Some personal memories

By Bruce Macphee

Stena were certainly brave in taking on the Newhaven-Dieppe service after the French SNAT had pulled out. It made sense to charter ships previously used on the service, now lying idle on the other side of the channel, but it was a pity that they couldn’t have found us a better one. Since the service ceased in March 1992, Champs Elysees lay strike-bound in Dieppe and Versailles had been shunted off to Le Havre. If the service was to resume, it was a foregone conclusion that a British crew would man this older ship, French Government money being tied up in the former.

Our ship, entering service as Stena Danica, came from a yard in Yugoslavia and was one of four sisters built 1972-4; she was later renamed Stena Nordica (which was to have been her original name). At some stage, she went to a Dutch yard and the superstructure was raised by 2.3m. to give two full-height garage decks. She became Stena Nautica during her charter to the Belgian RMT and was subsequently bought by SNCF (later becoming SNAT) and renamed Versailles.

With a skeleton crew, Versailles proceeded to Southampton for a mini-refit, during which time she was renamed Stena Londoner and registered in the Bahamas. Work completed, we set sail eastwards, but were unsure of our destination; Seacontainers, being the owner of Newhaven Harbour and the former owner of the Sealink ships, were not best pleased at Stena’s hostile takeover of their fleet, and had not yet agreed to any Stena ship using their port.

The service recommenced in May with just one ship (Champs Elysees was still occupied by a sit-in) and we initially used the Schiaffino berth in Dieppe’s inner harbour. The service certainly proved popular, but all one could say was that it was better than no service at all. The ship was neither well-appointed nor punctual. The engines were very much below-par, so speed was limited, but there was also a problem which was not the fault of the ship: when we resumed sailings from the traditional Quai Henri IV, it was found on several occasions that she took the bottom, so had to wait for the tide to make before she could depart.

There was sufficient depth of water at Newhaven but otherwise the berth was far from ideal. South-westerlies whistling down the valley between the cliffs and Gibbon Road worked against any ship trying to swing off the berth; being a deck higher, Londoner had even more windage than Senlac, yet only the same bow-thruster power. It was often the case that she would get so far off the berth, then have to go back alongside until Meeching was called out; financial considerations probably weighing against the tug being put on stand-by beforehand. I should also point out that, whereas Senlac fitted the berth properly, Londoner didn’t.

Although some Masters used to bring Senlac to the berth in one movement, the prescribed method was to come alongside the quay, then move ahead slowly until the cowcatcher engaged with the sprung chafers framing the end of the linkspan. Londoner was too broad for the berth so, to bring the bow door in line with the linkspan, the ship was angled by means of her starboard quarter resting against a large inflatable fender moored against the quay, therefore, it was not possible to move smoothly along the quay to the berth. Also, there was no cowcatcher, so the ship didn’ t engage positively at the bow as did Senlac; it was only located by the moorings. Approaching the berth, the 3rd Mate, stationed for’d, would take a transit of a knotted end of a hanging rope and some fixed point on shore; this would determine where the ship should be made fast. Not having handled anything bigger than a lifeboat, I cannot speak with authority, but hope the foregoing sheds some light on the situations which have raised certain comments.

Eventually, Champs Elysees (now Stena Parisien) joined us on the run and a fairly reliable service was maintained. We sometimes wondered if the Dieppe Authorities really wanted the service to continue: one day we blew for signals as we approached, then had to take a turn and stand-off. There were no conflicting movements in the harbour but we had forgotten to give the required one hour’s notice of our arrival, so our passengers and freight were held up just to make a point.

Any ship’s staff who had gone directly from Senlac to Stena Londoner would have had a rude awakening; luckily for me (?) I had been deep-sea on a pretty awful ship in the meantime, so the culture-shock was not as great as it might have been. 24hrs on - 48hrs off in BR days had become week on - week off. In the engine room, two Engineers and two Motormen on watch had become one of each and, with an old ship, there was never a shortage of jobs to do. On a port turnaround, we would be expected to change a pair of exhaust valves on a main engine. This would be manageable if we were left alone to do the job but the phone would likely ring with some request or another. A frequent interruption was a ballasting order to be carried out immediately to trim the ship (in four years on Senlac, I had only ever been asked to pump ballast for entering drydock).

“Lecky“, in particular, had his work cut out. The various owners /charterers had made modifications over time but not recorded them in ship’s drawings, so electrical feeds were difficult to trace. Some of them defied all convention, and one small pump motor was eventually found to be fed from a fluorescent lamp fitting.

As with many ferries of the period, Londoner had Pielstick main engines but these were of V-18 form rather than the more usual V-16.  S.E.M.T., a French organisation, held the patents, but they were built worldwide by various licensees; in UK, it was Crossley Bros, Manchester. Spare parts would be interchangeable between those built by e.g: Chantiers de l’Atlantique and Crossley, but ours were built by Lindholmen of Gothenburg, long defunct, and a cylinder head off one of the other makes needed a conversion kit to fit ours. Also, whereas most of mainland Europe had standardised on metric screw threads since time immemorial, Sweden employed Anglo-American Unified threads up until c.1980, so that was something else to look out for.

We always bunkered in Dieppe, so there was no time to get stuck-in to anything major. As soon as main engines were rung off, the Engineer would go up to the garage deck and open the shell door at the bunkering station and couple-up the hose passed down from the tanker on the quay, doing his best to avoid getting knocked over by the lorries leaving the ship. Meanwhile, the Motorman would be putting in the engine turning gear and opening the 36 cylinder cocks; when finished, he came up to relieve the Engineer, who would then get on with a job to fill the available time until bunkering finished. Due to problems with draught, we never carried more fuel than absolutely necessary - 30 tons less fuel might allow another lorry to be carried - but some of us would have evaluated profit and good practice differently.

As well as watchkeeping and maintenance jobs, we took our share of the on-board management duties, and admin work that would have been done by shore staff in the old days. We were also expected to provide our own hand tools and it was never a case of “job and finish”, the list was always endless; the Motormen christened our 2nd/Chief Engineer “Johnny Ten Jobs” although, of course, the situation wasn‘t of his making.

On two occasions, Stena Londoner disconcertingly went full-astern on the starboard screw when she was building up to full-ahead after leaving port. Although, in both instances, the cause lay with the controllable-pitch system, they were completely different faults, but nevertheless resulted in unscheduled visits to the floating drydock in Le Havre.

Rather than being a plain ferry operator, Stena had a strong bias towards hotel services and entertainment; they didn’t have passengers, they had guests and the position of Chief Steward /Catering Officer became Food and Beverage Manager. There was a live band and dancers, but this was no help to those off-watch who were trying to sleep; more than once, Lecky, in desperation, pulled the plug on their amp. I don’t know how much these extras were felt to enhance the “travel experience”. Expectations change: when Versailles first arrived, she was hailed as “a palace by name and a palace by nature” but now, the travel pages of a national newspaper referred to the same ship, Stena Londoner, as “a floating slum”.

Stena had a very individual uniform style, one of the most unusual parts of which was a knitted jacket with detachable sleeves. Instead of the traditional black tie, a red or blue patterned tie was issued, depending on station. A Master on one of the Irish Sea stations had pointed out that this was not proper Merchant Navy uniform, but was told that, if he didn’t like the tie, he knew where the door was. Undeterred, I wrote a respectful letter to the HR Director in the same vein (the sub-text being that, if I wanted to dress-up as a clown, I would have applied to Billy Smart’s). Their reply was that any deviation from the prescribed uniform was anarchy. Thereafter, I became the most unlikely anarchist ever, keeping up my one-person protest for several months, achieving nothing, apart from providing my colleagues with some amusement.

As things progressed, we were loaded with more and more responsibilities, and it came to the point where the list became just a blur. To retain what sanity I had, the only course of action was to resign, so I gave one month’s notice. The fun was not yet over though - as the result of a long chain of events, we struck a submerged object as we approached Dieppe, which tore open the hull plating, puncturing a double-bottom fuel tank. After inspection by divers, who made a temporary patch, and much recrimination from the Dieppe Authorities, Londoner steamed round to her favourite drydock at Le Havre.

For much of the time in drydock, we worked “Paddy’s watch”, i.e: four on and stay on. However, I was persuaded to go to the Mission with some others one evening, it being the only opportunity to have a drink together before I left. It was a long walk from the drydock and we wondered if we were going in the right direction. We didn’t know the French for “mission” but the resourceful Mr. J-10-J asked one of the dockers “ou se trouve une eglise qui vend la biere?” When we arrived I was astounded to find that they had organised a leaving party and presentation for me - after only two and a half years working there! There’s an old saying “a tight ship is a happy ship”. I cannot say I was happy there, but I certainly have happy memories to look back on!

Photo 1: Refit at King George V drydock, Southampton, winter 1992/3; ahead of Stena Londoner is Beauport (formerly Reine Mathilde/Prince of Brittany/Prince of Fundy), operated by British Channel Islands Ferries and ahead of her is a Red Funnel Isle of Wight ferry. Although we were living on board Londoner, her galley was out of commission, so we survived on meals-on-wheels sent from Beauport.

Photo 2: Denny-Brown stabiliser fin, starboard side

Photos 3+4: Floating drydock, Le Havre, Oct 1994, with colleague Scott Wells. I have seen aeroplanes started by swinging the prop but it is more difficult with a motorship. Shortly after these photos were taken, I was nearly run over by a coach carrying sightseers, not something one would expect at the bottom of a drydock!

Photo 5: A last sighting of Stena Londoner, by then SeaFrance Monet, leaving Dover for Calais. She had since been fitted with a cowcatcher, the supports of which might just be visible. On one occasion following a heavy contact for’d, the structure penetrated the hull plating and she settled by the head. Anyway, I am sure they were pleased to have their ship back!

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'STENA LONDONER' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'STENA LONDONER' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'STENA LONDONER' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'STENA LONDONER' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'STENA LONDONER' page
This page was added by Bruce Macphee on 04/04/2014.

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