Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Paul Anka’s lovely Canadian Diana

and a magical memory of the Good Old Days

—in a peaceful Iraq

Eight years before Paul Anka’s Diana topped the popular song lists, I myself fell under the spell of another alluring female of the same name.

Sixty years ago Iraq was far more civilized and peaceful than it is today. It was there in the far south where the murky effluent of the Shatt-al-Arab river meets the clear, blue, sea water of the Persian Gulf, that I myself began a love affair with Diana, a girl from Baghdad.

At the time I was in charge of the Basra Port Directorate’s S.V. El Ghar, a 110-ton survey vessel. And luckily, the night I first tasted my new love, our vessel was tied up alongside in the tiny port of Fao. With most of my Iraqi crew off home for the night, I was free to indulge myself with Diana in my cabin, unobserved.

Though my first encounter with that delicate young girl was fraught with some danger I was later to dally in her company in perfect tranquility for many a night, and quite a few mornings during the next few years. I shared her favours, quite happily and usually quite amicably, with many another seafaring gentleman or expatriate European. And, if the truth can now be told, even occasionally in company with prim, fair-skinned young ladies who also succumbed to her charms.

Iraq is a somewhat mystical land where strange things happen and where the yearnings and cravings of the human spirit are assuaged as best they may. In this particular case the dominant factor would be considered quite pedestrian by many.

It was the supply of beer. Extremely erratic.

Sure, beer came up the Gulf to Basra by ship from Europe and elsewhere but there was little chance of developing any sort of brand loyalty. Variety, long droughts and flash floods were the norm in the Port Officers Shore Mess, our little club in Fao. Most of the beer that came our way was innocuous Danish, Dutch and second-rate British export beer. So apart from getting aboard some of the better-stocked Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and other well-found vessels and making private deals, the beer situation was often bleak.

Then excitement reigned. The Iraq Times newspaper was publishing full-page advertisements. They told of a brewery being established in Baghdad. Two European brewmasters were arriving to take charge. The beer would soon be marketed throughout Iraq. So one evening, when we tied up alongside our little port of Fao and heard that the new Iraqi beer was now available I sent my cook ashore to buy some.

I was delighted to see the bottles were labelled: DIANA. This I thought augured well. A famous beer in Egypt had been named STELLA and another girl's name had been used for a very acceptable beer brewed in Palestine. A third liquid girl to cherish would be welcome. So that evening I took Diana to my cabin and sampled her. Maybe to excess. She seduced me very easily.

But as we slipped our lines early next morning and headed down the Shatt-al-Arab to deep water, I saw the screaming headlines in my copy of the Iraq Times:



I was shocked. I went down to my cabin. I surveyed the several empty bottles. I peered at my eyes in the mirror. Then I read the full story. The trouble, it said, was caused by faulty bottle-washing equipment and a lack of standardized bottles. I could understand that. Hardly two of my dozen empties were the same shape. Just an assortment of large bottles similar to those to be seen standing in the doorways of local Iraqi mud-houses —and used to store kerosene for cooking stoves.

I went back up on the bridge. As the day passed I was pleased to note that my eyesight was not dimming, my stomach digested its noonday curry and paralysis did not set in. But, I remembered. Last night. Diana. She had left rather a marked aftertaste. And now that I thought of it —a definite kerosene aftertaste.

The next week another announcement appeared in the Iraq Times: Diana was now approved. Soon, in nice new, clean, custom-made bottles, Diana was being enjoyed by all hands. Her purity was certified by the health authorities. Our Iraqi Diana’s praises were well worth singing about.

All who enjoyed her attested to that.


Cutting across the top of Baffin Bay the powerful Canadian government icebreaker, d’Iberville, entered Lancaster Sound and anchored outside Resolute harbour amid ice floes in the early morning of August 16, 1956.

After breakfast I took a helicopter to Griffith Island some miles away to make some theodolite observations. Left alone on the high point of the cliff edge, the cold north wind made observing difficult and after a while the features I was looking for through the instrument’s telescope merged atmospherically into invisibility. However, things closer to hand were very visible including a polar bear making his way along the ice-bound island shoreline. As he approached my position I looked in vain for the returning helicopter but realized it would be an hour or two before I could hope to be picked up. The d’Iberville had but a short time in Resolute and lots to do before setting off for Eureka in the highest regions of the High Arctic.. With the harbour ice interfering with boat traffic the ship’s two helicopters would be very busy ferrying people between the base and ship.

The situation made me keenly interested in the bear’s movements. Intensely interested. I comforted myself with the fact that I was a couple of hundred feet up from the sea ice and if I hid behind the pile of rocks I had used as a survey marker I probably wouldn’t be seen. Anyway it was common knowledge that polar bears are only interested in seals and other marine life. It was knowledge as common as that about wolves. The common knowledge with which I had comforted myself the previous year, in 1955, when alone amid the Arctic barrens, I had found wolf tracks imprinted upon the footprints I myself had left freshly imprinted along the shores of a desolate lake.

All the same, in spite of my educated and sophisticared outlook, I was glad that I was downwind of the polar bear. If he got a whiff of my delectability he might forego his usual diet for once and might even be bothered to climb up the steep slope to inspect me more closely. I comforted myself with the thought that if he did track me down he would probably realize his mistake after the first couple of mouthfuls, feel embarrassed, and leave me alone to go off looking for real seals. Quickly I checked to see if I was wearing any sealskin apparel. Even the slightest scent was enough for a bear. I remembered the old saying about a leaf falling from a tree in the forest. The eagle saw it fall, the deer heard it fall, and the bear smelt it fall. But there were no trees around here, either for shedding leaves or for climbing up in panic. Just expanses of bare bear terrain. So, flat on my face, peeking over the edge of the rise of land I followed the bear’s meandering progress. Every few moments he stopped to sniff the breeze from seaward. Eventually, like the well-behaved, normal bear he was, he wandered away down the coast.

Flying back in the helicopter later I couldn’t see him at all, though we searched around for several minutes.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

India Pale Ale

The secret superiority of India Pale Ale

Forty years ago I read in the New Scientist scientific journal, that during the heyday of the Imperial Raj in India many shiploads of beer were sent out from Britain for the Imperial army.   Often, for various reasons, when only partially unloaded the beer-carrying sailing ships had to leave on other urgent business and months later might arrive back in UK with much of their beer cargo still aboard.  At first, it was sold off at a discount to local dockside pubs and inns, but later it was found that this beer was of a superior quality and was then sold in England as a premium ale.  Even today brewers label many of their ales as being IPA.  Anyway, some chemist fellow experimented and found that the long sea voyage and the constant rolling motion of the ship imparted a special flavour to the beer in the shipping barrels.  So he rigged up a rolling machine in his laboratory and rolled some barrels for a few weeks and sure enough he found it tasted better.  Well, he would.  Wouldn’t he?  After extensive testing, I mean.

Another aspect of how the rolling motion of vessels and strong waters interact was demonstrated years ago by the small vessels that brought casks of sherry to Britain from Spain.  The Spanish seamen learned by experience that if they laid the elongated casks fore and aft, or parallel with the length of the ship they could expect to roll their innards out while crossing the stormy Bay of Biscay.  But if they stowed the casks athwartships the rolling motion of their vessels was considerably dampened and they arrived in UK in good enough shape to enjoy some fine IPA.

Post-war ship designers incorporated this phenomena into some of their largest ships in the form of flume tanks.  Two tanks were built into  the ship, one situated on the extreme port side the other on the extreme starboard side.  They were connected by a tube or pipe and partially filled with heavy oil.  As the ship rolls to port the oil begins to roll to port also.  If continued this movement of ship and oil would result in an extreme movement.  But what happens is that as most of the oil is flowing to port the ship starts its roll to starboard.  But the weight of the oil now on the port side tends to act against this motion thus dampening its motion.  Now the oil flows to starboard just in time to dampen down the roll to port.  And so on.  The oil acts just as the sherry in the casks acted.

A few years later I was in a ship in the Bay of Fundy during a storm when the flume tanks were turned on and off to see how effective they were,  The rolling motion of the vessel was reduced tremendously.  Yet these tanks are of comparatively small size.

Today, modern ship designs incorporate other vastly improved concepts of stabilizing.

Ashoor Ahmed and Abood Assaid

Ashoor Ahmed

On November 7, 1914, a British sergeant, probably of the Dorset Regiment, looking for tough Turkish soldiers, burst through the flimsy door of a mud house or serifa in the small village of Fao (called Faw in the newspaper reports of the Iran-Iraq and recent Gulf wars) situated at the extreme southern tip of what was then Mesopotamia but today is Iraq . He so startled the young pregnant girl inside that she gave premature birth to a baby boy right then and there.

Equally startled himself, the sergeant called for his company's first-aid attendant to help the neighbour women look after the mother and child. Later, as the Mesopotamia campaign took him far up the Shatt-al-Arab river to Basra and eventually Baghdad, the sergeant sent back small presents and good wishes to the baby's family.

Thirty three years later, that somewhat premature baby, Ashoor Ahmed, stood six-feet-two-inches tall on the bridge of the Iraqi survey ship, the S.V. El Ghar (the dove) of which he was the serang or sailing master and told me that story of his spectacular birth.

And now, after arriving in Basra at the very tail end of 1947, that vessel had become my command—I was now the hydrographer in charge of El Ghar with the job of checking the miles of busy shipping channels leading in to the broad Shatt-al-Arab river from the wide, deep, blue waters at the head of the Persian Gulf.

Our ship was manned by a crew of twenty men of Iraq. The El Ghar was 110 tons, 98 feet long, had twin Gardner diesel engines, drew a draught of six feet and was built in Bombay in 1914, the same year as Ashoor Ahmed’s British Army assisted birth.

Iraq at that time was a monarchy, ruled by a regent who deputized for the young King Faisal who was at school in England, and with a seemingly civilized prime minister, Nuri Said. Sadly during later uprisings all these personages were brutally murdered to make way for successive villains of differing stripe.

Ever since Saddam Hussain’s long and ghastly war with Iran, during which my old area of operations became a major war zone, I’ve often wondered about the fate of the twenty Iraqis I had as the crew of the survey ship I commanded from 1947-52—the old El Ghar. Some of my younger ex-crew members may still be alive. Others could be in their nineties.

But there's one crew member I don't have to worry about:

Abood Assiad, one of the ship's sukhanys or helmsmen.

The El Ghar had a massive manual steering wheel as big as a cart-wheel to operate the heavy chains running in their iron channels from bridge to rudder. Moosa Sagar, the other sukhany, big and brawny as he was, had to stand off to one side to pull mightily on the big spokes when we went hard over to port or starboard.

But Abood—standing tall and built so big and broad that, if stood side by side with many of today’s Olympic athletes he would make them look puny—could stay standing dead centre on the quartermaster's floorboard and twirl that great wheel through his fingers with ease. Jet black, with a haughty bearing, handsome visage and with red-painted finger and toe nails, Abood Assiad was a man to value aboard a ship.

In a gale of wind, with a sand haze hiding the distant shoreline and with a 60-ton Muscat and Oman dhow anchored on the centreline of the outgoing channel—right in the path of an oncoming, but as yet unseen, 32,000-ton, fully-laden, T2 tanker, it was Abood who, axe in hand, leapt over the dhow's bulwarks. There amidst the considerable physical protests of disapproval of their forty-man crew. Abood chopped through their anchor hawser so we could pull their vessel away from certain disaster with just moments to spare. And it was Abood who swam mightily through the evening ebb tide to rescue the bhandary, the crew's cook, when he was being swept away out to sea.

One day, when we had steamed in error over one of the dozen big angle-iron, wire and canvas submersible drogues with which we tracked and measured the currents and tides, the El Ghar was lying adrift with both propellers held fast. The serang and all hands were down aft trying to free our propellers. Only Abood and I stayed up on the bridge. As our vessel just drifted at will into the deep waters at the head of the Persian Gulf, I spent a busy half hour at the chart table plotting the tidal measurements we had taken so far that day. Then I stood up and asked Abood if he could tell by the commotion of shouts and cries in Arabic, if the crew were making any progress in their rescue task. ‘It was getting late,’ I said, ‘the tide was more than half spent. We would loose the several other buoys we had set adrift for tracking the tide. They were now miles away.’

Abood just simply said: ‘I go fix, sahib’. And down the companionway from the bridge he went, making his way aft, stripping off his clothes as he went. Then he dived deep down under the ship. Long anxious minutes later Abood reappeared on the surface with the whole heavy mess of hardware, wire and canvas in his hands.

But, tragically, it was also big, strong, cheerful Abood, two years later, while I was away on leave, who, at the tiller of a motor boat while stretching a thousand feet of seven-stranded measuring wire from a marker beacon, was enmeshed by that same wire when it snapped and curled back. Helplessly pinioned, Abood disappeared for ever in the swift currents of the silt-laden waters of the Shatt-al-Arab estuary. That event still haunts me. I am certain that if I had been there that day it would not have happened. I would have had that wire carefully examined for flaws before putting such a strain on it. And anyway I would have used another method of measurement. How I wish the fickle finger of fate had not sent me on leave at that particular time.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Dogs like turkey

Further north along the uninhabited Labrador coast, I needed to land on a very small offshore island in order to take a round of horizontal theodolite angles to establish geodetic control points.  I left the ship with a launch towing a dory.  The little islet was just a few hundred feet across.  Unfortunately, some local native chap, who must have lived many miles away, had decided to use that bare piece of rock as a summer storage space for his dog team.  He had no use for his dogs when the snows went and didn’t want to bother with their feeding or care all summer.  So he stranded them on the island where he could pick them up again in the autumn.  

Eight big huskies on five acres of bare rock for five months do not find much to eat.  With only the odd dead fish and other debris washed up they get ravenous.  As we came towards the shore in the dory they waded out to meet us.  Slavering.  We back-pedalled, sculled back to the launch, then went back to the ship.  

That year the Theron  was down by the head with frozen turkeys.  The steward must have bought many scores of them as a cheap job lot in Halifax.  We were getting a little tired of eating so much turkey.

So I commandeered a dozen of the turkeys from the big freezer in the hold.  We picked up the twelve big birds and went back to the island.  When the dogs came down to meet us we threw some of the turkeys ashore then went back to the launch and waited nearly an hour.  Then we went back to the island, threw the rest of the turkeys up on the shore.  Then went up to the islands’ highest part, took a leisurely round of theodolite angles, then built a cairn of rocks as a survey marker.  Then, unmolested by the burping dogs, we got back into the dory and went back to the ship.