Western Union Cable Repair Schooner
(This is the excerpt of the first of two stories told to me by the captain of the schooner)
“A little more to starboard,” the captain said.
“All right, Capt’n,” the First Mate said respectfully.
Relaying this to the helmsman and double-checking the magnetic compass, Captain Dick Steadman looked forward from where he stood in the stern of the cable repair schooner named the Western Union.
The tropical, turquoise Florida Bahamian sea was a spectacular sight before him.
Beautiful day for the work ahead, he thought. Light seas, sun beaming down, and not a Nor’wester in sight. If we can just find that break in this cable and get it repaired.
The schooner is the last of a vanishing breed, including the men who run her. It is a telephone-telegraph cable-laying and repair schooner. The Western Union is out of Key West, Florida. It had been only four days since they received the emergency call from headquarters in New York. There was a break in the undersea cable heading out of Key West towards the Bahama Islands.
The two full-time, and maintenance men, Captain Dick Steadman and First Mate Jack Fryer had to hunt high and low to round up a crew. They had been fortunate that eight of the ten-man crew were old hands from the last job, six months ago. It had been a hectic preparation. Not only did a crew have to be rounded up, but provisions for ten to twelve days had to be purchased. The equipment had to be stowed, and the schooner made ready. Like most boats, she was constantly being repaired and maintained, with maintenance as diverse as painting and engine tune-ups. This kept things out-of-place and disorganized.
But now, here they were, almost on station. They had been following the cable using a Leaer-Amplifier. This piece of equipment receives signals coming from the underwater cable which are being sent by the sending station. When they are over the cable the signals are strongest.
“That’s it Cap’n,” Jack said.
The signal had faded out, meaning that the break was below.
“Out with the buoy!” Captain Dick yelled.
“Aye, Sir!” This is just what two of the crew were waiting to hear, and overboard it went. First, they would make sure it anchored and stayed in one place. Next, they would head back the way they had come about a half-a-mile and drop out a grappling hook. Then, they would proceed to go across the cable perpendicular to it. If they hooked it they would then bring it up to the boat.
“We’ll use the sand grappling hook,” Captain Dick ordered.
He knew by the Fathometer* readings the bottom was sandy. The longer hooks of the sand grappling apparatus would work in this bottom.
“Ok, let her go!” the first mate commanded.
Over the side the bulk weight of the hook and chain were wrestled by Jack and the crew. This hook and chain was fastened to a cable and threaded from the pulleys on the bow of the boat around the cable drum and into the cable hold.
If they were lucky, they could snag their objective on the first try. However, sometimes they had to try as many as eight runs to finally capture the cable lying on the bottom. They had 258 fathoms* of cable out and now were making an approach perpendicular to the cable. This could be performed in relation to the buoy lines they had set out. The greatest depth they had worked in was 380 fathoms in this Bahamain area.
By the tension of grappling cable on the dynamometer* they could tell when the cable was snagged. But, this time they didn’t need it, and there was a sudden lurch of the schooner.
“Full ahead!” the captain shouts.
This was needed because if they were to drop back from the force of wave the grappling hook could let its precious catch slip loose. The next step was to winch it up and secure it to a buoy. Then the same operation had to be repeated to obtain the other end of the broken cable.
It being impossible to stretch it back together, a piece had to be spliced in. This length varied depending on the depth of the water. A 20-foot splice was about average, and that was what they did to complete the job.
The cable schooner was two-masted and was built in a shop near the Mallory Docks in Key West, in 1939. It was one of three similar types, built according to the New England coast style. She was 92-feet long, 23.5-feet wide and drew six to eight feet of water. Her top speed was about eight and one half knots* and designed primarily for shallow water. But, just like this job they were on now, she had worked a lot of deep sea…
It was interesting to stand around on the deck of the ship and listen to these two salty characters responsible for her performance, and talk of past days. I could tell they were just as much a part of her, as she was to them.
They could spin many yarns, but one of the most interesting was the time they were returning from a job, and they passed too close to Cuba.
Bob Kranich's second full-length book , Florida Keys’ Watercolor Kapers is composed of 336 pages. There are 12 stories running from 6 pages to as many as 72 pages, fully illustrated with 88 watercolors and sketches. The watercolors were made roaming around Key West after Kranich finished a 750 mile hike from Georgia to Key West. As you read these stories you will experience Key West, the Keys and the Caribbean. The stories span the time of the early 1800’s to 1969. bkranich.wixsite.com/