Splicing a Cable in Mid-Atlantic (Aug, 1930)

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Splicing a Cable in Mid-Atlantic

The author of this article went as a member of the crew of the cable ship in order to get this vivid, first-hand story for you.

Photos by Author

TORN and twisted, an ocean cable last winter lay buried under a layer of clay two miles beneath the gray-green, foam-capped waves of the Atlantic, three hundred miles east of Halifax. It was shattered by the terrific earthquake that shook the Atlantic seaboard for a distance of 1,000 miles and put out of commission about half of the underwater communications between the United States and Europe.

In New York and London, cable executives and engineers held hurried conferences; sent out urgent wireless messages to their cable-repair ships in various parts of the world. For years I had been wondering how a broken cable was fished out of mid-ocean and spliced. Here, at last, was my chance to see the job done. I shipped as a member of the crew aboard the John W. Mackay, the Commercial Cable Company’s vessel, commanded by Captain Livingston.

Luck was with me. Of the eight repair ships called to the scene from points as far away as Panama and London, our boat was the first to reach the earthquake’s epicenter, the point on the ocean floor directly above the origin of the disturbance.

The location of the break was determined to within a couple of miles by delicate electrical devices in New York and Newfoundland cable offices. This they did by measuring the resistance and the capacity of the broken sections—the quantity of electricity they were capable of holding—and comparing them with the known capacity and resistance of the cable before it was broken. The exact latitude and longitude was then sent by radio to the cable-repair ship.

Captain Livingston has been picking up broken cables from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for twenty-two years, and he knows the value of time in such an emergency. Full speed ahead he drove the John IF. Mackay from the Bay of Fundy to the Grand Banks. Thirty miles from the earthquake’s epicenter, he and his navigating officer shot the sun and compared results. On the bridge, the officer on watch was getting the depth with a sonic depth-finder, the apparatus that sends sound impulses into the water so that they strike the bottom and are caught, as it were, on the rebound. The depth is measured from the length of time it takes for the echo to return to the surface.

On the deck below, others were sounding with the time-honored lead and obtaining a sample of the bottom. The lead checked with the sonic depth-finder, and the sextant observations checked with the chart and the soundings. So far, so good; we were within four miles of the cable. But the sample of the bottom was not so reassuring; instead of slimy, black mud, which they always had found at this spot, it was dark-brown clay! Had the earthquake changed the bed of the Atlantic to such an extent? Or had a landslide of unheard proportions occurred, burying the cable?

WE WERE directly over the westerly edge of the great submarine trough that runs from the mouth of the St. Lawrence River out into the Atlantic. Skippers of liners and Newfoundland fishing boats said “the ocean bed had dropped away”; that they were no longer able to reach bottom with their sounding lines. Plainly there was some exaggeration in this statement, for Captain Livingston found bottom at 1,650 fathoms, the same figure that appeared on the chart. And right above the epicenter, at that!

A dense fog slowly enveloped the cable ship. No further observations were possible. But a mark buoy had been put over the side and anchored to the bottom. This buoy was six feet in diameter and capable of sustaining two and a half tons. It was picked up when the weather cleared; meanwhile, “drives” were made with the buoy as a guide.

Up in the bow, a group of sailors were bolting what looked like a huge iron flat-fish, with reverse fins on its sides, to a clanking chain. This, in turn, was fastened to a jute-covered steel cable-rope, which was wound on drums below. As spray freezes quickly on deck in winter, much of a cable ship’s machinery is in the hold.

In the tip of the forward deck, where any ordinary ship would have her bowsprit, the John W. Mackay has three huge sheaves. Over one of these immense pulleys runs the grapnel rope. Fifty feet aft it runs over and under dynamometer pulleys. It is the dynamometer which registers the strain on the cable-rope. When the indicator points to 2,200 pounds, the captain may be sure that he has a “bite,” that he has hooked the cable.

Shortly after two o’clock, the fog lifted and the ship was at right angles to the broken cable and four miles distant. On the bridge Captain Livingston was giving the course to the officer on watch. The exact position of the vessel was marked on the chart. Then the Captain stepped down to the main deck.

“Throw her over!” he shouted, and the 300-pound grapnel fell with a plop into the gray-green depths. While the “flatfish” sank to the bottom, the ship remained practically stationary. Then the engines were turned over slowly, and the John W. Mackay drove ahead at less than a mile an hour—greater speed might have caused the “flat-fish” to skip over the submerged cable.

SOON the trailing line, with the huge hook at the end, was describing an arc, with the “flat-fish” itself dragging a mile astern of the ship.

The dynamometer began to register a slight strain, indicating that the grapnel was on the bottom, which was rather soft. There were now about 2,650 fathoms of cable-rope over the bow, and the Captain stopped paying out. The deck crew lined the rail; they were the pick of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia fishermen—good boatmen and deck hands, and they found fishing for cable fully as fascinating as fishing for fish, and more profitable. Even the skipper, who had watched thousands of grapnels go overboard, found the game as intriguing as ever. He had been on the job thirty-six hours, without sleep; but that was not at all unusual.

It was time for a new watch, and while a group of fresh men took their places at the sheaves, I went on a tour of inspection of the ship with the chief electrician as my guide. Below the main deck, I found a bewildering array of winches for winding in the grapnel rope; and below that several almost unfathomable steel tanks, about thirty-four feet in diameter, in which hundreds of miles of cable and rope could be coiled. In the engine room, one fireman was doing the work of six—and doing it more easily—for the John W. Mackay is an oil-burner. The dining saloon was exactly like that of an Atlantic liner, only built on a smaller scale. The service and the meals, by the way, were equally as good, and perhaps a little more “filling.”

The smoking room, where checkers, chess, and bridge were played when the officers were off watch, had its piano, library, and phonograph. There was one galley for both officers and crew; an economical arrangement that also tends to forestall “kicks” about the food from the fo’c’sle. Above, on the main deck amidships, were the officers’ quarters, electrician’s cable-testing room, wireless room, purser’s office, and so forth. The crew numbered ninety-one—including myself. This is one of the items that go to make the maintenance cost of the vessel about $4,500 a week, for a cable-repair ship pays top wages and overtime. The cable with which she repairs breaks and faults costs from $1,500 to $5,000 a mile. Which makes cable-laying a rather expensive proposition.

WE WERE nearing the cable line; at any moment now, something might happen. So the bow was the place for me. There I found Captain Livingston sitting on the taut line, just abaft the sheaves—a cold, wet job, but the only way to detect the gradual tension and vibration that always accompanies the hooking of a cable. The dynamometer, registering in hundreds of pounds, can be relied upon only in very deep water. The indicator was swinging back and forth between 1,200 and 1,600.

For another half mile the ship drove slowly through the late afternoon haze, the skipper at his post on the jute-covered steel cable-rope. Suddenly, he became tense and grasped the rope with one hand.

“Got something!” he announced, briefly. Was it the cable broken by the earthquake, or one of the lines abandoned years ago? Or had the grapnel buried its nose in the brown clay that now seemed to overlie the time-honored black mud? All eyes were on the dynamometer. The indicator, which but a moment before had registered a strain of 1,600 pounds, was climbing to 1,800—2,000—2,400! This could mean but one thing—the cable!

THE quartermaster on the port deck, less than thirty feet from the skipper, grasped the levers of his engine-room telegraph, waiting for orders. They were not long in coming.

“Stop her!”.

Two hundred feet astern, in the bowels of the ship, the assistant engineer got the signal, and shut off both the port and starboard engines. From then on, they were used merely to steer the vessel.

“Ahead on the winch!”

The cogs started grinding. The ship had lost headway, and began to reel drunkenly. As the cable-rope came over the sheaves, the skipper watched it with an anxious frown. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the clay and the ship! No cable is ever considered “hooked” until it is on deck. The pressure down there in the stygian blackness is 4,350 pounds to the square inch.

As the cable-rope was wound upon the seven-foot drums, the ship was forced slowly backward, until eventually she was almost directly above the flat-fish hook, instead of a mile in advance.

At the end of two hours of steady grinding, the deck watch, in rubber boots and oilskins, lined themselves up along the rail. Two of them tied a few short lengths of rope to their suspenders. Slowly and carefully the cable was brought from the depths, until the chain attached to the grapnel came clanking over the sheaves. Darkness had fallen, for it had taken three hours to reel in the three miles of grapnel-rope. A deck-hand brought forward a cluster of electric lights, equipped with a reflector. Leaning over the rail, he played his “spotlight” on the water at the bow. The tenacious flatfish hook was just breaking water, with the cable in its grip.

“Stop her!”

THE winches ceased their din; the heavy cable-rope, weighted down with the chain, quivered under the strain.

This was the cue for the lads with the short lengths of rope attached to their suspenders. They leaped atop the sheaves, stepped into boatswain’s chairs, and were lowered over the bow to make fast the cable to two lines; the grapnel might cut it. I, too, was lowered over the rail in a similar rig. A few feet below the grapnel, the two seamen quickly lashed the two cable lines to ropes that ran over the sheaves. They had tried to outdo each other in speed, from the first rolling hitch to the last turn, for the cable company was losing thousands of dollars a day in tolls.

A hand, suddenly flung up, was the signal for the starboard crew to haul up its man; the other followed a second later. This particular job was quickly done, for the sea was smooth, but on more than one occasion, waves have broken over them as they worked. And the temperature of the water along the Grand Banks in winter is not more than a degree or two warmer than the freezing point.

The cable was taken on board. It was covered with barnacles and marine growths, but the outside covering was intact. Brown clay still adhered to the crevices in the sheathing, indicating that the cable was buried by the earthquake. Now it was cut with a hack saw, and the severed ends brought nearer to the testing room. A length of insulated copper wire, attached to the galvanometer in the chief electrician’s laboratory, was run out on deck and made fast to the core of the cable.

THE galvanometer, that indispensable instrument of the cable-repair ship, looks very much like a polished brass cylinder. It is about the size of a “dry ice” ice cream container, quart size, stood on end on a wide bench. Inside, attached to a suspended coil, is a mirror; this reflects, through a window in the cylinder, upon a graduated scale two feet away, the glow from a stationary light set directly beneath the transverse scale. In other words, as the coil within the cylinder oscillates, the distance it swings is measured on the scale.

In the laboratory, I found Carey, the chief electrician, busily tapping keys and changing plugs. Once in a while, he called out a cryptic number, which his assistant wrote on a pad; they were to be used later in certain intricate calculations. Captain Livingston walked in, anxiety written all over his grizzled countenance. He has a reputation for “getting” his cable to sustain.

It was the New York end of the cable that Carey was testing. The total electrical resistance of the cable in ohms is proportional to the mileage. Since the tests registered 1,798 ohms and, in this instance, the cable had two ohms of resistance per mile, the ship must be 899 miles from New York.

With a delicate electrical recorder, the electrician communicated with shore, and found the cable was in good condition. A sigh of relief came from the skipper at this bit of information. The galvanometer wire then was transferred to the severed end of the cable, and the tests that followed showed that the cable had been picked up twenty-eight ohms, or fourteen miles, short of the break. The John W, Mackay thereupon proceeded to the vicinity of the actual break. While the ship was cleaving her way through the darkness, Carey briefly explained the working of the electrical hookup of which the galvanometer is the heart. Without this, the search for a broken or faulty cable would be like the proverbial hunt for the needle in the haystack.

WHEN a cable is laid,” he told me, “the resistance of each section is ascertained by tests, and the figures are filed away for future reference. When a cable is broken or develops a fault, it is joined at the shore station to a set of electrical instruments similar to what students of electricity call a Wheatstone bridge, an electrical balancing device which measures the unknown resistance of the cable section to the point of the break by comparing it with the known resistances of several lengths or coils of wire. The galvanometer shows by means of its beam of light upon the scale when the resistances have been balanced exactly. This is accomplished when the beam reaches zero on the scale. Reference is now made to the resistance tables which, for any given value of resistance, will divulge the distance, in nautical miles, to the break or fault.”

On the second “drive,” early the following morning, the John W. Mackay hooked the Newfoundland end of the cable—the first of eight vessels in the area to “put through” repairs. But it isn’t always as simple as that; on this voyage, which lasted twenty-four days, Captain Livingston enjoyed but one day of clear weather. In the log one sees frequent notations of gales, snowstorms, heavy swells, rough seas, and fog. Buffeted by mountainous seas and shrieking winds, the eight cable ships, far out on the stormy Atlantic, struggled for weeks against tremendous odds.

No one can predict when the John W. Mackay, or any other cable-repair ship, will receive orders to report for duty in mid-Atlantic or mid-Pacific. The ice fields off Newfoundland may run aground near a cable, gouge up the sandy bottom, and break up the strands; a trawler may hook a section off the coast of Ireland; the sharp coral beds of the West Indies may cut through the thick iron sheathing of another, or a Japanese earthquake may disrupt service in the Pacific.

Joining a cable ship, therefore, is a fine way to see the world and, incidentally, to participate in one of the most interesting and exciting forms of deep-sea “fishing” the ocean affords.

  1. Sporkinum says: January 30, 200810:45 am

    Here is the event that caused the break.
    The earthquake occurred approximately 250 km south of Newfoundland along the southern edge of the Grand Banks, at 5:02 pm local time. Natural Resources Canada (2006) reports: “The earthquake triggered a large submarine slump (an estimated volume of 200 cubic kilometres of material was moved on the Laurentian slope) which ruptured 12 transatlantic cables in multiple places, and generated a tsunami. The tsunami was recorded along the eastern seaboard as far south as South Carolina and across the Atlantic Ocean in Portugal.”

    A delegation from the Burin Peninsula, meeting with government officials during the relief effort, estimated the damage at $1 million (The Daily News, 1929). There were twenty-eight confirmed deaths (Ruffman, 2005). See individual runups for more detail on the locations mentioned in reports of the time.

  2. Rick Auricchio says: January 30, 20089:19 pm

    Wow, it’s amazing that we even have the report of the earthquake here too.

    A good article all around.

  3. Stephan says: April 18, 20116:13 pm

    I love all the information provided.
    You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years.

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