A Long Haul-Wicklow to Dublin
Not to be! Orders were 'pay and cater Wicklow', which was not what we wanted to hear. It meant that the Second Officer, the Officer's Steward, and the ship's catering man went ashore. The Second Officer would go to the bank, and pay at this point meant a 'sub'-an advance, the balance of which would be paid out at the end of the quarter. Depending on your habits, this could be a nice little sum or a shock !
So, Wicklow Harbour in wintertime. Shore leave was granted but, because Wicklow was so close to Dun Laoghaire, not too many were familiar with the town. The imbibing emporiums of more distant anchorages were more familiar but we availed anyway of the chance to gaze up at the statue of Billy Byrne with his pike. Later, on the way back to the ship, there was the usual good-humoured banter about people encountered during the 'Stations of the Cross', which continued above the noise of the Kelvin engine as the boat was hoisted and secured. The talk and laughter were soon replaced by snores and dreams.
The Quartermasters did three-hour watches while the vessel was at anchor, and two hours at the wheel when steaming. On this night my watch was from midnight to 03:00. I always felt content and confident on watch. Other than the engine room staff, there was no-one else around. In any eventuality the whole crew would be on deck in moments, but I enjoyed this solitude. One develops a fondness for a ship, and having served many years on the Granuaile it was almost like spending time with a girlfriend whose company you enjoy. I am sure other mariners understand this feeling well.
The radar made it easier to check position but, as my watch progressed, it seemed as if there was an eerie feeling creeping in. The wind was starting to freshen up from the south-east; the Granny was giving me bad vibes, so I decided to inform the Old Man. When he heard the details, he suggested giving her another shackle on the windless (15 fathoms), which I did. Once the brake was off, she very quickly pulled up the fourth shackle. We were now riding to 60 fathoms. When I returned to the bridge and checked our position, she was holding but not happy, and I could hear the cable grinding. The uneasy feeling didn't go away.
The other Quartermasters were Joe Lawless (rip) who was standing in for Jack Byrne (rip), late of Arranmore Co Donegal, and my great pal, Christy Swords (RIP), whose sad stories would make you laugh-a contented man who lived for his wife and family.
At 03:00 I handed over to Joe, having conveyed all that had happened on the twelve to three with the parting remark 'Watch her like a hawk'. Years of four on, four off had me well trained to sleep when the opportunity arose, and so it was from a deep sleep that I awoke to the unusual ringing of the telegraphs and the ship making moves which were completely out of character. This made me jump out of my bunk with greater alacrity than usual. The Quartermaster's cabin was in the starboard alleyway close to a door leading out onto the quarter deck. I had a look out, only to see waves and lots of wind, which meant her bow would have been headed for where Wicklow Head meets Wicklow breakwater.
I got dressed and went to the fo'rd end of the boat deck, and realised that the situation was worsening. The wind was north-westerly Force 8-9, driving the ship into the bight, and both anchors were down. The Chippie and several hands were fighting to get both anchors home. The whole ship's crew was about. I joined the Bosun and his men in further securing the boats. Word came down from the bridge to batten down everything aft, which meant the Captain had no option but to go stern first into the sea and drag the two anchors in an endeavour to gain some searoom to manoeuvre. The quarter deck held the towing and docking winch, and aft of that the steering flat, accessed from the quarter deck, leaving quite an expanse of open deck (a great place to fish from while the vessel was at anchor).
As the petty officers' mess looked onto the quarter deck a lot of the crew gathered there to shelter and wait while the vessel gained sternway into what seemed to be even bigger seas. Suddenly the port alleyway door was stove in. In a matter of minutes the sea was flooding in. The access to the two messrooms and the accommodation for the twelve ABs, two POs, and two deckboys was by a stairway and, as this was the only way the water could go, it was filling the area very quickly. Of course word of the situation aft had been passed to the bridge and steps were taken to lessen the damage. By now the sea had put the ship in a very vulnerable situation.
Eventually the Chippie got the two anchors home and secured, giving the Captain the necessary freedom to gain sea space. The vessel was now headed into a severe north-westerly gale and another problem was becoming evident-the difficulty in steering. In normal conditions a couple of degrees off would be considered poor steering, but in a vessel where tons of free-surface water were swilling around in an area which was normally home to sixteen sailors, two points either side was not doing too badly.
Instead of the Quartermasters doing two hours at the wheel, half an hour left us glad when the relief arrived. Watching the Granuaile's fore-deck lifting out of the water, and the stern dipping, was terrible. We were doing some nerve-racking rolls and falling off to port, mainly due to not being able to keep steerage way. She looked like a vessel about to poop. Years later, wearing a different hat and under a different house flag, on passage to Dublin in severe gales, referring to getting 'west of the crack in the chart' meant that things would be more comfortable for passengers and crew. The 'crack' was the centre fold of the Irish Sea chart, and being west of it meant that we were coming towards the shelter of land. Not so on this morning for the Granuaile. Even though we were well west of the crack we were still battling with the elements in a very handicapped vessel.
Down in the engine room and sailors' mess there was an urgent battle going on at the bottom of the stairway to remove a manhole cover which was secured by many nuts and bolts and covered with several feet of rolling water. The engineers were working feverishly to release the water into the engine room, to be pumped out via the bilges, while taking great care to avoid making contact with the electrics.
During one of my spells at the wheel, the Chief Engineer, a man nearing retirement, made his way to the bridge. I can still hear him say, as he clung to the starboard chart table, 'This is the worst yet'. The Captain, after a short pause, replied 'So far'. There was no further conversation.
There was a relief Third Mate from the Shannon area who also showed the strain we were all under. As the ship gave another wild swing, falling off to port by three or four points, he reprimanded me about my ability to steer the ship. Tension was running high throughout the ship, and I answered 'Mister, if you can do any better….' I knew this was insubordination, and waited for my rebuke. I watched the Captain leave his position on the fore side of the binnacle and go instead to the port chart table where the Third Officer was grimly hanging on and say 'Mister, don't interfere with the Quartermaster'. This was the same Master who, when working the west coast would steam through the Nabro sound where, as lighthouse personnel can confirm, there was very little room for error and even the puffins looked unsure whether to stay or jump as the ship passed. His comment: 'Don't worry, the closer you get, the wider it gets'. How true, sir!
After what seemed an eternity, the good news reached the bridge that the 'divers' and engineers doing a kind of circus act in the accommodation had managed to release the plate and were now controlling the flow of water to the bilges. Sighs of relief and a chance to lick our wounds, although thankfully no-one received a serious injury.
I'm not sure how long it took us to get to get from Wicklow to Dublin that day; about eight hours would be my best guess. Normally on the same run one would expect to be on the second pint in Joe Kelly's or Kathleen Bergin's Eight Bells Bar on the South Wall in two hours. This time we were just glad to be headed into Dublin Port. Arrangements had been made to proceed to Liffey Dockyard where some spring cleaning needed to be done.
In fact it was still extremely wintry. Dublin city and county, including the main rail line to the North, had suffered from severe winds and floods that night. The Tolka Bridge was washed away, as were lots of our clothes from the crew accommodation! The sailors' accommodation area was a sorry sight, to say the least, but after two weeks in Liffey Dockyard, Grace O'Malley was ready to do her duty once more.
She was built in 1948, and served faithfully until 1970. She was to a lot of us a place where we were happy to work and play, back in the good old days when a pint of stout in Castletownbere was 1s 3d. I hope there are a few of the old squad still going.
Late in 2002, I went to pay my last respects to Fred Forsyth, a great friend of many mariners, known to many involved in the RNLI and those who passed through Dun Laoghaire Nautical College. As I arrived at Glasthule Church for the removal, I looked around for familiar faces. Eventually I spotted an old shipmate, Peadser Doyle. I greeted him by saying 'I don't see many from the Lights here'. He looked at me for a moment and said 'Sure Jaysus, there's hardly any of us left'.
Keep it going, Peadser.
Another good friend and solid shipmate who lives on the west end of Bere Island is Ted Harrington.
It's a good feeling to read Beam and see the old names popping up, like Billy Scanlan, sailor turned Lighthouse Keeper. I'll sign off with the sincere wish that the only need you'll have for your shovels is to keep your gardens nice and tidy.
David Gillen joined Irish Lights in 1950 as an Able Seaman on ss Granuaile and was later promoted Quartermaster. After nearly ten years he moved to Irish Shipping when he gained his Certificates of Competency. He then joined B&I Line as Second Mate and later was Master on cargo, ro-ro, and passenger ships, retiring from MV Connacht in 1986.