History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
Memoirs of an STC Project Engineer - Part 1
1967 - November - Loading SAT 1
Around November of 1967 I went to the STC Southampton factory and became involved with the Cable Ship John. W. Mackay for the first time, assisting in the loading of the SAT 1 (by now the new name for “Greenland”) shore end cables.
Owned by the Commercial Cable Company, who were eventually bought by STC, the John. W. Mackay was built in 1922 by Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd. She had a twin screw with triple expansion engines that made her the quietest ship that I ever sailed on.
The Captain of the Mackay was Dennis Harper, who it just so happened was born in the same year that the ship was launched, and the First Mate was Lou Cook, who was in his seventies at the time. The Radio Officer was "Bing" Crosby, who made Lou look like a youngster. Bing must have been in his mid-eighties and had served time on the great Cunard ships, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. The crew of the Mackay all came from Plymouth, her home port, and the Bo’sun, George Bovey, had such a strong Devonshire accent that most of the STC lads could not understand him. Fortunately having been born a Plymouthian, I acted as an interpreter.
After loading, the ship left Southampton for the warmer climes of the South Atlantic, where she spent the next nine months laying the shore ends and buoying the route from Cape Town up to Cape Verde.
The next time I would go on board she was in Cape Town harbour, docked along side the Cable & Wireless ship Mercury
1967 - Christmas at Sea
SAT 1 (Greenland) Lay 1 - Capetown - CS MERCURY
During the period whilst we were waiting for the shore end to be joined to the main sea cable, the ship was surrounded by seal. This was the first time I had ever seen any wild sea life at sea. There must have been thirty or more, a most impressive sight.
I was lucky to also see a manta ray and, once we got underway at the end of the job, an albatross that followed us for some days, sitting up in the air flows that ships produce. I understand that the albatross is now an endangered species; must be all the pollution that man creates.
We finished laying during the Christmas period, and once all the work had been completed the celebrations took place.
On Christmas day the John W. Mackay, which had spent the last couple of weeks picking up buoys from along the route and acting as a navigational aid to the Mercury, came steaming over the horizon. She came towards us at a fast rate of knots until she was about half a mile off our port beam. Then she sedately came to a halt and wallowed there in the calm seas. After a short while signal flags were to be seen, hoisted up the mast. The C&W mate on watch quickly found his flag book and translated the signal as "We are at Church". Well, it was Christmas day and the Ship’s Company of the John were "very religious"?
The officers of the Mercury responded by launching a small wheel-like raft, with a spirit bottle attached to each spoke, into the sea. The JWM, like a greyhound out of a trap, steamed over to the stern of us and promptly grappled for the raft, catching the valuable cargo at the first attempt. She'd had a lot of practice in recent months at picking up buoys from the sea, but the seamanship and skill that was performed that day was beyond belief.
The following photos show CS John W Mackay and CS Mercury at Capetown.
1968 - Recovering SAT 1
SAT 1 (Greenland) Lay 2 - Ascension - CS MERCURY
The picking up of a buoy that has been floating around in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean was, to me, a miracle. The buoy when we left it after the first lay was attached to a rope, and the rope, which was some two miles long, was joined to the cable that was lying on the bottom of the sea. The most difficult part of the miracle is to find the buoy. Nowadays this is a fairly easy operation with the likes of Satellite Navigation equipment but in 1968 everything depended on navigation by the stars and from very accurate chart readings, so the skill of the ships navigation officers was of a very high calibre.
If the buoy was no longer attached to the cable, had blown away or sunk without trace then the cable had to be grappled for. This entailed lowering a long line over the bow of the ship with a grapple attached to it, passing the line through a "V" sheave gear on the foredeck and with the assistance of a strain gauge, watching for when the grapple that was being pulled along the sea bed "Snagged" the cable. Quite often this operation would take a week, depending on the weather and how good the deck officer was at judging the snag. "Was that a rock or the cable"?
Some of the more experienced seamen could, by sitting on the line "feel" the snag through their backsides and found this a more accurate method then the strain gauges.
On this particular lay the buoy was still there so it was just a question of picking it up and making a joint on board between the lay one cable and the lay two cable.
The laying operation went off without a hitch, and we completed the lay successfully up to Ascension Island, taking about fourteen days. Looking forward to a nice week of transit and a bit of sunbathing after two weeks of hard work, I was woken by one of the other STC representatives on board and told to look out of the porthole. On doing so we found that the sun, which would rise on the Starboard side of the ship each morning was no longer to be seen. The Mercury had turned around during the night and once again we were heading in a Southerly direction.
It transpired that just a couple of days after we had left Ascension, a fishing vessel had picked up the cable in her nets whilst trawling of the coast and broken it by cutting through with an axe. CS Mercury being the only cable layer in the vicinity, some 2,500 miles away, had no option but to return to Robben Island, an old penal colony just outside of Cape Town where the trawler fault took place, to initiate the repair.
The fastest speed that Mercury could make was around 14 knots, depending on sea conditions. This would be achieved with the use of all four engines, making the passage very expensive due to the price of fuel oil. By using only three engines the vessel’s speed dropped to 13.5 knots. but the use of fuel decreased sufficiently to make it viable to cruise at this slightly lower speed. Therefore after about a week we arrived back into Cape Town harbour and spent a couple of hours refueling.
SAT 1 (Greenland) Lay 4 - Cape Verde - HMCS MONARCH (4)
At the end of July 68, with suitcase packed, I went once again out to Las Palmas but this time to join a different ship, Her Majesty’s Cable Ship Monarch (4). Built in 1946 by Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson Ltd and with twin screw triple expansion engines, she was the largest cable ship in the world at the time.
Monarch was about to make her second lay of the SAT 1 system, following the two lays that the Mercury had previously completed. This lay, to start mid way between Ascension and Cape Verde and to finish midway between Cape Verde and the Canaries, was to take twenty six days overall, and like all the rest of the SAT 1 lays so far was to take place without any undue problems.
Captain Bates was the Master of the vessel. A very competent sailor, he handled the ship and crew to perfection but he had a strong aversion to other vessels passing to the stern of Monarch when she was undergoing laying operations. One could tell when other ships were in the locality because the Monarch's ships whistle would forever be sounding three shorts and one long, signaling "You are standing into Danger". Quite often he would fire a Very light at the bridge of a vessel that was coming in too close. Sharks were also given rough treatment. He would spend hours filling empty beer cans up with cement and if sharks came to near to the cable he would bombard them with the cans, often scoring a direct hit.
Fishing for shark was a favorite pastime with the ship’s crew, and took place during the time that the cable was being jointed at the start of the lay. From the stern of the ship large butchers' hooks were loaded with legs of mutton or lamb and heaved over the side. Within a couple of minutes the ship was surrounded with blue sharks and white tips, all vying for the meat. The sharks, when caught, were pulled on board with the help of the ship’s stern winch and then hung up on one of the ship’s spars.
The Chief Officer complained bitterly to the crew about the mess that the shark’s blood was making all over his deck. "Cut it down and throw it over the side" he shouted. But he was told that the Captain wanted the tail, and the tail was flown from the rigging for quite a while. This was supposedly bad luck, but we didn't have any on that trip, thank goodness.
During the nine months that she was operating in the South Atlantic area the John W Mackay managed to catch over one hundred shark of various type and size.
I was told that these fish were pulled up over the side, gutted with a sharp knife and thrown back into the sea for the other sharks to eat. It seems a crying shame that because of man’s fear and hatred of these creatures, such massacres should take place, of a beast that has spent thousands of years living its natural life, until man came along. Perhaps in the case of the crew of the Mackay, the killing was done through boredom.
After we had made the cable joint to the Cape Verde shore end that the JWM had laid some months before, it was arranged for Monarch to refuel from a water tanker just off the coast of Sal, a very desolate island in the Portuguese Cape Verde group. Cape Verde is Portuguese for green, but somebody must have been having a laugh to name these islands such, as they were very dry and far from any green that I have ever come across.
After the end of this lay we eventually arrived back in the Canary Islands, and the reps were put off at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a sea port in the Norrth West corner of Tenerife. Here we spent a couple of nights waiting for flights home to the UK.
Apart from the loading of Monarch in Southampton for Lay 4 my work on the SAT 1 project came to an end.
The system eventually linked South Africa to Lisbon in Portugal with 5,878 nautical miles of cable and 624 repeaters. It had taken about a year to complete the marine operations, and was Ready for Service at the end of 1968. The system was guaranteed to last for twenty-five years and although trouble-free, was eventually superseded by SAT 2, an optical system that was completed in 1993.
Images and text copyright © 2006 David Watson
See also the pages on CS Mercury, CS John W. Mackay, CS Monarch (4), and SAT 1.
Read all of David Watson’s memoirs:
Last revised: 18 February, 2016