Typhoons seem to buzz around the Eastern Rover like bees around a honey pot. In the last 11 weeks we have been affected by no less than 7 typhoons.
In July 1971 we caught the tail of Jean just before Cebu. Four days later at Manila, typhoon Lucy delayed our sailing by 12 hours and gave us a rough ride to Keelung. Lowest pressure onboard was 997.6 millibars. Four days later we managed to scrape into Kaohsiung by the skin of our teeth and rode out Nadine alongside another ship. The eye passed close to the north of Kaohsiung giving gusts of 70 or so knots and a lowest pressure of 971.6mbs. When we left there were 22 ships waiting to go in.
In September, after leaving Manila we managed to get round the “stern” of Agnes on our way to Keelung. She gave us quite a heavy swell but not much else.
On the 19th September we could not believe our eyes when “spark’s” weather report gave us warning of another typhoon – Bess with a central pressure of 910mbs. Must be a mistake we thought, but no, later reports indicated a very low central pressure. As might be expected by now, Bess decided to head for Keelung because we were!
We arrived on the 20th and very luckily berthed almost immediately. On the 21st fishing boats steamed into the inner harbour in an almost continuous stream and moored in two great lines right across the southern end of the harbour. Ships were moved in from the anchorage and double or triple banked in the inner harbour, giving a total then of 59 ships. An old joggle plated Sunderland built ship twice our size, the Hwa Shan, berthed alongside us on the evening of the 21st.
By the afternoon of the 22nd nearly all the ships alongside were triple banked and the ones at the buoys were double banked. At 1345 we stopped cargo work so that the labour could go home to attend to their typhoon preparations. Anyway it was raining too hard.
We battened down, as for sea and put out as many lines and wires as there were on board, including the insurance wire and our old school ties!! By 1600 we were all ready. The barometer was already dropping rapidly, 2.5mbs an hour and the wind was NE force 7. At 1600 the pressure was 994.7mbs. The wind gradually increased all evening until at 2000 it was force 8 or 9 with very strong vicious gusts. The barometer was now dropping rapidly at between 4 and 5mbs an hour and at 2000 was 981.6mbs.
We were astounded to see a ship belonging to a very respectable and well known British company with her derricks up; they were not even turned in! An Indian ship also had her derricks up but well…..!
Between 2000 and 2100 the barometer dropped 10.1mbs, which is very rapid indeed and it was really blowing now. We noticed that the wharf lights had gone out and later found out that there was an almost total power blackout in Keelung and Taipei.
At about 2045 we all heard someone blowing a prolonged blast every 30 seconds or so. A couple of minutes later, through the driving rain, we could see the lights of a ship moving down the harbour at an ever increasing speed. Abeam of us she turned broadside onto the wind, outside the ship of the 3 moored astern of us, breaking her
forward lines. The outside ship also had her derricks up and she lost one, which was one of those nice new expensive Thomson swinging derricks. We all thought of the fishing boats, nicely lined up for the slaughter, but there was nothing anyone could do.
The Hwa Shan spent the night ranging up and down our port side, making as the Captain put it “expensive noises”.
The wind was now a steady force 9 or 10 with gusts of 80 or 90 knots. The noise outside; the wind shrieking round the fittings of the Hwa Shan and our own ship, the rain hitting the metal work, the rubber fenders making agonising noises as the Hwa Shan ranged up and down on them, was bedlam. The visibility was only a few yards.
Then quite suddenly, in a matter of a minute or so, there was a deathly hush, everything was still. It is quite uncanny the sudden silence, so much so that one wonders if the noise of a minute ago was in one’s imagination, until one looks outside and surveys the damage. The “eye” of the typhoon was upon us.
Everyone was taken by surprise as we were not expecting the eye for another couple of hours or so. Not for long though, as now was the opportunity to get round the ship without being blown overboard. The lines were checked and the 2nd anchor walked back, ventilators turned through 180 degrees and then we were all back inside. When looking overside we saw that the wharf had been flooded and water was under the shed doors where our cargo was!
The pressure had dropped a staggering 16.8mbs from 2100 to 2145 where it remained almost steady for 50 minutes, the time it took for the eye to pass over us. We later estimated the diameter of the eye to be at least 25 miles. The lowest pressure we recorded was 954.2mbs at 2156. The barometer had dropped an astonishing 40mbs in 6 hours which is quite awe inspiring if you think of the forces involved.
A few puffs of wind in the opposite direction from before and in a couple of minutes the wind was a steady force 11 to 12 with “devil winds” screaming down from the mountain at well over 100 knots. The calm of a few minutes ago, a mere memory, in the cacophony of sound outside.
The barometer started rising very fast 14.8mbs in the first 40 minutes or so, and then settled down to a regular couple of millibars an hour with the wind gradually taking off until 0800 in the morning it was only force 6 or 7. The rain had eased a good deal so we could see some of the damage.
The paint on our newly painted masts, derricks and the funnel had been stripped on one side. A few houses were minus their roofs, the warehouse at the berth on the opposite side of the harbour to us was minus part of its roof, the one ship we had seen drifting down the harbour turned out to be two and were firmly aground, their sterns touching a couple of warships. Luckily they had only sunk one fishing boat; one could see the little blue bottom just above the surface, without we heard, loss of life. We heard that Jardines office in Taipei had been flooded which no doubt pleased everybody! The new 100,000 to tanker built by Taiwan Ship Building Corporation had broken adrift. The ship belonging to the respectable British company had left her ensign up all night and it was a surprised cadet who took down the remaining 6 inches of rag!
Wind speeds in excess of 115 knots were recorded at Keelung, the worst typhoon for 26 years; trust the Eastern Rover to be there!
Not content with this, typhoon Della decided to have a go at us and ran parallel with us on our passage to Hong Kong from Kaohsiung, giving us fair winds and a good speed. We arrived to find Hong Kong battened down and No. 3 signals up. Later the same day No. 3 came down; Della had decided to give us a rest!
We left Hong Kong on the 3rd October and would your believe it, a tropical depression had formed and was obviously going our way. By the time we reached the Philippine coast, further north than normal, the tropical depression was a fully fledged typhoon, Elaine. She gave us some rough weather for a couple of days, especially off Cabra, the lowest pressure being 995.6mbs.
Now it is fine, the sea is calm; the sun is out and with luck, no more typhoons until next year!
Author: Captain Ian Tew who was Chief Officer on Eastern Rover and no stranger to the dangers and hazards of seafaring. When Ian was a cadet on British India Steam Navigation Company’s Dara whilst off the coast of Dubai, on 8th April 1961, a horrific explosion occurred, presumed to be caused by a terrorist bomb. This resulted in the vessel eventually sinking, with tragically a loss of 238 lives.
Ian and his fellow cadet came close to losing their own lives and through their heroic actions helped save many others.
After Jardines, Ian had a long and distinguished career in the ship salvage business with Selco in Singapore and has written a book on his experiences, which is highly recommended: Salvage, a Personal Odyssey.
Source: Captain Frank Pickering, Sydney Branch Member