The Rockchime dredger

Rockchime dredger – Click to enlarge

Rockchime dredger

Courtesy Alex Tulloch

The Rockchime
Click photograph to enlarge

S. S. Rockchime of Granton

Recollections by Captain W. L. Hume, M.N.I. (Retd:)

A good number of years ago, in fact nearly sixty, I became involved with a small steam driven harbour grab dredger called the Rockchime, which belonged to the Port Authority of Granton Harbour, a very busy commercial, fishing and leisure harbour located a few miles to the west side of the main Firth of Forth port of Leith. This little ship had been built in Holland during 1929, weighing some 141 gross tons, with a crew comprising of the Master (Peter King – known to all as ‘Skip’), Chief Engineer/Grab crane driver, Mate/deck-hand/cook, and occasionally a spare hand, to be deployed as and where required (mostly in the galley). Shortly after the war finished in 1945 my travels had taken me on several far flung voyages, some of them quite scary for an up and coming merchant navy deck officer, in between trips or obligatory visits to the Nautical College, I was still drawn to the shipping scene, a relatively short walk from home. Apart from close family ties with the maritime industry I knew many of the men involved ashore and afloat. Those afloat seemed to have a stronger magnet, such as the aforementioned ‘Skip’, who was forever bemoaning the fact that he could never anyone to fill the ‘spare-hand’ berth on his vessel, due mainly to the fact that it was a casual labour berth. He used to quickly add ‘mind you its a real easy wee number as long as you can make a pot o’tea, help wi’ the ropes, and do a bit o’ steerin’ when we go to sea (to dump spoil), but never ever a mention of remuneration, oh well ma budget is no over-generous but you would not lose out’. This, dear reader, was the type of conversation raised after being invited aboard to partake of a mug of tea, what was not realised or appreciated by mine hosts that I too was experiencing personal budgetary difficulties, such as being bereft of immediate financial ability or capital to enjoy a bit of company within the flourishing local refreshment establishments, the only tick allowed came from the large pub wall clock. Well, I might be able to help out for a few days but have to say if I get a call from the Shipping Office I have to go immediately, at which point I am invited to stay for a second mug of tea, with a tin of biscuits suddenly appearing to whet the appetites of visitors – me thinks the subtitles of being shanghaied had progressed from the days of sail!

Ok, so it suited me to turn to on board at eight o’clock the next morning and be introduced to the finer points of Harbour Dredging, get the kettle on for tea, the operational problems – only experienced by those on board – of dredging the allocated areas were spelt out to justify why we could not start right away, ‘Skip’ is up at the Office to find out which ships will move and those to remain where we need to dredge, and another thing the Chief chimes in with, we will need to top up with fresh water for the boiler, at least another hour, or so, in the meantime the Mate says, come wi’ me an ah‘ll show you around the ship, (all 125-ft of it). The steel hull is of riveted construction with lap and butt plates at strategically placed points, all very technical says he, from the bluff bow, on deck, there is little to record other than having a small anchor windlass with two warping barrels, quite essential for manoeuvring the boat into tight corners, the mooring bollards appear to be rather outsized but I am soon told that they have to be large to counteract the pull of the grab when dredging; a small foc’sle-cum-store for all sorts of gear is separated from the main ‘dredge spoil’ hold with a watertight bulkhead. The hold runs aft to another bulkhead at the forward side of the coal bunker, and is extended out the ship’s side, with very little freeboard a small side deck allowed access, above the hold, level with the hatch coaming, some three feet above the main steel deck, a steel wire mesh grating is placed to catch any bulky items such as large boulders, old prams and even the lost anchor, this being necessary to prevent such rubbish from getting into the hold and perhaps fouling up the opening bottom doors when the spoil is eventually discharged. A secondary finer meshed grating is placed nearby, I am told this is the coal catcher, well when we have dig out the coaling berths, an area served by three giant steam cranes to load coal onto trawlers, most of the ten ton wagon load cascades on to the trawler deck but inevitably some falls over the side, every now and then, particularly when the Chief needs coal for his bunkers, we have to dig out these berths, Rockchime seldom has to go under the ‘pay as you load’ coaling hoist, harbour management, don’t want to know, ‘Skip’ has his budget, we leave him to get on with day to day running.

Above the deckhouse structure is a comfortable wheelhouse, with few refinements, large steering wheel, overhead compass, brass engine room telegraph, steam whistle lanyard and the proverbial shelf for tea mugs, this had been originally designated for chart work but the absence of such items it was ideally suited for other important working tools. Immediately beneath the wheelhouse at the fore-end of the engine/boiler room casing was the Captain’s cabin (!), rather small but enough to contain a bunk with drawers under, a small settee with folding shelf, as the crew got home every night such accommodation was only used to store working gear, moving aft within the deck house a small cross alleyway gave access to the boiler stokehold or engine room control platform, as there were many hours of non-dredging much time became devoted to care and maintenance with much spit and polish, the smell of hot oil and steam permeated in this area and made it feel quite cosy, a small galley with combined saloon at the aft end completed the layout, on top of this being a rather grand funnel with a smoke cowl atop which gave the appearance of being much more powerful than reflected in the full speed (with good coal) of eight knots. To round off the funnel there was a huge brass steam whistle which would have done credit to any ocean liner, a deep sonorous sound alerted all around that Rockchime was underway, much to the disgust of the Chief who always complained about the huge loss of steam every time ‘Skip’ pulled the whistle lanyard. A couple of tall ventilators above the stokehold, then the engine room skylight just aft of the wooden lifeboat slung under a pair of radial davits, a set of davits were fitted either side although only one boat was carried. Right at the stern there was a steam capstan used for warping, which almost sums up our worthy little craft.

To the outsider our little dredger did not seem to have much of a pattern, digging holes being the general onlookers’ attitude, not many people were all that interested in the day to day repetitive work carried out with hardly any fuss yet it played an important part in keeping a constant depth of water alongside the all important commercial quays in this tidal port. Granton harbour is situated about two miles west of Leith Docks on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth which forms part of the north boundary of the City of Edinburgh.

The land and foreshore in that area were part of the estates belonging to the Duke of Buccleuch. The industrial revolution created many changes, one of which was passenger transportation by land and sea, ships had been fitted with steam powered engines since the first paddle wheel boats, Charlotte Dundas and Comet, plied on the Firth of Clyde, progression to steam railway trains as recorded in great detail elsewhere followed rapidly over each decade, during such a time of transport evolution ships were well to the fore in responding to public demand, paddle driven ships were built specifically to meet increasing need for relatively short direct sea crossings which saved travellers many miles by road, at a relatively slow pace, usually in discomfort – not to mention the high cost – and so it came to our background port of Granton when a thriving ferry service was established between the Edinburgh north shore and Kingdom of Fife.

A suitable landing point, known as the ‘Chain Pier’, though somewhat exposed to north or easterly strong winds, had been constructed at Newhaven a short distance from the fishing harbour used by the sailing packets voyaging as far as Aberdeen in suitable weather, at about the same time a new railway spur was opened from Edinburgh Waverley to Trinity, to connect with the paddle ferry across the Forth. Expansion of the railway soon spread to the new Granton harbour, which had been constructed by consortium with main intention of starting a safe and sheltered ferry service to Burntisland on the Fife shore. Granton prospered even further with the arrival of steam driven fishing trawlers, which continued to operate with fluctuating success for the ensuing hundred years. As built, Granton harbour had a stone middle pier, with ferry terminal slipways either side, east and west, a long stone breakwater to the east and a larger pier on the west side provided adequate shelter from all directions except North; originally the rail link consisted of steam driven vessels which wagons were driven on board, secured, then pulled off at the other side – noted elsewhere as the first known roll on roll off service, Paddle Ship Balbirnie, built at Leith 1861, of 533 tons burthen, being the first rail roll-on/roll-off ferry, such rapid development of the Granton ferry soon saw the closure of the Chain Pier, which itself was destroyed during a severe storm a few years later.

(Sorry Captain Hume, we disagree about the vessel and the date – see the page about the train ferries).

Continuing the daily routine of filling the hold with mud spoil was rather monotonous except from having to move the boat every half hour or so, apart from making endless mugs of tea – a commodity that was still very much rationed at that time, although we, as crew of a merchant vessel (?) were entitled to seafarers’ ration books, which provided an allowance of at least six or seven times the quantity given to the civilian population. As the mud filled the hold it became apparent that water covered the surface and when nearing the top overflowed directly overboard via large drain channels, only when the mud could be seen it became time to rig the powerful deckwash hoses and give the whole ship a good scrub, perhaps not a very glamorous trade to be in but the crew were rightly proud of their charge and where possible kept it spick and span, some days when getting almost carried away with skooshing the mud away ‘Skip’ would quietly say, that will do cos there’s a good sea running out side and it will make a better job than the hose.

The voyage out to the dumping ground, just north and west of a lighthouse on a rocky reef on the southern edge of the main deep water channel, called the Oxcar, was all of ten miles, there and back, phew, this run to the spoil ground took about an hour (dinnae ye hurry chief, conserve oor coal !), upon arrival in the deep water channel the Mate, upon a silent hand raised signal from ‘Skip’, would activate the release mechanism to open the bottom doors, the muddy contents were instantly emptied to be quickly dispersed in a strong tideway, the ship at the same moment popped up like a cork, rolling slightly which helped to scour the hold prior to the Mate closing the bottom doors with an audible clunk, ‘Skip’ then brought Rockchime round for a leisurely return to harbour, I having been quickly delegated to take over the steering to allow ‘Skip’ to write up his daily log, and change into shore going togs, the inward trip was usually lively being light ship, in a loaded condition it was very stable. During such mammoth voyages the chief usually took the opportunity to clean out the boiler fires and bank them up ready for next day, except at the week-end when the fires were drawn to allow further maintenance, by and large it was a fairly simple straightforward job but soon became tedious to a young lad keen to get on and up the promotional ladder, to earn a bit more, so the time came to move on, being interested in ships of all kinds I have to say that I did enjoy my sojourn on the Rockchime, and retained the friendship with ‘Skip’ (mind, if you're ever in need of a job just say the word – never a mention of remuneration) and his crew.

I am very grateful to Captain W. L. Hume, M.N.I. (Retd:) for permission to use these recollections, copyright of which remains with him.
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