Cableships (Past Exhibition)
The first cableships in the late 1850’s were modified from tugs, schooners and warships. However, it was soon realised that the specialised work of laying cables and recovering them from the seabed for repair required purpose-built vessels.
Cable laying ships were usually operated by the cable manufacturing companies, whilst the repair ships were owned by the cable operating companies, such as the Eastern Telegraph Company, and were based at key locations around the world to enable rapid deployment. Cable faults were an expensive liability and it was vital to recover the faulty cable from the seabed to repair or replace it as quickly as possible.
For over 100 years, cableships have laid cables to Porthcurno.
On the 24th June 1870, Investigator laid the shore ends of the Porthcurno-Malta-Gibraltar submarine telegraph cable. It was the first cable to be laid into Porthcurno and formed part of the route connecting Britain with India. (Image 1)
On the 6th August 1906, the Colonia arrived to lay a submarine telegraph cable from Porthcurno to Fayal in the Azores. This cable provided an alternative route to Carcavelos in Portugal. (Image 2)
Between the 10th and 17th December 1954, Recorder (3) repaired the Porthcurno – Bilbao 1 cable, originally laid by Colonia in 1925. (Image 3)
In 1983, Monarch (5) laid the shore ends of the TAT-7 cable running from New Jersey – Porthcurno, a distance of 3286 nautical miles. It was one of the last transatlantic coaxial cables to be laid. TAT-8, laid 5 years later, was a fibre-optic cable and had ten times the capacity of TAT-7. (Image 4)
In 1997, Cable Venture helped lay the Gemini South cable from Porthcurno - Manasquan, New Jersey, a distance of 6803.45 nautical miles. The cable was taken ashore using a chartered coaster. This cable was one of a pair of transatlantic fibre-optic cables. (Image 5)
There are many processes involved in the laying of a cable. The following is based on the Cable Engineers report on the laying of the Porthcurno Gibraltar Cable in August 1898. The cable was laid by the Cableship Scotia and took 10 days to complete. (Image 6)
On arriving at Porthcurno, after leaving her moorings at Enderby’s Wharf in Greenwich, the Scotia began by landing the shore end of the undersea cable on the beach. Shore ends were heavily protected with three layers of armouring and could weigh up to 50 tons per nautical mile. It could be taken to the shore either in a boat, coiled on a raft or floated on barrels. (Image 7)
The shore end was then joined and spliced to the landline on the beach. This involves exposing the core of each cable and soldering the ends together. This work is carried out using specialised tools by a highly skilled Jointer. (Image 8)
Once the undersea cable had been joined to the landline, paying out began. This refers to the laying of the telegraph cable into the sea along the chosen route. In the past, the cable was ‘paid out’ by steam-driven winches, which were admirably suited to long, slow hauling. These have now been replaced by electrical and electro-hydraulic cable winches. (Image 9)
Instead of cargo holds, cableships have very large circular tanks in which the cable is stored. The number of cable tanks varied from ship to ship and was dependent on the size of the vessel. (Image 10)
As the cable was being laid, a dynamometer was used to measure the tension in the cable. The laying speed of the cable could then be controlled, so ensuring that the cable hugs the seabed. When recovering a cable from the seabed for repair, the tension is monitored closely to ensure it does not break whilst being lifted. Today, electrical devices such as load cells and strain gauges are used.
In order to ensure that the cable was laid along the desired route, observations were made of the sun and the stars in order to navigate the ship across the ocean. Today, cableships are fitted with very sophisticated computerised navigational systems. Soundings were also taken to determine the depth of sea water. These were originally obtained by lowering a weighted line, called a lead line, and measuring the length paid out. Today, echo sounding is used.
During the lay, continuous testing of the cable was carried out in order to immediately detect any faults. Cableships had their own electrical testing rooms in which to monitor the cable. (Image 11)
Problems can arise during the cable laying, such as fouling the bottom. This is when the cable has become tangled or twisted on the seabed, which can cause severe damage to the cable. (Image 12)
Once Scotia reached her destination, the end of the cable was buoyed whilst the cableship went on to lay the Gibraltar shore end. Once this was done, the ship returned to the buoy and the two ends of cable were joined. The cable was then ‘slipped’, which is when the cable is completely let go over the side of the cableship, so completing the laying of the cable. (Image 13)
The following is based on the Cable Engineer’s report on the repair of the Porthcurno – Harbour Grace cable in August 1952. Instructions to renew the cable, which involves the cutting and removal of damaged cable and replacing it with new cable, were issued to the Cableship Monarch (4). (Image 14)
Monarch (4) left Falmouth and headed to Porthcurno. There they located the buoyed end (the position of the end of a cable marked by a buoy floating on the surface). They then surveyed the proposed route for the new section of cable that will replace the damaged one. Cableships often survey the route of a plan cable before it is laid. This included taking soundings to check depth, as well as obtaining geophysical and geographical information about the seabed. Sea temperature is also measured, as this can affect the electrical performance of a cable. (Image 15)
They verified their position using Decca, a system used for ship navigation in coastal waters. They then commenced a sounding survey westward using an Echo Sounder. This measures the depth of sea water using sound waves sent from the ship to the seabed.
Once the survey was completed, they then began to grapple for the cable. This refers to the technique used to recover cables from the seabed. A piece of equipment known as a grapnel is lowered to the sea floor and dragged over it until it hooks the cable. An experienced officer sits on the rope attached to the grapnel. When the grapnel bites, he is able to distinguish by the feel whether the cable has been caught or whether the grapnel has encountered some obstruction. (Image 16)
Grapnels come in all shapes and sizes depending on the nature of the sea bed. In this case, a Gifford Grapnel was used, which is suitable for rocky bottoms. (Image 17)
As soon as the cable was hooked, the ship was stopped and the cable was hauled carefully to the surface. It was secured with chains by two men lowered over the side in a bosun’s chair. (Image 18)
The cable was then brought on board and sawn in two. Each part was tested to discover which side of the cut the fault lay. The end which was clear of faults was sealed and returned to the sea connected to a buoy. The faulty end remained onboard and the ship then moved along the route towards the fault whilst hauling in the cable, which is coiled into the cable tanks. This is known as ‘picking up’. As with ‘paying out’ cable, this is done using slow hauling winches. (Image 19)
As the Monarch (4) continued to pick up the cable, a Rennie Grapnel was also used. It has links between each set of prongs that prevent it from hooking onto rocks. As a cable is being picked up, the strain is monitored closely by a dynamometer to ensure that the cable does not break during the hauling process. (Image 20)
As they continued to pick up, there were found to be many twists in the cable. The cable was continuously tested and the damaged part of the cable was cut and removed to be replaced by a new section of cable later. Eventually, it was discovered that the cause of the fault was that the cable had been broken. (Image 21)
Once the damage parts of the cable had been located and removed, the cableship can then begin to lay the new sections of cable. The Harbour Grace end was buoyed and Monarch (4) returned to the Porthcurno buoyed end. This was picked up and joined and spliced with new cable held in the ship’s cable tanks. They then proceeded to lay the new section of cable along the surveyed route to the buoyed Harbour Grace end.
As the new section of cable is paid out, a taut wire gauge is used. This measures the exact distance travelled by the cableship. A taut wire gear pays out a thin piano wire under tension. As the wire does not hug the seabed, so spanning ridges and holes, it gives an accurate measurement of distance travelled. This measurement is compared with the amount of cable paid out. The difference between the two is known as the slack.
Once at the Harbour Grace buoyed end, it was tested to ensure there was no longer a fault. Once checked, the new section of cable was joined and spliced to the Harbour Grace buoyed end and the cable was slipped into the sea, so completing the repair. (Image 22)
Disasters at Sea
Collisons, grounding, sinking, sickness, and volcanoes. Like many other seafaring vessels, Cableships were not immune from such disasters whilst at sea.
On the 8th May 1902, the Grappler was working off St. Pierre, Martinique, when the volcano, Mont Pelée, erupted. The entire town of St Pierre was destroyed along with eighteen ships that were present in the area. The volcanic ash set fire to the Grappler before she was capsized in the eruption’s resulting tidal wave. The ship sank with the loss of all hands. With a death toll of over 30,000, the eruption has been called the
worse volcanic disaster of the 20th Century. (images 23 & 24)
On the evening of the 5th December 1902, the Great Northern was wrecked after she ran aground on the Fungu Ghawamba reef whilst returning to Zanzibar. The weather had been calm at the time and the accident was attributed to a misunderstanding of a leading light. There was no loss of life and all the gear was salvaged, but the Captain was dismissed following the incident. (Image 25)
On the 27th August 1954, only a few months after she was launched, the Recorder (3) collided with a Danish ship, the M. V. Uruguay, in the Thames Estuary. The Recorder (3) sustained severe damage, with a hole 30 ft. by 25 ft. being torn in her starboard side. There were no casualties and a temporary patch was placed over the damage whilst the ship was sailed back to Tyneside for repairs. (Images 26 & 27)
Benjamin James Bacon was a carpenter who worked on various cableships between the years 1860-1892. Below are a few extracts from his diary noting various incidents he witnessed during that time.
May – June 1862
“The poor fellow left us and went direct aft down the spirit store room under the Saloon and were coming up with a large open measure of spirits when a dorkey steward jumped down the hatch just as poor [?Pinchin] was coming up and the man had a naked light in his hand and upset and went all over the mate and set fire to him and the store room completely burning him all over – the poor fellow lingered about 12 days when we laid him in the same grave yard at Aden where [,] by Mr Laws permission [,] I and the ships carpenter made 2 very decent head boards made of thick teak plank suitably lettered and painted to mark the[ir] final resting place in a strange land”.
“...Waited for ships to arrive [.] Edinburgh & Scanderia and Belgian [,] the lat[t]er carr[y]ing coals for the rest of the ships [.] When they did arrive they Brought very Bad news with them for the cable carpenter Dumbleton had fell down one of the cable tanks and struck on the coil frame and was killed and we had to bury him at the cemetery at Lisbon [.] It caused great sadness through the cable fleet”.
“Left Hearts Content in S S Hibernia for Placentia to lay another cable from that place to Sydney Nova Scotia accompanied by the Edinburgh [.] The latter ran into another iceburgh and drove the Bow Girders and wheels on the forecastle with about 20 tons of ice damaging her cutwater [.] Mad [,] all hands busy getting it put right again before we could make a start...”
“Sailed from Gravesend May 1888 to repair Direct United States Atlantic cable [.] After being at sea six days had the misfortune to loose poor Charles [.] Th[r]ew overboard [.] I was talking to him betwe[e]n deck not 5 minuetes before [.] It appears he went on deck to have a look round and was talking to W Fisher at the time when the ship gave a extraordinary Roll and he went to leeward and Before he could get hold of any thing he struck the rail and went clean over it into the sea and was drowned [.] There was a fresh Wind Blowing at the time and a very heavy sea”.
“... After laying this cable they put her head forwards home at last [,] for when we arrived at this coast we made sure we should not have any communication with the shore as there has been plenty of Sickness along the coast especi[a]l[l]y at Santos [,] for they told us there is many ships laying there with nobody on Board of them all the crew being dead or in hospital but as luck seemed against us [,] what with one thing and another [,] we have been very near 2 months on the coast and into we did not want to go but god is good all hands has enjoyed very Good health”.
“Went on shore to select lighters to load with shore ends the next day but when we got [up] from the table at Dinner Time when we stood on our own feet we found she was on the ground [.] She had swung round when the tide slacked and landed on what they called the Minerva Bank now the Hibernia Bank [.] started to work as usual at 2 PM to get every thing ready for paying out cable tomorrow thinking she would rise with the flood tide But it was not to be [.] So sending down Bill Consenss for the flags to put on the flagstaffs I had been making [.] He comes up and says why the water is up to the first shealf by the fore tank [,] so I finished putting on the flags and went down and had a look. After that it was all up with the Hibernia. We were all out after that night and we had to make shift in the custom house [,] Electri[c]ians [,] Cable Staff and sailors and Firemans and got nothing to eat till twelve o Clock that night, afterwards we got very good quarters [,] an English merchant gave the cable staff a large empty house to live in and another for the crew [.] We stopped there till the Calabria & Kangeroo came out with a New cable when we laid it and got home in the Kangeroo”.
Life on Board
Travelling around the world is a great adventure, but life on board the cableships involved hard work. Both cable laying and cable repair work required crews to work around the clock, both in tropical heat and wintry gales. Cableships could be at sea for many months and therefore had to become second homes for the men on board as they voyaged around the world.
The below photographs were taken on board the cableship Recorder in 1954 and enable comparisons between the facilities for officers and crew.
Officers relaxing in the Officer’s Mess. (Image 28)
Spanish deck crew members in the Seamen’s Mess. (Image 29)
The Chief Officer’s cabin (Image 30)
Crew member’s cabin. (Image 31)
There were many different jobs and special skills required on board a cableship; Cooks, Electrical Engineers, Doctors, Officers, and Mechanics, to name but a few. Each was integral to the operation of the ship.
The Surgeon at work in the ship’s hospital (Stanley Angwin 1952). (Image 32)
Chief Food Steward in the store (Stanley Angwin 1952). (Image 33)
Below are extracts from the diary kept by W. P. Granville whilst working on board the cableship Caroline in 1878. They give an insight into life on board a cableship.
Saturday 21st April
“A really downright wretched day – raining in showers at half hour intervals blowing hard from the S. W. And ship tumbling about cheerfully – A good many sea sick [...] Day spent by alternately eating drinking reading walking and sleeping”.
Sunday 29th April
“About 9am the fog cleared. So our anchor was picked up and we commenced grappling for the deep sea end – grappling in about 6 fathoms of water. At 12.54pm we lifted the cable”.
The 1878 Atlantic Expedition
“This voyage commenced on the 24th of May and ended on the 27th July. Nine weeks of monotony, out of sight of land for over eight weeks of that time. Nothing possibly interesting to record. No heavy gales, but fair and rather cold weather. For most of that time we were almost hopeless of success and that made the monotony doubly tedious”.
Below is another extract from the diary of Benjamin James Bacon.
January 1864 – May 1965
“...all ready to proceed home the next morning [when] we received orders to refix all gear and go to Italy to repair Corsican cable[.] Sailed from Malta [on] S S Fanny Lambert for Genoa to test cable before repairing it[,] found the fault was near the Corsican side[.] Went and repaired it and brought up at the town of Bastia[.] Dureing bad weather went out and completed the job and went back to Malta on the fourth of May and layed these till Sept. 12th when the Malta and Alexandria cable broke down again[.] Went out and repaired near Tripoli and returned to Malta after being a month on the job[.] Layed again in Quarentine harbour till January 10th when it took us till the latter part of April before we got it through[.] We had to return twice to coal and revictual ship during the time[.] On returning to Malta we received orders to proceed home which was very welcome news as when we left home we thought of getting back in about six week[s] but instead of that we were about 17 months”.