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Poems from Francis Kerr Young
Sailing Day

Tuesday, January 23rd, 1962.

A chilly morning breeze swept up Southampton Water into the basin where the Test and Itchen Rivers meet. Beyond Royal Pier, Southampton docks teemed with shipping. I gaped up from Ocean Terminal's dockside at a great ocean liner's bows: How could anything be so big and still float? This gigantic passenger ship was 1019 feet 6 inches long with a 118-foot beam. Her gross weight was 81,237 tons. She lay tethered to bollards by enormous hempen ropes, apparently helpless.

QUEEN MARY was delineated above this leviathan's sixteen ton anchors in black letters thirty inches high over a distance of fifty-five feet. Having just completed her annual refit her livery was freshly painted. The Mary's three funnels were bright Cunard-red with jet-black toppings which contrasted sharply with her pristine gloss-white superstructure. Her ebon hull was pierced for two thousand portholes.

The hustle-bustle of loading drew my interest. Cranes slued their slender jibs carrying netted burdens above the vessel's well deck. Everything from packing cases to cars descended like enormous spiders into the liner's forward cargo holds.

Lurching with my dunnage up the nearest gangway, I presently found myself in a long passageway on C deck. Bulkheads and deckheads had been refurbished with beige paint, a sharp contrast to the carmine deck. The alleyway was divided up into open compartments and would be independently sealed by an automatic watertight door system during emergency drills.

People scurried to-and-fro, wheeling carts, hefting burlap sacks, sides of meat, fish boxes, crates of vegetables, and myriad sundries. A great ship was victualling for a sea voyage.

I was completely lost. Passers-by continuously directed me upwards, ever upwards through seven of the vesselís twelve decks, until I reached the engineers' quarters where the Chief Engineer's writer informed me that I had to sign on.

People helpfully steered me towards the Port Garden Lounge on Promenade deck. A queue straggled from a makeshift desk for the bureaucratic gentlemen huddled behind it. Pot plants abounded, hanging baskets sprouted cascading fronds of variegated greenery, and wicker chairs lay siege to glass topped tables with wrought iron legs. Completely immured with glass, the seaboard side gave this magnificent room a luscious tropical atmosphere.

Time shrank the queue.

"Discharge Book please," the Board of Trade official sighed up at me. He leafed through my blue linen-covered book, stamped a page, and scribbled over the violet imprint before stacking it with some others. "That'll be returned when you leave the ship. Sign here." He ordered, gesturing at a multi columned manifest.

I picked up a pen and scanned the broadsheet headed QSTS Queen Mary. Beneath this legend was a neatly compiled list of engineers' signatures, ranks, job descriptions, and salaries. At the very bottom was my name, 6th Junior 7th Engineer Officer, floater, 78 pounds /month, and a blank space awaiting my signature. I signed on.

"You're not at the bottom of the heap, y'know." The BOT man grinned, "Look at it this way - you're holding the rest up!"

The next thirty hours became a brand-new experience crammed with technical data. Raising steam boggled the mind. The Mary had five boiler rooms. The turbines steamed by the three Scotch boilers in Number One stokehold generated the vessel's hotel service lights and auxiliaries.

The other four stokeholds contained six Yarrow water-tube boilers each. When 'flashed up' and put on line, superheated steam powered the forward and after engine rooms. Both engine rooms held two main engines, each consisting of four Parsons turbines linked in parallel to a pinion gearbox connected to a long drive shaft to spin one of the quadruple propellers. At sea, these 35-ton bronze propellers would revolve at one hundred and seventy-four revolutions per minute giving an average speed of twenty-eight to thirty knots.

On Thursday morning, standby was called for the ship leaving harbour. I reported to the after engine room manoeuvring platform. Wisps of steam ballooned from the turbine glands. The bridge telegraph indicators had moved from FINISHED WITH ENGINES to STANDBY.

The Chief Engineer, in full-dress uniform, was chatting amiably with the Senior Second Engineer. Stationed by the manoeuvring wheels were the 4-8 watch engineers in readiness for the first engine movement. Attired in white boilersuits, the 8-12 watchkeepers paced the checkered plated steel manoeuvring platform like caged polar bears, ready to react any unusual response from the polished brass instruments. Nowadays all systems are computer controlled, but forty years ago, my colleagues and I have had some heart-stopping experiences during these critical manoeuvring periods.

Directed to the port manoeuvring station, I became subject to the droll humour that haunts the maritime profession. An engineer whom I'd had never met before, lounged against the port astern wheel.

"First tripper?" he asked.



"Scotsman," I corrected him.

"Tough luck!"

Before I could parry this ethnic slur, the platform second engineer ordered my antagonist topside. I studied the telegraph, nervously. A brass plate fastened to each manoeuvring wheel dictated the shaft RPM required for each movement. My reflection in the gleaming brass quadrant pondered on this dilemma: When the order came, should I answer the telegraph immediately? Or should I supply the requested speed first and then acknowledge the bridge? Perhaps I should ask the second engineer.

A loud clamour startled me as the clanging telegraph demanded the first movement: HALF ASTERN. I froze. The jangling persisted until an arm festooned with gold braid materialised above my left shoulder, and a hand on the end this bras d'or, aligned the brass handle to the green indicator.

The ringing stopped. The Chief's pudgy finger jabbed at the astern manoeuvring wheel. "Open that valve . . . NOW!"

Panic-stricken, I clutched the valve wheel rim and pulled frantically for all my worth. Nothing happened.


I heaved in the opposite direction. Nothing happened. The Chief blasphemed as he gave the wheel a quick practised jerk. The valve opened smoothly.

"KEEP OPENING IT UNTIL THAT GAUGE READS ONE HUNDRED POUNDS!" he bawled over the astern turbines' throaty whine. Opening the valve further increased the noise in volume and pitch. The engine room shuddered like forty road rollers trundling along a cobbled street. The port shaft tachometer read 80 rpm astern.

"All right . . . Keep her there lad," ordered the Chief, his voice softer with encouragement. Much, much later, I was to discover that this gentleman's aplomb became enriched with diplomacy when dining with our first-class passengers.

I risked a quick glance around the engine room. Handrails, gauges, lights and floor plates were quivering with the tremendous vibration. Great billows of steam surged from the howling turbines. The starboard engine remained at rest. I swivelled my head back, just in time to catch the next engine movement: STOP. I answered the telegraph promptly and quickly closed the astern valve. I glimpsed around, feeling quite smug now that I'd the hang of it.

"The ahead wheel mister!" called the Chief.

The puzzled look on my face brought the Chief back to my side. He eased the ahead manoeuvring wheel open. "Look," he instructed, gesturing at the tachometer. "Momentum is still spinning the turbines astern. You have to brake them by using the ahead wheel."

"Ok Chief."

The next movement commanded full astern. With immediate response I introduced steam to the turbines.

"THAT'S BETTER!" yelled the Chief.

Sound and vibration built to a crescendo until the telegraph jangled STOP minutes later. I reacted smartly and spun the astern wheel shut. Lending my full weight to the ahead wheel, I gave it a great heave. The valve spun open with sudden force. The uproar ceased quite suddenly. I gulped and hesitantly peered aft. Totally unconcerned, everybody was attending to their duties. This seemed to be the norm, except to me. Fuelled by adrenalin my heart thumped with excitement. Here I was, not yet twenty-one years of age, having the experience of a lifetime taking a major role in the operation of the famed Queen Mary!

Some time later after being relieved, I got the chance to observe our departure from Boat decks. The liner lay midstream in the River Test, just opposite Hythe with her bow pointed down Southampton Water. The tugs, released from their task, chugged jauntily back to their berths. A chocolate milkshake frothed from the massive propellers even as they barely spun.

In an hour or so, the telegraphs would ring FULL AWAY, and RMS Queen Mary would sail majestically down the Solent past the Isle of Wight on a new adventure.

Queen Mary at Southampton

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