it if he was the one to have to clear it up.
Tom overheard that conversation and it was clear that it put the Skipper in a very embarrassing situation, although the filthy habit did not stop.
It was not as if the crew were very heavily paid, truthfully their pay was quite poor given the amount of responsibility that the crew had as a whole.
Then again in the Hull area there has never been a time when pay had a parroty with the job or the responsibility that was forced upon the workers.
Tom was not always so downtrodden though, there were times when he got his own back, several times when the Skipper was down his cabin asleep and waiting for a tow to be called for by the ship we were waiting for, he would quietly slide back the cabin lid and make a very loud sound just like the buzzer of a ship, two hoots would get the Skipper running up those cabin steps at a right pace only to think that he must have been dreaming, as soon as Tom had called down to the Skipper’s cabin he would slide the cabin lid back and leg it to the other end of the tug, it could not possibly be Tom who had made that sound because every member of the crew would verify that Tom had been at the aft end of the vessel coiling ropes for some time.
I don’t know if Old Cod Eye ever sussed it out but he never said anything, just went back to his cabin swearing under his breath.
If you had any sense on board when it was cold, you uncoiled and re-coiled a rope when the Skipper was about other wise he would find you another job to do, often the most unpleasant job that he could think of because it was cold.
When aboard in winter every member of the crew took to wearing quite a lot of clothes, along with a very long and heavy overcoat, problem is you may well be warm but your movements were severely restricted.
You were never going to pull the birds in winter unless you had an eye for a seagull.
Summer was the best time to be working aboard a tug, clothes could be much reduced and even when everyone else was roasting in the sunshine the breeze on the river was so pleasant.
Often the tug would pass the Pier which in the sixties was a real vibrant place, it seemed in those days when the sun came out that everyone would head for the Pier.
As well as being a pleasant place to watch the ships and other water craft go by, there was also in those days the ferry which went from Hull Corporation Pier which was also known as Victoria Pier, the trip across the River Humber took about three quarters of an hour and many who could afford it would take their cars to the south bank destination known as New Holland. From there you could go down to London cutting out quite a lot of road travel but mainly most went to the east coast and places like Cleethorpes, Grimsby and Lincolnshire.
One reason for mentioning the pier during summer is when you passed there you would get waved at by many people and it was a treat to see all of those young ladies in their summer cotton dresses.
There were a number of facilities provided by the Hull City Council in those days, amongst these were an ice cream vendor, a café and a toilet area and buses were available too. One of the best things though was that music was often played via a Tannoy system, mostly light classical music but so pleasant to listen to when leisure at that time was at a premium.
There was even the odd occasion when the crew used to berth the vessel at the jetty very close to the Ferry Terminal, this used to bring many visitors to the pier section where they were berthed and the crowds looked down at the tug fascinated.
One time as Tom was watching the young ladies who were peering down at the tug, he noticed a horse going past with a very over weight young female riding it and well hiding the saddle, she looked to be really giving that horse some serious work carrying her, he shouted “hey love wouldn’t it be fairer if that poor little horse was on your back”.
The crew fell about laughing and it got to the ears of the watching crowd who also looked in her direction and began to laugh.
One problem with berthing close to the ferry though was the water of the River Humber moves quite rapidly when the tide is coming in; clearly they had to be there at tide time to enable some of the larger ships to be able to negotiate the shipping channels at their deepest. The River Humber is so very tidal and fast moving and because it has a very muddy bottom the water is never ever clear, a habitat more suited to eels than most any other fish, although there are some fish species, mainly flat fish.
Where they berthed up near the pier was also very close to what was known as Railway Dock, for obvious reasons there were rail goods brought to that area, the reason to be near the Railway Dock on occasion was to what was called to Bunker up, this was the term used for taking coal onboard.
Now taking on coal was by no means a popular thing to do either, for one thing every thing had to be closed, like hatch covers and the galley, nothing was left out or open when taking on coal.
The coal was brought by a railway wagon that was run up a ramp quite high above the vessel; the coal was then delivered via a drop down hatch on the underside of the wagon.
The bunker on the tug had planks of wood across it and a sheet covering the planks to keep out the rain, this all had to be removed and the coal was then directed down a shoot and into the coal bunker.
If you have never worked on a steam tug then you will not be able to imagine just how much dust that left all over everything. Once their allotted coal was delivered then began the job of cleaning up the mess left after about a ton and a half of coal had dropped into the bunker. There sometime were pieces that were so big they just could not be moved let alone lift them; these had to be what was termed trimmed using a bloody great sledge hammer.
Every one got out the brushes and shovels. All of the coal dust was swept into piles and thrown into the bunker, a job that took several hours to clear completely, that dust got every where and it even seemed to seep through the cracks around the galley door and every thing had to be washed, the mugs in the galley looked as if they had the grounds from a previous coffee everyone had drank.
No painting that day or brass cleaning, mores the pity because they would all have rather done that, except for the Skipper though, he just buggered off to his cabin while the crew worked their bits off. Even Naz at coal time had to put in an appearance since the mess left just had to be dealt with before they could resume their duties.
Staying out All Night
On one occasion the tug was required to service a large vessel that was carrying iron ore, the ship had to be towed up the River Ouse which just as the River Humber has a very strong current and the water is never clear, towing this large ship without doubt was quite a responsibility and it also had its dangers.
The crew had been told the shift previously that they should take with them next time onboard, enough food for their breakfast; Tom certainly did not know just how much the next morning he would appreciate that food.
Old Cod Eye had it covered he left it to the Mate to cook his; he did his job well though it was a pity that his manner was not as good as the quality of his work.
The ship was towed to Flixborough and berthed at a very small custom made jetty, especially for the purpose of receiving iron ore.
Flixborough if you remember was the site many years later of a major chemical explosion, an explosion at a chemical plant close to the village of the same name, on 1st June 1974. It killed 28 people and seriously injured many others; the destruction in that area was quite unbelievable.
The ship was made safe and from there on until the morning all that could be heard was the crashing and banging of a crane unloading the iron ore, every time it dropped its’ bucket into the ships hold it made the most unbelievable noise, the sound of metal hitting metal from a great height. The ship would rock a little with the impact of the cranes bucket and in turn those on the tug would eventually feel the force exerted via the water because as it rippled our vessel would rock with the movement.
That night the crew had to sleep on board of the tug, what with the noise and the fact that the after cabin was like a resonator which magnified the sound and the movement of the tug no one stood much of a chance of sleep.
As it got dark and the ship being unloaded still had this relentless noise coming from it, both deckies decided to go ashore.
Street lights were definitely at a premium in that area so they could not see their hand behind your back. In the distance from the key side there could be seen a light which appeared to be coming from a small house or bungalow, when they got closer, it turned out to be a small house or maybe it could have been a pub.
There did seem to be a number of people about whose voices could be clearly heard, but then sound easily carried in that area at night any way.
As the couple of lads reached the building they noticed at they got closer that there were a number of trees and on closer inspection they turned out to be well laden apple trees.
Not wishing to go back empty handed or to have achieved nothing for their efforts they helped themselves to some of the good sized fruit.
As they were collecting the apples in the dark the door of the building opened and that threw an ark of light right across the area were the daring two were helping themselves, they did not know if they had been seen so they both dropped to the floor and hoped.
After a short time of holding their breath and lying still in the grass, no body seemed to be coming towards them so they very carefully and quietly withdrew and returned to the tug. It wasn’t so bad to get caught by the owners of the apples as it was to have had to face Old Cod Eye, but fortunately they got away with it.
The next thing that the two lads had to deal with was the Mate asking them what they had been up to, they had left their booty of apples close by and got back aboard so as not to get caught with them. Luckily the Skipper was not about but the Mate knew they had been up to something and he said that he could see by the look on their faces that something was as he put it up!
Eventually they gave in and told him, although he was not happy he did say keep away from there because it could get back to the company and their jobs could be at stake. Then he told them to go and retrieve their stash of apples because he could just fancy one right then.
The cabin was lit by an oil lamp and although you could see it was not really very bright, it was possible to talk and have a laugh but reading or doing anything else was not really an option.
Soon at around 22 hundred hours every one decided to go to sleep and those bunks looked very welcoming, unfortunately that is all because with the noise going on unloading that ship all night, sleeping was never going to happen.
To say that it was one hell of a long night would be an understatement but as is usual the morning did eventually arrive.
That food taken onboard now was the most important thing on every ones mind, the Mate and the two deckies set about cooking breakfast, the smell was out of this world and they just could not wait until it was ready to eat, it really did taste good – Sausage, eggs beans and slices of buttered bread, there was absolutely nothing left of the food when they had finished, if that tug had have had rats then they would have had to go find a café.
Breakfast soon over and it was all hands to the pumps, thankfully that ship had been emptied and it was ready to sail, all we had to do now was wait for the tide and that was imminent too.
The crew released the ropes and threw their heaving line aboard, they then tied the end of their towing line to it and lowered it down to one of the crew, soon the rope was on the towing hook and they had taken up their towing position.
Full steam ahead and they were off, taking the ship back to the main shipping lane and then to release it under its own power.
The tug often took rather smaller craft in tow as well, sometimes barges would be left to fend for them selves in the river, and they had no means of propulsion of their own so relied on other powered craft to get them to their destination.
There were also other barge like craft that looked very similar and they carried cargo in a hold also very like the dumb barges, the difference was that they had a wheel house superstructure to the aft end and of course they also had diesel powered engines.
Powered barges often used to pull a string of dumb barges often numbering 4 or 5, then as soon as they got them to the entrance to a dock or the River Hull they would cast them off and leave them to fend for them selves.
The only means of propulsion for a dumb barge was a very long pole, notable called a Barge Pole; the men manning the barge would put that pole into their shoulder and walk down the deck pushing their craft along.
Although our Skipper was not a charitable man in any way even he would on odd occasions take these craft into tow, depending of course where they wanted to be and if they wanted to be roughly the same place that they were going.
Most working on the river never did admire those poor souls who moved their barges by their own sweat and efforts.
Many of those craft used to go down the River Hull, there were a number of companies using barge traffic in the sixties.
One of the bigger companies on the river was Gilliot & Scotts, warehousing and a number of other commodities were transported for and by that company.
There were other companies in those days too, and they used to transport a quite varied selection of products and goods down the river, good as diverse as hazel nuts, peanuts, coal, wheat, maize and gum, not a full list of products by any means.
For many years Tom and his mate had been feeding their pigeons on the wheat that the suction elevators leaked onto the key side, collected a shopping bag full at a time, his mother often wondered why her shopping bag was so white inside.
The River Hull was not the place to mess about near, the water was fast flowing, very muddy and deep. Just like the Humber it flows into it has never been clear and in winter colder than an Eskimos’ nether regions.
In the sixties the River Hull was a very busy area, often there would be barges tied up two or three side by side.
Stoneferry Bridge was always opening to allow the craft with high masts and super structures through and users of the road that were affected by the bridge being opened often complained at its regularity.
There were paint companies and flour companies and also a fuel company all served by the river with many other industries too numerous to mention; now the river is almost unused and much of its key side buildings have fallen into disrepair.
One big job the tug was often called upon to do was fetch newly built trawlers down the river from the builders’ yards in Beverley.
These trawlers were almost a shell with literally only their steering gear in working order, they were going down the river to one of the dry docks to be fitted out and then they were sent to join one of the numerous very large fishing fleets that Hull had in those days.
The worst place to take a trawler had to be the St Andrews Dock Extension and that dock must have smelled much worse than all of the sewers of Hull combined.
There were dead fish floating around in there at every stage of rot and decomposition imaginable, it was often said that before you drowned in that dock you would die of poisoning.
In those days the entire key side of the dock was lined with men filleting and gutting fish, and then packing in ice of placing in tubs for sale all over the country. And much of it also went abroad. Given that the docks waters hardly ever was able to be refreshed because lock gates separated it from the main dock, and the rubbish that must have regularly got into it turned it into a kind of foul soup.
To work on that dock in the sixties you had to be hard and almost machine like to survive.
The towing papers I have mentioned before, usually got signed well before the ship wanted to use the service, the shipping head offices usually deal with that sort of thing.
There came a time on rare occasions when a member of the tugs crew (Usually the Skipper) would go aboard the large ship and then have the required documents signed, there was this one very rare time when he sent Tom aboard this Greek ship, these big ships can be very daunting given their huge size but eventually Tom found his way to the Captains Bridge and he was taken by the Captain to his quarters.
The captain already knew why a member of the towing company had boarded his ship and he duly signed up and handed the papers back to Tom. Just as Tom was about to leave the Captain he was asked how long he had been doing the job, and he told the Captain, The conversation then went onto other subjects and before Tom knew what had got him he was having a drink with the Captain.
The Captain was very friendly and he also had very good English so the conversation became very lengthy, Tom thought it time to get back aboard his own vessel, what would the Skipper say he had already been quite some time now.
Tom finally made his excuses to the ships Captain struggled to stand up and left his quarters, even though he now knew his way back the journey took him rather longer.
Now I don’t know if you reader have ever drunk vodka having never touched alcohol in your life before, well I can tell you it was far more difficult leaving that ship than it was getting onto it.
The Skipper had been waiting for quite a time but Tom got back and handed the papers over to him and then luckily the Skipper realised that Tom was very much the worse for wear, That was the very reason that the Skipper had not wanted to board that ship, he had apparently experienced the Captains hospitality himself some time previously and that was exactly what he wanted to avoid. Tom was sent to the Forward cabin and told to stay there until he had slept it off and the shift was over, no way was he ever going to be allowed to take an active part on that tug on that day.
The day went off with a big bang.
I have talked about the tugs Engineer and said how quiet he was, he always kept to him self but he was also very sociable.
Let me begin by explaining the layout of the tugs bow cupboard and the galley.
These two small solid steel parts of the superstructure were placed very strategically on the deck in the bow section of the tug.
As said before the cupboard to one side (Starboard) and the galley to the other (Port), both were of equal proportions, one full to bursting with cleaning and painting products etc while on the other side in the galley there was a coal stove made of cast iron to one end and a small work surface which was part of a cupboard to the other.
The practice when lighting the fire usually was to put in a few cut wood sticks on top of a small amount of crumpled up news paper, and then you used the old metal teapot which contained paraffin to slightly wet the wood and paper and then lit it with a match.
There had never been a problem with that arrangement before, every thing had always worked very efficiently, that was until the whole of the crew were called back aboard the tug for a special duty, they had already done one shift earlier that day at normal tide time. This other duty was not to be a normal tide time duty, it did not matter if the tow they were being called upon to do took place at top of the tide, the vessel being towed would be of a very shallow draft and therefore high tide was not necessary.
They had all been home and not for too long and then they found themselves back at work very quickly and waiting until the small vessel sounded his buzzer to let them know he was ready.
The Skipper was in his cabin, the Stoker was down below firing up the boiler and the Mate and the two deckies were to the after end of the tug preparing ropes for the tow and generally tidying up and chatting to one another.
All of a sudden there was the almightiest explosion and those on deck all ran as one to the forward end of the tug.
When they got there they found the galley door wide open and an acrid smell of smoke in the air, then the Mate shouted to them that he had found the Engineer across the deck and he was out for the count.
Two of them got hold of a cloth and cleaned him up and eventually after about two or three minutes he began to come round.
He eventually told them that he was making them all tea while the Stoker got up steam and he had filled the kettle ready and then place the paper and the wood in the fire, all had gone really well up until then, it was when he poured the paraffin onto the fire that it went pear shaped, the fire had still been very hot from our previous stint aboard and as soon as that paraffin hit the stove it blew him right across the deck.
Luckily the Engineer was shaken up a bit but not seriously hurt at all, but I bet he will never do that again before he checks if the stove has gone cold.
The big bang soon forgotten then they were put to cleaning the deck, the dreaded deck brush if you have not used one then thank your lucky stars.
The brush looks just like one of those old time scrubbing brushes with bristles it’s full length and longer bristles at either end, but the deck brush is like about three of those in one length.
The brush is used in front of you and you move it from side to side, getting your water from over the bulwark out of the river, sometimes a detergent was spread about the wooden deck and then it would foam up, then further water would be bucketed again from over the side and the suds and foam washed away, hence a whiter and cleaner deck. The crews only question used to be “why a clean white deck”, it only got walked on after all, so long as there was never any spillage of any kind on deck that would make it dangerous but then the crew very rarely ever used anything that would likely be spilled.
Talking about the pointless jobs and how difficult the job in general was made often by truly unnecessary tasks, there was one other although thoroughly important task that was really essential.
Tom used to come to work on a push bike, and since he had little money and most of what he did have he gave to his mother as board, he simply could not afford to buy a bike that was more suited to work.
You see when the crew are called to duty then they have as said before to obey the tide times more often than not, this would mean that the crew had to some how get to the tug at all hours of the day and night.
Now the tug could be berthed in any one of in those days’ more than five main docks.
These docks ran the entire length of the city to the south in parallel with the River Humber and where there was not a dock or a dock entrance there would be buildings or just key side, and that key side was very lengthy indeed.
Several of the docks were quite large and that meant that they could also be quite a distance apart.
Often where the tug was to be berthed was dictated by the job just finished or the next job. If you had a tow into a particular dock then you may well berth up there if it was convenient, but then again if you had to make a tow from one of the more busier docks, that could mean that the lock gate approach could easily be busy and regularly in use, if you did not get to the lock head in relative time then the wait could be lengthy. Waiting to get through the lock could then mean that you had missed the high tide time and the ship may well get delayed, hence it would have to wait for the next high tide.
Sometimes depending on which dock was chosen to berth in, once tied up to the key side you could just simply walk off without difficulty, the problem was though that sometimes the tug could be some fifteen feet below the key side and then you would have to get your bike onboard.
Unfortunately Tom’s bike as I have mentioned was not really suited to the work he had been pushed into, apart from having to cycle at all hours often the distance could well be about seven miles for him.
The old bike he had been lumbered with was his fathers, it weighed a ton and it probably should have been a museum exhibit.
Made of very heavy steel tube with what was know as ‘sit up and beg’ handlebars with pieces of old gas mask tube for handlebar grips.
Even the brakes although clearly had thick rubber blocks, they did not have cables but steel connecting rods, everything about that bike shouted I AM HEAVY!
Now put your self in Tom’s shoes, he was very thin weighing only about nine and a half stone with a twenty eight inch waist. He had to get that bike down that key side and onto the tugs deck, not easy I can tell you. Sometimes the Mate or another crew member would throw a rope up to him to enable the bike to be lowered onto the deck but often they had not arrived there first. It was a dangerous place for a young boy to have to sit and wait with his bike in the dark on the key side, Tom could not swim remember.
When one of the crew did turn up there was just one other slight problem, what if when lowering that bike down, the rope had come undone, Tom’s dad would not be happy
King George Dock
In the sixties King George Dock had a police presence, the docks had their own police force known as the British Transport Commission or B.T.C.
On the main docks there would be a police box at every entrance/exit to the dock; these were manned 24 hours a day.
Mainly these small police mini stations were to stop smuggling into the country but also to act as some sort deterrent to illegal entry to the country.
When you past these posts you did not always get searched but you never did know just when you might, again this was aimed at preventing people importing cheap goods for sale at very easy profits.
Tom remembers one day passing the police box at not a particularly busy time but steady all the same, not the main entrance/exit but one of the smaller ones. This bloke walked along side of him and he talked and talked, funny thing is Tom just wanted to push his bike past the police point onto Hedon Road and then get onto it and go home, tired after a previous night’s shift and then another early morning.
This bloke just talked and talked to him and he was really getting on his nerves but he walked with the bike and Tom between him self and the police officer who was attending to another person leaving the dock.
The police officer did not bother the two of them on that occasion and they just walked past with no questions asked.
From the police box was a muck path and in about 25 yards you were up to the pavement, the bloke stopped and said to Tom, sorry if I was a nuisance but I had a few watches to get off and I didn’t want to get stopped this time.
The man said just walk past the pub and out of the eye line of the copper, so Tom did as asked and after a couple of minutes walk Tom wanted to get on his bike and go, the bloke said “before you go, do you want to buy a watch”. That bloke had about twenty watches fastened all of the way up both of his arms, even though Tom was offered one for only a fiver he could not afford such an amount but he was thanked for his help. Tom told the crew about this next time aboard and they said it often happens but some do get caught and then fined, “bloody cheek” Tom said.
At the end of one shift they berthed the tug in the main King George Dock, in a section of the dock known at that time as King George Dock basin.
The crew had berthed there before because it was so convenient and fairly close to the dock entrance. The tug had berthed along side three other tugs and tied up the nearest of them, quite large vessels, much bigger than theirs and two of which were sea going tugs.
On the main key side connected to that area of the dock there was the most enormous ship berthed up, a great big black ship that towered above their small vessel, even above the larger of the tugs, and when stood on the deck you had literally to strain your neck to look up to the bow that was facing you.
The Mate had said to Tom, “Get hold of a heaving line and take it and throw it aboard that ship, and then wait”. That’s all he said not for what reason or why, nothing,
So Tom very obligingly took the heaving line with what is known as a Turks head (A large round ball of rope often enclosing a weight) walked across the three tugs to get to the ship and went up onto the key side and threw up the rope, then since he had no idea what to expect he waited to see what would happened.
Two or three minutes elapsed and eventually the heaving line was being lowered down to the key side very slowly.
Inevitably the line reached Tom but with a great big sack tied too it and Tom then untied the sack and the Mate shouted across to him with a lower than usual shout, “Throw the line back up and fetch that bag on board.”
So Tom tried to pick up the bag but it felt like they had put one of the ships crew into it so he had to drag it onto the first tug with the intention of crossing all three and eventually deposit the sack on his own vessel.
The first tug he had to negotiate was around five feet below the key side, so when the bag was pulled off of the key side walk way it went with quite a clunk.
No matter Tom kept on struggling with his burden and all of the time being encouraged to “Hurry up” by the Mate.
Over the bulwark of the first tug then onward to the second tug, over the bulwark of that tug and then over the bulwark onto the third tug then across the deck.
After some serious effort he had managed to get the bag over the last tug then to his own vessel and he handed the top of the sack to the mate for him to pull it aboard.
The Mate duly took it aboard and Tom returned to the ship for a further sack of what the hell was in it.
As Tom walked back over the decks of the other tugs there was a really strange pungent smell in the air and it was really very strong, then he looked down and there was a long line of this like yellow substance and the odd piece of glass randomly along the line of liquid, the smell turned out to be that of piccalilli from jars of about half a gallon capacity.
Tom got hold of the other bag that had already been lowered ready for him to collect, and to save time as was realised later.
Whilst Tom was negotiating the sack onto the tug for a second haul back to his own vessel he could hear the Mate shouting, “Bloody hurry up or we will get caught.”
That’s when Tom began to panic, The word bloody was bad enough but the word caught made a far greater impression on Tom, especially since they were so close to the exit of the dock and also of course to the B. T. C. police.
No sooner had Tom got the second bag back to the tug then he found his hands full of deck brush, “Yes I know” said the Mate, “I can smell it”, get that cleaned up an be quick about it”.
“I’ll go up ashore and see if there is anyone coming, if there is you will hear me shout and then just put down that brush where ever you are and come back on board.”
As said previously when using a deck brush you got water from over the side and using a deck brush was hard work.
Working at break neck pace and swilling the water through the holes under the bulwark, first on one tug then the other it took about twenty minute to clear up, and all of that time Tom was shaking from head to foot.
The Mate now satisfied that Tom had done a job of covering up their criminal activity he shouted for him to get back on board.
Once on board the crew members all got together and removed what was left of the many tins and bottles and they shared it out amongst them all.
The mate said “only take this stuff off when we are tied up in Victoria Dock, there rarely is anyone on duty there, if you are called to stop just keep going.”
They were all now the proud owner of some of that really large ships provisions given gratis by a friend of the Mates.
Tom was actually quite well liked on the dock, certainly by most of those whom he came into contact with; they either would give him a friendly nod or ask how he was.
There was one particular man on the dock whose job title was a Boatman and he looked the spitting image of ‘Andy Cap” who I think featured in The Daily Mail Cartoon strip.
The other man the other Boatman worked with was very well known to his father and they frequented the same social club
Whether that was the reason for one of the Boatman’s friendliness it is no know but when ever the tug and its crew came into contact with the Boatmen, Tom always used to get a shower of sweets thrown aboard. Although the sweets were really welcome Tom did not get away with eating them without some sufferance.
The crew ribbed him about the Boatman fancying him and numerous other things were said not able to be printed here.