The John W Mackay

The Cableship John W Mackay

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This article is re-printed from "Ships Monthly", May 1985 edition with the permission of the editors and Captain Harper. Captain Harper served in (and commanded) all the Commercial Cable Company's own cableships, initially as a junior officer on the Marie Louise Mackay in 1942 and finally retiring in 1978 (at the same time as his ship featured here).

The ship is no longer with us - despite the hopes raised in the article. The ship was for a while owned by the National Maritime Museum but was eventually scrapped in Sunderland.

(Images are taken from a photocopy of the article.)

Leaving the Thames in 1953. (Laurence Dunn)

Cable Ship "John W. Mackay"

Captain W. D. Harper, recent master, reviews the career of a veteran vessel, now a familiar sight in the Thames

It seems the longer a ship lives, the nostalgia of her career grows. This is certainly the case among many of us who served for long periods in the cableship John W. Mackay.

Now 63 years of age, John W. Mackay lies in the river Thames, a little over 5 cables (or half a mile) downstream from the Cutty Sark. Both ships epitomise an era in their own specialist skills and it is interesting to note that the Cutty Sark finished her seagoing career when the John W. Mackay was launched.

In 1972 after 50 years service, the John W. Mackay continued ocean communication and it was not until 1977 after laying a telephone cable between Northern Australia and Papua, New Guinea, that she finally retired. Today she lies at Standard Telephones & Cables Limited moorings at Green­wich, an example of a bygone era in shipping when function was combined with elegance.

Built by Swan Hunter Wigham Richardson of Newcastle for the Commercial Cable Company the John W. Mackay was launched in December, 1921 and commissioned during the summer of 1922. She has a length of 360 feet, a beam of 48 feet and her hull is strengthened for navigation in ice. Twin screw propulsion is provided by two triple expansion recipro­cating steam engines powered by three oil-fired Scotch type boilers. Gross tonnage is 4,080 tons. She achieved a little over 14 knots during trials, a remarkably progressive speed at the time of her build for a ship in her class. Indicated horsepower at full speed is 3,300 hp.

The John W. Mackay was built to replace the Mackay Bennett another of the Company cableships. The name Mackay Bennett was derived from a partnership set up by a certain John W. Mackay who had struck lucky in the Nevada tin mines in the middle of the last century and a wealthy newspaper gentleman called Bennett. In partnership, they decided to break the monopoly of trans-Atlantic communi­cation at that time held by Western Union, a well known communication system.

Mackay Bennett was built in 1880, coal-fired and square-rigged on the fore mast. Decommissioned in 1922 the vessel was used as a storeship. Bombed and sunk in 1941, she was raised and continued as a storeship until 1965 when she was scrapped. Probably the most memorable event of her career was when the Titanic was sunk in 1912. At that time Mackay Bennett was stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was requisitioned as a floating morgue to recover the bodies of the disaster. This involved using her huge cable tanks packed with ice and with the aid of undertakers and clergy to overcome a historical tragedy. The author had a relative who survived this disaster, a step-uncle who regretfully passed away some ten years ago. Mackay Bennett later became known at the 'Coffin Ship' because of her part in the recovery of bodies from the Titanic sinking.

Originally built as a telegraph cable laying and repair ship, one of the first cable laying operations by John W. Mackay' was between Waterville on the west coast of Ireland and Weston-Super-Mare in 1924. Her repair duties were primarily to maintain the trans-Atlantic cables between Ireland and Newfoundland. This involved staying at sea for as long as eleven weeks in North Atlantic weather in order to seize advantage of the all too little lulls necessary to repair the cables.

At Southampton, ready for sea after loading. (Author)

Before the days of such things as stabilisers, automatic station keeping, radar, and stern and bow thrusters, to recover a cable \\ inches diameter and hold it for repair in the middle of the Atlantic, sometimes in depths of over 2,000 fathoms required much in the way of seafaring skills. Star navigation was the only means of accurate positioning and dependent on good visibility, not always available in the North Atlantic. To­day the navigational skills of yesterday are superseded by satellite and other electronic devices which, of course, are more accurate and provide safer navigation.

In 1929, together with six other cableships, all built in the same period as John W. Mackay, she undertook restoration of many telegraph cables which had become interrupted in the Atlantic Ocean due to an unusual subterranean upheaval between Newfoundland and the Azores. The other ships taking part were:

Edouard Jeramec  American  Sunk 1952
All America  American  Scrapped 1961
Lord Kelvin  Canadian  Scrapped 1966
Cyrus Field  Canadian  Scrapped 1966
Faraday  British  Sunk 1942
Dominia  British  Sold to Russia 1937

During the early part of the Second World War the John W. Mackay was stationed at Halifax, Nova Scotia, maintaining telegraph ocean communication in the North Atlantic. In 1942 she was requisitioned by the Admiralty to lay cables in the Persian Gulf, Eastern Mediterranean and, later, in the Pacific Ocean. At that time there was an acute shortage of ocean cable and her first operation was to cut an Italian cable (unknown to the Italians) off Cape Verde Islands and 'appropriate' or recover some 450 miles of Italian submarine cable lying in a depth of beyond 2,000 fathoms in order to offset the current cable shortage. The area, at that time was a hotbed of German 'U'-boat activity and, with one small naval escort continually circling the recovery area, it took three weeks working day and night, to complete the operation. It was a miracle the John W. Mackay survived torpedo attack. It was later suggested that in view of the unbelievable ease in being able to sink her, the 'U'-boats became suspicious of a trap and held off.

During post-war years, the John W. Mackay resumed her normal role of cable maintenance in the North Atlantic including the laying of a 'hot line' or strategic cable for the US Government between Newfoundland and Greenland.

When the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable was laid in 1956, almost a century after the laying of the first Atlantic telegraph cable, there were two possible systems available, one American and the other British. In both systems it was necessary to use amplifiers or repeaters over the long distances involved to boost the telephone conversation. At first, the American system which used small diameter flexible repeaters was used in connection with deep-sea laying methods. The British system, however, gave a much higher performance and was adopted for further ocean communication. The British repeaters weigh approximately 15 cwts, measure 9ft long and approximately 9ins in diameter. They were originally launched with a parachute to prevent them sinking too quickly to the bottom in ocean depths up to 4,000 fathoms.

In 1962 the original telegraph cables that had given service for almost a century were being phased out. This nearly saw the end of the John W. Mackay but, because of her original advanced design embodying accommodation and vast work­ing spaces, it was decided to instal her with the necessary modern machinery and equipment required for telephone ocean cable laying and repairs.

This included a ship's complement of 20 officers, 60 ratings and 14 shore technicians responsible for communication through the cable whilst it was being laid. In addition to her new role in telephone ocean communication, John W. Mackay was equipped to deal with extensive ocean surveys. Her original steaming range of 10,000 miles together with adequate storage for food and water, all incorporated in her original design, gave her considerable flexibility in the modern field of ocean communication.

The loading of a modern cable system on a cableship requires much pre-planning. First, the beach landings have to be selected for their suitability. Negotiations regarding landing rights in foreign countries are sometimes time consuming and expensive. A suitable beach unravaged by stormy weather is generally looked for. The route is then surveyed to find any unusual subterranean contours which may require a diversion, also to determine any subterranean currents which may affect normal wear and tear of the cable and repeaters after they are laid. All this adds up to a necessary accurate assessment of how much cable is required in addition to the number of repeaters to bridge the gap.

Repeaters stacked between cable < tanks and spliced into cable whilst loading.
The wood-panelled officers' saloon with entrance to smoke room beyond. (Author's photographs)

Whilst the cable is being loaded, the repeaters are spliced into the system at intervals of approximately every 5 miles before the cableship leaves port. This enables a highly efficient means of testing and rectification of any faults which may occur during the loading which is monitored throughout. The cableship does not leave the loading port until the cable system on board is 100% perfect. Our British manufacturers of ocean cable and equipment are second to none in their record of submarine cable system reliability. When the cableship leaves the loading port she is then able to proceed to the initial laying departure point. Weather conditions and weather forecasts play a major part in the decision to start the initial lay which may take up to fourteen days at a time if the laying ship is unable to load the full amount of cable necessary to bridge the ocean gap.

Precise navigation, now made possible by satellites, is absolutely essential to maintain the tolerances demanded by electronic balance within the cable system. As an example, a cable system laid by John W. Mackay between Madeira and Lisbon, a distance of approximately 650 miles, a tolerance of less than four ship's lengths was allowed in the length of cable loaded to cover this distance. John W. Mackay completed this gap with only nine feet of cable to spare, due to inclement weather and despite satellite navigation accuracy. A contrast­ing example of modern accuracies demanded was the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable laid in 1866 by the Great Eastern when she loaded an extra 350 miles of cable for contingency purposes. For her pioneering work in the field of ocean communication we must today be truly thankful.

In 1965 John W. Mackay, with over 750 miles of telephone cable in her four huge tanks, laid her first submarine tele­phone cable system between the Canary Islands and the mainland of Spain. Nearly twenty years later that cable is still operating without having been interrupted since the initial lay.

Since her first telephone cable lay John W. Mackay has linked up the main islands of the Bahamas to enable accurate tracking of the American spaceships during their journeys to the moon, also linked up Curacao with St Thomas in the Virgin Islands, linked up most of the Canary Islands, but the most lengthy operation of all was her pathfinding role in the telephone link between Cape Town and Portugal in 1968, a distance of approximately 6,000 miles involving three cable-ships.

The John W. Mackay, in addition to laying all the beach landing cables at Cape Town, Ascension Island, Cape Verde Island, Canary Islands and Portugal, also acted as pathfinder for the other two cableships. This involved laying marker buoys covering a distance of 1,200 miles at a time in depths of up to 3,000 fathoms, accurately positioning each buoy by mainly stellar navigation and then homing in the laying ships by radar from one buoy to another. During this extensive pathfinding operation the John W. Mackay was in the South Atlantic for over 300 days with only brief respites of not more than 48 hours in port for fuel and stores after 50/60 days at sea.

At the moorings at Greenwich where the vessel has become a familiar sight since 1977. Now 63 years old, there are possibilities for the John W. Mackay's preservation. (RWS)

As we went to press Captain Harper advised that the
John W. Mackay was expected to leave Greenwich on 26th April to be moved to a berth in the West India Docks for participa­tion in the proposed Museum in Docklands project.

During this period, one of her most interesting calls for fresh water was at St Helena, the last resting place of Napoleon. The narrow winding country roads, the neat hedges and fields, the climate and the unhurried way of life on this beautiful island reminded the West Country crew of John W. Mackay so much of their own home so many thousands of miles away. At the time of our visit, the Governor of St Helena had a 100 year old tortoise resident under the British flag which flew at the bottom of a typical English style country garden. No doubt, Napoleon was pleasantly relieved to be exiled in this gem of an island and to all of us who visited his tomb it was an event of a lifetime. John W. Mackay was subsequently awarded the Queen's Award to Industry in recognition of her role in the Cape Town to Portugal cable link.

Continuing her career the John W. Mackay has since laid further telephone cables between Libya and Sicily, Italy and Sardinia, Shetland Islands and Faroes, Italy and Egypt, Portugal and Madeira, Italy and Israel, Greece and Crete and finally, in 1976, Northern Australia and Papua, New Guinea.

In 1977, the John W. Mackay was laid up in the River Thames at Greenwich, London, since when there has been considerable interest by various authorities in retaining her to be included in a Museum of Dockland proposed in the West India Docks. This would be a fitting end to a remarkable example of British shipbuilding.

In May, 1984, John W. Mackay, dressed overall, stood out proudly in the River Thames as the Queen passed en route to the official opening of the Thames Barrier.


Endpiece to the article.

Extra pictures

These came from Freddy Dunn, details uncertain.

Comments from Christopher Glen

Very nice to see this site and the info on the J W McKay. She was based in Plymouth and my uncle (Arthur Johnson from Wallsend) was her 2nd engineer. I wonder if anyone remembers him?