History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Memoirs of an STC Project Engineer - Part 4
1973 - Autumn - CANTAT 2
Extracted from my memoirs for that period:- Autumn 1973
The previous loads and lays for CANTAT had gone without much to speak about.
But on CS Mercury in October of 1973, during Lay 5 I think it was, a Spanish steward from the Ship's Company suffered from acute appendicitis and although a very competent doctor was on board, he did not think it would be advisable to operate.
We were still some five or six hundred miles from Canada and therefore the Canadian Coast Guard were alerted and Mercury sailed at full speed towards the coast.
Normal speed for the Mercury on three engines was 13.5 knots but when the fourth engine was put into operation an extra knot or two could be achieved. This, incidentally, would run up the fuel comsumption from twenty-one tons a day at normal cruising speed to about twenty-five tons a day flat out, making it uneconomical to exceed 13.5 knots under normal circumstances.
Because of the nature of the emergency, Mercury proceeded at full speed to meet a helicopter from the Canadians and a few hours later, after refueling on an oilrig, it arrived in the middle of the night. Brave chaps these helicopter crews to hover over a vessel in the middle of an ocean with one of them dangling on a piece of wire to pick up a person on a stretcher. Needless to say the steward was rescued and made a complete recovery in a Canadian hospital.
And so back to Southampton and on the 9th November we started Load 6.
The loading of a Cable Ship started with the rigging of the vessel. This was performed by the Southampton riggers and normally took about twelve hours. The actual loading gangs would work in three shifts covering twenty-four hours a day, working twelve hours on and twelve off with a three day break after the sixth day.
The diagram shows how this was achieved:
The STC Greenwich Project loading officers worked twelve on twelve off for the duration of the load. Sometimes when you were on duty, the twelve hours on extended to fourteen plus if there was a problem. I can assure you very tiring, as after each cable end came on board and was loaded into the tank, one had to climb some thirty odd feet up and down a metal ladder attached to the side of the tank to inspect the stow. I was given to understand that CS Long Lines had elevators in the tanks. Easy life for some.
After the first end of the cable was brought into the Centre Castle, (the undercover working deck of the ship) it was installed into the Power Feed Unit and the cable was then fed down into the tank in a bight. After this section of cable had been loaded, the cable end was brought out of the tank and positioned next to its repeater ready for jointing. See loading diagram below.
This sequence carried on to the end of the load, after which, once all the repeaters had been jointed in, the system was powered up and tested. A simple loading diagram is attached.
The complexity of systems like SAT 1 and CANTAT took a lot of thought by the Project team (when back in Greenwich prior to the loads) to design loading programs such that the ship as it was being loaded kept an even keel. Too much weight in one tank at the wrong time would put a lot of stress on the structure of the vessel.
Back in 1962, the Marine Dept of SCL produced a document entitled “An Introduction to Cable Laying and Repairing “ and below is a copy of the chapter that relates to cable loading. The system that was used by STC Southampton was very similar, but because of the set up from factory to ship and also a very good bonus system, faster loading speeds were obtained. A top crew, when loading lightweight cable into a large tank, at times achieved speeds of seven knots. This was the same speed as a ship in a good sea state could manage.
Just prior to the end of Load 6 while working on the centre castle, someone from the dock side came on board, broke into my cabin and stole my wallet with some £200 of cash and travellers cheques. A lot of money in those days. I was not aware of this misfortune until a call went out over the Tannoy system asking me to go to see the purser and there a police constable met me. It transpired that somebody had found my wallet stuffed down the back of a toilet system ashore and handed it over to the dock side police. Luckily my driving licence had not been touched and the police traced me down by assuming that I was on the ship as Mercury was the nearest vessel to the toilets.
We sailed on the 21st November and the following day one of the Cable and Wireless officers came to my cabin with a packet of money. The officers and STC representatives had had a whip round during the previous evening and presented me with the proceeds.
This went a long way to easing my loss, and it was a very kind thought, but as it was my birthday I decided that I had to repay them in some way. We had a long transit in front of us with not a lot of work for us Reps to do so I held an open house cabin party. Officers coming off watch came in for a drink or two and then after a few hours the next watch would come in. This went on for a couple of days with me trying to get a bit of shuteye in between. It was one of the best birthday parties I had ever had.
The weather had not been all that bad during the transit and for the first part of the lay, but after a while we were hit by one all mighty storm. I had just started to get up out of my bunk to go on watch at about four in the morning when it happened. The ship was rolling to port as normal when one of these fifty-year waves, as they are sometimes called, hit the starboard side of Mercury and rolled her even more to port. I was forced to scramble up the side of the cabin bulkhead, now at an angle approaching forty-five degrees. It seemed like an eternity before she slowly righted herself, during which time I thought we were about to go under. After getting over the initial shock, I went down to the centre castle to find it was flooded and the ships crew frantically trying to sweep the water down into the cable tanks. Evidently when the wave hit it smashed through one of the portholes into the test room area and a couple of C&W officers who were sitting at a desk were washed out onto the centre castle, chairs and all. The damage to the starboard side of Mercury was horrendous. One of the companionways which was on the third deck had been washed away and the ship's side had huge dents in it.
I was speaking to one of the navigation officers after the event and he told me that if the ship had rolled a further two degrees we would have upended and gone under. With the weight of the cable on board I don’t think anyone would have had much chance to get off as she would have sunk straight to the bottom.
The weather and my pulse rate improved after a couple of hours and the storm came down from hurricane force twelve to about an eight and we were still laying cable.
The captain gave the STC personnel the option to cut and run or to carry on laying. The cable was at that time paying out over the stern at an angle to the ship of almost eighty degrees but was not in any danger of being damaged. Mercury was literally going sideways and forward at the same time. We decided that as we had come through the worst of it we would carry on. I think that the main reason for not stopping is that if we had cut the cable, we would have no chance of being home for Christmas.
Here is a picture of Mercury coming home up the English Channel with empty tanks and in a calm sea. This shows how far a ship can roll.
Images and text copyright © 2011 David Watson
Read all of David Watson's memoirs:
Last revised: 2 January, 2015