Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

HMS Alert and Captain Ali Broad in Iraq

The control officer who regulated the passage of Abadan and Basra-bound vessels up and down the channels leading into the Shatt-al-Arab river, during the years 1947-51, was Captain Broad. With a crew of Iraqi radio operators and seamen he lived aboard the Control Vessel which was an old, nineteenth-century-vintage naval vessel named the Alert. This once-proud ship, formerly HMS Alert, was the namesake of another similar former 17-gun steam sloop. That ship, together with HMS Discovery, another veteran of arctic exploration, had formed the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-76. Alert wintered alone at Cape Sheridan at 82° 25’ on the northernmost tip of Ellesmere Island. And there she bestowed her name on the site where decades later the famous Canadian weather station, and later cold-war secret electronic listening post, Alert, was established. Today, it is the farthest north land settlement on earth.

I dimly believe hearing that the Alert’s ships’ bell, which I often gently rang and admired when passing it by, somehow found its way up to the Ellesmere weather station after the vessel foundered or was scrapped by some awful Baghdad dictator after my time in Iraq.

Master Mariner, Captain Broad, the shipping Control Officer, was a likeable fellow and had been out in Iraq so long and was so fluent in the local Arabic that everybody just called him Ali.

Ali Broad was somewhat cut off from everyone as Alert was permanently anchored several miles offshore and the crew’s only link to shore was by motor boat with Fao, our small settlement far up the Shatt-al-Arab river, which weather permitting brought weekly or so supplies and periodic relief crews out to the ship. But Ali didn’t seem to mind his isolation too much. He hardly ever left his ship unless ordered to do so for a rare meeting or some other such official business. For month after month except for my own once a week or so irregular visits, or an occasional visit by a tug or other small vessel, Ali kept his own company.

The only place in Captain Ali Broad’s broad captain’s cabin below the quarterdeck where I could stand fully upright was in the very centre where there was a skylight let up into the heavy wooden decking. Otherwise the cabin it was roomy enough, taking up the full width of the after part of the ship.

So sometimes when much of my charting work was done I would take the El-Ghar alongside Alert and tie up to her so I could clamber up and over to her deck where Ali would be waiting. He would lead the way down the narrow ladderways and into his cabin, which in times past many a famous arctic explorer had probably visited. Then with whisky in hand I would listen to Ali’s tales for an hour or two. Sometimes he would voice misgivings as to the durability of his ancient vessel, saying how she had seemed to strain in that blow the other night. And he would look around at his cabin bulkheads as if to command them to toughen up a bit and not let him down. But very often it was tales of the bad times before the war during the depression when master mariners and chief officers had a hard time getting a berth on a ship and even then at very low salaries.

Ali would recount that for one desolate period he had left off waiting about in marine offices for non-existent appointments and had taken a shore job—selling Kensitas cigarettes. The sales gimmick he was instructed to employ when going door-to-door to promote the product’s freshness was to ask the housewife or whoever opened the door if he could borrow half a bucket or basin of water. Then he would take a packet of cellophane-sealed Kensitas and dunk it in the water. After a few minutes of sales talk regarding the air and watertight packaging involved he would take the packet out of the water shake it clear of droplets, open it up and proffer it to the house person and say: Have a Kensitas.

So, Ali would caution me, don’t throw away a good job when you have one, you don’t want to end up selling cigarettes door-to-door. He followed his own advice so well that he was loath to order too many stores for his personal use in case some administrator in an air-conditioned office up in Basra would find fault with him.

But others of his more interesting stories were of the sea and long and involved. So long in fact that when the time came for me to leave him, Ali would follow me up the ladderway and along the deck without pause in his story. I would climb down Alert’s side, clamber over onto the El Ghar, go up the ladder to my bridge, lean out the starboard windows on a level with Alert’s main deck, and still Ali would not have paused in his narration. I would listen attentively for another few minutes as Ali leaned over his ship’s heavy bulwarks so that our heads were only a yard apart. Then I would signal behind my back for the serang to cast off. And as we slowly drifted off with the gap between the two vessels ever widening there would still be no pause in Ali’s voice. No goodbyes, just the current yarn fading away as Ali’s voice got fainter and fainter. A few days later when next I went visiting Alert the procedure would be re-enacted in reverse sequence. As we approached, Ali would be leaning over his ship’s side and faintly I would hear him picking up his story from where he had apparently finally left off. Down off my bridge I would go and clamber up to his main deck and Ali would again lead the way to his cabin chatting away from episode to episode.

Then one day, when I happened to mention theTitanic, Ali told me a fascinating story. It was back in the First World War, he said. He was an apprentice, getting in his seatime in order to go for his third-mate’s ticket. They were in convoy and one of the bridge officers was instructing him on the vagaries of the magnetic compass. The officer told him to be very careful about allowing anything made of iron or steel to be placed close to the binnacle, which housed the ship’s steering compass. It might only deflect the compass needle a degree or two, he said, but it could have grave consequences, he said. Like what happened to theTitanic just four years ago, he said. How could that be, asked Ali? Well, said his teacher, a friend of his, who had survived the 1912 disaster with the iceberg, had told him that just about two minutes before the collision, a steward had brought a tray of coffee and biscuits up onto the bridge for the watchkeeping officers. The tray had been placed on a small table just a foot to the starboard side of the binnacle. Though the china mugs and silver coffee pot were non-magnetic, the tray they rested on was of sturdy ferrous metal construction. That, said Ali’s teaching officer, would have been enough to deflect the compass a degree or more in a clockwise direction. Thus the quartermaster at the helm would have moved the ship’s wheel about three spokes in the same direction to keep the Titanic’s heading against the compass’s lubber line and on the ordered course.

Even today, when ship’s have steady gyro compasses, such an infinitesimal change of course would go unnoticed,. But, small as it was, that error would mean that in a distance of one nautical mile, a little more than 6,000 feet, the ship would be 100 feet off the track it would have followed if that tiny deviation had not occurred. Depending on whether the deviation took the ship 100 feet one way, or the other, it would mean the Titanic either hitting the iceberg a full blow or missing it entirely.

Not even vessels as big as the Titanic can be steered to an accuracy of a single degree. The quartermaster just constantly corrects the ordered heading as the ship’s head is pushed off by wave and wind. But the average heading still follows closely the intended track.

So, said Ali’s instructor, think about it. If only the steward had put the coffee tray table on the port side of the binnacle, Titanic would have still sailed perilously close to, yet also well clear of, that famous berg. Or also, of course, if only the coffee had arrived two minutes and one nautical mile later.

When he had finished the story, Ali and I sat silently in Alert’s wooden-walled cabin and mused for a while on just how one tiny, chaotic event can effect the awesome writings of the Fickle Finger of Fate.

Then on one visit things were much different. When we got to his cabin Ali showed me how with hammer and saw and some odd pieces of lumber he was enlarging his bed. His wife, Emma, was coming out to visit him for a couple of months and live aboard the ship with him. But Ali, I said, why build an addition to your bed. Just send an order for a bigger bed to the stores in Basra. But Ali’s traumatic recollections of selling cigarettes was still too strong. He kept on with his do-it-yourself bed addition.

When nice Mrs Broad arrived on board with Ali I often passed by Alert thinking how much better it all was for Ali at his lonely outpost. And I still visited on occasion. But at other times, if I saw a particular tugboat already alongside, I tried to sneak past Alert unseen. Some hopes. I was a wanted man. There was no way I could pass by unless we shut down the radio and everybody looked out only to port so as to ignore messages in flashing morse code or the waving of flags. Because I knew that now with the tug master on board Alert there were three avid bridge players over there, three avid and frustrated bridge players in the middle of nowhere—looking for a fourth. Me.

Whether I was a lousy bridge player because I didn’t like the game or whether I didn’t like the game because I was a lousy player I don’t know. But I sat for many an hour trying my best, avoiding reproachful looks from my poor partner and then an additional hour or more listening to the postmortems.

A year or two later when Alert creaked and cracked more ominously than ever before when the wind blew strong, Ali and his crew and equipment were moved on shore to Fao and into a newly built control station. And Ali and his wife lived nearby in a fine bungalow where, thankfully, they had 24-hour access to several much better bridge players than me.

Whatever really happened to the old Alert, I do not know. And today I also often wonder what really happened to the the ships’s big brass bell. As is the custom with ship’s bells it was adorned with the vessel’s name and kept well polished by Ali’s crew. When Alert was finally and sadly broken up, how fitting it would have been if that fine bell could have been rescued and sent up to Canada’s remote Arctic weather station as a historical timekeeper in that hush-hush base’s amazingly plush cafeteria-recreation hall these sixty years later.

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