Watchman in the River Blackwater - 1980s

Stephan James was a young watchman on board the laid up ships in the River Blackwater in the mid-1980s.
"I was watchman on JADE BOUNTY, SAPPHIRE BOUNTY, CAPTAIN JOHN and SEAFREIGHT FREEWAY laid up in the Blackwater Estuary. Clarke and Carter used their pilot boat to get us on and off with our provisions. The small shop which I think was called 'Pullens' at the top of the Hard provided provisions on account for C&C. I was only 19 yrs and taking a year out before university to do some extra studying.
CAPTAIN JOHN - this was almost rusted away but once a beautiful ship. It was haunted and very different to the other ships because of this. I spent about 6 weeks on my own on this ship from late August 1984. None of the other watchmen wanted to work on this ship and because I was new and ignorant they put me on this one.
JADE BOUNTY and SAPPHIRE BOUNTY were almost identical roll on roll off lorry ferries. They were in good condition and it looked like they had spent a lot of their time in the Far East. I spend about 4 - 6 weeks on these ships during the Autumn 1984.
SEAFREIGHT FREEWAY was laid up during the autumn months of 1984 and in January 1985 she had a team of engineers helicoptered aboard to get her wound up for another contract. She had been in service between Hull and one of the Scandinavian ports as lorry/container transport. During the Xmas period there was a storm, on Boxing day she dragged her anchors during a Force 9, all I had was a hand held VHF so I called the Coastguard. Due to the height of the waves, darkness and poor visibility I was unable to tell exactly what was happening, but I knew instinctively that we had changed position so I checked my waypoint markers on the two shores. The Harwich Coastguard did not believe me but eventually I persuaded them to check the ships position from the shore. When the storm died down and the tugs were on their way, the ship settled in her new position - as the tide turned and the ship swung round we found ourselves within about 6 metres of the next ship downstream, we were seriously in danger of collision. The watchman on the next ship threw me some provisions just to prove how close we had come. During the storm I had been unable to get help or to persuade anyone we had actually changed position, even the watchmen on adjacent ships had been doubtful, the height of the action had been 24 hours before she settled down on Sunday, when I could see we were a few meters from the adjacent ship and realised the implications of what could have happened. They eventually made a decision to call out the two large tugs that tow the cruise ships and they were putting her back in place as I was being collected by the pilot boat.
I think this episode helped the owners of SEAFREIGHT FREEWAY to decide to move her immediately so she was recommissioned and I sidestepped to the role of looking after the engineers on board. SEAFREIGHT SEAWAY had luxurious accommodation for the top ranks on board plus about 150 - 200 berths in shared cabins for the lorry drivers. She was fully stocked when she was laid up and there was provisions onboard for months on end. She had very flat high sides which caught the wind so she always listed by about 5 degrees. I was on this ship on my own when the storm broke, but had shared the responsibility with another watchman up until the Xmas break.

Daily life on the ships
Most of the ships were 'dead' - no heat or power. Though only a mile from the shore, conditions on board were primitive.
We used the same red gas cylinders for the cooking stove as was used for the bow and stern lights. They were all gas powered and the lights had to be lit at dusk and turned off at dawn. The cylinders for the bow and stern light were the long torpedo cylinders and they lasted a long time but had to be carried and replaced at regular intervals. We had a large lidded pot on each ship where we had a stew going in which we put whatever was available. I was a vegetarian even at that age so kept a veg stew on the go. All the ships had some supplies on board from previous contracts - the Bounty ships had dried foods like soup and onions and I recall it had a deep hopper of potatoes and carrots which were starting to shrivel and mould but we carried on using them.

On Seafreight there was lots of food left over including an enormous block of Danish cheese which lasted me many many weeks, I recall eating only this and raw carrots for some time. There was also a huge amount of Danish magazines, biscuits and tinned fruit. The issue on Seafreight was that everything was locked and there were hundreds of keys and keys to further cabins were kept in an inaccessible key locker to which we spent days trying all the keys we had - eventually we got access to the whole ship through accessing the key locker and immediately upgraded our cabins. My first shift was with another watchman but after that I was on my own. We had explored the layout of the ship and I had got scared by the size of the holds and the impenetrable darkness of her interior corridors. We only had flashlights with standard batteries and a gas lantern. On the older ships we also had oil lamps but they gave us camping gas lights on Sapphire and Seafreight. During the long shift over Xmas before the massive storm broke I had been diligently looking in each of the cabins for anything interesting left behind by the crew and passengers - I did not find anything except paperback books, magazines and other useless stuff but it killed the time. I also spent most of the time on the bridge sitting in the captains high chair with my feet on the control desks as we did on all the ships. It was always very quiet and usually sunny and that was the best view and place to be comfortable. There was absolutely no power on board any of the ships and we did not take anything other than gas cylinders and cell batteries. There were a lot of torches on the ships in emergency boxes and just left by the crew so we used these and there were enough not to worry about not having enough batteries.

I spent all my time reading and was totally absorbed in the books I was reading to not even notice the day passing by. I took a lot of books with me each time I changed shift and I read them all. I kept a personal log and I had time to write a lot of words, but at the time I was studying philosophy and doing a lot of self exploration so my log is personal and not related to the ship or any of the details about living on the ship. I had reached the end of term at music college and was ready to go onto a degree course in london after a planned cycle tour of the south coast of the UK so it must have been about July by the time I had a row with my parents about how I was going to live in london and we reached a miserable conclusion that it was not affordable, my dad said to me that I had better get a job. I went next morning to C&C with some idea in my mind that I would get a job on a yacht or in their brokerage, but I walked out of the office with a job that I had no idea about what I was getting myself into. My parents had no idea either and they did not realise I would be away for weeks at a time living on a ship, they were a bit shocked but I did it and carried on beyond the beginning of term when I should have started my music degree.

We did not have washing facilities on CAPTAIN JOHN or JADE - I think we had a rainwater bucket and used that for washing up. I did not change out of my clothes when sleeping because the shifts were often ¾ days and that was long enough to go without. The uncomfortableness of getting cold was not worth it. My shifts on SEAFREIGHT were longer, but I am fairly certain we did not have running water. I recall bottled drinking water was supplied but it came in big 10 gallon plastic containers. The thing we made regularly was tea and biscuits and we had a camping kettle for this. There were ample flasks so we used to fill these with stew and tea for the time ahead during the night and day.

The VHF was a large handheld block about the size of a brick with a big antenna. It was battery powered and I do not recall anyway of charging the battery or even spare batteries - but it worked in the only emergency I was involved with. We used them daily to check on each of the adjacent watchmen of which there were only one or two others at any time. I seem to recall the other watchmen giving me a replacement radio when I went on shift and generally they looked after me by keeping an eye out for me and making sure I had the right things, but they also teased me a lot because of my naivety. When I had a shift partner it was one of two guys - one who had a wife he was pleased to get away from and spent the whole shift telling me about how she nagged him and they did not get on. The other chap was a shifty wiry Irishman who seemed wordly wise to me and had a practical survivors outlook to living on the ships - he showed me the basics on my first shift and they always put him on an adjacent ship to me so he could keep an eye on me and make sure I lit the lights and started and finished with him. In retrospect he was probably into every scam going but a real sea dog I was lucky to know.

As the ships swung on their moorings there was always eerie squeeking and grating sounds coming from the anchor chain when the swing took place. The swing usually happened very quickly after a period of slack water when the ship would temporarily be positioned by the wind on her side as the only acting force so the sudden traction of tidal currents often came as a short sudden shock when the repositioning movement all happened in the space of a few minutes. Once on the ship my body clock synched quickly with the movements and I always stayed awake for the regular 6 hourly changes, it was always interesting to watch the swing because the ships were so big and yet they moved with such speed and force through only the wind and current. When the wind was strong it would often delay the swing until the current force was stronger than the wind force which meant there was an equilibrium period when the ship was stuck until one force overcame the other - and the movement could sometimes feel quite violent. I always lay in my bunk transfixed with excitement as the ship began to show signs of swinging, particularly at night. When the action started to happen I watched my shore waypoints through the porthole and they usually ended up in exactly the same positions each day depending on wind variants. The trek to the bow light was treacherous as it involved jumping from one level to another, over obstacles and up and down ladders, I only made the mistake once of trying to do it in the dark, however it was sometimes necessary to go to the prow in the dark if the light blew out or ran out of gas.

C&C actually paid me quite well so during the Autumn months and Xmas period I saved about 5000GBP because I did so many shifts. I only bought books so the money enabled me to rent my first flat in London after the engineers were helicoptered off.

We wore thermal underwear most of the time, with thick jumpers and on top of that underlayer we wore oversize engineers overalls which were plentiful on each ship. There was also a supply of steel capped engineers boots to wear. there was grease and oil everywhere on the ships so the outer overalls were necessary. there were also ample waterproofs and hard hats - so we wore all these because they were plentiful. I had to change before going into my parents house because I would be oily and dirty in the overalls.
I was terrified about being boarded by thieves, particularly at night, so I used to winch up the gangplank further than anyone else. In retrospect this was dangerous as if I had had an accident they would not have been able to get to me. I had a number of daytime incidents where small fishing boats came very close and tried to board using the gangplank steps. Usually the pilot boat would come and pick us up on a specific day but one day I must have slept late or not noticed the pilot boat and it could not board because I had the gangplank up - they waited and went away and tried later that day on the second tide by which time I was eagerly waiting my provisions.
There were often yachts came too close and lost wind and were dragged in to the sides of the ship only to painfully scrape along the side until they were free. When this happened they could be heard but not seen until they emerged from the stern end when they became visible regaining control. I would wave at any pleasure boat going past and they were always looking for a sign of life onboard. I used to crew for a yacht owner when not on a shift, so usually used to get onto the Causeway at the Hard and jump straight into an Avon inflatable tender and go sailing for a few days in relative comfort. In this way I became the only crew for a retired insurance executive who smoked a pipe, drank whisky and steered his yacht masterfully. My grandad was the lighthouse keeper on Beachy Head and the Goodwin Lightship, his last residency was at St Margarets Cliff Dover - I did not realise at the time how similar my vocation was to my late grandads but it felt like the right thing to do at the time. A few years ago I moved to a house on Hayling Island where I am on the corner of the island in a house on the beach, the house has an observation room on the roof so much like a lighthouse and provides the perfect view to watch the yachts in and out of Chichester Harbour and the ships passing through the Solent, as I work from home, I am now more or less a lighthouse keeper with my own lighthouse.
I recall letting my allowance at Pullens grow and grow until I was in credit by quite a lot of money. They let me cash it to buy more books. There was enough dried food on board to keep us going, we usually took eggs and milk but I needed no tobacco or alcohol at that age had no idea about a lot of these sort of things. For a time I tried out a different quart bottle of spirit each time I went out, trying brandy, vodka, gin etc in order to find out what the effects of each one might be.

I recall the total shock of being suddenly and unexpectedly being boarded by a helicopter, when eight Scottish engineers appeared on deck. Within minutes they had the power on and the whole ship was lit with bright lights and lots of motors and engines and hydraulics all came to life. They brought a cook on board and from that moment on there was a constant supply of fried sausages, chips, eggs, bread and beans. My colleague the irishman became their cook and he fried everything in deep fat. I was mesmerised to be on a live ship after months of being on sleeping ships without power. That was my last shift on the Seafreight, it lasted about a week until they were ready to go. I recall the reason I did not go ashore was because they wanted me to help bring the supplies on board from the pilot boat and help the cook. I think C&C were rewarding me with some easy well paid work after the scary incident on Boxing Day because really there was no need for me to be there.
The Scottish engineers spent about a week winding up the engines ready for her next contract. The engines were working after a few days preparation and then stayed on constantly from that point and the lights blazed constantly. I watched from shore as the helicopter took them away and delivered the first crew on the blazing lit ship, I watched from shore the next day as she cruised out of the estuary with smoke coming out of her funnel.

ID: SHP_SJA


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