Gold Ribbon Banner
Tuesday, August 20, 2019
The Congo

Even if for only the first eighty-five miles, to reach Matadi I was fortunate to be able to travel the whole length of Liverpool’s famous Overhead Railway on my way to and from school during its last few years.

What I saw out of the windows, usually through a pall of tobacco smoke, was probably responsible for my decision to choose a seafaring career. One particular sight, on the gable end of a dock warehouse south of the Pier Head, was an advertisement for the Booth Line with its memorable slogan of ‘1,000 Miles up the Amazon’. However, my cousin, who had just completed a voyage as Surgeon on an elderly Booth Line passenger ship, the Hilary, told me that this lengthy passage was, for him, one of extreme boredom since it consisted of little more than seemingly endless miles of broad muddy waters flanked by uniformly dull forest. Justifiably or not, I therefore have few regrets that the Amazon never featured on my bucket list of voyages up the world’s great rivers. However, the Congo river certainly did, and on a number of occasions. What that river lacked in miles it more than made up for in providing many memorable experiences.

My first encounter with the Congo was in the summer of 1963 while sailing as Third Mate on Elder Dempster’s Obuasi. We came from a northerly direction and saw the discolouration of the blue ocean with still many miles in the offing. The land at the river mouth, being low, was barely visible even as a radar echo. The Master ordered the echo-sounder to be run, instructing that, when it detected the abyss that the mighty river had scoured out of the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, we should turn sharply to port. Then the south side of the river entrance, marked by the lighthouse at Ponta da Moita Seca, would confirm the accuracy of our chosen easterly course. So it proved, and we were soon welcoming the pilots on board off the small settlement of Banana. Two pilots actually, since both an elderly Belgian and his Congolese trainee had joined us.

The outer stretches of the river proved generally uninteresting as we picked our way between channel buoys, most with tropical greenery caught around their black or red waists. It was nearly fifty miles before two objects of interest appeared on the northern shore. Rocky outcrops of ironstone, bearing the names of Fingal’s Shield and Fetish Rock (who thought up that unlikely name?) lay on either side of the channel leading to the small port of Boma. With the last buoy (no 90) well astern we entered a long stretch of river between green hills that could have passed as a typical Scottish sea loch but for the heat. The absence of settlements or the ubiquitous canoes of African waterways on either the Angolan or Congo banks were an indication of the fierce current that underlay the river’s urge to reach the sea.

Well ahead of us was our first view of the mailboat of the Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB) that our pilot had told us to expect on this reach of the river. After a short exchange on the VHF, he announced that we would be passing starboard side to starboard side. That decision provoked a peppery reaction from Captain Dunn, who was clearly not impressed with this blatant contradiction of the Collision Regulations. His objection, however, lapsed once the pilot explained to him that this would enable us to keep close to the northern bank where the current was less fierce. When the Albertville passed us, travelling well in excess of 20 knots, a huge Belgian flag was streaming from her mainmast gaff, but there was little sign of any of her passengers who were then probably sleeping off the first lunch of their voyage northwards.

The sight of several red and green flags was a notable feature as we passed the small town of Noqui to starboard. They may well have been indicating that Portugal had no intention of bending to the ‘wind of change’ that was blowing away the other European empires in Africa. In contrast, the adjoining Congolese settlement of Ango-Ango boasted just the one flag that mirrored the courtesy ensign that we were flying.

Now, eighty miles from the river’s mouth, we approached the appropriately named ‘devil’s cauldron’ of the Chaudron d’Enfer. Set within an ampitheatre of 800-foot cliffs, the brown waters of the Congo’s surface were disturbed by a mixture of fierce eddies and whirlpools, only occasionally interspersed with sullen patches of oily calm. Having been reassured that our B&W diesel engine was delivering its maximum 3,750 horses to guarantee our advance, the pilot gave a rapid succession of orders, mostly for carrying a starboard helm in order to prevent the ship from becoming embayed under the wooded cliffs. A general relief was shared by those in charge on the bridge as the Obuasi finally passed under the fragile telephone wires that spanned the river from Pointe Underhill. We soon had an uneventful berthing at the port of Matadi.

We had kept harbour watches since the pilot boarded; that allowed me to be on the bridge for the whole eight hours of our river passage. It was now the turn of the Second Mate to be on call through the night, since no cargo was due to be worked until the following morning. It was also time for a small party of us to hit the town. No local money was available, but we assured ourselves that sterling should meet our entertainment needs. Taxis would not come to the ship since it was considered far too hazardous to cross the huge marshalling yards that lay between the quays and the town. Keeping a sharp lookout for any runaway rakes of goods vans, we were soon in the town and, after a steep climb, we found the Metropole Hotel. Excepting its stone verandahs, this somewhat forbidding grey building would not have looked out of place back in Antwerp. Outside, a prominent memorial to the Belgian monarch King Albert I was a surprising survivor given that it was now three years since a very bitterly achieved independence. It was here that a small group of sharply-dressed dealers competed to exchange our pounds for an encouragingly thick wad of grubby Congolese francs.

The main hotel entrance gave access to a bar and restaurant where prices reflected the generous allowances of UN officials and other foreign aid workers, so we made for the ground floor alternative. First impressions were not good; it looked as if we might have stumbled onto the set of a ‘B’ movie about civil war and illicit diamonds in some tropical hell-hole. At one table was a group of mercenaries, bulky and shavenheaded. Next to them, a group of Lebanese traders then, at another table, some youthful US Peace Corps members. The whole smoke-laden scene was replete with some persistent sellers of tusks of ivory, small animals, reptiles and gemstones of doubtful provenance, along with an equally persistent bevy of patrolling prostitutes. At least the bottles of Beck’s or Heineken were icy cold and the Congolese music being played in the background made for good listening. However, as the evening progressed, it emerged that the ‘mercenaries’ were actually a team of construction workers, some of the Peace Corps also came over to ask about taking passage with us down to Luanda, while the souvenir sellers and ladies of pleasure soon realised we had only very modest funds to spend. This enjoyable evening ashore ended safely, with our alcohol intake not enough to make us easy prey crossing the marshalling yards..

Cargo work the following day was refreshingly simple. We discharged those staples exported to every francophone country – bottles of whisky, cans of Guinness, Land Rovers and bales of textiles. Nothing was available to load except some drums of glycerine and empty gas cylinders, but that was not unexpected as we were already booked for a full cargo from elsewhere. Our progress downriver was in stark contrast to our ascent since, once through the Chaudron d’Enfer, we fairly rocketed along. The 37 miles from Fetish Rock to Matadi had taken nearly four hours whilst the reverse journey was made in just half that time. And so the Obuasi swept out into the Atlantic, bound away south.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - December 2018 Issue
Click here to subscribe

Subscribe Graphic

Latest Issue - Look Inside!


Most Popular

  • Lifeboat Withdrawn After Some Crew Stood Down +

  • Scorpene Sub Snags +

  • An Unexpected Job in Cuba +

  • New Crane Lifts Business Growth +

  • Test Spells The End of Paper Bills of Lading +

  • 1
  • 2

Latest Products

Maritime Log

  • Lifeboat Withdrawn After Some Crew Stood Down +

    Peterhead Lifeboat Peterhead lifeboat has been taken out of action by the RNLI. Read More
  • Test Spells The End of Paper Bills of Lading +

    CargoX Demo It is possible to stop using the paper Bill of Lading according to a test of CargoX’s blockchain-based Smart Bill Read More
  • New Crane Lifts Business Growth +

    Hull Port A new £3.5mn hybrid Liebherr crane has been delivered to Associated British Ports (ABP) for operation at Hull to support Read More
  • Crowds Tribute to the Last Tyne +

    Annie Blaker The last of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s famous Tyne class lifeboats was launched for the last time at her Read More
  • Clyde’s Vital Role in Onshore Windfarm +

    Clydeport Clydeport has played a vital role in the building of the UK’s largest onshore windfarm on Eaglesham Moor, just 20 Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

North America

  • Record Set by Largest US Ship for Hawaii Service +

    Lurline The largest combination container, roll-on, roll-off ship ever built in the United States was formerly named in a ceremony at Read More
  • $293mn for Port Projects +

    Long Beach port The United States is to invest $292.7mn in the country’s ports through a new Port Infrastructure Development Programme. Read More
  • Facility Exports First Cargo of Propane to Japan +

    Sumire Gas The first marine export facility for propane in Canada has been officially opened. Read More
  • Changes in Tolls for Using Panama Canal +

    MSC Pohlin The Panama Canal plans to modify its tolls structure for all types of ships “to better serve the global maritime Read More
  • Largest LNG Carrier Sails From West to East +

    Al Safliya The largest LNG tanker to use the Panama Canal since it was expanded less that three years ago passed through Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3


  • Line Adds Automated Power Kite to Propulsion +

    Airseas The Japanese shipping company Kawasaki Kisen KK (K Line) aims to cut ship greenhouse gas emissions with automated power kites. Read More
  • ONE Express to North Sea and Baltic +

    ONE Apus The Japanese shipping line Ocean Network Express (ONE) was due to start an enhanced North Sea Baltic Service with Russia Read More
  • MOL Links with Russian Uni for Crew Training +

    Makarov University The Japanese shipping company Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a Russian university on co-operation Read More
  • “Prelude” Makes its Debut With First LNG Cargo +

    Prelude The first shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) has left Shell’s floating LNG facility Prelude some 475kms north-east of Broome Read More
  • Special Navigating System to be Fitted to VLCCs +

    AR Nav Following two-ship trials, augmented reality (AR) navigation systems are to be installed on 21 very large crude oil carriers (VLCCs) Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Naval Focus

  • Scorpene Sub Snags +

    INS Khanderi indian News The troubled Scorpene class submarine program hit another snag in June. Read More
  • US Navy’s Frigate Program Passes Significant Hurdle +

    USS Minneapolis-St Paul US News The US Navy has unveiled its plans for the purchase of a new frigate known as FFG(X). Read More
  • Fourth Dreadnought Named HMS “King George VI” +

    Dreadnought Class UK News The fourth member of the new Dreadnought class of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines will bear the name Read More
  • US Navy Orders Flight II Landing Platform Dock +

    LDP30 American News The contract for the construction of LPD30, the first Flight II Landing Platform Dock of the San Antonio Read More
  • US Navy Seeks Faster Ship Delivery +

    FFGX Rendering American News The future frigate program for the US Navy is getting fully underway and some idea of the urgency Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ferry World

  • Fragile Future for Calmac +

    Isle of Arran TMore and more, I am reading reports that say the media, and the public too, are well aware of the Read More
  • Oscar Goes to Italy +

    Oscar Wilde Irish Continental Group has entered into a bareboat hire purchase agreement for the sale of its 1987-built Oscar Wilde to Read More
  • CalMac Heritage +

    Columba I include a fine poster and artist’s image of the famed Macbrayne paddler Columba. Read More
  • Russian Adventure +

    Ocean Adventurer To the North East Coast and arriving at Aberdeen for the first time for many months, I witnessed a passenger Read More
  • Windemere Jetties +

    Osprey and Branksome Last month I commented on the new setting of the classic collection of mainly steam boats held at Windermere. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Sail Review/Coastal Comment

  • The Green Band of Marstal +

    Bessie Ellen The Danish Maritime Museum had the schooner Bonavista built on the island of Aero at Marstal and this year they Read More
  • Norweigan National Day +

    Thorodd I was in Montrose on the Norwegian National Day, 17 May, when its independent constitution from Sweden was confirmed in Read More
  • Port of Aberdeen Fifty Years On +

    Aberdeen Harbour Extension Project When I first arrived in Aberdeen in 1968, I couldn’t believe my luck. Read More
  • Thames Tributary Barges +

    Lady of the Lea Most of the rivers flowing into the Thames had their own barge type. Read More
  • Dry Rot and Dry Dock +

    HMS Victory For some time Victory, the 110gun ship of the line, has had trouble with dry rot and is in danger Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

From the Lookout

  • President Opens ‘Largest UK Ship Simulation Centre’ +

    Sir Michael Bibby With the training of seafarers being so important to safety at sea, and in particular navigation equipment and bridge procedures, Read More
  • Hands-Free Mooring at St Lawrence Seaway +

    St Lawrence Seaway I feel there are probably many readers, like me, who feel a shiver down their spine when they think of Read More
  • Flying the Flag on Merchant Navy Day +

    Red Ensign For more than 35 years, it has been my immense privilege to be a local Isle of Man committee member Read More
  • Lifeline Cash for “Waverley” Agreed +

    Waverley The Paddle Steamer Preservation Society (PSPS) has announced that it will provide immediate funding to support efforts to “Save The Read More
  • Viking Glory Celebrates Keel Laying +

    Front Altair The construction of Viking Glory is proceeding on schedule. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Cruise News/Superyacht News

  • Boudicca Pays Tribute to D-Day Veterans +

    Boudicca Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines were proud to have played its part in hosting 250 D-Day veterans. Read More
  • Captain of a Modern Passenger Carrying Sail Ship +

    Sea Cloud 2 If you have ever wondered what qualities a Captain of a cruise vessel might need to have listed on his Read More
  • Every Ash Cloud Has A Silver Lining +

    The ash cloud crisis continues to cause uncertainty as we see sporadic closures of airspace and cancelled flights, and this Read More
  • Damen Group Superyachts +

    Amels With 25 projects underway, business is booming for Amels, the Dutch luxury yacht builder. Read More
  • Singer Andrea Bocelli Trades Up in Size +

    Stella del Nord Andrea Bocelli, the blind Italian tenor and song writer whose work spans both popular music and classical opera is a Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ships, Ports and Places


An Unexpected Job in Cuba

In 1948, I joined the MV Yamaska Park as an EDH and, over the first few days aboard, I became Read More
Suez Canal

The Creation of the Suez Canal - Part Two

IAt the end of 1858, the company’s Works Committee convened for the first time. It included an impressive assembly of Read More
  • 1
  • 2

Companies, Events and Other Features


From Fjords to Fiji

On the morning of 9 October 2014, two patrol boats from the Spanish Maritime Service and Public Safety Unit were Read More
MV Laganbank

Bank Line's Building Boom

50 British built ships over a ten-year period from 1957 to 1967. Read More
  • 1
  • 2