The Crestbank was the second of a massive 17 ship order from Harland & Wolff in Belfast commencing with the Cloverbank in 1957. I joined her there in 1959 as second mate. She was back at the builders for repairs and adjustments.
At this time, Andrew Weir (now Lord Inverforth) and the Bank Line Board had placed an even bigger order for 21 ships, from William Doxford and Sons in Sunderland, beginning with the Firbank. The vessels that emerged were noted for having slightly more rakish lines, the most obvious difference being in the funnel shape; Harland’s tended to be flat-topped. It was a familiar pattern, with orders divided more or less evenly between the two yards on opposite sides of the UK. All new build orders for the Bank Line went to UK yards. Although the company continued to place orders for vessels up until the 1980s, this particular period was probably the peak of the postwar building spree. The following 20 years’ or more of steady global trading provided work for a modern fleet that hovered around the 50 ship mark. The old stalwarts that had survived WW2, and a dozen stop-gap Liberty ships that had given good service, were phased out as new smart vessels joined the fleet. Smart they may have been, but who would have guessed that break bulk vessels of this type were shortly to be mostly redundant and would be replaced by the large container types? A crystal ball would have been useful, as always, but in hindsight, these new buildings at least had a long and satisfactory career. A later 12 ship order placed in the 1970s, and starting with the lead ship Fleetbank, was not so lucky and resulted in vessels being disposed of in as little as eight years.
Crossing over on the Irish Sea Ferry, I was a bit overawed being sent to serve on such a ‘modern’ ship! My previous vessels had included a wartime Liberty ship, the Maplebank, and a wartime coal-burning Empire Boat, the Hazelbank. I also had a spell on the 1930s built passenger vessel, the Inchanga. This was now the nearest I would ever get to sailing on a new vessel, and she even had some basic air conditioning, meaning that the ubiquitous oscillating fan was no longer the most important cabin fitting. She also had a ‘Brown’ fitted gyro, and auto steering. More about this beauty later.
The honour of having the class name traditionally went to the first vessel off the stocks, called the lead ship - in this case, the Cloverbank completed in 1957. These were shelter-decked vessels of dimensions 483ft long, 62.9ft wide, and a 26ft loaded draft. Deep tanks were provided for the regular oil cargoes that Bank Line carried. Lube oil or similar from the US Gulf ports went out to Australia and New Zealand, and vegetable oil, mainly coconut oil, from the Pacific Islands was carried homewards on a regular basis. A six cylinder diesel engine by the builders gave them a decent speed of 14 knots plus, and a daily run often well in excess of 300 miles was something I had not been used to! The opposed piston engines now burnt heavy fuel oil, and were also turbo charged. However, scavenge fires were a daily occurrence and we soon got used to slowing down at sea while the engineers went through the drill to dowse them. Familiar clouds of black smoke observed from the bridge would signal what was coming.
Between March 1957 and March 1964, all 17 vessels of this class were delivered. After the first dozen were launched, there were minor modifications to the design. The heavy lift derrick became 50 tons, and other slight changes made in light of the experience with the earlier vessels. All of these ships, however, gave a good 16 or 17 years of service before being sold on. Crestbank went to Greek owners after 16 years, where she gave a further five years’ service afloat. Only the Levernbank out of the 17 was unlucky enough to be lost. In 1973, She stranded spectacularly between some cliffs in southern Peru, near Matarani though, fortunately, without any loss of life.
The voyage, or voyages ahead on this occasion, would complete my time for a Master’s ticket, and the whole trip was to last 14 months and take in transits of both Panama (twice) and the Suez canal. This was less time away than many Bank Line voyages, which were still completing the statutory two years before Officers were relieved. We were not to know.
On boarding in Belfast, the Master turned out to be a genial and pleasant man appointed to his first command. This, understandably, made him a bit apprehensive when we were navigating close inshore or through islands. On the ‘graveyard’ watch from midnight to 0400 hrs, the traditional watch for the second mate, it was irksome sometimes to share the space and solitude with him. However, his nature was far removed from some of the post-war Masters we suffered. Many were tyrants, drunks, or social outcasts - sometimes all three!
The Crestbank was a big improvement on the older ships, but it was still years before reliable and efficient air conditioning. We did have extra rooms, like a lounge, and a minuscule drying room, but improvements further down the line, like a bar, a pool perhaps, and a nippier boat for rescue and runaround were still years away in the offing. The lounge was rarely used, lacking the crucial feature of a bar. It was a barren place. On the bridge the equipment included the clunky automatic pilot which we treated very suspiciously. It was no substitute for a quiet and trustful Indian seacunny standing there silently.
There were various minor improvements, but it was still many years before satellite navigation or the global positioning system was to arrive. Navigation in the fifties was still reliant on the tried and trusted ‘star sights’ morning and evening, weather permitting, and the morning longitude with a run up to the noon position. Like many mariners before and after this time I suspect that, just like me, they got a great feeling of satisfaction from plotting a position from celestial observations. It was an art form, rather than science, and all the better for it. Judgement was needed, especially when a clutch of position lines on the chart formed an almighty great box! Which ones to ignore was the burning question?