REFUELLING AT SEA
Edited by Jerry Proc
During the early weeks of 1951, RCN ships stationed in Korea were once again in the grip of a morale crisis. The problems were common to those of the previous autumn where lack of mail was the major culprit. Cdr Paul Taylor of HMCS SIOUX was one person who knew how to boost morale. It was he who initiated the first of several contests held among the ships of all nations. Taylor started the Refuelling Championship Challenge. This was the contest's official title, but the sailors called it the Oiling-at-Sea contest. At the time, the RCN was mostly working in the Yellow Sea, so Royal Navy (RN) tankers were being used along with RN procedures.
Tribal class destroyers proved to be the tanker's best customers due to their high rate of fuel consumption. Procedures for refuelling at sea were essentially the same in all navies, so few problems were ever encountered. Refuelling at sea was an exercise in basics. Co-operation between crews was essential; the Officer of the Watch had to know the drills; the helmsman required a steady hand on the wheel and the oiling parties had to move smartly under direction. Brute strength was needed at times as wires, ropes and Coston guns were the order of the day.
Once the receiving ship had closed with the tanker, a signal was sent which told the tanker everything was ready. The firing of the Coston gun hurled the gun line across the gap. Attached to the gun line were two lines called messengers. One was called the light messenger and the other was the heavy messenger. Once received at the tanker, these lines were secured firmly. Then, from the receiving ship, the span line was hauled across to the tanker and secured. These lines were kept taut by a team of seamen deployed on the upper deck. With the span in place, the tanker released the large oil line, a rubber hose some six inches in diameter and suspended from the span wire by 'rolling shackles'. This hose was hauled the distance between the ships along the heavy messenger by a second team of seamen. The faster these men moved, the faster the hose could be hauled aboard. Once inboard, the hose was fitted to a receiver pipe and screwed down tightly. At the point, the tanker was signalled to start the pumps. At the same time, a white pennant was run up the tanker's halyards to warn others of oiling in progress. Years before, the RN decided that a period of eight minutes was a sufficient amount of time to refuel so everyone in the Commonwealth fleets adapted this standard.
One cold winter morning, HMCS SIOUX pulled alongside RFA WAVE KNIGHT. Perhaps it was the cold or perhaps boredom, but the oiling party managed to refuel in four minutes and forty five seconds. Someone declared that to be a record time, so SIOUX was declared the winner of the Refuelling Championship Challenge. Three weeks later, after intensive drilling, HMCS CAYUGA set a new record of three minutes and forty seconds. At this point, the contest began to heat up. For days afterwards, many other ships tried to beat that record but they were unsuccessful. No sooner than CAYUGA cleared the area, HMCS NOOTKA and her skilled crew demolished the record in an almost unbelievable time of three minutes and ten seconds. During all of this, the crew of HMCS ATHABASKAN appeared very disinterested with the proceedings but this was far from the truth. Their strategy was to remain on the sidelines until all others had either quit or left the area. In early March, the crew felt their time had come. SIOUX and CAYUGA were out of the picture. HMCS HURON was not ready to attempt such a challenge and the United States Navy, the RN and the Royal Australian Navy had quit the contest. Now it was time to strike! In the second week of March, on a gently rolling sea, ATHABASKAN refuelled in the incredible time of two minutes and fifty seconds. NOOTKA'S crew recoiled in shock as they believed their record to be unbeatable. Nothing was said, but a series of exercises were started immediately.
At this point in the challenge, the issue of safety became paramount. Some thought that needless risks were being taken if a ship could be refuelled in three minutes. An eight minute refuelling time had built in safety margins and it should not be altered. Everyone agreed that safety might be compromised, but the issue should be decided by the contestants. It was therefore agreed, that NOOTKA and ATHABASKAN should be allowed one last contest whereupon the matter would be closed forever. NOOTKA as the challenger, would be allowed one run. If she failed to better the record, it would be awarded to ATHABASKAN. If NOOTKA set a record, then ATHABASKAN could have one final run. At the end of the contest, no further challenges would be entertained.
The competition was set for Wednesday March 28, the same day that both ships would be refuelling from WAVE KNIGHT. In keeping with the spirit of the contest, the commander of WAVE KNIGHT instructed his deckhands to give their fullest co-operation to both destroyers. On the day of the contest, the sea was extremely calm and the temperature warm. Both ships arrived on schedule at 0800 hours. Those in NOOTKA were determined to win. When the Coston gun was fired, adrenalin flowed and the crews raced fore and aft on the upper deck. The astonished timekeeper aboard HMS THESEUS could not believe his watch. He announced the elapsed time to be two minutes and six seconds. NOOTKA erupted in wild cheers.
Aboard ATHABASKAN, there was dismay. An impromptu meeting was called and it was agreed that only superhuman effort could better the record. It would have to be all or nothing to beat the other ship. Commander Welland of the ATHABASKAN took charge of the bridge. He intended to bring the ship so close to WAVE KNIGHT that the Coston gun would not be needed. Indeed, the ship was so close, that CPO John Rodgers was easily able to toss a line onto the tankers deck. By doing this, he enabled the messengers, the span line and the oiling hose to be sent over as a single unit. The team than ran the hose to the filler, screwed down the coupler and gave the signal to start the pumps. If the timekeeper aboard THESEUS had been astonished, by NOOTKA's time, he was dumbfounded at what he now saw on his timepiece. ATHABASKAN was declared the winner with the final record of one minute and forty seconds. At that point, the contest was officially over. Those in ATHABASKAN rejoiced while those in NOOTKA lamented. A few days later, the captain of WAVE KNIGHT, in a ceremony befitting an epic contest, presented ATHABASKAN with an attractive scroll in commemoration of the ship's company's tremendous efforts.
Thunder in the Morning Calm: The Royal Canadian Navy in Korea 1950- 1955. Edward C. Myers. Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharines Ont; 1992
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