"Capt Sam K Williams"

(Llyn Whaler)

I joined the motor tanker Empire Taganax in Avonmouth in February 1947. The country was in the grips of a cold spell. Her rigging was thick with snow and the decks invisible. My introduction was appropriate and fitting, as the same ship and myself were to experience far colder conditions in the time to come. We renamed the ship and called her Busen Star (see photo). She’d had a chequered career, built by the Danes at the beginning of the war, her original name was Heming Maersk. When the Germans occupied Denamrk, they commandeered the ship and sailed called her Hydra, then fitted her out as a submarine supply depot ship. She also had prison cages for impounding allied sailors. Fortunately however, she was foiled in her purpose, the RAF bombed her and drove her ashore on the Scandinavian coast. She still had the bomb scars when I joined her. After a couple of voyages we docked in Falmouth for repairs and overhaul before starting on the long track down to the Antarctic. It was out Aruba N.W.I (Dutch west Indies) all the cargo tanks were washed spotlessly clean and sprayed with ‘Roftas’. This was supposed to give an eggshell covering to facilitate the cleaning of the tanks in the Antarctic after discharging fuel oil for the whaling fleet. The last tank was completed as we arrived off Aruba where a full cargo of fuel oil was taken. From Aruba we sailed for Cape Town to pick up some stores for whalers. It made a pleasant break in the voyage. After sailing from Cape Town, we headed south, away from the shipping routes, towards the vast unknown. Soon, we were in the Roaring Forties, that belt of high winds between 35 and 50 degrees south. The winds came roaring from the westward at gale force; a high rough and breaking sea lashes with fury. A ship is always subjected to a real battering when passing through this area and the possibility of encountering icebergs is very real, their detection at night being particularly difficult, owing to the ‘white horses’ which abound and keep pace with the ship. The plaintive cry of the stormy petrel could be heard above the crescendo of the storm, and our sole companion in this bleak and stormy region. We were not fitted with radar in those days, so we had to be extra alert. I well remember sighting our first icebergs, one to port and the other starboard – proud, defiant and majestic sentinels of the unknown, where they were like frontier guards. We passed between them fascinated by their splendour and beauty as they scintillated in the sunshine in a veritable hue of colours.

We had crossed the threshold into the Antarctic and ice became a frequent spectacle. We had a rendez-vous with the factory ship for which we were steering. We could smell her long before we sighted her for she was to windward, with her cooking smell drifting leeward. The smell is always an infallible guide in detecting a factory ship. There she was, looming up over the edge of the horizon. Very soon we were exchanging greetings with her.

A catcher came alongside for mail etc, a bunch of whales were being towed astern of her, each in its turn being heaved up the slipway of the factory ships stern, then out up on her flensing deck. One day I saw a large blue whale jammed in the slipway, it was so fat. After quite a struggle, it was heaved up on deck; it was over a hundred feet in length and weighed over a hundred tons. In less than an hour it had been stripped of the blubber and consigned to the boilers, the work continued at a relentless speed and round the clock.

When the whales were plentiful, the men were happy and worked like Trojans. They were paid according to results, a good fat bonus being their reward at the end of the season. At the time I’m referring to, there were blue whales galore. They are the largest and naturally produce the highest yield oil 200,000 barrels a season, a little over 33,000 tons of whale oil, not to mention the meat, meal, liver flakes and other by-products, for which they were paid high prices. Whale oil fetched over a £100 a ton at one time. It was a lucrative business for the men and the owners.

The gunners were very important men and a star gunner wielded as much influence as the owner himself. His services were at a premium and he was paid accordingly. Some of them used to earn about £10,000 in four months fishing; mind you it’s a grim and exacting job, and where there’s no night, they work round the clock. The shout goes up “Vaal blast”(Dutch) or in English “There she blows” and the chase begins. Sometimes they closed up quickly with the whale and fired their harpoon, which carried an explosive charge, which detonated a couple of seconds after impact. If a vital spot had been hit, the whale would die instantly. It would be heaved alongside and pumped up with compressed air; the flukes of the tail would be cut off, and the catchers number cut into the tail. Say setter IV had shot the whale they would cut SIV or for terrier IV, the mark would be TIV etc. The company flag bearing the letters H.W. (Hector Whaling) would be stuck into the whale serving for identification and sighting as well. There would also be a small floating direction finding beacon attached to the whale, this would enable us to detect the whale in fog or snow by the signals emitted by the beacon, it was also surmounted by a small white light.

Almost immediately after our arrival we went alongside the factory ship which had five big whales floating alongside as fenders to stop the ships bumping. They serve their purpose splendidly and are better for the job than anything man can devise. Berthing alongside is quite a tricky business. Both ships are steaming to windward and the factory ship maintains a steady course with the other ship doing the manoeuvring. A mistake on her part could cause serious damage. Mooring is also tricky business as both ships usually lunge and plunge in opposite directions. Once they are tied up alongside, the work commences and an exchange of oil takes place. After all tanks have been passed by their chemist we commence loading whale oil and simultaneously pumping fuel oil into the factory ship for her own needs and for her whale catchers. The first time we went alongside the weather was good with plenty of whales in the area, so we were allowed to stay alongside for ten days. We never stopped each ship towing the other alternately.

The factory ship ‘s deck was a scene of carnage, and there were always whales in the process of being dismembered, wire and hooks heaving and straining and rounds of flesh getting sorted out. It definitely wasn’t the place for the squeamish or the indolent. It was hard work all the time, day and night. Sometimes we would get mixed up among so many icebergs, that one would wonder if clear water would ever be sighted again. I’ve seen me for two days trying to extricate myself form the ice in a gale force wind and a blizzard to boot. Sometimes we could shelter in the lee of a huge iceberg, some of them being several miles long. Every season down there, something happened which would later enable us to identity that particular season, a gale or two was a foregone conclusion.

The Antarctic brought out the best and worst in man. It had its beauty and grimness. It was tough and yet we still returned to be tormented. There was some indefinable something about the place that had allure and attraction. Of course our livelihood was involved and the money was good, we always got a bonus.

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Thanks to Miss G Williams, for letting us publish her father's brilliant account of his time in the Antarctic.

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