I suppose it's because I have so much time on my hands these days, that all these memories come flooding back to me.
... or replenishment at sea to give it the correct title... is the way in which a ship can take on stores and transfer people or goods at sea. The Navy had what they called RFA1 ships to carry fuel and stores. To perform this act the two ships slow down and move close together at sea. This is the dangerous part for, if the sea is rough, it cannot be done. Once they are close a rating fires a gun with a thin line across the gap between them. This is then picked up on the other ship and a line is tied to it, prior to it being dragged over. Then, when all the lines are slung across, a fuel line is dragged over to refuel the ship, as well as transfer stores at the same time.
Normally the ships would store up in port prior to leaving but, if the ship was at sea for longer periods, this was the only way they could restock and refuel it. We had been on Beira patrol for some weeks at the time and were due to be relieved by another ship. Unfortunately this ship broke down on route, so we had to carry on patrol until another ship could be sent out. So this RAS was very important to us as we were low on just about everything from fuel to beer. There would be a vast amount of stores to shift from the upper decks, which had to be moved below as quickly as possible as the ship would be swaying, and the upper decks would be crowded. So everyone who was not on watch was required to turn to2. This even included the watch-keeping crew, so there was always a few grumpy ones who were not as excited as the rest.
It only took a few ratings to handle the fuelling side of things, so the rest of us were used to clear all the stores from the upper decks. In order for this to be done as quickly as possible all the stairways were turned around, so as the back of them could be used like shoots. The stores, which included the beer, could be slid down them at a very fast rate. There were always two ratings at the top and bottom of every deck level; this way they took it in turns to catch or slide the stores down. The pace of this work was fast, so fast that in fact it was easy to lose count.
This was, and could be used, to our advantage as at every deck level there would be stores assistant (SA) who would tick the amount of stores being shifted. All it took was spilt second timing along with a small diversion. For example, a couple of on-duty blokes would be walking past and one would drop something, or bump into the SA. Just at that split second as the SA took his eye off the job, a crate of beer would miss the shoot on its way down and end up in the other blokes laundry, which he just happened to be carrying at that time!
Within a few seconds that crate of beer would be well on its way to a nice quiet part of the ship where no one could find it. Now a good place for such items, bearing in mind that it had to be kept cool, was inside the fan trunking down below in the boiler or engine room. This simply meant removing the fan cover at the bottom and climbing up inside the trunking and place the box of beer on the lip of the first joint, which was usually around three feet up inside. This was the usual place and, indeed, worked well for a long time until one day during the skippers rounds.
The weather was really rough that day and the ship was pitching up and down causing the deck plates3 which were not tied down to fly up or slide down with the movement of the ship. Just as the inspection team were making their way down the steep ladder to the deck plates of the boiler room, the ship took a violent lurch causing it to shudder. This must have caused the box of beer to be thrown over the lip of the fan trunking causing it to come crashing through the wire cover at some speed whereupon it crashed and split open on impact! By this time the only person who had reached the bottom of the ladder was the Chief Stoker - a well-respected position as they tended to come through the ranks.
Just as he turned the corner in front of the boiler we had managed to kick the last can that had burst open spinning round sending all the contents over the deck plates, down into the bilges; the dirty area below deck plates where oil and waste lay. We stood there motionless and stunned looking, while the Chief Stoker leant forward and started to smell the beer. He stepped forward and pushed his face in front ours as if to smell our breaths, then stopped and waited for the rest of the inspection party to come down the ladder. After they had all passed that position, sniffing as they did so, the Chief turned round and beckoned us to come nearer to him as the noise in the boiler room could be very loud and we had to shout to each other in order to be heard.
We stepped forward gingerly, trying our best to look innocent until we were right up next him.
He didn't accuse us of anything as such yet, at the same time, he let us know that we were up to something no good and, whatever it was, it was to stop there and then! That was the difference with a Chief Stoker; they knew all the rackets, dodges and shortcuts that we took, because they had done it all before us. So that's why we all listened to what the Chief said and took his meaning seriously.
So, in the end, we had to find new places to stash such goods, should they ever by chance come our way again.