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Crew Stories

The following articles are accounts sent to us by Derek Grieve, the last Master of LV21 on the Newarp station. Derek has had an interesting career. He  traveled extensively with the Royal and Merchant navies, after which he became a Trinity House lightsman working his way up to Master. Derek writes, “My claim to fame was when I took the LV21 off station when the location was automated, the automatic vessel was later replaced by a bouy. One day while working on the focsle I fell over the anchor cable and landed badly on all fours seriously injuring my back spending a long time in hospital and being medically retired from Trinity House, and so ended my sea going career.”

Here are Derek’s accounts of life onboard light vessel 21.

Serving on Light Vessels was not your regular type job, neither was it like serving as a seaman on a normal ship. I once described it to someone that it was a sea journey that didn’t end.

Life Onboard

There were normally five crew members on a Light Vessel, all were required to be ex-Able seamen or above in the Royal or Merchant Navies. There were times when we were short handed and everyone had to ‘muck in’ to cover for the shortfall in personnel.

We would deliver or arrange delivery of our gear/stores the day before we were due to fly out to our ships. On the day our duty started we would arrive early in the morning and check our gear was within the weight limits. After checking that all their crew members were present, the masters/skippers would go to the office, ‘book in’ and receive a briefing on what had been happening. They also received any special orders from head office, down at Harwich, including any plans for the next month.

When all this had been completed we would be loaded into mini buses and taken to the locations where we would be transferred to our respective ships. Those going to the Newarp and Smiths Knoll stations would go to South Denes Airport, situated just to the North of Great Yarmouth. Those going to the Dudgeon and Outer Gabbard stations would go to the helicopter pad at Cromer Light House where Graham, the lighthouse keeper would have everything ready and supply mugs of tea.

‘Bonds Helicopters’ did the helicopter transfers. The pilots would do their utmost to get us aboard, even in heavy weather. They were fantastic pilots and fun people. There were many times during the winter months when the crew changes could not be done due to the bad weather, those waiting to return home having to spend another day or two on board. When you are sitting in a helicopter, which is hovering near your ship, and you are watching it gyrating in heavy seas, the helipad looks a very small area to land in. Then the pilot decides to ‘give it a go’. He guides the helicopter into the hover above the wildly bucking deck and starts matching the movement of the ship. He tells everyone that they are to remain in side while the engineer unloads the stores and loads the gear going ashore. Then he would increase the downward thrust and we would all pile out and those going home would scramble in. When the deck was clear he would wait for the deck to reach its highest level and reverse the thrust and shoot from the deck as the stern dropped into a trough. We would then quickly stow our gear below decks.

Ordering Food & Supplies for The Tour

Trinity House didn’t supply food. It was up to us to buy our own supplies for the 28-day tour of duty. It was important to allow an extra two or three days supply of food as the weather at the end of the trip could be so bad that they couldn’t do the change of crews, so there was no option but to stay on board until the weather became favourable. Those who lived near the Depot at Great Yarmouth tended to go shopping in the local shops. Others who lived further a field ordered from Yare shipping which was situated near the Haven Bridge. The supplies would be delivered the day before embarkation and weighed as there was a weight limit imposed as transportation was by helicopter from South Denes airport.

Alcohol wasn’t allowed onboard, but a blind eye was turned at Christmas and New Year. As long as you were sensible, peace would prevail. Every year, a couple of weeks before Christmas the Caister Lifeboat would bring the Mayor of Great Yarmouth and representatives of local businesses out to the ship with goodies for the crew. It was looked forward to, as we didn’t have many visitors and the nearest neighbour was just over 14 miles away, ashore at Caistor.

Those who were old hands pre-booked fresh provisions such a vegetables, to be delivered at the time when half the crew changed. Mail was also brought out at this time if there was any. At the end of your tour you would put all your unused frozen food into boxes with your name and place it in the bottom of one of the two large chest freezers onboard. Any vegetables left over would be left for those remaining on board.

In the winter, when the weather was very bad and all you could do was hang on tight, going to the bridge/lookout was not a task for the faint hearted. The ship could and often was, thrown about by massive waves. The worst time was when the tide turned and the ship was broadside on to the wind and tide and she would lurch fore and aft then roll sideways into the trough between the waves. But these ships were well designed and strongly built; making them very good sea boats, which is just as well. The North Sea is not very deep so the waves are close together forcing ships to smash their way through them; this often weakens the hulls of ships not built to withstand this sort of punishment making it the most dangerous sea in the world.

Doing Your Own Cooking

There wasn’t a chef/cook on the ship. There was a large gas cooker with a big metal kettle on the hob whatever the time and we all ensured that it was permanently full of water. We all cooked our own meals, if you couldn’t cook when you started the job you learnt very quickly – the other members of the crew giving you lessons on what to do and how to do it. There was one member called ‘Jones’ who was known only as ‘Jonesey’ (who sadly passed on several years ago). He was a Cornishman and very proud of it. He told me that he used to be a pastry chef and taught me how to make ‘clacker’ (pastry); I never forgot that lesson; even my wife and several others were taken by his simple method and use it all the time.

How To Make A Clacker


1.5 kg bag of SR Flour
250g slab of stork margarine
Sugar
Milk

Nip the bag of flour about one third of the way down and pour the top part into the bowl.

Slice approximately half the Margarine into thin strips and place these in the bowl.

If you are making sweet pastry add approx 4 – 5 desert spoonful of sugar.

Start mixing and rubbing with your fingertips binding these together until there are no lumps and become like a ‘breadcrumb’ consistency. To test this, take a hand full of the mixture and squeeze it, when you open your hand there should be an imprint of your fingers. Gently press with your thumb; if the impression falls apart without much pressure, the mixture is ready for the next stage.

Add milk and, using a fork mix them together adding more milk until the mixture becomes slightly tacky and looks like the dough of bread. Cut in half and roll out as normal, after adding the ‘top’ to the pie, brush the top with milk, (if making ‘sweet’ pastry sprinkle sugar on it). After making pie or tart place in hot oven, cooking until golden brown. Tap pies on the top and if it is solid and sounds like a drum they are ready.

I never had a bad one, and we always shared our cooking with the rest of the crew, they would soon let you know how well or not so well you’re cooking was.

Crews Hobbies

Hobbies were an important part of life onboard. During our off duty periods we would read, sleep, fish, and make model ships in bottles, one of which was made by Dennis Smith who lived at Gorlesdon near Great Yarmouth. The model sits on a shelf at home in my radio shack.

I had a CB set up on the Bridge/lookout and like other members of the crew talked to my family most days. I also chatted to the many CB ers out there. I used to describe the weather and what was happening around us. There were more people than I realised listening and I was even mentioned in the 1986 July edition of CB Magazine.

Fishing was the most favourite pastime. We made up our own ground line with many hooks on it. We also did the usual rod fishing. One morning I had relieved the lookout so that he could have his breakfast and I decided to have a few minutes fishing. I was called by the lookout to say that he was back on watch when I felt a tug on the line. When I reeled it in there were two very nice sized whiting on the hooks. I thought ‘breakfast’. You couldn’t get any fresher than that.

Some made rope knot boards, which they sold to souvenir shops ashore in Great Yarmouth to be resold to tourists. Others used the time to do the Open University and gain higher qualifications.

Others just slept or read books they brought out with them. There was a small library on board made up of books, which had been left behind after being read. Every so often when someone remembered, these books would be placed in a box and sent to another Light Vessel when the supply tender made a delivery of water, coal, diesel and other stores.

Resupply was done once a month by the Trinity House tenders THV Patricia or THV Siren these ships were the workhorses of Trinity House. Their jobs were to service and replace all the navigation buoys around the coast, as well as assisting the Coast Guard in rescues and other emergencies.

Heating System

Heating for the hot water and the central heating system was by a stove down in the bowels of the ship. This was powered by coal, which the duty crew member was responsible for keeping going. Every morning and evening the person on duty was required to rake the fire and remove the red (sometimes white) hot clinker from inside and empty the ash from the bottom. Woe betide anyone who didn’t do this job, as the heating and hot water in winter was important. In fact I have on occasion, seen this stove so hot that it glowed ‘red’. It was a hot dirty job cleaning the bottom out as this had to be done with care to ensure that the fire didn’t go out. We had an old 5 gallon metal oil drum which we used to carry the clinker to the upper deck and tip over the stern of the ship first checking which direction the wind was coming from. If you placed yourself in the wrong position all the hot ash would be blown all over you making you cough for some time afterwards.

There was a second coal fired stove in the galley on top of which, the kettle would sit and send steam into the air. Cleaning this stove was done as required as it wasn’t a large as the one below, its heat would keep the galley and nearby mess room warm. It was normally cleaned early in the morning and the coalscuttle filled for the day. This meant that the galley had to be cleaned of ash regularly. Health and safety wouldn’t allow a stove like this in a galley now, but it was a focal point for the crew especially in the winter when they came below to get warm after working on the upper deck.

Upper Deck

Working from bow (the sharp end) to the stern (the blunt end) the ship was held in position by many meters of anchor chain, which was connected to the seabed by a four and a half ton Viking anchor. As many a sailor will know, it is the anchor cable, which keeps a vessel in position; the anchor is the means of stopping the cable from sliding along the seabed.

There were also two spare four-ton Viking anchors situated on each side of the focsle in specially made anchor beds. There was a quick release system should it be required if the ship started to ‘drag anchor’.

Just forward of the superstructure was the windlass. This was used for anchor work and could be used to work rope on the capstan drums. It was powered by compressed air generated from the main power engines below. This equipment was very powerful and could raise an anchor which had sunk several meters into thick mud.

There was also a mast situated near the hatch, which led below into one of the storerooms. It also supported the radio wires and signal halliards. At the after end of the focsle on each side just aft the anchors was a davit. These were used to retrieve the anchors if necessary. In the centre of the deck was an entry to the lower deck.

Moving along both waists of the ship we come to doors allowing access into the superstructure. The lantern was situated above this position, which was dead centre of the ship. Just aft of this were the lifeboats and in the centre were ventilation hatches, which also allowed light inside. Then came the second half of the superstructure inside of which was a ladder down inside of the ship, it also had the timing equipment for the fog horn which was situated above the For’d part of the superstructure.

Just For’d of this superstructure was the gas cylinder locker. This held several large Calor gas cylinders for cooking.

Aft of here you would be on the quarter deck and under the flight deck. At the for’d part there was a ladder going up to the for’d end of the flight deck with safety netting all around it’s edge and fire fighting equipment for the helicopter near the ladder.

Time On Board

“Many looked at the time spent onboard as time standing still. Everything stopped when you stepped from the helicopter, to be restarted when you climbed back into it.”

The 28 days were quite boring if you didn’t have a hobby. There were jobs to do, changing over the engines so they had the equal amount of running hours. Cleaning the ship went on all the time with a major clean just before you left the ship. There was a massive amount of brass work and keeping it shining was a job I hated. Greasing all deck equipment was ongoing to ensure that everything would work when it was required to.

Some jobs could only be done when it was good weather (normally in the summer) such as calibrating the anchor cable. This would have to be done at the lowest tide possible (springs) and with a window of approximately 40 minutes everything had to be prepared in advance. The heavy engines were started to ensure that there was sufficient air pressure to operate the windlass. Power was then put onto the windlass and it was prepared to haul in the cable.

Calibrating the cable could only be done at low water to enable as much of the anchor cable to be checked as possible. This process measured the wear of each link where they rubbed against each other. If the measurement was not right and there was too much wear Trinity House was to be informed and the cable would be replaced either during the next refit or the tender would come alongside, and holding the LV in position would recover the anchor, check and change the cable, then place the LV back in it’s correct position. This was an all day job and there would be little rest until it was done.

Cleaning the lantern and its optics was another of those jobs, which had to be done regularly to ensure that the light could be seen as brightly as possible. After all, that was what we were there for. The outside glass was only done in good calm weather for safety reasons. There were no safety harnesses in those days. On the 21 we were lucky as we could access the lantern by climbing up the inside of the tube. Older LVs had a ladder/stairway leading up to the base of the lantern giving access through a trapdoor underneath the lantern. The climb would leave you open to the elements and was no joke during winter months. I remember one winter the wind was creating ‘sideways snow’ and by the time I got inside the lantern I was like a snowman, not a comfortable way to do ones job.

Events

On the whole life on a light vessel was quite mundane, but there were some events, which made the crew anxious and some laugh. Here are some of those stories.

While serving as temporary master on the ‘Smiths Knoll Light Vessel (27 miles off Great Yarmouth). I was in my cabin working on the paperwork when the lookout came and asked me to go up top. On reaching the bridge I saw a small 10ft sailing dingy coming towards us. I shouted through the bullhorn if he required any assistance. He came alongside and asked the direction to Great Yarmouth. As the man seemed to be well prepared and the weather was good I pointed the direction and gave a compass bearing. He thanked me very much and headed in a North Easterly direction. I called the Coast Guard and gave them all the information and thought that that was the end of it. The next morning when I sent the weather condition readings to the Coast Guard, they informed me that this chap had landed later that day in a restricted area in North Norfolk and wondered why he was being ‘got at’ by security people as well as the coast guard. I don’t think he will do that in a hurry again.

One day the Coast Guard called me on the Haisbourgh Light Vessel asking me to keep a look out for a 40 ft Broads Cruiser which two people had bought and were taking it to Lincolnshire by sea. Those in the know would call this rather foolish, as Broads cruisers are built for the smooth waters of the Norfolk Broads. It seems that these two intrepid fellers were using a CB radio as communications (mobile phones were not about then) and an AA road map to navigate by. We did not see this vessel but were amused to hear that the wave action on its hull had sprung its hull planks causing it to sink rather quickly. Everyone on board survived but received a bill from the rescue authorities.

There were times when we rendered assistance, sometimes to fishing boats who just needed to be secure while they made repairs, to refuelling life boats who were engaged in rescue operations in the area. Sometimes rescued people were placed on board so the helipad could be used to fly them ashore.

These events were few, but these are just a couple of events we were there for and assisted in.

The accounts reproduced here are courtesy of former LV21 Master, Derek Grieve.
Images courtesy of former LV21 crew member Brian Packham.