Views from the Bridge – Part 8

Until I joined the RFA I had never been on a tanker in my life. I had always preferred to see the cargo coming in (or out) rather than taking it on trust. But the RFA is not just tankers. There were ammunition ships, general stores ships, and an aviation ship, landing ships/troop carriers, a survey ship and various others, a big fleet that stayed out of the limelight as much as possible. So the personnel moved around a lot between the various classes. It was one heck of a good education in all things nautical.



RFA Pearleaf


My first tanker was a freighting one called RFA Pearleaf (actually owned by Blue Funnel, but none of us knew this until after the Falklands thing and MoD decided that she was redundant. At the time (1970) her main job was to ferry fuel oil from Iraq (and elsewhere) to Singapore. Good training for a new 2/O Nav.


Tankers are smelly things. To my dying day I shall remember standing over a 6″ sighting port trying to gauge the ullage when the oil was coming into the tank at 1000 tons per hour. Awful!


Before I joined Pearleaf I told MoD that I had no experience maintaining Gyro Compasses (the 2/Os job then). The standard bit of kit then was the “Sperry”…about the size of an old fashioned dust-bin. The gyro itself was a 56lb wheel that whanged around at 36,000 rpm. Not a toy to be played with, but as all the main electrical contacts were open mercury filled “tubs” a fair amount of maintenance was called for. A few years later I had one that ran amok and nearly destroyed a steel compartment…but that’s another story. Anyway, MoD took pity on me and sent me on a “course”. I have been on many courses but this one was special.




Admiralty Compass Establishment

Ditton Park



The venue was Ditton Park castle near Windsor/Slough. This place was the Admiralty compass establishment. I was the only student. All the civil servants who worked there would go home at “close of play” leaving me the only inhabitant of an ancient castle complete with ramparts, battlements, a moat and a drawbridge. Absolute magic!


After learning all I could about the Sperry thingy I was stuffed into a backward facing seat on an RAF VC10 to go to Bahrain. As luck would have it my seat neighbour was a Harrier pilot (then called a Kestrel) who had been the pilot of the aircraft that famously took off from a coal yard in London as part of a transatlantic race. That passed the time away.




Harrier from No 1 Squadron, RAF taking off from St. Pancras Station in the Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race 4 May 1969

Not having a visa or anything I was whisked away by “somebody” and sent off for miles and miles in the darkness of a Gulf night to Allah knows where. Wherever it was we eventually got there. I was greeted by a Chinese QM who immediately took me to the officer’s bar. He must have had second sight, but there was more to this than altruism. Just about every officer on board was there…not to greet me, of course, but it sure set the tone for the next 9 months.


The guy I was relieving had already left the ship which was a bit of a “downer”. But I was made very welcome by a wizened Welsh dwarf who was wearing a tatty old vest, baggy shorts that may once have been white and a pair of “”xxxxx”-quicks” (flip-flops to you land lubbers). He was also chewing a matchstick and playing a banjo. He turned out to be one of the most professional and caring Captains I ever sailed with in the RFA. I was told to get a beer and come to see him at “O-Crack-Sparrow-Fart” next morning. My first surprise was that the “meeting” was to be held in his bedroom. No problems. His first question was to ask if I played table tennis. I thought it best to say yes, although I was pretty cr– at it. A big grin and I was ushered into his dayroom. Which was filled by a full size table tennis table. He was now wearing a cleaner pair of baggy shorts and chewing a new match. Me, in “meeting new Captain for the first time” dressed in immaculate whites. Five minutes after he had lobbed a bat at me I was as rumpled as he’d been the night before…and all the playing time he taught me about the ship and how he ran it. But one thing he never told me. After about an hour of being hammered by a master (in both senses) he suggested I might like to get the courses etc. to Bandar Mashur laid off. It was with some trepidation that I said “OK, but can you please tell me where we are now, as I really need a start-point”. Everyone on that ship loved him to bits. Not long after joining I realised why the rather swish wood panelling in his dayroom had cracks, splits, dents and holes in it. You guessed. Bat damage. There were three public rooms on that ship. The officer’s bar / lounge, the dining saloon and the table tennis room. Happy days. Funnily enough the ship was run to a very high standard (with the exception of a few bits of wood panelling). The Chinese crew were loyal to a “T” (whatever that means), the ship was immaculate and everything was done well…and soberly. In retrospect I cannot recall anyone abusing the “system”.

The main task for the ship was to keep Singapore Naval Base topped up with FFO, Diesel and Avcat; running between various Gulf ports and Singapore….with the odd excursion to do something else. She was RAS capable with 2 beam rigs and a stern RAS capability. So nothing outstanding about the job, but life still had its “moments”. This was my first job “on my own” as it were. Smashing.


Even the gyro held no terrors after “my course”. But no-one had told me that this ship had 2 different sorts of gyro. The Sperry 1005 I could handle, but a Browns I had only vaguely heard of. The Sperry was a monster of a machine that really needed a cabin of its own, and looked as if it could withstand a near miss from a 6″ shell. In other words, typically American. The Brown was British, and therefore smaller and more “elegant”. Both relied on Mercury for electrical contacts. But the only thing they had in common was the spinning wheel. The Sperry compass “card” twitched permanently from side to side, and the Brown pumped up and down. Eventually I cracked it and came consider the Brown a better machine, but not as robust as the Sperry.


Being bog ignorant in those days I was not aware that mercury digests gold. So it ate my rather new wedding ring. I guess both the gold and the mercury still lurk somewhere within me, but SWMBO has never been totally convinced of that story. 


After finding my way around the Persian Gulf (on paper) I got the ship back to Singapore, but coming back into the Gulf was odd. I had never actually entered the Gulf and just assumed I would turn North(ish) for a bit and then turn East(ish). Nope. There is a moving boundary line of temperature and humidity in the area of the Hormuz strait. It is invisible, but just as sharp as a line drawn on paper. At around 2am we must have crossed this line as we suddenly encountered thick fog. So I did all the necessary, called the Captain, put the Engine Room on “stand-by” and began blowing the whistle. That’s when the (huge) Mongolian quartermaster left the wheel, shoved me to one side and began wiping off the heavy condensation from the inside of the bridge windows. One of life’s more embarrassing episodes. That cost me more than a few beers.


Our “old-salt” Captain later told me that he was waiting to see my reaction and that I was by no means the first to be caught out. Since then I have done the same to Gulf “newcomers” and so regained my lost beers.


Another day in the life of a simple sailor. Still aboard RFA “Pearleaf”.


Our Radio Officer (only one in this class of ship …four of them plus a Yeoman and signallers on the “bigger” ships) came across a tin of luminous paint. I think it must have been meant for touching up the many luminous dials we had then. Quite radio-active I believe, but we didn’t know that at the time. (1969/70).


He decided to paint a human skeleton on to the front of a dark blue boiler suit. A “test-run” in his darkened cabin proved satisfactory. You may recall that I had a little score to settle with our 6’6″ Mongolian quartermaster….so the scenario was set.


On a very dark, moonless and cloudy night in the Indian Ocean at around 3am the R/O donned the suit and made his way to the fo’c’sle. I turned off the mast nav. lights, and that was his cue to turn around and dance. The QM screamed and ran off the bridge.


If I hadn’t known what was going to happen I would have joined him. I just left the auto-pilot on, switched the lights back on and continued until the end of the watch.


The QM was quite nice to me after that.