Seismic survey in the North Sea, 1989

Starting work at midnight, everyone piles into the instrument room at the absolute last possible minute. I’ve been on crews where you start work at 11.35 and your oppo leaves exactly at midday or midnight. On this crew, it was the other way round – you start work exactly at just before 12, and your oppos leave about 12.25 or so, earlier if possible. It doesn’t matter which you do – so long as everyone does the same thing.

We’re in a long line change. The first thing we learn is that all the starboard guns are on deck for repairs and the gun mechanics need a hand. Us two assistant observers head for the gun deck on the instant, followed later by the Observer, once the handover is complete. There are several problems. A supporting U bolt needs replacing and welding into place. One gun has a water leak in the umbilical line. Another gun needs it’s actuator replacing. This last we can do; it’s just heavy work with spanners. All three observers and all three gun mechanics work hard for a while, and eventually all the tasks are completed. The guns are launched at the last minute – only just in time as the survey line starts.

We shoot the survey line; it is mostly uneventful. An observer watches the tell-tales on various computers, of the seismic cable and the guns, and the navigator (or surveyor) steers the ship. It is 3a.m and blowing Force 5-6. There is some swell noise on our seismic recordings – that is, the sea is rough enough to start distorting the reflected noise from the guns when it appears on the seismic streamer, which is towed around 8m under the sea surface.

After the end of line, I perform a set of daily diagnostic tests on the recording instruments. This is a contractural requirement. It’s routine work but we do it for a reason, to spot problems as they crop up. After the test, it is 7.50a.m. My colleague replaces me watching the streamer, and I go for breakfast: sausages, bacon, tomatoes, chips, toast and marmalade, and tea.

We come round onto the next line, and prepare to start shooting, but the wind has risen to Force 7-8, and the swell noise in the direction of the line is unacceptable to us or the client’s representative. We have some options on this prospect – we can swing round to try a line in a different direction. The new information is programmed into the navigation computer by the trainee navigator, his boss keeping a watchful eye. Time passes: the swell noise is no better.

Then there’s a call on the intercom from the bridge, about the rising wind and worsening sea conditions. We agree; it is too rough to continue shooting. I’m despatched to the mess to tell the gun mechanics to stand by to recover all the guns. By now it is Force 8 outside and Seismariner is starting to move. The guns are recovered in stormy weather. Driving rain is hammering down, hissing on the surface of the sea. Because of the weather it takes a while, about an hour, to get all the guns aboard safely. Next, I accompany the chief mechanic and a gun mechanic up onto the quarter deck to help bring in the booms. These extend 21m either side of the vessel and are controlled hydraulically. It is pouring with rain and a sharp gale is ripping at our clothes. We’re all glad to get back inside afterwards and clean up.

I sit down shortly afterwards in the instrument room with a cup of tea. Everyone is sat around, talking. The wind is still Force 8. It’s not a BAD storm, but storm warnings are being broadcast on the teleprinter. The words “cyclonic depression” are seen. It is 10.30a.m. Suddenly, Phil, the deputy party chief, makes his decision – “get the cable in!” We stare: it’s a three-hour job in the wet and cold, and hard work. We finish work at noon…

But Phil has a hunch about the weather; that’s what they pay him for and he is right. There’s a delay about then as a trawler crosses our stern about a mile back – on top of the cable. Crash dive the cable. Fire flares into the rain and wind. By the time we start recovering the cable, it is 11.15a.m. One or two out of every five waves or so is slopping into the back deck and getting us wet; it is quite rough. Progress is slow, pushing and shoving with no hydraulic support. It seems to be getting calmer outside. It IS getting calmer; the sun appears. We wonder at our bosses decision. He appears on the back deck, telling us that Seismariner is in the eye of the storm – the “cyclonic depression” he saw on the teleprinter earlier. The sea goes down to barely 8 or 9 foot waves.

All of a sudden though, just about noon, the wind comes up again, from a different direction. Foam and spray are everywhere all of a sudden; the sea is white. Phil’s boss, the Party Chief, makes a rare visit to the back deck and endorses Phil’s decision: “Get it in QUICK” he says. The wind is now Force 10 and gusting to Force 11.

Marine seismic in the Tropics – 1989

Getting up for work at 11.30p.m, I’m happy, because I know this is the last shift of the trip. At midnight I join my colleagues on the gun deck and help the mechanics with recovery of the starboard side seismic guns. For me this is mainly a business of pulling in towing strops, and fixing the hook of a “concertina winch” in certain places on the gun array to bunch the array up or “concertina” it. The gun deck of this old vessel is too short to fit the seven gun array when spread out to its full length.

By 12.30a.m the booms are raised, the big Norwegian buoys are stowed out of the way, and the towing strops have been tightened to pull the slack loops out of the sea to avoid them being caught in our propellor. Shortly, we will recover the seismic cable, and for that, the vessel must be driven backwards.

In a flat calm the single short cable is recovered swiftly. Mostly just a matter of pushing and shoving to keep it neat on the winch drum, which is driven hydraulically. Newer seismic vessels have fairleads and winches which can be used as ways to mechanise this pushing and shoving, but not the Seismariner. What can take hours of potentially hazardous and unpleasant grafting in cold and wind of the North Sea, is forty minutes of tedious work in a flat calm in the overbearing heat of equatorial Africa.

Cable recovered, the ship starts to steam towards Mayumba in the Congo, where we will off sub-contract navigation radio receivers by ship’s boat. (This was a couple of years before differential GPS navigation equipment became commercially available). We all adjourn to the crew mess for a well-earned pot of tea. An hour later, work restarts, and I join the mechanic Eric down in his domain in the guts of the ship. Starting at 3.a.m, I help him strip down and replace the big end bearings in four huge water pumps – 12 bearings in all. It takes three and a half hours and two pots of tea to finish the job.

By now it’s 6.30a.m and it is pouring with rain. This is quite usual at this time of year in this part of the world. Our FRB (Fast Rescue Boat) is made ready to transfer the navigation equipment. The sub-contractors gear – receivers, cables, antennas etc – is made ready on the foredeck. The rain stops, but oppressive clouds remain. The jungle close by is steaming and looks threatening. A short break for what we call “breakfast” (though working nights, it is the main meal of the day), and then the crew is ready. It is an assistant observer (myself), the mechanic (the late Eric Gray), and the Assistant Party Chief (Mick).

We lower the boat, and Eric takes her round to the boarding ladder. I climb in along with our client’s representative, the Texan Dave, and we’re off. The ship grows smaller in the distance as we move inshore. We can discern – with eyes, ears and nose – more detail of the jungle and the beach ahead. As the seabed slopes up to the shore, a huge swell develops, white rollers crashing onto a sandbar. We search without success for a way into the lagoon beyond, passing as we do so, the wreck of a coaster bigger than Seismariner. Her rusted bridge is all that remains above the sand and water. We know that getting into the lagoon will be easy – but getting the boat out again through the immense surf will be impossible.

It’s exciting stuff for a young man: the small boat, the sea, the strangeness of the African jungle close by. We can see people waiting for us ashore, but defeated for the present, we head back to the mother ship. On the way the outboard engine stops, and Eric toils to fix it in heavy, pregnant silence, except for the slopping of wavelets against the gunwhale. The four of us in the boat breath a sigh of relief when the engine whizzes into life; we make it safely back home, and are lifted out of the water.

A while later, a second attempt is made at a slightly different location, and all the equipment and the client rep. are safely dropped ashore. It takes three separate trips to move everything, but all is complete by 10.30a.m. The FRB is recovered once again, and we leave the bay at once, steaming for Pont Noire in the Congo, some ten hours journey away at 12 knots.

After another brief tea break, I spend the final 45 minutes of my shift conducting electrical tests on cabling removed from the gun arrays. My results recorded on a scrap of paper, it’s time once again for “Swarfega” at the close of my 63rd consecutive twelve hour shift – and the last one.

My journey home was instructive. I had no ticket for the last part of the journey (from Paris to my home) and more cash to cover this was offered. I was counselled by my colleagues to refuse this offer as the actual ticket would cost more than the cash being offered by the company administrator. Several of us were taken to the airport and flew in an antique 737 with Lina Congo, to Brazzaville. They did not even pressurize the 737 and it flew at 6000′ the whole way. As it was only the 4th or 5th time in my life I had been in an aircraft at all, this passed me by. Those who knew better were petrified. At Brazzaville we changed onto a 747-combi (half passenger, half freight) of UTA. This was in fact the first long-haul flight I ever took. The flight was to Paris via Doula in Cameroon, and Marseille. All was well until we landed at Marseille at 6a.m the next day, and that’s where we stayed. Owing to fog in Paris, we remained on the tarmac at Marseille for four hours, with neither refreshments nor breakfast served. We eventually arrived at De Gaulle early afternoon. It was February in Paris – foggy.

I spent the rest of the day trying without success to get a flight to England – anywhere – Heathrow, Birmingham, East Midlands. Late in the evening I gave up and took train into central Paris, and secured myself a train ticket to London via the Bologne-Dover ferry. This was 1989 – LONG before the Channel Tunnel. I remember several things about that journey. One of them, is buying a Croque Monsieur from a vendor near Gare St Lazaire, and the second, is sitting in a compartment on the train (that dates this story – compartments??) with a number of men – clearly pilots and aircrew – who claimed to be from Mauritius but who were clearly Scythe Ifrican. This was in the days of apartheid when everything and anyone remotely white South African was considered rather bad form in liberal society. These gentlemen, it must be said, were perfectly upright and pleasant fellows.

We took train from Gare St Lazaire (the first and only time I’ve ever been to that particular station in Paris), crossed the channel, and then on a cold winter’s morning, more trains, from Dover to Victoria and on home. I arrived home on 3rd February 1989, having left on 27th November the previous year. A good trip.

Rocket Fighter, by Mano Ziegler

What a remarkable read! Mano Ziegler, a second world war fighter pilot with the Luftwaffe, published, in 1961, “Raketenjaeger 163“. This excellent little book was subsequently published in English as “Rocket Fighter”. It is the very readable story of the development of the Messerschmidt 163 rocket-powered interceptor during WWII. My copy came as a gift from a close friend of mine.

image: Wikipedia

It is wonderfully written. Lovely English – one may ask whether this is because it was well written in the original German (which I find more than likely) or is it an artifact of translation by someone who can write beautiful English? It comes across in waves of easy-to-read, rolling prose.

It’s worth mentioning, at a remove of seventy years since WWII, that the work is completely free of any political rancour or bitterness, and there is little mention of the war itself at all, except toward the end of the book when the onward juggernaut of the Soviets was making its way across eastern Germany. The war is seen always as an effect, a shadow, an influence.

The story here is about the airmen who worked to the best of their abilities to transform this innovative new rocket plane into an actual operational fighter. The heroes are the airmen. They are no different to American airmen, or British airmen. At one point, a pair of Mustangs fly over and strafe the airfield, causing the flyers and a number of their female colleagues (WAAFs of some kind) to fling themselves into a slit trench or ditch for shelter. Emerging from shelter after the raiders had gone, one of the airmen shakes his fist at the retreating Americans: “look at my bloody trousers – straight from the cleaners too!!” These men had an excellent custom of “birthdays”. if something happened to an airman where he ought by rights, to have died – but survives – that day, ever afterwards, becomes a new birthday, with cake and drinks and appropriate celebration.

The heroes are the men that lived and died working on the rocket planes, which were unreliable if amazing when they worked. And these brave men sometimes died hard, literally dissolved by the liquid rocket fuel, which was concentrated Hydrogen Peroxide.

The astonishing technology is the other hidden hero here. History is generally written by the victors: I was brought up in 1970’s Britain, and was taught in school that Frank Whittle invented the jet engine. German aviation technology seems almost like “alternative history” to me. Men like Alexander Lippisch, who pioneered the tail-less “delta” shaped aircraft (so iconic later in the Avro Vulcan) so nearly brought the Germans victory in WWII. To read or watch Philip K Dick’s nightmare vision of a 1960’s where the Nazis won (“The Man in the High Castle“) and see a world spanned by supersonic jets, and a manned mission to Mars, is to shiver. Terribly plausible, at one level, when you consider this frighteningly advanced technology, and the upright, honest and capable men, like Mano Ziegler and others, who were set by the Nazis to develop it and fly it.

Waverley station

One of my favourite places to be “outdoors” is the concourse of a big city railway station.  To have coffee, or better yet, to be at beer, is an added bonus.

After an excellent breakfast at a little deli in Callander, I drove on southwards.  It was interesting to see clouds form over the central valley.  Coming into Edinburgh, there was heavy fog and drizzle, though it remained warm.

On the way down, I happened across an #Engineering #Marvel, and went out of way to go and see it.  Many years ago, touring with a friend of mine, on two occasions, we’d found ourselves at a loose end on a Sunday afternoon, and visited – quite by chance, as it were – engineering marvels.  One was a certain “nuclear installation” on the coast of Cumbria; the other, a radio telescope in Cheshire.  To pass within a few miles of the Falkirk Wheel, and not pay a visit, would be crass.  And I speak as someone who can allow the Flying Scotsman to steam unseen past the end of my garden at 5a.m on a working day, whilst I lie in bed.

I allowed myself the luxury of complete dependence on the Google sat nav to get me to my final destination, with only one or two cursory glances at it to ensure that it knew what it was doing.  There’s no call when using sat nav to switch off your common sense or your sense of direction.  At one point I drove past Fettes College.

But back to the great railway stations: I love big stations.  Victoria, St Pancras. Glasgow Central.  The destinations boards, the bustle and hustle, the romance.  Better still – possibly – in the days of steam, with whistles, steam heating, clatter and bang.  I remember steam heated trains from my youth.

And what of the journey, the pilgrimage, the embracing of change, the understanding that things must change? Steam has gone, but most everything changes.  Tomorrow will be different.  The journey never ends. We must take nourishment from all aspects of it: the good, the bad.  From the  rest and the rush.  From the pleasure and the pain.

On a journey, we may do things differently at the end, than at the beginning.  On a journey we must adapt and learn, most especially from our mistakes.

Jet: when Britain ruled the skies

Nostalgic, sentimental, patriotic, a little gushing, perhaps. These programmes are redeemed, for me, by the presence of Lord Tebbit. Tebbit is one of the few politicians who actually worked for a living before going into politics. We’ll learn a lot by him; when he goes, we shall not see his like again.

These programmes look back at the UK’s all too brief period of air supremacy in the ten years or so after the second war. It can be exemplified, distilled, as it were, by that image of a Vulcan bomber flying alongside a Lancaster. Two Avro machines, separated in design by a dozen years at best, but worlds apart. One, a creation of the late Thirties, the other, of the Atomic age.

We might look back on that period in the early 1950’s with a sense of wonder and not a little unbelief. From the end of rationing, until Suez, something golden was happening. A short renaissance of Empire, perhaps. A final gleam of sunshine out from under lowering clouds. A last fling of power; a final throw of the dice. We might well look back and feel justified in saying, hell, what went wrong? The historians might give a blunt one-word answer: Suez. But, it might just be a little bit more complicated than that.

Notwithstanding that potential complexity, it’s fair to say that our embarrassing failure at Suez was a milestone in the fall of the British Empire. After Suez, post-Imperial Stygian gloom. Before Suez, you might have kidded yourself, were you thus inclined, that the British Empire and it’s Commonwealth might have endured.

Directions were taken in those years that might have been otherwise. Were there really “cusp”points in those years? Could it have been different? Given the financial and economic reality – the Marshall Plan – post WWII, it seems unlikely.

But what, they built some magnificent flying machines.

China by train

From Guangxhou to Guilin by bullet train

Arriving at Guangxhou South Railway Station, I am quite literally stupified by the size of the place.  It is a Terminal 5 amongst railway stations.  It is hardly distinguishable inside from a large international airport.  It is over three floors – like an airport, departures and arrivals are on separate floors.

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This is a through station, not a terminal. Coming in by taxi, I counted at least 12 separate tracks coming out from under the canopy, all grey concrete on stilts.  The  floor is granodiorite tiles; the passengers are everywhere.  There are shops, booths, queues, scanners. It does not smell of decay and weak air-conditioning, as do so many large municipal buildings in hot climates.

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It is to my eye, no St Pancras: it is not built to last, and I suspect that, rather like Terminal 5, it may look distinctly jaded by 2050.

All must go through luggage scanners merely to get into the building. This is common enough at municipal buildings in China and increasingly so in the West. That said, the people doing the scanning and body pat-down work showed little interest – the scanning process is not strict.  Once inside, you then find what train you are on, and go through the ticket check to go “trainside” as it were.  Chinese high speed train tickets are not usable by any bearer, as train tickets are in the UK and elsewhere in the world – they are specific to you, as well as to a given seat in a given carriage.  Indeed. ours had our passport numbers on them in addition to our names.  But once through the ticket check, no-one was interested in our ID.  Once “trainside” and upstairs, it just felt like the airside of an big international airport. And the other similarity is, access to the platform is tightly controlled – no trainspotters welcome here.  We weren’t allowed onto the platform until only a few minutes before departure,  The train had already swept in.

The station is only a few years old. It speaks of tremendous economic growth, this outpouring of concrete: Bill Bryson once wrote something to the effect that half of all buildings in the United States had been built since 1980, and fully 90% of all American buildings, since 1945.  A similar thing is happening in China.  Natalie Merchant sings, in her song “Motherland”

Where in hell can you go
Far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete
That keeps crawling its way
About 1,000 miles a day?

It is applicable here in China, at this time of expansion, as viaducts arc across whole cities, as 150mph bullet trains flash through tunnels so expensive as to defy understanding.  How do they do it? The growth of high speed rail in China today is rather like the development of the Interstate network in the USA of Eisenhower’s time.  And just as the Interstate highways changed America beyond recognition, high speed rail is changing China.  The old China is still visible, but it is disappearing. Go there and see it while it still exists. The old ladies brushing the street with straw brooms.  The scooter riders with no helmet but an umbrella. The little stalls selling foodstuffs. The little motorcycles converted into vans, burdened under seemingly impossible loads.

Off we go and there are almost continuous announcements in Mandarin.  Once through the suburbs, the train perceptibly speeds up and shoots along at 150 mph.  The acceleration is noticeable, and audible, an indistinct and distant hum rather like the sound of the original Starship Enterprise at Warp Factor 10.

We plunge through misty green forests and mountains, brown rivers, farms and rice paddies. There are endless tunnels. Some long, some short. Billions of dollars have gone into building this railway – and it is only one of many.

We arrived at Guilin Bey (North) Railway Station at 12,30pm on a hot and humid afternoon.  We  got off the bullet train, along with myriad Chinese, and followed them down the stairs into the underpass. Chattering, walking, kids laughing, suitcases on wheels rumbling along. The Chinese experience is to be surrounded by people.

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To Liuzhou and on to Zhiangziajie

Onwards: another city, another railway station.  This one is different; older, more prosaic.  The first two, at Guangxhou and at Guilin North, were grandiose to the point of being ridiculous.  This one is more intimate, more obviously a railway station rather than a palace, and very much older, dating from the 1970’s or even older.

In the huge waiting room (a departure lounge really) we’re enjoying massage chairs at Y4 (about 40p) for 10 minutes.  I say “enjoying”.  My wife and daughter think they are great, and had two goes each.  I found the massage a bit heavy handed.

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By bullet train from Guilin to a city called Liuzhou, from whence we will take sleeper train to another city called Zhiangziajie. So many cities I have never heard of.  Here is a train with a front like an aircraft, like a TGV, based in fact on a Japanese Shinkansen train, and the “dwell time” at this station (the time spent stationary in the platform) has been over five minutes.  That said, the train did arrive early.  As a commuter in the Home Counties, I’m accustomed to “dwell times” of less than a minute – in and out, quick quick quick…

Liuzhou is a city of over three million people. I’d never heard of it, and it is just one of hundreds of cities of this size in China.  Here is the railway station:

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We walked a little away from the station, having to run some light interference from taxi drivers, in order to be far enough away from the station to find somewhere to hail a “Didi” (the Chinese equivalent of Uber) where it might safely and legally stop.  We took the taxi to a second railway station, called Liujiang, located in in an area of the city called Labao – a good 40 minutes by taxi.  The driver was an affable fellow; himself a Chinese teacher, and he took our photo when he dropped us off.  The second station, whence we arrived at dusk, was something of a disappointment.  More in the “Inter-Railing” style of railway station – just a single track, a single waiting room.  Outside, some shops and little cafes where we found something to eat.  Though not without some stress and difficulty in establishing what we might eat: no pictures, and of course no English menu.

The waiting room was stressful, to a degree: by now we were tired and the train was late.  “Do not lie down” the signs said. People laid down.  Our  tiresome wait was enlivened by the sign above the door for the “Security” people, where the proof-reading had failed.  The “r” and the “i” had blurred into an “n”. This slightly rude sign cheered us up as eventually the train roared in, and everyone got on.