Jack Mainland: “In your trips to the ‘Gulf’, you must have experienced the heat. How did it affect you, and how did you cope?”
Bill Ballingall: “It’s not easy. That Gulf trip on the ‘Duke’ was my first experience of the heat. Like, hot – hot. During the summer In the Gulf, and indeed in the Red Sea, every breath could be a physical challenge and totally enervating; most of the engineers having palpitations from time to time caused by the exposure to the heat, 24/7. The engine-room temperature would not fall below 120°F (50°C) for weeks on end, along with a high level of humidity.
The sea temperature would reach 92°F, (33°C) in the Gulf. Down below, on watch, the engineers drank from a communal gallon jug, which was re-filled with rather tepid water every half-hour or so. And with losing so much fluid, and therefore the body’s salt, as sweat, we had to take salt tablets. I was up to 32 salt tablets a day when it was bad. Although we were taking in significant quantities of water, you wouldn’t pee for days on end. Looking back at these conditions, I realise that we were on a knife edge in maintaining a balance of fluid level and salt intake. The skin sometimes erupted into a condition known as ‘prickly heat’ if we got this balance wrong.
It is difficult to sleep in the extreme heat. If you lie on your side, you might drown in your pillow, it is soaking wet with sweat; if you lie on your back, sweat lies in a pool in your eye socket, the salt of which is quite nippy. These early ships did not have air-conditioning.
Apart from the high ambient temperatures, the ship’s engineers were sometimes exposed to heat from other sources, usually associated with work on the boilers. Before the old ‘Duke’ entered a port, for example, exhaust gas from the engines had to be diverted from going through the boilers - as a recycled heat source – to directly up the flue.
The actual change-over of the exhaust gas system was generally a cadet’s job, (me!) and it involved removing furnace blanking plates on the scotch boilers and re-fitting burner carriers with the associated pipework. In the Gulf and other hot places, the heat in the stokehold was all-but unbearable, and on more than one occasion I flaked out on deck after climbing out of the stokehold and being revived by a bucketful of sea water flung over me.
On steam ships with a different type of boiler, it was sometimes necessary to enter the furnace soon after it had been shut down, to look for leaks. This involved lying on a plank of wood, rather like a scaffolding plank, and the plank then pushed through the furnace door. The inside of a water-tube boiler is rather like the inside a huge pipe organ, with rows and rows of tubes up the sides and on the roof.
When theses boilers are in operation, which is most of the time, the heat inside the furnace chamber is such that the refractory brickwork melts, and the floor of the chamber becomes molten. On cooling, it forms black mirror-like glass, which cracks and breaks when stood on. When inside the furnace and standing on this plank, it was not uncommon to smell burning, and you become aware the plank under your feet had caught fire – the cue to get yourself pulled out pretty quick! This is the reason buttons on our coveralls are located within a flap of material, as the metal buttons would otherwise burn your skin.
There is the other extreme, of course. We took a cargo of heating oil to Norrkoping, in Sweden. Bitterly cold, being winter, and the sea had frozen over. We had been through some heavy weather in the North Sea, and as we entered to Gulf of Bothnia, the spray froze when it hit the rigging, the handrails, and on deck. The steam-driven windlasses up for’ard were frozen solid, and the crew had to use fire axes to clear the ice from the bollards in order we could tie up.
We had an ice-breaker close to us all the time, keeping the channel clear. When we left, and down in the engine room, we could hear the crashing and grinding of ice growlers along the side of the ship. And that was scary…”