PACIFIC ISLAND ADVENTURES
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE SOUTH SEAS
For 50 years or more, before containerisation took over, Bank Line, the global shipping company owned by Andrew Weir & Co, romped around the South Pacific Ocean, collecting coconuts (Copra) and coconut oil, for the home run back to Europe. This trade, idyllic to many both inside and outside of the company, came at a cost. Post war, several vessels came to grief on coral ridges, and others had a lucky escape and freed themselves, sometimes with the aid of other company ships or usually the U. S. Coastguard. Losses were minimal when compared to the huge number of uneventful voyages home, but by nature the remote locations and the primitive struggles to free themselves led to some garish press coverage. “ Pacific Paradise for castaways” was one newspaper headline, after survivors were photographed waving from a beach. This danger to the ships arose because of the need to approach the islands close enough for surf boats to deliver cargo, often just a few cables from the shoreline. The normal practice of safe anchoring was not an option due to the very sharp rise of the seabed upwards.
The cargo homewards of Copra was loose in the holds and consisted of coconut flesh, i.e. the white meat from the inside, which had been dried either by the sun naturally, or in a kiln. The kernels, some nearly whole, but mostly broken into pieces, were very dusty and came with a strong and distinctive smell. It also was accompanied by the small black tenacious Copra bug which got everywhere on the ship, and in particular in the baked bread. Clouds of these bugs would congregate around the hatch corners inside folds of the tarpaulins, and they were also attracted to the heat of the galley – hence their presence in batches of bread.
Bank line’s Pacific loadings started way back at the turn of the century when both the sailing ships and early steamers would load bagged Copra in spare hold spaces after leaving Australia. The first full cargo however was recorded in 1922 and was from Rabaul in New Britain to Hamburg, Germany. Early cargoes then went mainly to Marseilles and Rotterdam in regular bi-monthly sailings. Close involvement with the many islands and their economy led to Bank Line ships appearing on postage stamps issued by Pacific nations. The one pictured here of the Olivebank was issued by Tuvalu, formally the Ellis Islands.
Post WW2, the big fleet of old and new tonnage was employed in trading worldwide, but the involvement in the Island loading of Copra enabled the vessels to return back to Europe and it was always the passport to a shorter trip if appointed to one of these ships. The vessels mainly returned home with Copra or if not, were fixed on a voyage charter from the open market. Grain or maybe iron or manganese ore were common cargoes to European ports. The most regular port and frequent destination for the Copra was Birkenhead and the Lever Bros factories served by Bromboro Dock. This dock has long gone. Some cargoes also went to other UK ports and to European ports for discharge. The Copra was processed by crushing, and the resulting oil used in many and varied applications from soap to lotions. The residue in cake form was an important animal feed.
This Island trade from the Pacific Islands was therefore an important part of the global pattern operated by the big fleet of around 50 ships, and the period under review here concerns mainly the post war boom up to the 80’s during which hundreds of voyages were made. Until 1960 no regular outward loadings from the UK or Continent were available which meant ballast voyages outwards. These are anathema to ship owners. Around 1960, a contract was gained to ship coke to the smelting plants in New Caledonia, and offered a chance to have a neat two way trade, out to the Pacific Islands and back with Copra and oil, plus smaller quantities of expeller and by products. A heavier base cargo like ingots was also usually involved.
These trips were long before the advent of Global Positioning and Satellite Navigation, and the Pacific Ocean was a huge remote area, hard to comprehend. Sightings of yachts were rare, and if seen, the cause of much celebration and hospitality if in port. Within a few years, everything changed, and large numbers of yachts, mainly from the USA, meant that even remote islands were full up and had to refuse entry to yachts except in emergency. Such were the numbers venturing out into the wide beyond.
Ports in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, The Line Islands, New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, and Rabaul, in East New Britain, were regularly called at. Berths alongside were rare, but anchorages abounded. When a berth was on offer, it could often be very primitive, with trees as bollards. A well known berth in Rabaul for many years was the levelled deck of a WW2 Japanese ship, inevitably known as the wreck berth. The stevedores there, mostly Australian, were heavy drinkers, and Bank Line ship visits signalled party time for those on board. In the 1950’s it was also common to see the after effects of WW2, with aluminium planes in the high up jungle glinting in the sun, and many maritime wrecks dotted around. Small Islands such as Samarai in Papua New Guinea were also a regular call for Copra.
Up in the Line islands, a resident manager at Fanning Island, now Tabuaeran, part of the Kiribati islands, oversaw the collection and drying of the Copra and arranged for the surf boats to bring out bags in slings ready for slitting on deck and bleeding down into the holds. The workers themselves were brought up on the ship from neighbouring Islands and slept under tarpaulins slung over the derricks on deck. It was all very primitive, and contrasts sharply with today, when cruise ships call regularly at the same island which now has a population of some 2,500 people, and an airstrip.
In those early days, loading was slow and spasmodic with sacks of Copra handled one by one, and the ships company had time to enjoy the Pacific Islands and all they had to offer. The crystal clear water, where fish could be seen taking the bait, and the abundance and variety of fish was but one attraction. The slow life style, the happy-go-lucky locals, the music and partying could all add up to a very seductive atmosphere. Some officers were even known to adopt the LavaLava form of dress, which is a wrap around male skirt,
Southbank in Apia Bay 1961
worn in Samoa and other islands, and for them to sleep ashore in the huts raised from the ground! ‘ Going Bush’ was the phrase commonly used to describe such behaviour. On these occasions it wasn’t difficult to imagine the temptations that led the men to rebel in the infamous ‘ Mutiny on the Bounty’! Evening time on board after loading often meant impromptu singing by the natives accompanied and aided by some beer from the ships bond. These sessions could be very captivating, and among the native songs, would be the famous Isa Lei or Fiji farewell song which inspired the writing of ‘Now is the hour’ and which became a worldwide hit. The advent of Spotify and other streaming music channels today enables these haunting tunes to be easily recaptured, by nostalgic ex Bank Liners, like the author.
Loading Copra at anchor
Now a modern town with tourist hotels and all the trappings, Apia was another charming and idyllic call. It was the home and resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson. The town was just emerging into the modern world back in the 50’s. Money was being introduced for the first time, and it was such a novelty that the one taxi in the town was used for joy riding with wages that had little meaning to the ship workers! Most were self sufficient. A ship call here left a lasting impression.
Bankline lost vessels lost in other parts of the world, but the post war Pacific losses were, Kelvinbank 1953, Southbank 1964, Levernbank 1973, and Lindenbank, 1975. Additionally, there were groundings where King Neptune was narrowly cheated, such as the Beaverbank in 1959, and the 1961 built Maplebank in later years.
The first of the vessels in trouble post war was the liberty ship, S.S. Kelvinbank. She was one of a dozen ‘ Sam Boats’ that Andrew Weir ran and then purchased after the war. Unlike the vessels that were caught on coral when loading Copra, she touched bottom just after loading a full cargo of phosphate rock at Ocean Island in January 1953. She had finished loading from the moorings, and set sail only to take the ground at Sydney Point, nearby. The vessel freed herself, but then ran foul of a previous wreck, the Ooma of 1905. It was really bad luck, but fouling the tail shaft and propeller of the old wreck did for the Kelvinbank which quickly broke up under the pounding of the open sea. A Sydney report of the time stated:
“Pinned by an 18in. steel shaft to the wreck of a steamer lost at Ocean Island in 1936, the 7,269 ton British freighter Kelvinbank is a total loss.
A marine salvage expert, Capt. J. W. Herd, told this strange story when he returned to Brisbane after his attempt to salvage the Kelvinbank, which grounded at Sydney Point, on the island, in January. Sea and tide had driven the propeller and shaft of the old ship, the Oomah, 50ft. into the hull of the Kelvinbank, he said.
“We had her floating, but it was impossible to free her,” said Captain Herd. “When I left Ocean Island 12 days ago the Kelvinbank was breaking up.”
Both Ocean Island and Nauru were regular loading islands for Bank Line on behalf of the British Phosphate Commission, and these small remote islands close to the equator offered a taste of Island life, different from the Copra ports. Heavy surface mining had pock marked the surface, but on Ocean Island, a level patch provided a games field where the ships crew could be asked to play both cricket or football. A novelty on the cricket pitch was the outfield where balls disappeared into the deep crevices formed by surface mining. These matches were held against the resident phosphate commission staff ashore. Nauru had the advantage of a loading gantry which speeded up the loading prior to a 10 day trip down to Australian or New Zealand ports through the Tasman Sea. On Ocean Island, giant buckets were still used.
The Beaverbank, a regular Copra ship that had made dozens of voyages around the islands came to grief in July 1959. She was freed miraculously without major damage from the reef in English Harbour at Fanning Island, now part of Kiribatu, but not before all the valuable coconut oil had been pumped out into the Pacific Ocean. With no vessels or tanks to receive the oil, it was pumped overside, and an aerial picture taken at the time shows a huge white lake surrounding the ship as the oil solidified. Copra was also jettisoned, and finally the assisting vessel sent from Hawaii managed to free her. This was the USS Current, and the British RFA Fort Beauharnois assisted. A lengthy report later by the U.S. Navy included some interesting information and highlighted the extensive salvage operations. Shortly after grounding, 2280 tons of bunkers and coconut oil were pumped overboard, which only allowed the vessel to move further inwards to the beach. 900 tons of Copra was also laboriously jettisoned. It then became necessary to ballast down, and some 3300 tons of salt water ballast was added to hold the ship steady until a salvage attempt could be made. The master signed a Lloyds ‘No cure – No pay’ salvage form, and operations commenced. She was finally freed on the 24th July 1959, surprisingly with only some hull plating and bilge keel damage, and managed to steam away without further assistance.
Beaverbank ashore and dumping Copra
Other vessels of the fleet had contact with the coral over the years, but details are scarce, especially as records only dwell on losses. One incident that was talked about in the company involved the 1967 built Maplebank, which grounded at full speed during a passage from Suva to Lautoka when loading oil and copra. Tiredness played a part it seems, after spending all day loading and then carrying out watches at night. Fortunately she was freed on a spring tide, using an old hulk that was sunk in a suitable place to get a purchase and haul off.
In 1964, on Boxing Day, the 1948 built M.V. Southbank, a regular Copra ship ran into serious trouble when she drifted on to coral at Washington Island, a remote part of the Line Islands in the Pacific. She touched bottom in the swell, and quickly broke in two aft
of the accommodation. The remoteness of the Line Islands, 1200 miles south of Hawaii, made rescue attempts for the survivors difficult. The US Navy and Coastguard, based in Hawaii proved crucial, and they literally came to the rescue. Their specialist vessel ‘ Winnebago’ picked up Southbank survivors, but not before some of the wives and younger officers had become attracted to the surroundings and lifestyle. The islanders looked after the casterways, preparing breakfasts and showing them the island way of living. However, the loss was marked by the sad death of the
Southbank survivors waiting for rescue
young second mate, who was killed returning to the ship shortly after she was abandoned. Everyone got safely on the beach, but it was decided to send a return party to pick up island mail and other items, and a huge wave smashed the boat alongside. A first hand account later by one of the officers gives a dramatic glimpse of the moments after the ship struck….
“ When we got to Washington Island we had been loading Copra for about a week steaming in on the ebb tide and drifting out while still loading. We had the usual Christmas dinner and drinks etc. The next day we ran aground. The ship was sort of juddering, and I got out of bed and as the juddering got worse, I realised we were aground.
I shot out in boiler suit and desert boots onto the after deck, past the galley, to the engine room door. The noise was bedlam, and the deck was heaving up. At the door I met the engine room crew bailing out. They were panicking and I shouted at them to ‘ blankety blank’ get back. Managed to get them down to the plates, but was then told to send them out as it looked bad. The whole main engine was heaving up and down about 12 inches. The 6 thousand psi relief valves were overloaded and going off, and when it is 8 of them it is sheer bedlam. I was sent down the tunnel to sound the tanks, and when I started further down to get to number 6, the tunnel walls started to collapse around me. I got out like a rocket and saw the Second Engineer talking on the phone. The phone cord was stretching as he spoke due to the R.S.J. pole to which it was fixed bending like a candy bar. We then got the abandon ship signal, and I went to my cabin for a bag with a few things and then up to
Southbank Breaking up
the boat deck. The boats were still in their chocks, but the crew were all sitting in them! Anyway, we got them lowered and headed for the shore. On shore everyone was milling around and it was decided to go back to collect mail and other items. The weather was beautiful, with only a 2 meter swell. Little did I know what was to transpire. “
Then follows a sad description of the tragic accident mentioned above, the life ashore on the island, and the experience of the rescue by the USS Winnebago which lifted back the survivors to Honolulu and thence home.
The Southbank wreck a few years on….
The next casualty to occur in the Pacific Ocean was the Levernbank, but this time the culprit was fog. Fully loaded with general cargo, she stranded on the Peruvian coast at Matarani in 1973. The ship managed to get free and float away but she was fatally damaged and sank later. Another first hand report from one of the engineers gives his experience as the vessel struck…..
“I was on watch with the 3rd Engineer at the time the ship struck rocks around 3am. The propeller also hit rocks and it wrapped the blades around the propeller and this took the main engine out, so that was it. Within what seemed like seconds the crew were into their paying off suits, jackets stuffed with cartons of fags, and ready for the off.
We had loaded on the Bay of Bengal West Coast of S.America service, and had the normal run up the coast after the Straits of Magellan, calling at Punta Arenas, Valparaiso, Antofagasta, and a host of smaller ports. We had radar problems which were supposed to be fixed at a stop in Durban, but which started again as soon as we left port. As I recall, Matarani would not accept vessels at night, so the plan was to stop and drift as anchoring was not possible due to the depth of water. As we tracked up the coast there seems to have been an underestimation of our distance off, and as we turned, progress was interrupted by a ‘bump’ which at first I thought was a fishing boat, but which in fact was our first contact with the Peruvian mainland. The engines were still at ‘ Full Ahead ‘ at this time. The we got ‘ Stand by ‘ followed by a double ring ‘ Full Astern ‘ and then a major BANG and the engine stopped dead. I ran down the tunnel to see the tail shaft out of line and the last two bearing pedestals tipped over about 30 degrees. I reported this to the second who considered the best thing to do was to put the kettle on!
When dawn broke, we were inside of a small cove, and was a perfect fit – couldn’t have got in there if we wanted to. The cove or islet, I suppose was surrounded by high cliffs, upon which stood several of the locals ‘taking the Michael’. A tug was sent out from the port and promptly turned the wrong way. A couple of distress rockets soon had it coming our way. The tug then towed us out to deep water where we assessed damage and attempted to keep the ship afloat in the vain hope that assistance was a realistic prospect. It wasn’t. The ship was abandoned by the help of the small anchovy fishing boats around. We had an enforced stay in Peru while our status was sorted out and then we were repatriated home. “
Soon after losing the Levernbank, the company suffered the loss of the Lindenbank. Built 1961, she was lost at Fanning Island in August 1975 after grounding on the reef. Strenuous efforts were made at salvage, and another company ship, the Elmbank assisted, but to no avail. Once again, the US Navy also attempted to assist, and they despatched USS Bolster and USS Brunswick, but the damage had been done. Lindenbank pumped out all of the oil cargo, causing a growing environmental protest, but the ship was pivoting on a pinnacle of coral, and soon broke her back. A wreck report held in March 1977 stated….
“The Lindenbank was manned at the time by a crew of 59 hands all told. At the time of the casualty she was laden with a general cargo including island produce and vegetable oils of a weight of 8,700 tons consigned to the United Kingdom and Continent. The vessel sailed from Christmas Island on 14 August 1975 bound for Fanning Island in the Line Islands, and she arrived off English Harbour in Fanning Island at about 0800 local time on 15 August. Here she was to load copra and cargo operations began about 0930. Inside English Harbour it was too shallow for the Lindenbank to anchor: outside it was too deep. Following the practice of similar sized vessels the Lindenbank drifted off the island to load cargo from surf boats, frequently adjusting her position to give maximum lee to the surf boats. At the end of the day’s loading she was allowed to drift seaward in a north-westerly direction. “ It goes on to censure the Master and the third Officer, for the subsequent grounding in English Harbour.
“We censure the Master for not checking accurately the Radar position, when Lindenbank was only 1 1/2 miles off English Harbour. The Radar position was made by an uncertificated Acting Third Mate. The Master left no written or even verbal instructions to check the vessel’s position at least every 1/4 hour and to call him if the vessel was closing land. We appreciate his honesty and forthright acceptance of blame and have had such in mind. “ The court also made a statement as follows :-
“ New or old, a proper look out must be kept AT ALL TIMES ( see M Notice No 756). This disaster clearly shows the vital need for Night Orders to be made by all Masters for the guidance of navigational watch keepers. This is especially important where the navigational watch keeper is uncertificated. In an age of science, when navigational aids increase, human skills must not be overlaid. The sea will catch the unwary who are not ready for the unexpected or unpredicted. “
In the break bulk years, an appointment to a Copra ship for the Mates, and for the Apprentices, spelled a familiar routine. If necessary all of the fleet could be pressed into the homeward carriage of Copra, but the route favoured those vessels with a good deep tank capacity. Some ships, notably the ‘Compass’ class and their successors were perfect, mainly because the 6 deep tanks provided ample capacity for oil, and loading home was fine tuned so that the vessels were both full and down to their marks when leaving the load ports. This was achieved by having a base cargo of lead or copper ingots from Northern Queensland, Cairns or Townsville, usually around the 4000 ton mark. This went in the lower holds, to be topped up by copra. (After the Southbank stranded, and some 9 years later, the lead ingots in her holds were the subject of a salvage attempt by the trans Pacific rower, John Fairfax, who had stopped off at Washington Island on his rowing feat, and he had spotted the opportunity then.) Valuable coconut oil filled the tank spaces, and the job was done. This vegetable oil needed twice daily checks for leaks and temperature. If all went well, steam heating kept the oil suitably liquid to enable the pumping to take place through pipes, often to road tankers at the discharge port. It was common to join a ship in winter in the UK, and the white oil had solidified down the ships side, much like candle grease. This occurred if a leak ran from joints in the pipe. A distinctive aroma, chiefly of coconut instantly filled the surrounding air and conjured up the unforgettable surroundings of the South Sea islands even if snow was on the ground!
Due to the outward leg from the U.S. Gulf ports usually involving rock sulphur in the lower holds, strict and thorough cleaning of all surfaces was a necessity, before arriving at the islands. It had to be done sufficiently well to gain the acceptance of the load surveyor. The tanks outward bound mostly carried forms of lubricating oil, necessitating even more stringent cleaning. Steam coils were used to heat the coconut oil on the homeward leg, as it was prone to solidify. Also, the big lids on the deep tanks, secured with dozens of bolts, and with packing beneath the lids meant that the Mates and Apprentices were kept fully engaged throughout. Familiarity with all sorts of wrenches and spanners helped as they often struggled to get a satisfactory fit. Steam cleaning prior to loading with a caustic solution was the norm. To some, it was a nightmare scenario, but the regular mates quickly learnt the ropes. Voyages were 2 years, unless appointed to a ship likely to be favoured for the Copra run. There were familiar routes, such as the US Gulf ports to Australasia, and India to Africa and S America with gunnies and Jute. Other routes made up the regular and frequent loadings, but positioning suitable ships was an art form. The company boast was that a ship could be positioned to almost any load port worldwide in the minimum of days, something that could only be done with a sufficiently large and widespread fleet. It was a world wide pattern stitched together with regular liner routes and ad hoc tramping links. The London chartering Director and his team ably filled in these gaps with spot charters fixed on the Baltic exchange.
For the regulars who enjoyed sailing on those Bank Line round the islands services, the impact was huge. It was anything but routine, and for some that caught the bug badly, it was life changing. Intense star studded heavens, the balmy relaxed nights, hugely colourful and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, and the intoxicating atmosphere around the islands, all contributed to the feeling that it was a special and somewhat privileged experience, never to be forgotten.
The ebook “ Merchant Navy Apprentice 1951-1955” describes life in the Bank Line.