MAHSEER. The Captainís Cupboard

John Leary
16th June 2005, 14:32
It might make me sound like a grey-haired anorak but anyone who has ever operated a ships wireless station will confirm that the equipments, particularly the transmitters talked to you when they were powered up. I donít mean they would say, ďgood morning sparks how are youĒ but they all had a very individual and distinctive sound when they were operated. This voice of theirs differed between types of transmitter and between the transmitters made by different manufacturers. Some had a tinny voice as the soft iron laminations of their transformers vibrated, some hummed, some clacked when the keying relays were operated and some had a very high pitched whine from their high voltage power supplies. These sounds changed according to the amount of power being fed into the ships aerials. Some transmitters had a voice that combined the various sounds, which the R/O became familiar with just like a parent becomes familiar with the cry of their own child amongst a group of other children in a playground.

The transmitters were also provided with indicator lights and measuring meters that allowed optimum performance to be achieved on the various frequencies and wavebands that they were tuned to. It was very easy therefore to quickly become familiar with the sound almost of contentment that came from a transmitter when it was working well and tuned to its optimum performance.

Now over the course of a voyage from the UK to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as I knew it in the 60ís) conditions could and did vary but this could usually be explained by say rain and fog or after a long dry period when salt and sand would accumulate on the aerial insulators, the latter being a particular problem in the Red Sea. These changes being experienced in slow time would gradually change the transmitters voice but not sufficiently to cause the R/O any concern.

On the Mahseer however on my first deep sea trip in 1963 there was a real problem, which showed itself whenever the ship was moving about in heavy seas. The transmitters would change their voice very rapidly singing a different song as they were keyed. The aerial current meters also showed very large changes instant to instant. Between watches and at each port of call to the continent on the outbound journey, the transmitters were inspected for loose connections or for anything else that could explain the cause of the problem. No matter what we tried nothing provided a permanent cure.

On arrival at Colombo when the shipís station closed down. Harry Jefferson the Chief R/O and I went over the installation with a fine-toothed comb. All the transmitters were checked again. All the aerial insulators were checked for damage and all the aerial feeders within the radio room were removed, checked for fractures and their terminals cleaned with emery cloth.

The only thing that remained to be done was to check the feeders that passed through the aerial trunking between the radio room on the boat deck, to the aerial insulators on the monkey island. After much scraping of paint and the application of release oil to seized bolts the aerial trunking on the monkey island was opened to reveal a little bit of corrosion but nothing that would explain the transmitter problems that we had been having.

The only trunking left was that in the captainís cabin.

Captains were and presumably still are a unique breed. The route to command is a long and difficult one and the responsibilities they have are considerable. The ones I served under almost always had their own particular take on life and held dear their own authority. It was Harryís pleasure therefore to open up the topic with the old man, about our wish to go into his inner sanctum, make a mess and disturb his port routine. Eventually permission was granted for a day when the deity would be ashore and therefore not affected by the mess and noise.

Imagine our surprise therefore on gaining access to the holy of holies to find that only a few loose bolts that could be removed without a spanner secured the covering plate to the aerial trunking.

On taking the cover plate off, what was revealed was quite unexpected. Inside between the aerial feeders and between the feeders and the bulkhead were a number of suitcases, a deckchair and if I remember correctly a set of golf clubs. The trunking was being used as a storage cupboard!

These unexpected objects were removed and the feeders inspected. Some were loose and in one case it had sheared away from its securing lug. This feed was to one leg of the main aerial. This damaged feeder was replaced by copper tubing scrounged from the ships engineers. What we surmised had happened was that the movement of the loose items against the feeders had affected the tuning of the transmitters and caused the metal fatigue leading to the eventual disconnect. On completing the repairs we placed the foreign objects back into the trunking but left the entry plate off. We then left the cabin as tidy as we had found it.

When the old man returned on board it wasnít long before an apprentice brought the expected summons. Harry was told that the old man was not best pleased with the way things had been left.

Harry went to see him on his own so I was not privy to the conversation between them. I can only relate what Harry told me afterwards.

Briefly when the old man calmed down Harry explained the intermittent problems that we had encountered during the voyage, the cause, which was the unexpected contents of the aerial trunking and the damage, which was likely to reoccur in the future if the offending items were not removed permanently. The old man was adamant that the luggage would stay where it was.

Harry had been in the Royal Navy before joining the Merchant Service and was respectful of rank and authority and he accepted that the Captainís word was law. He just pointed out that although repairs had been made the ships wireless performance would continue to be impaired if the Captain insisted on using the aerial trunk as a luggage store. There was the important issue of safety of life at sea to be considered.

Harry then told me that he said to the Captain if the offending items stayed in the trunking, that he would be obliged to record the problem and their conversation in the shipís wireless log which the Captain would be requested to counter-sign in due course as per normal practice. He would also report the situation in a letter to Head Office before we sailed from Colombo, which the Captain would be invited to read before it was posted. Harry never said what else passed between them but whatever it was brought about a complete change of heart. The Captain said that sparks was correct and that possibly the Chief Steward might be able to find some space to store the cases. He also thought that the golf clubs and deckchair could be tucked away somewhere in his day cabin.

That is how matters stayed. The inspection plate was replaced with all its bolts and for the remainder of that voyage and my subsequent voyages on Mahseer the transmitters continued to talk to us in a very predictable manner.

16th June 2005, 14:53
Excellent story, any more?

julian anstis
16th June 2005, 15:08
Like it John..........we'll have some more of those please

Jim Watson
30th August 2005, 19:44
Hi John - As a new member I have just caught up. However I can add a little to this tale as I was 2 R/O on the Mahseer a few years before you. Some time before I sailed on here a leak had developed on the trunking causing it to partially fill with water, although it didn't rise high enough to cause any shorts on the aerial. However a leak did develop into the Radio Room which contributed to the early demise of the original IMR H/F transmitter. It then became practice to periocially check the contents of the "Captain's Cupboard".
Incidentally, assuming it was still there when you sailed in her, I was responsible for the H/F, Emergency transmitter changeover switch box. - Jim Watson

michael james
30th August 2005, 21:40
Hello Jim and welcome to SN,
Hope you enjoy all aspects of the site, there are plenty of ex R/Os and ex Brocklebank personnel (including R/O`s) here. Enjoy.......

John Leary
31st August 2005, 12:10
Hi Jim

Welcome to the site and thanks for your input on the Mahseer's antenna trunking. Harry Jefferson and I changed the antenna changeover panel and there is another of my stories on the site regarding a lightning strike that it experienced.