by Norman Rawlinson
Some Memories Of Two Ships – Irisbank And Maplebank
A Bank Line ship appointment in the 1950s 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.
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