HAVING A DISTANT ASSOCIATION with someone who once served in the Burns Philp liner Malabar I found Andrew Bell’s feature about her in the June 2010 issue of Sea Breezes particularly interesting. Andrew does not, however, dwell on how she came to be wrecked and so here are a few details.
The direct cause of Malabar’s stranding was the incorrect response to a helm order and for an explanation of this we must look at how the man at the wheel received his orders during the early decades of the last century. It may sound incredible to modern seafarers but up until the year 1933 helm orders in English were given in the sense opposite to the direction in which one wished to turn. If you wanted to turn to port then you gave the order ‘Starboard the Wheel’ and vice versa. This pig headedness stemmed from the days of small sailing vessels steered by the tiller which is pushed in the opposite direction to way one wished to go.
The mv Malabar was under the command of an elderly relieving Master and was steaming up the New South Wales coast, a few miles South of Sydney Heads. The ship had a Malay crew whose language was unfamiliar to the Captain. Due to any anticipated language difficulties the duty officers customarily kept a close eye on the helmsman when orders were being given to him in English. At the time of the fateful order the captain and the helmsman were alone on the bridge. The other personnel having been sent below to get washed and dressed for arrival in port. On encountering restricted visibility and wishing to take the ship further off the land the Master ordered “Port five degrees”.
Unfortunately, the Malay helmsman not only turned the wheel to port instead of the starboard, but he kept on the five degrees of helm as per Naval fashion whereas in the Merchant Service it was normal practice to change course by the amount ordered. In this case ‘five degrees’ by compass. The Captain, who was intently peering into the fog, failed to see that the helmsman had put the wheel the wrong way, nor did he notice that the ship was slowly turning to port and not to starboard. At the time of hitting the rocks the ship had swung about 35 degrees off her former course, she was apparently doing around 13 knots when she struck. Too hard to ever get off again. Apart from the loss of a fine ship, the main human casualty was the cancellation of her Master’s Certificate.
16 Stableford Drive
Pye’s Pa, Tauranga
Bay of Plenty 3112, New Zealand
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