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2013-08-07

My creator and his destroyer


The old man as a teenaged third officer in the British Merchant Navy. He got the tattoo at age 17 in Lisbon in 1943.
Some things are unlikely to be known with certainty, but I do know that my father's World War II service as a seaman on British merchant ships took him on the dreaded "Murmansk run" to supply the Russians with needed goods and war materiel, and that the Canadian destroyer HMCS Haida was on the same run. At the same time as my father? I can't say, but for the sake of literary licence, I'll believe it.
A bridge not yet far enough up.
Now, having posited the unverifiable, but easily possible, conjunction, I'll move to the factual and note how it's funny how the Venn diagrams of personal history and History with a capital "H" cross. We sailed a couple of weeks ago to Hamilton, ON, a largish city I had never visited by sailboat, despite its proximity to our home port, or perhaps because of that. We were attending a very nice backyard party/jam session thrown by some transplanted-from-Toronto friends. It was also my birthday weekend, and, like a good co-captain, my wife gave me a new chart of Hamilton Harbour.

If yours is the only boat requiring passage under the bridge, the operators waste no time lowering back to the road level.

Hamilton has a large, protected and deep natural harbour; it's no surprise that it became a centre of heavy industry. The protected aspect comes from the harbour being almost completely bounded by artificial moles under elevated highways and roads, the whole pierced by a short but turbulent ship canal spanned by a large lift bridge.

Now, aside from a stellar and much-appreciated chance to steer downwind both there and back (we set a new SOG record of 9.2 knots (!) surfing on the return leg), we got to see a few Hamilton sights of note, such as Brewers Marine Supply, a rather old-school chandlery where I left my PLB for battery replacement,  and we walked from the very pleasant Royal Hamilton Yacht Club to visit HMCS Haida, now a museum ship and the last extant Tribal-class destroyer from World War II.

As said above, my connection to this particular ship is tenuous, but real, or at least plausible. My late father, of whom I've spoken in this blog before, participated in World War II as a teenaged British merchant navy sailor; he was just 20 in 1945, and so had what can only be described as a highly eventful youth. Despite the fact that many of his comrades and friends met unpleasant ends thanks to U-Boats and horrible weather, while serving on rapidly and perhaps insufficiently built ships, and the real possibility of death-by-torpedo, he generally had a fairly happy war, centered, as he often said, on the absence of food rationing aboard Merchant Navy ships.
Still in the top ten list of "unpleasant yet essential" as far as I can tell

One thing he did not enjoy recalling, however, was the exceedingly dangerous convoy duty he served making the so-called "Murmansk run". With the USSR as an ally during World War II, Britain, Canada and the U.S. strove mightily to supply the Russians with food, fuel and the precious war materiel needed to beat the vast German land forces on the Eastern front. This meant reaching Russia's most northerly port, one acceptably distant from the front lines, and yet one also ice-free and served by rail.

The attrition in men and ships was appalling on this particular frosty convoy route. German long-range spotter aircraft were easily able to patrol the route based as they were out of Norway, and weather bad enough to ground them was also liable to sink the freighters in convoy due to heavy ice accumulation and the resultant sudden, devastating capsize. My father commented he was rarely more motivated to labour aboard than when he and the rest of the crew had to knock...with hammers and axes...frozen sea water off the decks and superstructure of his ship in order to avoid a fatal top-heaviness.

The right side matches the description of what I heard from my father.

Enter HMCS Haida. Built to a British design, this jack-of-all-trades destroyer class served in various navies, including the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Australian Navy. They proved to be tough (Haida was particularly bellicose in her service) and reliable, and provided some measure of protection to the merchant shipping under their care.

HMCS Haida in 2002 being towed from next door to our club to its currrent berth in Hamilton, Ontario. I recall seeing this.

Although I do not have current access to my father's MN paybook to confirm this, it is very likely that he would have been in one of those ships protected by Haida and its sister-ship, Huron. Thus, my father's survival to breed me, some sixteen years after the end of World War II, made a visit to see Haida more personal than most touristic days out.
As HMCS Haida would have appeared in 1943.

The strange thing is that Haida was berthed for most of my life (she was decommissioned in the early '60s) not only in Toronto, but opposite our present boat club. She sat immobile, tied up and quietly rusting and barely avoiding the scrapyard, a short walk away, and neither I nor my father saw fit to visit her. Towed to become a permanent museum ship to Hamilton some 10 years ago, I deemed it a "must-see", and a very interesting visit it proved to be.
Mrs. Alchemy and Cabin Boy Extraordinaire, shown to scale
Without spoiling it for those readers inclined to visit (which we would suggest is a very good idea), it does bring home how large and complex a vintage destroyer can be, and at the same time how basic were the wartime facilities aboard.
I'm guessing that the low steel wall here is to divert breaking seas and to keep snapped anchor chain from taking off the legs of crew further aft.

Haida is not entirely as she would have appeared if my father viewed her from a convoy ship's bridge. She served well into the Cold War, and still sports radar and guns from that time. But enough of her is pure World War II to get a sense of how life aboard her must have been.

Your correspondent's toes contemplating the sheer at the bow.

My hairy little son seemed to get into the spirit of the thing, shouting various warlike invective in his unbroken voice.

I'm not sure destroyers ever called for "RAMMING SPEED" from the aft bridgedeck. Perhaps.

"Captain requests shellfire to be deposited just over there."
ICOM Model 1 VHF, circa 1956

Some mortal coils.

The Captain's quarters were Spartan at best, although I liked the look of the instruments.

Acceptably firm, as per regulation. No lee boards seen.
What? No Zulu time?

The highlight for me, being of a mechanical bent, if one acquired late in life, was a visit below. Yes, I should have used a flash more.

This is how the analog world worked, kid.

One of the volunteers in the engine room was a woman who believed herself to be the first female stoker in the Canadian navy. She was exceptionally well-versed on the equipment, and when I enquired whether the steam turbines were the Parsons type, she got quite animated and allowed me to peer into...and touch...the enormous bowels of the turbines.
I can only imagine this woman's backstory. She knew every inch of this vast and complex space.
The idea of any of the surrounding piping or engine parts, filled with high-pressure, superhot steam, bursting during wartime, was sobering indeed. 
Note the cotter pins on the mounting stud nuts. Cheap insurance!

I enjoyed the visit to Haida very much, as did the family, and even if you lack a tenuous connection to its history, who wouldn't want to sit on a deactivated torpedo?

Well, they said it was deactivated.

8 comments:

The Ceol Mors said...

What a cool outing! (and good to see the family!)

Rhys said...

Wow, I only put this up about two hours ago...fast work!

Yes, it was fun. Canadians aren't particularly known for their pride in their armed forces, but it's real and it's there. This 70-year-old vessel, which saw very hard use, is pretty lovingly maintained, mostly by volunteers.

Also in the same city is Canadian Warplane Heritage. They have an equally venerable Canadian-built Lancaster bomber, one of only two left in flying condition, and you can see it flying over Toronto a few times a summer, because someone had the bright idea of "rent a ride in a Lancaster" for a few grand per ride...which pays for the hours of maintenance necessary to keep it flying!

John said...

Would love to rent a ride on Haida, but it might cost a lot more than on a Lancaster. Do you know the boat's fuel consumption?

Rhys said...

No idea, John, but I think they have to spin the props back on and reweld the cutaway turbines before they hit the start button!

The Lancaster will cost you $2,500/hr.

http://www.warplane.com/visit-cwhm/vintage-aircraft-flights/flight-form.aspx?AircraftId=4

Ken Goodings said...

I took the day off and braved the cold to see Haida towed from her berth at Ontario Place. After many hours of waiting, it was a quite a relief when the strain came on the towlines and she began to move. Our ham club participated in the restoration of the radio shack. The bulkheads, ceiling and floors are lined with wood as an insulation against crew accidentally touching radio equipment and the hull at the same time... risking rf burns or electrocution.
Check out Haida's posted top speed in their specifications. In CPS we're taught that max hull speed is 1.34 times the square root of the waterline. Haida goes much faster than this. I discovered that long narrow hulls such as WW2 warships and modern multihulls have a speed constant much higher than the standard 1.34 of a typical monohull. Long and narrow definitely wins the race.
I once nearly fell off the fantail in shock when the ships noon gun was fired by Sea Cadets!

Rhys said...

Nice story, Ken, and interesting data on destroyer hull physics versus our more tubby designs.

I am assuming that the "radio shack" on Haida features its final equipment from 1963, which means it could be from the '50s. It superficially resembles scaled-up Heathkit gear I recall my CW-hobbyist pal building in the '70s: rigs about the size and weight of cinder blocks and still full of vacuum tubes. Grounding out on that could indeed cook the crew. I have a Traynor tube amp from 1971 for my bass guitar that's a bit of a menace in that respect...but I don't think I will switch it on again without fixing the loose ground.

Thanks for the story. I saw Haida underway from a bike seat in, what, 2002? but didn't think much of it at the time. Rather eventful decade since!

John C said...

I’m re-reading your post after an adventurous couple of weeks on the Lake. Lots of wind, we entered Kingston planing at 12 knots, which, for a 20,000 lbs sailboat, is a bit unusual.

Back to your post: I've just noticed that Sweden has no access to the Norwegian Sea or the Barents Sea, well, either or, I'm not sure where the sea limits lie precisely. I wonder how that happened. These seas are ice free almost year round and perfect for maritime use.

Narvik rings a bell, was it the iron ore route when Bothnia was frozen, critical to German trade in WWII? I should look it up instead of rambling on and on.

So the Swedes had to deal with the (allegedly) fierce Danes, well at the time, to get out through the Belts to pillage and conquer, assuming these particular people ever did that.

You'll probably be sailing these waters and I wonder if there are any reasonably intelligible books about these nations’ history. I might go there too, but on a Hurtigruten.

Rhys said...

I concur on that 12 knots, John. We recently broke 9 on the 9,000 lbs. 33 footer...and that was plenty.

I am working on memory here, but I recall that Denmark's bottling up of the Kattegat strait was a casus belli of several Swedish slap-downs in the Middle Ages, particularly as even a basic cannon was capable of getting to the halfway point. This may be why Sweden, during its brief period of expansionism in the 17th and 18th centuries, turned south to Poland and east to the Baltics and Russia to pick on people: they had few other options. On the other hand, the Swedes owned Norway until 1905, and so had plenty of access (if not decent roads) to the proper sea. The history of the Nordic countries, post-Vikings, is not as well known as it might be, I find, even though it's a very busy history.

Congratulations: I had to look up "Hurtigruten"!