It was on one such occasion that I was on the controls, and had just stopped the engine, awaiting the next bridge request. The telegraph rang to ‘half ahead’ and I was about to answer this when the Chief Engineer came hurtling down the engineroom steps, colliding with the electrician who was taking down the telegraph movements.
The telegraph rang again, this time to full ahead. I still hadn’t started the engine as the Chief was shouting something into my ear. Now, this Chief was great at his job, but he had a very bad stutter. I still couldn’t make out what he was saying, and the electrician was pointing at the telegraph and his watch, signifying that the bridge were getting a bit agitated as I still hadn’t answered the telegraph or started the engine.
Bugger this – I answered the telegraph and gave the engine a good blast of air then onto fuel, lifting a couple of safety valves in the process, as she was very sluggish to turn over.
The Chief came beside me and pulled the controls to stop, then put the telegraph to stop and went onto the bridge phone. The rest of us were still bewildered by all this. I had never seen anything like it before, or since, for that matter.
Eventually the chief came off the phone and between breathlessness and stuttering told me that the stern of the ship was right on the concrete jetty, the propeller very close to it as well. What he was trying to tell me was: "Don’t start the engine, Willie!" But of course I had no idea what he was saying and started the engine. The sluggishness was due to the prop touching the concrete jetty supports.
When we eventually were tied up, I went aft with the Chief and Second Engineer. Leaning over the stern rail we could just get a glimpse of the propeller as it rotated on the turning gear, and saw the damage.
I was ready for a good lamblasting from the Chief, but he blamed the pilot and the Captain for being too close to the jetty.
We got the Lloyds surveyor down and pumped ballast for’d, lifting the prop clear of the water, then went around aft in the "jolly boat" for an inspection. We had lost half a propeller blade, twisting another out of line a little.
We adjourned to the Chief’s cabin and over a few beers convinced the Lloyd’s man that we could run the engine at reduced revs. He asked us to try the engine out tied up to the wharf, so we fired up the engine and ran her at half speed ahead and astern, while checking the prop shaft bearings, thrust block and stern gland for vibration or overheating.
Eventually the Lloyds surveyor was happy and told us we could sail for home at reduced revolutions. This was very good news for us as we could easily have been stuck in Toronto for the winter if we had needed a new prop, as we didn’t have a spare one. Or we could have had to wait for repairs to the damaged one.
We sailed the next day and after negotiating the Welland Canal, headed down the St Lawrence Seaway and out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Now this can be very rough crossing, especially in the winter months and this was the 10th December. It normally took us ten days to get to Belfast, but at the reduced revs and the heavy weather, we were going to be lucky to be home by Christmas.
We kept a very strict watch on the thrust block temperatures, and had a junior engineer and a greaser stationed full time down the propeller shaft tunnel, looking out for raised temperatures and vibration. I had recommended we slackened back the stern gland studs until there was a good steady flow of water. The stern gland and stern tube were going to bear the brunt of the prop vibrations, so the seawater flushing through would keep them cool.
We made it into Belfast without further incident in time for Christmas, and I went on leave whilst the ship was unloaded. The shipyard engineers brazed a new tip onto the broken blade and realigned the twisted one.
I rejoined the ship a few days after Christmas and we sailed for Liverpool, giving the engine full revs and thoroughly testing the repaired prop. Everything went well and we arrived in Liverpool in record time.