Saturday, 1 December 2007

Friggin in the rigging

Some of you may remember the square rigged sailing ship that was in Ramsgate Harbour beside the brick arches from about 1968 to 1973 owned by an Australian opal mining company she was called the Black Opal.

I worked on her rigging and in her engine room during my school holidays in the late 60s

I know she wasn’t originally called the Black Opal and is now called the Black Pearl, has been pulled up out of the water and is used as a restaurant in Malta.


I looked on the restaurant’s website and several others about her and a lot of the information on them I know is wrong, so I will put down what I can remember and perhaps others can add anything they can remember.

She was built I was told in the 1920s in one of the Scandinavian countries it think 112 feet long and 300 tons she was originally fitted with a 200 horse power 2 cylinder Bolinder engine with a variable pitch prop.

She was three masted, probably originally rigged as a topsail schooner, her masts had been cut off level with the deck at some time past, probably because it would have not been economic to have a crew large enough to manage her under sail, she was being used as a coaster in Jamaica when the mining company bought her, these slow running Diesel engines run well on rum which is cheap in that part of the world.

She was crewed by a group of young Australians and an older captain, Captain Keble I think. They flew from Australia to Jamaica where they picked her up and sailed to one of the Scandinavian countries, to buy the pine to make masts and spars.

When I first saw her she had the square cut pine on the deck, which we planed to eight sided the sixteen sided and so on until we were able to sand off to round masts and spars. The whole of the hull was empty and lined with oak to take dry cargoes, the only accommodation being under the wheelhouse where the portholes are in the pictures.

We removed the old engine because it was thought its exhaust would stain the new sails. It was under the accommodation we cut a hole in the engine room bulkhead, laid railway lines into the hold level with the engine bed, attached a chain block to the stump of the main mast and the engine and dragged it into the hold where it could be craned out. It was heavy, the flywheel alone weighed three tons, no one wanted to buy this dated marine engine it lay on the quay for a bit and was eventually sold to the scrap merchant for £50.

The hold was ballasted with fitted water tanks and shingle beneath a deck over which accommodation was built, two deck houses were also built over the cargo hatches.

The making of the masts and all the rigging was done by Wally the rigger, who taught us unskilled young people how to rig a square rigged ship from nothing at all.

Eventually the opal mining company went bust, probably largely due to financing the Black Opal and I believe a film company bought her eventually.

I am certain that she was renamed the Aeolus, though not sure if that was her name before being called the Black Opal. It was under the name Aeolus that she finally left Ramsgate rigged as a barquentine and I lost track of her.

Knowing the limitations of my camera at the time, click here to see the full size pictures, I think I must have taken the pictures from our dingy, one of the pictures says Ramsgate 1971 on the back in one of my brothers hand writing he was 15 and I was 18 at the time, you have to have a certain understanding of things nautical to fully appreciate what owning Heron number 19 meant in 1971.

20 comments:

  1. Hi Michael. I sailed on her out of Sydney 1973. She was then named EOLUS (not AEOLUS), her original name when built in Pukavic, Sweden. The captain was Anders Jensen. I have a brochure with Photo's from her voyage from Ramsgate to Sydney. I shared the forward portside cabin with Olaf Harris, the uncle of Rolf Harris! The bankers stopped the voyage in Singapore where she sat for quite a long time. I have heard that she was being sailed to England when she had a fire in the engine room in the Suez canal. I also have found a Swedish record of her origin in Pukavic. I'm planning a web page on her for inclusion on several Tall Ships' sites and would like to include your info and photo's (with acknowlegement to you of course). Great to hear of her again! Best regards, Ray

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  2. I sailed on Eolus from UK to Tahiti and rejoined her again in Sydney. We left UK late 1973 and Eolus arrived in Sydney June 1974. My husband was the Chief Engineer and together with the Skipper (Anders Jensen, his wife Anita we had three children(2 of theirs 1 of ours) who sailed with us. A voyage of a lifetime!Liz Hanslow

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  3. Hi Liz. I remember you and Hilary. I'm still gathering info and photo's of Eolus with a view to an eventual website on her. I've made contact with Julia (Dennis's daughter), an Australian guy named Barry who sailed from Panama to Sydney, and I have an Amateur Radio Operator friend who lives about a mile from where Eolus is now in Malta. I'd like to hear from you and any others who sailed on her. Regards, Ray Stockdale

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  4. Michael, In 1974 I crewed on the Eolus from Barbados to Singapore and all points between after signing on—first buying a passage to Venezuela (to which we never got), then being hired on as deck hand and engine room gofer. It all started when I wandered on board this beautiful square-rigged Barquentine in the carrinage in Bridgetown and asked if they were from The National Geographic. After a few Guiness with Adrian, Keith the bos’n, Richard, Fred etc I was negotiating for a passage. Many months, adventures and one incredible Typhoon later we were unfortunately declared bankrupt and the crew scattered to the wind. I’ve recently begun trying to find my old friends on line—and found your blog and bookstore. I’m hoping you are in touch with some of those who rigged Eolus and sailed on her.

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  5. Magnificient ship!! The black Opal's not bad either ;)

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  6. Hi Ja. I remember you from my stint on EOLUS from Sydney to Singapore. If you Google "VK4TPT" you'll find heaps of contact details for me. Get in touch. Regards Ray

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  7. I have just come across my father Captain Stephen Banks's blue jasper relief of Joseph Banks, which he had with him in his cabin aboard the barquentine Eolus from Portsmouth to Fiji, December 1973 to May 1974. He was stationed in Malta in about 1948; I wonder if Eolus has come to rest near where we used to live. Desmond Banks

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  8. When the Black Opal arrived in Ramsgate I was an apprentice at Quern Marine we moored her alongside the the inner basin slipway,i think it was Chrismas eve.We removed the main engine as previously mentioned a two cylinder Bollinder with cartridge start. A new Dorman engine arrived to be installed but Quern then stopped working on her and i think Bill Davies took over. I had many a good evening with the young Australian crew in the Shipwrights.

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  9. Guys, I work as a waiter/supervisor at the Black Pearl (Eolus, LEA etc)

    She rests in Malta now as a fish restaurant. This information here is mind blowing as we had so many other 'facts' wrong. We thought she was built in 1909 in Pukavik and even owned by famous Errol Flynn...

    Contact me for images etc on scicluna3@gmail.com

    The Pearl is my second home nowadays and the love of my life. I'd be glad to be in touch with anyone who knew it from before, as i was under the impression that she was internationally forgotten.

    Simon
    Scicluna

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  10. I sailed as bosun in Black Pearl on her final voyage from Port Tewfik, at the southern end of the Suez canal, to Malta. This would have been summer/autumn 1976.
    At that time she belonged to a frenchman who had bought her near derelict in Singapore; he planned to bring her back to the Med and refit her for service with Club Mediterranee. I believe it was he who re-named her Black Pearl.
    En Route through the Red Sea there was an engine room fire. Her distress call was responded to by an oil rig supply vessel under command of an american - Capt. Reid. Reid's crew got the fire under control and took her in tow but Reid was ordered to take off the crew and cut Black Pearl adrift as his employers were not interested in the salvage nor the expense of towing her to a safe port. Reid refused and towed her into Port Tewfik. En route he was fired by his employers; on arrival in Tewfik he was met by the owner who fired the original captain and offered him the master's position.
    At that time I was based in Malta working as a free-lance rigger on various yachts, including Reid's own ketch; Reid asked me to fly to Egypt and put the rig, which was in dreadful condition, into a fit state for the passage on to Malta.
    ..... Continued below ...

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  11. ... Continued from above
    However beautiful Eolus may have been on departure from Ramsgate Black Pearl was, by now, in an appalling state. Reid was a very experienced tug master, an excellent seaman, but with no knowledge of sailing ships. He was well taken up with the romance of being master of a square rigger but lacked the specialised knowledge to realise what a sorry ship he had under his command. After the departure of her original captain she had been run by enthusiastic amateurs who lacked the skills - and wherewithal - to keep her in good shape. When I joined Black Pearl her crew was an enthusiastic and varied bunch picked up along the way, under two mates, Doug and Dennis, who had been amongst the original paying passengers on her departure from UK. The Italian chief engineer had joined in Djibouti. He was looking for passage back to Italy having served 30 years in an Ethiopian jail for the murder of his wife and her lover. He was a great engineer, but with no experience at sea, and his habit of throwing his chain smoked cigarette ends into the bilge under the main engine resulted in the serious pump failure that nearly resulted in our sinking!
    The accommodation was foul with cockroaches - big Bombay runners. We learnt to sleep in shoes - at night they would nibble the hard skin on the soles of our feet, waking us up as they reached the quick, making walking an agony, especially on salt wet decks!
    There was little that could be done with the rig - she was all in natural fibres - rigging and sails - and was all pretty rotten. We spent 2 months in Tewfik getting her sufficiently ship shape for onward passage but our choice of materials was limited by what the local ship chandler could supply - our decks were re-caulked and payed with hard pitch that cracked and leaked as she worked - and she worked very hard in a seaway being badly hogged and twisted.
    Our passage through Suez is a story in itself. We couldn't motor above 5 knots and the convoys moved at 8, so we were left behind under the control of a very irate pilot. The canal was not long re-opened and good pilots in short supply; ours had been a Cairo taxi driver a few weeks previously! Don Reid ordered him off the bridge and we continued to the Bitter Lakes on our own.
    Passage on to Malta was pretty grim. It was already winter in the Med. We couldn't sail and could only motor very slowly, especially against head winds. I remember spending a couple of days staring at the same headland on the south of Crete - all up and down and no along!
    As the weather deteriorated the worm ridden, bent and twisted old hull - and decks - worked and leaked and in came the water. One by one our pumps failed, for the most part clogged with Marlboro' filters. Our petrol driven portable fire pump - a 'gift' from Reid's previous employers was our last resort, but the petrol we'd bought in Egypt was filthy and full of water. Our last night out the weather deteriorated further and we arrived in Malta close to sinking. Water was well over the sole boards in the main accommodation and the fire brigade was aboard and pumping before Customs and Immigration. Next day, still sinking, we hauled her at Bezzina's floating dock and I very gladly signed off.

    Black Pearl was a romantic notion but severely flawed.
    She was originally rigged as a 2 masted schooner, a suitable rig for a Baltic Trader. She was too long and narrow to carry a square rig and this was probably the main cause of her twisting. Re-rigging as a barquentine, with 3 masts, meant none of her sticks was stepped or stayed as it should have been - indeed her masts were stepped in 50 gallon oil drums filled with cement and bolted to the keel - this probably contributed to her hogging.
    ..... Continued below ...


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  12. ... Continued from above
    The original slow revving Bolinder main engine had been replaced with a modern high revving Paxman diesel but this was linked to the existing stern gear - a massive two bladed controllable pitch propeller designed for low revs and coarse pitch and unable to be driven at the higher speed of the Paxman. If this weren't bad enough, when the propeller was dismantled for service in Singapore it was reassembled with the blades on back to front, so that when going ahead the intended leading edge was trailing. This led to massive vibration at more than idle revs, the reason we couldn't motor more than 5 knots.

    The owner ran out of money shortly into the Malta refit; crew drifted away as wages went unpaid. Bezzina's patched her up as best they could and moved her to a stern-to mooring at Marsamxett. The mooring was open to the NorthEast and too short for the vessel so that the heavy steel mooring buoy lay close under her stem. During a nor-easterly gale she rode up against the buoy, opened some seams and sank.
    My knowledge of her history is sketchy thereon. She was raised and chartered by a film company making the Popeye movie, for which she was moved to Il Prajjet bay - where she sank again; her role in the movie had to be re-scripted to allow for her sunken condition!
    Presumably her present owners lifted her once more and brought her back to Ta' Xbiex where she lies safely ashore as a fish restaurant.

    In closing - I went to school near Portsmouth in the south of England and remember seeing her anchored in one of the creeks to the north of the island shortly before her departure around the world. I dreamt of going to sea in such a vessel - a dream that sadly came true.

    Jeremy Parker

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    1. Thanks Jeremy for the info which fills in a lot between when I left her in Singapore and she ended up in Malta. One point which I differ is her original configuration. I have records from Pukavik and the Danish Ships Register which show her as a 3 masted schooner, on of three sister ships built after the 2nd world war.

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  13. Thanks for all the info Jeremy. It fills in a big gap in my knowledge. That is, the time between when I left her in Singapore and when she ended up in Malta. One difference is that I have records from Pukavik in Sweden where she was built and the Danish Ships Register, both which show her as a 3 masted Schooner. Thanks again.

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  14. Interesting to read all the comments as today is the 40th Anniversary of Eolus' departure from the Camber Docks in Portsmouth with a brass band and the Mayor of Portsmouth in attendance. Anyone who was on board will remember that she motored out into a gale and had to be towed back in a few hours later, bit of an embarrassment.
    I was lucky to have the means to sign on as a guest crew for the whole trip and travelled all the way to Sydney and then Singapore.
    I remember a few of the commenters above such as Ray who with me and others took a trip to Alice Springs while Eolus was in Blackwottle Bay. Ja if I recall was a US southerner and planned to be an attorney. Liz was the nurse and administered the antibiotics when needed, which seemed to be quite often.
    The Eolus trip certainly changed my life and a few years later I got my own boat and sailed to the US to a new life...Phil

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  15. Hi Phil. I fondly remember out lightning trip half way round Australia. Ja is a doctor in Memphis, Tennessee.
    If you google vk4tpt you should find some contact details of mine.
    Would like to hear further from you.
    Cheers, Ray

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  16. Does anyone have knowledge of the Black Opal when docked in Ramsgate Kent, UK c1970 having repairs? I'm particularly interested in a carpenter named Peter Weekes who worked on her. I'm also lead to believe at around this time was possibly part of the Ramsgate lifeboat crew.
    Cheer
    Invictaron

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    1. As peviously mentioned I was an apprentice fo Quern Marine when she arrived in Ramsgate the name peter weekes rings a bell did he work for Ramsgate Marine or possibly Derek Slade there were so many people involved over the period she was in Ramsgate I do not recall him being on the lifeboat at that time. The coxain was Tom Cooper so the RNLI should have a record of that period

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