At the time, I was sixteen, and already planning to leave school (which had become very boring) and join the Navy. In my youthful naivete, this only encouraged my enthusiasm. Steering a warship – wow! That’s got to be more exciting than staying on for ‘A’ levels.
I had so much to learn.
The recruitment leaflet didn’t lie. I did indeed get to steer a ship. It was part of my training – I learned about port and starboard, and about how to follow wheel orders (‘Starboard ten!’ ‘Starboard ten, sir!’ ‘Ten degrees of starboard wheel on, sir!’) and so on.
What the leaflet didn’t tell me was that steering a warship is deadly dull.
Picture this. You’re in the wheelhouse. It’s a metal room, about ten feet square. In the middle of the room there’s a grey metal post (most things are grey, it’s the Navy’s favourite colour) with a metal wheel, maybe a couple of feet in diameter with plastic handles all round the rim. On either side are the engine room telegraphs – more posts, with dials and handles. In front of the wheel are various indicators – wheel indicator, rudder indicator – and of course, the compasses. Actually, gyro compass repeaters. The gyro compasses themselves were off in another room somewhere, but in the wheelhouse you have some grey boxes with red-lit numbers showing in a window at the front. The numbers move, as the ship moves, because they’re showing what direction the ship’s actually heading in. There’s three of them, because the Navy always likes to have a few in reserve in case we get into an actual fight and some of them get taken out.
Hanging from the ceiling are a couple of jointed metal rods with microphones on the end, which is how the Bridge sends down orders and you respond.
This was the set-up on my first ship, HMS Hermes, an aircraft carrier which at that time only carried helicopters.
So say you’ve got the morning watch. That’s from 0400 to 0800. And the ship’s on passage somewhere. Nothing to do for four hours but to keep the ship on a straight course.
This was in the ‘70s, and Merchant Navy ships already had automatic pilots to do this sort of steering. But the Navy was suspicious of new-fangled innovations like that, especially ones which meant that sailors didn’t have anything to do. They liked to have plenty of sailors, for the same reasons as they liked to have plenty of everything else, and they wanted them kept busy.
So there would be three of us, at least, down there. A quartermaster (QM) in charge, and a couple of seamen. We’d split the time between us – twenty minutes, half an hour, maybe a longer, and we’d steer the ship.
Sitting on a stool in front of the wheel. Watching the compass. Putting on a bit of wheel now and then to keep on course. If it was calm, you only needed a few degrees. Maybe five. More if it was rough weather, but rarely more than ten. The trick was to use as little as possible, or the ship would start swinging from side to side as you put on more and more wheel to correct it. Then you’d have some sharp words from the QM, and perhaps a bollocking from the Officer Of the Watch (OOW) on the bridge.
So you put on a little bit of wheel, glance at the rudder indicator to make sure the rudders were following (not much chance they wouldn’t, and if the machinery did break down, well guess what, the Navy had spares). Then watch the compass and as it started to swing back on course, take the wheel off again. Add a little bit of helm the other way to catch the swing and if you did it just right, the ship would steady up exactly on course.
Then wheel back to midships, and wait until wind or weather pushed the ship off course again - and repeat.
The first time is quite exciting. A big responsibility, to have 27,000 tons of aircraft carrier responding to you. That lasts ten minutes, at most, and it’s downhill from there.
Of course, there’s a bit of chat and some banter that goes on in the wheelhouse, but after an hour or so it dries up a bit. You soon start to wish that the weather would change to make it more interesting. One regular QM, a bluff Able Seaman known as ‘Yorkie’ (because he was from Yorkshire – Naval nicknames could be very imaginative. But not in this case) was fond of saying things like “Be’in as its rough out there, Ah’ll allow thee haf a’ degree off course either way, an na more.” With a growl. Enough to ensure that a fresh young Junior Seaman concentrated very hard.
For a while. But eventually, you just got used to everything, even Yorkie, and in the small hours your mind wandered, and it got harder and harder to focus on what you were doing. Especially as it was warm down in the wheelhouse.
After a while the numbers of the compass repeater started to go blurry. You’d blink and force yourself to focus, but then your head would suddenly drop forward, and then you’d jerk upright, suddenly realising that you had five degrees of port wheel on and had no idea how long it had been like that, and that you’d actually forgotten what course you were supposed to be steering. Hastily stopping the ship from turning any further, you bring it back a few degrees and steady up on what might be the right compass bearing. A degree or two either way won’t matter much after all. And if it turns out we’re drifting off a bit, well, it’s the middle of the Atlantic or the Mediterranean, so there’s plenty of room to sort it out when somebody eventually notices.
You’d think that the OOW on the bridge would realise the ship was off course, but it was pretty boring up on there as well, with nothing but empty sea in every direction, and a few degrees to port or starboard wouldn’t be obvious. In fact, one old seaman (I say old, probably in his late twenties, which was pretty old to me at the time) claimed that he could turn the ship in a full circle over the course of a night watch, just by drifting off a few degrees at a time, without it being noticed. I’m not sure that I believed that, but I wouldn’t totally discount it either.
Steering could be dangerous though, and one time I nearly knocked myself out. It was another one of those long quiet night watches. I was on the wheel, sitting on the stool, chatting with the QM and the other seaman, and not paying much attention to the course. Until I glanced at the compass repeater and suddenly realised that I’d allowed the ship to drift well off course, four or five degrees to starboard of track.
I hastily leaned forward and spun the wheel to get us back. With a practised flick of the wrist, you could spin it quite fast and have five or ten degrees of wheel on in a moment or two.
But, in my haste, I leant too far. And as I spun the wheel, one of the handles caught me under the chin.
Knocked me right off the stool and sent me sprawling on the floor. The QM – it was probably Yorkie – looked up in surprise.
“What are you doing down there?” he asked.
“Bleeding!” I told him. And I was – the spoke had split my lip.
Even then the bridge didn’t react, and someone quickly grabbed the wheel and got us back on course while I got myself sorted out.
I finally did get a response from the bridge on another occasion, and it gave me a quite undeserved reputation for quick wit and no respect. It was one of the less boring situations, where something was happening and wheel orders were coming thick and fast. In the unaccustomed excitement, I missed something, and had to ask for clarification.
The OOW was not amused. “Who’s the idiot on the end?” he snapped down the intercom.
In all honesty, I really didn’t hear him properly. “Which end, sir?” I asked, innocently seeking clarity once more.
There was utter silence from the bridge, but shouts of laughter from the rest of the wheelhouse crew. The story soon got round the messdecks, and I was briefly known as the Junior Seaman who put the OOW in his place.
For my part, I was terrified that I’d be called up to the bridge to explain myself. But nothing happened, nothing was said. I supposed that they were pretty busy up there and didn’t hear my response. Or they heard it and chose to ignore it. Or perhaps they were laughing as well. Whatever, I got away with it.
And if nothing else, it relieved the boredom.