The Rakaia

By David Carpenter

Owners of Rolls-Royce motor cars used to say their cars never broke down, but on rare occasions only, ‘failed to proceed’. This was how our old Chief Engineer, Jock Cowper described a potentially dangerous situation that occurred when New Zealand Shipping Company’s Cadet ship the 8,213 gross tons M.V. Rakaia was just passing the Galapagos Islands, homeward bound from New Zealand to the U.K. in 1964, with a full cargo of frozen lamb and apples from her adopted port of Nelson.

It occurred a few hours after transferring fuel that we had taken on in New Zealand from the double bottom tanks up to the settling tank then down to the purifiers, then back up to the daily service tank. The Rakaia was unusual in that it ran on gas oil rather than heavy oil.

The trouble first manifested itself during my watch the 12 to 4 (known as the graveyard watch). The Second Mate phoned down to the engine room and said we were making quite a bit of black smoke, at the same time I noticed the main engine had lost a couple of revs. A quick check on the all the pressures and temperatures showed no abnormalities, however I phoned the Chief Engineer to keep him informed.

The Chief replied, “Och eye Three O, I noticed the wee droop in revs. We are probably hitting the Humbolt Current, keep a close eye on things especially the sea water temperature”.

The Chief rarely visited the engine room, but he somehow knew how his main engine was behaving without going below. A few weeks earlier after coming off watch, I went along to his cabin to hand him a set of indicator cards that I had just taken.

As I handed them to him, he said, “We’ve a wee bit of trouble brewing on six and eight top pistons”.

When I previously worked out the readings I noticed that the compression was slightly down on those two units. I was about to mention it, but he beat me to it. I must have given him a look of surprise because he said, “Lay down on the day bed, put your elbow on the backrest and the palm of your hand over your ear”.


I followed his instructions.

“Well what do you hear”.

“Just the usual rumblings from down below Chief”, I replied.

“Can ye nay hear it Three O, the old girls nay running reet”.

I don’t know if he was having me on, but on several occasions I had seen him reclining on his day bed, reading one of his Western novels with his arm in this position. This was one of the reasons that he didn’t have to visit the engine room. One of the others was that he trusted his engineers implicitly and would have nothing said against them, especially in the dining saloon.

After phoning the Chief about the slight drop in revs, I instructed the Sixth Engineer to keep a close watch on the exhaust temperatures while I monitored the sea water temperature. When encountering the Humbolt Current from the West the sea temperature suddenly drops, unless precautions are taken, it can result in cracked cylinder liners.

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