by Captain Sandy Kinghorn

By 1971 I had been in the Blue Star Line twenty years from cadet to first mate and was beginning to wonder if I would ever rise to the dizzy heights of command. Containerisation had arrived – two new box boats, Columbia and California Star would soon be coming into service and we knew that one box boat carried as much cargo over the year as four or five of the old conventional ships. So in future they wouldn’t need so many ships. So they wouldn’t need so many masters. Promotion was slowing although I knew I was near the top of the list.

Then on 15th April I was enjoying leave with my wife and family when the Marine Superintendent Captain Harry Windle telephoned and said they suddenly needed someone for the English Star, sailing from Tilbury for New Zealand in three days time. Would I break my leave to join her?

The English and I were old friends. I had been her third mate on three trips to South America in the nineteen fifties, her chief officer for two round-the-world voyages in the late sixties and knew her to be one of the company’s classier ships with twelve passengers.

As chief officer I knew she was a complex vessel, but a great one to sail in. When I said would be pleased to go, he added, “As master of course.” Wow!

She was not the usual job for a first trip captain but Captain Windle went on to say I would only be taking her to New Zealand where I’d transfer to the Caledonia Star, allowing Captain Jacky Calabrase to come home with the English.

The trip out was uneventful until we came to our West Indies bunkering port of Willemstad, in Curacao. Approaching that berth port side-to, you drop your starboard anchor and pay it out as you come alongside, to heave you off when you depart, without needing a tug to turn you round. Proceeding down the narrow channel called the Sint Anna Baai, the mate called me from forward to say that he couldn’t get the anchor up. Fifteen fathoms of chain and our starboard anchor were trailing along the bottom and when I told the Dutch pilot he said, “Never mind captain, plenty of deep water outside – no danger. Cheerio!” With which he left.

Instead of turning to starboard and heading for the Panama Canal, I headed straight out clear of the shipping lane and stopped the engine, then went forward with the chief engineer, to see why our anchor would not come up. With much backing and filling, suddenly a groan came from the windlass and the anchor came up a few feet, then stopped and we seemed to jerk upright as something heavy fell off it. Clearly it had caught something on the bottom. The bridge over the channel had recently fallen down and it looked as though we had picked some of it up. Wrapped round our anchor we had a great lump of steel-bound concrete, now clear of the water, by which time it was dark so I carried on towards Panama with our chunk of bridge still attached to the anchor.

This was a good start to my first trip in command!

We entered the canal in darkness so nobody noticed the chief engineer and his men freeing our iron and concrete piece of bridge and dropping it into the water, highly illegal there, but it was done and nobody else was any wiser. Our first New Zealand port was New Plymouth, North Island, and as Caledonia Star was due in Bluff, very south of South Island, in a few days time, I flew to Invercargill and watched her come alongside. Though smartly kept she was looking her age of nearly thirty years as she came slowly through the drizzle. Built as Empire Wisdom in 1942 by Greenock Dockyard to a Clan Line design she had been run by them until 1944 when the Ministry of War Transport reallocated her to Blue Star Line. Renamed Royal Star, a twin-screw steam ‘up-and-downer’ she had been built to burn either coal or oil but in 1962 was re-engined with brand new MAN diesels which gave her a new lease of life. Now renamed Caledonia Star, she was first placed on the U.K.- West Coast of North America service with Columbia Star, Catalina Star, Colorado Star and California Star but when this trade was taken over by the new container ships she was put on the Crusader Run, running between New Zealand and Japan. I would be taking her on this run until she was deemed ready for the breaker’s torch, which would be when the cost of keeping her would exceed estimated future earnings. Her crew were all British. Crusader Line was made up by Blue Star, Port Line, Shaw Savill and New Zealand Shipping Company to serve the Pacific Rim. Years before the European Common Market New Zealand was realising that she must widen her markets and Crusader would now take her produce to Japan, West Coast of South America and the West Coast of North America, bringing their exports back.

Caledonia Star was the only Blue Star vessel ever to carry this name, a link with her Scottish Clan Line heritage. A beautiful, strongly built ship, an interesting feature was her number 3 kingposts which were not in line athwartships as is normal, but a few feet out of line. By 1942 it was known that U-Boat captains would line their periscope sights on a ship’s kingposts when firing their torpedo. She was not named Empire Wisdom for nothing! She retained her steam steering gear, auxiliary generator and steam refrigeration plant – two marvellous engines with enormous flywheels which her previous refrigeration Engineer had named Esmerelda and Grizelda, on varnished name boards. They were probably the last of their kind still afloat. The galley stove and baker’s oven still burned coal and it was the cook’s job every morning to top up their bunkers. So we had three funnels – bakehouse, galley stove and main engine!

I had never visited Japan before. An old aunt of mine had been working in a Hong Kong bank when the Japanese invaded and spent the rest of her war in an internment camp. So I had no intention of being anything more than coldly polite to her captors. Our first port was Naha in Okinawa whence we sailed up the Sea of Japan to the tiny port of Otaru near Sapporo where the next Olympic ski trials were to take place. Ashore I found it a picturesque backdrop to The Mikado with little maids dressed for the part. I was made much of by the agents in this little Hokkaido port as it seemed my predecessors Captains Pitcher and Calabrase had made a good impression.

I had expected Japan to be much more advanced, but even in the cities I found the average citizen did not enjoy a high standard of living and few even owned a car. City dwellers occupied tiny flats and in the smaller ports many lived in cramped unpainted wooden houses with sliding doors and lacking piped water.

From Otaru we made a swift dash through the Tsugaro Strait aided by a four knot current. Forging along at fifteen knots we looked forward to seeing what next port Kushiro had to offer. In mid-afternoon, without warning there was a thundering crash and the ship stopped dead in her tracks, shuddering like a frightened horse. Funnel, masts and kingposts vibrated for a terrifying 15 seconds, then suddenly stopped and we sailed on serenely. Had we struck an upturned derelict fishing boat – there were no reefs nearby?

Tanks and bilges were sounded at once but we were taking no water and the vessel seemed none the worse for her experience. The mystery was solved that evening by the agent, Mi Nishifuji. “We had minor earth tremor today, nothing significant.”

With an average of 1,500 such tremors every year in Japan, ours was hardly worth mentioning. After we had completed formalities Mr Nishifuji asked if he may bring a few guests including his worship the mayor to see the ship tomorrow morning,. This particular week, it seemed, was devoted each year to ships and the sea. The mayoral party would visit each vessel in turn – we were the only British ship – and then attend a special church service. I pointed out that we had no suitable public rooms so the party would have to be entertained in my dayroom. “How many will come?” I asked as he was leaving. “About a dozen. You make speech, I translate. No problem. Thank you so much.” and with that he was gone.

The mate suggested dressing the ship overall in honour of the occasion, which, I knew from experience meant hard work, getting out all the flags, bending them onto a line stretched from forward to aft via the mastheads in a colourful ‘rainbow’ display. I appreciated his suggestion.

“What will you talk about ?” he asked a little anxiously as my disparaging views of Japan were well known aboard by now. Well, the war was a long time past, I told him, and if we British ostracised everyone we had fought against we’d do precious little international talking.

“Quite,” said the mate, leaving hurriedly. But the point was well made, what would I say?

Ten to eleven saw me pacing the deck in my best whites, nervously rehearsing my greeting and speech. The mayoral party was due to arrive at eleven and the Japanese have a name for punctuality. But the time came and went and by a quarter past I was wondering if they had found another, more interesting ship, one perhaps which could speak Japanese? Five minutes later a dense, laughing throng swept round the end of the wharfside shed, dozens of them, led by two pretty girls in pink, attended by press cameras. The mate brought them up to my room where I greeted each with my version of Japanese “good Morning.”

The prettier of the two girls, Miss Port of Kushiro, curtsied and presented me with a huge bouquet of flowers while her shyly smiling partner gave me a wood carving of a fisherman spearing a salmon. I was touched (and still have that carving in my study over forty years later.) Coffee appeared and the mayor made a short speech welcoming us to Kushiro whose people appreciated the cargo we had brought them, which helped the port to survive. He hoped we would enjoy our stay here, and trusted we should soon return in safety and happiness to our cherished families. I was impressed by the lack of cant in this elderly gentleman’s quiet voice.

in reply I told them that this was my first visit to Japan, that I had come full of prejudice as a result of the war, but that I had found my previous dislikes were dispelled by the kindness and friendliness I was being shown in their country. I added that we too were glad of the trade which brought us here and hoped that it would increase to benefit us all, bringing with it not only greater prosperity but a better understanding between our two peoples. It was hardly original but it seemed to go down well as they gave me a standing ovation. After more coffee and pleasantries they departed for the next ship.

Nishifuji returned that evening all smiles. Our visit, he said, had been the best of the lot. Of seven ships visited, only in the Caledonia Star had they been invited into the captain’s ‘own house.’ only I had made a speech and, without a doubt we had the best show of flags.

I felt we had done our bit for Anglo- Japanese relations and the agent thought so too, it seemed, as he insisted on taking me on a Japanese pub crawl. His director accompanied us and paid all the bills. We not only drank but ate in each house and I began to appreciate the considerable stamina needed to stay the pace at an international level. The director was a smartly suited gentleman in his late sixties, grey haired and dignified and he and I spent the late evening hours propping up a bar exchanging reminiscences. I found I was enjoying Japan after all.

From Kushiro we spent several days in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya and Kobe. One of our motormen was admitted to a Yokohama hospital run by American nuns. Each afternoon the agent drove me up the long hill to visit the patient and I generally walked back picking a different route each time. Thus I saw that while the main streets resembled main streets all over the world, the back streets a few yards away revealed another world.

Small, unpainted houses with high peaked roofs and curling tiles crouched alongside old warehouses and ancient temples. Harbours were full of ships and barges clustered around us at every port.

The barge crew consisted of a young man and his wife, often with a baby strapped to her back. When they were ready to go father went below to start the engine while mother and baby took the wheel. Japan’s coastal waters provide an excellent training ground for apprentice shipmasters like myself, particularly in port approaches. Collisions occurred daily, though not, I hasten to add, involving Caledonia Star. Fishermen abounded. At night the sea would be covered to the horizon with their bobbing white lights through which we picked our way with care. After a month around Japan it was a holiday to set off on the quiet run back to Auckland, even with the excitement of evading a typhoon. Our second run north, I was told, would probably be our last, before we went to Kaohsiung to be scrapped.

In Auckland we took aboard three horses, show jumpers, together with their Japanese trainer, Kikki, who would look after them on the voyage north, to Moji in South Japan. Several of us had birthdays on the way north and Kikki was surprised to see that on a British ship it is the birthday boy who buys the drinks. His own birthday arrived and he insisted on being one of the boys. When he had a few onboard his face became bright coppery red, but he took the resultant cracks about the rising Sun in good part.

This was the first ship I had been in where the crew as well as the officers had their own bar. Both ran well, without trouble and I was pleasantly surprised that rather than increasing drunkenness the bars abolished it. This was partly because it was accepted that the bar would be closed if trouble arose but mainly demonstrated that if chaps are trusted they will generally behave well. She was also the only ship I knew where the lads had organised themselves into long-running competitions of scrabble, draughts, dominoes, cribbage, chess and darts. The two teams, officers and gentlemen took turns at providing hospitality. Indeed, the social life aboard Caledonia Star was the most enlightened I had ever come across.

Finally I was ordered to Kaohsiung in Taiwan. As Communist China had just been admitted to the United Nations and feelings ran high across the Formosa Strait, I took the longer way round, to the east of the island, to avoid possible cross fire. The town was on a war footing. The harbour boom was guarded by a destroyer, the surrounding hills bristling with rocket launchers directed at the mainland. After several days at anchor off the entrance a pilot came out, accompanied by Customs officers, who proceeded to dump our medical supplies overboard – to prevent drug smuggling, they said. As the harbour boom closed behind us, and technicians began dismantling our radio equipment, I realised that this was the end. The lagoon where ships were broken up was a spooky nautical graveyard where dozens of ships lay at crazy angles in tiers, waiting to be torn apart by the burner’s torch and fed to the insatiable steelmills.

Far removed from most natural sources of iron ore, the Far East has long been interested in buying the world’s scrap. A ship is sold at so many U.S. dollars per ton of her light displacement. In other words if the ship without cargo, fuel or stores, were placed on a gigantic set of scales, her price amounted to that weight of steel. All else is of little importance, even brass and copper, and most of the woodwork is burned. Bonfires were dotted over a desolate no-man’s-land between the lagoon and the distant smoky chimneys of the steel mills. Here the people who broke up the ships lived in squalid shacks made of ships’ timber and canvas. There were no quays. a ship would be run ashore alongside the bank, the next ship would go alongside her, and so on, The ships near us had long been abandoned by their crews and ours was the only one showing lights at night, a cheerful spark of life in the land of the dead. We were run into the side of the Texaco Kenya, a tanker built in 1952, where a man and a boy were burning off the bridge deck and wheelhouse.

When they had cut round, a wire rope was hooked on and a derrick from a ship’s mast standing on the bank, powered by old ships’ winches nearby, swung the huge piece of ship onto a trailer which then took it to the mill. Dismemberment went on all the time, accidents were common and life was cheap. Fires broke out frequently in her cargo tanks and our crew became adept at extinguishing them before they spread to our ship. Nobody else seemed to care but we were still interested in preserving what was ours until the time came to leave. We lived aboard for eight days while the financial details were concluded in London.

On the ninth day the agent gave me the coded telegram which advised me that the deal had concluded and that I must now sign my ship over to her purchasers. At my desk for the last time I signed the required documents closely watched by the agent and the two Customs officers. At the last signature the Customs officers began stripping my bunk, stuffing the pillowcases with sheets and blankets, taking the curtains from the portholes as they went ashore. Such items were, it seemed, Customs perks. I had been favoured this morning by a rare visit from the agency manager himself who asked me eagerly, “Have you a screwdriver, Captain?”

A modest request, I thought, giving him one from my desk drawer. To my amazement he bounded up to the wheelhouse, laughing like a schoolboy, to return with our brassbound teak steering wheel under his arm.

our midday meal was simmering on the galley stove but by this time we could not get ashore quickly enough for scenes like those in my accommodation had been enacted all over the ship. I took down the Queen’s picture in the saloon and packed it in my case – at least they were not getting her! As we chugged away in the launch a curl of smoke drifted up from the galley funnel, and I noticed that several of my tough, hard bitten old shipmates had tears in their eyes.

I next visited Kaohsiung twenty years later to find no ships now being scrapped, fine quays alongside the lagoon, every feature of an efficient modern port properly in place. Shipbreaking had gone elsewhere.

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