A Local Adventure

A Mariners Tale

By Craig Crompton

Photo:Craig Crompton

Craig Crompton



During the late 1940s I was a radio operator on a tramp ship carrying sawn timber from Digby in Nova Scotia to Sharpness just down the canal from us.  The interesting geographical fact (well I think it is interesting) about this trip was that Digby in the Bay of Fundy has the highest rise and fall of tide in the world and Sharpness has the second highest. Digby did not have a dock so we seemed to spend all our time either slacking mooring ropes off as the tide came in and pulling them back in as the tide went out. I can't remember the exact details but the tide was well over 30 feet.  Digby was about the same size as Sharpness and even had things like its' own hospital.

Loading timber

I don't know if everyone knows this but because timber is light in weight one has to fill all the holds and then take a large deck cargo to make up the weight. This cargo is loaded until it is almost level with the bridge of the ship. It is a matter of fairly fine judgement to decide when to stop. It can all be fine when you are departing but as fuel is burned (the fuel is stored low in the ship) and the cargo gets wetter, the ship can gradually develop a list which in worst cases can cause it to overturn. I read of a ship trying to enter Lydney with a 40 degrees list and it just would not fit in the lock. I also remember when I was on a ship going from Vancouver to Panama we came across a ship on the coast of Mexico that had an incredible list and was stopped. They just dare not burn any more fuel. The weather was fine but it had to stop. Much to our relief a tug came out from some port in Mexico to tow it in. They must have been pretty incompetent to let it get in that state.

A night ashore and a dangerous return

Anyway no such fate applied to us and we arrived at Portishead after about a week with about a 5 degree list. We had to wait off Portishead for about five days for a spring tide to get into Sharpness. We were at that time the largest ship ever to enter Sharpness.  It was here that I came closest to losing my life while at sea. We lowered one of the life boats and a few of us, about 10, went ashore to Portishead to go to the pub. After closing time we set off back to the ship and about halfway back the engine stopped. We tried starting it again with the starting handle and it suddenly backfired and a sheet of flame from the exhaust manifold set fire to a tray that was under the engine to collect oil, petrol etc. which in turn fractured the pipe leading from the petrol tank. You have never seen a boat load of people sober up so quickly! Flames shot into the air and we, in the end, took nearly all our clothes off, dipped them in the sea and put them on the now nearly red hot engine and we had to keep doing this while the rest rowed for the shore. We just made the shore and the fire took complete control. What a relief!

The rest of the crew had seen what was happening and lowered the other lifeboat and came to our rescue.  We also heard later that Weston lifeboat had put out to try and find us. Lifeboat engines were traditionally in a pretty poor state. Although they were run on a fairly regular basis (well that was the theory) they were always run without water to cool them as the method of cooling was to use the sea water and they were rarely actually put in the sea if at all.

Arriving at Sharpness

Anyway, that little adventure over we made our way up to Sharpness. The method used was to go up on the tide and about a mile before Sharpness turn the ship 180 degrees so we were actually going backwards up the river but as the tide was running at about 6 knots the ship was actually going forwards through the water. When opposite the entrance we went full ahead and slowly turned towards the entrance to the dock. As our poor old ship would only do about 9 knots flat out (for the technically minded it was a coal burning steam ship with a triple expansion engine) you can guess all this was a pretty dicey operation. As a warning to us to get things right there was a ship The Stancliffe broken in two just off the entrance. There is a good report about this ship in "Disasters of the River Severn" by one Chris Witts. It was about 8pm on a summers evening and the whole of Sharpness (or so it seemed) had turned out to see such a big ship arrive. Sharpness was a great port as one could wander around at will. No police on the gate, just a Customs officer who couldn't care less what you brought in as long as you gave him a nip. In those days all you were allowed to bring in was one part bottle of spirits, so the rule was you brought in a full bottle and the Customs Officer helped you turn it into a part bottle, with a crew of about 25 you can guess he was pretty high by the time he left. He was a jolly red faced Welshman but I am afraid I have forgotten his name. The customs office was down in the row of cottages beyond the dock Post Office (recently closed)!

Entertainment onThe Vindicatrix

The training ship Vindicatrix was tied up in the old dock to the north of the new dock. It had been brought there in 1939 as a safer place for it to be at the outbreak of war in 1939. I think it was in London before that.



At the time I was there it no longer provided accommodation for the boys and a number of prefabs were built on the small hill between the dock and the river. Incidentally these buildings were on land that used to be a pleasure ground which Mary Webb of Frampton remembers going to by boat, The Wave from Frampton.There was a regular boat service between Sharpness and Gloucester in the 1920s. George Tudor used to take his band down to The Vindicatrix to provide entertainment for the boys. He also sometimes took down a few local girls to provide partners for the boys at the dance.

The purpose of the Vindicatrix was to provide training for Stewards and Deck Hands for the Merchant Navy.  I think each course lasted about three months.  The timber we off loaded was destined for Gloucester (probably Nicks Timber who were very large customers) and was taken there along the canal by barge. There were a couple of tugs used in this work the one I remember is the Staingarth. Tugs were all steam powered having compound engines (once again for the technically minded!) They were converted to diesel power in the 1960s. For this bit of information I am indebted to Bev Knight of Saul.

Life in Sharpness

I loved it at Sharpness. I went out with a girl named Margaret Cole. We used to goto the pictures in Berkeley, how is that for civilised living. We used to walk theredown the country lanes. Country lanes were not very common in most ports ofthe world! The cinema has long since closed of course, but I think the building is still there. It was opposite the hospital. Sharpness was quite a thriving community
in those days with two Post Offices three pubs, and quite a few shops. In fact Ifirst met Margaret in The Sharpness Hotel, which is now the docker's club and is on the hill near where The Vindicatrix was moored. I don't know how many people are old enough to remember this but there was a great shortage of nylon stockings after the war and I had brought some back from Canada for my mother and sister. My sister actually came from Derbyshire on the train to Sharpness to collect them. Yes, there was actually a train to Sharpness. You had to change at Berkeley Road.

Getting the train to Sharpness

Photo:Train at Sharpness Station

Train at Sharpness Station

Train services were unbelievably good in those days, my sister boarded the train at Ambergate in Derbyshire (a village about the same size as Frampton) changed at Derby and Berekley Road and arrived at Sharpness about four hours later! Try and do that these days! I did the reverse journey at the weekend going to see my parents. The connection to Sharpness was lost after the 1960 disaster when two vessels loaded with petrol struck the bridge over the Severn and caught fire destroying the centre section

The Viking

One of the more interesting ships to come into Sharpness was the square rig ship Viking of 2665 tons belonging to a Finnish owner Erikson of Mariehamn. Viking was built in Copenhagen in 1907. I saw the Viking once when we were docked in Antwerp and she was indeed a very beautiful ship.

Photo:The Viking

The Viking

 We did this run to Digby a couple of times but then took on a cargo of coal at Barry in South Wales to Copenhagen from where we went to Kemi in the far north of Finland to get pit props. Sharpness didn't want any pit props so this was my last contact with the port.

This page was added by Jean Speed on 07/03/2009.

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