Irish Ships and Shipping

Irish Shipping Ltd.

Crew and Ships


Stories, Tales  and Memories from bygone days at sea

 ©Michael Mills 2007

Michael Mills.
Sailing through the Suez canal

A series of stories and reflections from Michael Mills on his time with
Irish Shipping Ltd.

Electrical switchboard fire Irish Blackthorn

 ©Michael Mills 2007
Living and life aboard the tankers  

 ©Michael Mills 2007
 Just another day at the Office! 

 ©Michael Mills 2012
Coaster collides with 
Irish Blackthorn in Kiel canal

 ©Michael Mills 2007
Jigs reels and craic in Immingham 

 ©Michael Mills 2007
 The trials and tribulations 
of ships engineers

 ©Michael Mills 2007
Black holes and discharge lines  

 ©Michael Mills 2007
Exploding Tankers! 

 ©Michael Mills 2007
Memories and nostalgia  

 ©Michael Mills 2007
From the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes 

 ©Michael Mills 2007

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©Michael Mills 2007 

Electrical switchboard fire on the Irish Blackthorn.  

In reply to Edward Griffins interesting and informative article about the Hawthorn. 
Yes the Blackthorn and her sister were indeed "H" boats, this was a Shell designation letter given to all the vessels of their fleet with the same specifications as the two Irish tankers, with the exception that the Shell boats were mostly A/C electrics instead of D/C

  Bob Lawlor electrician and Mick Mills 3E control board to starboard control board looking to port  

I had heard that the two Irish "H" boats started out as Shell but were taken over by Irish Shipping while they were building, whether that was true or not I am not too sure. 
The emergency Ruston generator was at the lower level engine room, just astern of the main engine reduction gear box, at least on the Blackthorn. As to the main deck access door to the engine room incident, that happened on the Blackthorn.
We were just leaving the med. after passing Gibraltar, we had just changed course and were transferring bunkers from the forward bunker tank to the aft tanks, the tank manhole cover was open to assist pressing up the tank, the filling gauge was broken, there was a shout from the bridge, then this rogue wave or mini tsunami!! about 2-3 meters high came tearing around amidships starboard side, the engineer just had time to slam down the manhole and clamber up to the catwalk as the wave just reached over the top of the catwalk then slammed into the aft accommodation into the engine room, and flooded the crews alleyway. 
The switchboard shorted out and caught fire. I was on watch at the time, pressed the alarm grabbed hold of one of the carbontetraclorid extinguishers and tried to get into the back of the switchboard but it was locked, so I climbed up on top and started spraying the board, just then Bob Lawlor arrived on the scene.
(sadly, shortly after this incident Bob passed away on the Hawthorn, what a good friend and shipmate he was. R.I.P.). 

sparks Eddy Doyle ,Jim Lyons and Bob Lawlor - Irish Blackthorn 1963 Bob Lawlor and M .Mills - washing machine experts. Bob Lalor and electrical switchboard. Bob Lalor and Harry Mooney CE. Bob lalor Mick Mills and Eddy Doyle.1963. Mick Downes, Mick Mills and Paddy Molloy,1963  

We nearly had the fire out when everything started to go black, for me at least, as you say in your article Edward, the fumes are poisonous as I had just found out. I woke up on the control platform very groggy a few minutes later. The fire was out but all the buss bars were burnt to dust, Bob quickly got the spares fitted them with some other essential wiring, we then tried all the generators on the board, everything was ok and we were soon underway again.
The final part of this tanker tale is that the main deck door had been open because we were having trouble with the starboard accommodation a/c unit which was shut down, so this let a bit of a draught into the crew’s alleyway.
There are still quite a few turbine tankers around but mostly VLCC tankers up to 250,000 tons or ULCC tankers over 250,000 tons. Anyway that’s what happened, as one of the crew said to me afterwards; we never expected to have our own indoor swimming pool on this ship.  

Next tale- collision in the Kiel Canal .

©Michael Mills 2007 

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Living and life aboard the tankers.

After 18 months on the Blackthorn, I had a very long leave indeed which was now at an end. So I had been doing nights aboard the Irish Spruce and this was after she had been converted to a reefer, then around the coast to Limerick on the Irish Oak as relief engineer. When I arrived back in Dublin there was a telegram waiting for me from ISL to come to the office to see Mr Hamilton, (the chief engineering superintendent) which seemed very ominous, as you usually got a telegram from the office to join such a ship your ticket and good bye and good luck. This could only mean promotion or the sack!! It was a very bad time to get the sack financially speaking, as it turned out it was neither promotion or the sack, he just wanted to know about the switchboard fire, but then he asked me which ship I wanted to join, it took me a second to get over this, but as I was now a confirmed tanker man I said one of the tankers, so that’s what happened, he sent me back to the Blackthorn.

Tanker life can be very monotonous what with constant sea watches and very short turnarounds 12 hours in the Gulf and maybe 24 hours somewhere in Europe , so anything to break the monotony was welcome. As the ship never went to Dublin or even Ireland our home port was more or less Rotterdam, when we had a few hours or were in dry dock we used go to a family pub in Vlaardingen getting a speedo ferry across the river for a few guilders if there was a few of us going. 

There they had darts, pool, and good cheap food and beer! Sometimes on a Friday or mostly Saturday night, if we were in dry dock, Father Van Den Berg would come down with his mini bus to take a load of lads up to the” Star of the Sea "mission to seamen, it would finish about midnight when we would go back to the pub in Vlaardingen and get back to the ship about 3 or 4 in the morning. Then promptly at 8am Father Van Dan Berg would be back to take us up to mass knocking on all the cabin doors to get us up, oh my aching head I can remember it still!!!

Another diversion at sea was the film shows two times a week 18.00 and 20.15 the lecky being the projectionist for the first show and the day working engineer for the second and woe betide if the film broke half way through, when the films were heavily dramatic I used to spend more time listening to the comments from the stalls of the crews mess room,(where the shows were held)it usually turned these films into pure comedy. Sometimes when the films hadn’t been changed, especially in the gulf, I would show them backwards, sometimes they were better that way! But the lecky always maintained that the projector wasn’t cooled enough in reverse. Anyway it made a change especially if you could speak English backwards!!
Darts was another sport very hotly contested there were 5 teams deck officers, engine officers, engine crew, deck crew, and catering staff,1st prize 3cases of beer,2 for 2nd place, and 1 for 3rd place, sometimes these were so close competitions and it got so loud in the mess room you could hear the ship coming for miles! I have an idea that the catering staff always had the team edge, but the individual best I can’t remember.
Chess and draughts were also played competitive, Captain Gerry Blaney being the expert; he would let you win the first game to see how you played then you would never win another game against him, although I did see Chief engineer Eddy Palmer win him on occasion.

We also had the sweepstakes usually on the Grand National, but other races as well, it would be put over the tannoy whenever we could get it when in Europe , another time when engine room ear muffs could be used!!!
Birthday parties another time for craic a few beers, a few songs the resident group playing, it was great, nobody ever going over the top with the beer, its not pleasant to be in the heat of the e/room for a watch if you’ve too much taken. Your cabin door would also be removed when on watch, and the wardrobe doors fitted, it made the cabin look like a Wild West saloon!! Just the place for a party. 

Whatever genius thought that up I don’t know but he must have spent a lot of time on a tanker! always remember Captain Cyril Brennan (RIP a fine skipper and gentleman) coming around on Sunday inspection, seeing the cabin door and saying, "who’s birthday was it yesterday?” It had become part of tanker life.

I can remember we had only one time any real trouble on board, it was just a few days off Christmas and most of the Irish crew were going home, so a new crew were signed on in the pool at London and then some others in Rotterdam, there were about 8 or 9 nationalities, but there was one bad apple who on our way out to the Gulf kept attacking a couple of jordys we had on board, and he being from near them, just north of the border. Anyway when nearing Rotterdam on our return journey I was coming out of the engine room at just after 4 in the morning, taking a short cut through the crews alley, to check the a/c units, when this madly drunken guy attacked me with a knife in the alley way, we struggled he stabbed me in the hand, then before I could get the knife from him the junior came out of the engine room, saw the situation hit him such a box it nearly knocked all his hair out!! 

We called the Bosun and his men, he locked him in his cabin and we thought that was that. But just as we were docking he broke out of his cabin eluded the Bosun’s posse and headed off into the sunset, then he set fire to a store in the middle of the largest refinery in the world. The security didn’t take to kindly to this, and lost no time in getting him locked up next day they came for his gear and told us he was being deported. After this we had our old crew sign on again and everything got back to normal, or as near normal as possible on a tanker.
St Patrick’s day was just another day in the Red Sea, apart from the few beers and craic in the evening, until we heard that the Irish Hawthorn our sister ship was heading towards us loaded for Europe, it was about noon when we passed her. We were light ship heading for the Gulf, the horn was blowing full blast, cheers, whistling and shaking of fists went on for some time, we were as close as safety would allow, but the catcalls could be plainly heard, any ships in the area must have thought we were mad, not knowing about Paddy’s day!

The pool was another relaxing moments in an otherwise very hot middle eastern day, especially when you came out of the engine room at 4 in the morning, just to float in the pool for 15 minutes and watch that eastern sky roll by, it was something else, to jump in with all that heat on you was enough to make the water boil!!

One time while we were at anchor in
Port Said waiting to transit the Suez Canal we got stand-by to move, so I went down to start and check the steering gear. Now there were two ways to go down to the steering gear and I always took the short cut (a great one for short cuts) between the main boilers, past the donkey boiler and up the escape hatch into the steering compartment Before I had time to open the hatch I heard a noise coming from inside, I opened the hatch and there were two Arabs
trying to screw a spare pump off the bulkhead, before I could get out of the hatch, they had fled up the deck escape hatch onto the deck over the side into their boat and off into the darkness, after that we made sure that hatch could only be opened from inside.

On loading in the Gulf we were sometimes shut down because of sandstorms. All loading would cease until the storm passed. All fans had to stop, all a/c plants, all ventilation louvres closed and then it got really hot I can tell you. As we used to keep two beers in the cabin ventilation a/c louvres for after watch that would get hot too, as 4 hours was just enough to cool them down, the louvres had to be turned up towards the deck head so they wouldn’t fall out when the ship rolled.

©Michael Mills 2007   

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Coaster collides with Irish Blackthorn in Kiel canal
©Michael Mills 2007 

We were nearing the end of another voyage from the Persian Gulf to Finland, an uneventful trip if I remember correctly, no blackouts or stoppages, mind you my memory isn't too good these days, it seems to be easy to remember what happened 40 years ago, but when it comes to what happened yesterday my mind goes into short circuit mode, I told a friend about this the other day, expecting a clinical reply, but what he said was ´´  your memory is bad because it came with your birth certificate``.!! Anyway that's getting away from the point. 

I had been on day work since Port Said as we had two third engineers aboard we used to work month about day work and watches, I was up on the boat deck aft, when there was this loud bang and a slight shudder. I looked over the side a coaster loaded up to the bridge with a deck cargo of timber, had rammed us bow on in the engine room between the engine room stores and the port turbo generator, as I looked down, the coaster, bow still locked into us was being twisted and turned over by our momentum. I remember seeing the skipper or pilot trying to lift himself out of the wheelhouse door, and the propeller lashing the boulders on the side of the canal. At the last minute she violently righted herself, and had passed our stern before we came to a stop, there was timber all over the canal. It seems that her steering had packed up and locked hard over to port, hence the collision. It all happened so fast it was unbelievable. What a shock they must have got, especially in the engine room when they didn't know what was happening. I went down to have a look at the damage, some of the lads were busy with a couple of sledges, the Bosun fitted a cement box, as we were dry docking after this voyage. It could have been much worse had we been hit in one of the cargo tanks!! Anyway we continued our journey up to Finland, we were still on charter to Gulf Oil, we did quite a few short trips after we were almost a parcel tanker, a couple of trips to Denmark then Norway with one memorable trip to the Immingham oil refinery, which will be the butt of the next tale," musical interlude and craic in Immingham".

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Jigs reels and craic in Immingham.
©Michael Mills 2007 

Not a lot of people know about the musical war between the two tankers Hawthorn and Blackthorn, and it was more on paper than anything else, it seems that every time we sent in an article into the Signal the Hawthorn would come back with one of its own about their musicians, of course the Blackthorn had the better group, but Peter Otter got a big one over on us when himself and merry men bought a piano in I think Antwerp!

It really took the wind from our sails. Our revenge came really out of the blue, we were doing a short trip to Immingham from Rotterdam, and when we arrived at the refinery there was a strike on so they couldn’t connect us up until the next day and then only one line, so it was going to be a 48 hour discharge out, depending what pressure we could pump at. After the evening meal, in those days we had to wear uniform if we were eating in the saloon, we were out on deck when we saw what looked like a pub outside the refinery gate. So 2 or 3 of us took a walk down to check it out, sure enough it was a pub, we went in before we had time to say a pint of Guinness, the manager came over and said "now lads you must be off that Irish tanker, your all very welcome but any fights and your barred" nice welcome!! A nicer crowd on board ship you couldn’t meet.

Anyway our musical quartet went up in the evening and asked the owner (manager) could they play, he agreed as long as there was no trouble, so they played for that night and then the whole weekend, the place was jam packed every night, the boss knew we was onto a good thing and got an extension for the weekend. 
We rearranged the watches so that any watch keeper musicians could get off in the evenings, as tankers only broke watches in dry-dock.
On the Friday night the pub owner and his wife were being worked to the bone, some of the catering staff 
stepped up and offered there help, which was accepted, the wages being Guinness or Newcastle Brown or whatever. He then offered the same deal to the band, so they became professional at that point, putting us again at the top. A couple of us went up on the Sunday night for a pint we barely got in it was so packed, he asked us when we were leaving, we told him on Monday he then apologized for being so quick off the mark when we arrived, and when were we due back!!!
That weekend had many happy memories for a lot of people I think. The postscript for this tale is that I was in Immingham refinery about 3 years ago and the old jetty was still there, also the pub outside but as a private house, curtains on the windows where the saloon and snug used to be, it brought back a lot of good memories for me too.

©Michael Mills 2007 

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The trials and tribulations of ships engineers.
(Or I would rather be on my Daddy’s yacht!!)

Mechanically speaking all ships need continual service and repair, to keep them as they say, ship shape and Bristol fashion, which applies to anything mechanical, I guess whether you own an electrical toothbrush or a nuclear power station, as Murphy’s Law firmly states "If it can break it will”! We had our share on the Blackthorn, I suppose no more or less than any other ship, but we had two recurring problems, one was the inability of the evaporators to make enough boiler feed water due to the fact that the brine pumps on the evaporators were not up to the job, which was proved by various trips to the Baltic where they worked perfectly due to the fact that the Baltic is only 20 to 23%salinity. We should have sent a message to ISL that we would be cruising in the Baltic for a few days just so we could fill the reserve feed tanks, they would have liked that!!!              
But we kept on de-scaling the coils, as we were supposed to do as per manual which didn’t work too well, in the tropics it was heavy going. Anyway we managed to keep blowing down the boilers and the every day use of the soot-blowers, sometimes by the skin of our teeth. Well luckily we never had an air heater fire. 

Anyway the end of this part of this tale is that we had arrived in Bander Mashour or was it our favourite spot
Kharg Island ! Some of the engineers went up to the local refinery bar, (we were not let to leave the refinery compound) loosely called clubhouse, it was only really a poor excuse for a pub with sand on the floor, but it had one good feature, cold beer. The lads had met up with an engineer from a U.S. naval bunkering tanker, who happened to be from Boston, no doubt Irish descent.

 They started telling each others engine room problems also the evaporator problems, he said they had had the exact same trouble but had got some new chemicals especially made for evaporators, if I remember correctly he gave us a 5 gallon drum with the metering valve, none return valve and bulkhead holding frame, it was soon fitted up, we gave it the lowest setting, something like one drop a minute, we started up the evaporators almost immediately they were making plenty of water, we kept monitoring them to make sure there was no chemical carry over. The next day we shut one of the evaporators down and ran on one which we also had to shut down as we were making now too much water!!

The other problem was the port turbo generator, which had the nasty habit of jumping off the switchboard under full load conditions in the tropics. So at the next dry docking we had the generator com machined. After dry docking was completed we sailed for the gulf once again and we decided to change generators, when we did nothing happened, we went to check out the com, nothing but a continuous blue flash all around the com. We took the covers off, they had machined the com all right but hadn’t cleaned out the segments, and the whole interior of the motor was full of copper chippings, it was a mess. 
We now had to remove all the coils by unbolting them from the casing and sliding them out, they were very heavy. The bottom ones were ok but the top ones would be a problem. Fortunately one of the engine room crew was a weight lifter, short but very strong, something like odd job the character in one of the Bond movies. Anyway he did a great job of getting the top coils out, and putting them back was even more awkward, I can't remember his name now, but without him it would have been much more difficult to complete I hope he may read this because he did great work putting those top coils in. 

Anyway we had the coils, motor housing, and rotor cleaned, we put it on the board and no problems, until the next problem turned up with a vengeance, which I will call "black holes and discharge lines".

©Michael Mills 2007 

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Black holes and discharge lines.

We had just passed Gibraltar into the medi, the weather was great and I was back on day-work, there was plenty of deck work to do, a couple of jobs on the windlass, then the midships winch and the gargo steam heating valves and steam lines expansion joints, which meant that I would be on deck sometime, enjoying the sun getting the bronsie and getting paid for it, even the pool had been erected midships, life couldn’t get much better!!! But it was to become a case of "The best laid plans of mice and men".
Two days into day work, Vincent McEvitt the mate (RIP sadly Vincent passed away not too long ago, a good friend and shipmate) came down the catwalk, "Mick will you have a look in the pump room we have a leak "So off we went, Vincent saying, that it was one of the discharge lines leaking. I assumed it would be a gasket leak in one of the flanges, wrongly as it turned out. Down we went to the bottom of the pump room then into the wing compartment, where the cargo discharge lines went up to the deck manifold we opened the valves, and got the engine room to put on one of the cargo pumps, so we could the ballast. There was a leak alright. 

The welds around both the flanges on the elbow pipe had cracked, no need to worry, the out board pipe should be ok, we tested it but it was leaking badly too, tankers do wear out much faster than other vessels by the very nature of there cargos.
That meant we would have to remove one of the elbows from the starboard side, to fit in the port wing compartment, as the ship had to be able to discharge either port or starboard. These elbow pipes were no lightweights two men couldn’t lift them, and they had to be hand blocked across the pump room to prevent sparks on the deck plates. We should have been wearing rubber soled shoes also, and all the pump room tools were bronze also, which now as the ship was getting on in age were either missing or broken.

The pump man and I had to bale out the compartment which was half full of oily water, and then I started to loosen all the flange bolts. By teatime my boiler suit, shoes, hair, everything from top to bottom was black!!!
The next morning I went down to the pump room, dressed to kill, in tea shirt shorts and flip flops, to my surprise there was the 12 to 4 watch doing a field day to give me a hand. Then after lunch the 8 to 12 watch came down, and that’s the way it went until we had the job done. It was getting hotter by each day as we neared Suez .

Passing through Suez , I stood the daylight stand-by watches, and we resumed our pump room waltzes after we cleared the canal. Every day we had to leave at least half an hour cleaning time, so that we could have a Swarfega shower in the engine room, before we could even go into the change room. As we hadn’t been seen in the saloon for days everyone thought we had all gone ashore in Suez !!!!
Well we kept at it and got the job done, and took the broken elbow up to the pump room entrance, where it was lashed tight by the crew. The heat now was very bad in the wing compartment, so that we had just finished in time, the whole job was done with great humour by all, Bernard O`Geran kept us all going with his wit and humour.
So with the last bolt tightened and the last curse said, we all trundled down to the engine room, looking like the Black and White minstrel show, Bernard with his last witticism said "Anyone for tennis lads"

Well I still had a few days bronzy time left, with luck there would be no more unforeseen problems. When we arrived at Brunsbuttel in the Kiel Canal , what was waiting for us on the quay, only a spare elbow for the pump room, which was undrilled!!! I think it was Ken Galligan and Bernard came down to the engine room while I was on watch, ken said "do you think you could get those flanges drilled and the pipe fitted before we get to Finland " I blew my top, only to turn around and see them both laughing, as I was going on leave when we got to Finland I been on the Blackthorn 18 months by then, there were rumours she was being sold, and I didn’t want to be sold with her!!!!
By this time I had got the deadly disease Tankeritious, the symptoms being the inability to sail on any other vessels only tankers!!!

©Michael Mills 2007 

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Exploding Tankers!

When I first joined ISL I was always on the cargo ships and I often had to listen to those dire warnings about the tankers that they were smelly dirty and dangerous, it was almost as if they were ships of a rival company. They were certainly smelly, but you got used to that. But they were not as dirty as you might think, at least the engine room, being steam and turbine were cleaner than the diesel engine rooms. but the danger part was true, certainly in the 1950s and 1960s when a number of tankers exploded for unknown reasons. It all came to a head in the early 60s,as two of Standard Oil (Commonly known as ESSO) tankers exploded within a couple of months of each other, as their tankers were the bench mark for safety and maintenance. What was known that was common to the two disasters was that they were both tank cleaning at the time.

For anyone who hasn’t served aboard a tanker, maybe I should explain the procedure about tank cleaning, firstly (in those days) canvas draught chutes were fitted and hung from wires strung fore and aft over the ships deck the forward movement of the ship forcing the draught down into the tank to remove any gas remaining in the tank  after the last cargo. That was the theory, and most of the time it worked. Then the Butterworth System would be used, this consisted of a high pressure turbine driven sea water pump, forcing the water through a condenser heated with de-superheated steam. This water was then pumped to the tanks and down a flexible hose with a nozzle which spun around with the pressure of water, then lowered to the bottom of the tank and up again, washing all the sand and sludge to the bottom of the tank, where it was drained back to the last cargo tank then pumped ashore on arrival at the refinery.

After much trial and error testing ashore it was found that the spinning nozzle created its own static electricity, and if there was any gas left in the tank that would be it. Sadly many seamen died before this was found out.
To counteract the danger they eliminated oxygen from the tanks, by using the exhaust gases from steam plant or diesel exhaust flowing through various filters and spark arresters into the cargo tanks. This stopped the chance of explosions, but it didn’t come until near the end of the 60s and I don’t know if any older tankers were fitted with this system but certainly all newer tankers were. I sailed on white spirit tankers later on, carrying JP 5 jet fuel and aviation petrol after, but these ships had a different set of inherent dangers as there was no tank cleaning.

Another of our trips brought us once again to sunny Kharg Island off the coast of Iran, we had on board a retired chief engineer from Shell he was about 85 and I think just marking time with us, Eamonn Flannigan had just left to go on leave, why ISL never made him chief, as he had his chiefs ticket, I will never know. But anyway we arrived at the refinery in Kharg in the middle of August extremely hot also the sea temperature was very high. 

We started the cargo pumps to discharge the ballast and tank cleaning sludge ashore, and when the sea temperature was so high the salinity meter would do its nut for 3 to 4 minutes, then drop back to normal, after enough water had passed through, but the chief came storming down a lot the worse for wear,” we have to shut the condenser down and take the end covers off to check the tubes, one of them must be leaking” It would have been well above 60o c down on the pump flat to do this ridiculous job was downright crazy. Anyway he kept on we had a heavy shouting match, next thing the mate comes down, saying we had to go to anchor if we cant discharge sludge. So off to an anchor we go. We open up the condenser and test the tubes for leaks with the fluoroscope, no leaks as I thought; meanwhile the chief had turned in. We put the condenser back together everybody, engineers and crew, were by now exhausted, you would nearly have to put on the bilge pump on to pump out the sweat!!!

We got hold of the mate and said we could go in to discharge now, we put on the pumps cooled down the condenser everything was back to normal in about 5 minutes. We discharged loaded bunkers and cargo, sailed and were about 6 or 7 hours down the Gulf before the chief surfaced wanting to know if we were going in to load! He went on leave then back to Scotland .
Happily Chief Harry Mooney joined when we arrived in Europe so we had a full complement of engineer’s now.

Harry always sent down the new engine room log book at the end of the month, covered with old chart paper and to one member of the engine room staff it was like a red rag to a bull. Big Liam (the junior who maybe saved my life in the crews alley) he was a talented artist and cartoonist, everybody and every little occurrence got fitted onto the log cover (journalistic licence!!) It became essential to check the log book cover before checking the job! I remember after my struggle with the fire pump, the next morning there was a drawing of myself and the watch engineer on the control platform up to our necks in water with the caption "do you think there’s a leak somewhere?”. 

One day Harry called me in to say that we had to do something about the log book cover, "What would a board of enquiry say if we had an accident below, when they saw the log book cover” I said just tear the covers off if it bothers you, "Oh no "says Harry "They are too good to throw away, and anyway how would I really know what’s going on in the engine room"!! It was a big loss when Liam went on leave, as there was nobody to fill his shoes and the engine room newspaper closed down.

©Michael Mills 2007   

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Memories and nostalgia.

If I mention the name Pax I think everybody who worked for ISL will know who I am writing about. Pax was a good man to have aboard especially when there was a blackout, because he would have all the machinery running again before you could say blackout, anyway we were getting our act back together again and bringing the main engine up to full ahead again, when Pax flashed past the junior and me who were at the control board with a two wheel key one in each hand and I never did find out what they were for. I haven’t seen or heard from Pax for 30 years, so if you’re reading this Pax you can let me know when next we meet, if you can even remember.

The 12 to 4 watch always had breakfast at 02.45, it saved us getting up at 8 in the morning for breakfast. We had our own dining room between the boiler and engine room next to the steam to steam generator table and stools, so the 3 of us on watch could an eye on the job at the same time. The firemen used go up about 2am to make the breakfast, while the junior took over the boiler room. And what breakfasts they were, talk about Irish breakfasts, these were Irish breakfasts supreme a la carte, eggs bacon sausages black and white pudding tomatoes beans mushrooms (if available) toast marmalade tea or coffee. If you had nothing else all day it would keep you full!!!

It was at one of these breakfasts that I mentioned all the broken glass in the gash can in the engine room lab,(where we tested the boiler water etc) I used do all the boiler water testing as somebody thought that 3rd engineers had it easy on the tankers, no Gennies to overhaul!! But we had a new 2nd engineer joined from West Hartlepool, extremely nervous, not the best complaint to have on a tanker, I felt sorry for him but he was very obnoxious with it, and had got on the wrong side of some of the firemen (who were all long time seamen with ISL and all knew the job inside out). Getting back to the broken glass, he had started to test the boiler water, and the firemen always waited until he was testing to blow down the boiler water gauge glasses, which gave off a terrible screaming roar, being superheated steam high pressure boilers. Hence all the broken glass!

When I went back to boiler water testing all the pipets and glass measuring tubes and everything else made of glass was gone, I was left with an ear dropper and a glass tea mug!!! It was only the wry smile of the fireman at breakfast that gave the whole thing away!! Anyway by this time the 2nd engineer he had gone on leave.
I haven’t put all these tales in any order, just as they came to mind so the last part of this tale is from when I joined ISL, I was just out of apprenticeship but still had been working with the same firm after I had applied to ISL, I didn’t think that I had any chance as everybody and his brother who was in engineering wanted to join ISL, but when I got back to Dublin from Killybegs boatyard, there was a telegram from ISL to go for an interview with Mr Hamilton,  which I did and he sent me to the Irish Larch in Manchester.  

Arriving at the docks at Manchester about 9am, I went on board and met the chief engineer Charlie Devlin ,everyone was in the engine room at this time so I went to the cabin Benny Dorgan showed me to, changed and went below, and I can always remember the first smell in the change room, swarfega and diesel oil.
So I went below and got my first look at a cathederal engine as all those huge old diesels Doxfords etc were called, this was a 5 cylinder Doxford where when you did a crankcase inspection.You walked into the crankcase with a tapping hammer in one hand and the extension cord of the turning gear in the other, to check all the nuts bolts and split pins etc.
We were on charter to Cunard serving Liverpool Manchester London Le Havre, before crossing to the states, and doing maybe nine ports in 14 days. Anyway we sailed from Manchester and by the time we had got to Le Havre I had got the juniors job down alright, what with temperatures control etc everything being done by hand.
We left Le Havre and when we got full away, I never saw the 2nd engineer again on morning watches, (I was on the 4 to 8) until we were near the Yankee coast.
I wasn’t green when it came to ships but I thought this was maybe normal that the 2nd engineer’s junior got to do morning watches by himself!! Anyway I wasn’t bothered because it made you very self reliant. We were about 200 miles off the coast of Florida when we hit the tale end of a hurricane, we were rolling badly, the bridge asked to shut the engine down 10 revs, I was just shutting down the purifiers as they had started to dump, when Charlie turned up, it was about 3 in the morning, and the engine govenor was cutting in as the prop lifted out of the sea, with aloud clack as the Doxford govenors did, anyway Charlie asked where’s the 2nd, I said he is up on the engine tops somewhere, but he already knew he was still turned in.  

We then took a couple of real bad rolls and it was no use looking for a way out as the ladders were nearly horizontal now, if I remember correctly it was the worst roll I can think of on any ship I had ever been on. The donkey man said that the inclinometer went to 40 degrees. When he could get up to the accommodation the chief went up to get the 2nd down on watch, of course I got the blame for grassing on him,!! But the chief told him later it wasn’t me, anyway apart from that he was an alright bloke, what he didn’t know about Doxfords wasn’t worth knowing.
After that I had the dubious honour, because I was the newest junior to sign on, to check all the accommodation fresh water taps for leaks, as either there was no carpenter that trip or they had stopped carrying them on board I’m not too sure. These were checked on Sunday just before captains inspection, Captain O`Shea being the skipper, who ran a tight and didn’t like any of his officers mixing with the crew not even junior ones.
I was in the crew alleyway, checking taps and having a chat with a few of the lads I knew from ashore, when I heard the captain, chief eng and chief steward  coming down the alley way, I made a dash for the door to keep ahead of the posse, but as I moved away from the wash hand basin that I was leaning against, it came away from the bulkhead, and was leaning towards the floor at a 45 degree angle, the bolts had been rusted away. I quickly pushed it back up, and stood leaning against it again, Capt O`Shea comes in, "Ah Mr Mills what are you doing down here?" "oh just on tap duty Captain" I said, "oh I see" says the captain "You look as if your holding that basin up" laughter all round, too much really, the captain goes out and the chief sticks his head in the door, he knows that there’s something wrong but cant put his finger on it. When they are all gone I make a quick dash down to the engine room for a couple of bolts and a drill and put the basin back in place again, somebody gives me a beer for quick thinking so alls well.

©Michael Mills 2007   

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Just another day at the office!

All watches worked in the engine room, were sea watches, we never changed to port watches because of the fast turnaround in loading and discharge ports, so most of the watches worked became routine, in so much as even with the odd blackout or breakdown would be nothing out of the ordinary.
But one such watch I remember with clarity, we were on one of our shuttle voyages from the Persian Gulf to the Baltic, and would be passing Gibraltar about 02.00 on my watch, nothing new or strange about, except we would have to forgo the culinary delights of the 12 to 4 five star breakfast which we did when passing through any of the numerous straights on this voyage.
So everything was going as normal, then I noticed the control platform deck change angle very slightly, with a loaded tanker any course change would not be felt in the e/room because there is so little freeboard with a loaded tanker, except if the helm had been put hard over, which is what must be happening now, I thought that we must be avoiding a trawler or something like that. But then all hell broke loose when the telegraph rang full astern, this brought us all-out of any reverie we may have been in, luckily we were all on the main platform I as soon spinning the ahead steam shut the junior engineer was cracking open the astern steam lock open, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the fireman pulling fires so we didn’t lift the safety valve and lose steam pressure as I shut the ahead steam. Very soon we were going full astern, turbines are notoriously slow to go full astern as the ahead turbine must be stopped or near stopped before going full ahead. Now the engine was at full ahead, we must be very close to something, but worse was to come, next thing the telegraph rang stop then full astern again. This is double full astern a movement which rarely happens usually when arriving or leaving congested harbours.
So now the steam was opened up full as this was obviously an emergency, we were at or near maximum evaporation, as we were slowly losing steam pressure, now with the pressure down to about 350 LBS very soon the turbine generator would cut out at about 300Lbs,I turned to the junior, but he must have read my thoughts as he said "Diesel" he headed for the lower engine room ladder, I shouted after him to speed up the main engine sea water circ pump as the deaerator safety valve was about to lift. He took the engineers emergency dive to the lower engine, sliding down the hand rail without the feet touching the steps, very soon the diesel running light came on the switchboard and Tom arrived back up to the platform, I left him in charge of the controls and went over to couple up the turbine and diesel generators, after which I tripped out the three A/C breakers to lighten the load, all this in case the turbine tripped out and over loaded the diesel, and left us in a blackout situation and no power to the steering gear.
After what seemed an age the telegraph rang stop, the steam pressure started to rise and we could breathe again. we let the turbine freewheel to stop, keeping an eye on the rotation indicator then the next order came dead slow ahead, then slow half and full ahead so whatever had happened was passed no doubt we will find out soon enough.

Very soon we got full away, so I went down to shut off the diesel and put the sea water circ back to normal, when I arrived back to the control platform the bridge phone rang, it was the 2nd mate,” Sorry for waking you all up down there " he jokingly said, I replied "No its ok it was amazing you could get yourself up from your chart room table nap!! I could hear him laughing at the other end, it seems what happened was a gas tanker about the same size as us had come out of Gibraltar at full speed, but he mustn’t have taken care to check the radar properly, and misjudged the distance with the slight sea mist about when he tried to cross our course and heading, luckily our 2nd mate had spotted it early when he made that early course change. At the last moment the gas tanker changed course when we had turned to port. Anyway the watch was nearly over now the junior went up to call the watch, as I wrote everything in the log book, all of a sudden I remembered that I hadn’t pressed the panic button, but it have been any use if we had of collided, when up to 40000 tons of oil and gas collide I don’t think that there would be any crew left to remember the bang! The junior came back down looking very glum and despondent, slumping down in his chair with his head in his hands, what was this, some kind of post traumatic stress,(as would be said nowadays)I asked him "what’s up”, he said "Mick when you shut off all the a/c units all our beers have got warm again"
We had nearly been annulated and he was worrying about warm beer! any way I was glad to see he had his priorities in the right order. After watch I went up to start all the a/c units again then after getting the last one amidships away I went into the bridge to scrounge a cup of coffee and a chocolate biscuit, I asked the 2nd mate how close we had been, he replied ",very close" I pressed the point and asked "How close”,” Very close" was the reply, so I left it at that, we had survived, through the professionalism and quick action of the 2nd mate, the fast response from the engine room, good luck, and Gods will, so it was to be another day another dollar and a watch that I wouldn’t forget

©Michael Mills 2012

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From the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes .

We were on one more of our trips to the Mexican gulf, still on charter to Cunard and not far off the coast of France, when we were about to be overtaken by a three stacker in the distance on the horizon, just as dusk was falling, obviously the Queen Mary. So the sparks either through boredom or just for the craic, signalled the vessel, (although he already knew which ship it was) "What ship? The other vessel didn’t deign to answer but in reply lit up the spotlights on all three funnels. The sparks not to be put off replied "Nice display but what ship? After that he did get a reply to their call sign if nothing else!!! So we lit up our single Cunard funnel, still no reply, so with our ego deflated we carried on our slow voyage to Tampa Florida, the Queen Mary steamed past and was soon lost to sight in the darkness.

Tampa was a very quiet town in those days, quite unlike the west coast of Florida with the famous towns like Miami and Palm Beach on the east coast.
After Florida we would go on do nine or ten ports in the gulf in maybe two weeks, sometimes for only ten hours or so. One of these memorable ports was Mobile Alabama , some of us had taken a bus up town to have a meal and a few beers, but it was very unlike getting the number 50 from Walkinstown to College Green. It was segregation time in the states, we boarded the bus and we all went back to the rear of the bus, to the coloured section as it was called, this created stares and howls of protest, (we were still ignorant of the divided bus!!) but as the bus filled up one of the lads stood up to let an old lady sit down, this really drove the others at the front of the bus wild. 

Anyway we arrived in Mobile un-lynched. Then we went looking for a restaurant we found a place on one of the side streets, went in and asked for four beers, the huge barman leaned over the counter and said "White folks don’t come in here” Suddenly it dawned on us this was a coloured restaurant. But one of the lads at the back saved the day and said "Oh we are not white we are Irish” there was a deadly silence for a while, and then the barman started bursting out laughing and gave us all beers. I think what he meant to say was "we are not American we are Irish” But maybe it was the word Irish that did it, being the Kennedy era and all.

After that New Orleans , and this would probably be the biggest port we would visit in the gulf, and certainly if you were a jazz fan, on Bourbon street every bar seemed to have its own resident jazz group, the different melodies coming from each bar was amazing.
The electrician had a hard time in the gulf ports as all the discharge and loading of cargo was done with the electrical winches, which were working well into the night, so we used bring him a six pack back whenever we went ashore.
We were in Houston sometimes, and we always had a lot of visitors, we were taken up to barbecues, parties, dances, the people of Texas were very friendly, these parties were so good I remember one of the guys losing his false teeth getting sick out of the cab on the freeway!!!
We were losing a lot of lub oil from the main engine we couldn’t find the leak or why the engine could be using it. One morning after watch, the juniors did the port watches, I had just gone out on deck drinking a cup of tea when I glanced down into the river, at the overboard sea water discharges, and there on the forward outlet was a continuous oil discoloration on the water, I called Charlie Devlin the chief engineer out to have a look, he immediately rang down to the engine room to shut off the sea water circulation and open up the cooler, it was leaking badly with a number of tubes leaking. The faulty tubes were plugged with brass plugs so we now had no lub oil leaks. When I came on watch at 16.00 Charlie jokingly said "This is your entire fault Mills" A big grin on everyone’s face as they were putting the last bolts in.    

After Houston we would go on to do more ports right down to Corpus Christi and Brownsville on the Rio Grande just across the border from Matamoras in Mexico . Then back to Liverpool , where on one of our return trips there was a telex from the office that I was to go to South Shields to Redheads dockyard to join the Irish Pine who had just had her boilers and steam reciprocating engines removed, and new heavy oil 4 cylinder Doxford engines fitted. Everything was new generators, pumps compressors, new sewage system for the Great Lakes ; even most of the ballast and suction were chromium plated!! But this was the first heavy oiled diesel of Irish Shipping and I think one of the first built in the UK . Anyway the system for changing over from diesel, which we used for manoeuvring, was then changed to heavy oil after we got full away. This worked all right but when we changed back to diesel at end of passage, to manoeuvre again, we had lots of problems with the fuel pumps gassing up, because of the high temperature of the heavy oil. After a couple of times going around while trying to degas the pumps, the chef decided to forgo the diesel and manoeuvre on heavy oil, which worked very well.
We loaded steel in Middlesbrough for Montreal , what a grand old ship the Irish Pine was, the cabin on board was about twice the size of the one on the Larch, I believe she used to carry passengers many years before, at least that’s what I was told. If I remember correctly the engineers had there own smoking room!!! Luxury indeed!!

We had travelled up the St Lawrence after discharging at Montréal, passing through all the locks of the seaway, and the Lake of a Thousand Islands then onto Lake Superior, where I remember one Sunday, John Dunne always invited a couple of us in for quiet sippers, a couple of drinks before lunch, they were quiet because the cargo ships were supposed to be dry. 

Irish Pine St Lawrence seaway. St Lawrence river 1960. Irish Pine Duluth. lifeboat testing Duluth.    

Anyway after lunch I turned in as I was on again at 16.00, there was a clear blue sky and calm weather ,about an hour later I was awoken by this screaming wind and rough seas, we had been hit by what they call on the lakes, a whipper, or tornado which usually comes out of nowhere. There were plenty of small and not so small cabin cruisers about in real trouble now. 
There were about six or so in our vicinity, so Captain Poole slowed the ship down to barely steerage way to create a lee so that we could shelter as many boats as possible. We passed some fuel down to some of them, but a few small boats in the distance didn’t make it. We couldn’t leave the boats sheltering with us, but it ended as soon as it started, when it was over we searched for survivors but the Canadian and American coast guard and rescue vessels were soon on the scene, so we carried on but found no survivors.

We would spend a lot of time loading in either Duluth or the twin cities in Canada Port Arthur and Fort William . We had an English Chief engineer and an English 2nd engineer after the maiden voyage, (the quiet man being the chief for the maiden voyage, even though he was a superintendent), anyway the new chief was a heavy plonky, and now and again the 2nd would ask me in for a drink after watch, but one time he found the bottle empty. So he waited until we went on watch about 0500 then went back up to his cabin and there was the chief in his wardrobe drinking his whiskey!!!
This 2nd wouldn’t answer the engine room phone when the bridge rang and I always had to answer the phone, we were crossing the lakes one time when the mate rang down (and I had been waiting for this call for years) He said "Give us all you’ve got, we are in a hurry" I repeated this to the 2nd, he said "Tell him I got a pencil and a headache will that do?"    

One more incident which I should mention concerns the sewage system, this was put into operation on entering the St Lawrence river and the discharge closed until we had cleared the Great Lakes and river ,being blasted into the sea with compressed air  after a couple of days. This being the maiden voyage, for the engine room at least, there were a few teething problems!! The air used in the blowing down of the system was taken from the main engine air start bottles, the tank was filled with air to about 5 at, then the overboard valve was opened and the contents were blasted into the sea. The tank had to be inspected after to make sure it had emptied; this was done by pulling a fulcrum lever and lifting the inspection cover off its joint, and looking in with a torch.
What we didn’t know was that the air was leaking slowly past the tank valve, which had built up a slight pressure in the tank, of course when I went to inspect it on pulling the lever back it blasted the little remaining sewage into the engine room, up to the deck head and back down to the hot generator exhaust pipe, of course instant fried sewage, with the accompanying smell. Luckily I wasn’t standing over the inspection cover at the time!!!! For a few days the smell got everywhere, so you always looked twice before eating your mulligatawny soup!!!!

Well I’ve come to the end of all my ramblings for now, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed my time with Irish Shipping, some of the best years of my life, it was like working for a family company everybody knew everybody else, and you always met someone that you had sailed with before. It was sad how it ended for officers and crews alike. They were good ships really well looked after for the most part, great officers and crews and never a dull moment!! I've been back to Ireland every year since I've been living abroad luckily enough, but the last couple of years I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints when in Ireland about the crime drugs etc but one incident happened a couple of years back, which was contrary to all that, My wife myself and two of our grandchildren were crossing Clare heading for the Cliffs of Moher, when a bottle of water burst in the car, I stopped to dry out the car, outside a cottage, a woman drove into the yard obviously just in from mass, as it was Sunday and she had a prayer book, she became very concerned we had an accident, I explained what happened, but still she insisted to get towels for us. So the old Ireland is still there, people do care and are still warm and friendly, it reminded me of that old Irish saying "There are no strangers in Ireland only friends that haven’t met"

©Michael Mills 2007   

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