Fishing in the open sea for the broken ends of an undersea cable is a task calling for extraordinary daring and skill
BURT M. MCCONNELLSeptember11930
Fishing in the open sea for the broken ends of an undersea cable is a task calling for extraordinary daring and skill
BURT M. MCCONNELL
BREAKS in the transatlantic cables off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are not unusual. Whenever the Storm King whips up the greygreen waves; whenever “growlers” from the ice fields go aground off St. John’s: whenever a trawler hooks a copper strand, or a rum-runner fouls one of the black threads with her anchor, one of the many cable ships that make Halifax their home receives orders by wireless to put to sea.
But the numerous breaks of last November came from a new source—an earthquake. Four commercial cables, three FYench, three Western Union, and two Imperial— more than half the undersea channels of communication between North America and Europe—were wiped out in the twinkling of an eye and in such a way that previous experience counted for little.
Here was a situation absolutely without precedent. The zone of disturbance, as fixed by galvanometer tests at shore stations, was inside a hundred-mile circle just south of Newfoundland. As far away as the island of St. Helena and Berkeley, California; at Ottawa and Washington, the seismographs registered a tremor of the first intensity. At Dalhousie University, in Halifax, the needle was thrown completely off the recording sheet by the quake. For more than two minutes, the entire Province of Nova Scotia rocked under the most severe tremor ever experienced.
An Emergency Call
Moreover, they knew that it was a vertical slip; and vertical slips of the earth’s crust are always accompanied by tidal waves, while horizontal slips are not.
C EISMOLOGISTS in New York, Cambridge, Washing^ ton, Ottawa, and Halifax, by comparing notes, placed the epicentre of ' the upheaval—the spot on the ocean floor directly above the origin of the disturbance —about 300 miles east of Halifax and 170 miles south of Newfoundland.
By the time the resultant tsunami, travelling more rapidly than the fastest ». mress train, reached Halifax, it had almost spent its íokq. But at Burin, a Newfoundland fishing village, th° tidal wave reached a height of forty feet and engu a d the entire settlement,
carrying out to sea dozens of houses, wharves, and small boats; and drowning twenty-six persons, mostly women and children. For a thousand miles the eastern seaboard felt the effects of the quake. It was the first time in history that this natural phenomenon had so completely shattered the communication “nerves” of the North Atlantic.
Here was an emergency calling for the best efforts of the cable-repair ships. For a cable, to pay dividends, must be kept at work twenty-four hours a day, every day in the year. Wireless messages were sent to all the cable ships between the Panama Canal and the British Isles—eight in all. Weeks of hazardous work followed; there were no Christmas celebrations at their homes for the grim-visaged skippers and their men.
Weighted by ice, buffeted by gales, shut in by fog, and blinded by snowstorms, the vessels stuck to their task until compelled to return to Halifax for fresh water, fuel, and provisions. Practically all the ships found comparatively short bits of cable, mangled and twisted by a violent convulsion. They hooked pieces that had been buried for miles at a stretch; buried in dark-brown clay instead of black mud. Three times the Cambria, one of the repair ships, hooked a cable at a depth of
almost a mile and each time the cable broke when subjected to a strain sufficient to pull it out of (he mud and clay. During this time, Grand Banks skippers, Gloucester fishermen, and several masters of transatlantic liners were giving out interviews to the effect that they “couldn’t find bottom” in the earthquake area; or that the quake had made a difference of forty or fifty fat homs in the depth of the ocean in the neighborhood of the Grand Banks. The writer recently steamed over the above area in the John W. Mackay, the Commercial Cable Company’s repair vessel, while the navigating officer took soundings, both with the lead and the sonic depth-finder. We found bottom everywhere, and there was practically no difference between the soundings shown on the Admiralty chart and our own. So one must conclude that the sensational reports about the “bottom having dropped out of the Atlantic” in the earthquake area are without foundation.
My first request for permission to go on a cable-
grappling expedition met with a flat refusal; likewise the second. It. was too dangerous, said t h e powers-t h at-be. But a writer cannot afford to take ‘‘No’’ for an answer—and continue to eat rogu1 a r 1 y . So I appeared at Halifax one crisp March morning and “signed on” as a member of the John W . Mack ay’s crew.
All was bustle and confusion at the dock. The ship herself, looking like an ocean-going yacht, only about three times as big, lay alongside, taking on supplies. To be quite frank, I chose the ship because her
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skipper, Captain Livingston enjoys the reputation of always “getting” his cable. He has been combing the floors of the Atlantic and Pacific in search of broken or faulty strands for twenty-two years.
My quarters on the cable-repair ship were as comfortable as those of a liner. The officers, I found, were a mixture of Scots, Irish, Nova Scotians, English, and Scotch-Irish. Such names as Dillon, Hunter, Naismith, Armstrong, Gould, Hanrahan, Kaiser, Carey, Lane, and Allen were to be found on the list. Mr. Kaiser comes from an old Dutch family that for generations has followed the sea. The crew consists mainly of fishermen from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, all of them adepts at handling a small boat in a rough sea. And no small amount of cable-repair work is done in small boats. Whenever a cable end is picked up, and the galvanometer tests show that it is unbroken toward land, a buoy is attached to the cable and anchored, while the ship goes off to find the opposite end.
On the main deck I found the officers’ quarters, electrician’s testing room, purser’s office, the wireless room, and so forth. The crew, including myself as “hydrographer,” numbered ninety-one souls. The ship’s maintenance cost, I am told, is not far from a yearly average of $4,500 a week; and the cable with which breaks and faults are repaired is said to cost between $2,000 and $5,000 a mile.
The John W. Mackay was in the Bay of Fundy when the earthquake occurred. Within ten minutes a wireless message was on its way from the company’s office, advising the skipper of the earthquake and its devastating results. Captain Livingston headed for Halifax at full speed, reached port that night and left the next day. There was no sleep for him, his officers, engineers, or crew; too much had to be done. While the John W. Mackay was steaming toward Halifax, the New York, Azores, Halifax, and St. John’s cable offices had, with the aid of the galvanometer, located the breaks in practically every cable. They were all in the submarine trough whose westerly run is the Continental Shelf.
Dragging the Deep
IN THE weeks that followed, the John W. Mackay and seven other repair ships, buffeted by mountainous seas and shrieking gales, struggled against tremendous odds. They grappled for mere threads a mile and a half or two miles beneath the surface, where the pressure of the grey-green water is approximately 4,500 pounds to the square inch. Day after day the hardy Nova Scotia and Newfoundland seamen came to grips with icy seas.
How does one find a mere bit of copper wire, covered with mud and clay, at a depth of 10,000 feet? Captain Livingston’s method is about as follows: Proceeding to the spot where, according to galvanometer tests, a break in the cable has occurred, he has his navigating officer take an observation, and checks it with his own sextant. Their position is verified by two separate soundings, one with the lead and the other with a sonic depthfinder. This instrument is a wireless set that sends sound impulses into the water so that they strike the bottom and are caught on the rebound as it were. The depth is measured by the length of time it takes for the echo to relmrn to the instrument.
With his position thus confirmed, and a sample of the bottom obtained, the skipper decides what type of grapnel he will use—long barbs for muddy and sandy bottom, and shorter ones for clay; round, stubby hooks for bottom having an outcropping of rocks. Meanwhile, the crew places a steel buoy, six feet in diameter
and capable of sustaining two and a half tons, at the spot, anchoring it to the bottom. For, while they may be there only two days, they might have to grapple for that particular cable for three or four weeks. During, this period the buoy will be their guide; it is equipped with two white electric lights, which are turned on at sunset, and off at sunrise, by a clockwork apparatus.
The John W. Mackay now steams to a point five or six miles distant and at right angles to the cable. Here the grapnel, attached to miles of steel rope, is heaved over the bow sheaves. At the end of an hour and a half, assuming that the depth is 1,650 fathoms, it will have reached the bottom. The ship then drags the grapnel across the ocean floor at right angles to the cable, and beyond it for three or four miles if the line is not hooked, steaming at the rate of perhaps a mile an hour.
In the bow of the ship, on the grapnel rope itself, sits the skipper; this is one job that he insists upon doing himself. (It is absolutely necessary to sit on the rope, however, only in shallow water.) This is a cold, wet job, but it is the only way to detect the gradual tightening that always accompanies the hooking of a cable. The rope runs over and under some sheaves to the dynamometer, which registers the strain, once the cable is hooked, upon a vertical scale.
THE news of a successful trawl spreads quickly over the entire ship. Everyone knows that it will require three hours of ceaseless grinding by the massive winches to bring the cable to the surface, even if things go well. Yet they begin to congregate on the forward deck—the chief steward, the chief engineer, off-duty wireless operators, the purser, the electrician, and, of course, the “hydrographer.” There is an air of expectancy all over the ship. The captain himself stands on the fo’c’sle head, giving orders in a calm and unhurried manner to the quartermaster, who stands at the deck telegraph about thirty feet abaft the sheaves. The ship is practically stationary, and is being steered by the port and starboard engines since she will not answer the helm satisfactorily when steaming at less than a mile an hour.
The indicator on the dynamometer registers 12,000 pounds—quite a strain on both cable and steel rope. Apparently the grapnel is having heavy going, probably through thick mud. The pull is fairly regular, although the red arrow sometimes climbs to 16,000 pounds. This indicates that the “flatfish” type of grapnel is ploughing through the new clay bottom that the earthquake seems to have produced. For a mile, two miles, three, the skipper trolls with .his 300pound hook, changing his position from one side to the other. For his is not a comfortable seat. But a thick cushion would defeat his object by insulating him against the shock of the pick-up.
“Got ’er!” Captain Livingston suddenly announces with a wide grin. Our
eyes turn instinctively to the dynamometer, for no one questions the skipper’s judgment; he has been hooking cables for too many years. Sure enough, the strain is increasing. In less than half a minute the indicator points to 26,000 pounds; there can be no doubt about it.
But the job is far from finished. To bring a cable successfully from a depth of almost two miles requires experience and the sensitive hands of a jockey. The ship must be manoeuvred as carefully as an eight-oared shell. The captain’s orders are repeated, and executed, without an instant’s hesitation by the quartermaster at the deck telegraph; the bridge is too far away.
The long line is pulled slowly in. There will be nothing for the crew to do for the next hour; the winches, creaking and complaining, will reel in the grapnel rope. The men scramble along the slippery deck, cheered by the prospect of a quick return to shore, once the cable is repaired. The others heave sighs of relief, and Captain Livingston lights his pipe. Then comes an interval for “supper,” as they call it on board the John W. Mackaÿ. Finally, at the end of two hours, we congregate on the forward deck again. We haven’t long to wait; out of the depths comes a length of chain, followed by the cable itself. On the foc’s’le head it is cut with a hacksaw, and the landward end is connected with the chief electrician’s testing room.
With his siphon recorder, Carey communicates with St. John’s, and finds the cable is in good condition. He then makes tests which indicate that the ship is 180 miles from St. John’s, and that the cable has been picked up fourteen miles short of the actual break. The severed ends are then spliced together, dumped into the sea, the buoy taken on board, and the repair vessel proceeds toward the break. There the same procedure is repeated, except that Captain Livingston stands by until a wireless message assures him that the cable is in apple-pie condition.
It isn’t as simple as all that, of course. Stormy weather, heavy swells from recent gales, fog—any of these can hold up cable-repair operations for a week or more at a time. The John W. Mackay enjoyed only one clear day during its first voyage of five weeks. On its second trip, lasting two months, they sampled the various forms of “dirty” weather which the Grand Banks can offer in the middle of winter. Such entries as gale, snowstorm, heavy swell, rough sea, fog, moderate gale—all these appear with monotonous regularity in the log. As against this, I could find only two days when the weather was suitable for cablerepair work. Day after day these linemen of the sea were unable to get an observation—a “shot” at the sun. And that means enforced idleness, for a cablerepair ship must know its geographical position at all times; it cannot afford to hook some other company’s cable.
And so it goes. There are no regular hours on board a cable-repair ship during an emergency. Everybody, from the captain to the cabin boy, may be up for two days and two nights; and the final splice may be completed as late as four o’clock in the morning. Yet no one ever crawls between his warm, wool blankets until the job is finished and one of the land stations has reported that it is O. K. And it almost always is O. K., for Sage, the chief “jointer” who served his apprenticeship under his father in England, has been splicing cables for forty years.
“Did any repair job ever give you trouble afterward?” I asked Sage.
“One,” he admitted, rather shamefacedly. One out of thousands!
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