From: Alan Blackwood, Troon

I thoroughly enjoyed John Lane’s subject and well detailed article which appears in the September 2016 issue. As an adjunct to it, I thought the undernoted may be of interest.

It is perhaps not generally known that in addition to the 10 units of the class over the four specified groupings constructed between 1934 and 1946 by Harland’s Belfast yard for Union Castle, as described in the article, a further two examples were constructed by the yard but for Ministry of War Transport ownership.

During the latter stages of WWII, a shortage of refrigerated ships had been identified by the MoWT and as a consequence, the decision was made to order two such vessels for their own account. For what must have been an economic expedient, Union Castle’s “R” Class design (utilising their Group 2 vessels’ overall dimensions of 474’02” x 63’04” x 35’00” and Group 4 deck layout and hull & superstructure configuration but with one additional superstructure deck to accommodate a significant number of passengers in wartime standard cabins) was chosen. In addition a single 8 cylinder 2 stroke double acting B&W type oil engine of H & W construction, similar to that applied to all 10 Union Castle examples, was chosen to be installed in each of the MoWT ships, but with a marginally reduced stroke and bore producing 7,500 shp., they returned a somewhat reduced maximum speed of 15.5 knots for a service speed of 14.5 knots, compared to the 8,000 shp of Union Castle’s fleet, returning an average of 17 knots (plus reserve).

The first of the pair was named Empire Abercorn when launched on 30th December 1944 and upon delivery on 30th June 1945 registered at Belfast to the Liner Division of the MoWT when allocated to the management of the New Zealand Shipping Company. The latter purchased the vessel on 26th June 1946 and on 26th November of that year she was registered at London under the name Rakaia. Little modification to her external appearance was effected as a consequence of her ownership change other than the addition of topmasts to her fore and mainmasts, later modification of her monkey island mounted war standard signal mast and similarly located lattice radar tower and scanner. Between March and June 1950 Rakaia was converted at Liverpool to operate for her owners as a Cadet Ship, with accommodation for 38 cadets, in place of her original 45 passenger capacity, but some eight years later, following delivery of the Company’s larger Clydebank built cadet ship Otaio, reduced to 28. On 28th December 1966 with the rest of the fleet, Rakaia’s registered ownership was transferred to the Federal Steam Navigation Company but remained under NZS management. She continued operations to the Antipodes from UK, other European and North American ports until 22nd August 1971 when sold to Hong Kong’s Lee Sing Shipbreaking Company, where her demolition began during November of that year.

The second such vessel ordered by the MoWT was launched at Belfast on 14th May 1945 when named Empire Clarendon and following her completion and delivery on 26th October 1945 was allocated to the management of P&O Steam Navigation Co. Ltd., London. After a year’s operation on routes to Australia, the vessel was acquired on 29th November 1946 by the Blue Star Line of London and on 10th February 1947 formally registered to the ownership of Group subsidiary company Frederick Leyland & Co. Ltd. of Liverpool when bare-boat chartered to Blue Star with the name Tuscan Star. On 25th August 1948 and in line with Blue Star’s naming policy to reflect the route(s) upon which a vessel has been (re)allocated, she was renamed Timaru Star for operation on Antipodean routes, but on occasion due to Australasian Conference restrictions, undertook sailings via South and East African ports. It was during 1949 that her elongated centre castle bridge deck war standard cabin accommodation for 75 passengers was removed, the port side of which was wholly converted for the carriage of cargo and other than that area adjacent to her foredeck located number three hold which was also cleared as additional cargo space, the small remaining starboard side capacity was put to storeroom use. Now with accommodation for only 12 First Class passengers located on the boat deck adjacent to the Master’s suite, number 5 and 6 lifeboats and their attendant gravity davits were excess to capacity and duly removed. Due to reported engine exhaust gas emission issues and of course the Company’s predilection for large (and in many instances oversize) funnels, the height of her own hitherto somewhat squat ‘appendage’ was duly increased. On 31st March 1950, her registered ownership was transferred to subsidiary company Lamport and Holt Line Ltd., but with name and bare-boat charter status to BSL unchanged. It was by all accounts during her early years with Blue Star and until around 1957, that this vessel was referred by both officers and crew as ‘The Company Yacht’, in all likelihood, as a consequence, in comparison with BSL’s usual such standards, of higher quality accommodation and amenities.

Due to a planned change during 1958 of her operation to the Pacific Northwest liner routes from Glasgow & Liverpool (acquired from the Glasgow based Donaldson Line during 1954) she was renamed California Star, with registered ownership transferred some 10 months later to that of Blue Star Line. In order to better serve cargo handling requirements and reduced duration at each port of call on the US and Canadian west coasts, an additional set of samson posts with paired derricks and attendant winches were installed immediately forward of the superstructure forepart to serve hold three aft and also at the after end of the superstructure to serve hold four forward. For the greater part of her career on Blue Star services this vessel retained her monkey island mounted wartime standard signals mast, but unlike sister Rakaia, remained sans topmasts. It was not however until a programme of installation was initiated by the Company around late 1965 that together with a number of other units of the fleet hitherto without radar, California Star was finally furnished with such equipment, with scanner seemingly set atop her duly modified original signals mast, all no doubt much to the satisfaction and relief of her Masters, deck officers, sea, channel, river and harbour pilots thereafter!

California Star was laid up on the Blackwater for a period from March 1967. Following a positioning voyage from Sydney to Hong Kong during February 1968 for what became a failed sale for conversion to a fish factory ship and subsequent further failed transaction with Taiwanese ship breakers, she returned to her owners, but finally arrived at Kaohsiung on 21st April 1969 for demolition by Tsuan Yau Steel & Ironworks Co. commencing on the 20th of the following month.

It was between the latter part of 1963 and early 1964 that as a deck cadet, I undertook two thoroughly enjoyable but nevertheless hard worked round voyages to the Pacific Northwest aboard California Star and with the good fortune of being a part of a highly competent, hard working and congenial crew, I continue to engender fond memories of a particularly happy ship. A lasting memory however of California Star must surely be her propensity to suffer usually middle-of-the night engine stoppages, invariably due to scavenge fires – seemingly an unfortunate characteristic of her double acting machinery. Indeed many many years later following personal contact with the author and ex Third Engineer of sistership Rakaia, David Carpenter, I was to read in his book “Below the Waterline” his at times harrowing accounts of similar fires aboard his ship! I can only imagine that the Union Castle ‘R’ Class ships might just have suffered similar misfortunes from time to time.

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