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A blacksmith remembers his whaling days

By Allan Jackson - October 2005

Terry Tribe was always a fitness fanatic and served under Danie Craven in the Physical Training Battalion at Roberts Heights (now Voortrekker Hoogte) during World War II. He joined the South African Railways in 1946 and underwent a strenuous apprenticeship as a blacksmith. He then joined the Union Whaling Company and worked as a blacksmith at the company's workshops in Maydon Road, where he helped to make shackles, meat hooks and boot spikes for use during the Antarctic whaling season.


Picture courtesy Terry Tribe

An important task performed by the blacksmiths was the straigtening of bent harpoons. Here, aboard the Abraham Larsen, the blacksmith crew pose with a bent harpoon and which had already been straightened. Terry is in the back row in the middle.

 

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One of the most important jobs that the blacksmiths performed was to straighten harpoons which had been bent when they hit the whale they had been fired at. Terry recalled that good gunners were often able to kill a whale with one one harpoon but that it occasionally took four or five before the whale succumbed, making lots of work for the blacksmiths.

He often had to work at the whaling station on the Bluff and would catch a bus down to the Point, ride on the harbour ferry over to the Bluff and walk up the path to the top and over to the station on the other side. Hurrying to get to work late one night, he heard someone following him up the dark path but, no matter how fast he walked, the person behind him always kept up. Luckily for him, though, the noise turned out to be the sleeves of his leather jacket rubbing against his body, and not some midnight marauder.


Picture courtesy Margaret Surmon

The Abraham Larsen manouevering on Durban Bay.

 

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In 1953 he was asked to go down to the Antarctic for the season as a striker aboard the factory ship Abraham Larsen for the season. The money being offered was too good to refuse and he packed his goods and chattels and, leaving wife Pat, behind, he went south to the ice from November to April of the following year. His job was to work under the direction of the blacksmiths and assist them by striking the metal being worked on with a large hammer. [Now you know the origin of the phrase 'strike while the iron's hot'.] The Antarctic is very remote and the whalers relied on the blacksmiths to mend or make all the implements they required.


Courtesy Terry Tribe

This is a scan of Terry's contract for the 1955-56 whaling season and makes interesting reading. Warning: The picture file is 300Kb in size.

 

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The living conditions were not all that that great and he recalls that he was quartered somewhere in the bowels of the ship, just above the boiler room, and that the floor of the cabin was so hot that you couldn't walk on it with bare feet. Also unpleasant was the awful smell caused when the whale blubber was rendered down in huge pots and the whale meat was dried.

He said that one did eventually get used to the smell that even permeated the whalers' clothes and possessions, but he remembers catching the bus home after the completion of the trip and seeing the other passengers battling to cope with the reek of whale. He would take a suitcase full of books with him every time he went to the Antarctic and it and his clothes got to smell so bad that they had to be destroyed after his final trip.

The hard core of the factory ship's crew were professional whalers, many from Norway, but a large proportion of the crew were hired in Durban for the season and consisted of all sorts ranging from tramps to doctors and students; all attracted by the high rates of pay. The men worked 12-hour shifts and, with no personnel to spare, death was pretty much the only acceptable excuse for not working; a crewman with a broken neck still had to do some work.


Pictures courtesy
Terry Tribe



The work aboard the Abraham Larsen was tough and smelly but there was still time to gaze in wonder at the sheer size of a blue whale's mouth, left. Crewmen hard at work on the AL's flensing deck, above. April 2009: It is now known that the crewman in the background of the picture is John Trudgeon.

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They did get Sundays off except when a tanker had arrived from South Africa with a load of fuel oil for the catchers and the furnaces on the factory ship. Once the fuel oil had been pumped aboard the Abraham Larsen, the crew were inspanned to clean out the tanker's fuel tanks so that it could take a load of whale oil and bags of whale meat meal back to South Africa.

Mind you, there were highlights during the trips with the crew being issued a tot of rum on Sundays and some making their own booze from potato peelings. He remembers a Christmas party when some sober individuals were helping their drunken crewmates cross the hazardously slippery wooden flensing deck by getting them to hold onto baulks of timber and ferrying them across.

Terry went down to the Antarctic again in 1954, as second blacksmith, and then in 1955 as first blacksmith, but became eligible for the more comfortable officer's quarters and, on one trip, was the highest-paid South African aboard. The blacksmiths, in fact, were among the more fortunate crew aboard the Abraham Larsen because the forge in the blacksmith's shop kept them warm in all weathers and they could use the fire to cook themselves corned beef or choice whale steaks.


Picture courtesy Terry Tribe

Posing outside the blacksmith's shop aboard the Abraham Larsen are the blacksmith crew. Terry is in the back row in the middle.

 

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On one trip, the Abraham Larsen left Durban before all the local crew, including Terry, had been embarked. Pat had gone down to Maydon Wharf to say goodbye to him and then driven to the Point to wave a last farewell when the Abraham Larsen sailed out of the harbour as usual. On her way to movies later on, she saw the Abraham Larsen still hanging around outside the harbour but decided she must have been mistaken. In fact, the vessel had to wait until a tug brought the abandoned crew out to her.

After a hard couple of months, the whalers were always glad to turn for Durban which meant that the end of their work except for the need to remove the wooden flensing deck which had been used for cutting up the whales. This was so impregnated with whale grease and blood that it had to be chopped up and dumped at sea, before the vessel reached warmer latitudes and it really started to stink.

There would be celebrations all round when the Abraham Larsen and her catcher fleet reached Durban again. Union Whaling took care not to pay the crew too much in cash on arrival so that they couldn't blow it all. Some managed though, and Terry said he knew one person who would check into a hotel and drink all his pay, once ending up with only his underpants left.

Terry accepted a job at Dorbyl in the late 1950s (perhaps he couldn't take the smell of whale anymore) and, when I visited him in 2005, he was retired but his garage was full of his tools and he could still swing his big striker's hammer. He was then involved as treasurer of the Bellhaven Memorial Centre in Greyville, a community centre built with cash donations from South African troops returning from WWII.


 

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