A Short Sea Voyage
Two o'clock in the morning. 27th June 1988. Countess Wear Sewage Works Wharf, beside the Exeter Ship Canal.Two o'clock in the morning. 27th June 1988. Countess Wear Sewage Works Wharf, beside the Exeter Ship Canal.
The motor vessel Countess Wear, main engines running, deck lights on and nobody about. I climb onto the ship and up to the bridge and Captain Ron Gardner looms out of the darkness. He had been sitting in a chair waiting for me. Waiting, as he said, to see if I would turn up. I place my briefcase in the captain's cabin on the main deck. I do not look at it again during the voyage.
On the port side, aft of the captain's cabin, a large room, gutted. This had been the crew's quarters for the other five members. A toilet and washbasin adjacent. On the starboard side, the crew's mess with bench seats and a table. Aft of that, the galley with a large drainer sink and a cooker. And aft of that again, another lavatory or washing area with two washbasins. Adjacent to the crew's accommodation but amidships, access down to the engine room. Tim, the young assistant engineer. The main engine, the original Lister Blackstone diesel with two auxiliary generators and a mass of oil pumps, valves, banks of dials. A telegraph, allowing for engine room control, but now the engine is bridge controlled. The engine operates at a constant speed and variation is through the gearbox.
Back to the bridge and at 2.15 a.m. Capt Gardner decides to go. He and the mate cast off. The stern swings out around the bow. We go astern, and the bows clear the wharf. The Suez Canal searchlights are switched on. Shafts of light point up to the M5 viaduct ahead of us. Down the canal in the darkness, under the M5, with the lights of lorries looming over the railings high above us.
Topsham swing bridge appears up ahead, swung open by the Council canal man, and we glide through. I recognize him from twenty years before, from the 1960s. Then, Dutch, Danish and German coasters, of 200 tons GRT or less, regularly travelled the canal to Exeter. With timber, or oyster shell, and cargoes of petrol, in the Esso Jersey. But by this time, June 1988, all this has gone. Only the Countess Wear is left working on the Exeter Canal.
We glide down the long straight stretch to Turf Lock, with the sound of night birds in the reeds either side. The top gates are open and we slide in silently, broken only by the thrust of the engine going astern. We lock down in 10 minutes or so it seems, while Captain Gardner tells me that he had been with the Tillerman and with the Guidesman, both Rowbotham tankers trading to Exeter, before joining the SW2 in 1963 as mate. Since 1976 he has been in command. In the early days, with Exeter City Council the owners, there was a crew of six: Master, Mate, two deckhands and two engineers. There were always problems with the engineers as to who did what, of what little there was, and finally he took over responsibility, with one assistant engineer. One of the deckhands was made redundant with the introduction of an autopilot. The ship now operates quite successfully with just three crew.
It is still quite dark as we lock down into the Exe Estuary, pushing out into the narrow channel from the lock, the ship heeling over as she ploughs her way across the mud bottom. We are carrying only 190 tons of sewage sludge in the main tanks. The aft pair of tanks hold about 140 tons but these are empty today. This is because of the neap tide. On a spring tide, with enough water in the river, the ship can carry the full capacity of about 336 tons.
The search lights are off now and in the darkness we criss-cross the river, following the red and green lights on the navigation buoys, past black shapes in the dark grey morning, of lines and lines of moored yachts and boats. Off Exmouth Docks dawn looms. A mountain of scrap at the harbour entrance and a floodlit coaster in the docks. The radio crackles and the Coastguard asks the captain if he can see the Danica Green, due at Exmouth this tide, and throughout the outward journey, from time to time, the Coastguard calls up that ship. We spot something on the radar. But this turns out to be much larger.
Off the Fairway Buoy we head straight out to sea, for six miles. When we reach that distance from any point on shore, checked on the radar, the Captain says he is ready to discharge the cargo. I go down to the engine room and watch, deafened by the roar of the main engines, the clutch being slipped on the main pump. Then the mate, the assistant engineer and I climb back up to the main deck and stare over the ship's stern. Two trails of black liquid stream away as we move slowly ahead in an otherwise featureless sea. No basking sharks, just a couple of gannets. I am told that it takes about 20 minutes to discharge our cargo. It would have been 35 to 40 minutes for a full load. It is obvious when the tanks are nearly empty because patches of clean sea water appear in the black trails. Sure enough, when the sludge thins out, the Captain goes full ahead, turning hard to starboard and we head flat out for home, the bows noticeably higher in the water.
Sea ballast is taken on in the two midships ballast tanks and when they are overflowing - seawater flooding over the deck - the ballast is complete with 90 tons, the forepeak tanks filled as well.
We pass up the channel in the early morning, against the ebbing tide. Past the parklands of Powderham Castle, across the river to Lympstone and back to Turf Lock, the river sucked away from the mud banks and the propellor churning up a black brown ooze astern. Ten minutes to spare, the Captain tells me. Otherwise we would have to stay in the river until the next tide. That, he said, had never happened to him because it would be so inconvenient. The ship slips into the sea lock without touching the lock sides. A master helmsman, the Captain. The gates are closed by turning a hand-operated windlass on the opposite side to each gate, and the lockman working them saves his strength. There is much of this day to come. The lock fills quickly and it is near 8 a.m. when we leave the lock entrance, through the narrow stop gates with reflectors on each side to guide the ship in the dark. Up the canal to Topsham bridge with a few early fishermen and marsh and estuary birds calling on each side. Through the swing bridge, which is set, as are all the others, on an angle to the cut, without a touch. Then up under the M5 to the wharf and beyond to Limekilns where the captain puts the helm hard over to starboard, then astern and we are neatly round before moving back to the wharf where we come sweetly alongside.
A long flexible plastic pipe 1 foot in diameter is bolted, with three bolts, to the flange of a fixed pipe on the ship's deck, midway between the two sets of tanks. The centre of the plastic pipe is supported by a strop from a light goose-necked davit on the ship's side. The other end of the pipe is bolted to an outlet on the wharfside. A valve is opened, the mate goes to a shed alongside, and starts an engine. The pipe starts to jerks and bob about, as the City's sewage sludge courses into the two fore tanks..... The start of another working day.
M.V. 'Countess Wear' was launched as `SW2 ' January 1963 from the yard of John Bolson and Sons of Poole. Owned by Exeter City Council , then South West Water Authority from 1974. Sludge tanker. Length overall 122 ft. Breadth 24ft 6 in. Depth moulded 11 ft Draught, summer 10 ft. Displacement, light ship 210 tons, loaded to 10 ft: 580 tons, cargo capacity 350 tons or 75,000 gallons, service speed 9 knots. Main engines Lister Blackstone 6 cyl unidirectional turbocharged diesel developing 495 bhp at 750 rpm. Direct coupled to Hindmarch/MWD reversing gearbox of 3:1 ratio. Auxiliaries: 2 Lister Blackstone 6 cyl diesels each driving 60 kW 220v GEC generators at 1500 rpm. Cargo pumps Sigmund unchokable driven by the auxiliaries. Built to Lloyds Register 100 X41 for cargo having a flash point below 150o F. and classified for operation within the limits of Berry Head to Beer Head at a maximum of 20 miles from shore. She made in excess of 5,000 yoyages, carrying more than 1.8 million tons of sewage sludge, between April 1963 and 31st December 1998.
Where is this classic small tanker now, I wonder?
By David Wheeler
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