The last voyage of the Pundua – part one

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MV Pundua – ordered by the M.O.W.T (Ministry of War for Transport) in 1945, but was delivered to British India Steam Navigation Co. when launched.
The Company had 105 ships at the outbreak of WW2, and during the war they lost 51 vessels due to enemy action.

They also managed 72 other vessels, and of these 16 were lost. In all 1083 lives were lost.

Oddly enough the town of Pundua is about 160 kms by road, from the town of Bankura, which was the name of my previous ship.

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The symbol of BI, which could be seen on the bow of the cargo ships and under the bridge on the passenger ships.

I signed on Pundua on Tuesday the 29th August. She was a joy of a ship – she didn’t have any air condition, and my cabin was a little bigger than a match box. The cabin contained a small washbasin, a bunk, a small wardrobe, a tiny desk & chair and a couch.
The temperature in the cabin never went below 32 c (90 F). I shared my domain with a few thousand insects – and just before going to sleep I’d spray the cockroaches favourite areas in the cabin, in the hope of getting to sleep before they found me, but I think they thrived on the insect repellent.

The news of the day was that we were to leave as much of our personal gear as possible in Bombay, as the ship was to be sold for scrap when we reached Japan, and everyone would be flown back to Bombay.

There were nine of us who were British, the captain first, second and third mate, chief engineer and three watch keeping engineers, and a radio operator. The deck and engine room crew and stewards were either from India, Pakistan or east Asia.

All of the officers had experienced various great plans of those who controlled our lives, but lived ashore, so I don’t think any of us left any of our gear in Bombay.

We worked cargo for the rest of the week, 6 on 6 off, (without overtime pay), and sailed on Monday 4th September for Cochin (now called Kochi) , which is south of Bombay, but on the same west coast of India.

The trip south was quiet pleasant, because our top speed was 10 kts (11.5 mph or 18.5 km/h), what ever speed you measure it in, we were SLOW.
She was a three cylinder, two stroke single acting 516 NHP , (normal horse power) and her top speed, when she was new, was 12 kts.

BI ships were known as ‘good feeders’ but Pundua fell short of this title – little things annoyed us such as the inability to toast bread, we were told not to drink the water from the tap, but only from a special water tank set aside for human consumption, the eggs tasted ‘odd’, regardless as to how they were cooked, and the potatoes also had a strange taste, and the tomatoes tasty ‘dusty’ – how can a tomato taste ‘dusty’, but they did.
Overall the food was nowhere near the normal BI high standard.

Pundua was a tramp ship of the ‘old school’and she knew it . . . .fortunately all of the officers got on well together, so she might have been a tramp, but she was a happy tramp.

We arrived off Cochin on the evening of the 6th September and anchored off and waited to go alongside
When we moved alongside the single pier on the 10 th September, we waited to work cargo.
We were told that it might be tomorrow – but the following day the whole of the State  Kerala went on strike (Cochin is in Kerala).
The strikers included all the dock workers, all the government staff, including the police & fire brigade. The political leader of the State was a communist, as were most of the union leaders. This is a fact, not my opinion.
We were advised not to go ashore, so we posted a gangway watch – and we raised our gangway just too high to reach without a ladder – we didn’t want any surprises.

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Illustration of a gangway too high to reach from the wharf, this was not uncommon in certain ports, particularly at night when cargo work had stopped.

With all the on / off problems we were stuck in Cochin until the 14th September, but we did have a small ‘drama’.

The labour had returned to work and I was duty officer when I saw some thing in the water. At first I thought it was some of our cargo that had been mishandled and fallen in to the water, until I looked closer, only to see it was a dead body, which had been in the water for sometime as it was blotted.
The body had drifted between the ship and the shore, so I called to the police on the wharf to take the body away.
The policeman stood and watched the body as it bounced off the ship and then off the pier. Eventually the corpse was lassoed around its ankle and tied to the end of the wharf so that it couldn’t float away.

This incident happened around 10.00 am, but the body was not removed from the water until later afternoon.

While we were alongside the ship was invited to play soccer against a local team, and I was roped in as part of the ship’s team.
My sum knowledge of soccer can be written on the back of a stamp, so I don’t think I was very much help to the team. I did manage to run around a bit, enough that it took me about two days to stop aching, I didn’t realise that 90 minutes could be so long.
I cannot remember if I even managed to kick the ball!

On completion of the cargo work we sailed for Tuticorin, which is on the southern tip of India, the land just south of Tuticorin is Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka). Once again we anchored off and worked cargo in to barges.

We sailed south around Ceylon and then headed east for Penang. I was on the ‘graveyard watch’- noon to 4 pm, and midnight to 4.00 am.
There is something magical about being on watch at 2.00 am in the tropics. Everyone is asleep (except for the helmsman and the f’xle lookout) and the only noise is the distant thump, thump of the ship’s engine and the sound of water gurgling down the side of the ship as she pushed her way across the ocean.

After one watch I’d gone to bed around 5.00 am and all was well with the world, until I woke around 7.30 am to silence. We’d broken down in the Bay of Bengal.

We estimated that the island of Sumatra was on our starboard side about 500 miles away (800 km). At that time we didn’t have the benefit of satellite navigation, and the mobile phone hadn’t been invented.
We worked our position out in much the same way as the sailors in the early 1800’s, we took a sight of the sun at noon, and this gave us our latitude, and thanks to John Harrison  (1693 – 1776) we knew our longitude.

Fortunately the breakdown only lasted an hour, after which it was full steam to Penang, well full steam for us was still ten knots.

Two days of heavy rain, leaking windows, along with leaks in the deckhead (ceiling) of my cabin soaked my bunk, so I had to sleep on the couch, with my legs hanging over the end, which guaranteed morning cramps.
Once the sun came out the bedding , mattress etc soon ‘steamed’ off before drying completely. The joys of a tramp ship.

Arrival in Penang has always been a joy for me – there is a world famous bar there called the Hong Kong Bar and they do say that it you sit there long enough you’ll meet someone you know.

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Chulia St (now known as Lebuh Chulia)

The main change in the above photograph, which I took in 2014, compared to my various visits in the 1960’s is the lack of rickshaws & tri-shaws – the cars are too modern, but the buildings are original. The Hong Kong Bar is down the road on the right.

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Old Penang

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All my yesterdays :- o)

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Plaques from various ship, army units, RAAF squadrons, lifebelts from various merchant ships, the place was a mecca for servicemen and sailors – it was purely a bar, not a pick up joint for girls.

The same Chinese family had owned the bar since the mid nineteen fifties and they used to collect photographs of their customers, sober or drunk.
When visiting this bar, if you were on your own, you would soon be in conversation with someone that knew someone that you knew – six degrees of separation well before it became popular.

Unfortunately the bar suffered a fire in the 1970’s, but they managed to save quite a few pieces of memorabilia – except for some of the photograph albums of the late fifties and through the sixties – my time.

I visited the bar in 2014 and asked if they still had the photographs – the owner was happy to drag out what he had, but unfortunately I was unable to find the 1960’s period due to the fire, nor did I recognise anyone in the hundreds of photographs that I scanned on the off chance.

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If you visit the bar today the rescued crests of the servicemen of yesterday, are still there, but damaged by fire.

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Before the fire the owner had a wall of money – currency notes from every corner of the world – all stuck on the wall by servicemen and merchant seamen, . . .he has started again, but the number of seamen is well down on what there used to be – containerisation does not require the same numbers of sailors or the same length of time in port. To be blunt, the romance of running a way to sea has faded in to history.

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When I visited the Hong Kong Bar in 2014 I was not the only one on a memory trip.
An Australian ex-serviceman and his wife, were also there to do the same thing that I was about to do – lean on the bar and drink in the atmosphere over a glass of Tiger beer.

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When I saw the gentleman in the yellow shirt I had the feeling of deja vue, because I thought I recognised him from the 60’s. After a short conversation I realised that this gentleman was the son of the man that I knew, who was the original owner.
                                                             Tempus fugit.

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When I was checking a few things on-line for this post, I came across the above, which is an advert to build a model tramp ship called Pundua, and the plans include all the pieces required to produce a radio controlled vessel.
They also have Blue Funnel ships, and other ‘old’ British cargo vessels, including  MV Uganda (another BI ship).

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The finished model  & the web link https://www.vintagemodelplans.com/

 

 

 

The silver grey sea

In mid 1962, after two years at HMS Conway, I graduated. British India Steam Navigation Company, also known simply as BI, accepted me in August, as an indentured cadet (apprentice).

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Once I’d been accepted I applied for a British Seaman’s Card and a Discharge Book

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I had the paperwork to prove that I was a sailor, but I’d never been to sea.

In mid September I was order to join the tanker, Ellenga, on the 12th October, which was moored in the River Fal, just off the town of Falmouth. The vessel had been in dry dock and was about to sail for the Persian Gulf for a cargo of oil. For someone who didn’t have any intention of going abroad I was doing a lousy job of staying in England.

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This is Ellenga  37,420 dwt built 1960 – the picture was not taken in the River Fal

  On joining I became one of four cadets, and the other first trip cadet turned out to have been in my class at HMS Conway! Seeing each other helped us to fit in to our new life. Each cadet had his own cabin, and we all shared a Goanese steward who looked after our requirements. I didn’t have any idea before I joined that a lowly cadet would be entitled to the services of a steward, and we had a wine account!
Later I realised how lucky I was to join B.I.S.N.C. A Scotsman, William Mackinnon in 1856, had started the Company, and he set certain standards for the benefit of the officers and crew; conversely he expected a high standard of service from his employees. B.I.S.N.C. was a proud company and highly regarded by both officers and crew. Many of the crew had spent their whole life in the service of the Company, and they considered it a great honour to be in the Company’s employ.

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British India Steam Nav Co’s first ship – 500 gt built 1856

We sailed early afternoon, and as a first trip cadet I was ordered to the bridge and told to watch and observe and not to get under anybody’s feet. This gave me the opportunity to see the British coastline sink lower and lower in to the silver-grey sea, while on our port side the haze of the French coast could just be seen on the horizon. Eventually, both the British and French coast disappeared, leaving us all alone in the Atlantic Ocean heading for the gateway to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar, and then on to the Suez Canal.

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I was on the Ellenga for about nine months and all of the cadets worked alongside the crew, because hopefully one day we would be watch-keeping officers and we would be expected to know how many men would be required to do a certain job, and how long is would take.
malimIn addition, we were expected to learn Hindi, because that was the language that the crew understood. Many of the crew spoke some English, because they had worked for the Company all of their working lives, but as an officer one was expected to speak Hindi. I still have my Malim Sahib’s Hindustani a book,  which includes all nautical terms and words in common use both ashore and afloat, quoted from the front cover. (Malim Sahib = Ship’s officer).

I only wish I’d spent more time reading this book.

When I left home my father warned me about being sent for a ‘long weight’ or a ‘bucket full of steam’, so I was well aware of the tricks played by older hands.
Not long after joining I was told by the First Officer to get the Cassab from the forecastle store. Remembering Dad’s warning I made my way to the store and lay down on a coil of rope to have a doze. I figured I’d report back in about twenty minutes.
I dozed for a few minutes when suddenly the daylight from the doorway was blocked, and I rolled over to see why. It was the First Officer, and he was not at all happy with this first tripper. It was then that I was told in no uncertain terms that Cassab was Hindi for storekeeper, not some fictional item!

My life as a first trip cadet became a mixture of boredom and extreme interest. We were expected to learn the layout of all the deck pipes that carried the cargo oil, including the cross over values to switch oil from one tank to another and the position of the firefighting equipment.
On the other hand we had to take part in chipping paint off the rusted areas of the deck and bulkheads using a small hand held bronze hammer. We used bronze hammers because they were made from non-ferrous metal and would not cause a spark.

hammerThe blisters were free – a bronze chipping hammer circ 1962.

A spark on a tanker was the last thing anybody wanted, because it could ignite the gas that seeped on to the deck from the crude oil. We used to receive regular warnings of tankers in distress due to gas igniting. I don’t remember ever reading that the damaged vessel survived, the report usually reported that the tanker had blown up due to gas ignition. The reports made comforting reading for those of us chipping away.
Once the bare metal had been exposed we would paint it with red lead paint (in today’s world, H&S would have a fit). After the red lead had dried, we used grey undercoat followed by the white topcoat. A 30,000 ton ship has a lot of metal to chip by hand. Many of the later ships in which I sailed the cadets and crew used an electric chipper that had several heads spinning at high speed, so making it easier to clean a large area quickly, but those vessels were not covered in gas.
The bane of using the non-ferrous hammer was that it quickly became blunt and required more force to belt the rust away so as to expose the metal deck. It was hot sweaty work in a Persian Gulf summer.

In our free time we studied, via correspondence courses, for our examinations to become deck officers.

‘Ellenga’ took me to some strange places. Our first port of call was Port Said as we transited the Suez Canal. We didn’t stay long in Port Said, just a few hours while the authorities created a convoy to transit the canal. ellenga-suez-canThe canal was only wide enough for vessels to go one way, so a group of vessels will travel southbound to the Bitter Lakes, or a ‘cutting’ where the southbound convoy can stop and allow the northbound convoy to pass. While transiting the canal local ‘bum’ boats came along side, and those that had the company contract would hitch a ride through the canal; so that when we reached the ‘cutting’ they would carry our mooring lines ashore to bollards. If we passed the cutting we would anchor in the Bitter Lakes. Before the canal was built there were salt valleys in the area, which became flooded after the canal was opened; hence the name of Bitter Lakes.

Mixed with the crew of the ‘bum’ boats we often had trinket sellers and entertainers.

port_said_bum_boatsThe sellers sold souvenirs, mainly to passengers on passenger ships, rather than the crew of tankers. Regardless, once we knew these entertainers / sellers would be aboard we locked everything down – cabin doors, windows, doors to the accommodation and any loose pieces of equipment belonging to the ship. We never locked our cabins at sea, but we did when ‘strangers’ were on board.

During my first trip through the Canal I was introduced to the Gully Gully man, who was an outstanding conjuror. On the main main deck he had an endless supply of day old chicks, and he could make them appear and disappear, and we (cadets) were only a few feet away from him. We couldn’t see how his tricks were done. He made the chicks appear out of thin air or our shirt pockets; he was very good and would have been top act for a TV show. We paid him as one would pay a street entertainer and when he had covered all of the officers and crew, and considered that he had made enough for the day, he shinned over the side and dropped in to a small riverboat that was following us.

poolOnce we crossed in to the tropics the small pool that we had on the tanker came in to its own. It was the cadets’ job to pump out the water each day around 6.30 to 7.00 am and refill with fresh seawater. Many times we noticed flying fish flying-fish in the pool; they had ‘flown’ in during the night, perhaps attracted to the deck lights. We would catch the fish as the pool’s water level dropped and keep them in a bucket of sea water. Once we had them all we would present them to either the deck crew or the Chinese ‘Johns’. The Chinese ‘Johns’ where Hong Kong Chinese (Cantonese was their language) and they were either engine room fitters or the carpenter. We cadets had more to do with the carpenter than the engine room fitters.
I don’t know why the Chinese crew members were called ‘Johns’, but perhaps it was due to the first Chinese person to take our British nationality in 1805, was called John Anthony.
The link for John Anthony makes interesting reading.

Kuwait (see picture below) is an oil rich kingdom that has its main city named after the country, but we were not to berth at the main city of Kuwait, but Mina Al Ahmadi the oil port a few miles outside the city. kuwaitAt that time they were separate towns, but I think that Kuwait city has expanded so much as to combine Mina as an outer suburb today. Once along side (an oil jetty) we were told that we were not allowed outside of the refinery, and that the perimeters was guarded by armed guards, and a metal fence with barbed wire on the top.Loading 30,000 tons of oil would not take long; perhaps twelve to fifteen hours and the cadets had the job of supervising the loading under the officer of the day. If we had time we would be allowed to visit the ‘canteen’ within the confines of the refinery. This canteen was a corrugated metal building and was restricted to foreign crews only.
Since joining the tanker I’d learned how to smoke and drink beer (I was a fast learner). The cost of a carton of two hundred cigarettes on the ship was eleven shilling and four pence (tax free of course) BUT the cost of the same carton of cigarettes in the Mina ‘canteen’ was seven shillings and six pence, a huge saving considering that I was paid four pound two shilling and six pence a week, for an eighty four hour week – we were not paid overtime.
To say that the purser was upset when we returned to the ship with a number of cartons of cigarettes would be an understatement.

The cost of a bottle of gin on the ship was about eleven shillings, and in the Mina canteen it was seven shilling. Fortunately for the purser, I didn’t like gin.

Inside the canteen it was all plastic chairs and Formica tabletops, everything was utilitarian, because nobody expected sailors to have any taste or finesse. I suppose we didn’t do our selves any favours because most evenings there were fights between different nationalities. Some would say that this was the only way tanker men could let off steam. They were not allowed in to the city, they would not see their wives or girlfriends for months on end and every port they visited was miles away from the population due to the risk of explosion or fire from the cargo that they carried.

When a tanker man could no longer stand the smell of crude oil, or handle the working conditions, he would leave, and his mates would say he had ‘tankeritous’ as if it was a disease.

From my position as a first tripper, I accept that we worked for long hours and didn’t get Sunday off every week. It was the life style of being at sea at that time. For years after leaving the sea, if I suffered from a heavy cough I could taste the crude oil. Heaven knows what it has done to my lungs.

From Mina we sailed for five days to Little Aden, which was across the bay from Aden, in what today is known as the Yemen. In 1962 Aden and the surrounding area was still under British control. The Crater District of Aden town is situated in a crater of an ancient volcano. This area was the main business area and to walk around for a spot of sight seeing was exhausting in the heat. I doubt that Aden will ever become a ‘must see’ place on anyone’s bucket list, but then I thought the same thing about Dubai and Muscat, and loved visiting both places earlier this year.
My visit to Aden town was some months in the future when we anchored off Aden to change deck crews and boiler clean. Once again we ‘tankermen’ could not leave the refinery area of Little Aden.
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After discharging our cargo it was five days sailing back to Mina during which time we cadets had the unenviable task of supervising the cleaning of all the used tanks – tank cleaning, what a joy, six hours on, six hours off, day after day. Two cadets per shift with four or five crew members, it was hard dirty work.

I am second from the left – Health & Safety, what’s that when tank cleaning in 1962. To be fair we were supposed to wear breathing apparatus when we were fifty feet (15.5 mtrs) down a crude oil tank, but it was virtually impossible to climb down the vertical ladders while wearing the equipment, and to work when at the bottom. In the heat of the Persian Gulf we wore as little as possible. We didn’t work down the tank for too long, because the fumes would make one light headed (similar feeling as if one was a little drunk) and one’s judgment could be affected, and we still had to climb the fifty-foot vertical ladder to the surface.
There was one tradition that we all enjoyed on a daily basis, which was the consumption of fresh lime juice at 11.00 am. limesThis tradition was an obvious a throwback to the avoidance of scurvy when at sea, due to the use of salt as a preservative, before refrigeration, and the lack of vitamin ‘C’ because they didn’t have the ability to store for long periods fresh fruit and vegetables. It was because of this use of lime juice, during sailing ship days, that American sailors nick named British sailors ‘Limeys.’

In addition to being a welcome break from work, it also quenched our thirst. The odd thing about this tradition was that we used the lime juice to help us consume two large salt tablets!
We had to be careful that we replaced the salt lost due to excessive sweating when tank cleaning. Ironic that we used yesterday’s preventative solution to help us prevent a related problem two hundred years later.