Call of the sea: Captain Jack Clarke’s illustrious, adventure-filled career
ON HIS 17th birthday and in his third year at sea, navigating apprentice Jack Clarke was in a lifeboat after his ship, Runciman’s steamer Dalemoor, had hit a mine in the North Sea in January 1945.
Built in 1911 and still with her rod-and-chain steering gear, Dalemoor was mined while moving military stores between Humberside and Antwerp in support of the Allied advance into Europe. To man the four-inch stern gun and six Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, 30 gunners were aboard.
When she began to sink on that fateful, wintry day, her crew took to the boats. Imagine the turmoil racing through their minds as they pulled away from the sinking ship.
They did not know what lay ahead. Would they be doomed to drown in the usually stormy North Sea, or would their lifeboat drift beyond the British coast, with its hapless occupants left to die somewhere in the open sea after days of exposure to the elements?
Happily, young Clarke and his shipmates were picked up within hours by a destroyer and landed at the Chatham Dockyard on the Thames.
For Jack Clarke, going to sea was an alternative to sitting in an air raid shelter – and most ships at least had reasonable food!
Thus, with the war at its height and Hitler’s bombers and U-boats already wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, he joined Dalemoor in 1942.
Not the most modern vessels of the time, the coal-fired Runciman ships traded worldwide.
For the outward voyage from Britain, the old steamers were often on charter to British liner companies – Clan, Ellerman, P&O or others – for whom they carried a range of cargo.
Seldom was the homeward voyage direct, for the ships loaded cargo for several other countries before finally loading for British ports, when they were often down to their marks with grain for which Clarke’s ship once was anchored for three months in the Sydney roadstead awaiting the grain.
Reminiscent of the old clippers racing with tea cargoes from China, the prize for these old bangers was to land the season’s first full cargo of Australasian wool on Humberside for the Yorkshire wool mills.
At 10 knots, though, the tramp ships were hardly clippers! Jack Clarke enjoyed time in other old tramp ships.
Aboard Brockleymoor, he saw the Amazon where they loaded skins, nuts, timber and ores for the USA, where they loaded scrap steel for Japan.
Marrying in post-war Britain, Jack and Mary Clarke enjoyed an unusual honeymoon aboard an Empire-class steamer that was refitting on Humberside prior to returning to the company’s normal services.
Although the Indian crew were aboard, Jack and an engineer were the only officers. He and Mary were treated royally by the catering staff and had two stewards assigned to them.
He was promoted to master of Cragmoor, the climax to his seagoing career.
A devoted family man, he came ashore in 1959 to take up a position with Thomson Watson Stevedoring in Cape Town where his wealth of cargo-handling experience in the tramp ships was extremely valuable, particularly when heavylifts or other abnormal cargoes were landed.
Over a cuppa last week, he told me of some of those cargo operations he had supervised.
“Some of the machinery for Koeberg nuclear power station,” he recalled, “came in the French ro-ro ships that were on the SA-Europe trade, and we also handled the fuel for the reactor.”
In 1992, this pleasant and highly respected gentleman retired, reflecting on a most interesting career at sea and a fulfilling time ashore that saw him head up South African Stevedores in Cape Town. His 50-year career began when, as a 15-year-old, he had clambered up the gangway of Dalemoor in 1942.