Where ships meet …

Goldilocks would have liked the tanker Zapadnyy’s cargo: molasses, at just the right temperature, not too hot and not too cold. Transporting molasses is tricky – it must be kept fairly fluid, so heating coils warm it to 24oC in the ship’s hold. If the molasses is too cold, it is impossible to discharge, but if it’s too warm it undergoes a Maillard reaction, an exothermic reaction which turns it into caramel. Eddie Atherton told me that “it’s like coke! I’ve seen people having to take a jack-hammer to it to release it.”

The Zapadnyy, molasses cargo discharged, at the port of Silloth

Eddie, now retired, was Production Manager at Caltech-Carrs Milling, based at the Port of Silloth on the Solway and it’s there – to Silloth – that Zapadnyy is bound.

She’s my favourite ship on the Solway, a ship whose erratic behaviour collects stories. I first heard about her in connection with some emergency welding that had to be carried out on the dock, and all the Silloth pilots have stories to tell about her.  “She’s unmanoeuvrable!” (Bill Amyes); “It’s anybody’s guess which way she’s going to go” (Ed Deeley, pilot and former Harbour Master); “She’s got such a broad beam. It’s like trying to steer a coracle” (Chris Puxley, pilot and former Harbour Master).

Ships longer than 50metres going up the Solway Firth to Silloth must take on a pilot from just off the Port of Workington. It’s a 90-minute voyage with known and occasionally unknown hazards: the Admiralty chart shows uncharted areas and ‘Changeable depths’, and the pilot and ship’s Master must negotiate the English Channel  – limited to the North by the Workington Bank – then pass through the Maryport Roads followed by a wiggle North/North-East through the shifting channel off Allonby Bay (see Piloting a ship to Silloth for more stories).

This afternoon, Sunday 13th January, Zapadnyy is due in to Silloth, and Workington’s Harbour Master, Russell Oldfield, has offered me a trip out to the ship on the pilot boat Derwent. At breakfast time, I watch Zapadnyy’s red icon on the live shipping website, making her way up the Irish Sea, turning East into the Solway, and slowing and anchoring off Workington just after 9am.

The Marine Traffic website gives all her details, her tonnage, her deadweight (weight including cargo), her length and breadth (77m x 14m) and more. She’s an old ship, built in 1988, and she’s registered in Belize – but I know that she has a crew of Russians and Ukrainians who, despite political differences, apparently co-exist amicably in this confined space.

The Solway’s English ports – Maryport, Workington, Whitehaven and Silloth – can only be entered at High Water and only, in Zapadnyy’s case, during daylight, so now she must wait off Workington for the late afternoon high tide.

But the wind has got up and the rolling brown waves on the Firth are streaked with white. The forecast is bad – a north-westerly wind, Force 5 or 6, increasing Gale Force 7 later in the afternoon. Tim Riley, pilot and Silloth’s current Harbour Master, phones me at midday – none of us will be going anywhere today.

I watch online as Zapadnyy’s icon swings round to the South-West and increases speed, direction 200o. She will sit out the gale elsewhere, heading out into the Irish Sea and then sheltering off the Isle of Man overnight: no shore time for her crew tonight.

Monday January 14th: the wind has moderated and I see that the tanker is back off Workington, speed 0.0knots – her crew waiting, again.  The next high water at Silloth is at 1702h; pilot Tim will need to board Zapadnyy at about 1500h, so the Derwent will be setting out to meet her at about 1430h. At Workington’s Harbour Office I’m directed towards the far end of the dock where the Derwent is moored.

Pilot boat and harbour tug Derwent by the dock gates at Workington

Since I last wrote about the port (see Solway Shore Stories) there have been many obvious changes: the green bund of plastic-wrapped bales of Solid Recycled Fuel destined for Latvia has disappeared, as has the pyramid of incoming gypsum. The main cargo entering the port these days is timber and wood-pulp for the paperboard mill Iggesund: stripped tree-trunks are piled like small mountains, new ‘Wainwrights’ in the making. Black plastic pipes for West Cumbria’s new water supply wait to be transported to the scarred countryside. The port still receives cement, but the hoped-for container traffic did not happen, and the two enormous Nelcon cranes, iconic reminders of the port’s glory days, have been sold and are due to be taken away. The quays look empty and tidy, waiting for new business.

The Derwent’s deck lies fifteen feet below me, for the dock gates are open and high tide is still two hours away. Russell Oldfield is washing the deck. Despite my willingness to do so, he insists that I should not climb down the quayside’s metal ladder, and directs me to the far side of the dock next to the RNLI station (from where I drove the previous lifeboat, Sir John Fisher, two years ago) and the fretted metal ‘safety steps’. Oily water sloshes to and fro beneath them, and green and grey shadows shift and shape-change in this underworld amongst the concrete piers.

Under the quay

The cabin of the pilot boat – which is also the harbour’s tug – is surprisingly roomy and warm, and coxswain Phil Scattergood lifts a hatch to show me that there is a larger cabin below, with bunks and a ‘head’ (toilet). Then Tim and coxswain Ian Cormack arrive onboard, and immediately we are off, heading out of the gates and out to sea.

Dozens of cormorants perch on the railings of the breakwater, black as crotchets on a stave; a syncopated tune that falls off the edge of the page, its notes flying, as we roar by.

Out past the breakwater the swell is noticeable, and the view from the windows is bleared and distorted by blasts of spray as the bow plunges and slams into the waves.

Zapadnyy is visible now, idling under motor, her bow pointing West, but she is of course expecting us, and as her captain and Phil talk on the radio, smoke puffs briefly from her funnel and she slowly turns around, wallowing gently, waiting. She has come up from Avonmouth, where she took on her cargo of molasses from a bigger tanker, but she is not fully-laden for her red-brown hull is partly visible.

Phil slowly brings the Derwent along the starboard side, in the lee of the north-westerly wind; two of the crew are waiting to welcome Tim and – it happens so quickly that I miss taking a photo at the crucial time – Tim has climbed the short rope ladder and is aboard. Russell is laughingly sympathetic that I’ve failed to see and record the ‘pilot transfer’, the main point of my trip, and he and Ian say that Tim must be ‘camera- shy’. But Zapadnyy’s crew, rolling up the ladder, make up for my disappointment with their broad smiles.

In seconds, we’re going astern and the tanker is under way: the meeting of ships and humans of different nationalities, briefly united by the sea, has been terminated.

We loop away, and now Russell sits at a computer and Phil, watching another screen, steers us along a pre-ordained course towards the West. Under the terms of its licence to dredge, the Port has to check the movements of the dredged material where it has been dumped in the designated ‘Soil Grounds’ in the Firth, so now the boat’s sonar measures and records the depth along the current course.

I watch, and feel, the rise and fall of the waves, and a guillemot takes off in a flurry of wings and running feet as the sun’s rays suddenly fan out from a hole in the cloud, gilding the surface of the sea.

Sunlight gilds the Solway

The dark prow of St Bees’ head stands out to the West, and the low coast around Workington is busy with turning wind-turbines and plumes of steam from the factories. A dark-grey catamaran, one of C-Winds’ service boats for the Robin Rigg windfarm, passes us in the distance, moving fast towards the port; its skipper is on the radio asking for permission to enter. Zapadnyy is disappearing up the English Channel, her green-and-brown hull merging with the coastline. The Derwent turns and heads back to port, leaving a spreading vee of frothing white water astern.


Zapadnyy heading up the Firth in the darkening day

Driving East along the coast road, I catch glimpses of Zapadnyy in the distance as Tim guides her through the channels up to Silloth. A smirr of rain hides her as she passes in front of Criffel, but soon she is slowly passing the harbour entrance, losing way, idling – waiting.

Someone comes down from the Harbour office to check the tide-gauge by the dock gate: he waves at me and shakes his head – not enough water yet for the tanker to make her entrance.

Fifteen minutes pass, and then her masthead riding-lights appear above the wall and she approaches gently, gently, delicately turning into the difficult entrance, sweetly gliding through the outer dock and setting the anchored shrimp boats swaying; gently through the narrow entrance of New Dock, and safely into port. It’s almost dark now, lights from the the warehouses glittering on the water and scattering as Zapadnyy manoeuvres to her own special place.

Her entrance was perfect.

But it has not always been so trouble-free. One of the photos on the Marine Traffic website shows her elsewhere with a spectacularly damaged bow. And here at Silloth, where wind and counter-currents at the harbour mouth make for a very difficult entry, she has on occasion rammed the dock wall – the incident when emergency welding was required – and, worse, on Ayr pilot John Munro’s watch, grounded outside the harbour on a sandbank.

The day the Zapadnyy got it wrong. September 13th 2016.
Photo thanks to Danny Ferris, Solway Shipping

On that occasion, she had to stay put (much to the delight and interest of ship-watchers close by on the shore) until she could be hauled off on the night’s high tide.

This evening, though, she arrives quietly and calmly. The harbour staff in hi-vis are waiting on the quay, ready to secure the ropes and hawsers. She is declared ‘all fast’.

The crew wave to me again, and then busy themselves with their well-practised tasks. They will spend tomorrow at Silloth – there should be time to go ashore – and then Tim Riley will guide them back down to Workington on the falling evening tide.

Meanwhile, the pipe will be connected and warm molasses will start to flow, to be stored then mixed in the harbour-side factory to make Crystalyx for sheep and cows. Zapadnyy may be difficult to steer but, as pilot Ed Deeley says, “She’s got a very competent bridge team as well as a very good echo-sounder! And she’s the only vessel that manages to keep molasses in a good state.”

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