Monthly Archives: January 2021

Apprentice on the SIBONGA

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

By Duncan Milne

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


SPRINGBANK – the last of the 18 ship order of 1925

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

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

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

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

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A lovely painting of the SOUTHBANK from


Captain John Campbell – A story

Weird things happen at sea


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, weird things happen at sea.

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

An extract……

Starring with Bob Hope

The road to Milford Haven

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

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My favourite command…

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



My first Command is my favourite.

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

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

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

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Escorting Crew to the Doctors

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

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

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

Bob Blowers  

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

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

Church parade in Lagos

The 1937 ESKBANK a stalwart of the postwar fleet

An account by Captain John Campbell

An extract…….

Tabnabs with the Queen

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

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

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

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

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        Giving your first jab, by Captain John Campbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Waimarie river steamer – New Zealand

Captain Donald McGhee – ex Bankline

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

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

Prawn Curry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kindly submitted by Captain John Campbell


Southbank painting by


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Captain John Campbell for the account

An Apprentice’s story



The day I lost seven Lascars in a flea market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Captain John Campbell – grateful thanks….

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

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

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


A beautiful painting by John Stewart

‘Auf einem Seemannsgrab, da blühen keine Rosen’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many thanks to jungle cat. ( See

(A published article)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Finnish flagged OLIVEBANK

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

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

Pictures from ” Sea Breezes” dated 1938

Pictures courtesy of ” Sea Breezes” 1938

Pictures courtesy of ” Sea Breezes” 1938

New SIBONGA pictures

New SIBONGA pictures

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

The people………….

Captain Martin with the boat Skipper….

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