ROCHESTER CASTLE, NAPIER STAR and the cold of 1963

Ah yes Blackwater, Maldon and Colchester brings back memories some pleasant some not so, but also memories long forgotten. It was a time when deep sea ships were in small demand and I had to go with the flow.

My first ship to Blackwater was the ROCHESTER CASTLE, being a naive, reasonably fit young man of 18 years I knew about the sea but little of the history of ships like the Rochester in the Pedestal Convoy.

I was on a Pool contract and joined the ROCHESTER CASTLE in Victoria Docks were she had been stripped of all stores catering and deck and just had bedding etc. for the skeleton crew (Officers deck and catering) plus coffee, tea and sandwiches for the short trip. My Discharge book says that articles were signed on the 6 Sept 1962 and discharged on the 7 Sept 1962, I signing on as an Assistant Steward (in fact only two aboard). From memory we sailed that night and never really knew the destination and if had been told it would not have made much difference.

My first view and thoughts of the Blackwater anchorage was astonishment, I had never seen so many dead ships of all kinds, swinging on their anchors, like something out of a science fiction movie. I had never heard of Blackwater before, though knew Maldon as an Uncle lived there. The weather was mild with a sea breeze, so slightly choppy, but ideal working weather when raising a sweat. I do remember the water and amazed how clear this was. I was aware of the Battle of Maldon with the Vikings in 991AD, but only just.

My job was to load a tender vessel with what we had on board in the way of mattresses, linen, towels etc., cutlery and crockery and another odds and sods by way of rope and baskets over the side, ditto was happening to other stores with deck and catering working together, though did not see much of the other A/S he seemed to be hiding somewhere and noted by all. The stores etc. would have been loaded on to a lorry and trucked to the Union Castle ships chandler stores in Silvertown for sorting. Food was also taken on just for snacks. Whilst this was happening I would presume that the engines were being prepared for storage. Not much of a story as my input was little, just a tad of muscle. At the end of the day we climbed down into the tender, deposited on the Maldon quay and after a few pints in a quaint old local pub with the lads singing their heads off we were coached back to London.

I did have the luxury of having once working at the Union Castle Line offices in Silvertown before going to sea and also knew the lads in the chandlery, playing brag during tea and lunch breaks. I loved the smell of the ropes and oiled wires and often got the chance to try my hand at splicing huge hawsers ropes, great days.

Over the next few months I was working-by on H/T (Home Trade) all over the UK from Tilbury, Glasgow, London and Cardiff.

My next foray in to Blackwater was to take out the NAPIER STAR (once mentioned as having an 8 knot top speed and the pilot saying "let her rip"). On the 9 Jan 1963 a skeleton crew was coached to Colchester and settled into various accommodation and told where and when to assemble the next day for coach transport to Maldon. On the 10 Jan 1963 in the middle of winter we saw ourselves aboard ship via a tender with an icy wind and very choppy sea, I would add snow and slush was the norm in scenery. We signed articles and given a run-down of objectives and possible sailing date to South Shields, Newcastle.

It was then on for young and old in loading the ship with stores and supplies in the usual way of basket and rope and once again deck and catering working together. After a tender had been unloaded then it was time to haul in down to either cabins or storeroom etc. And just as one got his breath back a shout would come to service the next tender with more supplies. How we got time to manoeuvre mattresses make beds and throw in some towels for the officers I can't remember, but after that they were on their own. In fact we filled all the crew quarters and linen store, not to mention the galley.

This went on for three days and as the engine had yet to be started had no power for lights or heating we were ferried by coach each night back to Colchester to eat sleep and be merry. On the second day we were told to pack and come on board the next day ready to sail. The next day, Oh dear what a disaster the engine would not fire-up and much cussing could be heard. Late afternoon and after many attempts (pumping air for a compression start) she caught and ticked over like a Swiss watch, that was other than the generator??? So still without lights or heating we sailed for Newcastle, the date 12 Jan 1963, Cor, what a laugh.

Some paraffin lights were found and fortunately some fuel, but by the heck it was cold - not much heat comes from a yellow paraffin light. How they got steaming lights I don't know, but I was later to see them. A cooked meal was out of the question of course and just snacks and sandwiched supplied, though did hear some got to chopping wood and managed to make a brew. Lying in bed fully clothed, chilled to the marrow and the ship heaving in a storm like flotsam and us not in ballast heard a shout for all men on deck to chip ice. Oh NO we were in fear of foundering………

All men is all men, so on deck I went and for two or three timeless hours hanging on in grim death with one arm and a rope around my waist did my bit, though could not see much point in what we were doing or achieving. The sea was freezing and that was that and me along with it, I have never been so cold in my life. We were in a blizzard, rain, hail, snow, freezing fog the works all freezing in an instant and tossed around like nothing I had experienced before, it was HELL this was Arctic weather. I chipped, picked and hacked with an axe where directed and a team were throwing slabs of ice over the side. Some lads were up in the wires, so as they say there is always someone else worse off than yourself.

I do remember deck lights and steaming lights now on in reflection and think that the Blue Star boat being freezer ship for frozen meat must have been supplying all the refrigeration plant with power for a cool down.

Told to stand down, or should I say shouted down from the bridge in a loud hailer as it abated. I quickly moved to my cabin and after a quick rub-down changed to dry clothes before freezing to death (I know I should have packed more clothes). I must have slept as the next thing I knew we were tying up in South Shields and me with a second mattress over the top of me. (with so few crew we had the pick of cabins, single or multi) Lying through my teeth as well as shivering, I fronted the Captain that I was required home as my mother was sick and he agreeing to sign me off as I wanted no more to do with this ship. He did thank me for my efforts during the night and would have been proud to have me as his steward (Captain's Tiger), but no I was off. And in fact that was my last ship and the last time I was ever that cold, the date 13 Jan 1963. Ha, I now live in the tropics of Queensland up in Cairns and only leave to temperate climes. On leaving the sea I was fortunate to gain a late apprenticeship as a motor mechanic to which I practised my trade for the next 15 years. And another story……

The 1963 winter was a very cold one:
On 29-30 December 1962 a blizzard swept across the South West of England and Wales. Snow drifted to over 20 feet (6.1 m) deep in places, driven on by gale force Easterly winds, blocking roads and railways.

January 1963 was the coldest month of the 20th century, and the coldest since January 1814, with an average temperature of −2.1 °C. Much of England and Wales was snow-covered throughout the month.

Author: Bill Davis
24 February 2013
ID: SHP_DAVIS


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