I was watching a documentary recently in which the Naval Architect who designed the QM2,(The one with the Gold “Blue Peter” badge) was talking about hull design, particularly the hull required to meet the conditions on the North Atlantic. He said for the kind of speed they were hoping to maintain, a hull would need to be sleek but most of all strong. I have stood under the bow of the old Queen Elizabeth when she was in dry dock, sleek and shapely it was, most certainly and the whole vessel bristled with “Clydeside built“ strength. In some other documentary, I watched somewhere, they were talking about ocean wave patterns and their formation. They said that in the North Atlantic the waves heading east, in certain condition, could form into very regular patterns of steep peaks followed by deep troughs. We used to run into these waves now and again and it was here the “Lizzie” would, sometimes, perform a manoeuvre that, the very thought of, still makes me shudder all these years on.
I first experienced this phenomenon when I was on watch in the Aft engine room, I was Lub. Oil Engineer, taking care of the Lubrication systems of the two aft engines. We were outward bound well clear of the English coast, the weather was it's usual grumpy self. She was pitching a bit and that generally made you feel uncomfortable, I wasn't a good sailor but I was never as bad as some of the poor devils I saw suffering when things got rough. Outward bound the ship pitched, homeward she rolled. Rolling could be controlled somewhat with the deployment of the Stabilizers, the “Fins” as we knew them but when she was pitching they stayed firmly housed. We were punching along at a fair lick, 28/29 knots and you could feel the occasional shock wave and shudder as she ran into the oncoming sea. Suddenly the whole engine room seemed to lift upwards at a rather steep angle and then it all dropped away as if we had just fallen of whatever had lifted us up, the engine room was now pointing directly down, she lurched to starboard as something big hit the port side and landed in what must have been the bottom of a trough. The whole ship shook, the pipe work was bouncing, there dust and muck dropping down from high above us plus anything that happened to loose, I do recall a tin bucket and brush coming clattering down and landing on the gear-casing. Add to this mayhem the Lub. Oil alarms going off, they had a really shrill sound, they were telling me they were struggling to maintain suction and what made this even more alarming there was a system by which, in the event of an oil pressure failure, the main stop valve supplying steam to the turbines would close rather rapidly and our six boilers would be lumbered with steam we no longer required and you didn't want that when you were “Full Away”. Meanwhile the ship was still recovering, it felt like we were skidding and shimmying at the same time. By now the main telegraphs were clanging, the bridge requesting a reduction in engine revs, we dropped back from 175rpm to 100rpm, followed not long after with a reduction to 80rpm. I remember one time we ended up at 40rpm on the aft engines only. It never lasted too long, as soon as there was any sign of a bit better weather we were off. RMS Queen Elizabeth had a schedule to maintain.
Off watch the “Shimmy” was no better, we had no sooner sat down to lunch in the mess one day, again the weather was a bit rough, the tables had their wooden sides up to stop things bouncing off and we hit a beauty, someone said, “Here we go”. The lads sat opposite me at the table were sudden looking down at me, then came the drop and a crashing sound followed by some rich language coming out of the galley. A steward who was delivering soup orders lost his footing as he came through the door into the mess and dropped everything he'd been carrying. The little wooden sides weren't much use either quite a bit of crockery and cruet sets ended up all over the deck. One thing I couldn't help but notice were the looks of apprehension on the faces of those present. I never liked it when you were in your bunk fast asleep and she hit one, you woke with a start then experienced the shimmy lying on your back, you could just catch the sounds of the alarms going off in the engine room and the clang of the telegraphs requesting reductions in revs. You lay awake waiting to see of the call out alarm might request all hands to their machinery spaces but there was usually enough engineers down below to handle most situations.
For the full experience of a shimmy No1. Boiler room was the place to be. This was the furthest for'd of the machinery spaces, here you really felt the ship heave and drop and the sounds from outside were more audible. It wasn't a popular watch position with the lads especially in the winter months. A fresh watch list was posted on the notice board prior to each outward run, we would check to see what we had landed, who we would be working with?, who would we relieve and be relieved by?(There were one or two sleepy heads you could do without), Second Engineer?, Walking Second?( Jimmy Jangler usually caused a few gasps of dismay). No1 Boiler room always caused the biggest. Our accommodation was high up on Sun Deck, to reach the machinery spaces there were two lifts that took you down to the “Working Alleyway” level this was the ship's main artery, all the machinery spaces were on one side of it, all the galleys etc. were on the other, it was a very busy place during the day but not so at Midnight, or four in the morning when the watches changed. At any of these times you had the place to yourself, you would turn and head for'd, the alleyway stretched before you, the shape of the ship was distinctly visible, it actually curved as it headed towards the bow and it was on the move. Looking dead ahead you could see front lifting gently, moving to starboard then dropping down before coming to port and then back up, a complete circle, “Cork screwing”. Sometimes it was really rough and the deck heaved beneath your feet and you felt the forces of gravity as your legs fell away on the downward stroke then rose up trying to shove your legs back into your body, hanging on to the safety rail became the best option. The smell of nausea was in the air and visible all over the deck in some places. You entered the Boiler room through the top air lock, the man you were relieving would no doubt hear the door rattle and know his ordeal was almost over, You were greeted by a wall of intense heat off the top of the boiler then you dropped down the ladder onto bottom level. We had a little area where we had a rigged up a seat and you could sit and get your shoulders between the pipes there and jamb your back against the bulkhead, you could see the water level sight glasses and any other thing of importance and just ride it out. I remember one night the face of the Manchester lad I was relieving looking up me as I came down the ladder, he had that little tinge of green across his cheeks, obviously he'd been very sick, he reeked of vomit. He said, pathetically,“Ronnie Baxter you're an ugly bugger from Barrow-in-Furness but am I bloody glad to see you tonight”. He extricated himself from behind the pipework and dragged himself off up the ladder, to his bunk, to die. I had a quick look around the job had a word with my firemen, both of who were not weathering well, then jambed myself in the command position to see my watch through. When the big waves came and they did, sitting against the bulkhead you had your back to the bow so you experienced the whole business backwards, the noise was more pronounced, some maritime, mythological Titan was hitting the hull with a huge hammer, you were getting the shock waves almost immediately and at full power. Being caught standing between the two boilers was even worse, the lift seemed greater the drop was bone shattering, the boilers shook terrible on their mounts, the pipework shook and rattled, the metal floor plates, which were not secured, lifted slightly and then clattered back into position adding to the cacophony. The cloud of dust that came floating down was heavy laden with soot and no doubt asbestos dust off the lagging. I remember thinking to myself one time “Hang on, I've got two big kettles here full of boiling water, it's bad enough keeping their water levels stable on moderate seas, I've got six fires on either side of me belching flames into each boiler producing super heated steam and something is trying to wrench the pipework carrying it to the turbines asunder, I can do without all this”. Then the Engine room telegraph tells me they are going to slow down, I answer it and it's back to reality, the fireman knocks of a couple of fires and things gradually calm down, that is until next time.
Hope that's not too long, I fear I may have gone on a bit trying to catch up. I've come to the to the conclusion I might be mentally scarred.