Jack Mainland: “As an engineer, were some ships particularly difficult, or experienced major break-downs??”
Bill Ballingall: “The vessels had their own peculiarities, of course, although the ‘British Corporal’ and the ‘British Gunner’ were pretty much identical; both of 14,000 tons. But some were definitely more peculiar than others!
The ‘British Commodore’ was a new ship built in Fairfields in the Clyde. At the time she was the biggest diesel engine built in the UK, a 9-cylinder Burmeisterand and Wain (B&W) engine. Being so big, so new in design, and coupled with unusual auxiliaries and layout in the engine room, we had no end of problems. Some of it heart-breaking stuff, and of course long hours, over and above our watch keeping duties. On a British-crewed ship, the ‘Donkeyman’ is the senior engine-room petty officer, on a parallel with the Bo’s’n. This Donkeyman onboard the ‘Commodore’ certainly earned his overtime!
On the ‘British Judge’, and my first trip as Chief, a tailshaft bearing overheated with white metal hanging out the bearing pedestal like half-stripped wallpaper . The shaft was around 28 inches in diameter, and it was a hell of a time to discover we did not have spare ‘shells’. We had to lift the shaft to get the bottom half of the bearing out, and work on the remaining white metal. Without going into detail, after the third day the Master called for me, and pointed to another BP tanker, hove-to, not so far away, getting ready to tow us. No way! and I told the Master and that in two hours I would be able to give him 30 revs on the engine. This would give the ship steerage way. I went down below and (figuratively) kicked my half-dead engineers awake. We did it, we didn’t need a tow, but all of us had burst knuckles from scraping the bearing shell which was swinging around on the end of lifting gear.
The ‘British Corporal’, a neat little ship with the normal expected repair and maintenance issues, burst a 3½″ stud inside the engine. That involved a big rigging job, with the bearing halves being 18 and 19 cwts respectively. (that’s about 900 and 950 kgs in new money). The Master appeared in the engine-room leading the Bo’s’n and deck apprentices to assist with the rigging, and otherwise getting in the road, and the light-hearted bit for us engineers was when the Master’s steward appeared on the ‘bottom plates’ of the engine room with silver coffee pot, sugar and cream jug and a plate of ‘bikkies’ on a tray for the Master’s morning coffee. The rest of us just took another swig from the communal engine-room water jug. Notwithstanding these rather flippant remarks, changing these heavy components was a difficult job, having to maintain our footing when working inside an oily crankcase. It took 3 days in all.
I think that’ll do for horror stories, otherwise anyone reading this would not be prepared to allow their sons to go to sea as engineers. But things have changed, a lot. Much more is understood in design and inspection techniques of large marine engines, and engineers of modern ships have to be as conversant with computerisation and control as I was with a 14 pound hammer. (Just joking)”