The Dancing Captain

Jazz might enjoy this one – seeing as how he sailed with this particular Captain!

One of the jobs we had with the company’s ‘big’ tugs was the towing around the UK of various high end specialist marine equipment, such as a floating sheerleg type crane which had an enormous lifting capability.

Aboard the ‘Afon Goch’ in them days we had a Master and a Towing Master – I think it was a nod to the Dutch, who had some influence with the company at the time.- and they could not have been further removed from each other. One (Towing Master) was a young bloke who was well liked by the crews as he was also a Master in his own right and apart from being a superb ship handler, was also a really nice guy. The Master, on the other hand, was an ancient Scotsman who had done all of his time in towage and salvage – firstly in the Royal Navy and then later out in the Far East with Hong Kong Towage and Salvage and Selco. Knew his stuff – but was a real old curmudgeon.

He attracted attention everywhere he went on account of the fact that he wore a grey plastic mac and a beret. Even in a place like Holyhead – which has its own fair share of  local characters, he stood out. He also spoke in an indistinguishable accent that was a mix of English with a Scots lilt and a vocabulary that was pure pidgin English. Example: When we drew bond (duty free ciggies and drink) he allowed us two cans a day only. If he found us rationing it so we could save it for a small party, then he stopped our bond. In one of the queue’s for the bond one evening the galley boy farted – to much laughter. When it died down, that strange high pitched voice floated out from the Master’s cabin saying something like’ You only squeak in Master’s place one time – now beer stop! Beer stop long time…..’ (I kid you not……..)

The ‘RB’ – a floating sheerlegs – was easy to work as she had a permanent bridle so it was a case of them sending us a messenger with a wire attached, to which we would attach the spring and hey ho, off we go. To drop it, we heaved it up to the counter, attached a messenger ( a light line) and passed it to them after breaking the joining shackle. A doddle. The ‘RB’ could also make her own way in smooth water and we would stand by to nudge her if need be or – if it was a blow – take her on the shoulder and steer her where she wanted to go. As tow jobs go, she was a lady – and her crew knew their stuff.

Our Master, however, always felt he needed to be supervising operations from the after end of the bridge deck and would appear with a megaphone (yes, a MEGA phone) in his gnarled old claw and direct operations from there – despite the fact that the Towing Master was always on the deck and stuck in. This – as may be imagined – caused a bit of a cuffufle between the two to the extent that while they were shouting back at each other – one with, and one without, said megaphone – we looked to the Mate and got on with it!

On the day in question we were working the ‘RB’ in Scapa Flow – I think she was working on something on the sea bed – and were asked to tow her away from the jetty and out to the middle of the bay where we would disconnect and she would take up her position. She would tie up to a pre-set pattern of bouys that she had laid out some time before so when she was where she wanted to be, her deck crew would use their workboat for securing her to them. Basically, we just provided the ‘grunt’ when needed.

On this occasion, it was a dismal day with traditional Scottish rain falling sideways from a leaden sky with a bit of a blow adding wings to it – and it was cold. Cold and miserable as befits those lovely Orkney mornings no matter the month! We managed to get the ‘RB’ out on a short nip from Stromness and ploughed through the short, steep seas of the Flow to the place where the ‘RB’s Master asked us to let go and to stand by to push her if need be.

Somehow, the towing bridle got snagged in one of the buoy moorings and we found that when we tried to heave the gear in, we were also heaving in the buoy – and its sinker! The Serious Seamen amongst us – Mate and Towing Master – leant nonchalantly over the side and looked at the water knowledgeably, tutting, shaking heads and then making those sucking noises garage mechanics make when you ask how much the bill is – but before they could announce anything to the waiting deck crowd, the megaphone boomed out.

‘You have a problem, mister’ – not a question – a statement.

Without looking back at the voice, the Towing Master and the Mate told us to stopper off the gear and to take a messenger around the mooring wire. The plan, they said was to put the messenger on the after capstan and lead it out via a Thole pin. This was basically a metal bar that fitted into a hole in the bulwark and could be used as a portable lead – like a roller only much simpler.

The megaphone boomed again.

‘ I say! You there! You! Towing Master! I am addressing you, sir! ‘

Megaphone or not, he was completely ignored as we set to. I leant over the side, made the messenger fast, while the Mate led the messenger to the capstan via the Thole pin and we began to heave away.

By this time, the deck crowd of the ‘RB’ were for’ad and assisting us by slacking their bridle away on one leg and using boathooks to work the wire away and clear. The job was going well – but still that megaphone was sounding out stridently.

‘ Listen to me! I am The Master! You! Towing Master! Listen to ME’

No-one did – and with a crack, the wire leapt from being an obstruction and fell away. Once clear, we heaved the messenger in, let go the stoppers and manhandled the towing gear aboard. Then we cracked the shackle, sent the pennant back to the ‘RB’ and the Towing Master casually turned and shouted ‘All gone aft! ‘ as if nothing untoward had happened.

However, rather than going for’ad and moving away, the Old Man stared at the lot of us on the deck with a look of thunder on his face and pointed an accusatory finger at each of us in turn.

Ye’re All logged – all of ye! Logged, I say! Logged….! ‘ Logging meant a mention in the ship’s official log book, which was a disciplinary offence. In sailing ship days it also meant you were flogged with the cat o’ nine tails!

It was obvious to all that he was having a purple apoplexy up there and then to the amusement of the entire audience – deck crew and the whole crew of the ‘RB’ – he took his beret off, threw it on the deck and danced all over it in a pique of rage! It wasn’t quite a Highland Fling as he was moving too slowly for that – but it was quite something else…..

Thereafter, to them big roughie toughie salvage men on the ‘RB’ he became known as The Dancing Captain – and they would use every excuse in the book to try and get a repeat performance – not that he ever did.

He resigned a few months later, declaring to everyone that we were the worst bunch of tugmen he had ever sailed with and that he was going back to work with Chinese crews!

And to make sure you get a sense of what she looked like, here’s a drawing of the ‘Afon Goch’ – and yes, it’s one I did!

Author: ddraigmor

What can I say? Used to write copiously - won many short story competitions, had a monthly column in an international specialist hobby magazine - and then it all suddenly dried up around the time I went academic and found myself, as a mature student, at Uni! Studied in Oxford, got a job on graduation - and stayed here in a rented house despite dreams to go back to the land of my birth,Wales. fat chance of that; I don't speak the language so that's a bar! Did 20 years at sea mostly on tugs or tug related shipping, as an Able Seaman. Als was a member of my home town lifeboat crew. Medically discharged around the same time as my wife decided it would be a good idea to get a divorce, I went to college aged 37. I now work as a s[pecialist forensic social worker. Well, up until last year when they dragged me back to do generic work part time and allowed me to stay the other half in forensics - which I adore. I am probably the only anti-social worker you will ever meet! Single, I enjoy reading, watching movies, drawing and generally being a bit of an eccntric - or am I just odd? I haven't decided yet!

12 thoughts on “The Dancing Captain”

  1. The Dancing Captain sounds like he could have had a mention in George MacDonald Fraser’s book, “The General Danced at Dawn.”

    I enjoyed the read, very funny.


  2. Jazz, this was befoe – it was his first trip with the outfit. It was after this one we got the Smerwick Harbour one.

    I’m having a busy weekend this weekend as my brother is on a course at RAF Lyneham so is up for the weekend – but I will edit one more before I start to have to think of a few shorter ones!

    Ta all for the support and comments. I do appreciate them.

  3. I can’t answer for ddraigmor. But in my case they couldn’t think what else to do with me sent to Thames Nautical Training College (HMS Worcester) at age 13…hated it. Hoped it ould catch fire, roll over and sink…preferably when I was ashore.
    Sorry shouldn’t hijack ddraigmor’s post.

  4. i was going to ask you the same question. my uncle had similar experience, but he got transferred and ended up most of the time on shore, which he hated. i don’t think he was 13 though. that’s pretty young. are you from a nautical background?

  5. 14 years old and I was sent to a nautical boarding school which sent young lads to join the MN. Like Jazz, I hated it too – I tried to escape twice and was brought back by the Police! In the end I breached my indentures – ending my apprenticeship – and was brougt home and sent to work ion a hotel by my parents.

    A year later I ‘phoned a shipping company on spec and joined my first ship.

    Yes, I always wanted to do it. I was brought up in a port town and my choices were: Army (like my dad), railway (like my dad after he left the Army). I didn’t fancy the thought of the Army so there was only the sea left. I have no regrets – although I am now well anchored ashore and unble to go back even if I wanted to.

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