Call of the sea: Cap­tain Jack Clarke’s il­lus­tri­ous, ad­ven­ture-filled ca­reer

Cape Times - - INSIGHT - Brian Ing­pen brian@cape­ports.co.za

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.

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