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Two Rooms And A View: 99 – Geordie On The Mill Pond

...Discovering the ship's engine room was not a pleasant experience. The place was hot, dirty, noisy and extremely claustrophobic. Hissing steam and leaking oil were everywhere. It was full of different coloured pipes, various pumps and numerous valves and dials that meant nothing to me...

Robert Owen finds out that life at sea in a Navy vessel is fraught with problems and misunderstandings.

To read earlier chapters of Robert’s story please click on

As we sailed from Port Edgar the next morning, my new ship-mates kept telling me how the ship had just returned from fishery protection patrol off the north Norway coast where the weather had been treacherous. Stories of force 10 gales and gigantic seas were endless. Someone said how pleasant it was to have a calm sea for the smooth journey down to Portsmouth.

As we sailed out of the Firth of Forth into the North Sea, my stomach thought otherwise. A shipmate suggested that it must have been something I had eaten, because to be seasick on this mill pond was impossible.

Shortly afterwards the sick-bay attendant (SBA) confirmed that the impossible had happened. I thought I was dying. That was until the SBA produced some magic life-saving tablets. He gave me some and suggested they should be taken before leaving harbour or getting up for duty if at sea. My seasickness on a millpond was the talk of the ship, and I pondered how I was to survive the next eighteen months.

In addition to being seasick, I soon came into conflict with the culture of the ship's company. This was based on drinking, smoking, sex and foul language. My shipmates couldn't understand why I didn't indulge in any of these and my alleged strange behaviour soon attracted attention. I was teased and tormented but to some extent protected by my rank. Fortunately my skin was thick, and by ignoring the harassment it soon stopped.

Also my lack of technical knowledge and experience didn't help. I must have been the most naive ERA in the history of the Royal Navy, and it showed. True, I had studied theoretical heat engines at evening classes and at HMS Sultan, but now on board Hound, it was the first time I had been in a ship's engine or boiler room. The navy had been training me for six months to work on their ships, but during that time, they never took me to sea or showed me the working environment of an ERA.

Discovering the ship's engine room was not a pleasant experience. The place was hot, dirty, noisy and extremely claustrophobic. Hissing steam and leaking oil were everywhere. It was full of different coloured pipes, various pumps and numerous valves and dials that meant nothing to me. I didn't know a steam generator from a diesel generator, a water pump from a fuel pump, or a sea valve from a bilge valve, and yet I was supposed to know how to operate and repair these. I wondered how I was going to cope.

Like most of the navy, we worked a three shift, or watch system as it was called. This meant four hours working, followed by eight hours off duty.

Perhaps the most unpleasant experience of my whole national service, was getting up at quarter to four in the morning to go down to the hell-hole called the engine room for the morning watch. Hound had a top speed of about twelve knots. If it did much more than that; its age began to tell and everything in the engine room would shake, rattle or roll.

After arriving at Portsmouth, life on board wasn't so bad. We worked from 8 am to 5 pm on repairs and maintenance, and on the fifteen year-old vessel there were plenty of those. Health and Safety regulations did not exist and accidents were not uncommon.

Some tasks I was told to perform were near to impossible. I recall standing on a ladder struggling to release a rusty nut and bolt that I couldn't see and could hardly reach. If I dropped either of the ring spanners, it meant fishing in 12 inches of bilge water to recover my tools to start all over again.

Everybody on board seemed to have a nickname. Chippy was the shipwright, Lecky the electrician, Taffy was anyone from Wales and Jock was the obvious Scotsman. Therefore, it was not long before I was named Geordie. However, rarely did anyone in the navy use a name without at least two obscene adjectives before or after it. The navy's parlance made Reyrolles language look like a Sunday School recitation.

I soon decided that life on board would be easiest if I simply followed instructions and did what I was told. A few days later, when Hound was in dry dock for some underwater repairs, I even got that wrong. During the re-floating, I nearly flooded the ship.

I had just been on board a few weeks and didn't know all the different valves, never mind if they should be open or closed. To this day, I swear the Chief ERA told me to "Ensure all the sea valves are open." I don't know yet if he was just having a joke to test my ignorance, but I did as I was told.

Just before flooding the dock and refloating, the last job of the Dockyard Engineer is to go around the outer hull of the ship to ensure everything is okay. It's a good job he did on this occasion.

The first I knew about it was when the Engineer came into the ERA Mess (living quarters) during the morning Stand Easy (break) and said to the Chief, "Do you know all your sea valves are open?"

The Chief looked at me in rage and I thought he was going to have a stroke. The result was the new ERA got a massive telling off, navy style, as he tried to protest, "I just did what you told me."

From that day, with my creditability gone, I was known as the Geordie ERA who tried to flood the ship.


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