His face, his shoulders, his bare chest
And the sweat that hailed down.
If anyone could see the fireroom, He’d call it hell!
(From “The Sea is Spread Wide” song)
This song is more than one hundred years old. And it was written to commemorate the sea passage of the Baltic military squadron under command of Admiral Zinoviy Rozhdestvenskiy via the Red Sea to the war against Japan in 1905. The squadron’s fate was tragic. It died in the battle near the Island of Tsushima in the Korea Straight. The ships of the squadron were equipped with steam propulsion units generating steam in boilers due to coal burning. During the passage through the Red Sea, where the water temperature reaches 30 degrees Celsius, the temperature inside the boiler compartments of the ships went up to 45-50 degrees, and the firemen had to heat the boilers with coal. The work was beyond people’s strength. Many of them fainted away and even died.
The famous song “The Sea is Spread Wide” is devoted to those people and those events.
In 1960 I used to work as a fireman at fishing trawlers. And probably I am the last from the Mohicans, who can remember how it was to be a fireman. This was in the North, not in the hot Southern seas, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to tell stories about it after 58 years.
So, for the purposes of fishing in the Barents Sea, a series of fishing trawlers was built in 1940-ies, which were equipped with steam engines and boilers burning cheap coal, excavated on the Island of Spitsbergen. Those trawlers were basing in Murmansk, and they were called “coal burners” in common terms.
Dozens of trawlers were scanning the bottom of the Barents Sea by their trawls. The slag from the coal, burnt in the furnaces, was covering the sea bottom, destroying the vegetation along with the nutritional base for the fish. The catch started to fall, the vessels were aging, both morally and physically, it became more and more difficult to find firemen for this backbreaking work.
It became obvious: the “coal burners” need to be re-equipped, modernized and repaired. It was not possible to do that in Murmansk, and they started to send the vessels for the refit to Leningrad, Kronstadt, Tallinn, Gdansk.
The year 1960. The renewal of the Soviet fishing fleet started. The shipyards switched to the construction of large trawlers and fishing mother ships, designed for the ocean-wide fishing. In this context, the maritime agency I was working for, had a reserve of fleet personnel. By that moment I had been waiting for an appointment for a sea voyage quite for some time.
Finally I was invited to talk to Mr. Aleksandruk, head of the personnel management section, who said, “Mr. Lebid, I have no place to send you as a mechanic, so I propose that you go to Murmansk to work as a fireman on a fishing trawler during its voyage to Tallinn for the refit. In this case you will help the agency and earn some money. We won’t forget this.” “It is better to go for the voyage than to be sitting in reserve for 75% of the time”, I thought and gave my consent.
So, we are already in the fishing port of Murmansk. We are walking along the quay with our suitcases in hands, looking for our RT-118 “Riga”.
And finally here is our lovely ship. We see that it is absolutely rusty so that it is not clear which colour this trawler was before. It had bent sides, protruding frame stiffeners, curved and in some places torn bulwarks, hanging pieces of mast supports, missing half of the deck planks... We enter the corridor. Bulkheads are dirty, handrails are broken, twilight, only half of the lamps are on. In the crew quarters the table is half broken, dirty and oily mattresses are on the beds, dirty port lights and empty vodka bottles in the corner, cockroaches are running around. And it is so everywhere, throughout the trawler.
We started acceptance. The majority of the handing in team was under the influence of alcohol for all the three days of the acceptance. We kept on hearing, “Accept this coffin and sail it for the refit! We were lucky to come back on it from the sea, everything is nearly dead here.”
We are getting ready for the voyage: we have received coal, water, food stuff, people were appointed for the watches, I was appointed for a watch with Yuriy Razumov, an experienced 30-year old fireman. The deck crew was busy preparing the closures: holds, entrance halls’ doors, port lights, rescue equipment. Our main task is to get the vessel ready for the passage and not to sink on the way to Tallinn. And simultaneously we had hesitations: will we be able to reach the destination on this bucket?
Here comes the departure. There is a splutter in the engine room, which is now covered with clouds of steam. Those are the machinists, who are blowing off and heating the cylinders of the steam engine. And there are three of those. They are removing condensation in order to avoid hydraulic rams. The crank shaft starts moving slowly. After it makes several turns, the machinist closes the blow off valves, the steam settles down, and it becomes lightly so that you could clearly see the movement of the cylinder rods, crossheads, connecting rods, spool-type valves. And it is because the crankcase is of an open type.
In boiler compartments of several ships the temperature used to reach 40-50 degrees and more
We are sailing down the Kola Bay to the North, towards the exit from the Barents Sea. Our shift with Yuri is to start at 16.00. We go down to the engine room along a narrow corridor between the side and the boiler, and we enter the boiler room.
The pressure gauge is showing that it is 14kg/cm2 in the boiler, two glass water gauges are indicating the average level of water in the boiler. Those are all the instruments that we have.
Amidst the boiler compartment there is a pile of coal, in the passway you can see the edge of a trolley to carry coal, there are fireman’s tools there, i.e. huge square-faced shovels, polished to the shine, so-called “trowels” – fire hooks to flatten coal inside the furnace, little crow bars (called “Mondays” in firemen’s slang) around three meters long and four centimeters thick, there is also a “separation” tool near the boardside, which is a bucket to throw away the slag overboard. There is an alluminium kettle for nearly five liters hanging on wire in the middle of the boiler compartment. It used to be white some time ago, but now it is all black of mud. And the whole boiler compartment is black because of the coal dust. You can clearly see that it has never been painted since the manufacturing of the vessel. Three or four small lamps give some twilight. Gloom.
The firemen from the previous shift go away. The only two of us stay. “What shall we do?” I ask Yuriy. Having assessed the stocks of coal and the trolley, Yuriy says, “You need to bring some coal. Take the trolley to the hold, fill it up with coal and bring it to the boiler room. And I will be poking the boiler (means to stoke)”
So I wheeled the trolley along the rails towards the hold, to the coal bunker. It was close enough to take the coal, and we had the full order, i.e. about 120 tons of coal. I filled up the trolley, which was nearly 300 kilograms, and started to wheel it towards the boiler room. In four hours it will be necessary to bring coal three times as approximately one ton is to be burnt during one shift.
The steam starts to settle down, which means that the pressure in the boilers is decreasing. Yuriy says, “Now watch how to stoke a boiler. Everything needs to be done quickly. The furnaces shouldn’t be open for long as the boiler will cool down then. Now I will make a “wheel”. And here it comes, the “wheel”: for that you throw five-seven shovels of coal into the three furnaces alternatively, use the trowel to flatten it in the furnaces, and take the “Monday” tool to break a bit the charred coal, then again take the trowel to eliminate “crabs” (charred coal) from the furnaces.”
In around five minutes Yuriy has made the “wheel”. The sweat started to run down his face. He came up to the kettle, tilted it, and the water started to pour joust in his opened mouth and on the face.
The pressure in the boiler went up. But in ten minutes it started to decrease again.
– Now you make the “wheel”, Yuriy told me.
I open the doors of the furnace, grab the shovel, scoop coal by it and throw it to the furnace as far as I can reach – one, two, seven shovels; shut the doors, then I do the same with the second and the third furnaces; I pick up the trowel and flatten the coal in the first, second and third furnace; I grab the “Monday” tool and break the coal a bit in the three furnaces; then take (take, not grab as I have already a lack of strength) and rake out “crabs” from the furnaces and pour water on them from the hose. Wet from the sweat, I come to the kettle and pour water to my mouth and face. I sit on a pile of coal. “What a pleasure it is to be sitting on a coal,” that’s what I am thinking about.
Smoking break – around ten minutes. Then we have “wheels” and coal delivery again.
On the fourth hour of the shift Yuriy says, “We need to clean the ash pits. Look how this needs to be done and pour water on the slag. He stays on his knees, opens the doors of the ash pit and uses the trowel to extract the slag in front of him. I pour water from the hose on the hot smoking slag. As a result of that puffs of steam and dust rise, the mouth gets sweet from the reaction of water and heat. On Yuriy’s face there are streams of running sweat. Then he cleans the second ash pit and I do the third. Our work clothes are soaked with sweat and steam. We keep on drinking water from the kettle. One kettle turns out to be not enough, so we go to bring fresh water. Then we have “wheels” again ...
By the end of the shift we have to extract slag from the boiler room. Then comes the turn for the “separation” tool to work. I go to the upper deck. Yuriy is in the boiler room. He fills the bucket with slag and lifts it up with a pulling rope. I receive the bucket and throw the slag by the board over the wood-rail. The coal from Spitsbergen, which we are using to heat the boiler, is of a bad quality and of a low heating value, there are many incombustible elements in it. A ton of coal is burnt – three hundred kilograms will be slag.
By the end of the four-hour shift, we are physically exhausted, our faces and hands are black from coal dust, our working clothes are soaked from sweat. “On the mark”, which means with the boiler pressure at the level of 15 kgf /cm2, we hand over the shift and go for an eight-hour rest. We change clothes in the engine room casing and put our working clothes on the guard rail to get dry.
When we came back after eight hours, the clothes got dry, but were stiff from the sweat. We struck them against the guard rail and put on.
Then it became our daily procedure until we reached the port.
We put out to the Barents Sea, bypassed the Nordcape, entered the Norwegian Sea. Rolling motion. It became more difficult to work: you open the furnace, take a shovel of coal and, balancing, try to throw it to the furnace. Boom, and the shovel strikes the door throwing the coal to the deck. Then you need to collect it quickly and deliver to the furnace.
Our trawler won’t bear the strengthening rolling with a northern wind in the Norwegian Sea, so we take a decision to enter rocky islets. In a designated place we take a Norwegian navigation pilot, who leads us through inland waters of his country, i.e. bendy paths of rocky islets. Just in ten meters from the vessel sheer cliffs of islets, covered with lichens and devoid of vegetation, are sweeping by, so you need to be really quick in spinning the steering wheel under the command of the navigation pilot.
We went through the northern rocky islets for more than a day and a half, for all this time the navigation pilot did not leave the bridge. Then we put out to sea, and in half a day took another navigation pilot to enter the southern rocky islets. Again we move to the South maneuvering among islets, which are now covered with brushwood and bushy trees. There is clear blue water of rocky islets overboard. We enter the port of Bergen for the replenishment. We are given some local currency. We visited the city, bought something for currency. It was like an unexpected bonus, which made us a bit more happy. After two days of stationing and some rest, we put out to sea. There is rolling again, but we already have some experience and feel more confident. But, when you go to the restroom, there are the Asian-type toilets where the water is striking the ceiling as the covers are either missing or broken. You can imagine yourself what you have to do.
We enter the straits, pass Skagerrak, Kattegat, Sound. And here we are at our native Baltic Sea! It welcomes us very well as country men, i.e. the sea is only a little choppy and there is favorable wind of three-four points.
On January 30, 1960, we reached Tallinn. We do all the paper formalities in the port and go to the shipyard in Kopli, which is an outskirt of Tallinn. We hand over the vessel to be repaired and get ready to go home. But nothing of the kind! We receive a radiogram from the maritime agency ordering the whole crew to go to Leningrad, accept another trawler, which was repaired and upgraded at the Baltic Shipyard, and sail it to Murmansk.
What do we have to do? We go, accept and sail. The vessel’s boiler is working on furnace oil. The life of a fireman is easy – rotate the valves and adjust the burning process. It is just like a health-resort!
In Murmansk we receive another radiogram: the crew shall accept RT-66 “Urals” and sail it to Kronstadt for the refit. We fulfill this task too. Then we go to Murmansk again, accept RT-119 “V. Chkalov” and sail it to Tallinn to be repaired.
This constant flow of events with “coal burners” lasted for half a year. By the end of this long story the fingers on my right hand became square and rough because of those shovels, trowels and crow bars, and the palm of the left hand became tough as a heel. I was thin even before that, and now I became even more withy and muscular. I was twenty years of age at that time, and I was not married. Those five liter kettles of water, which I drank in big quantities over each shift, washed my brains so greatly that I started to play chess very well, and the enlightened head began to clearly distinguish between good and bad.
For this work as a fireman the personnel management section of the maritime agency awarded me with good and decent appointments later on. But those are different stories, some of which you have already read.