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PARADISE ISLANDS – PAPUA NEW GUINEA. A factual account of life working there by an ex Bank Line apprentice, in his later career as Master and Pilot.

Please click on the link below for a download. You will get a fascinating article with pictures and glimpse of a life that many people dream of.

IRISBANK of 1930

The author was 3rd Officer on her from 1955 to late 1956, a 21 month voyage. See her war record below, and the criss crossing of the oceans throughout the conflict. How often might she have been seen through a U-boat periscope?

She was a sister to 3 other vessels, the Lossie, Tay, and Tweedbank, and remarkably they all came through WW2 unscathed.

A West African voyage

an extract from a novel written by an ex Bank Line apprentice

It was to be his last voyage to West Africa, though he didn’t know it, however it was no less memorable.  Two things stood out and would  forever leave a lasting impression on his mind.

He loved the short trips and the way the shore people took care of the ships and crews

He loved the ships themselves that were without exception, modern and well founded.  The food was excellent and the accommodation, including the luxurious bar, was a welcome and convenient place to relax.

He also discovered an affinity with the white crews, who he found to be very experienced even if they sometimes lived up to their reputation of proverbial ‘drunken sailors’.

The one thing that he did not welcome was the African destinations and especially being confined to the North West Coast. 

 He could not stand the insects particularly the mosquitos.  Nor the oppressive climate that was invariably extremely hot and very humid.

He did not mind the intensive working schedules of loading and unloading cargoes and felt it served to swiftly pass the time, enabling him to quickly return to his home port and his fiancée.

They were about two hundred miles off of Gibraltar when they received confirmation of their schedule.  The Captain was extremely pleased as they were instructed to load coffee and ground nuts for discharge in Italy, the ports to be confirmed.

The Captain was Spanish and saw their diversion into the Mediterranean as an opportunity to catch up with his family.  The ship was the largest in the fleet and due for a refit in Germany so the company had arranged for the remainder of its cargo to be off-loaded on the continent and to finish up in Hamburg where the crew, were to be repatriated.  A skeleton crew and most of the deck Officers would follow after the last of the cargo was discharged.

Only part bunkers were taken aboard in Las Palmas as the draught had to be restricted for entry over the bars that exist in many of the African river entrances, a factor that was an additional complication when loading was considered. 

 The Captain found that the price of fuel was very competitive and arranged for a full top up upon their return in advance of their passage through the Mediterranean.

The next few weeks passed like a whirlwind, unloading at nineteen ports along the West African Coast and visiting seven Countries including the Senegal, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, Douala, the Cameroons, and Portuguese Angola.

 Their southernmost port of call was Lobito in Angola where they were due take on the coffee.

Although further cargo was picked up on the return from Angola, the main loading was to commence at a place on the Congo high up river towards Kinshasa and about five hours from Matadi.  Due to depth restrictions, places higher up the river were loaded first with Matadi being left until last.  It was fortuitous that the facilities at Matadi were more developed and capable of handling a greater volume of cargo than other navigable places on the River Congo.  It was also much nearer the estuary.

Progress into the river Congo is impeded by it’s swiftly ebbing current and constantly changing sandbanks.

  Once clear of the estuary the river considerably narrows with dense jungle on each side.  Sometimes, a very sharp turn is encountered and being his first time on the Congo, the Third Officer was amazed when the Captain, on the Pilots advice, caused the ship’s bow to use the jungle canopy to assist in turning.  Often when this happened all kinds of birds and monkeys would screech their protests at being disturbed

.

The navigable channels were unlit so it was the practice to anchor at dusk, as the darkness would arrive very suddenly.

When near a township, the ship would often be visited by several wooden dugouts with their occupants selling all manner of souvenirs made mainly from woodcarvings.

Scantily dressed girls shouted ‘Dash for cash’ and when the Third mate asked an old hand what it meant the man said,

 “Watch.”

It seemed a common event for both the sailors and the girls alike and when one of the crew threw a coin into the dugout the smiling African bared her bosom.  It seemed that the more money the more was revealed and to the unavoidably celibate seamen, it proved a popular pastime.

  As time passed and less money was forthcoming, the more adventurous the girls became.  Sometimes the crew would wrap a coin in silver foil and deliberately miss the boat.  In unison the girls dived into the rapid current and came up down river spluttering and gasping.  Then they held the exposed coin aloft and shouted ‘B….rd.’

The remaining occupants of the dugout would expertly retrieve the swimmers and paddle back to the ship where it would all begin again until it was too dark to continue.

They had been in the Congo for three days and were loading timber at the furthest point upstream from Matadi.  The ship was anchored in a wide delta that the bosun described as being,

 ‘In the middle of nowhere.’ 

 Nothing apart from jungle could be seen.  Barges came with timber each day and it was loaded using the ships own derricks and gear.

On second day the Third Officer felt very peculiar.  He was very cold and felt sick and dizzy.  He was ordered to remain in his bunk but as it turned out he needed little encouragement.

The senior Officers discussed how anyone could feel cold when the outside temperature rarely went below thirty degrees centigrade and decided to take his temperature.  It was one hundred and three degrees Fahrenheit.

Not trusting the local facilities the Captain ordered ‘Sparks’ to get on to Portished, the UK’s main marine radio station.  A doctor attended the call and said it was vital to get the temperature down to avoid permanent damage.

A very tricky situation existed.  They had no air conditioning and no ice making facilities.  Civilisation, as they knew it, was hundreds of miles away and there were no made up roads.

After consultation with one and other, the Officers decided to treat the high temperature in the only way they could think of.  In short, it was a methylated spirit bath.  In practice it was the bathing of the patient with cotton wool soaked in the spirit.  For the spirit to vaporize it needed to take the heat from its surroundings.  In this case it took heat from the body thus reducing the temperature.

The treatment lasted for twenty-four hours and gradually the temperature reduced to a touch less than one hundred degrees.  The Officers treating their colleague were extremely worried as his teeth chattered violently throughout, accompanied by profusive sweating and hallucinations.

The Doctor back in the UK said it was more than likely malaria and a course of quinine should be given.  Constant monitoring of the temperature was required.

The ship had completed loading its designated cargo around four in the afternoon, on the third day but the Captain decided to delay departure until first light the following morning.

When the Third Officer’s cabin door opened he felt sure he was hallucinating once again.  A native in bare feet entered.  He was dressed in some sort of grass skirt with a necklace of what looked like an assortment of bones.  An ivory spike pierced his nose.  He carried a small earthenware platter containing a non-descript concoction that he offered to the bed ridden man in a deep wooden spoon.

The Officer assumed it had been arranged by one of the others and reluctantly swallowed the foul looking brew.  Like most medicine, he thought it tasted awful. 

The sun reached above the treetops as the Captain went out onto the wing of the bridge.  It was only seven in the morning and the temperature was already over seventy degrees Fahrenheit.  He instructed the Chief Officer to stand by to weigh anchor.

Suddenly an apparition appeared before his eyes in the form of a witch doctor. 

“Money, money.  You give two pounds.”

“Get off my ship.”  Responded the Captain.

“Me give powerful ju ju, money two pounds,” said the old African.

The Spanish are not noted for their calm temperament and the Captain was no exception.

“This is the last time before I have you physically thrown off,” he said.

Unfortunately he had reverted to Spanish that was lost on the now very agitated doctor.

 The apprentices who had witnessed the incident from the wheelhouse thought that had he spoken in Belgium, the Skipper might have had a better chance of being understood.

“I curse you, very bad man,” said the native who decided that as he was getting nowhere, it was best to leave.

The Captain entered the wheelhouse and instructed the senior apprentice to put both engines on slow ahead.  It relieved the tension on the anchor chains caused by the current.

He casually peered over the bridge dodger and saw the doctor approaching two other people on the main deck.  They were huddled around an open fire that had been lit on a piece of galvanized sheeting.

He turned to the other apprentice, who was logging all spoken instructions and said,

“Don’t write this down.” 

Armed with an electric megaphone he shouted down to two able seamen who were battening hatches. 

‘Get them off.”  Pointing to the group by the fire.

“Gangway’s up Sir,” responded one of the sailors.

“Doesn’t matter.  Over the side.”

With no more encouragement needed, the group was unceremoniously thrown overboard, followed swiftly by their dugout and the corrugated sheeting together with the fire and the still steaming, pots and pans.  They were last see floating on the current, baling out their boat as it rounded the bend in the river.

Miraculously, next morning the temperature was normal but his fellow Officers excused the Third Officer from his duties for a further two days when he was given a ‘clean bill of health.’  Apart from diminishing repeat bouts of malaria about every seven years, the only lasting detrimental effect he suffered was a total hatred of the smell of methylated spirits. 

They left the River Congo in high spirits (although not the smelly kind) and turned to starboard heading for the seaport of Takoradi on the west coast of Ghana where they were to load about two thousand five hundred tons of groundnuts.  It was a laborious process as the nuts were loaded in sacks of about twenty to a ton and up to two tons on each sling.  Gangs of stevedores in the ships holds would manually unload the slings and restack the sacks to allow ventilation during the voyage.

Not infrequently, the slings were torn open on the ships coaming when being winched aboard and the gangs would only unload the full bags and indicate the amount to the tallymen.  Torn bags were replaced but a substantial amount of loose nuts cascaded into the holds and disappeared down any gaps.

At first, as duty Officer on cargo watch, the Third Officer was quite concerned about the spillages and tackled the Chief Officer.

He was told.

“Don’t worry, we will sail with the correct number of sacks and any loose nuts aren’t tallied. It won’t sufficiently effect the draft because by the time we re-bunker, the fuel we will have used will amount to more than the extra nuts.”

He accepted his superior Officers the explanation but he couldn’t help noticing a glint of mirth in the Chief Officer’s eyes and was to find out later, the reason for this humour

 The fully loaded ship headed north towards Canary Islands and entered Las Palmas to fully bunker before continuing on the homeward bound part of the trip.  The almost mandatory ‘bum boat’ moored up alongside.  Soon the decks were teeming with souvenir sales people who could not only speak several languages but would accept almost any currency.

Most sailors having been ‘there before’ had a very good idea of what they wanted and what the bargains were.  Information they were only too pleased to pass on.

Madeira Wine, from the nearby Portuguese Islands, was one of the most sought after items but even more popular with family men and those with girl friends was the traditional Spanish dancing dolls.  They were more lifelike than doll like and were made with exquisite costumes that were heavily embroidered in colourful silk braid.  The males were dressed in boleros and tight silk pantaloons and the females displayed revealing flared skirts and carried wooden castanets.

The ‘bum boats’ disappeared as quickly as they had appeared and the heavily loaded ship left the volcanic islands and headed on a northeasterly course bound for Italy. 

It wasn’t until the ship had passed Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea that they were advised by the head office in London, of their actual destination in Italy.

The Radio Officer handed the Captain a message advising him that they were to discharge all of the groundnuts and coffee in Leghorn known in Italy as Livorno.

It was a beautiful sunny day when they arrived and everyone was looking forward to going ashore to soak up the ambience after being on the sweltering, humid coast of West Africa.  The lack of humidity coupled with the fresh warm breeze gave rise to balmy evenings with long drawn out sunsets.

 They had arrived on a Wednesday and it would take at least a week to discharge as the Italians were not to be hurried and true to their Latin temperament, would not work at weekends, freeing most of the crew for excursions ashore.

Florence was the nearest large city but the famous tower of ‘Pisa’ was much closer.

  The beaches were renowned for their golden sands and the sea was crystal clear and not only attracted swimmers from all over, but even tempted crewmembers that would otherwise be visiting the dockside bars.

The Captain seeded his authority to the Chief Officer and left to join his wife and daughter on a week’s leave.  He had arranged to meet his family in Northern Italy at a place called Sirmione on lake Guarda.

The coffee beans was first to unload and the Third Officer couldn’t believe his eyes when armed police turned up to provide security for the discharge.  Each sling was loaded into a windowless box van and transported to a locked and guarded strong room under the watchful eyes of the armed ‘Poliziotto’.  The manifests were checked and double-checked against the details of the off loaded goods.

In complete contrast the bags of groundnuts were discharged without undue attention onto wooden pallets that were forklifted into one of the adjacent warehouses.

To facilitate the ship’s overall balance, a complicated formula had to be applied that would ensure economic loading and discharge together with maintaining the required stability.  As a consequence the holds containing the groundnuts were emptied but the adjacent tanks could be used to compensate, where necessary.

When the discharge of the ground nuts had been completed the number of sacks offloaded exactly matched the quantity taken aboard, yet a not insignificant amount of spillages remained.

The Third Officer knocked on the Chief Officers door and reported the fact to the stand-in Captain.

He was invited to sit down and accepted the proffered drink while the erstwhile Chief Officer chatted for a while about all manner of things.

Eventually he got round to explaining the situation.

“At six in the morning I’ve arranged for the holds to be cleaned which will of course require the removal of the sweepings.”

 He snapped the ring pull of another beer and passed it to his junior.

“The normal practice is to take the sweepings, including the spillages, away in a couple of barges.

“To do this, you will need to liaise with the bosun to provide derricks and a couple of winch drivers.  The shore boss man is called Pablo Corleone and he will give you an envelope for me but will not want a signature.”

He opened another can for himself and asked,

“Any questions?”

The Third Officer said there were,

“Are we still on duty or are we stood down Sir?”

His number one grinned and raised his beer and said that they had been off duty since he first opened the beer.

“In that case Roger, I should remind you that my watch starts at eight in the morning.” 

“As your Captain designate, it is my wish that you take care of this bit of business personally.  Although you will not be paid you will be more than compensated.”

The Third Officer responded,

“ Fine by me, will this Pablo be expecting me?”

“Absolutely, if you pop along and make arrangements with the bosun, I’ll meet you in the bar in half an hour.  Don’t forget to tell him to warn the night watchman.  Also mention my name but nobody else needs to be concerned, Got it?” 

“Roger Roger,” the officer said, and finishing his beer in one long pull he rose and lifting his arm in a mock salute, he left the cabin. 

Pablo Corleone did not resemble his Mafia namesake in any way whatsoever.  He was balding, grossly overweight and slightly stooped,

giving him a gorilla like posture.  He compensated for his lack of English by saying ‘yes’ to every question and smiling rather inanely most of the time.  His method of communication was not uncommon amongst his fellow citizens, as he gestured with his hands and arms on an almost continuous basis.

The relatively simple operation was turned into quite a performance and conducted with endless gabbling by Senor Pablo to his fellow countrymen in the holds and on the barges.

“Completare, completare”       

He produced a thick brown envelope that had been sealed with sticky tape on the flap and also crossed over in both directions.  A lighted cigar hung rakishly from his lips.

The duty Officer had a conflict of interests.  His first thought was to

remonstrate with the man for smoking but this didn’t sit well with someone about to hand him a package.

In the event he ignored his first instinct and took the package as he had agreed to do the night before. 

The Captain had returned from his break looking relaxed and tanned.  He was talking to the Chief Officer at breakfast who, in between mouthfuls, was up dating him on events and progress during his absence.

 As the Third Officer entered the dining room both men looked up.  The Captain smiled in recognition and the Chief Officer

Briefly winked and said aloud,

“Hello Third, can you pop into my cabin after breakfast?  As you’re duty Officer there are one or two things you’ll need to attend to particularly as the Captain wants to sail as soon as possible.  Pilot’s booked for two.  Let the bosun know.  I’ll square it with the Chief Steward, as we’ll need an early lunch I’ll get him to bring it forward half an hour.  That should do.”

Before reporting to the Chief Officer he advised both the bosun and the Chief Engineer of the arrangements and suggested the testing of the bridge instruments to commence at one thirty.

By the time he got to the Chief Officers cabin it was around ten o’clock and he was invited to take tea.

He passed over the package and not being familiar with the way of things in Italy in particular and many other places as well, he assumed the package contained receipts or stamped copies of ‘bills of lading’.

The Chief Officer tore open the envelope revealing a wad of Lire about an inch thick, of high denomination notes.

The duty Officer was totally astonished and at a loss for words.

“The bosun gets twenty per cent to share with his lot.  You and the second mate get fifteen per cent each.  The old man gets thirty per cent and I get twenty per cent. Some of mine goes to the apprentices though they don’t where it comes from.”  The Chief Officer finished speaking and poured the tea.

“I don’t know what to say Roger!” the Third Officer said, sipping his tea.

“We don’t have much time so you can keep yours or leave it with ours for investment.” 

Taking a biscuit from the plate he continued,

“We buy Cameo’s and sell them in the UK and divide the proceeds.  Are you in.?”

“Certainly!  Count me in.  I’ve got nothing to loose.” 

The Third Officer said.  It turned out to be wishful thinking.

                            —                —              —

They sailed, as planned, straight after lunch dropping the pilot off at around three.  They were bound for home via Germany so a certain euphoria prevailed throughout the ship.  Old quarrels were patched up and even Captain Imez seemed much improved by his week’s break.  They had all enjoyed their stay in Italy and the weather had been superb with sunshine and clear blue skies every day.

After dinner, there was about an hour and a half before the Third Officer’s watch at eight in the evening and the Chief Officer called him to his cabin.

“Thought you might like to see this before we stow it.  Customs in Germany are very thorough.” The Chief Officer said with a broad smile indicating a pile of Cameo’s stacked on his bunk.

Gobs smacked are not pleasant words but describes exactly how the visitor felt.  He examined several of the beautiful carvings, all were traditional and of exceptional quality and said,

“Aren’t we taking a big risk?  With the Cameo’s I mean.” 

Roger chuckled.

“Not to worry.  Done this before.  I’ll let you into a secret.  ‘Chippy’ removes the veneer paneling from behind the apprentices’ tiered bunks and the goods are secreted there.  The paneling is replaced and the bunks screwed back providing a perfect hiding place.  It’s even better if we arrive at night or early in the morning as its doubtful that the Customs would disturb slumbering youths.”

“Surely it’s wrong to implicate the lads?” the Third Officer questioned.

“They won’t even know about it which makes their innocence a perfect cover.  Besides they’ll appreciate the one day that they are not chased from their bunks!”

Even the Third Officer grinned at the mental picture of the Customs tiptoeing around the sleeping apprentices.  He remembered as though it was only yesterday, when as an apprentice himself, that he had relished a lie – in, however rare.

Leaving the famous rock of Gibraltar to their starboard side they turned north into the Atlantic Ocean.  In spite of there still being well over half the cargo left on board, they were making good speed. The weather remained sunny and bright with light fluffy clouds and the comments in the ships log continued to be ‘cloudy, fine and clear’ which lasted all the way past Portugal and Spain where it took a turn for the worse as they entered the notorious Bay of Biscay.

For the next two days they battled with huge waves that had built up from the West, crossing the deep North Atlantic Ocean.  On encountering the relatively shallow waters of the bay the waves developed deep troughs causing the Ship to heavily pitch and roll.  Dangerously forming breakers relentlessly travelled towards the land where they noisily broke and covered the beaches and rocks in spray and foam.

It became necessary to reduce speed and assume a course that eased the motion and was amenable to their direction.

 On the third day as they sighted the lighthouse at Ushant on the Western tip of France, they entered the English Channel where their new course brought the sea onto their stern.  The normal speed was resumed and the severe rolling stopped as they passed France and through the ‘Straits of Dover’ into the North Sea, leaving Holland and Belgium to Starboard.

Approaching their destination they passed the ‘Ost Friesiche Inseln’s” and sighted Cuxhaven where they picked up the pilot for Hamburg.

Hamburg’s reputation amongst seamen was not unfounded and the Captain summoned the duty Officer to his cabin on their second day in port.  He told him that his wife and daughter would be arriving on board at the weekend and he wanted all other women off of the ship.

The duty Officer returned to his cabin and dialed the bosun’s extension.

The bosun was a huge ex North Sea fisherman from Stornaway.  The crew was about half ‘Scouse’ and half ‘Geordie,’ disliking one and other intensely.  However they were united in their common hostility towards the Scotsman.

The gruff voice of the Islander answered the call, ’Bosun here.’

“Ah, Third Mate calling bosun.  The old man wants all the women off PDQ – his wife and daughter are coming aboard for the weekend so it’s urgent.”

The bosun assured the Officer that he would attend to it right away. 

His official watch keeping ended at nine in the evening but as there was little to do the Third Officer took the opportunity to reply to his mail.  Sometime after eight thirty he heard noises on the stairs and left his cabin to investigate.

Two inebriated sailors were unsteadily ascending the stairs each carrying a dinner plate.  Neither man had been in the Officers accommodation before and asked directions to the Captains cabin.

The Third Officer made an instant, if unkind’ decision and decided on delaying tactics.  He knew that if he denied access outright they could become aggressive so he merely said,

“He’s busy at the moment.  Come back in half an hour.”

Somewhat non-plussed, the men retreated the way they had come.

A short while later he knocked on the next door cabin to acquaint the Second Officer with details that he should be aware of as the follow-on duty Officer. The most recent being the two seaman now departed. He neglected to mention that they would probably be back but he did however remember to appraise him of the Captain’s wishes regarding the removal of female ‘guests’.

“There is nothing to do in this respect as the bosun is dealing with it.”

“Thanks Third,” the second Officer responded, “Fancy a beer?”

An old ploy used to make your watch seem to pass quickly, but one that invariably worked.

“Just a quickie and then I must finish my letters.”

The Third Officer had only returned to his cabin a little earlier and was writing the second page of his reply when he heard scuffling in the corridor outside and some muffled voices, followed by the sound of a key locking the door to the adjacent cabin. 

His phone rang.

A voice whispered.  “They’re outside.  What’ll we do?”

“Stay calm, I’ll go and see what I can do.” He replied.

Feeling guilty as well as apprehensive he cautiously opened his door and was surprised to find both men complete with plates, waiting in the corridor.

“Would you eat this,?” said the elder of the two sozzled sailors who thrust a cold plate of unappetizing food at him.

All he could think to say was that the gravy looked a bit congealed.

“Where is the old-man’s cabin?” the spokesman asked.

The third Officer didn’t say a word but just cast his eyes up the stairs and returning to his cabin he closed the door.

He sat on the edge of his bunk, picked up the telephone and dialled.

“Second Officer speaking,” came the reply.

“Thought, as duty officer, you might like to know that there are two of the crew on their way to see the Captain.  They’ve been drinking.”

“Thanks for that,” came the reply, “I am unwell.  I’ve turned in.  Can you double for me and let the Chief know?” The second Officer responded.

The Third mate replied, “It’s going to cost you!” and put the phone down.

He was just about to ring his senior when an almighty crash shattered the peace.

His first instinct was to stay put and lock the door after all it wasn’t his Watch.  Then he remembered being told by a mentor he had greatly admired, “You’re on duty twenty four hours a day.”

He opened his door.

With the remains of the meal splattered down his front, the crewmember lay at the bottom of the stairs.

Stepping over his unconscious body, the Third Officer raced up to the Captain’s landing where evidence of a recent scuffle was very apparent.

The other seaman, also covered in food and blood, lay amongst the remnants of dinner plates and a keyboard that had once been screwed to the bulkhead outside the Captain’s accommodation.  The man face had become impaled on some of the empty hooks.

The Spanish Captain stood glowering in his doorway rubbing his knuckles and seeing one of his Officers he said with a growl, ,

 “Get them out of here.  Have someone clear up this mess.  Make an entry into the log and remind me in the morning to make sure they pay for the plates.”

With that he mumbled, “Goodnight” and closed and bolted his outer cabin door.

Back in his cabin the Third Officer rang the bosun and before he could speak the bosun started intoning in his strong Scot’s dialect.

“Their all gone Third.  As it’s my last night, would you do me the honour of taking a dram with me?’

The Third replied,

 “Love to, but first the Captain wants his landing cleared up.  Two of your crew are sleeping it off in his accommodation.  They look as though they’ve been in a fight.”

“No problem,” was the reply, “I’ll get the stand by and watchman on it right away. See you in about half an hour then.”

It was not his policy to socialise with the crew but the giant Scotsman was a bit of an exception, particularly as he was paying off in the morning.  As a new crewmember and recently appointed Officer he appreciated the help he had been shown by the bosun in dealing with the hard case crew.

With those thoughts in his mind he knocked on the bosun’s door.

“Take a seat Third,” the Scotsman said, handing him a crystal tumbler half full of whiskey.

The Officer passed over a package to the ex fisherman.

“Like taking coals to Newcastle,” he said.

The bosun thanked him and taking the parcel said ,

“I’ve a surprise gift for you too.”  Grinning he said, “Look in my wardrobe.”

Putting his drink down the curious Officer opened the Wardrobe door.

“Two pretty ladies of the night stepped out but their smiles withered when they heard the young bearded Officer say.

 “Sorry Jock, first of all I’m engaged and secondly it’s contrary to the Captains orders.  I’ll leave you to it.”

“Just a wee floor show then.  That won’t do any harm!”

“If I stay, then they must go, okay?”

“Seems such a waste especially as I saved the best two.”

The girls’ smiles returned when he opened his wallet and passed them a wad of notes as they left.

Early next morning, the petty officers steward shrugged to himself as he cleared away two empty bottles from outside the bosun’s door.

The Second Officer had made a miraculous recovery and was already enjoying a hearty breakfast when the somewhat bleary-eyed Third joined him in the ding room.

“Coffee and a couple of lightly boiled poachies,” he told the waiter

“I hope we don’t have any trouble after pay-off this morning,” the Second offered.

“You could always go sick or lock yourself in your cabin,” the Third responded after which he was unsurprised that the conservation had abruptly ended.

He finished his eggs and ordered another coffee, which he took with him to the boat deck to enjoy with a cigarette.

The shore Superintendent and the shipping agent had arrived shortly after eight o’clock and set themselves up in the crews’ mess for the pay-off.

 As many of the crew had a long way to travel, they were eager to make an early start.

From just after nine onwards the Officer observed from his vantage point on the boat deck, a trickle of men dressed in their travel gear descending the gangway with their bags.

Further along the quay were iron railed gates with a door in them, manned by a uniformed guard who inspected passes of people going either way. 

He was concerned to notice that once through the gate the men seemed to hang about in a group and it suddenly occurred to him.

He sought out his drinking companion of the night before.

The burly Scotsman was resplendent in his Kilt and long thick socks complete with dirk.  He wore a ‘tam-o-shanti’ at a rakish angle and his flushed face beamed with good humour.  His sporran contained his precious gutting knife and a fid.

He extended his huge hand saying, 

“We’ll meet again my wee friend.”

“Ignoring the proffered hand The Third Officer said,

“Jock, I think they’re waiting for you!”

“What’s new?  I’ll take a few with me.”

With that he lifted his kitbag to his shoulder as though it was filled with feathers and made for the gangway being careful to avoid getting wedged with the pickaxe handle protruding from his luggage.

Then he was gone, the last of the crew.

At lunch the Captain was entertaining the Shipping agent and the Marine Superintendent and the Third Officer couldn’t help overhearing their conversation.

“At what time is your wife and daughter due Captain Imaz?” the Superintendent asked.

‘About this time tomorrow,” came the reply.

“At least you shouldn’t have any bother with the skeleton crew. I noticed the two men you fined have gone,” the Super said.

“Yes, I decided not to give them a DR. It’s only natural to let off a bit of steam before you pay off.”

The German agent not wanting to be left out of the conversation added,

“My people think your crews are very strange.  The security told them that earlier this morning they rescued eight of your crew who had been swimming in the docks fully clothed, including one big man dressed in a skirt.”

Without batting an eyelid, the Captain turned to the German and replied, “I’ve always found the British to be rather eccentric.”

After lunch, the Chief Officer called the Third to his cabin. 

“The apprentices have been paid off so I’ve detailed to the Chippy to make a few alterations to their cabin. Let’s go and take a look.”

On their arrival the bunks had been moved aside and the ships carpenter was in the process of removing part of the bulkhead.

While they waited the Chief Officer advised that it was best to wait for a few days after Custom’s inspection but since they were soon due to depart he felt it was opportune to retrieve the Cameos

The panel was finally dislodged and the carpenter said,

“Can someone pass me that torch,” indicating his large toolbox.

“There’s nothing there,” he exclaimed.

The Chief Officer said, “Here, let me look.”

After a minute or so he said, “ Damn, must have shifted with the rolling.  Carry on Chippy.  Let me know the minute you find it.”

Receiving an affirmative they left the carpenter to it and returned to the Chief’s cabin.

I’m afraid Third; we won’t have enough time to find the cameos.  If one of us gets posted to this ship again we will have more time.”

The Third Officer replied, “Yes Sir, that would be good but what you haven’t had you won’t miss.  Let’s swap addresses in case.”

A month later a German shipwright was rewarded with special favours from his girlfriend who was delighted with the brooches she had been given.

On balance, the German thought, the reward was better than the thick stack of Deutschmarks that he had received from the jewelers in the Bahnhoff Strassa.

The ILE de BATZ (war record and history)

This ship was buit in 1918 in Seattle, USA. Driven by a GE steam turbine. She was owned by the United States Shipping Board, and named WEST HOBOMAC. Fifteen years later in 1933, she was sold to Lykes Bros/Ripley S.S. Co, and became soley owned by Lykes in 1938. In 1940 she was handed to the French Government who named her ILE de BATZ and operated her under the French Line. In July that year in WW2, she was taken over by the Ministry of War Transport in the U.K. who awarded the management to Andrew Weir. In March 1940 she met her end when bound from Rangoon to Freetown to the UK with a cargos of rice and generals, torpedoed by U68. ( See above account). 4 dead.

Upstream to Kopi – a difficult tow by an ex Bank Line Apprentice

Upstream to Kopi, via Kikori and Paia Inlet

One afternoon, just after returning from lunch, I was sitting in my office in Singapore when the phone rang. It was an old friend from my seagoing days, who now resided and worked in Australia as a Marine Advisor for a large conglomerate engaged in the development of LNG Pipeline project in remote Papua New Guinea. Being General Manager of an offshore company operating a wide range of vessels and equipment, including offshore, the crux of his enquiry was to seek my views as to the viability of towing a 300 man accommodation barge up the Kikori River in New Guinea, to a small mining township called Kopi. 

Kopi was situated almost 55 river miles upstream from the mouth of the Kikori River, about 10 miles further upstream from the main regional township of Kikori. My clients had established a significant development and logistics facility at Kopi in support of their LNG project. Entry to the Kikori River delta was at the head of the relatively wide Pai Inlet, which was mainly used by log ships. The river was extremely fast flowing and had its source at Lake Kutubu, which flows into the Kikori River, it was notorious shallow in places and only navigable to the shallowest drafted vessels.  

The telephone call was indeed fortuitous, because my shipping company had recently acquired a new building 300 man Accommodation/Work Barge of almost identical specifications on a long term Bareboat Charter. I later discovered that the phone call was not entirely coincidental.

A feasibility study conducted by my operations staff gave an initial indication that the Kikori River did not have the water depth to allow for the safe navigation of such a vessel 55 river miles upstream. However, I knew the inland rivers of PNG from past experience and considered we were in with a reasonable chance, reasoning that there would be more water depth once past Paia Inlet and into the fast flowing narrows of the Kikori River. The river was also influenced by tides in the lower reaches where the shallowest water would likely be encountered. With this rational in mind I decided to explore options more thoroughly.

My first reaction was to arrange with the potential charterer to have a trip upstream on one of their small coastal craft. This little boat was operated by a couple of Australians who kept the 2.5m water depth theory on the boil (perhaps partially because of their own business interests). True enough, at low water there was only about 2.8m water depth in certain places of Paia Inlet but in other areas it ranged between 5-7m and of course it was tidal towards the estuary. I worked on the premise that if 5000 DWT log ships could cross the shallows and reach deeper water close to Gouri logging camp at the head of Paia Inlet, then so could our Barge with a minimum draft (even Keel) of around of 3.2m.  If we could cross the shallows with minimum fuel and fresh water on board at the top of the tide and safely reach the entrance to the Kikori River where the water was deeper, albeit in very narrow channels, then there was an excellent chance we could reach Kopi where we could replenish our consumables.

Having completed the trip up to Kopi, and parts of the Ivy River which I thought may be an alternative route (which I later abandoned), I became more convinced that the venture was viable, so I set about talking with local River Pilots who endorsed my reasoning. I took the Twin Otter charter flight from Gobe to Port Moresby, where I planned to meet with the potential charterers at their offices to discuss the pros and cons of the intended project. The worst case scenario was that the barge would ground on very soft mud and sustain no damage as it was flat bottomed, to be refloated again on the next rising tide. After much discussion, the charterers confirmed they wished to proceed so I returned to Singapore on the first available flight with the view to securing the approval of our Managing Director and Board of Directors. 

The 6 month (extendable) charter at a very lucrative daily hire rate certainly aided their decision making, but I was at lengths to point out the strictest safety procedures must be observed and fully implemented, I would conduct a very in-depth Risk Assessment, and at the first hint of anything untoward I would pull the barge out and proceed back tp Paia Inlet or even Port Moresby, whilst we reassessed the situation. They fully agreed, so I started the ball rolling by tracking down two of the very best helmsman that had served with me when I worked on the Fly River, some years earlier. The national shipping community in PNG is quite small so they were not difficult to trace. When offered the job they both accepted immediately (obviously attracted by the high pay and good conditions – by local standards) which I offered, playing significantly in their decision making. They needed to be at ease with their working conditions so they could focus exclusively on the tasks ahead, besides in reality it was their local river knowledge that would make or break our enterprise, since they would be on the tug designated for the river tow.

The Barge was situated at Batam, in Indonesia, just across the Singapore Straits, so once the Charter Party had been executed, ensuing weeks comprised of preparing the barge and selecting the most suitable crew. I was fortunate to be able to secure the services of a very experienced Australian Barge Master, who conveniently resided in Indonesia. The venture was all slowly starting to come to fruition as our plans were converted into realities. In the meantime I had become engrossed in numerous scenarios and calculations that would provide optimal stability at minimum draft – I finally came up with a solution that provided an even keel minimum draft of 3.2m. There was no scope for error so I checked and rechecked until I was fully satisfied.

Included in the charter was two of our Ocean going Tugs, one of the 6000 BHP Class, ideally suited for the tow from Batam to Paia Inlet, located at the head of the Gulf of Papua and which was the point of entry to the Kikori River. Our intention was that our tug would tow the barge as far as Paia Inlet then transfer the tow to one of the charterer’s smaller inland tugs (small, shallow drafted but highly maneuverable and powerful little ships) which they used for towing barges up to Kopi, to complete the upstream part of our tow. In the meantime our tug would proceed to Port Moresby to stand-by until the Accommodation Barge had safely arrived in Kopi and was situated alongside the main wharf, before returning to our base in Singapore.  Our two PNG “River Pilots” who would be in charge of the river transit, would be onboard the towing tug from Paia Inlet to Kopi and remain with the Barge for the duration of the charter in case of unforeseen emergencies if the Barge was required to depart urgently. 

We were fortunate inasmuch the intended tow to Papua New Guinea would be during the inter-seasonal Monsoon period, so under normal circumstances we could expect relatively benign conditions for the ocean passage. Nevertheless, it was decided that the Accommodation Barge would be crewed with essential personnel only, during the passage for security and safety purposes. This would also give the crew who would be remaining with the Barge at Kopi an opportunity for some degree of familiarization and to redistribute ballast water as stipulated in my calculations to ensure arrival at Paia Inlet on an even keel of 3.2m, after her ballasted ocean passage trim.

Below the intended route from Paia Inlet to Kopi (Best viewed at 150%)

Once all was in order with our Ocean-going Tug and Accommodation Barge we set off. I arranged departure for 0700 Hrs so that the tow would be well clear of the Singapore Straits by the onset of darkness. This was important because only weeks before one of our towing combos almost came to grief when rundown by a rogue vessel (which turned out to be Iranian manned). The tow was cut but fortunately there were no casualties. All because the vessel did not observe the Anti-Collision Regulations or the officer of the watch on the offending vessel did not know of their existence. The rogue vessel did not stop but just continued on her way, as if nothing had happened, which we later found out to be Hong Kong.  However, the incident was reported to both Singapore and Hong Kong Marine Authorities.

The sea distance between Batam and Paia Inlet was about 2700 Nautical miles, so at an average speed of 5.0 knots it was estimated to take just over 20 days. So, the towing combo departed from Batam on its voyage to Paia Inlet. We also sent along another Tug to act as an escort and safety vessel. 

The voyage was uneventful and the Accommodation Barge arrived at Paia Inlet on schedule. I had travelled to Papua New Guinea a day or so earlier, took a small charter flight to Gobi Airfield which serviced Kopi. The one hour drive to Kopi was hell, potholes in the rough jungle road the size of dustbins. Once I had arrived at Kopi and recovered from the hellish drive I embarked on the same fast workboat on which I had undertaken the initial river survey for the trip downstream to Paia Inlet. The two Aussie crewmen were still on board. Our intention was to send this workboat upstream about a mile ahead of the main tow to warn us of any rogue illegal log barges coming downstream and to check water depths. In actuality, upon my arrival at Paia Inlet I found it to be quite crowded with several medium size log ships busy loading their timber cargoes. Amongst them was our Accommodation Barge at anchor, and already connected up to the tug that was to perform the tow upriver to Kopi. Our other two vessels were there obviously, awaiting my instruction to proceed to Port Moresby as prearranged.

A review of the tide prediction charts indicated that they were rising over the next 3-4 day period, which was advantageous to us, so we decided to remain at anchor overnight and commence our tow at first light the following morning. A good survey of the Accommodation Barge’s draft confirmed it was exactly as predicted, 3.2m even keel. At my request our charters had provided an additional, small shallow drafted tug, which we intended to secure to the stern of the Accommodation Barge by means of a short wire, to act as an “Emergency Stop”, a safeguard in case our towing tug grounded ahead, to prevent our Barge colliding with the grounded tug. 

There was no difficulty navigating Paia Inlet and we reached the delta of the Kikori River incident free. The river was quite high and consequently flowing very fast. As we slowly progressed upstream some of the river bends became quite acute, causing the barge to drift sideways as we rounded the bends, gently brushing the riverbank. It should be remembered that the Accommodation Barge was 100m long, add to which was the length of towing wire from tug to barge (which was maintained as short as possible due to the narrows and extreme bends encountered in the river) so some lateral movement or drift  was only to be expected when rounding the sharp bends. In any event the riverbanks comprised the softest of mud so no damage was sustained to the Barge when it glanced the riverbank; the worst was a few tree branches on deck which was easily remedied.

The surrounding jungle started to crowd in on us as the river continued to narrow. Our small picket boat that was running ahead reported that the river broadened about 1 mile further upstream and that slightly less water was detected. As the tide was on the ebb there was every possibility we could ground, but at least we were ready and prepared for the eventuality. True to prediction we grounded about 15 minutes later, right on the river bend that had been reported by the picket boat. The river bed was even and flat so we sat comfortably. At this point we had transited about 15 miles upstream, it was about 3pm and the next high tide was estimated to be about midnight at our river location. We would be monitoring the rise in water and ready to move once we refloated. Meantime the picket boat was on station about one mile upstream acting as our sentinel.

By 9pm the water had risen sufficiently and we floated free, once again we progressed slowly upstream. Our guard ship reported that there was a long reach a little further upstream – this is where I intended to run an anchor fore and aft and hold up until daylight. This was a safety measure because of two reasons; from this point upstream the river bends became far more acute and navigation at night was not recommended in addition to which, our worst nightmare was illegal log barges moving down stream under the cover of darkness. The illegal logging barges were usually more active at night.

The many deck lights on the Accommodation Barge set the surrounding jungle alight and created a loom that could be seen for miles, hopefully as a warning to any illicit loggers. We had tried to keep to one side of the channel, leaving sufficient room for other river traffic to pass. At about 1 am we were alerted by our picket vessel a motorized barge loaded with logs was detected moving downstream in our direction. The crew on the safety vessel had attempted to warn the log barge of our presence. No acknowledgement was received from the river barge. Some 15 minutes later we heard the engines of the approaching craft. The noise of her engines was very distinct in the still quietness of the jungle which engulfed us on every side. Sure enough she soon emerged and having sighted us thankfully moved to pass down our Port side, clearing us by about 10 meters. Even then there was not a sign of any movement on board of her, no lights, nothing. Fortunately, that was the only rouge vessel we encountered.

By 9am we had recovered our anchors back to the “Cowcatchers” and were once again underway towards Kopi. Slow but steady progress was made. As the river looked quite full I anticipated a clear run all the way to Kopi. We negotiated the sharp river bends without much difficulty due to the skill of our 2 local river pilots and by lunchtime we were passing the township of Kikori (really just a large village of ramshackle wooden buildings). Our towing combo attracted many onlookers who came out in their canoes – perhaps many had never seen a vessel of our size previously. Kopi was only about 10 miles further upstream so all going well we should arrive and be anchored by 4-5 pm.

The remainder of the tow was uneventful and by 4.30pm we had laid a 4 anchor spread in mid stream. Each anchor being marked by a yellow buoy. Naturally, we were soon visited by various managers and section heads from the Logistics Base, all eager to see their new “Floating Hotel”. The plan was that we would remain mid-stream for several days whilst preparations were made to secure permanently, for the duration of the charter, alongside the main wharf.

Once I was satisfied all was under control it became necessary for me to negotiate that terrible jungle track by 4 wheel drive to Gobe Airfield in order to get the charter flight back to Port Moresby. The so called road was littered with pot holes of unimaginable size. 

I considered the Barge Master aided by our two river pilots was more than capable to place the Accommodation Barge alongside the jetty. I had instructed the barge be swung and berthed starboard side alongside, bow heading downstream, so to make matters easier when departing. The small safety tug was also to remain connected by the tow line in case of the urgent need to pull the Barge off the wharf and anchor in mid-stream.

I was quietly pleased we had satisfied our charterers and clients; my team had achieved the objective of a safe arrival at Kopi, despite all the earlier noise made by various skeptics who had now become conspicuous by their silence.

The Accommodation Barge performed very well and was popular by all who stayed on her during her stay at Kopi, remaining on site for about 9 months. When she did depart and return to Singapore, the Kikori River was running very high (and fast) but she had an incident free trip down stream to Paia Inlet where she once again rendezvoused and connected to her towing tug for her passage back to Singapore.

Master on the ‘FLY’ river, PNG. An interesting account from an ex Bank Line man’s career……

                                                                                                         National Flag of Papua New Guinea 

Master on the Fly

By

Geoffrey Walker

Papua New Guinea is without doubt, a true Paradise. Situated immediately to the north of Australia’s Cape York peninsular, it borders the Torres Straits and Coral Sea and is one of Australia’s closest geographical neighbors. The shortest distance between Australia and the Papua New Guinea official border is only about 95 miles, but in fact the northernmost Australian inhabited Island of “Boigu”             (English name Talbot Island) with a population of only around 300, lies just 3 miles from the New Guinea coast. To the northeast of Papua New Guinea is situated the Solomon Sea, Bismark Sea and Pacific Ocean so the island group is roughly centered within tropical Oceania. A country of immense cultural and biological diversity, it’s known for its wildlife, beaches, sports fishing and coral reefs. It features some of the most lush and pristine  rain forests, active volcanic mountains, magnificent scenery and some of the world’s longest meandering navigable rivers – The Sepik and Fly Rivers. It is also prone to Tsunamis and earthquakes, which are known locally as Gurias.

Over the years I have had a close association with Papua New Guinea. This evolved when I became a Pilot at Bougainville Island; mainly handling Bulkers at the Port of Anewa Bay which was a major international export terminal at that time for bulk Copper Concentrates. Sadly this export trade met its demise when the large copper mine operated at Panguna, by Bougainville Copper Ltd., was abandoned due to serious political unrest on the island which eventually necessitated the repatriation of all expatriate and management staff. It was very unfortunate because Bougainville is without doubt one of the most beautiful and scenic locations in New Guinea and a delightful place to both live and work. However, some time later I was employed for several years with the P&O group as Master on their mini-bulkers plying the Fly River, mainly carrying Copper Concentrates, and which is the focus of this article. 

The concentrate is mined in the mountainous highlands adjacent to mining township of Tabubil, close to the Indonesian Border, then piped as slurry about 97 miles South to Kiunga, located in the upper reaches of the Fly River, where the concentrate is dried, stored and blended ready for transshipment down river using a fleet of mini-bulkers, to a large silo and storage vessel anchored in the Gulf of Papua or Port Moresby, (depending on seasonal Monsoon and Trade Winds). Overseas transshipment is effected directly from the storage vessel by means of ship to ship transfer.

At the time of my tenure the bulk carriers were all on long term charter to Ok Tedi Mining and operated from the Fly River loading port of Kiunga, located some 522 river miles inland. These mini-bulkers were splendid little ships, about 5000 DWT, twin screw, purpose built, beamy and shallow drafted.  Built with the tropics in mind they were relatively comfortable with spacious accommodations and good air-conditioning, as such they were primarily intended to serve the Fly River copper concentrate export trade. The entire fleet was built in Singapore, several of which I was detailed to stand-by the latter stages of construction and fitting out, prior to delivering them to New Guinea and conducting crew training and shakedown voyages.

 The overall terms the fleet was relatively modern, well maintained and built to the absolute maximum specification allowing for safe navigation in the Fly River, which restricted draft to about 4.5meters (perhaps 4.9m if the river was very high) but even then it did not eliminate the risk of grounding, and ship’s overall length limited to under 90 meters. Ships returned to Singapore after several years of service to be jumboized. During my time I was Master of the Western Enterprise, Western Endeavour, Western Star, Western Flyer, Western Triumph and Western Zenith. I also did a couple of fill-in trips on the Western Trader which was a geared tween decker used for voyages to Pacific Island locations such as Palau and the Marshall Islands. She had seen better days and was very sensitive in terms of stability.

As mentioned, concentrate was the core trade for these ships but was occasionally this was supplemented by voyages to Port Moresby and Lae, in addition to Australian Ports, with containers and general cargo. The ships were also capable of carrying several thousand tons of bulk fuel Oil to support the mining township at Tabubil and the concentrator at Kiunga. 

The Fly River has its source In the Victor Emanuel Ranges and at the Star Mountains in the interior and is the second longest river in Papua New Guinea. It flows some 650 miles before emptying out into the western sector of the Gulf of Papua in a large fan delta formation. The river is tidal upstream for 150 miles from the estuary and regularly experiences Bore tides. A small stretch of the river forms the border between Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya and it is navigable as far as the Port of Kiunga which is located some 522 river miles inland. The Fly River has 2 main tributaries, namely, the Strickland and Ok Tedi Rivers (the Ok Tedi sometimes referred to as the Alice River) and generally is very fast flowing, except in periods of drought when the river tends to dry out in some reaches resulting in downstream flow and water depth being drastically reduced.

The ships employed an expatriate Master and Chief Engineer, all other officers and crew being PNG nationals. The New Guinea Mate and 2nd Mate were highly experienced in inland navigation and superb helmsman, handling the vessels expertly contributing to a safe passage as the ships dodged the various sand banks and areas of notoriety where groundings frequently occurred; they were invaluable for their local knowledge and were regularly called upon regarding river conditions, which in many cases they could read like a book, through their years of experience. They were a considerable asset to the Master with their advice, particularly when the river was not running full and grounding became a reality and virtually imminent. 

This type of work did not suite all expatriate seafarers as it required a good amount of hands on application. Those who transitioned directly from large ocean trading vessels sometimes found it difficult to quickly adjust to the remote and solitary aspects of the job, and become acquainted with the necessity to work at close quarters and the restrictions which operating in such a river imposed, often contrary to what they had experienced in earlier seagoing life. Many discovered it became hard to adapt to mastering the strong river flow and river conditions. The observance of shipboard safety (many additional considerations when operating in the river) coupled with an aptitude of both self calm and nerve were absolute requisites to beat the challenges, especially those associated with berthing the ship at Kiunga which called for above average skills when coming alongside light ship, due to the wharf situated on a river bend across the river flow.  No bow thrusters were fitted to the ships and using of anchors when berthing was useless due to dragging on account of the fine silt of the riverbed and strong flow which was practically on the beam during this process. Many a good man decided the challenges were too demanding and it wasn’t for them, so they moved on. The constant monotony of river navigation on a 24 hour basis (using powerful search lights and having to relying more or less exclusively on Radar at night), repeatedly sniffing the river bed coupled with a never ending effort to seek better water depth to avoid grounding, also weighed heavily at times and warned off many a good man, not to mention the densest of fogs that often engulfed the river. Hence there was quite a turnover, especially amongst Masters.

To be fair and honest to all participants, it took a good 6 months to harness the river’s unique attributes and challenges in getting the strong river flow to work in ones favor rather than against. Once mastered, life became so much easier. Another factor was that with the exception of occasional trips to Port Moresby, Lae or Australian ports, such as Townsville or Cairns, there was very little opportunity to escape from the ship, even for a few hours. 

The shipping port at Kiunga was remote in the extreme with nowhere to go. Kiunga was surrounded by dense jungle. The only shop was a dingy trade store which sold tinned bully beef to locals by the ton, and a single open air market which attracted local rascals (pickpockets, petty thieves, etc). Other than that, there only remained the so called “Guest House” which was a very small local motel operated by a couple of expats. For most, it must be said, attributed to an intense countdown until the day arrived when it became time for the short trip to Kiunga airstrip to board the charter flight to Port Moresby at the conclusion of a 3 month tour of duty. Hence it was not everyone’s cup of tea. 

The Fly River was prone to long periods of reduced water and shallowness, which made transiting the full 522 miles somewhat difficult without nudging the bottom or running aground at some stage of the passage, especially when loaded and outbound from Kiunga. Grounding goes against the code of all good mariners but it was common because the river bed changed so frequently and where there may have been 10 meters of water one day, the next day it may only be 5 meters or indeed nothing at all. Mud banks shifted frequently and in the tidal reaches mud islands formed then quickly disappeared with regular monotony due to the amount of erosion caused by the fast flowing stream. Sitting high and dry on a relatively level, soft mud river bed did not however cause any damage to the vessels in general, and on numerous occasions became the norm for lengthy periods.

The main disadvantage of grounding, apart from the obvious loss of time and inconvenience, was that one never knew how long one would be stranded on the mud. One extreme case caused a vessel to remain grounded, high and dry on a flat mud bank for more than 3 months, during which time the crew played soccer on the dried out surface mud, even painted a “Goal Post” on the ship’s hull plating. The main difficulty was the supply of fresh food and provisions because not even the smallest of craft could get alongside to deliver. In several exceptional cases it became necessary to charter helicopters when a number of vessels became stranded, doing a delivery run to those unfortunate enough to be aground. 

For those newer vessels with keel cooling it was not so bad because circulating water could be maintained but for those not so fitted one was obliged to rig fire hoses to the nearest flowing river water in order to sustain the use of ship’s generators, air conditioning plant and other facilities. Therefore a considerable amount of bottled drinking water was always carried on board to cover such eventualities. Obviously the river water was unfit for human consumption and barely passed the “Pub Test” even for washing in cases of dire need.

It was very ghostly navigating the river at night, the powerful searchlights cast a very sinister shadow.  It was uncanny when sitting aground at night on a mud bank in a river surrounded by dense jungle just meters away. Only the noise of animals broke the deafening silence and tranquility, added to the sense of haunting, and aided the onset the feeling of discomfort and potential alien danger, throughout the hours of darkness.

Depending upon which part of the river you were in determined the friendliness of the local tribesmen and natives that lived in the jungle villages that skirted the river bank. Most were friendly and waved as we sailed past but some others not so friendly, and paddled out in cut out canoes attempting to hinder the ship’s passage. One became immune to these veiled threats but never lost sight of the dangers of swamping the canoes and causing the occupants to fall overboard into crocodile infested waters. The best we could do was to make a lot of noise on the ship’s siren and slow down best we could, thus trying to minimize our wash and wake.

 When transiting the river it was often required that the ship come very close to the river bank in order to seek the deepest water, so at night I had very strict orders that no one was permitted to go outside on deck. Apart from which, the mosquitoes would have a feast and Malaria was prevalent. This became mandatory in my night order book because we would regularly find arrows and spears on the deck and bridge wings, propelled in our direction by natives of the night. Occasionally, at night these projectiles could be heard striking the superstructure or landing on the ship’s deck. It was not so much the projectile itself that was the principal concern, but rather what kind of poison may have been placed on the arrow or spear tips, to aide their native hunting. 

The “FLY” had an abundance of wildlife such as colorful Cassowaries, Deer and exotic Birds, Hornbills, multi-colored Parrots and the like but it also had its fair share of dangerous creatures, in particular Crocodiles and Snake, Spiders and Wild Pigs. Crocodiles were always conspicuous during daylight hours basking in the sun on exposed mud banks or at the water’s edge and at night they were equally as visible because their eyes shone red when the beam of the searchlights was cast upon them. At night the sweet odors off the rain forest became almost overpowering and the jungle came alive with sounds that were very unsettling to the uninitiated.

During my spell working on the “Fly”, river traffic was controlled and monitored as best possible by Ok Tedi at Kiunga. Under the call sign “Ok Tedi Kiunga” they broadcast every morning at 9am by HF Radio mainly on 5960 Khz but sometimes we used other frequencies if the atmospherics were bad. All Ships were required to report their position and speed. This worked satisfactorily and allowed ships to roughly calculate where and when they may expect to meet passing traffic and permit VHF contact beforehand, once within range. The system worked well except for large barges under tow, laden with illegally harvested logs. Obviously these perpetrators operated under the veil of secrecy and were most active during hours of darkness which made them even more of a menace since in the majority of cases they did not exhibit any steaming lights. High definition Radar was the only way to detect them. It was common knowledge that this illegal practice was in full swing but no one seemed to pay much attention to it from our perspective. The only known logging camp was at the river mouth, just off Umuda Island, where at any given time there could be upward of a dozen logging vessels anchored, all engaged in loading dressed logs for Asian destinations.

There was an unofficial (cum official) river map which had been laboriously drawn by an ex Australian Master during the early days of the OK Tedi Mine development scheme. His river map was surprisingly accurate and indicated in great detail the location of all the “RM” markers, conspicuous objects, and fixed hazards for the entire length of the river as far as Kiunga, it was a work of art. There were a few navigation markers in areas not subject to much change but mostly Masters learned their own tricks and transit points from the national crew…such as for example, keeping a conspicuous tree, land mark, structure or natural beacon in such a position until it reached a certain bearing and radar distance, before altering to the next course, etc etc., buoyage was nonexistent. Determining the ship’s progress transiting the river was an easy exercise because of the highly conspicuous “RM’s” placed every 5 river miles. Hence when reporting to “Ok Tedi Kiunga” by radio (i.e. position RM 225, upstream/downstream, speed 10 knots) it gave you a good handle on both speed and position. When entering or departing the river delta reporting was also mandatory by HF radio. A typical downstream passage from Kiunga to river estuary (barring groundings) was approximately 48 hours duration, whilst an unhindered upstream passage was about 72 hours duration. 

The rule of navigation in the Fly River was of course ships moving downstream had the right of way and those sailing upstream were required to pull over clear of the channel towards the river bank and give way. Depending on which area of the river you were at time of meeting the conflicting traffic, dictated whether you just pull clear of the channel or go hard alongside the river bank in the narrower reaches, thus giving way to the downstream vessel. The latter was not so pleasant, especially at night, because it was difficult to avoid trees, many of which seriously overhung the river bank in places. In such cases snakes and other hazardous creatures become a reality so one needed to anticipate. A clean-up party was required every day at first light to clear away dead and broken tree branches together with any other hazards. The national crews were fearless and unperturbed by any nasties and creepy crawlies which had landed on deck during the night.

One of the major natural hazards when navigating the Fly River was very large semi-submerged logs. If they struck a propeller blade that could mean curtains and easily snap off or seriously bend a complete propeller blade(s). These large logs were almost invisible as they floated just below the surface, even during the day but at night one had no chance of sighting and taking evasive action.

During periods when the river was low due to lack of rain at the river source it was not uncommon to anchor off Umuda Island in the river estuary, whilst waiting for the river to rise. These layovers could run into weeks until the rains broke. We nicknamed this the “Umuda Country Club” and each day Masters and Chief Engineers would visit ships in turn for a lunch and a few beers. There was a great deal of competition between the ship’s cooks to see who could lay down the most delicious of meals. There was nothing else to do except watch videos, read or partake of a few cans of beer, so the daily gathering and interaction with other vessels was the only option to break the monotony and boredom. 

The Fly River was extremely wide at the  river mouth, a typical fan delta but once passing Sturt Island – about RM 125, where there was a sawmill operated by a lone expatriate and his local extended family,  upstream of which the river started to twist remarkably. The Sawmill was very conspicuous with its ramshackle wooden jetty and grass airstrip carved out of the bush on the slope of a hill. For the next 100 RM or so the river meandered through grass lands, with reeds almost as tall as the ships masts in many places. At this point the river was somewhat featureless but still reasonably wide it must be said.

The next point of interest was Obo Station. Basically, a small missionary settlement, consisting of only a few wooden shacks and a radio tower, supported by a jungle airstrip. Once past Obo Station and the confluence of the Strickland River, the topography changed yet again. The river became much narrower and started to twist and wind even more noticeably with some bends up to 180 degrees. Rafts of water lilies, often in full bloom, were magnificent and the sweet odors emitted from other flowers and plants were always present, mainly as a result of the Jungle closing in as the river became more restricted. 

Some reaches of the river formed the border with Indonesia and their military patrols were occasionally observed but they never bothered river traffic. Only the presence of the sporadic Indonesian flag defined their territory. In any event the Indonesians had the right of navigation downstream to the river estuary.

Approaching the junction of the Fly and Alice Rivers, in the region of RM 436, was always a nightmare as it was a notoriously bad area for shallows and grounding as well as hidden underwater snags and logs. The deepest water lay right close to the river bank for about a 2 mile stretch so it was normal to collect remnants of overhanging trees as one swept past – particularly when proceeding downstream as ships speed was fast which made steering difficult, being so close to the riverbank but the PNG helmsmen were expert and had good experience handling the challenge. Successfully navigating RM 436 area signaled the last of the hazards, since the water depth increased upstream all the way to Kiunga (RM 522), save for the “Rock Bar”.

Negotiating the “Rock Bar” which was a very narrow and sharp river bend of about 90 degrees was always difficult. Going upstream it wasn’t too difficult stemming the river flow but when proceeding downstream, especially when the river was high and the river flowing even faster than normal, it could prove very hazardous. Approaching this point when transiting downstream, one was faced with a very hard cliff like river bank on the starboard side right at the critical point at which a very sharp turn to Port was required. Speed could not be reduced as it needed to be maintained in order ensure best steerage in the attempt to negotiate the sharp bend. The secret was, to keep the ship’s bow as close as one dared to the port hand river bank as one approached, with the helm hard over to port and with a little luck the ship would make the turn and miss the section of hard river bank on the starboard side, but never more than by a few meters. Some ships in the fleet were not so lucky and suffered the consequences of colliding with the hard knoll, which very surprisingly did not cause serious structural damage. The notorious “Rock Bar” was I think another factor in causing many good men to leave the job.

From the “Rock Bar” it was plain sailing right up to Kiunga, even allowing for the increased narrowing of the River. Kiunga was situated at the top of a longish reach but the two jetties were positioned awkwardly on the river bend which created challenges when berthing, even though the vessels were twin screw. One berth was used for general cargo and containers (later to include a second wharf facility), whilst the other was exclusively for loading the concentrate. We always berthed port side alongside to facilitate the ship loading. Loading a full cargo could be achieved in approximately 6 hours and it was a very dusty and dirty affair. There were suitable anchoring locations slightly up and downstream from the main township, which often became crowded during periods of low river levels with a number of ships waiting for a rise of water.

Once loaded and ready for departure it was a simple task of singling up to a solitary stern rope or back spring, depending on personal preference and allowing the river flow to swing the ships head away from the berth; swinging quite rapidly to starboard until the bow was almost facing downstream before casting off and engaging main engines to assist with completing the swing in the direction of the river estuary. The river at this point was too restricted for any kind of alternative maneuver. It became relatively easy after a few trips.

When operating in the Fly River it always paid off to remain alert, open minded and anticipate, because the river frequently deceived those mariners who were not prepared for the unexpected or unpredictable. The Fly River had many hidden secrets; no two trips were ever the same. Hence, upon completion of a 3 month spell one was ready for home leave and it was always good to take the small twin engine Dornier or Otter to Port Moresby. The discomfort of the cramped 2.5 hour flight was soon forgotten and easily overshadowed by the first of several iced beers at the Airways Hotel bar at Moresby, usually whilst awaiting onward international connections and a pending home leave.

End

One ship that led a charmed life… The M.V. GLENBANK. Part of the big 18 ship order from Harlands, placed in 1924 and one of the survivors after WW2 when 9 of her sisters were lost mainly to torpedoes.. See the movement list below itemising each voyage throughout the 1939-45 conflict.

6 years throughout the war, and a total of 35 years ploughing the Oceans…

H.M.S. ALYNBANK

A nice view of the Bank Line vessel ALYNBANK, one of the 18 vessels ordered in 1924. An auxiliary anti-aircraft ship in the Navy from 1940 and served on the Russian convoys, then took part in the ‘Torch’ landings in Salerno in 1942. Became the eastern breakwater of the D Day ‘Mulberry’ harbour. Raised and scrapped at Troon after the war. ( See another entry under this name)

The Copra Run

THE COPRA RUN

It doesn’t seem so long ago,
Joining sometimes in the snow,
But what a life on the Copra run,
Cruising round the Pacific sun!

First, a visit to Gulf Ports,
The hectic loading of all sorts,
Sailing down to the Antipodes
Then island hopping in Southern Seas.

There were those times, – a precious thing,
When island folk began to sing,
The natural lazy way of life,
Free from worry, free from strife.

It was a gift, we never thought,
Just a job that we had sought,
But looking back it was something special
Joining on that Copra vessel.