Chapter 2 – A Bank Line Tale

A fictional story, by John Wale & Alan Rawlinson

Cocky decided that a club may be a good idea as there was bound to be other people about. Anything to get out of this awful limousine.

The girls were delighted and told the driver to head for the Cave. He flicked through a number of cards in a rubber band on the dashboard.

‘Ah yes, I think I know where it is, lots of hippies and pop music.

Fifteen minutes later they arrived, disembarked and entered descending the stairs to the basement.

The music was deafening but the onlookers were riveted as act after act took to the stage.

His escorts seemed confused at first but soon got caught up in the mood so Cocky even found himself quite impressed by what he heard.

During an interval of sorts, Corky excused himself for the loo. 

He was hoping to find a fire escape or window where he could make a quick exit.

He engaged his neighbour in a casual chat.

‘Not really like a Cave is it?’

‘Well it’s not, our kid, or should I say Jock. I suppose a cave is not far removed from the actual name of the Cavern!’

‘Oh , sorry I got the name a bit wrong, but the music’s not bad. What is the name of that last group?’

‘Your obviously not from round here. Everyone knows the Beatles.’

They returned to the auditorium. Cigarette smoke filled the air and the two men joined a group nearer the stairs.

Cocky saw an opportunity as the girls hadn’t seen his return. He waited until three people were leaving and tagged along without being noticed.

Out back on street level he continued to mingle with his unknown companions until he rounded the corner where he took off at a run. Hailing a black cab he settled back with relief and told the driver to head for the docks.

Hamish and the third apprentice had finished dinner and asked the watchman if he had seen Cocky.

‘Acha sahib,’ the watchman replied, ‘he caught a cab about a couple of hours ago, he didn’t say where he was going.’

‘Let me know the minute he gets back.’

The two apprentices adjourned to the smoke room for a game of scrabble and were halfway through when the watchman came in and announced that he had seen Cockygetting out of a cab. They found him in his cabin.

‘Where have you been?’ Hamish asked in a demanding tone.

‘Just with a couple of local girls,’ Cocky replied nonchalantly.

‘Went clubbing and saw a really good group called the Beetles.’‘Yeh. Yeh,’ Yeh, “    Hamish replied with unconscious irony.

‘Tomorrow first first thing, you can get yourself down below and move those tea-chests out of the locker. You can use your vivid imagination to figure out how to open them. Knowing you, you’ll claim they are full of contraband or something. As it’s Saturday we are both going to explore.’ He said looking at the third apprentice.

‘ Maybe we’ll take a look at this club of yours!’

In the morning, all hell broke loose.    Before long, there were police everywhere and all before breakfast!  Charlie had listened with incredulity to the yarn that Cocky had unfolded the night before.   They were sharing a cabin and a bond was forming between them despite their vastly different backgrounds.  Charlie liked Cocky’s outward confidence and tried to overlook or ignore the accent.  He didn’t believe the story about the Cavern, but put it down to his shipmates wild imagination.

The cause of the early morning rumpus was the discovery of raw heroin in plastic bags scattered around the tweendecks.  It looked like bags of useless tar, but it was later explained that each bag was worth thousands, and even more in the wrong hands.   It had been consigned to the hospitals. During the homeward voyage, the locker in the tweendecks had been broken into but not discovered due to the copra cargo filling most spaces, and the fact that the locks and clasps securing the doors had been carefully put back to look intact from a distance.  Inside, beneath the dunnage the cases showed clearly where the breakin had occurred.  Now, the young apprentices were set to, combing the decks and collecting all the bags, placing them in a pile in the ship’s hospital, guarded by an armed policeman.   Charlie thought he looked a bit gormless with his shiny leather holster and a blank stare.  He was also hungry, very hungry.  He wandered hopefully past the bhundarries preparing delicious smelling fare for the crew, also out searching the ship.  His efforts secured him a still warm chapatti, enough to satisfy the immediate needs, and he made a mental note of this potential new source of goodies.

At the head of the gangway, a chalk board was displayed announcing a sailing time of 0600 for the following day, and up in the Captain’s cabin, the Chief Steward was grovelling as he explained that due to an error in ordering, he only had enough meat for a week in the deep freezer.  “ Well, there’s not enough time to order more now”, grunted Macdonald.   He had his own problems to deal with. Back home, his wife of 10 years was threatening to leave home unless he quit sailing on those blasted long Bank Line voyages.  

He thought she meant it this time!  


The Levernbank was lost in Peru in July 1973

The coast at Matarani

As I recall, Matarani wouldn’t accept vessels at night, so the plan was to stop and drift until daylight, it seems anchoring was not possible, not sure why, but the Chief Engineer reckoned the sea was too deep – don’t know myself. Anyway as we tracked along up the coast there seems to have been an understimation of our actual distance from shore. The turn to seaward to drift was interrupted by a bump, which I took to be a collision with a fishing boat but which was in fact our first contact with the Peruvian mainland, the engine was still full ahead at this time, when we suddenly got standby followed immediately a double full astern ring followed, and then by a major bang and the engine stopped dead. I ran down the tunnel to see the tail shaft about three feet out of line with the last two bearing pedestals tipped over by about 30 degrees. I reported this to the second who considered the best thing to do was put the kettle on!

An extract from a first hand account. See Levernbank account on this site.

A Bank Line tale

(Fiction – maybe)

by Alan Rawlinson and John Wale

Unknown to the lads onboard, hungry and salivating over the dinner to come, their shipmate Cocky was in trouble.   It had started out alright when he had spruced himself up and gone ashore to ring a cab.  The phone was inside the shed on the quay, and without realising it he had called what turned out to be a dodgy number.  The corrugated wall was plastered with garish cards and advertising of all sorts and he had carefully picked a pink one saying, “ TAXI – We take good care of you and all your needs”.   He should have known, he reflected later.  The clue was in the wording. Anyway, here he was, feeling somewhat trapped on plush leather seating in the back of the limousine, swaying through the streets of Liverpool with a girl either side and brightly painted fingernails grasping his inner thigh.  Music blared out from the boom boxes, and he vaguely wondered if this really was a regular taxi.  It was reggae blasting his ears but his immediate and most pressing thoughts and concern were for his nether regions!    Suddenly, a hand with a glass was thrust in front of his face and he heard the girls giggling.  “  What’s a handsome boy like you doing on a dirty old ship like that ”, a voice said.     It sounded far away, but maybe it was down to the combination of the scented interior, the drink, and the singing that had started up.    He recognised the Scouse accent, but the tune was not “ Maggie May”, far from it.   He looked out from behind the grubby curtains.  They should have reached the Liver building where the Agents were, but instead the Limo seemed to be heading for the Birkenhead tunnel.   Cocky wondered idly what the Captain would say.  “ How about a club, La?” ,  said a disembodied voice in his ear.  It was a statement more than a question and Cocky realised he was in deep trouble.   It was time to assert himself, but how?

to be continued……

Dipping the Ensign

Many thanks to ‘jungle’ for this account. One of his earlier ships, above, painted by him – the “WEYBANK” in Thailand


It is a tradition at sea that when a merchant navy vessel crosses path with a warship, the merchant ship shall dip its national ensign (flag) as a mark of courtesy/respect.

Warships never dip their ensigns, except in answer to such a salute by a merchant vessel.

Generally, when a merchant vessel leaves port for the open sea, its national ensign, flown usually from the flag staff at the stern of the vessel, called the jackstaff or jack for short, is taken down and only raised again when entering the next port of call. There are a number of reasons why this is so, one of them being that when underway the combination of wind and saltwater causes the ensign to slowly disintegrate. One would often see such ensigns hanging in tatters from ships’ jacks where their crews couldn’t be bothered to lower them at sea.

A flag salute from a merchant vessel consists of dipping its ensign, by lowering it by a half of the length of the jackstaff. This dip should be maintained until the warship responds by first dipping its own ensign and then raising it again to the truck (full mast position) wherefater the merchant vessel responds by raising his own ensign back to the truck.

In the US Navy the jackstaff ensign is never flown while a ship is underway, the exception being in response to a dip from another ship.

The following incident occured aboard a German freighter as we were cruising majestically along through the Caribbean Sea on a beautiful sunny early afternoon. The officers aboard our ship were German but most of our deckhand crew were Spanish.

The early afternoons were Siesta time for most of the off-watch crew. I was in the wheelhouse “shooting the breeze” with the 2.Offz. who had the watch when we saw a ship popping up on the horizon. We switched on the radar to get an idea of its course and observed it through binoculars. As it got a bit closer we were able to see that it was a warship. Tracking it with the radar we reckoned that it was on a course at a tangent which would eventually bring her to pass crossing astern of us. She was moving fast so the 2.Offz. grabbed our national German ensign (folded up) from the flag locker and called one of our Spanish bridge wing lookouts over. He stuck the folded-up ensign in the Spaniards hand and told him, in his best Spanglish to run aft and hoist it on the jack, thereafter to wait for a hand signal from him to dip it and for another when to raise it again. “Si, Senor” answered Manuel, who then galloped off down the companionways to the main deck and all the way to the poop deck.

I have named him Manuel here because he bore a remarkable likeness to Manuel, the Spanish waiter in the “Fawlty Towers” TV episodes. We watched from the bridge wing as Manuel clipped on the ensign to the jack’s halyards, raised it and then struck the colours. The flag billowed out in a blaze of black, gold and red. “Scheisse!” said the 2nd. and started shouting at Manuel in the distance – “Zieh’s ‘runter!, Zieh’s ‘runter!! (abbreviated German for “pull it down”).Instead of the German flag flying proudly it was that of Belgium (which has the same colours as that of Germany). Manuel obviously couldn’t hear or understand so he outstetched his arms with his palms up in the air as in “what the hell do you want now?” The 2nd mate also changed over to hand signals which however were misinterpreted by Manuel as “get down”, which he promptly did by crouching down low at his haunches – like a Chinese rickshaw coolie waiting for a fare. The 2nd. mate blew a fuse “Komm zurueck Du Idiot” he shouted while simultaneously making relevant hand signals. Poor Manuel got the message and galloped all the way back up to the bridge wing. On his arrival he was rewarded by getting another flag jammed into his hand together with an order to get his ass moving and exchange the ensigns “Muy Pronto” (along with some unprintable German expletives).

The other Spanish lookout and I exchanged grins. I then heard a single “Whooop” sounding, the kind you hear in movies featuring US warships. I looked across at the warship which was now really getting close and then saw the “Stars and Stripes” being struck from her jackstaff.

Down came the Belgian flag. Manuel, fumbling in panic, hooked on the German ensign and then hauled her up to the truck. By now the warship, which was a big modern US destroyer, was just about to cross astern of us. She was so close that we could almost hear the camera shutters of half of her crew who had gathered on her port side to watch the event.

Manuel, after having raised the ensign, immediately noticed his mistake – he had clipped the flag on upside down to the halyards and so he immediately started lowering it again. It was at this moment when the destroyer passed us astern, dipping her own ensign and then raising it again followed by three long “Whoop” blasts from her klaxon – the “as you were, carry on” signal.

The destroyer’s bridge command officers had undoubtedly viewed the whole pantomine unfurl (pun) through their binoculars from start to finish. What they thought of it is anybody’s guess – an episode from a German version of “McHale’s Navy” perhaps?

Tales of the Deep continued…

I would like to, if I may, share some of my adventures on board the M.V. Geopotis. A Single Trailing Suction Dredger which operated in the area of Chilichup in Indonesia for about 6 months.

For the next 10 to 12 weeks we continued to dredge the allotted area, and to the best of my memory,  were able to increase the depth by about 15 to 20 m.   Watch followed watch as it does,  dredge for 4 hours, travel to the dump ground and deposit ‘cargo’ and back around again for another bite at the sea bed.  On Saturdays we returned to the wharf at around 14.00hrs and shut everything down and connected to shore power.  Minor repairs were carried out and everyone took a break.  Chillichup was, at that stage anyway, a very small village, and had the ‘mandatory’ bar/hotel which we often frequented.

The dredge carried two ‘drag heads’ both around 9 tons each.  I was led to believe that there was always a spare drag head, due to the fact that it was always possible to ‘lose’ a drag head if it snagged whilst a dredging operation was being carried out.     At around 14.00hrs one afternoon whilst we were doing the last dredge run for our shift, and doing about 3 to 4 knots, we felt a distinct lurch to the starboard, almost came to a stop, and then as if ‘released’ from some obstacle start to slowly move forward again.  I remember noticing that the ‘sound’ of the main suction pump in the engine room had changed somewhat.  Bridge brought the vessel to a halt and the anchor was dropped.

We went up on deck to see what the fuss was all about, and found that drag head had indeed snagged something and had been ripped off.  The suction pipe, which by this time had been raised to deck level, looked a sorry sight with no drag head at the end.  The whole drag head had been ripped off and lay somewhere beneath the waves!  We returned to base camp so to speak, and a dozen or so shore side fitters descended on to the Geopotes.  My memory is hazy about how long it took to ‘bend’ the now slightly oval pipe back into a circular shape, and attach the spare drag head back on.  Methinks it took about 3 days, after which we went back to doing the dredging thing!!

There was another ‘minor’ incident that I would like to share which caused a bit of a heart flutter!  As mentioned earlier a fair few munitions would be dragged up on each run, and it was quite common to find ‘clips’ of two pounders which I assume, were used on what are/were called ‘pom-poms’ during WW2 along with small to medium land mines in the holding tank.  On this particular occasion we were on deck taking in the sights (!) when dredging was stopped, and the pipe raised to deck level.  A large round lump of metal had blocked the drag head.  The head was brought in above the deck and a couple of deck crew were pointing and talking about this piece of metal.   One of them decided to try to remove it by picking up a 38lb hammer and giving it a few good wallops to dislodge the errant piece of metal!  Most of the Mates standing watching all this carry on, howled disapproval and quickly, well actually at great speed, ran the other way screaming a number of expletives, basically questioning the IQ of the person who was wielding the hammer!  This gentleman was thereafter nick named ‘Kamikaze’.   The said piece of metal turned out to be a ‘small’ WW2 land-mine about 18inches in diameter.  As one can understand, all work came to a grinding halt, and we were told the local Army guys would be over shortly to evaluate the situation.  About an hour later, some gentlemen in Uniform came on board and stood around the drag head, looking, pointing, shaking their heads and  rubbing their chins, as they do!   Sometime later it was declared that the land-mine was ‘live’ and should be removed.   Understandably, there were not a lot of volunteers for this daunting task.  Even  Kamikaze did not seem too keen  to put his hand up!  Once again we ended up at base camp where the blocked drag head was replaced with the spare one.   I seem to remember that great caution was taken whilst loading the blocked drag head onto a large flat bed truck, which slowly moved away.   How the Army guys removed the land mine was never shared but it was back shortly prior to setting sail for Adelaide.  Meanwhile it was back to doing the dredging thing.

It is said in the classics that all good things must come to an end sooner or later.    I think it was in the 11th week that the ‘higher ups’ decided to cease dredging in Chillichup and relocate the vessel to Port Adelaide, where we could have more fun rearranging the sea bed for vessels with a higher draft.

A couple of days prior to leaving Chillichup the ‘village’ organised a bit of a party for the ships crew.  And for those of you who think is was just one big ‘pis*up’, it was not!  We all drank sensibly that night and a good time was had by all.   Music as such! Was provided by an electric gramophone, most songs were Indonesian songs, we had 4 ‘English songs’, the favourite song was “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill-by Fats Domino and this track was played many many many times that night.  Being an ex Bank Line- Doxford-Andrew Weir type of person I taught the locals and a few others the soul stirring benefits and mind boggling capacities of the “Doxford Dance’ to the tune of Blue Berry Hill!  and I wonder whether it became part of the village scenario?    Whenever I hear that tune these days it takes me back to my halcyon  days at Chilichup doing the dredging thing.

This story ends on a somewhat sombre note.  A couple of hours after we left Chilichup and headed for Port Adelaide, the bridge slowed the engines down and appeared to take a hard turn to starboard, this continued till we were basically going back to where we had started.   At times like these rumours fly left right and center!  One was that the Port Adelaide trip had been cancelled and we were to do another 3 months at Chillichup.  The truth of the matter was that a young Indonesian lad of about 18 had stowed away and hidden himself in the 2.5M diameter suction pipe.  The story goes that the 2nd Mate started to do a deck inspection shortly after we left Chilichup.  Whilst ensuring that drag heads and suction pipes were battened down correctly etc, he had spotted the lad in the pipe.

Much (heated I might add) discussion about the stowaway followed whilst we drifted off Chilichup, but the final decision was that the Captain had no choice but to ‘hand him over’ to authorities. This occurred and we finally turned and headed out towards Port Adelaide.   I signed off at Port Adelaide and was flown home to Brisbane.

As all of us who have travelled the open spaces know, it is not the ship itself, but the human beings that we have interacted with in the course of its great wanderings that make all the difference.

Perhaps Tennyson puts it better:

“There gloom the dark broad seas.  My Mariners, Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—-”

Thanks to Alan Rowlinson for making it possible for me to share a small part of my sea going career with you good people.  May all be well with you.

Many thanks to Michael for sharing the interesting memory above


These are memories from Michael Smith, who started his sea-going career as 6th Engineer on the M.V. TEAKBANK.

He later served in other interesting vessels, including a suction dredger – as related below.

M.V. Geopotis


I would like to, if I may, share some of my adventures on board the M.V. Geopotis. A Single Trailing Suction Dredger which operated in the area of Chilichup in Indonesia for about 6 months.  The vessel had been tasked with ‘deepening’ part of the harbour so that ships, mainly Tankers, with a deeper draft could enter and discharge various cargoes at Chilichup.  The vessel was powered by Two Twin Bank Mirrlees-Blackstone Diesels.  A single Turbo-Charger was fitted to each engine.  Normal running revs were around 900rpm.  The single propeller shaft was also ‘attached’ through a separate gearbox, to the ‘suction pump’ which ‘sucked’ in vast quantities of sea water and silt (and anything else that happened to be lying on sea bed) from the sea bed and pumped this into a  large holding tank.  The sea water would drain off from this tank, leaving the silt and other ‘objects’ in the tank.  When the tank was ‘full’ we moved further out to sea, and by means of hydraulic operated bottom doors ‘dumped the cargo’ into a deeper part of the surrounding area.  The vessel operated 24 hours, 6 days a week.  Watches were 12 hours stints.

It was about a month after the ‘run job’ to Singapore on the M. V.Lake Barine, that I got a call from the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers in Sydney, inquiring whether I would be interested in doing a stint on the Geopotis.  The vessel at that stage was in dry dock at Sembawang in Singapore, going through a refit in preparation for dredging at Chilichup.  I was pleased to find that some of the guys I had done my 2nd’s ticket with in Melbourne, were on the same flight to Singapore, as was  The Chief Engineer Bill Hoskins who hailed from Invercargil in New Zealand and Phil Parker, the Electrician, from Perth in Western Australia.   One of them was Louie Salvagno, who at that stage lived in Melbourne.  Both Louie and I were to be the Senior 2nd’s on the Geopotis.   Two Junior engineers completed the engine room crew.  After a nine hour flight we arrived in Singapore and were housed at The Cockpit Hotel which was a very pleasant hotel to stay at.  Our working day started at 09.00hrs and finished at 16.00hrs.  We were driven to and from the hotel each day, 6 days a week.  We were at the drydock for about a week.  My memory of these events and times are a bit hazy.  Other than basic tasks of packing glands on various valves, checking/testing correct functioning of equipment and assisting Singaporean shore-side marine fitters to complete various tasks, it was not a demanding 7 hours a day.  It was however the height of summer in Singapore, and thus the engine room temperature tended to be over 40 degrees most days.  The humidity did not help!!  

Coming out of dry-dock we anchored at Singapore Roads for about 2 days and then finally left and headed for Chilichup.  The voyage to Chilichup was more ot less uneventful and the Mirrlees ran smoothly.  We were cautioned to check the lube oil level on the two Mirrlees every 2 hours.  The reason behind this was; the diesel fuel pumps were actually ‘positioned inside’ the crankcase, the injectors were as per normal, placed outside in middle of each cylinder.  Any fuel leakage from the fuel pumps would result in the crankcase filling up with a mixture of lube oil and diesel.  I seem to remember being told that the crankshaft on both of them had been replaced some months prior, when a fuel pump had leaked, and diesel had filled the crankcase.    During the 4 months I served on the vessel this never occurred.  

We finally started to dredge.  It basically consisted of lowering a large long pipe/cylinder which had ‘drag head’ (weighing about 10 tons) at/on the end of it that looked very similar to a household ‘vacuum cleaner’ head.  This head was lowered to the sea bed and the vacuum pump started, the main engines were engaged and the vessel moved (slowly—4 to 5 knots) dragging the head along the bottom and sucking up anything in its path.  At the end of a preorganised ‘path’ the vessel turned around and took another suck of the sea bed.  I seem to remember that during any 12 hour watch we did 3 to 4 trips to the ‘dump site’ further out to sea.

What amazed me no end was ‘what was actually dredged’ up from the sea bed.  Being an area which experienced a whole lot of action during WW2 one can only imagine what ended up in the holding tank!!  Previous dredging crews had seen bits and pieces of what turned out to be a Japanese Zero, and other bits of aircraft which no one could identify.  Munitions of various types, rifles, parts of machine guns…cars, many motorcycles, etc, most of them not easily recognisable, and the list goes on.  

Some of the crew decided to ‘salvage’ some of the munitions as keepsakes, until some senior person from the Army informed them that the munitions could very well be alive!!  This put a stop to ‘salvaging’!!  (I think!!)  As always there were ‘tales and stories’ of what had been collected in the past trips.  Herewith a few of them:  Huge number of 2” gold coins made in Spain (apparently).  Gold bars with unknown stamps on them.  A smallish treasure chest containing jewels, diamonds and other valuable ‘stuff’.   The story goes that the key was still in the lock, (?) and so, no issues were experienced when trying to open the chest!!   No one telling these stories seemed to know what actually happened to all this wealth.   

To be continued:

Many Thanks, Michael.


One of 18 sisters built in 1925/6 in Govan. Served for 35 years, through WW2 and beyond. Here is an account, written in a ‘factional’ style, of her last trip.

Second trip continued having negotiated the Panama Canal-M.V. Comliebank

The ship headed due West for about two to three days before altering course to Port when due south of Clipperton Island at the start of their long and not uneventful journey across the Pacific Ocean. After a further two days the port engine stopped and soon after, this was followed by the starboard engine.

Fortunately, the seas lived up to their reputation and were as clear as glass. This lasted for well over the week it took for the engineers to mend the engines. Less fortunate was the over-worked generators that succumbed, causing both freezers to fail. The order was given that to preserve the produce as long as possible, access was limited to once a day or more accurately, once at night when it was a little cooler.

In 1957/60 all merchant ships had to be as self reliant as possible and carried extensive spares and tools, most of it not being available elsewhere. An added reason was that communication at sea was not possible other than by morse code. 

To break the monotony of drifting, some of the Europeans took to swimming in the calm deep blue ocean completely oblivious to any sharks or other deep water dangers. In between duties the soot clad engineers joined in these pastimes to cool down and wash off their grime and sweat.

Surprisingly, the crew whose main pastime was fishing, were totally unsuccessful but with hindsight this was probably because the ship was drifting between the extremely deep water Galapagos and Clipperton fracture zones. 

A new course of 220 degrees true was set that would take them to the South of Kiritimati but this was unable to be confirmed due to the arrival of cloudy weather obscuring the Stars and Sun for several day’s. With normal sights being impossible, dead reckoning was the only option and it was difficult to accurately account for the week’s drifting to the North, whilst they had earlier broken down.

Several days later, Sparks rushed excitedly onto the Bridge with a decoded morse message that read.


To the MASTER and/0r duty Officer.

This is Her Majesties Frigate ‘Ulysses’.

Immediately alter course to due South (i.e. 180 degrees) and stay on this course for three hundred miles before resuming your passage.

This is mandatory and to avoid being fired upon you should reply the affirmative to indicate that you have received, understood and taken the required action.

Rear Admiral J. Cummings.

Nobody, even Captain Moody, had the slightest idea what it was all about but discretion being the prefferable part of valour, Sparks duly replied and the ship altered course as required.

Needless to say speculation was abound. With the Internet over twenty years away and secrecy being paramount it wasn’t until after the event that they found out through the services of the BBC overseas radio channel that there had been a successful nuclear detonation of a hydrogen bomb on Christmas Island. It was the spring of 1958.

Some of the crew reported a bright flash around the right time but there were no explosions heard or mushroom clouds seen.

After being on the new course heading south for three hundred miles they altered  hard to starboard and having finally obtained a good ‘fix’, they headed 255 degrees true to pass between Tonga and Fiji.

By this time the victuals were nearly depleted and certainly they were suffering from a very limited menu. So much so that for the final three days before making port in Brisbane, all they had left to eat was tinned kippers and jam supplemented by japatties from the Asian crew. It was shortly after that the apprentices came up with a scheme involving an increased diet. 

The crew were made up from a mixture of mainly Muslims and some Goanese who required a different diet consisting of ‘Hal -al’ food that had to be ritually and freshly slaughtered by the holy-man. They kept pens of live chickens and goats for that purpose so its not rocket science to imagine what the apprentices had in mind.

In the dead of the night they had liberated some chickens and furtively gave them to the Chinese carpenter for dealing with. The chippy and the engine room fitter, who was also Chinese, lived separately from the crew and were of an entirely different culture, being from Hong Kong and brought up under British rule. As part of the arrangement and in order to share in the bounty, the carpenter and his colleague agreed to deal with the birds from despatching, plucking and cooking in the tiny facilities of their storerooms. 

Subsequently, the Captain and ship’s officers were never appraised as to how the welcome food had suddenly appeared.

 A couple of days later, having passed the New Caledonia Islands to Starboard, the ship reached it’s first port of call for thirty nine days and due to the frozen food stores being spoilt following their breakdown, everybody was keen to get ashore for a hearty meal.

The Captain rather magnanimously gave everybody an unconditional advance (not to be repaid) of £10 per person to assuage the hardship. Some sceptically thought this was to discourage complaints but nobody turned the money down and without exception, once safely tied up, a mass exodus was underway.

The junior officers and apprentices headed straightaway to a restaurant come bar, that had been frequented by one of the junior officers on an earlier trip.

The cold draft beer was the flavour of the day and the restaurant being noted for its seafood, the large succulent prawns and crab were a close second.

Their scheduled stay in Brisbane of five days became extended to three whole weeks to allow for necessary servicing and repairs to the engines and generators. 

At weekends it was lucky that the stevedores didn’t work which allowed sufficient time to visit town and attend the dances with the hopes of meeting some girls.

In the event this was interrupted by the arrival of the new Ark Royal, Britain’s largest aircraft carrier.

Some naval Admiral had underestimated what the addition of around three thousand sailors would have on the community. Coupled with the several thousand local Australian sailors it turned out to be less than harmonious.

The three apprentices together with the third mate, sparks and the second engineer, had found a lively bar to quench their thirst. 

It was a bit of a dive in that they noticed that the chairs and tables were screwed to the floor which should have indicated something!

A band we’re playing on a raised platform and the place started to fill up will sailors from both navy’s.

It wasn’t until about an hour or so later that it began. A typical Australian hippie started singing to the music and after an interval, she had decided to please her country’s seamen by a rendering of ‘Waltzing Matilda’.

A  gunner from the Ark Royal who was a bit worse for wear, threw a missile in her direction that happened to be an empty beer bottle. Without missing a note the ginger haired singer known locally as ‘blue’ expertly caught the bottle and returned it wence it came. Unfortunately her aim was a bit like her singing or so the Ark Royal lads thought. The missile missed its target and struck one of her own countrymen causing the uproar that followed. Glasses and bottles flew everywhere but the band and singing continued uninterrupted.

Fortunately the furniture, such that it was, held fast to the wooden floor otherwise the injuries would have been much more severe.

Soon the M.P’s arrived noticeable by the wooden batons they wielded and their white arm bands as well as the loud piercing whistles.

There was no attempt to isolate the trouble makers as everyone within the M.P’s range were targets whatever their nationality or even whether they were actually in the forces.

The six merchant seaman made a swift exit through a door marked ‘Sheila’s’ where they removed the steel mesh netting from the window. They squeezed through the opening and once out into an alleyway they speedily set off for an alternative hostelry without a even a bruise between them.

Three days later Sydney proved to be a much more preferred port.  For a start the climate was less hot and humid and the people being more cosmopolitan caused the seamen to feel a lot more at home. The world class beaches of Bondi and Manly became firm favourites as did the nurses home attached to the Mater Misericordiae Hospital on the North side of Sydney Harbour and close to where the Comliebank was berthed. 

John had kept his shore time to weekends and evenings only although a generous Bank holiday was enjoyed while the ship was in port. He had decided to save any leave for Adelaide and hoped to meet up with his brother whom he hadn’t seen since he was seven years old.

Their arrival in port Adelaide was a bit of an anti-climax after the splendour of Sydney. The wide road to the city had been destined to boast a canal but this had been shelved due to the expense. As a consequence the broad avenue into the City has the traffic to and from the city divided by a colourful display of tropical vegetation of all types including small trees and shrubs.

John arranged for three days shore leave and contacted his oldest brother. A meeting was made for the first Friday lunchtime and he had arranged the meeting outside Myers one of Adelaide’s large departmental Shops in the centre of town.

Arriving in good time, John readily found the venue and patiently waited for his brothers arrival. He hadn’t envisioned it further and apart from natural curiosity he had no idea of how the meeting would turn out.

When John had last seen Brian, his brother had appeared to be about eighteen inches taller than John. So it followed that he was attempting to look out for someone similar. 

When they finally met the growth gap had disappeared and was very noticeable to John who found that both he and his brother were of similar height. Nevertheless they got on extremely well from the start and later found that they shared very similar traits. 

Brian had arranged to meet his wife and the three of them had lunch at a restaurant just off of Rundle Mall offering a delicious and exclusive cuisine

After lunch, being the start of the weekend, Brian dropped his wife back to the hospital where she worked and took his younger brother to their house in the Adelaide Hills.

A bottle of Australian wine later, the two brothers decided to treat Brian’s family and his mother in law to a special celebration meal at a renown restaurant high near the top of Mount Lofty. It proved a great success and was the first of two visits during the ship’s stay in Adelaide.

Brian had taken a couple of days off so a game of golf was planned for the following Monday at the nearby golf course. The same evening John joined his brother and wife at a rehearsal of a ballet show in which they were taking part.

The still quite shy seventeen year old, particularly with the opposite sex, found himself sitting next to a completely uninhibited Australian girl clad only in her underwear. Most of the cast were similarly attired as it was a pre-dress rehearsal and led to Brians younger brother taking out his sparsely clad neighbour on an exotic dinner date to Mount Lofty, his second visit to impress his new friend in a car borrowed from his brother

The ship finally became discharged and proceeded light-ship to a place called Ocean Island  close to the Equator in the Pacific Ocean.

Just before departure a large box was delivered to the ship addressed to Mr. John Wale. It was a case of wine from his brother as a farewell gift.

The downside turned out to be that the wine was white and without means to cool it, it was unpalatable and being a Sauterne proved to be too sweet when warm so with much regret it joined the refuse. 

There were two great islands near Australia that consisted of millions of years build up of seabird droppings. These were a valuable fertiliser known as phosphate. The shipping company had exclusive rights to freight the phosphate which would only take two or three days to load before returning to the Australian mainland for discharge. The whole process including the outward and inward voyages, took usually less than six weeks and to save cleaning, once a ship was on this route it usually did several voyages. Being little or nothing to do at the primitive ports of loading, the trips were unpopular with the ships compliment. However the Head-office in London had other considerations, notably the costs of running and repairs to the ageing ship. As a consequence after several phosphate runs that ended in discharge in Newcastle New South Wales, about two hundred miles to the North of Sydney, the ship was sold to the Japanese for scrapping.

On arrival at Newcastle amongst his mail that had been forwarded by the ship’s agents in Sydney was an envelope addressed in his eldest brothers hand.

 There was no note of any kind and the envelope just contained a cutting from a local newspaper in Adelaide. John read…..

‘……. at a coroners inquest yesterday a report recorded the sad and untimely death of Susan Mc Kinney aged eighteen which was registered as suicide being of temporary unsound mind. The Coroner added that being a nurse she would have had access to various medication including barbiturates that caused the end to her short life.

Susan, a trainee nurse at Adelaide’s Royal Infirmary had been reported as having been deeply affected by her parents splitting up some nine months earlier. She will be sadly missed by her colleagues and especially the members of the amateur dance troupe where she was a long term member and also the mainly males at the Port Adelaide rowing club.

John put the cutting down and silently remembered his joyful times with Sue especially his introduction to the adult world of female enlightenment. He was deeply saddened but realised that one could never alter some things.

A skeleton crew were kept on for the last passage of the Comliebank to Japan where it would also meet a similar fate to that he had just read about but putting both momentous events behind him, John decided to continue with what fate had in store.

Prior to departure of both John and the ship, a celebration had been arranged. It consisted of a procession from the ship to the officers favourite bar to present the ship’s solid brass bell. 

The nurses from the local nurses home had prepared the food and drinks and also provided a band of sorts for the procession which was to start at the docks and end at the Pub. The mainly deck officers were dressed as pirates and carried the heavy bell slung between two oars with one person at the each end of the oars. The band made up from students from the music college, played popular jazz tunes as the procession slowly made its way into town. They were all in sailors parlance ‘three sheets to the wind,’ and the merry crowd continued to the Quayside Arms where the main party began, with the ‘Saints come marching in,’ entertaining passers-by.

The dancing or jiving gradually diminished as people partnered up and couples found privacy. However the evening crowd served to liven things up so the party was re-kindled and continued well into the next day. 

The great bell had somehow been hung on the wall behind the public bar and was used and probably still is, to signal the hour in ships time and for calling last orders and other special occasions such as her Majesty the Queen Elisabeth’s birthday etcetera.

The following day the remainder of the crew were paid off and repatriated but a few less fortunate were to be transferred to the Tealbank in Fremantle. They consisted solely of John the apprentice and, at sometime a little later, the Second Officer, an ex Master Mariner called Jenks which was short for Jenkins.

The train journey to Sydney was uneventful and John spent the night at an Hotel close to the main Railway terminal. Early next morning he caught the overnight express to Perth in the far West.

Although John hadn’t been allocated a sleeping berth he found that the journey was well provided for especially as the seats were not only very comfortable but were fully reclining if needed’

However the train was unusually empty apart from a contingent from the Australian Army. The Englishman was fascinated by the soldiers strange wide brimmed hats, where the brims on one side were folded up to the crown.

The scenery was also fascinating as the express stopped at the principle places during its travels with changing scenery throughout the journey and finally arriving in Perth on the twenty ninth of January 1959.

The ship in Fremantle turned out to be a Liberty ship. Built by the Americans to send supplies and troops to Britain, these ship were extremely novel. They were constructed continuously with the bow and stern being added on later. The construction was fully welded which was unique at the time. 

After the war the surviving ships were purchased by merchant fleets being popular by sailors and owners alike, for their economic propulsion and the generous conditions required by the American seamen. 

The engines were steam and relied on a triple expansion system which provided endless amounts of hot water and electricity from the steam driven machinery.

The Tealbank was commanded by Captain Lidstone, who, at barely twenty seven had been the youngest Captain in the fleet. As well as ‘Jenks’ and myself, the only other person to join was the fifth engineer. He was a very affable individual and soon became a bit of a legend when at his first dinner the steward brought a large steak and kidney pie intended for the engineers table. Instead of waiting to be served with a portion,  the naive Australian took the whole dish and commented,  ‘The tucker here is really bonsa.’
  No wonder he was very fat.

This account written and kindly submitted by John Wale Esq. The text is copyright and may not be reproduced without written approval

Bank Line recall…

South America bound….

For many regular, or even casual visits to South American ports, our young seafarer would feel the pulse quicken when the itinery was announced.  The music, the mystery, the girls, and the sheer excitement and exuberance  of the  anticipated visit dominated. The big cities, Buenos Aries, Montevideo and more held out wildly imaginable prospects, and the smaller loading and discharging ports all around the coasts had their own intimate charm.  Less variety perhaps, but often they offered quirky fun with piano bars, impromptu singing, friendly girls, and more, much more.

Picture This:    A sunny morning.   The loaded ship with a pilot on board is slowly moving through the brown sluggish  water of the mighty River Plate with a low strip of land on the horizon ahead. Outward-bound vessels are gingerly passing on their way to the open sea .  The mood is upbeat. The bridge teams wave to each other.

Soon, the ship is berthed and the stevedores arrive.  The pace of life is noticeably slower than expected, and this is confirmed on the first shore trip, when families are surprisingly seen eating meals and relaxing, well after midnight.  The city starts to buzz and most bars and restaurants have a tango band, giving out a magic ambiance to appreciative visitors and locals alike.  Near the docks, the bars are noticeably more wild and unpredictable. The music louder.  Many ‘girls of the night’ are working the floor like enticing vultures.  They drift in and out, and it’s  near to paradise for any randy seamen!  Up in the city centre, outside tables are near full, and the famous ‘ beefsteak de lomo’ is a favourite dish accompanied by heady local red wine.

Later, the ship visits out of the way grain loading ports, where the pace of life is amazingly slower still.   Work is desultory and the port stay extended, leading our young seaman to worry about the cash he can draw.  No thought here for the ship owner. The bars ashore are numerous, and most have ancient pianos playing nightly and some are strangely situated on a platform elevated above the floor, possibly to avoid troublemakers.  The lady pianist takes requests, but only for music! The night wears on and dawn breaks.  South America has left it’s mark.

Onboard snaps – SPEYBANK and other ships

As Chief Engineer

These photos were kindly forwarded by the daughter of George Duncan, Jean Wilson. Her father, George, was a Bank Line engineer.  George Duncan, joined the Speybank in December 1939 and was captured in January 1941, just over a year later by the German raider ATLANTIS under Captain Rogge. George continued his career in the Bank Line after he was released at the end of WW2, after four and a half years as a P.O.W.

( See the SPEYBANK story by clicking on the link)



Kenneth Mackay – Ships served on with dates and rank, starting with the GOWANBANK above. Many thanks.

  • Gowanbank; Rotterdam from 19-01-72 to Jarrow 30-08-72; 6th Eng.
  • Riverbank; Mombasa from 02-10-72 to Durban 19-01-73; 6th Eng.
  • Rosebank; Barry from 13-03-73 to Liverpool 20-11-73; 5th Eng.
  • Corabank; Liverpool from 17-01-74 to 07-02-74; 4th Eng.
  • Nairnbank; Durban from 21-01-74 to Tyne 23-04.74; 4th Eng.
  • Fleetbank; Immingham 14-05-74 to Aqaba 26-07-74; 4th Eng.
  • Cloverbank; Sunderland 17-10-74 to London 08-11-74; 4th Eng.
  • Larchbank; Liverpool from 26-11-74 to Amsterdam 03-01-75; 3rd Eng.
  • Palacio (McAndrews); Sheerness 10-06-75 to Sheerness 04-08-75; 4th Eng.
  • Cloverbank; Bander Abbas from 08-01-76 to Rotterdam 23-11-76; 2nd Eng.
  • Siena (Cloverbank); Hong Kong from 26-06-77 to Bangkok 15-01-78; 2nd Eng.
  • Speybank; Rotterdam from 28-03-78 to Antwerp 21-04-78; 2nd Eng.
  • Hollybank; Liverpool 31-05-78 to Hull 30.06-78; 2nd Eng.
  • Cedarbank; London from 24-07-78 to Cardiff 07-08-78; 2nd Eng.
  •  Fleetbank; Hamburg from 14-08-78 to Hamburg 18-12-78; 2nd Eng.
  • Fenbank Brake 21-03-79 to Durban 14-09-79; 2nd Eng.

WW2 Memories as a boy

An extract….

“Then VJ day came and went, and after a 3 year stint at sea  school my life opened up in a most amazing way.  I was appointed to a ship in Cardiff and began to roam the world.   The ship was the FORTHBANK and she had come through the war unscathed.  For me, it was the start of a completely new and exciting life, leaving WW2 far behind but not forgotten.”

(Click the download button to read the illustrated article about life as a young boy in the London Blitz in WW2)



There was a British Purser on the Isipingo who when in Durban visited, as many of us did, the Playhouse in the main Street which was an enormous and very popular Bar Lounge, Restaurant and Cinema complex.  On one occasion, after a good evening there enjoying a few drinks, he pitched out into a taxi and said Isipingo and promptly fell asleep in the back of the cab.  

He was awoken by the driver shaking him to find they were by a deserted beach with the surf pounding in loudly.  The Purser immediately feared the worst – that he was going to be robbed and even worse – and nervously asked “why have you brought me here?”.  The taxi driver replied, “you said Isipingo and here we are – Isipingo”. The Purser hadn’t realised that Isipingo was a southern suburb and beach of Durban.  

He also probably didn’t know that Inchanga, the other ‘white ship’, was named after the beautiful ‘Inchanga, Valley of a thousand Hills’ in traditional Zulu country, roughly halfway between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

The third ship of the trio, Incomati, which was sunk by gunfire in WW2 by U508 some 200 miles south of Lagos, was named after the Incomati River which flows from South Africa into the sea near Maputo (Laurenco Marques as was).

Story kindly provided by Captain R.P.Blowers

RIVERBANK memories

The Riverbank back in 1972, what a state the old girl was in, steam leaking every where and none of the engine room fans worked. Used to send the donkey man up to turn the cowls into the wind, haha. Running low on water in the Indian Ocean and chasing clouds in the hope of rain. I was 5th engineer and the heavy oil tanks were below by cabin, stinking hot with an old DC desk fan that went at a snails pace. The bar was self built from old dunnage but we loved it all. the social life was what keep us all going. I am sorry to say that I cannot remember the names but the 4th eng was called Muttley because he laughed just like the sniggering hound, 2nd mate was Ken Carpenter I thing, the mate was from Buckie, really like his drink. Hopefully others will be able to add names.It had an old Doxford 4 cylinder LBD with twin scavenge pumps. We had to run on three many time due to the cylinder liner wear, ended up shut down mid Indian Ocean between Christmas and New Year changing out one liner for one slightly less worn.

Story and pics kindly supplied by Kenneth Mackay

LEGENDRY FLOTILLAS – by Captain Geoffrey Walker

Singapore – East Coast Roads in recent times – a modern view

What follows is a fascinating account of the wartime evacuation by small vessels – an ‘Asian Dunkirk’


One of the vessels involved

An extract………….

A Plan of evacuation had been made and those vessels carrying military and civilians were directed to proceed towards safety via the Durian Straits, Berhala Straits, and the Banka Straits to points of refuge in Java. It is claimed that around 44 ships carrying evacuees left Singapore in loose convoy formation between February 12 to 14, 1942 and that of these vessels, all but 4 were bombed and sunk as they passed down the Bangka Straits from Singapore to Java. Consequently, thousands of men, women, and children were killed before any could reach land or be rescued from drowning at sea.

Click on the download button below for the full unpublished and illustrated article titled, ” Legendry Flotillas” kindly supplied by Geoff Walker

Also, see the website at

Joining the WESTBANK

It was with excited anticipation that the apprentice joined his first ship.

He said goodbye to his father at the dock gates not wanting his new colleagues to think him in need of support.  Unknown to him, it would be last time he ever saw his father.

Everything was new to him including the uniform he was wearing and the contents of his second hand kit bag.  Finances didn’t permit so they had arrived on a number 141 bus.

 He stopped occasionally to put down his burden for a brief respite and was able to look around the busy docks where ships of all kinds were loading and unloading their different cargoes.  He was completely taken in by all the activity and wondered what his first ship would be like.  The gateman had given him directions and although he was not unfriendly, his manner came across as somewhat bored.

Although he had been to a Nautical School since the age of eleven, he had little idea of what to expect in spite of passing GCE exams in navigation and seamanship as well as several other topics.  His school taught all subjects but seemed lax in equipping leavers with the knowledge of practical matters relating to the theories that they had learnt.  In their defence, it’s fair to say that different shipping companies had different agendas for their cadets and apprentices, which varied from cheap labour to uniformed petty officers or something in between.

Unfortunately, the excitement was soon to be tempered by being in the former category although at sixteen, adventure of any kind is still exciting, particularly if you are unaware of any other options.

He knew the funnel markings of the shipping company he was about to join and armed with the directions the gateman had given him he continued his search for the ship. 

Murders were very rare in London in the fifties so he had been shocked to read in the evening newspaper the night before he was due to join, that there had been a murder on board the ship that was to become his home and first place of work.

It was with a certain amount of trepidation that he climbed the gangplank, mindful of the murder and apprehensive about what to expect.

At the top of the gangplank an Indian man met him with a casual salute and said,

‘Welcome aboard sahib.’ 

As well as murders being rare at that time, so were dark people and he had hardly seen any and never spoken to one.

‘‘Thank you,’ he replied, ‘I am the new apprentice.  Where do I go?

‘To see the Chief Officer in his cabin, sahib.  I cannot leave my post, but if you enter the accommodation through the starboard door, his cabin is at the top of the stairs to the right.’

The watchman scribbled something in a notebook and said, ‘leave your bags Sir, I’ll send them up.

He followed the instructions, eventually ending up outside of a door with a sign that read – Chief Officer.

He knocked and a deep accented voice said, ’Enter.’

‘You must be the new apprentice,’ the Chief Officer said rising from his chair with an out stretched arm.  ‘My name is Peterson.  Mr. Peterson or Sir to you.  Anyone of a higher rank than you is always addressed by his surname.  Alternately as Sir or by their rank.  Got it?’

‘Yes Sir.’

‘Good.  Come along with me and I’ll introduce you to the other apprentices.  John McDonald is the senior and you should do whatever he tells you to.’

They returned to the main deck and the Chief Officer peered down the hatch immediately forward of the accommodation.  A wooden ladder disappeared below and a short while after Peterson had called down a fair-haired youth in his late teens appeared from below.  The first thing the new apprentice noticed was the absence of uniform.  The second thing was the cheeky grin and the third thing was the grime.

Peterson made the introductions and instructed the senior apprentice to settle the newcomer in.

‘As it’s a bit late in the day,’ he said, ‘he can unpack ready to start work at seven in the morning.’

‘Aye, aye Sir.’  McDonald responded, but the Chief Officer had already headed back the way they came.

John McDonald called down to someone below that he would be gone for ten minutes.

He then offered his hand saying, ‘that’s ‘Scouse’ the other apprentice.

We’re securing the deep – tanks.’

McDonald having proffered his pack to his fellow apprentice lit a cigarette and deeply inhaled. 

‘I don’t smoke.’  The newcomer responded, ‘and by the way my name is John.’

‘Touché, so is mine.  You’d better just call me Mac.  Most people do anyway.’

‘The Chief Officer said to call those above me Mister or Sir,’ Mac gave one of his winning smiles,

“We’re all apprentices so that doesn’t count and neither does it with any one else except the deck Officers and perhaps the Chief and second engineer.’

 They made their way back to the accommodation but this time they used the steps at the rear end that led up to the boat deck.

A watertight door containing a fixed porthole provided entry into the corridor after they had stepped over a nine-inch threshold designed to keep the water out.

McDonald, as senior apprentice, had a cabin to himself overlooking the boat deck and another porthole on the outer bulkhead overlooked the sea.  Next to his cabin was the double cabin for the junior apprentices.  Although it was small it was perfectly adequate and sharing was not a problem as the new apprentice had shared his bedroom at home with two elder brothers.

The cabin had two wooden bunks, one on top of the other, two lots of drawers, a double, wardrobe, a chair and a desk that turned into a washbasin when the top was lifted.  Natural light was restricted to a single porthole that looked out onto a lifeboat hanging from davits. 

Ablutions were shared and in a separate shower room together with two W.C’s. just along the corridor. 

Pointing with his cigarette, MacDonald stood in the doorway and said,

‘Tom sleeps in the bottom bunk so yours will be on the top.  I’ll leave you to unpack and see you around five thirty.  You game to go for a beer after dinner?’

‘Urr, I don’t drink either but will be pleased to come.  What shall I wear?’

Before he left, the senior apprentice told John to stay in his uniform for dinner and change after into something casual like jeans and a sweater.

John unpacked and stowed away his gear in the spaces left by his roommate.  He climbed the short wooden ladder to test his bunk that, apart from creaking a bit, was surprisingly comfortable.  Though he didn’t know it at the time, it was to be his bed for over half a year and it would serve him while he travelled completely around the world.

Shortly after he had finished, about five thirty the another lad arrived and introductions were made to the person he would be sharing his room with and working alongside. His cabin mate escorted the new arrival on a cursory exploration of the accommodation.

It didn’t take long as the only two rooms that were not private, were the dining saloon and the officers lounge where he was to spend many an evening either reading or playing cards.

He returned to his cabin to find that both of the other two apprentices had decided to skip dinner and head for the shore.  Naturally he was invited.

“ Love to.  Hadn’t we better let them know?”

“Not necessary.”  The senior apprentice said, “how much money have you got?”

Their first stop was a pub’ called ‘The Bricklayers Arms’ where they ordered two pints and a coke for John who was paying. The Twenty Pound note his father had given to him for ‘rainy days,’ was already starting to diminish.

As they sat near the dartboard, John took a pull on his coke and asked of nobody in particular,

“Did you see anything of the Murder?”

MacDonald, who had sailed on the ship on its last trip, seemed pleased to have been asked.  He entered into an account of what had happened with a certain amount of relish.

“ The Chief Steward, called a ‘Butler,’ on our ships was approached by one of the cooks who had.complained that the food was inadequate.  Anyway, the Butler apparently told him if he wanted anything else he could eat his ‘p..k.’ Sometime later when the Butler was asleep, the cook castrated him and stuffed the separated parts into his mouth. Bloke bled to death and wasn’t found until too late next morning.  The police were all over the place, when we docked. They took the cook away. Cook now crook.”

He laughed at hos own joke.

The new apprentice was dumbstruck and the second apprentice, who had no doubt, heard the story many times before, added,

“ You see the Butler has an allowance of so much a day for each person from the shipping company.  There is a legal limit.  If the Butler can save on the allowance, he keeps the rest.”  He drank deeply from his tankard and continued, “ These Indian people don’t have the same standards as us and are all religious fanatics who don’t just rear up when a problem occurs but will sneak along in the dead of the night and think nothing of stabbing the person who has upset them, even quite mildly.”

This information was quite alarming to the sixteen year old who had been rather sheltered until then, but he was determined to learn so asked another question,

“I thought the articles we signed said something about…not frequenting alehouses or houses of ill repute…doesn’t that mean pubs’?

Mac explained that the articles were old fashioned and drafted in the eighteenth century so it didn’t really apply.  Alehouses no longer existed and neither did houses of ill repute.  He omitted to mention to the newcomer, that today’s favourite haunts of sailors of all nationalities were the modern equivalent known as BB’s.  Not bed and breakfast but bars and brothels.

Someone selected a disc on the ‘Juke Box’, a new innovation to England in the 50’s being a legacy of the Americans.  Paul Anker’s ‘I’m just a lonely boy’, resonated around the bar causing John a moment of depression and nostalgia which fortunately, soon passed.  A pool table, another American introduction, attracted the sailors.  The two elder apprentices were first to play with John taking on the winner. The wager was half a crown that wouldn’t have been unreasonable had John played before but as Mac said, “ you have to pay to learn.”  John hoped this wouldn’t apply to everything! 

As the night wore on, John’s fail-safe got smaller and smaller, but needing to be included he didn’t complain. They had talked him into trying some beer, the fact he was unaccustomed to alcohol had the effect of making him quite gregarious.  He soon found himself chatting to strangers and even young ladies a thing he had never done before.  Of course he was eventually to realise that ‘Ladies’ wasn’t quite the appropriate word especially when they discovered the extent of his, later to be depleted, funds.

When they returned to the ship a little after midnight all that remained of his father’s last gift was a five-pound note and a few coins.

At some time during the night they had sailed.  John awoke with the first hangover in his life and in sailor’s parlance had a ‘technicolour yawn.’

His cabin mate was nowhere to be seen though his wristwatch indicated that it was only six thirty a.m.  He knew from the evening before that they were bound for Hull to take on the last of the cargo and some stores and were due to remain for less than a day.

The door opened and his colleague returned, draped only in a wet towel, obviously having just taken a shower.

‘Good morning mate, how are you feeling?” enquired his roommate.

‘Touch fragile,” replied John.

“You’ll feel better when you’ve showered.  You’d better hurry up though; we turn to at seven sharp.  By the way, we seldom wear uniform.  Just working gear – jeans and a jumper, will be good.”

Visions of wandering around the ship’s bridge in full uniform, faded as reality took their place.

A routine had begun that would hardly vary for the months to come, apart from when they were in port.

It consisted of starting deck work at seven.  Breakfast at eight thirty until nine and working (mainly chipping and painting) throughout the day until six in the evening.  Apart from lunch between one and two, there were only two other breaks.  These were for a quarter of an hour each and called ‘Smokoe”, when they would take tea and tab nabs, a euphemism for toast or some kind of rock cake.

The new apprentice was to learn many new words apart from bad language and although some were nautical expressions, most had a connection to the lascar crew.

He soon learnt that a bosun was called a ‘serang’, a storekeeper ‘a cassab’, and so on.  Then there was jargon where an electrician was ‘Sparks’ and a carpenter was a ‘Chippy’.

Hull seemed an interesting place and is situated on the River Humber. In many ways it was quite behind the times as compared to the part of London where John had grown up.

Mac helpfully showed him the ropes (literally) as they tied up and informed him that had been given the task of taking on the stores. He explained the task was merely to make sure the goods weren’t damaged and matched the receipts. The crew would take care of loading and storage. 

He smiled and said ‘A cushy number, the mate must have a soft spot for you!’

Later on Mac was proven wrong.

The stores arrived in dribs and drabs through out the day. Luckily it was cold but the rain had kept off and good progress was made in loading the remaining cargo.

The trouble arose later when John asked the serang who had busted the bags of cement. These would be used later for stopping up the hawse pipes prior to crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

Imagine John’s surprise when the serang pulled a knife on him! 

As he timidly waited outside the Chief Officers cabin, John thought that it didn’t bode particularly well that just the third day on board he had had an altercation with the crew.

The Chief Officer had heard him out and sent for the serang telling John to wait outside.

The cabin door finally opened and John entered.

The Chief Officer looked somewhat bemused and the Serang had his back to him looking out of place in his drab khaki wear.

The Mate advised, 

‘I’ve got to the bottom of it. The serang apologises – he thought you called him a b…ard. I explained the word busted meant broken.’

Now shake hands.’

The serang turned and came over to where John stood. He didn’t shake hands but put his arm around John’s shoulder before nodding to the Officer and retreated to carry on with his duties.

Before dismissing him, the Chief Officer gave John some good advice.

‘ They are not the same as us so when dealing with them you must learn to think like them and then there will be no further troubles. In the meantime take care and keep out of trouble.’ 

As they steamed east down the English Channel the new apprentice found himself full of mixed feelings. The excitement of at last being at sea and about to cross the Atlantic Ocean for the United States was mingled with nostalgia as he glanced for the last time that year at the land that had been his home.

It was also very different from what he had imagined.

Studying charts on the bridge in his smart new uniform whereas the reality was that he was freezing cold with the strong westerly wind spraying seawater in his face while he soogied the port alleyway on the main deck. 

His reminiscing and homesickness were soon replaced by physical discomfort as the icy cold washing water tricked down his arm inside his oilskins when he reached up to wash the deck head.

 Even though he felt like crying, he simultaneously wanted to laugh with joy and anticipation, as he felt overcome by a feeling of exhilaration and anticipation of what was in store. Little did he know!

Many thanks to John Wale for this ‘story’ based upon real events long ago!

1955 A First Tripper voyage to the South Seas – an interesting account kindly submitted by Captain R.P.Blowers.


In July 1955, at the age of sixteen, having spent three years at the London Nautical School and taken the General Certificate of Education in six subjects, which included Navigation and Seamanship, I was prepared to go to sea,  It was first necessary to pass a full medical examination and eyesight test, which sadly caught out a few of my fellow classmates who suddenly had to find alternative careers. 

 To avoid oil tankers and experience worldwide trading, I signed indentures as an Apprentice with Andrew Weir’s Bank Line and was appointed to a new ship, M.V. Foylebank, then nearing completion at Harland & Wolf’s shipyard in Belfast.  A large list of uniform, work clothing and other items of equipment required were sent by the Bank Line and I showed this to one of my school’s ex-seagoing Navigation Teachers and he said, rather depressingly and erroneously, that all I would need for the Bank Line was a couple of boiler suits.  A visit to outfitters in London was necessary to purchase all the requirements and at quite some expense for my Father.

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An Engineer’s story continued – courtesy of Michael Smith – N.Z.

The TEAKBANK in later life as the NEWTON

The Teakbank was in the port of New York for around 2 days.   During those 2 days a huge amount of activity took place as the original crew departed and a ‘new’ crew arrived.  Badly needed stores like beer, and many other such nutritional products were winched on board.  The crew change included the engine room and deck crew who had been on the vessel for about 16 or so months.  Captain Wigham stayed on. 

The departing 4th engineer John, had bought a second hand accordion in Cape Town at some stage from a person at a Sunday Market, and it was indeed a second hand accordion! He informed me that I too, could be the proud owner of this musical instrument for the minor sum of $20.  I offered to give him by cheque for $20, but being a canny Scotsman, he told me he much preferred cash, he also claimed that he was more than happy to cart it all the way back to Scotland.   Some of the keys did not work, and holes in the ‘air pump’ had been covered and patched with duct tape.  And for some unknown reason ‘smelt’ of Drambuie!!  One could at a stretch, say that it was in ‘working condition’ as it did in fact ‘work’!   Ted the new 3rd engineer from Belfast turned out to be a dab hand at playing this lovely instrument, whilst no maestro, when it came to producing the required ‘noise’ when we all gathered in his cabin for a sing song when we were in port, he did rather well.  He could play 3 tunes really well, he even had the swaying body movements down pat, ‘I belong to Glasgow’, ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘If you ever go across the sea to Ireland’.  Many other songs were sung, but sadly, the music/tune did not quite match the lyrics! The ‘brave’ among us carried on regardless and the song was sung regardless of the tune, the disparity between music, timing and lyrics increasing as the night wore on.  There were times when it sounded as though 2 different songs were being sung at the same time.  Our ‘new’ 2nd Lecki being Welsh had a great singing voice, as they do, the only minor issue was that as the night of frivolity wore on, he swapped from singing in English to singing the words in Welsh.   This resulted in a situation where most of us had no idea as to which song was being sung, and what the words were.

 The ‘new’ Engineering Officers and Deck Officers to the best of my memory were as follows.  The Chief Engineer Prim Mangat hailed from Delhi.  The 2nd engineer was Clifford Sai who was from Hong Kong originally, but lived in Liverpool. The 3rd engineer was Ted Sawyers who hailed from Belfast and had been at sea for about 20+ years, and had sailed on ‘Bank Boats’ several times. The 4th was John Cree who came from Glasgow.  I was the 5th engineer, and the 6th engineer was a guy named Donald McClung who was from Dumbartonshire in Scotland.  The 2nd Lecki whose name escapes me, was from Wales.  He was on the ‘8 to 12’ watch with John the 4th engineer. 

I have very little recollection of who the Deck Officers were.  What I do remember, is that the ‘new’ R/O was Trevor.  I met Trevor briefly in Brisbane about 6 years later when I was living there, he had joined the RFA and had done several ‘stints’ on their vessels.  

[ If any of you good people out there reading this article recognise any of the names above, or know of their whereabouts please contact me. Thank you]

Leaving New York we sailed to Norfolk-Virginia where, for the first time in about 40 or so days, I was able to ‘go ashore’ and feel ‘solid ground’ under my feet!  The said ‘Roto Valve’, mentioned earlier that had been the source of much angst, had been pulled apart and reconditioned.  We never did have that problem again.  Leaving Norfolk where we had picked up a small amount of cargo, we traveled to many of ‘Gulf’ Ports loading ‘general’ cargo for Australia.  At New Orleans we berthed at what was called ‘The Bank Line Wharf’.  If my memory is correct, there would have been at least 20 to 30 names of Bank Line vessels painted just about everywhere along the wharf.  One that I remember distinctly, was the Dart Bank.  Someone had taken great pains to colourfully draw a dartboard, complete with numbers etc on a 8 foot square piece of timber.  A really well drawn ‘dart’ was drawn sticking into the ‘bullseye’.  I have never really forgotten that image representing the M.V. Dart Bank.  I wonder whether the Bank Line wharf is still being used?

We stayed in New Orleans for about 14 days.   Bourbon Street was almost like a magnet to most of us and a good time was had by all.  Leaving New Orleans, we headed for Panama to pass through the Canal and make our way across the Pacific Ocean to Australia.  Then a funny thing happened.

At around 10.00hrs I happened to be on the ‘boat deck’ a day out of New Orleans, when I felt the revs on the Doxford drop to around 25rpm (normal sea speed was 95rpm), many alarms were being sounded and the engine finally came to a stop.  I looked down through the ‘swing doors’ of the engine room vents I saw a large stream of water gushing vertically upwards almost touching the top of the engine room.   The top piston cooling water hose had decided to detach itself from the steel water inlet nozzle. 

Let me explain that a bit better!

The top pistons on an opposed piston Doxford diesel, are cooled with fresh water that is pumped through water channels within the piston. There are 2 hoses, one is the inlet hose the other the outlet. I cannot remember what the ‘exact’ pressure of the fresh water was.  I ‘think’ it was around 50 to 70lbs, perhaps one of our readers has a better idea??   In any event, the pressure of the fresh water is/was higher than the ‘salt water’.  This ensures that, if there is a leak in the ‘counterflow cooler’, the salt water would not ‘mix’ with the fresh water and contaminate the piston cooling fresh water tank.   If however, a leak did develop in the cooler, the fresh water would go overboard.

To get a better idea please visit this link: 

We replaced the faulty hose with a new one, and in about an hour and a half we were back up to ‘Full Away’ headed for the Panama Canal.  I remember making a mental note to have at least half dozen ‘already cut to length pieces of hose’ in the engine room store so that replacing them when and if they did come apart, would be a quicker fix.  The 12 hour (I think?) trip through the Canal was uneventful and we finally emerged into the largest ocean in the world, the Pacific Ocean.  It was daunting to realise that there was several miles of water between the ship’s hull and the ocean floor.

Seeing a pod of about 1000 Dolphins making their way in leaps and bounds towards the setting sun was a sight I shall never forget.  We also passed several Blue Whales diving and exposing their massive tails and ‘thumping’ their tails as they dived or moved on.

It would take 37 days for us to arrive in Brisbane. 

To be continued…

Engine Room Tales …..

kindly contributed by Michael Smith – N.Z.

Bank Line ships – Kiddapore Dock

I clearly remember the day I arrived at a berth in Kidderpore Docks to find that the deck Serang had organised two of the crew, to assist in taking my large metal suitcase up the gangway to the 6th Engineers cabin.  As most of us know the first day is a blur, I signed papers on board, met various other Officers, and was asked by the 2nd Mate whether I would like a pay advance.  I naturally said ‘yes please’!  It was then off to the Shipping Office accompanied by Captain Wigham and the 2nd Mate to ‘officially’ sign on to the Teakbank. Funnily enough I do not think that anyone mentioned that I was signing ‘ 2 year’ articles! 

The 2nd Engineer who I will refer to as ‘Jack’ from here on in, showed me around the engine room and told me that we were on ‘Port’ watches, 00.00hrs to 08.00hrs. And that at sea, I was to be on the 04.00hrs to 08.00hrs ‘Sea’ watch with him. Often referred to as the 2nds watch.    I went home for a while to say my last goodbyes to inlaws, outlaws, and family and friends and was back by 18.00hrs.  Jack demonstrated the ‘blowing down’ of the lubricating oil filter on the Generators which was to be done every 6 hours.  I stuffed the process up the first time, but from then on it was a breeze.  During my first port watch I was tasked to ‘splitting the ends’ of the exhaust gas boiler tubes, all of which were to be renewed by a shore crew the next day.  Unfortunately, half way through doing this task, I managed to wallop my left hand instead of the cold chisel with the hammer.  That brought my exhaust boiler work to a grinding halt for the night!  However, it did provide me with the opportunity to learn more about the engine room which was to become my new home for many a month. The next day we moved to a berth along the Hoogly River.

Allow me to digress for a while please.  I did a 4 year Apprenticeship at The Shalimar Shipbuilding Works in Howrah.  During my last year I was moved into the Ship Repair Department which was something I always wanted to do. I was fortunate to be placed on the M.V. Irish Rowan, (and many other vessels) for about a week, she was a 6 cylinder ‘J’ type Doxford with a center scavenge. I stayed on board when the vessel moved berths, and hence, was fairly conversant with all that needs to be done, to get a marine diesel engine ready for maneuvers.   

Finally, a few days later, we received orders to sail to Chulna to pick up a cargo of Jute and Gunnies for New York.  We had ‘broken’ Port Watches the previous night and at around 03.30hrs the 4th engineer, John, woke me and told me the Circus was about to begin.   An hour or so later he showed me how to go about ‘testing’ the Steering Gear.  As I walked back to the engine room along the deck after testing the steering gear, I remember seeing the sky tinged with a pink red sunrise.  The tugs slowly dragged the vessel out into the Hoogly and the first of many ‘telegraph commands’ rang to Half Ahead.  My own Great Wanderings, had well and truly begun.

It was a day or so later after leaving Chulna that we received news that there was to be a ‘crew change’ in New York.  Most of the Officers had been on board for about 14 months.  I recall that Captain Wigham had been there a lot longer.  The vessel needed bunkers, both heavy and diesel, so Bank Line decided to bunker the vessel at Cape Town. It took around 12 days to get to Cape Town and in the process I learnt what it was like to be sea-sick!   I remember Jack telling me that I would get used to the ships motion, and that he had seen more waves in a teacup!! We were in Cape Town for about 8 hours, here I was introduced to the gentle art of sounding the heavy fuel double bottoms tanks as the fuel poured in. Glad to report there were no spills! (that I know of!!!)  Leaving Cape Town we headed for New York, it was sort of being on the ‘home stretch’ for most of the Officers.  Sam the 5th engineer signed off in Cape Town, I was promoted to the exalted position of 5th.  So the engineers sailed ‘short handed’ when we left Cape Town for New York.

It was ‘watch on—watch off’ for the next 28 days.  I got 2 hours ‘overtime’ each day after breakfast, and my tasks included reconditioning/replacing galley burners which ran on heavy fuel.  8 days out of New York, we ran low on heavy fuel and the heavy fuel transfer pump refused to ‘lift’ the fuel from the double bottoms up to the crude oil tank.  The crude oil tank puts the crude fuel through a PX Purifier, then a separator up to the Heavy Oil Service Tank.  We then switched to Diesel Fuel and the Doxford ran on diesel till we arrived at destination.

Then a funny thing happened.  The bridge rang ‘Stop’ on the telegraph and informed we were about to pick the pilot up.  Half hour later, with the pilot safety on-board we approached a ‘U’ shaped dock where we were to berth Starboard side to.  Bridge rang ‘Stop’ and moments later, rang ‘Full Astern’, Jack who was on the controls, was not very happy fellow merely because, any large marine diesel takes a while to come to rest even after the fuel is shut off.  It finally did however, and Jack banged the lever that permits compressed air to the cylinders into Astern, gave it some fuel and a blast of air.  The engine started again but, was still in the Ahead mode and so started in the Ahead mode again! He tried 3 or 4 times, each time it refused to go Astern, and continued to go Ahead!!! The Chief who was in the engine room at that time, looked very concerned as the bridge rang ‘double Full Astern’ 3 times, which normally translates into ‘we have a problem Houston’!! He told me to follow him as he raced up to the the ‘middle platform’ with a large hammer and started to beat the living daylights out of the casing, of what I now know to be, the Roto Valve. At the same time screaming at Jack to ‘give it another go’, which Jack did, but which produced the same result.   Funny that!

Meanwhile of course, unbeknown to us, (no one ever tells the engineers anything!!) the vessel was fast approaching the end of the ‘U’ shaped dock, two heavy duty Tugs were straining to slow the vessel down with ropes attached to the aft bollards.  

Most/all marine diesels are unidirectional.  They can be started to run clockwise or anticlockwise as needed.   I need at this stage to give a brief explanation of what a Roto Valve does.  My understanding is that a Roto Valve consists of a cylinder, in which a ‘free floating’ piston can move up or down allowing ‘different’ ports to be exposed, which in turn directs compressed air to the appropriate cylinder depending on whether one needs to ‘go’ Ahead or Astern. The piston had jammed in the Ahead position, probably due to the fact that we had been at sea close to 38 days.

Many attempts later, and copious quantities of ‘Release All’ it did finally go Astern, but we were at berth by then! But folks who read this know where this story is going!

Some say that the bow did not nudge the end of the ‘U’ shaped dock, some say it did, but only just, whatever that means!!   We engineers will never know the truth because: ‘no one tells the engineers anything’!!!  Besides, when one is chomping at the bit to go home after 15 months at sea, mind sets are somewhat different.  Many had started to celebrate by having a few wee drams after we picked the pilot up.

to be continued………

( To contact Michael please email him directly at or leave a message below – thank you)




Tales of the Deep, by Michael Smith

“Tales of the Deep”

by Michael Smith N.Z.

I decided to share my experience and stories of a 22 year career as an Engineer in the Merchant Navy with those others, who like myself, were called to go ‘down to the sea in ships’.  I am in my late 70’s, and have lived in New Zealand with my wife for the last 7 years. The stories that I will share with you are not in cronological order.  Whilst I will endeavour not to get to ‘deep’ into the engineering side of things, I trust that the engineers ‘out there’ will find common ground in my descriptions.  

I joined the M.V. Teakbank in late ‘64 as the 6th Engineer in Calcutta.  The Captain was Louis Wigham, who in my opinion  was the best ‘Old Man’ I ever sailed with. The Chief Engineer was from  Sunderland whose name escapes me.  The 2nd Engineer was Jack who hailed from Mount Lofty in South Australia.  He was around 63 years of age at that time, he had been at sea for about 30 or so years, the Teakbank was the last vessel he was to serve on.  The 3rd Engineer was Alvin Latty who hailed from New York.  Most pleasant person who basically along with Jack the 2nd showed me the ropes over the next 5 or so months. The 4th Engineer John hailed from Glasgow.  The 5th was Sam who had signed on about 6 months prior to me. He hailed from Durban.  The 2nd Lecki was Barry who hailed from Newcastle in NSW Australia.  I cannot recall who the Chief Electrician was.  Deck and Engine room crews were recruited from Chulna and Chittagong, and the Chippy was from Hong Kong.

The Teakbank was powered by a Doxford 4 Cylinder Opposed Piston oil Engine. It had three 500kw Ruston Generators.  The Main Engine was started by compressed air, two large air cylinders were fixed vertically to the forhead engine room bulkhead.  Whilst entering and leaving a port the main engine was run on Diesel Fuel, when at sea and at ‘Full Away’, the engine was run on Heavy Fuel.  About an hour before a pilot was picked up the ‘revs’ were slowly dropped to around 70rpm (normal running revs were 95rpm).  Two inlet pipes fed the Fuel Pump block, one fed pure diesel and the other heavy oil.  When coming into port it was a simple matter of shutting off the ‘steam heating’ to the heavy fuel lines, and slowly shutting the valve which reduced the flow of heavy oil and, at the same time, opening the valve on the diesel line, allowing the flow of diesel oil to the fuel pumps.  Within a couple of minutes the ‘tone’ of the beat of the engine changed and one could smell the faint traces of ‘diesel exhaust’, it is something engineers rarely forget!

To be continued………

Apprentice on the SIBONGA

DUNCAN MILNE, who was senior apprentice on the SIBONGA at the time of the rescue has kindly agreed to write about life onboard. Readers are reminded that the SIBONGA was the Bank Line FIRBANK on time charter.


I was on my last trip as Deck Cadet and, although I didn’t know it at the time, it was to be my last trip with Bank Line. We were on time charter to the East Asiatic Company on a regular run crossing the Pacific between Asia and the Eastern seaboard of America.

We had a really great bunch of officers, together with their wives in three instances, and I remember there being a very good working relationship under the command of Healey Martin sailing with his beloved, late wife, Mildred.

Healey had the greatest respect from all on board Sibonga from the outset and towards the end of the voyage this was to be multiplied a thousand times when he stopped the ship to pick up visitors. From a very personal point of view I felt my own career was kick started by an incident on the previous leg of the voyage   as we headed off down the Columbia River passage. The deck officers had worked like mad all night on a very hectic loading schedule while I was rested to assist Healey and the Pilot to sail the ship first thing in the morning. It was the usual deal with the pilot running the show, Healey standing by to take the blame when it all went wrong, and me operating the engine telegraph and ticking off the buoys and marks as we passed them.

It wasn’t long before Healey decided he could take the blame, if necessary, from the saloon where breakfast was underway. I felt rather proud to be essentially left in charge of the mighty Sibonga despite there being a pilot on the bridge with me. This pride soon turned to trepidation when the pilot, who was already referring to me as ‘mister mate’ pronounced he was going for breakfast as well !

I knew the passage fairly well, we had been up and down numerous times, so all I could do was just take over assuming Healey would be up like a shot as soon as he saw the pilot arrive for breakfast. I have never discussed this with Healey but I did take the ship almost all the way to the bar and no one came up to supervise. I can only assume they actually trusted me to do the pilotage because they must have been chatting over breakfast together. At one point I phoned down and informed the pilot that there was a truck on the beach which our wash was clearly going to swamp and should I reduce speed. The answer was along the lines of ‘just let her rip they shouldn’t be there’!

That was my best hour in Bankline. I hope the great captain won’t mind me telling the story.

By Duncan Milne

Many thanks to Duncan Milne who has kindly agreed to write about his time onboard and at the time of the rescue… Some readers may not be aware that the SIBONGA was the FIRBANK of the Bank Line on time charter to the Danish East Asiatic Company. The rescue of 1000 Vietnamese nationals took place 21 years ago in 1979.


SPRINGBANK – the last of the 18 ship order of 1925

HMS Springbank was one of a new type of Fighter Catapult Ship developed to counter the threat from land based aircraft. Originally constructed for merchant service in 1926, she was taken up into RN service in 1940 and converted into an anti-aircraft ship with a formidable armament including 8-4 inch (100 mm) guns in four twin HA turrets and two sets of quadruple 2 pounder pom-poms. In March 1941 she was fitted with a cordite powered catapult amidships mounted with a Fulmar two seater naval fighter. In the course of her duties with HG 73 her Fulmar aircraft was launched on 18 September and the enemy aircraft was attacked but escaped; when the aircraft arrived at Gibraltar it was discovered that faulty ammunition had caused all but one of the guns to jam. HMS Springbank was torpedoed at 0208 on 27 September by U-201. HMS Jasmine went alongside to take off survivors and after unsuccessfully attempting to sink her with depth charges did so by shelling.

Convoy HG 73 saw the heaviest losses of all. A total of 25 merchant ships formed the convoy from Gibraltar on 17 September, together with an unusually strong escort including a destroyer and Fighter Catapult ship, although as usual most escorts were Flower class corvettes. Hastily brought together for the task, the escorts’ lack of training as a team was subsequently blamed by C-in-C Western Approaches, Admiral Noble, for their lack of success. In retrospect, though, the convoy was unlucky to have been subject to concerted attack from three of the most able U-boat commanders of the war. The convoy seems to have been spotted by a FW 200 off Cape St Vincent and shadowed by U-371 and a group of three Italian submarines for several days whilst a U-boat pack was assembled. On 24 September a FW 200 established contact and guided U-124 and U-203 to the location. U-201 and U-205 joined later although U-205 was attacked on 27 September and damaged, and was unable to press home any effective attack. The other U-boats withdrew after expending all their torpedoes.

The route of the HG series of convoys from Gibraltar to Liverpool took them within range of Luftwaffe FW 200 (‘Condor’) aircraft acting both in a reconnaissance role, able to guide U-boats operating out of the French Atlantic ports onto the convoys, and as effective bombers against shipping. Despite the difficulties most convoys completed successfully, but of the 570 merchant ships which took part in the 28 separate convoys in 1941 on this homebound route 25 were lost, together with a further 5 stragglers. Experience in the other direction (designated OG) could be a little different because Germany was denied the intelligence information on sailings available from agents in Spain for the homebound stretch – 1004 ships took part in 30 OG convoys in 1941, with 21 lost in convoy, though a further 34 losses were classified as stragglers. 1941 was by far the most dangerous year for convoys on this route in either direction.

U-201 was a type VIIC ocean-going submarine built by Germania shipyard, Kiel. Launched 7 December 1940 and commissioned 25 January 1941. Another U-boat with an outstandingly successful record, at the time of the action against HG 73 she was commanded by Kapitänleutnant Adalbert Schnee, and had been summoned to assist U-124 on the attack on OG 74 but was driven off by attack from fighters from the escort carrier HMS Audacity. On the night of 21/22 September, however, she caught up with and sank three stragglers from that convoy. U-201 was sunk with all 49 hands on 17 February 1943 east of Newfoundland by depth charges from HMS Viscount, though by this time Schnee was directing operations against the convoys for Admiral Dönitz.

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A lovely painting of the SOUTHBANK from


Captain John Campbell – A story

Weird things happen at sea


When I was a lowly first trip apprentice on the MV Southbank and serving my time, as we all did .in learning, amongst other things, to look after ship maintenance. We often though that some Mates utilised us Apprentices as a source of cheap labour and that was often a complaint.

Learning to paint was one job that a Bank Line apprentice would be certain to experience. Some tasks were easier than others. The First Mates were almost always critical of an apprentice’s performance and we had on that ship a bully of a First Mate and a Master who took every opportunity to question our competence as decorators

One morning our hearts sank as we got our task for the day and it was to paint the captain’s bathroom suite’ We had to strip the old paint off and to set to and paint the bulkheads it in a lovely eau de nil gloss. Whilst working we were continually harassed and bullied about the quality of our work which got the three of us down’ They continually pointed out holidays and runs and generally bullied us.

At smoko, one morning, at our usual meeting point, at Number Four Hatch just outside the galley drinking our daily ration of lime juice we were joined by the 2nd Engineer Charlie Cain. He listened to our moans and said that he maybe could help us get back at the bully of a Captain and went on to tell us how.

Now our 2nd Eng. was a man of colour, his ancestors having come from West Africa. He resembled Cassius Clay and was very well liked by all. He was Scottish having been born in Edinburgh and spoke in a broad Scottish accent. He did not like the Captain either as they had clashed about the quality of the food and there was no love lost there.

Several weeks later the ship was berthed at the port of San Lorenzo in Argentina. We had just finished loading a full cargo of wheat for Callao, Peru. Battened down and ready for sea we off duty staff gathered near the gangway awaiting the Captain returning to the ship after going ashore to receive clearances and bills of lading etc. To get to the ship the Captain had to descend a very steep stair connecting the wharf to a clifftop on the banks of the River Parana. Descending the stairs, brief case in hand, the captain suddenly stumbled and fell tumbling down- severely spraining one arm. 

We all looked at the 2nd who gave us a knowing wink. The Captain always seemed to be more human from then on, but I will never forget that incident and have always wondered if it really was Juju or pure bad luck. 

When I pick up a paint brush now I never forget the sight of the “old man “falling down the stairs “in San Lorenza even though it was way back in 1954 

Indeed, weird things happen at sea.

Captain John Campbell (ex Bank Line) – an anecdote…

An extract……

Starring with Bob Hope

The road to Milford Haven

When you return home after a six month trip and your leave goes speedily by and you are down to the last two weeks  you dread every ring of the telephone as I could be the London office personnel Dept requesting that you come back early or telling you your next ship is delayed and you have to go on a course. You learn to put up with that as well as your relations asking “when are you going back?” Thus one afternoon whilst doing the garden I had a phone call from Malcolm Corner in our Personnel Dept. He told me that Texaco needed a serving Master to evaluate a new ship handling simulator course to see if it was satisfactory for training Navigating Officers. 

Click the download button for the interesting account..

My favourite command…

by Captain John Campbell, who earlier served in the Bank Line.



My first Command is my favourite.

One sunny day in July 1971 I joined the Texaco Saigon as Master for the first time .It was 17 years since I started as an Apprentice. This was my first command and perhaps my favourite one.

Built in Mobile , Alabama, her sea going service began as the SS  Chicaca in 1943 when she joined her 500 sisters in helping fight World War II . She was a veteran and travelled many miles carrying millions of tons of petroleum crossing the oceans of the world . She became a British Ship in 1952 managed by Caltex Overseas Tankships until Texaco took over. She was scrapped in 1981.

As I joined her in Bahrain, she looked a handsome vessel She was on her maiden “jumboized.” voyage .She had been lengthened  and widened by having had her entire bow and cargo section replaced and the foreword accommodation placed over the engine room . It was a great idea as Texaco got a longer bigger tanker carrying more cargo at half the cost of a new ship. . The Turbo Electric Engines were in great condition, but her boilers were showing their age.

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Escorting Crew to the Doctors

I enjoyed the recent post about taking, and losing, Calcutta crew members to the Doctors as I think all apprentices have had the same, somewhat embarrassing experience.  I well remember leading four men in Indian file up the main street in Sydney, they in crumpled second-hand suits, no shirt but long john vests and woolly hats getting a lot of amused stares and feeling quite discomforted.

I once took a sick crew member to the clinic in Madang, Papua New Guinea and the Australian nurse in reception said “but who is going to pay for this?  I replied that our shipping company. or their insurance,  would in the end but first the bill should be sent to our well-known agents Burns Philp who seemingly would, or should, have informed them in advance of our visit. 

Viv Ridges, one of my ex colleagues on the ferries who also served his time in the Bank Line,  took two men to the Doctor in Colombo and was present during the consultation.  One man Had a bad foot and the other a stomach complaint.  The Ceylonese Doctor said that he would like to see them again the next day and that he had given them instructions, one to keep the bandages on and the other to bring a sample of ‘stool’ for testing.  On the morrow, Vic escorted the two men back, one of them carrying a suspicious looking parcel wrapped up in newspaper and string, which he kept well clear of.   At the surgery the Doctor exploded saying “bloody fool, bloody fool”.   Apparently, there had been a bit of a ‘misunderstanding’ because the man with the bad foot had brought the ‘stool’. 

Bob Blowers  

On the same subject…….. On the old ERNEBANK in Liverpool in May 1953 I was told to take some of the Indian crew to the doctor’s and bring them back. One of the men, an engine room greaser, whose name Taranak Ali had bad diabetes. His name is forever in my memory because the doctor did some tests and exclaimed in surprise that he didn’t know how I had got him there in his condition! Taranak Ali was a painfully thin, cheerful little man. The Doctor kept him for admission to hospital and told me there was no way he could return to the ship and that he would probably die etc etc.. I felt a bit sad and duly reported back.

The sequel to the story is that several months later I was at Sandheads to proceed up to Calcutta on another vessel, the Maplebank, and we passed very close to an anchored Bank Line ship when I recognised Taranak Ali waving to me from the stern!

Church parade in Lagos

The 1937 ESKBANK a stalwart of the postwar fleet

An account by Captain John Campbell

An extract…….

Tabnabs with the Queen

When serving my Apprenticeship on the mv “Eskbank” we, by chance, were berthed in Lagos Nigeria at the same time as HM the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were making their first official visit to Nigeria. My Discharge Book informs me that it was January 1956

We were discharging part cargo of Gunny sacks in bales and a consignment of footwear from Bata. Calcutta, our berth was close to the main road and not far from the Cathedral thus we had a near grandstand view of the ceremonies etc,

Nigeria was still a British Colony and this visit had great significance as Independence was to come within the next couple of years. There was also some civil unrest.

Eskbank was my favourite ship of all I had sailed in. She was kept like a yacht with wooden sheathed decks and shining paint work she was a fine vessel. The accommodation. without AC was comfortable, but her navigational equipment was sparse. No gyro compass and a radar or Decca and steam powered deck machinery. She did 12 knots and was no ocean greyhound The Master then was Capt. Eadie, a New Zealander, who had the misfortune to have been interned, for the duration of the war, by the Nazis when his ship the mv “Speybank” was captured. He served most of his Apprenticeship as a POW. He always looked after his Apprentices, making sure we kept our correspondence courses updated and we got time off to do them.

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        Giving your first jab, by Captain John Campbell

One of the duties of the 2nd Mate, if you served as a Second Mate on a Bank Line ship of your many duties was is to look after the Medicine chest. A large locker in the Officers accommodation full of pills and potions prescribed by the Merchant Shipping Act. It also held drawers of instruments for operating on and in a seafarer. Details on how to look after this kit and the health of crew members were listed in The Ship Captain,s Medical guide. A book which was invaluable to a first trip 2nd Mate. The Master was ultimately responsible but usually delegated any first aid one of his officers. This was a job which few liked as it was conducted in our sleeping time and thus it was a demanding and irksome chore with accompanying form filling. 

My first trip as 2nd Mate was in 1957 and then Penicillin was the wonder drug and it and Sulfa Drugs (M@B) were the great lifesavers. Having an Indian crew meant that whilst at sea there was a steady stream of patients standing at the time of “sick parade” at 1000hrs daily whilst at sea. These sailors presented with maladies ranging from constipation to sore throats. We carried large gallon bottles of Black Draught and Cough Linctus and these were much in demand. The sailors would drink cough linctus by the gallon as they found that it contained morphine and that had to be rationed or we would soon run out. Other than these two drugs aspirin and calamine lotion for sun burn there was not a great demand for the other drugs although I have had to stich a sliced hand apply polices and splint legs. I had to look after a crazed Radio Officer, a schizophrenic sailor and a very depressive Third Mate in my time as Mate and Master. Thank goodness for Radio and getting speedily in touch with a shore side Medic was invaluable. There are times when you are grateful for the supply of Morphine on the Captains safe when an ill seaman has you clasped around the legs screaming in agony from kidney stones, 

I was a first trip 2nd Mate on the lovely new cargo ship the m.v.” Teakbank” where the Master was a huge man from The Isle of Wight. He resembled Pres Trump in statue and temperament and expressed openly his dislike for 2nd Mates in general and all us officers disliked him and slightly feared him.  

Since I started my career, I dreaded First Aid lectures and indeed all medical matters. I was quite faint at the sight of blood and in those days when we sat for our certificates of Competency, we had to have a valid Cert of Proficiency in first Aid which consisted of seven two-hour lectures and a twenty-minutes oral exam. A complete farce. Nowadays things are completely changed, and it is now completely updated and even includes spells in Hospital A&I and even knowledge of childbirth.  One thing they never taught us was how to give an injection. This was a grave omission from the syllabus as giving an injection was a terrifying proposition to a novice 2nd mate. 

The procedure then was to get out a stainless-steel pan and place it atop of a meth Spirit lamp and boil the syringe and needles. when these had been boiled you had to assemble the syringe and insert the needle into a vial of liquid draw it up and then insert the needle into a vial of Penicillin V. Shake the vial and liquid vigorously and draw the mixture into the syringe bring sure to not draw in any air. There were dreadful stories at the time of murders being done by injecting air into arms and we were all terrified of doing this. Never insert needles into veins 

 Our voyage was taking us from Hamburg to New Orleans and we were halfway across the Atlantic when I had to do a job which I dreaded doing and it was to give a jab of penicillin and to, of all people, the Captain. The “old man” was a great model maker and had a large selection of carving blades and had used one to cut into an ingrowing toenail with the inevitable result that he now had a septic and inflamed toe. 

I saw him om the bridge one morning as I had to come there to wind the chronometer as part of my daily duties. I thought it strange as he seemed overly friendly to me as he started chatting across the chart table. Then he said “Any good at giving a penicillin Injection Second Mate? I nearly fainted and my heart thumped, I had hoped that my first jab would have been to a lowly seaman but here I was faced with this ogre.  

I mumbled OK sir and he proceeded to show me his infected toe. I went down to my cabin and grabbed my Medical Guide and re read the chapter on giving an injection, I got the kit out and proceeded to boil up the gear. The ship was in ballast and was rolling in the Ocean swell. The apparatus was in danger of sliding along the counter of the medicine locker as assembled the paraphernalia, kidney dish, cotton wool and iodine. The needles were thick not like those nowadays and could and were used many times. I did a dummy run and got the whole lot assembled using a complete vial of penicillin which I deemed was worth it. 

Anyway ,with trembling hands and saying a prayer, I climbed the stairs to the captain’s stateroom and was soon in front of this huge man with my syringe and kidney dish and towel, we went to his bedroom and he lay face down on   his bunk hauling down a vast pair of blue shorts to expose a huge area of flesh. The Guide gives a graphic illustrated display of where to insert the needle involving the drawing of an imaginary cross on the hip muscle, the upper and outer quadrant being the point to aim for. With the vast pale white hips on display I drew the penicillin into the syringe and stabbed completely forgetting to ensure that I had not expelled any air first. I did this all in a flash and I was so relieved when he said that was almost painless well done second Mate.  I said another prayer and ushed down to clear up. 

Since that day I have given and raced many jabs but like all those mariners who have had to look after a medicine chest one will always remember the time you gave your first jab 

The Waimarie river steamer – New Zealand

Captain Donald McGhee – ex Bankline

I was apprenticed to Donaldsons, then as a cadet with Bank Line. Unfortunately my career at sea was by no means a successful one, nor did I gain any recognition of any note, apart from that of a negative variety. All water under the bridge now, having “restarted or resurrected” in a minor way a maritime way of life. I retired in 2013 and moved to the river city of Whanganui, in the North island of NZ. I approached the master of the river steamer “Waimarie” for a volunteer deckhand place, which ultimately led to my ending up, 8 years later as the Senior Master! Command at last!

The 1937 ESKBANK in which the author served as 3/0 before going to tankers.

Prawn Curry

When doing my first trip as a young Chief Officer on the Caltex Dublin a very old and rusty T2 tanker I learned a lot. The Captain was Wally McCullough a jovial chap from Belfast whom I had sailed with before, he too was doing his very first trip as Master, so we were each learning as we went along.

We were on a voyage which was not everyone’s favourite Rastanura to Vizagapatam with crude and fuel oil, A run which we detested because of the heat and the ports involved. Our stores were poor as fresh veg etc was scarce and of poor quality. Thank goodness the T2s had iced freshwater fountains which were a boon in accommodation without A/C. We 

We were coming down the West Coast of India when the Dublin developed Engine problems and we had to go into the port of Cochin for repairs.

Going into Cochin (Kochi)passing close to the breakwaters of the huge port we could see the flotillas of prawn fishermen casting their nets and hauling up lots of shrimp and prawns. Now Wally liked his food and seeing this display and knowing that Cochin was famous for its prawn curries. He was very happy. 

As soon as the Agent boarded, and we were tied up Wally ordered the Chandler to supply us with a huge quantity of prawns to add variety to our diet.

We were only a short time in port and with our boiler repaired we sailed. Next day everyone was looking forward to dinner where prawn curry was the main dish on the Menu. Everyone but myself as I was very wary of anything I ate in India as several years before I had been hospitalised in Calcutta with dysentery.

At about midnight as we sailed down the coast southward, I was called by the 2nd Mate to come to the bridge as the Captain was ill and that he himself was not too good. I found Wally in dreadful pain, sick as a dog and sweating. Classic symptoms of food poisoning. That was the start of a hard day’s night as one by one the whole ships company of deck and Eng. officers except me and the chief Engineer were ill. Some including the second engineer’s wife were very distressed indeed.

I got the trusty Ship Captains Medical Guide out and started going from cabin to cabin with a large bottle of Diarrhoea mixture and sulphaguanidine tablets. Thank goodness we had an Indian sailor in the crew who kept a bridge watch as I rushed from cabin to cabin. The Chief did a valiant twelve hours in the Engine room. I managed to grab a few hours sleep on the chart room settee, but I was shattered too with lack of sleep. Thankfully none of the Indian crew ate any prawns.

Twenty-four hours later things got gradually back to normal. All the remaining prawns had been thrown overboard and we were back to mutton curry again.

It was a salutary lesson to us all to beware what you eat in tropical climes.

Kindly submitted by Captain John Campbell


Southbank painting by


The fat is in the fire and you have had your chips

Rejoining my ship, the MV Southbank after being hospitalized, in Calcutta, with dysentery. The Company Doctor Gangully deemed me fit for light duties.  This did not impress our Chief Officer who put me on a twelve-hour cargo watch every night. We were loading Gunnies Huge bales of jute Gunny sacks destined for the grain trade in Argentina). 

The cargo was being loaded from barges as the ship was tied up to buoys in the River Hooghly as it flows through the center of Calcutta. My duties were to assist the 2bd Officer in supervising the loading particularly looking after portable floodlights which were prone to damage from all sorts of causes and involved climbing in or out of holds dodging swinging bales of gunnies. It was a dangerous and demanding job in the humid heat. The work went on relentlessly without a break

It was the practice, to sustain the 2nd Mate and myself together with the 5th Engineer that we had our breakfast left out by the Chief Cook. The ingredients rashers of bacon and bread were left in a fridge and the chips were all cut and steeping in a bucket ready for the Officers breakfast. The galley had an oil burning stove which had a powerful fan, a noisy contraption that would do your hearing damage. No wonder that ship cooks were usually bad tempered and cantankerous working with that noise and enduring the heat of the tropics. I was glad that my work was not in the Catering Dept. When I turned up at the galley for my initiation into how to get this fearsome contraption worked etc., the Chief Cook a swarthy Goanese spent the briefest time showing me the ropes before locking up and giving me the keys. He did say, with a menacing leer, that the galley had better be kept spotless or he would not be responsible for the consequences.

The 2nd Mate was a Dutchman Van Dan who had been in the War and stayed on in the UK. A short-tempered nervous fellow who made me run around checking on the Indian dockers, and a multitude of tasks. I was exhausted by 0200 hours when I got instructions to cook our meal. It took me a wee while to get the galley range fired up. The only control I could find was full on and I got the chip pan ready, I did not realize that the top of the range was glowing red.  The lard for cooking the chips was solidified in a large aluminum pan.  I got the fat steaming hot and then grabbed a handful of chips and tossed them in. Seconds later the inevitable happened and the pot of lard bubbled over and the fat went on fire. There was nothing I could do but shut of the fuel and fan and grab the two-gallon foam fire extinguisher and hope for the best. Once you start these extinguishers it keeps splashing out a huge amount of foam.

Realizing that I could not stop the discharge and as it was causing havoc to the galley I rushed with the apparatus and held it over the side letting the foam fall into the Hooghly. I then had to report the sad news to the Dutchman who allowed me to go and clean up the galley and we got no meal, I managed to get everything tidied up, as best I could before the Cook turned to at 0600 in the morning and I thought that with a bit of luck the bully of the Chief Mate might never know about it. The following nights I gradually learned to cook and to control that dreadful stive. Bacon and eggs and chips remain my favorite meal.  

Now at that time Bank Line used their time in Calcutta to have the Southbank’s hull painted from stem to stern by a shoreside contractor by the name of Babel Lal. A day before we completed loading the painting completed the Chief Mate and the contractor did a trip in a sampan around the ship to check up on the paint job.  The Chief Mate always got a large buckshee from the contractor so that hee would get a good reference for future work, they were astounded and enraged when they saw that the starboard side abeam of the galley was streaked with the yellow foam. I was soon sent for as word about the Galley Fire had reached the Mr. Orford who summonsed me to his office. He gave me a severe telling off and said that there being no time to repair the damage he would have no option but to re paint the area at sea and that yours truly would have to do 

 We left Calcutta and as soon as we dropped the Pilot at Sand heads the dreaded Chief Mate had me dangling over the ship’s side in a bosuns char with a bucket of Suji-mutti and soda to rectify the damage. In this I failed and was hoisted aboard, and I refused to go down again for another go. Anyway, the serang arrived with some man helpers and soon painted over the blemish.  Looking back on this incident this was the only time I have ever seen a seaman put over to work whist steaming along and without a safety belt.

Serving your time teaches you all sorts of things and chiefly how to manage people and that your sins will find you out. 

When I retired, I was offered a Contraors job insoecting Training Establishments for the North Sea Offshore Oil Industry. I travelled the length of the UK ensuring that Firefighting and lifesaving skills were taught to Roustabouts and Rough Necks.  I saw many Galley fires and demonstrations on how to tackle them but not with a foam extinguisher but by using a fire blanket. A utensil sadly not found in ships galleys when I was serving my time

Thanks to Captain John Campbell for the account

An Apprentice’s story



The day I lost seven Lascars in a flea market

When joined my first ship making my first trip as a young 17-year-old apprentice it was a completely new experience for me. My first ship was the MV “Southbank “discharging a full cargo of copra in the Royal Albert Dock in the huge port of London. The ship was a new cargo ship of the famous Bank Line crewed by Lascar seamen from Calcutta British Officers engaged in round the world voyages.

London then in May1953 was an exciting place to be as the city was preparing for the Coronation and its was full of visitors, armed forces in uniforms, and streets were being decorated with flags etc. Going up by bus from the docks to Piccadilly was a novel experience for me who, being brought up in the Highlands of Scotland where even the sight of traffic lights was a novel experience. I had to learn fast and make the best of it

When you start a career at sea you have all sorts of new experiences which can be bewildering at the time and learning to cope with them is not easy. I had been on board for less than a week when I was summoned to the Captain’s office and given a new task it was to take a group of five Lascar seamen to see the Doctor at the Seamen’s hospital at Greenwich. I had to go in uniform, and I was given a couple of pounds to cover bus fares.

It was the practice of Ships with Indian crews, who did not get overtime, to give the crew time off in lieu. This was eagerly looked forward to by the crew who went ashore to buy all sorts of second-hand materials such as Singer sewing machines and clothes. Charity shops were not in being then but flea markets such as Petticoat lane was a favourite as there were many Indian merchants there

Indian seamen then spoke extremely poor English and the Officers limited Hindustani. Getting to know what ailed them was no easy task “Something paining Sahib” was a common complaint but they could not be denied their visit to “the quack” as Doctors were called in ship’s speak in those days. Indian sailors looked forward to these trips to the Doc visits as they usually got a free trip up town, they came back with a moderate supply of pills and potions which they would then use but keep them until they returned home to sell or keep for use at home in Calcutta. Plus, after the visit to the Dr they could go to the Post Office and post letters home and then go to the nearest markets to hopefully buy second-hand gear.

I was extremely apprehensive as I led my gang or troop of seven Lascars down the gangway to go to the Dreadnought. I was dreading the job of not losing some of them as they persisted in walking Indian file and were hard to keep together. How I managed l will never know but what happiness it was for me to get eventually by bus to the magnificent Dreadnought hospital in Greenwich.  The Doctor who attended them was well used to this sort of thing and had a smattering of Hindi and after an hour or so he had examined then all we started back to the ship the lascars laden with bottles of medicine, mostly stomach mixtures, cough linctus. Embrocation etc.

Getting my crew together after exiting Dreadnought I started the journey back to my ship. The wily Lascars had other plans and wanted to visit the Post Office and flea markets. They had each been given a sub by the Captain when the ship arrived, and they were intent on spending it.  I was naïve and gave into their whines and we found a marker in the vicinity. My heart was in my mouth as I soon lost every Indian and despite searching frantically could not find them. I could do nothing except go back to the Royal Albert Dock without them.

Back onboard I was soon at the Captains door sheepishly telling him that I had lost seven of his crew. Expecting a severe dressing down at least I was astonished to hear him say. “Don’t worry laddie they will find their way back they are experts at this game” sure enough back they came and were next seen struggling up the Accommodation ladder with at least two sewing machines, bits of furniture and brick and brac. I soon learned that Indian crews when joining a ship with not much more than a pair of jeans and a T shirt would, after two years trip, accumulate a vast amount of gear from the various ports of call. The managed to store this gear all over the ship and they took home such things as old paint tins. Skeins of rope, old canvass, and unused rations of tea and sugar etc. Anything which could be used by their families at home was kept. They arrived on board thin and malnourished and left well fed and in much better condition. Accidents were few fortunately as they were good sailors even if not very strong. I would sail with them anywhere .any time.

A new crew of Thirty Lascars arriving to sign on would only require one lorry to carry their gear whereas the home going crowd would  need at least three. It was always a fascinating experience to see a crew change at Bombay or Calcutta.

Over the years the Indian seamen got better treatment, became better educated and better nourished when at home. They are better paid and the change crew far from India and flying home means that bringing back goods etc is impossible.

The Dreadnought still exists to this day and has treated many thousands of Merchant Seamen and had a great reputation for its quality of treatment however II will never forget my visit there and the day I lost the Lascars.

Written by Captain John Campbell – grateful thanks….

As a rider, I would add that after the SOUTHBANK (co-incidentally, the same ship) crew were rescued from Washington Island when she stranded in 1964, all of their accumulated gear was thrown overboard from the WINNEBAGO (the rescue vessel). Orders from the naval Captain. I can only assume they managed to grab any valuables before this was done.

As a rider, I would add that after the SOUTHBANK (co-incidentally, the same ship) crew were rescued from Washington Island when she stranded in 1964, all of their accumulated gear was thrown overboard from the WINNEBAGO (the rescue vessel). Orders from the naval Captain. I can only assume they managed to grab any valuables before this was done.

As a rider, I would add that after the SOUTHBANK crew (co-incidentally, the same ship) were rescued from Washington Island when she stranded in 1964, all of their accumulated gear was thrown overboard from the WINNEBAGO (the rescue vessel). Orders from the naval Captain who stated he only wanted to rescue the people. I can only assume they managed to grab any valuables before this was done.


A beautiful painting by John Stewart

‘Auf einem Seemannsgrab, da blühen keine Rosen’

(‘On a sailor’s grave no roses bloom’.)

Built in the Kingston Yard of Russell & Co, Port Glasgow, Scotland as Yard No.246 and completed on 26th December 1890, the four-masted steel barque Thistlebank sailed with the Bank Line, owned by Andrew Weir. Of 2431 grt displacement and a length of 284 feet she is typical of the last sailing ships to be produced in the late-19th and early 20th century. As an example of her prowess, between the 11th May and the 7th August 1897 she sailed from Lizard to Calcutta in 88 days, racing the four-masted barque Drumrock (which had sailed from Liverpool 6 days later on May 17th and reached Calcutta on August 10th after 85 days out).

Her main trade was on the Pacific grain route where she joined two other ships, the Gowanbank and Ashbank. Having proven her worth during 14 years sailing she was purchased in 1914 by the Norwegian shipping company A/S Olivebank (E. Monsen & Co.), Tvedestrand and then served through the opening months of WWI.

On the 30th June 1915 the Thistlebank, en route from Bahia Blanca, Argentina to Queenstown (CobH), Ireland for orders with a full cargo of grain was just 25 nautical miles (46 km) south west of the Fastnet Rock (51°09′N 9°50′W) when she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-24. Her crew took to the lifeboats and managed to row to the safety of Cork harbour. All survived.

On 26 October, 1914 U-24 was the first U-Boat to attack an unarmed merchant ship without warning, the SS Admiral Ganteaume which was torpedoed but was able to be towed to port.

In seven patrols, U-24 sank a total of 34 ships totalling 106,103 GRT, damaged three more for 14,318 tons, and took one prize of 1,925 tons.

Her second kill (six months before sinking the Thistlebank) was the most significant. The victim was the battleship HMS Formidable, torpedoed 30 nautical miles (56 km; 35 mi) south of Lyme Regis, at 50°13′N 03°04′W. She was hit in the number one boiler room on the port side. In gale-force winds, rain and hail, with swells running to nine metres high, as Formidable leaned twenty degrees to starboard the crew struggled to get their boats away. Some hit the water upside down, some were smashed as they fell, others were swamped. U24’s second torpedo struck the ship’s port side.

The battleship capsized, rolling over men in the water as she sank. Out of a crew of approximately 711 men, five hundred and forty seven died, including the Captain.

On the 22nd November 1918 U-24 surrendered and was later broken up at Swansea in 1922.

Many thanks to jungle cat. ( See

(A published article)

A Bank Line ship appointment in the 1950’s offered a rare chance to sail the world, visiting almost every corner,  and spending time in a a host of ports, including many out of the way places.    At the time, there was a different perception.  Unless you were lucky, or well connected and sent to a new building vessel, the chances were that the first sighting of a Bank Line ship would evoke mixed feelings.     The hull might be rusty or have rust streaks, the gangway look a bit rickety, and there may well have been a rich pungent smell from the discharging cargo, usually copra and coconut oil, but let it be known that what awaited you was pure unadulterated magic!

Again, the perception has changed with the passing of the years.   This was an  iconic British shipping company, unlike any other.  Similar to many, but head and shoulders above the pack.   The owner, Andrew Weir, later Lord Inverforth, had steadily built his empire, and he was still attending the office in his 90th year.    The ships were maintained in workmanlike style, not lavish by any means, but certainly not neglected in any way. 

The voyages were for two years maximum, and so it often proved.    Some vessels which were suited to load oil in deep tanks, were particularly handy for the Pacific islands, slowly trawling around the beguiling island groups, and they could be back home in around six months.   They were called ‘Copra ships ‘, in the company, and a berth was highly prized for obvious reasons.       A fleet of around 50  Bank Line ships circled the globe constantly and although tramping played a part, the majority of the cargoes and routings were the result of long established trades served not by the same vessels, but by a procession of newly arriving vessels on their way around the world. The various fixed contracts were augmented by spot chartering,  and it was this lottery of destinations that  Introduced the random trips and made life on board so fascinating.   The network of Agents and offices had been steadily built up from early beginnings with a similar sized sailing fleet which included the famous ‘Olivebank’.        These worldwide connections were somewhat unique, and much more substantial than we realised on board, naturally only concerned with the next port.    

Once up on deck, especially in the middle of discharging and with necessary repairs going on it looked chaotic.    These ships had Indian crews in the main, and the man guarding the gangway, called a Seacunny, would likely assist with all your bags and trunks.    Many of the apprentices and officers  travelled with an exorbitant amount of baggage, laughably regarded as essential for two years on board.   The old ships had wooden hatch boards, and steel beams, and at sea the hatches were covered with two or more heavy tarpaulins.    In port, these items helped litter the decks turning it into an obstacle course, and the clutter was made worse by hoses, pipes and cables if repairs were underway.    And of course, discharging continued with grabs flying in and out of the holds. 

Even on the older pre war vessels, the Master and Chief Engineer would have quite roomy accommodation, but for the rest of us, the two years would be spent in a small white painted cabin, sometimes with tongue and groove panelled bulkheads.   The bunks were narrow, and blue quilts with the Bank Line motive would be tightly stretched over them. A writing bureau and a narrow settee would complete the furnishings, and depending on the age of the vessel there may have been a wash basin, but definitely no running water.      A brass port provided light and air, but sometimes a metal scoop was all that was available to relieve the humidity in the tropics.  Oscillating fans were highly prized in the mid 50’s!  The pre war buildings often had a weird wooden contraption for washing, with a tip up basin, allowing any water to slosh down to a tank in the bottom for manual emptying. 

On the 1930,s built Irisbank, in which the author spent 2 years, the bathroom, shared by the  officers and apprentices was a functional part of our life, and we quickly adapted to the primitive conditions.   No fresh water was available, unless hand carried in from the pumps on or below decks, but salt water was laid on.   A bath, normal looking, had a steam pipe attached, the idea being that water, either salt or fresh, laboriously carried in, would be rapidly heated.     The copper steam pipe was swivelled, and the business end was swung around and poked under the water before the valve was opened.   It made a very loud raucous noise not unlike an animal being strangled. Adjacent to the sink was a handy electric copper tank which heated fresh water for hand washing etc.     It came in useful in very bad weather, at times when the galley gave up the struggle, when bizarrely, the author boiled eggs hung in the toe of a sock trapped under the lid!

Food in the Bank Line was usually satisfactory without any frills.      The saloon table would be attractively laid out, with often the menu stuck in the prongs of a fork!     Curry and rice featured strongly, and appeared occasionally on the breakfast menu.      The curry concoctions were a work of art, the author’s favourite being one with a sea of shimmering oil with halves of hard boiled eggs floating freely.   The colour of the surface changed into different hues as it moved.   The  apprentices were always hungry, but in extremis it was possible to cadge a chapatti from the Indian cooks or Bhandaries,  who catered for the deck and engine room crew.   On the older Bank Line ships, a distinctive feature was steel accommodation blocks either abeam of the foremast or mainmast and on either side.   These housed the crew galley, and also toilet blocks.    Arriving in a port anywhere in the world, day or night, it was often possible to pick out the outline of one of the old Bank Line stalwarts – true work horses of the oceans they were.        Apart from the distinctive blocks on deck, the derricks were usually lattice type, a box with criss cross strengthening on all four sides, and the steam winches would all be  clattering away as the cargo was furiously loaded or discharged, a string of barges alongside.   Decks were sheathed in pine, and scrubbed up or holystoned after a long port stay, they turned near white and glistened in the wet.   Open rails instead of today’s bulwarks complete the picture. 

Life on board usually settled into a steady routine, quite sedate at sea, but enlivened dramatically in port.  Some of the more exotic locations promised an interesting if not riotous time, and part of the attraction of this type of seafaring was exactly that.    Buenos Aires and all of the ports around the South American coast, East and West, could be relied upon for an interesting time, inevitably involving the local brew, the girls, and local cuisine, notably the steaks.  And in no particular order.   Before Juan  Peron was ousted in Argentina  the atmosphere was somehow heightened, and in Buenos Aires there was a notorious area in the docks called ‘The Arches’. which were railway arches utilised for bars, restaurants and worse.  It was a rough area, and attracted us all like a magnet. 

The usual Bank Line voyages in the 50’s started with a  light ship voyage out to the U.S. Gulf, but sometimes Trinidad for bitumen.   These cargoes all went down to Australia or New Zealand.

In the Gulf there were a range of loading ports starting with Brownsville close to the Mexican border, and all along the coast to the Mississippi Delta which served both New Orleans and Baton Rouge much further up.   Loading took place in a mix of these fascinating ports, with their distinctive smell of oil, gas, and chemicals.  Lub oil went into the deep tanks, and a base cargo of rock sulphur or sometimes potash went into the lower holds. This was quickly levelled and boarded over for a cargo of farm machinery, largely tractors, but often other large mysterious objects, all secured with rolls of shiny new wire.    It wasn’t unusual for them to break free in heavy weather, however. The tweendecks  then received a wide mix of general cargo, almost always including pallets of carbon black, and stacks of Hickory handles.   More machinery would be lashed on to the hatch tops.    Containers were yet to come, but the level of interest and variety of cargo was hard to beat back then in the 50’s. 

Watches  on the bridge followed a strict routine, and this was long before  Satellite and Global  positioning spoiled the fun of position finding.    The actual wheelhouse on the old timers was quite often small but somehow homily, if that is possible.  Before automatic steering, a quartermaster stood silently behind the wheel, and he was watching a magnetic compass in the binnacle, steering a course marked up on a chalk board by the officer of the watch.  There would be a manual voice pipe to the Master’s cabin, a brass telegraph, and a small side table with a dim or coloured bulb.   During this period, the first radar sets were being fitted and space was found for the display unit on a low table.     Early models were unreliable and became the bane of Sparkie’s lives as they were hauled out regularly to fix breakdowns.      Many Masters ordered their use very reluctantly, or reserved the time they were switched on to pilotage areas, or passing the many islands in the Pacific and elsewhere.    The doors either side of the wheelhouse led out to a short bridge wing with ‘cabs’ for weather protection at the ship’s side. These heavy doors slid open and shut and were held in place with wooden wedges.  The bridge front had drop down wooden dodgers  in the traditional manner, but one or two shorter Masters were known to use a box to see forward. 

Above the wheelhouse, the so called ‘ monkey island’ was accessed by short vertical ladders, and on a raised platform would be the standard compass with an azimuth ring on top, and protected by a binnacle hood.      In those far off days, this compass was a crucial part of the navigation, and was in constant use for bearings, both of heavenly bodies, and for coastal bearings as the ship progressed.    This exposed area was also a haven of peace and quiet, and could be a magical place at night with a huge canopy of stars and planets, especially in mid Pacific in clear weather when the sight was often  breathtaking.   

Bank Line ships carried a huge range of charts as standard, running into thousands.   These were stowed below the chartroom table behind the wheelhouse, and corrections were a nightmare.   Because of the range of charts, it was standard practice to pull out and correct only those charts needed for the immediate voyage ahead.  Correction of existing Admiralty charts,  and supplementary charts could be obtained in major ports like Sydney or London, but more often than not, the second mate, whose responsibility it was, would have to somehow prepare the courses, and ensure the charts were up to date.  The ship regularly received the well known ‘ Notices to Mariners’ for this purpose.  On the bulkhead would be an impressive array of Admiralty sailing directions in a rack or two.   Inside these volumes was a cornucopia of fascinating information, some of it handed down and still printed from Captain Cook’s time.   Many a boring watch was saved by delving into these books which seemed to be a mixture of old and new, probably stemming from the fact that there is a long British maritime history garnered worldwide, and alterations and additions seemed to be added ad hoc.   In the chartroom would be a settee, often with boxed sextants  resting on it, and the standard chart table with a shaded lamp.    

The Irisbank, as with other vessels of her generation, sported a ‘modern’ echo sounder.   It was positioned on the chartroom bulkhead adjacent to a mercurial barometer.    It worked on a pulse from a plate in the keel when switched on, and readings were recorded on a roll of special paper by a rotating stylus.   The dampness of the paper was crucial and worked best with a new roll fresh from a sealed pack.  The liquid gave off a pungent smell.  If the paper dried, which all too frequently happened, the markings faded to nothing, making it difficult to read. Despite the shortcomings it was a huge bonus in 1950’s navigation. 

This gadget had replaced a manual system in use not many years before, called the Kelvin deep sea sounding machine.  The author only used the wire manual machine a few times, and the drill was to swing out a boom maintained for this purpose, and then lower a thin wire to the bottom to record the depth.  This was done by means of a dial fixed on the frame.  The lead at the end had tallow applied  in a recess to determine the bottom composition,  in the time honoured fashion.  It was cumbersome and tricky and could only be used when near stopped in the water.       Plus, the wire had to be oiled as it was retrieved!

In the fleet in the 1950’s were a number of Liberty Ships, and these were a quite different experience to sail on. The ports and the random voyages stayed the same, but the accommodation layout and facilities, much improved on regular old time Bank Boats, meant that the company chose to  crew them with Europeans.   One such was the S.S. Maplebank, ex Samwash, and she was a lovely lady.   A bit bedraggled, and maybe a bit over worked, but a lady none the less.   To start with, the American build gave the liberty ships superior fittings, wider bunks with proper bunk boards instead of slats, running hot and cold water in each cabin, and a heating system to die for.      This particular ship had been present at the war landings in Sicily some 10 years earlier .     Serving as a senior apprentice, the author looks back with fond memories at the near two year voyage which circled the globe, plus a bit. 

The familiar design of the ‘Sam boats’ as they were known included gun bays on the fore side of the bridge structure, and although the guns were long gone, they served as handy lookout positions.   In Cook Strait, New Zealand, and heading into a fierce gale, they vibrated alarmingly as the wind was trapped beneath the protruding bays.    Another feature and hall mark of the solid looking Liberty’s was the topgallant mast on the mainmast.    This gave a very distinctive profile, and was used for signals. 

On the bridge, most of the fittings were somehow clunkier than usual, and down below a big simple  3 cylinder steam engine drove her along at the best part of 11 knots.    The engine was a classic and the analogy to a Big Tonka toy was hard to deny. 

In the Bank Line Liberty ships, the white crew arrangements posed a constant problem.    Drink was the cause, because in other respects they were very capable seamen who could rise to any challenge thrown up by the voyage.   The Maplebank crew, who were from Liverpool, took to sewing their own work clothes from  bolts of duck canvas.    Jacket, trousers, and cap were all produced. Their humour was second to none, but it wore a bit thin when they were laid up drunk,  and the apprentices, and sometimes the deck officers were forced to prepare the ship for sea, covering hatches, lowering derricks, and then steering for enough time to let them sober up.   On this particular voyage which was typical, the majority deserted in Australia and New Zealand, finding jobs ashore as taxi drivers or on building sites.  Some chose bar work which was a natural role given their love of drink. 

During our stay on the Australian coast, we drew the short straw on destinations and were nominated for the phosphate run.   This meant  sailing up and down monotonously from Ocean Island and Nauru with phosphate rock.  It went to Australia and New Zealand as land fertiliser, and unlucky was the ship that got ear marked for this interminable run.     It took us through the notorious Tasman sea in all weathers.  (See the photo of typical heavy weather in this area.).     So routine was this run that our crew members decided to lighten the mood by stowing away girls, and a male partner in one case, in their accommodation.   This worked successfully for a trip, but then the discharge port on a subsequent voyage was switched to New Zealand, and all hell broke loose when the ‘ passengers’ were discovered.     

Eventually we moved on in our round the world trek, and after a riotous stay in Buenos Aires we loaded iron ore in Brazil for Bremen,  and a ferry trip home.    Only one member of the original deck crew was still with us.   It had been a memorable voyage, and to coin a phrase, full of tears and laughter!

A full account of the author’s time in the Bank Line and later career is contained in the ebook entitled “Any Budding Sailors? “ and in a title, ” Merchant Navy Apprentice 1951 – 1955” Also in print on Amazon.

The Finnish flagged OLIVEBANK

( pictured the year before she was lost to a German mine)

The OLIVEBANK was built in 1892 and left the Bank Line fleet in 1913, changing hands several times before joining the famous Gustav Erikson fleet. He reinstated her original name back to OLIVEBANK and 15 years later, after a great career she struck a mine in the N Sea and sank when in ballast. The Master and most of the crew died, and a few were saved after clinging to wreckage all night.

Pictures from ” Sea Breezes” dated 1938

Pictures courtesy of ” Sea Breezes” 1938

Pictures courtesy of ” Sea Breezes” 1938

New SIBONGA pictures

New SIBONGA pictures

For readers that don’t know the story or the drama of the SIBONGA rescue, please search on this site under SIBONGA. Briefly, the FIRBANK under time charter to the Danish EAC company was renamed Sibonga. Under the command of Captain Healey Martin, she was involved in the rescue of 1003 Vietnamese boat people in 2 boats in the China sea. This was in 1979. What makes the story so interesting today is the active interest and participation of those rescued on the various sites like ‘facebook’ many of whom were children at the time, and many of whom are now highly successful in their various careers. The whole story is a heartwarming one.

The people………….

Captain Martin with the boat Skipper….

The above photos courtesy of Mike Price who was the radio officer on board at the time. The full range of pictures can be seen on Facebook on the SIBONGA page.


This ship, built for Andrew Weir, way back in 1922 had a varied and unusual career. She serviced Liners as a bunkering barge, and was then sold to Moller Line and converted to a cargo ship in 1936. Her career lasted for a total of 37 years, under several owners.