…. Swing the lamp and I will tell you a tale
Of Ocean Weather Ships (OWS)
Last Christmas, number one son transferred one of my OWS photographs onto a mouse mat.
This had attracted a fair bit of attention from passers by of my desk. So, before my brain gets
too addled I have decided to put pen to paper (figuratively speaking) of some of my OWS
reminiscences. Please note that this is a historical account. Staff attitudes, political
correctness, Health & Safety, satellite navigation and communications, mobile ‘phones and
PC’s are still all in the future.
I served on OWS during the period 1967 – 1969 on the OWS Weather Monitor. This was a
Castle Class corvette (Pevensey Castle K449) built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and
launched on January 11th 1944. In WWII, as part of the 30th Escort Group, she shared in the
sinking of U-1200 south of Ireland on November 11th 1944.
The four UK OWS were based at the James Watt Dock in Greenock (Scotland). Three were
normally at sea whilst one was in dock. We spent 28 days on station plus 2, 3 or 4 days
travelling each way. The four stations that we served were:-
Station A (Alpha) Latitude 62N Longitude 33W
Station I (India) Latitude 59N Longitude 19W
Station J (Juliet) Latitude 52.3N Longitude 20W
Station K (Kilo) Latitude 45N Longitude 16W
Stations A, I and J were UK manned, and occasionally by the Dutch, whilst Station K was
normally manned by the French Met Office. During my two years I only visited Station K
Meteorological Office Posts on board OWS’s were:-
· 1 x Experimental Officer (the officer in charge) (~JL3)
· 1 x Assistant Experimental Officer (Supervisor #1) (JL4)
· 1 x Senior Scientific Assistant (Supervisor #2) (JL5H/JL4)
· 4 x Scientific Assistant (the workers!) (JL5)
Duties included meteorological observing, upper air soundings by radar and radio-sonde and
the provision of meteorological information to aircraft and ships. The 6 staff members
(excluding the boss) were put onto two shifts. During my first two trips the roster consisted of
14 x 12 hour days followed by 14 x 12 hour nights. There was no Working Time Directive in
those days! If you started on 14 Nights you found that on your first day shift you met
members of the crew that you had never seen before! One of my first suggestions was to
change to 7 days, 7 nights, 7 days and 7 nights. This was accepted as a better method of
A yearly OWS Allowance of £255 was payable to Meteorological Office staff for a complete
tour (8 consecutive voyages), as compensation for overtime, Sunday working and abnormal
hours. An extra payment of £3 was made to all meteorological staff, except the officer in
charge, if the ship had to sail with less than the full compliment of meteorological staff! This
happened to me twice. I cannot remember what I spent this windfall on.
We had to report to the OWS base two days before sailing in order to load up the ship and to
ensure that we had a full compliment of met. staff. My permanent station at this time was
Shanwell R/S (Fife, Scotland).
Two of my trips were “Pier head jumps” when I was telephoned the day before sailing and
asked to get across country to Greenock before the ship sailed. I remember that the late Dave
Drew had broken his leg playing Rugby for (Redruth?) for one of these trips. Posting
notices…don’t make me laugh!
The evening before sailing was always spent eating and drinking, mainly drinking. The posh
place to go was Gourock, as opposed to Greenock or Port Glasgow. One of the eateries that I
remember was the Stakis Steakhouse. This small local restaurant was run by Rio Stakis who
started his current world wide business empire selling potatoes from door to door. US Navy
sailors from their submarine base at Holy Loch also used to frequent the bars and hotels of
Gourock. The OWS crews had taken a dislike to these in the dim and distant past so a
“lively” evening was always guaranteed when the two met. Sailing day always started with a
On the day of sailing we were seen off by the “Shore Captain” Oscar Binner. Oscar arranged
payment of claims, travel warrants, stores, mail, uniforms etc. Various experiments were
carried out during the voyages for third parties, Oscar would provide full details of these.
Hourly surface meteorological observations commenced once we were abeam of Ailsa Craig
( small island/large rock ) to the south of Arran and about level with Girvan. The route to A, I
or J took us around the South of the Mull of Kintyre and then headed into the Atlantic passing
Northern Ireland to the South. The route to K took us down through the Irish Sea.
One full upper air ascent was carried out on route. The “Station” consisted of a square of
ocean some un-remembered (50?) miles along one of its edges. The ship being relieved
would steam to the point on the grid nearest the UK for the handover. There is an oil painting
in the Exeter HQ library (one of two) that shows two OWS changing over. The one from the
UK has brought with it all the mail etc. During the voyage out one of the 35mm films has
been shown and this is handed over to the relieved ship to watch on the way back to
Greenock. Items were placed in buoyant waterproof containers fitted with smoke flares and
then tossed overboard. These were then collected by use of grappling hooks.
We spent 28 days on station doing two full Radio-Sonde ascents each day plus two pilot
balloons. Surface observations were carried out every hour. Flights had to be carried out in all
types of weather. During Autumn 1968 the very active remnants of a hurricane went through
us on “J”. This weather system eventually made land fall in the Glasgow area causing
considerable damage to roofs, trees etc. Several boats were sunk on the Clyde. The wind dial
in the Met Office was hard up against the 90kt stop when we successfully launched the
balloon. The ship steamed straight into the wind so that the balloon and the Radio-Sonde
could go straight off the stern. Balloons were filled with hydrogen in a shed attached to the
Met Office. A canvas cone was used to fill the balloon into to stop it blowing about. The shed
was open to the stern of the ship and in rough weather waves would broach over the back and
partially fill the shed with sea water.
There was a small porthole between the Met Office and the shed and much amusement was
had watching the balloon filler getting soaked!
Sea sickness was often a problem for new recruits. I was sick for the first two days of my first
trip and for one day of my second. After that it was OK. I did, however, suffer from land
sickness on returning home, often not being able to eat for a couple of days. Occasionally
Met Staff would not be able to get over their sickness and had to spend a large amount of
time in their bunk. These people only did one trip!.
The Met staff all had single cabins in the Castle class ships. The previous OWS were Flower
class and these had shared cabins. The cabin was about the same size as a room at Shinfield
Park. There was a raised bunk with drawers underneath which was orientated fore/aft. There
was also a sofa, long enough to sleep on, orientated port/starboard. Defending on the sea
conditions you had a choice where to sleep. In very rough weather the ship would corkscrew
through the water throwing you against the wooden sides of the bunk. In these conditions I
slept on the sofa. The cabin also contained a desk, chair and small wardrobe. There was also a
sink. Showers and toilets were some distance away.
These cabins, unlike some of the crews, were above the waterline so were provided with a
porthole. Early on in the trip when the ship was fully loaded with stores and fuel the porthole
was quite near to the waterline. It was a brave man that left his porthole open during rough
weather as a wet bunk was not very pleasant to sleep in.
The crew were split between three messes according to rank. There was the Wardroom for
the Officers, which included the three senior Met staff, the PO’s (Petty Officers) mess for the
remaining Met staff plus radio and radar operators, the bosun and senior deck staff. The
crews mess was for the rest. Food was centrally cooked in the galley and then delivered to a
small pantry attached to each mess. Stewards served up the meals. Food was not bad but a bit
predicable. Sunday was roast, Monday cold meat, Wednesday mince, Thursday rissoles and
Friday brown Windsor soup or so it seemed!
Those of you around during the late 60’s may remember the Sunblest bread wrappers which
announced which day the bread was baked on. I remember eating “Happy Wednesday” bread
for a complete trip! There were some strange sausages which had survived in tins since the
end of WWII. These were triangular and contained 0% meat. I think these were possibly
made from Soya or some other substitute. There was also a copious amount of a Spam like
substance fondly known as Donkey’s Plonker (I can’t
think why) which turned up on our night time sandwiches. It had a terrible taste.
The wardroom had a bar and an honesty book. I seem to remember, from my three trips on
temporary promotion, the entitlement was two tins of beer and two nips of spirit a day. The
rest of the crew had to draw their drink rations from the tuck shop which was opened each
afternoon. Here there was also a two tin entitlement (Guinness or Tennents lager), but no
spirits. On a couple of trips, after several really boozy ones, an instruction was brought in
where you had to take the empty cans back before a re-issue was allowed. This was to
prevent drink being stored. We easily overcame this by each bringing a couple of “Party 7’s”
on board with us. This was used for the occasional party. Again this was strictly forbidden!
On Sundays, after church service, we got our rum ration. The POs and Officers could take
theirs away to drink but I believe the crew had to drink theirs on the spot. This was to prevent
them saving it up and mutinying.
OWS were cashless. All purchases were entered against your name and at the end of the trip
you got a mess bill. If you could find a non-drinker you could also draw their ration. There
were very few of these on board.
There was a 200 cigarette ration each week if you were a smoker. As all items on board were
only allowed to be purchased outside of the three mile limit they were all duty free. I am not a
smoker but quickly converted to one on board. Each week I drew my 200 and stored them up.
Customs came on board before we docked to ensure that the “bond” (where all duty free
items were stored), was locked and sealed. There was always a danger that a search could be
made so I carefully concealed mine in a Radio Sonde box and left it in the store. Before
disembarking I used to carefully wrap the 800 cigarettes up and lock them in my cabin. On
the first day back for the following trip I used to post them off home as my parents smoked.
Customs never checked you when you joined the ship only when you left it!
Christmas on board, of which I did two, were exciting times. In those days the Met men were
always remembered by the media for still being at work on Christmas day. There was a
special Shackleton flight from Lossiemouth bringing with it our Christmas mail, newspapers,
decorations and food and once, we even got a Christmas tree and decorations. Unfortunately
the container with the tree in was open at both ends due to its length and it sunk! There was a
BBC cameraman on board the flight and we all lined up on deck and waved (sad).
The RAF used the OWS as turning points on their crew navigation exercises. The OWS were
also used by ‘planes crossing the Atlantic to check their ground speed instrumentation. We
used to take a radar position, wait a time interval and then take another bearing. By use of
trigonometry we could calculate their ground speed. I was passing this information one time
and found out that the aircraft was Airforce #1 returning empty to the USA. The pilot got
chatting and I told him that the following day was my wife’s birthday. He kindly offered to
send her a postcard from Washington telling her that I was OK. She was very surprised, and
totally confused, when she received it a few days later!
All in a days work. So what was a typical day? The crew worked 4 hours on and 8
hours off. 8-12, 12-16, 16-20 etc. Breakfast was around 0700-0900 to allow both
shifts time to eat. The D shift Met Office staff had to undertake the hourly
observations from 0800, prepare the mid-day Radio Sonde, do the flight, have
lunch, continue with afternoon observations and fly the evening pilot balloon. The
N shift did the same from 2000.
Deep water temperature soundings were taken each day by use of a
bathythermograph*. This consisted of an extremely heavy brass “shell” fitted with a
temperature measuring device. It was lowered by winch on the end of a wire cable.
*Bathythermograph. (def.) A device for obtaining, from a ship under way, a record of
temperature against depth (strictly speaking pressure) in the upper 300 mt of the ocean. For a
thermal element it has a xylene-filled copper coil, which actuates a stylus through a Bourdon
tube. The pressure element is a copper aneroid capsule that moves a smoked glass slide at
right angles to the motion of the stylus. Once returned to deck the glass slide had to be air
dried and then lacquered to preserve the information.
During many trips we dumped sacks of “floaters” over the side. These were various plastic
discs, balls etc that floated just below the water (so not to be affected by the wind). They
followed the various tidal streams and eventually got washed up on far away beaches. A
return address was attached. The results enabled various agencies to study any changes
occurring with, for example, the Gulf Stream.
During one trip we had to obtain samples of squid. These were caught at night by shining a
bright deck lamp into the water and then scooping the squid out with nets. There were often
schools of pilot whales that hung around the ship. They appeared to be rubbing up against the
barnacles on the hull possibly to remove parasites etc. Occasionally larger whales would be
seen. They used to expel air and water through their blowhole which often covered the
balloon filling area in stinking fishy water. These were chased away by throwing iron
cylinder caps at them.
“Lost” migrating birds occasionally visited us, sadly few survived due to lack of the correct
food stuffs. We put several entries into the Marine Observer and also provided
pictures/drawings of the Northern Lights, noctilucent clouds, discolouration of water etc.
Air Sea Rescue drill was always a great laugh. In theory, if you were in a ‘plane crossing the
Atlantic and a problem occurred, you would head for the nearest OWS and ditch in the sea.
The crew from the OWS would then rescue you! If the sea was rough the crew would lay a
foam path behind the OWS to settle the waves! The drums of chemicals were possibly left
over’s from WWII. We did a test with one drum and the foam it produced would be enough
to cover a pint of Boddingtons!
During my trips as a Supervisor my designated post during these drills was in the “Z” boat
(Zodiac inflatable) which was kept on board. As an excuse to keep the boat out during one
exercise we tasked ourselves with working out how fast we could go. By fixing a Pilot
balloon target on top of a pole we used the radar to time ourselves over a measured mile. On
returning to the OWS I was at the helm. I tried unsuccessfully to do a handbrake turn but got
hit on the beam with a large wave which caused us to hit the side of the ship. The captain,
who never liked me, was watching and remarked that “we are the only ship in thousands of
square miles of sea and that silly ***** goes and hits us”. I knew that the captain did not like
me because whilst on Station K we were allowed to go swimming. He was observed coming
out of the mess and throwing an empty sauce bottle over side. It missed me by inches!
Each trip we were provided with several films which were shown on various evenings in all
the messes. In order to past the time I volunteered to be trained as a projectionist and
normally showed in the crews mess. My training as a projectionist stayed with me on a future
posting to Gibraltar where as well as a projectionist I undertook the servicing of all Service
OWS came under the authority of the Board of Trade. Each member of the crew, with the
exception of the Met staff, had some form of personal seaman’s log book. This contained
details of qualifications, previous employment and conduct. Without one you could not sail.
We were informed that if, say, a crew member had had an adverse report with a previous
employer, then this would be marked up in the log book. Then, by sailing on an OWS, and
getting a good report the bad entry would be negated. This meant that some of the crew on
each trip, could have been guilty of some form of serious conduct misdemeanour in their past
life. One took great care not to annoy them! The OWS was often met by the Glasgow
constabulary on returning to Greenock!
Women were not allowed to sail on an OWS, this included the Met staff. With nothing much
else to do other than work, sleep, drink and eat there were often minor scuffles. During one
altercation the Boson had part of his ear cut/bitten off. First aid was very basic, one up from
Nelsons time! ( My worse fear was getting a serious illness or needing to see a dentist. ) The
Chief Steward was trained in basic first aid and offered to sew the ear back into place. The
only opiate available was Laudanum. The Boson, a real old sea-dog, refused this and asked
for 6 cans of Guinness which he promptly drunk, then suitably inebriated his ear was returned
to its rightful position.
The OWS were positioned off the main shipping routes, (otherwise it would have been a
waste of time being there!). Ships passing in the night, or during the day, were quite an event.
During December 1968 we were on our way westwards when we passed the QEII limping
back to Greenock after her initial sea trial to the Canary Isles. Some form of turbine failure
meant that she had to be returned to the builders. I have several photographs of her “dipping
her flag” to us as we passed. We lined up on desk resplendent in our OWS uniforms which
consisted of dark blue high waisted trousers, light blue shirt and dark blue Blouson tops.
During my spell in the Officers Mess I added one and a half rings to my shoulder epaulettes.
Caps were seldom worn (as they blew off and got lost) but I kept my gold wire cap badge and
used it as a blazer badge for a number of years.
There was no real dress code on board. Boiler suits were not allowed in the Wardroom
though. Several of the stewards like to cross dress whilst off duty and when attending crew’s
parties. You often caught site of a well dressed lady mincing down the companionways. This
was before people “came out” so was quite an unusual sight.
My last trip took place just before my wedding so the Met staff and crew decided to give me
a stag party on the way home. I had carried out most of the routine work on the outward
journey so was free during the three days back to Greenock. Due to the 4 hours on and 8
hours off crews shift system I needed to run the party over a 12 hour period. I had previously
secreted on board several Party 7’s to add to my daily beer ration. I remember the first 8
hours and then passed out. I woke up in my bunk with extreme pain emanating from my foot.
A glance under the bed clothes showed a large blood stain. At first I thought that my foot had
been amputated but it turned out that I had passed out and been put to bed. My toe nail had
caught on the sheet and been torn off. All the beer had been drunk and we were only a few
hours from docking. To say that I felt under the weather would be an understatement!
The James Watt dock was also the home of Tate & Lyle sugar boats. These were unloaded by
a grab crane into a hopper for onward transportation. Some of the raw sugar was always
spilling into the dock and gradually started to rot/ferment depending on the weather. As we
started to dock this glutinous mass of rotting sugar/oil/bilge water etc was stirred up causing
clouds of obnoxious fumes to be released. You can guess the rest! So ended my two year
period on OWS…seldom spoken about now but never forgotten.