Being able to save lives is both a privilege and a pleasure. For most people, ashore or afloat, it doesn’t happen very often. But to have it happen on your birthday, against almost impossible odds, is indeed a rare inspiration. So it was that a routine voyage to India became special.
At the time I was 2nd Mate with Thos & Jno Brocklebank – the oldest deepsea shipping company in the world. I joined the ss Mahseer at Glasgow in October 1967. With her plain blue and white houseflag flying at the foremast truck – a long company tradition – and her conspicuous 22-inch broad white band on a black hull, she was easy to pick out from other ships.
She was still discharging tea and other Eastern goods. Soon she would head for the Continent to load general cargo for the Mediterranean, Port Said, the Red Sea ports, the Indian Ocean Islands, Ceylon, and India. She would then complete loading at Tilbury before sailing deepsea It was the end of November before we finally left Tilbury.
The Mahseer, built by Hamilton, Glasgow, in 1948, was one of the older ships in the fleet. Nevertheless, she had her good points. She was a good sea ship. Her steam turbines – not beloved of pilots because of poor astern power – were quiet, reliable, and caused little vibration. She made a nice steady 14 knots. She had more than adequate cargo gear and her accommodation was better than average. As 2nd Mate, I had a fair-sized cabin directly under the bridge on the starboard side with a soot-free area of wooden deck just outside – ideal for tropical get-togethers over a few coldies. All the officers were British, with an Indian crew from Calcutta. Our total complement was 69. Gross tonnage was 8,961, dwt 12,000 tons, she was 508 feet long with a beam of 67 feet.
By then all Brocklebanker names had long begun with ‘Ma’ and were of Asiatic origin. Mahseer is the name of various large Indian freshwater fishes of the carp family; this ship was the second in the company to bear that name. A most apt name for what was to happen later that trip. That voyage we had cargo for almost every Red Sea port: Aqaba, Port Sudan, Jeddah, Assab, Massawa, Djibouti, Aden, and Mukalla. We also had cargo for Male, in the Maldives, which was just beginning to develop (if that’s the right word when such unspoiled tropical paradises open up to tourism and all that such ‘development’ brings).
The voyage was uneventful until we reached Aqaba, at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan from where you can also see Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. We were to berth alongside. The pilot – not a Jordanian – was a flamboyant character who had driven down to the jetty in a huge flashy American convertible decorated with a couple of equally flashy peroxide blonde companions who were left in the automobile, so as to get a good view of the ship berthing. The pilot dressed in British MN masters’ uniform – illegally I presume – complete with cap and scrambled egg peak. He had the manner of one who ‘owned’ all he surveyed.
Our OM, Captain Jock Lyle, a tough no-nonsense Scot, was also a ‘character’. So perhaps with two such characters on the bridge it would be something of a battle over who was in ‘command’. I was down aft on stations, so I don’t know exactly what went wrong. The outcome was, however, that we hit the jetty bow-on and ended up with a twofoot gash in our stem above the waterline. Perhaps the pilot was showing off to his female companions and came in too fast – especially on a steam turbine ship with poor astern power – in any case, Jock made it plain he thought the pilot was to blame. As there were no repair facilities, we continued the voyage as we were and fitted our own huge cement box in the fore-peak tank.
This incident put Jock in a filthy mood which only lifted after our sea-rescue several weeks later. In that respect, our involvement in rescue was a double blessing. Meanwhile, one of Jock’s ways of venting his anger was to phone the duty engineer every time he saw a puff of black smoke from our funnel. And he wasn’t very polite about it either. After a long spell doing the round of Red Sea ports, we eventually headed for Malé, capital of the Maldives. Brocklebanks were the first ‘big’ ships to call there. Indeed, a Brocklebank officer had done some fine drawings of the approaches which were later published in the Admiralty Pilot Book to help others.
Malé is part of an atoll, and entrance to the lagoon is through a narrow gap in the ring of islands. We then used to anchor inside and discharge into small barges. At that time there was no airport or tourism. Brocklebankers were still the only big ships calling there and that was not very frequently. Being off the beaten track, the chances of coming across a ship in these waters were indeed minute. This made what happened next little short of miraculous. We sailed from Malé at first light on the 18th February – my 25th birthday. This was still the Northeast Monsoon season and the weather was remarkably fine.
I had completed noon sights and by 1330 hrs was settling down to a quiet watch not expecting to see anything other than flying fish. The sea was smooth with a low gentle swell. Visibility was excellent. It was ideal weather for doing a few chart corrections. As luck would have it, however, I felt lazy and decided to pace the bridge wing and enjoy a bit of bronzing.
The horizon was sharp: deep blue sea against paler blue of sky. We were the only thing moving. Then, as I looked ahead, from the corner of my eye I thought I saw something move. Looking round to our port beam I saw a tiny dark speck. At first I thought it might be nothing more than debris – perhaps a log or something that had washed out to sea. There was no movement. Being on the beam, this object would soon vanish again so I decided to have another look at it through my binoculars. Even magnified it still looked like a dark indefinable speck – but then something moved again.
I knew the OM (Old Man (Captain)) would be just getting his head down after a good lunch. After having his beautiful ship scarred by a show-off pilot, he would not be amused if I called him out of his bed to see some seabirds fluttering around an old log. Nevertheless, I decided to risk it.
Soon we had altered course by ninety degrees and were headed for this unidentified object. It was not long before we could see we were heading for a fishing boat with several madly waving crewmembers on board. If we had been half a mile further away, or if I had gone into the chartroom, we would have sailed blissfully past. And the chances of anyone else seeing them were zero.
As we slowed down to come alongside the stricken vessel, we could see four men on their knees with their heads to the deck in typical Muslim style thanks to Allah. The Mahseer was one ‘fish’ they would never forget catching.