The other tour that could keep you busy was down to the engine rooms. I found this far more fascinating than the bridge. This time we grouped in the main lobby and the purser took us through the holy door that led to the crew’s area, past their rest rooms and canteen and down into the bowels of the ship. We were introduced to the deputy chief engineer – a big Scottish guy in a blue boiler suit. He had a great patter and mocked the white uniformed bridge crew. Of course, he said, they think they make the ship work but in fact it is the engineers that make it happen. The officers can hit buttons and shout orders but it does little; he showed us the panel from where all the ship’s operations could really be controlled. As he talked various alarms kept on going off and lights on the panel lit up. He would nonchalantly take a look, press a button to cancel the alarm and carry on talking. These alarms went off with alarming regularity. In fact on my first night of sleep the one thing which did keep me awake was that I could hear these sirens through three decks. Now I was down here they were deafening and accompanied by flashing orange lights. We stood here listening to the descriptions from the engineer for several minutes, he explained that there were several areas of the engine room that were far too noisy. We were also given a safety briefing. He told us of a number of watertight doors that we should step through with care. While they are all open they have automatic systems that if something serious happened in one part of a ship like a leak, a fire or chemical spillage, these doors shut themselves. They slide across and because they are powered by strong hydraulic rams nothing can stop them; they could easily slice anyone caught in its way in half. I must say that was about the most scary thing I heard on the whole trip and despite my consciousness telling me there was nothing wrong with the ship, my subconscious made me skip through these doorways pretty damn quick.
He showed us the panels, including the ship’s stabiliser controls, which turn out to be little more than slabs of metal that are poked out from the hull once underway. He also told us of other simple technology. The heating controls in our rooms were a sliding mechanism which you could move at varying degrees from hot to cold. The engineer let us into a secret – the slide is connected to two tubes, one carrying cool air, the second carrying hot air and all you are doing by moving the slide was controlling the amount of air coming out of those tubes into the room. But it worked very well. The ship was built before so much computerisation and digitalisation of everything had taken hold, but what you had was very simple, very effective mechanical solutions.
We saw the twin diesel engines which power the ship’s propellers. Only one was in use for the first trip. A spike in diesel prices had meant that the shipping company who owned the RMS had to recalculate how to make savings and someone had said if they only used one engine for half the time and retimed the trip from the usual two nights to three nights between Ascension and St Helena it would still be cost efficient to run the service. This had the downside that for the second half of the voyage you really did feel like you were sailing through treacle as you plodded along to the south east.
We were also shown the auxiliary engine which powered the lights and the freezers, the hospital and the music decks, the ships equipment and the vacuum cleaners. When you were up on the public decks you get a sense of how ergonomic and self contained a ship can be, down here you realise just how self sufficient it is too. We got to see the desalination plant which provided everyone with safe drinking water from the ocean around it, and also a huge (and slightly malodorous) vat full of the ship’s sewage.