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, March 13, 2010

Playing my liquid part in the Cold War of the 1950s

Impatiently eager to empty all bottles

In the springtime, when sailing up the Labrador Coast in the 1950s aboard the ice-strengthened sealing vessel MV Theron, on charter to the Canadian government, our primary objective was to reach Hudson Strait from where we could head west to the unmapped and uncharted regions of northwest Hudson Bay, the area of our main operations.
But our immediate intention was to reach the northern part of the Labrador coast. There we would carry out offshore charting while awaiting improving ice conditions to allow us to make our northing.
When on passage we stopped the ship at intervals, day and night, to allow us to take samples of
sea water and temperatures at various depths. These oceanographic observations, apart from gaining general scientific knowledge for studying fish populations and other subjects, were important for antisubmarine warfare purposes. It was suspected that if unfriendly submarines had seasonal charts depicting temperature and salinity gradients. it could assist them in navigating more accurately.
Our observations were made by lowering a string of reversing water bottles down into the depths. The bottles were made of heavy metal and each one had a special reversing thermometer attached. Also they had spring-loaded watertight snap lids at each end which could be activated to shut closed when triggered.
If for example the ship was stopped in 600 feet of water the end of the wire which was lowered into the water by winch would first of all have a
bathythermograph attached to the end. As this instrument descended a compact stylus drew a line on a small piece of smoked glass about one-and-a half-inches square. It actually inscribed a miniature graph of the temperature gradient from surface to the lowest depth it reached. Just above this gadget the first, or in fact what was the last, or deepest, water bottle would be attached with its end lids open. The wire would then be lowered 25 feet, or whatever interval of observation had been decided upon, and the next water bottle would be attached to the wire.
Hanging to the bottom of this bottle’s end cap we would attach a brass weight called a messenger. This heavy messenger was wrapped securely but loosely around the wire so that when released it would slide freely down the wire under its own weight. One such weight was attached by a ring to each bottle in such a way that when that bottle was activated from above, the messenger underneath would be released and fall down the wire to hit the bottle below and activate that bottle in turn.
The wire would now be lowered another twenty five feet and another bottle together with another brass messenger attached to the wire. Eventually, a string of water bottles, all in an upright position and at regular intervals would reach from the surface of the ocean down to just above the sea floor. When all was ready the hydrographer would attach a starter messenger to the wire and give it a push down the wire to activate the first water bottle just under the surface of the water. By keeping a bare, ungloved, handhold around the wire one could at once feel the shock and vibration as the messenger hit the top of the first water bottle. At the same moment the water bottle fell into its upside-down position, thereby locking the mercury in its thermometer to record an exact reading for that particular depth. Simultaneously, both of its end caps snapped shut trapping a sample of the water at that depth, and allowing its own attached messenger to be released and fall free down the wire to the next lower bottle. Then within a few seconds one would feel another tremor and vibration as the second water bottle was activated. Then, hoping that bottle’s messenger had also been released, an inordinate amount of time would seem to pass before another, but fainter vibration of the wire was detected. As the lower bottles in the denser layers of ocean were activated at much longer intervals of time the vibrations would become fainter and fainter. The messengers, each released in turn from the deeper bottles far down in the dark depths, and each one travelling more slowly than the one before because of entering higher density ocean depths, seemed to take an eternity to slide down the wire and reach the next bottle. Until with only one to go, that last most important one, and still with a cold, wet, bare hand wrapped lightly around the taut wet wire, one would become convinced that the last messenger had not been released as it should have been, and become ever more convinced that those long minutes spent leaning over the wallowing ship’s heaving side in the midnight darkness, with an icy wind blowing, and peering down into the roiling water to where the wire disappeared into the dark water below, all this had been nothing but a miserable waste of time.
One might as well forget thoughts of soon returning to the nice warm bunk waiting in the snug cabin and admit failure as regards the activation of the last bottle. We would have to bring all the long wire back up, empty and reset every bottle again, just for that one cursed lowest bottle causing a required repeat of the whole lengthy task.
And then just as all hope had drained away and a signal to the seaman at the electric winch was about to be reluctantly given, the faintest of telltale tremors, no more pronounced that a humming bird’s passing, an autumn leaf touching down upon the forest floor, a snowflake alighting on an outstretched hand, there would be felt, amid the turmoil of the heaving water and the odd piece of sea-ice bumping against the ship’s steel hull, the long-awaited message from the deep down brass messenger as it activated the last bottle.
Then one could happily give the signal to hoist up the long string of wire and as the winch whined away and each water bottle arrived at breast height, it could be grasped firmly as soon as it swung within reach by the rolling of the stopped ship, and released from the wire. Then its sea water sample would be poured into a numbered jar and its thermometer reading recorded. Then the next deepest water bottle would be brought up, and then the next, and the next until all were safely aboard and stowed away in their compartmented box, and finally one could go back into a warm bed for two or three hours until the whole business of recording basic marine data would be repeated in another more northerly part of the deep black secret ocean.


In 1952, while working for a firm of consulting civil engineers in northwest Scotland, I was teamed up with a very agreeable ex-Royal Engineers officer to measure the flow of the River Awe, a very fine salmon river with fast, clear, rich, peaty-brown water. The sort of water that makes a fly-fisherman’s heart beat faster.
We stretched a wire a foot or two above the running water from bank to bank. Then we hooked a small rowboat onto the wire which we had marked every five feet of its length. We had a compact chromium-plated current meter with which to measure the speed of the river’s flow at varying depths. By stopping every five feet and taking readings we would have the data to calculate the river’s rate of discharge.
Our little current meter had a propeller of about two-inches diameter which revolved in the current. An electrical wire from the current meter went to a pair of headphones. For every so many revolutions of the propeller the headphones would make a clicking noise. Counting the number of clicks in sixty seconds indicated the speed of the river at that particular depth and distance from the river bank.
All went well until we were about twenty feet from the bank. Then the clicking often stopped or came up very erratically. Time after time we pulled the instrument up to see what was wrong and to clear any debris that may have been caught in the propeller. But it was always clear and worked perfectly when we held it in the river just under the surface where we could see it. Yet directly we let it down again into the deeper peaty-brown-tinged waters we had the same trouble.
It was puzzling. Until we realized the obvious. A small, bright propeller revolving deep down in a
salmon river. Of course. The curious salmon were poking their noses into our little propeller.
We just had to carry on as best we could, taking all the readings several times and noting how many seconds of uninterrupted clicking we could count and then adjusting our calculations accordingly.
Another phenomena was when taking readings of the water level at both ends of Loch Awe we found what appeared to be a discrepancy: the water level appeared not to be level.
After much investigation and consideration of the wind velocity and direction over the past many days we decided it had piled the water up at the downwind end and reduced the level at the windward end. A week or two later the discrepancy disappeared. Loch Awe is very narrow and about 24 miles long and is oriented northeast to southwest.

At the top of the PERSIAN GULF

Up until a few weeks before making my varied roving observations when tramping across the Scottish Highlands, I had spent several years in charge of the Iraq Government hydrographic survey vessel, El Ghar. Manned by just a crew of 20 Iraqis and myself, we operated out of Fao, a tiny compound on the tidal banks of the Shatt-al-Arab, set among the narrow belt of date palm trees separating us from the wide desert wilderness, which stretched away for hundreds of miles.
Every day and every night I was metaphorically and literally immersed in the tides. Apart from the constant soundings I took of the shipping channels and their whole surrounding 500-square mile area, I recorded the directions and speeds at differing depths of the tidal currents. Also I studied and made approximations with simple instruments of the amount of suspended silt being carried down the river and estuary. So the tides ruled my life. Especially my wake-up time.
Because the global tidal wave is 50 minutes later each day the El Ghar would usually depart from Fao in cycles. If not spending the night at sea, one morning we would cast off with the first of the ebb at four o’clock, the next at five, then approximately six and so on until about 10 o’clock when we would jump back to about four o’clock again. This enabled us to leave with the ebb, work most of the day on the flood and chase slack water or slog back against the ebb, up the river and home to Fao. Then I would perhaps go to the office for an hour or plot my soundings on the bridge. But of course this routine was not routine. Weather, tankers aground, special assignments, religious observances, political disturbances, visiting VIPs and other visitors who wanted a trip down to salt water, assisting native ocean-going dhows hailing anywhere from Zanzibar to Burma —all these would make my days varied and unpredictable.

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