The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

For a brief period after the war the demand for British products more than made up for the lost from Government charter. This was to be short-lived however and by 1921 the world went into a long and unrelieved recession, depression for the British ship industry at the time when a rush into new construction had once more brought a surplus of ships into the market. The 1920s much of the new ships constructed had changed to oil-fired boilers and many of the older ships converted in this way. This made for big saving on fuel storage. In or around this time Diesel engines were also becoming popular the exception being the whaling industry, Diesel engines it seemed drove off the whales. Coasters were the other exceptions to oil-fired boilers, Home Trade vessels were never far from land and a plentiful supply of the cheaper bunkering of coal so continued to use this fuel.

Jimmy had spent two years in the colours now three years in reserve, and now he found himself right back in the very place he had tried to escape from, so many wasted lives ago, this dirty little town with its dirty little pits.

Men gathered as men had always gathered by the corner of the Co-op building. The men talked of coal and smoked and talked of coal. Finally, salvation came when I signed onboard S.S. Nugget as an A.B. (able-bodied seaman) S.S. Nugget a “Three Island Vessel” built in the Ailsa Shipyard at Troon, was sailing with a cargo of Scottish whiskey, her destination privileged only to her officers, unknown by her crew.

Her layout was common to most Home Trade boats, prior to oil-burning taking over from coal-fired vessels. Mid-ship quarters between the two cargo holds an after house containing stoke-hole, engine room and after quarters. Three masts were stepped, the fore, into the deck and end of fo’c’sle head, the main immediately at the bridge rear, finally her mizzen at the after structure, sometimes sheeted with a sail to aid steering. The fore and main masts would each carry a derrick fitted with a steam winch at its base when not in use for the lifting of cargo, would be cradled in their crutches. Dead-weight tonnage including cargo and fuel was around seven hundred and fifty tons, displacement total weight could only be guessed at by her crew. Affectionate known as “Three Stickers” after the unique arrangement of their masts.

We sailed from Ayr Harbour on the afternoon tide clearing the southern Scottish Coast, passing lights I would come to know like old friends. Kilintringan, Corsewall and the Mull of Galloway. The midnight watch saw us south of the Copelands off the Northern Irish coast, and on to the South, Rock then into the Irish Sea. Here we passed the Rockabill, and the Baillie outside the Liffey, making for the Tuskar Rock Light, St. George’s Channel and the open Atlantic, as we passing under the Longship Light at Landsend. I munched my “Rab Haw” at the wheel. The wind was a light south-westerly and a bejewelled sky, dark as black velvet scattered with bright shining diamonds our canopy. The undulating rhythmic motion of the sea like an old friend.

“Look to your work, our wake is making every letter in the alphabet” The Boson’s admonished at my lack of concentration.

The next day, we closed on a Cornish landfall. The deep Atlantic rollers now taking hold of our little ship lifting and plunging her until we rounded into the Channel, the stately rollers giving way to cross seas, playing our boat a lively tune. The long sea voyage down to Channel had been a healing balm, the routine of watches helped heal a torn soul.

An unusual fair passage had brought us into St. Peter Port in The Channel Islands. There were much talk and rumour in the taverns around the harbour that the whiskey was bound for America, there it would be smuggled ashore, breaking the United States Prohibition Laws, the rewards for singing on for such trips were grossly exaggerated but handsome non the less. We left St. Peters Port with empty holds, not to the Chief’s liking. A racing propeller put a strain upon shafts, tail-end gland and stuffing box, this could lead to loss of screw and fractured of their shaft. The Chief would stand-by all that watch when the boat’s deeper divers, racing occurred. We sailed east of Hern and the Casket Rocks catching the Alderney Races on slack tide, rounding de la Haute, and into the French port of Cherbourg. The French agents confirmed the rumour that the whiskey was bound for America, and that it would be taken there onboard a large schooner, fitted out in Cherbourg for the voyage and dew to sail on the evening tide.

The S.S. Nugget sailed short-handed, I was already on my way back to St. Peters Port under full sail onboard a fiddle-bow schooner.

I was glad to escape that, he drum – ho drum boat, her crew, mostly from the west coast of Scotland conversed with each other in their native tong Gaelic. I signed the articles with few questions asked of me and was immediately put to work making ready for sea. Back in St. Peters Port the boxes of Whiskey were loaded on board, filling every nook and cranny of the ship making the small cramped fo’c’sle of the S.S. Nugget a ballroom in comparison to our quarters now, but as we sailed under full canvas, south for the warm waters of the Canaries, I had no regrets at jumping ship in Cherbourg. Christmas passed un-noticed the routine of watches and bells our only clock. One bell at the quarter-hour at the watch end, when the O.S. (ordinary seaman) would shake the teeth from tired men after a succession of four hour watches and then ring out eight bells at the hours, four, eight, and twelve, no dog watches were kept. Our calendar and distance set in the ships daily log. The warm, constant trade winds drove us steadily south and west, then north was our course laying sea anchors to stop a drift back out into the Atlantic. We lay off the Eastern Seaboard outside US Territorial Waters, for two full days the crew taking the opportunity to bathe and scrub clothes clean in rainwater caught at the goose-neck of the mizzenmast, where a sail had been set to keep our head into the wind. It was on the third day when the fog rolled over us, that we heard the deep rumble of large engines coming from the land. “Quick as you like lads get those boxes up on deck” were our orders as the first of the high-speed lunches came upon our lee from out of the fog, the fast yachts now fitted with modified aircraft engines throbbed as they lay alongside, case after case of the fiery immature spirit was passed down and stowed in hast onboard the launch. Six trips they made with their precarious cargo before we heard the distinctive rat-a-tat-tat of machine-gun fire answered almost immediately by the distinct thud of a heavy calibre gun.

These modified yachts could easily outrun the Coast Guard patrol boats, that had a top speed of only 12 knots. A captain of a Rum-Runner could earn several hundred thousand dollars per year, vastly more than the Commodore of the Coast Guard on 6,000 dollars per annum, so was willing to take a few risks, even shooting it out with the patrol boat, that had heavy calibre guns. The Rum Runners had a few tricks up their sleeves however and would carry old oil that could be poured over a hot exhaust enabling them to ‘Make Smoke’.

“Look lively lads; get us underway” was the skipper’s response. We moved up and down the coast for a further four days staying well outside the limit before being able to discharge the remainder of our cargo. Thee boatloads of spirit had been lost to the Coast Guard, still, if only one-third of our cargo made it onto shore it would make a handsome profit for the smugglers. We set a course for the Azores and anchored in the clear blue waters of the bay where bumboats came alongside. The slops chest was raided and everything and anything passed down on lines in exchange for fresh, fish, fruit and vegetables, we were to eat well that evening as we set a course for Antwerp. 

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