History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Memoirs of an STC Project Engineer - Part 2
1968 - September - Sicily-Libya
Extracted from my memoirs for that period:- September/October 1968
I was originally employed by STC for the SAT 1 project and it had been made clear from the start that once the system had been completed I might well be out of a job. So it was with much trepidation that I arrived back in the office to be told that the company would require my services on the next contract, a system between Agrigento in Sicily and Tripoli in Libya—what a pleasant surprise.
With four other STC engineers, I flew to Catania in September via Rome and, after an overnight stop, drove across the island in a taxi to Agrigento. This town is on the South Western coast line of the island and is supposedly the original home of the Mafia.
We had eaten seafood the previous evening in a local restaurant and two of my colleagues were physically sick on numerous occasions during the drive across, so it took us about five hours to get to our destination.
We found that the “Jolly Hotel” was the place to stay in Agrigento but was full, possibly due to a Mafia convention taking place, as the village square was full of Godfather-like characters sitting around in the cafes, so we had no alternative but to book into “The Hotel Mediterano,” a second-class dive situated in a back street overlooking some stables.
I shared a room with one of the lads, with a view looking straight down into a court yard full of cows, pigs and donkeys. If we left the window open, which we had to during the day because of the heat, the room would fill up very quickly with flies. During the evenings, after coming in from eating, we would take bets with each other on who could kill the most flies in ten minutes. This exercise would not only get our dinner down but also clear the room of the evil things, thus enabling us to get some sleep during the night.
Water was another problem—or should I say lack of it. Whilst we were there, the part of the town where our hotel was situated had to have its water supplied by water carriers. These were lorries that came up once a day to the hotel entrance and pumped the water into the hotel's storage tanks.
An administration engineer who was with us on this trip, by sign language and shouting, complained to the hotel manageress, a typical wizened Sicilian grandmother of about one hundred and sixty years old, that he could not get a bath. He was told that by giving her five hundred liras, he could have a bath but must not take more than ten minutes. She checked by knocking on the bathroom door once every two minutes to make sure he wasn't taking longer than he should. He argued with the old lady and tried to obtain a rebate on the price of the bath as the water was cold, but had no success.
After a couple of days swanning it in Agrigento, we were advised that the John W Mackay had arrived and was sitting outside the breakwater at Porto Empedoca, the local shipping port for this part of the island. By now the rest of the STC crew had arrived in town so we all went to the dock side and waited for a boat to take us out to the “John W.”
While we were waiting, and getting very hot in the sun, a small inshore freighter docked alongside and proceeded to offload from a cattle truck. Very large bulls were strung into rope harnesses and, by means of a dockside crane, lifted from the truck, suspended in the air at a height of around twenty feet and then swung across the water into the freighter. All went well for the first three or four loads, then one poor beast by struggling too much broke free of the harness and fell down between the side of the ship and dock into the water, banging his head on the quayside on the way down. The loading crew, after much effort, pulled the bleeding animal out of the drink and carried on with their work as if nothing had happened. This was obviously an everyday occurrence, as no vet, or any other person for that matter, arrived to attend to the now very sick beast.
Such was life, I suppose in Sicily during the late Nineteen Sixties.
After waiting around for most of the afternoon on the dockside, a boat from the “John W” pulled in to the jetty and we all embarked. Once everyone, including the Italian purchaser’s representatives, was on board, we proceeded to set a course for the “Mackay”, which was still sitting on the other side of the breakwater. As soon as we reached the outer harbour the weather changed for the worst. Darkness came on and the seas outside of the breakwater became very rough. By the time we reached the “Mackay” it was blowing a hooly. The ship put a Jacob's ladder down on the leeward side for us to clamber up, but the Italian customers, who were very frightened, would not board in such bad weather.
A young project engineer, who had just come out of his apprenticeship and was working with us, had a problem with heights. The only way that he could board was to get on the second rung of the ladder and with Steve Vincent (Senior Engineer) standing on the first rung with his arms grabbing the ladder and with the lad inside them, go up one step at a time. Very nerve racking for the both of them, but they managed it. Brian Knight (Senior Project Manager) told the small boat skipper to take the Italians back to the harbour, and we picked them up the following day.
This was to be my first trip on the John W Mackay and it was like going back to the dark ages after sailing on CS Mercury. The reps' cabins were all double berth, and although looking clean when you first entered were in fact quite dirty.
I shared a small cabin up on the starboard bow, and a cable engineer from STC Southampton was in the cabin opposite. On entering his cabin he noticed a peculiar smell. A cabin steward was summoned, and the cabin was cleaned out. The smell persisted but eventually the engineer turned in to bed. During the course of the night the smell appeared to get worse, so he pulled all the sheets and the mattress off his bed, and there, lo and behold, was a dead seagull, maggots and all, decomposing quite nicely.
The food also left a lot to be desired. One morning, on requesting some corn flakes for breakfast, the steward brought over a packet with a best sell by date of March 1962, only six years old.
You had to be careful with the biscuits as well, because on numerous occasions weevils were to be seen crawling out of them. The vegetable locker was up on the boat deck, behind the funnel. The potatoes that were stored there usually had shoots growing out of them as if they had been there for years, which I'm sure they had. We ate Jacobs Cream Cracker biscuit most of the time, as they always appeared to be fresh, and they went down well with large helpings of Stilton cheese. That and soup with bread baked on board seemed to be our main diet and nobody starved or went down with food poisoning.
The Sicily - Libya lay went without a hitch and the only event of any consequence was the sighting of a very large whale, presumably a humpback, that swam past one afternoon. Most unusual in the Med, I would have thought, even back in the Sixties.
The final splice took place off Tripoli and during the time we were there some of the crew swam from the side of the ship.
After one of the reps, who for some reason had to get home, disembarked in Tripoli, we set course for Malta and arrived some days later in Valetta harbour. What a fantastic site, the walled city above, British warships all around us and the little Dghaisas, the small Maltese boats, plying from one vessel to the next looking to ferry passengers ashore.
And so back home to the UK on 7th October 1968, having spent 19 days away.
Images and text copyright © 2011 David Watson
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Last revised: 7 June, 2011