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Article: Near death in Venice

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    Near death in Venice

    10 Comments by Les Leckie Published on 20th March 2018 09:35 AM
    I joined the MV Otterburn in Glasgow as a junior ordinary seaman on 1st February 1963. The ship was bound for Norfolk, Virginia, USA. We were scheduled to pick up a bulk cargo of grain and bring it back to Glasgow; a trip which we thought would be about six weeks. Little did we know that we would be on the Otterburn for 8 Ĺ months. Although I had no idea at the time, it turned out that the grain we were to pick up was part of an American plan to maintain the price of grain at home by giving some away to less well developed countries. On our return trip to Glasgow we were redirected to Cape Town, South Africa in what would become the first of quite a few trips across the Atlantic ferrying grain.
    One of the places to which we took grain was Venice. In 1963 Venice was a pretty under developed port and it didnít have the vacuum extraction system by which our cargo was handled in the USA and the UK. This meant the cargo had to be unloaded with mechanical grabs, a much slower process. When we arrived in Venice there was no berth available for our ship so we had to remain at anchor a mile or so offshore. We lay at anchor for a week or two during which the captain had to go ashore on business. He decided to use the shipís motorised lifeboat and he invited a number of the crew to go with him. I was volunteered. It was a fairly large lifeboat capable of carrying the full crew of about 50. We set off once one of the engineers got it running. After a few hundred yards the motor broke down but was soon repaired by the engineer and we thought nothing more about it duly arriving and tying up to a jetty on the magnificent Grand Canal. The captain went off to do his business saying that he would be back in about an hour during which time the crew could visit the nearby St Markís Square. It was decided that someone had to stand guard on the lifeboat and, being the youngest, I was chosen. I didnít mind, particularly when one of the crew came back with a couple of bottles of beer for me. I drank the beer and lay back in the boat to bask in the Venetian sunshine. I think I must have nodded off because the next thing I knew was that the captain was shouting my name. He was accompanied by another man who I learned was a sailor whom the captain had agreed to transport out to the anchorage to join another ship. The captain seemed somewhat annoyed that the rest of the crew were nowhere to be seen so he sent me off into St Markís Square to find them. I tried my best but the square was mobbed with tourists and I eventually gave up, hoping that Iíd missed them and that they would be back on the lifeboat. When I got back the captain was looking decidedly agitated and, when I said that I couldnít find the crew, he got quite angry and announced that we were leaving. This seemed a bit foolhardy to me as it meant we would have no engineer, but who was I to argue.
    He started the engine and off we went. We had only sailed a few hundred yards when the engine puttered to a halt. I thought the worst but the captain got it going again in no time. On we travelled. As it happened the strangerís ship was at anchor a bit further out than the Otterburn so we had to pass our ship on the way to his. Of course we had no communications but a few of the crew waved to us as we passed. We covered the two hundred yards or so to the other ship and reached the companionway and the stranger left us. He was German by the way so we hadnít said much. We pushed off and headed back to our ship and had reached about half way when the engine packed in again. This time, despite the captainís best efforts, it refused to start. I already knew, from a near fatal swimming exploit I had been involved in, that there was quite a current in that part of the Adriatic Sea. It wasnít long before we were drifting away from our ship into the unknown.
    Although we had set off mid-morning, some time had passed since then and evening was closing in. I was wearing only a T-shirt and shorts and, when the sun dropped it was getting decidedly chilly. I quite welcomed the captainís next idea which was to unship a couple of oars and to start skulling. I had some experience of this having skulled the shipís jolly boat but never a fifty man motor lifeboat. We put our backs into it but soon realised we were making no progress and reluctantly he decided we should give up. Now all was not lost, of course; he was a captain and I had a lifeboat certificate. This was a lifeboat after all and had an adequate supply of drinking water and food supplies. I was confident we would survive but of course I didnít know what was in store for me. I was also aware of the rules which meant that the supplies shouldnít be touched for the first twenty-four hours and I was hungry. Fortunately the captain had purchased a couple of baskets of strawberries which he shared with me.
    Having given up skulling we surveyed our position. We were floating away from the anchorage in the general direction of North Africa. The main problem was that it was getting dark and we had no lights at least none that I was aware of. I knew we had some Bengal matches somewhere.
    Eventually, through the gloom, I caught sight of a boat coming towards us. It turned out to be the Otterburnís jolly boat with a number of the crew on board. They were making good headway which was relieving until we realised that they were rowing. And rowing with the current. How we were going to get back to the ship was still a mystery. Fortunately amongst the crew was one of the engineers who, once they had joined us, set to fixing the engine. Unfortunately if proved beyond his abilities.
    So there we were, about a dozen men with a lifeboat and a jolly boat. The decision was made to try rowing the lifeboat with the jolly boat in tow. I was ordered into the jolly boat which was to be towed behind the lifeboat on a painter. It was pitch black by now and it was difficult to tell if we were making any progress but I wasnít feeling confident. Then, suddenly, we saw some lights coming towards us. It turned out to be a tugboat but not like the tugboats Iíd seen in British waters. No this was much larger, a deep-sea tugboat and very powerful. At last some good news. After making contact a line was passed from the tugboat to the lifeboat which was made fast. I was to remain in the jolly boat so that I could steer it as required. Off we sailed back to our ship. Or so I thought.
    As the tugboat got under way the lifeboat started to move with a bit of a jerk; enough of one to snap the painter which was my lifeline. There I was spinning like a top in the water with the tug and the lifeboat disappearing from view. Now, since there was no communication between the lifeboat and the tug, it was some time before its crew realised what had happened. I began to realise that I was in real danger now. I was sat alone in a little boat in the middle of the Adriatic with no water, no food, no lifejacket and no lights. Fortunately the tug did have lights, great big bright ones and they were able to locate me without steering over me. I clambered into the lifeboat leaving someone else to worry about the jolly boat. Eventually we arrived back at the Otterburn, said goodbye to the tug and tied up our boats ready to be lifted in the morning. A very welcome bottle of rum appeared from somewhere and after a tot or two I was ready for bed.
    I went to see the captain the next day to ask how much overtime I could claim from my exertions. He was pretty abrupt in telling me none, as what happened didnít count as paid work. I suspect he was wondering how he was going to explain the cost of the tugboat to the owners.

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  3. #2
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    Default Re: Near death in Venice

    ##absolutely love that story ...typical of so many MN cock ups we all keep quiet about ....from JOS to mate to having your own command in a day ...a great story more like that and we will be under way again like old times......respects to you cappy

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    Default Re: Near death in Venice

    Excellent story Les,
    keep them coming.
    Cheers
    Brian

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    Default Re: Near death in Venice

    Thank you, cappy. I've never thought of it like that. :-)

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    Default Re: Near death in Venice

    Thank you, Brian

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    Default Re: Near death in Venice

    Thank you, Cappy. It's been in my mind to write this up for ages. Now I have. :-)

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    Default Re: Near death in Venice

    Thank you for the fascination blog on your escapades. I myself was in the "old" South African Navy and my excitement was coming back to Cape Town from Durban we hit a really rough patch of water off East London and lost our engines and started drifting shorewards. Fortunately, a huge container ship popped up from nowhere and eventually, a tow mas made 2 hours later, the grease monkeys on board managed to get our engine back into life.

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    Wink Re: Near death in Venice

    Quote Originally Posted by David Papayanni View Post
    Thank you for the fascination blog on your escapades. I myself was in the "old" South African Navy and my excitement was coming back to Cape Town from Durban we hit a really rough patch of water off East London and lost our engines and started drifting shorewards. Fortunately, a huge container ship popped up from nowhere and eventually, a tow mas made 2 hours later, the grease monkeys on board managed to get our engine back into life.
    " Grease monkeys" indeed......Engineer Orifices......if you don't mind!!!!

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    Default Re: Near death in Venice

    one hell of a experience for a J.O.S.

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    Default Re: Near death in Venice

    On a trip to Italy many years ago we decided to take a day trip to Venice.
    Great day out and saw all the sights.
    The boat taking us there and back was a catamaran style vessel, well appointed and with good food and on board service.


    About 45 mins out of port we hit bad weather, real rough stuff.

    It became very obvious this craft was not suited to such conditions and the going got worse.
    Many of the passengers on board became sea sick, the smell did nothing to improve the situation.


    I notice then most of the crew huddled together in on part of the craft, another passenger ventured over to ask what the situation was like and would we get back OK.
    He came back to tell me that when he went to them he discovered they were praying!!

    We did eventually get back taking three times as long as the outbound time.
    Happy daze John in Oz.

    Life is too short to blend in.

    John Strange R737787
    World Traveller

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