Jack Mainland: “It is obvious there is much more you could tell us during your early seagoing days, but in the meantime I think we’ll have to leave it there. It’s been most a most interesting couple of hours. Any last comment you might like to add?”
Bill Ballingall: “Looking back, it was a pretty hard life, given the conditions which all seafarers experience. And, sailing as Chief Engineer on a 230,000 tonne vessel – I had two of them - just over 1,100 feet long, and with a draft approaching 80 feet when fully laden, was pretty challenging. The boilers on these big steam ships operated at 1,000 psi (70 bar) and 1000°F (540°C) of superheat, and it’s scary stuff. But older steam ships were beset with their own challenges; contamination of the boiler water with salt, or the constant threat of somehow losing, through leaks, the distilled water required for the boilers.
And the motor ships. At one time or another we would have to resolve major breakdowns, with the Chief and other engineers continuously alert to any sound or nuance from the engine room to indicate that all was perhaps not well.
When there was an engine break-down at sea, obviously the problem has to be fixed as soon as possible. With the ship lying dead in the water, the vessel would drift round to lie beam-on to the waves and swell; rolling in the troughs and making it difficult for us guys in the engine room. Trying to keep our balance, and having to control heavy components swinging about on the engine-room crane or from chain-blocks. That’s when it gets dangerous.
‘Break-down watches’ for engineers would generally be 6 hours ‘on’, 6 hours ‘off’ and that’s heavy going, but on more than one occasion we were working 8-on, and 4 off. You can only keep this up for a couple of days or so, and having a break just long enough to throw a plate of curry down your neck, and put on a clean boilersuit.
Notwithstanding all that, it was the only life many of us knew; we didn’t know any different. Many of us don’t really know the extent of our personal ‘envelope’ until you are faced with challenges, or difficult situations, and then you have to see to what extent you can manage, or persevere. We just had to get on with it.
But I would not have progressed into other facets of my life without the qualifications and more especially the experience I gained over these 20 years at sea. I have been lucky.
There is a curious post-script…
I mentioned that I sailed as Chief on two of these huge tankers, known as Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), the British Pioneer and the British Navigator. They were my last two ships. BP later sold them, the Navigator in 1976 and the Pioneer in 1981. They got involved in the Gulf during the Iraq / Iran war, and the Pioneer was struck by Iraqi Exocet missiles in 1984 and declared a total loss. The Navigator, similarly, was hit by an Exocet fired from an Iraqi aircraft in 1986. Again, she was declared a total loss…
I hope I wasn’t a jinx……These massive and immensely powerful ships had their own kind of kind of elegance and dignity. What a waste.
On a more pressing note, however, I believe another a pint of 80/- might be in order…?”