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(In event order)

December 2012
January 2012
September 2011
April 2010
April 2007
October 2003
February 1982
April 1976

2007 - 77 Photographs
2008 - 101 Photographs
2009 - 124 Photographs
2010 - 118 Photographs
2011 - 100 Photographs
2012 - 97 Photographs




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Just as a change from what I usually write in this space, and as a tiny self indulgence, this month's feature is a short story I wrote for the Marine Society short story competition. It won and was also awarded "Best in Show". The story subsequently appeared in the Marine Society magazine, but, to my mind WAS completely spoilt by inappropriate cartoon style illustrations.

It was inspired by a tale related to me in a pub by the former Second Mate of a Ben Line steamer which had been run up the beach in Taiwan. Starting with a question- what happens next?

Before he got to the bridge the Captain could smell the heat of the Indian morning. The odour was a mixture of dried wood, tar, diesel oil and very faintly overlaying it all, the musky smell of tropical blossoms. 

Closer to the land the smell might be obscured by the overwhelming stench of a million people living in close proximity to each other. 

On the bridge wing the mate leant on the dodger studying the coast through the mist. He was a young man, tall with a well trimmed dark beard and the studious air of one who thinks before he acts. He was a good mate who could be trusted to look after the ship, the company and if needs be, the Captain. 

The Captain knew that the Mate had a wife and two young children back in Southampton, and at the end of this day he would be on his way home to join them. Maybe after that he would have a command. Something more modern than the Eastern Queen. 

"Shall I call the rest of the boys now?", asked the Mate. 

"How far?" queried the Captain. 

"About ten miles".  

"OK give them a few more minutes, and go down yourself for a coffee. I’ll look after things here." 

"Are you sure sir", asked the Mate. The Captain had never, in the years he had known him, ever taken a watch or even part of one. 

“Yes of course” replied the Captain “Go on”. 

So the old man was alone on the bridge of his ship, for the first time since he had been mate of the Eastern Queen. It seemed so long ago. The ship had been new and he had been a young man. The autopilot clicked away, guiding the ship on a straight course, but soon the Indian quartermaster would come up and take over, twirling the brass and mahogany wheel with the confidence derived from years of practice. But now the Captain was by himself. 

The pine deck planking was still white, thanks to him, scrubbed weekly by the bosun’s squad. It cost some overtime, so the Superintendents were always moaning but what the hell. The deck boys polished the brass daily so that their dark faces could be seen in the shine of the bell. The name was worn, but not polished out. “EASTERN QUEEN 1947”. 

The captain looked at his own face, reflected in the shining metal. He was grey, old and tired. He would be going home after today. Was it going home? He had a house and a wife and a son and a daughter, adults now living in the south. Had he ever had a home? Had they ever been his family? He thought not. The wife was part of that exuberance of youth when it seemed that there could be no such thing as failure. He’d been taking his Mate’s ticket and he’d met her. They had married and then he had gone back to sea, back to months on the bridge of a ship, not the Eastern Queen, but a ship. 

He had come home occasionally . They had had children, but his wife had been self sufficient. She had brought up the kids in a nice detached house in Washington – the one near Newcastle. He had sent home the money. On his brief periods of leave they had got on. They had managed. He had no idea how it would be now, and at that instant the years seemed to stretch out before him like a dusty road.  

And then there was the girl in Vang Tuo. He had no idea what he should think about her. She seemed to like him, but how could he really tell. Vietnam was a poor country where some young women found an easy way to keep food on their tables and there was little doubt that she was one of those. But he liked her and he judged her to be honest  as long as honesty did not conflict with her need to survive. He had only a hazy idea how their relationship had started.  

Lately the Eastern Queen had been employed carrying oilfield equipment from Singapore to Vietnam, mainly because of her fifty ton derrick, and it was this trade which had extended her life by a couple of years. The Vietnamese ports were just like the places he had visited as a young man. In the river at Saigon – no Ho Chi Min City – he reminded himself, the ships lay at buoys in the river with clusters of barges tied up alongside just like they had in the old days in every port in the Far East.  

In Vang Tao the ship could tie up alongside. The oil port was a vast area of quayside more or less covered with large lumps of metal in various states of corrosion, but from the quayside it was only a short walk to the main street and the bars. And on a hot summer afternoon the captain had walked ashore. 

It had always been his habit to collect local crafts. Back in Washington his study was full of ebony masks from Africa, reindeer skins from Finland, opium pipes from China and silk painting from Hong Kong. Larger items, including lacquered chests and a wonderful antique Chinese tallboy had strayed out into other areas of the house. He had found that Vietnam was a treasure house, full of beautiful lacquer work, superb copies of western paintings and limitless blue porcelain. 

He was making his way towards a pottery store when he was surrounded by a number of beggars all exhibiting their wounds and deformities. He was beginning to panic when a voice rang out behind him and magically the beggars moved away and gave him space. He turned to find that the voice belonged to a young woman who was sitting at a table outside a typical Vang Tao bar. It had an open shop front with a couple of tables and a fridge at the back stocked with beer and Coke. "Big bottle of Tigger Here" said a chalked sign outside. 

The girl had smiled at him and beckoned for him to sit down. Next thing he knew she was serving him with a bottle of Tiger beer, first placing a glass on the table which was so cold that the condensation on it appeared to be frosting. She had seated herself opposite him, unselfconsciously studying him as he sipped the beer. That had been the beginning.   

The Captain strode out onto the port bridge wing and looked shoreward. He could see the distant outline of the mosques and minarets of the city, and the cranes of the port, some of them moving slowly as the early shifts got to work, discharging cars and heavy machinery, loading jute, cotton and Indian finished goods. And the container gantries servicing ships which would dwarf the Eastern Queen. 

The ship raced northward on the flood tide, towards the beach and its fate. 

He had found himself in conversation with the girl, who was, he knew, young enough to be his daughter. She had a child herself. A small boy could be seen at the back of the bar trying to dismantle one of the chairs. She spoke surprisingly good English, but the Captain did not find this unusual. In all the ports of the world, pimps and whores and taxi drivers spoke English. 

She said that her father had been executed by the North Vietnamese after the American had gone. She said that she was married but that her husband had left soon after her son had been born, and had not returned.

 The Captain had been enchanted by her. 

Over to port the Captain could see the beach and on it the remains of a hundred ships. Up ahead was the pilot boat. The pilot would know where the Eastern Queen was to be beached.  

He went to the autopilot, narrowing his eyes to see the numbers on the dials as he adjusted the course. The bow swung in response until the pilot boat was ahead. 

Out of habit the Captain strode out to the  bridge wing and stood looking aft. The wake curved in response to his alteration, a white froth on an otherwise dark blue sea. The engine beat out a rhythm which had become the rhythm of his life. The old Doxford still giving good service, still original in nearly all respects, but now almost impossible to keep going due to shortage of spares. The Doxford yard had closed many years ago. 

What was it all for, this life? Surely not to give all these years of service to a ship-owner, and to be repaid by being sent to the breakers with his ship. His communications with the managing director had been forwarded to the personnel department. Some jumped up little snot-nose had written back to him.  

The management were sorry to inform him that there would be no other position available in the company. No other command. They thanked him for his help and hoped that he would enjoy his retirement. So there it was. At the end of this day both he and his ship would have been sent to the breakers.

Of course it was those things. Those container ships. Every single one replaced ten Eastern Queens. So no matter how sound the ship they were just sent to the scrap heap The Eastern Queen with its big dirty holds, its old long stroke diesel and its requirement for forty people to keep it going instead of eight, was just over the hill. 

He patted the white pine rail. “Well you and me both old lady”. The big Doxford pounded on.

 But the girl in Vang Tao. She thought he would be returning to see her, with gifts and money. They had a relationship. They had slept together in the small room in which she lived at the back of the bar. The Captain had been surprised, by both her interest and his own enthusiasm.  

He  had helped her improve the bar. They had chosen a spot on the wall where they would hang the clock from the Eastern Queen, but now it all seemed so foolish. He was an old man and they had little in common. She was just taking him for what she could get. It was one thing to visit the bar when he was returning safely to his ship, but another to become part of the scenery. After forty years in one protected environment or another he had a sudden feeling of insecurity. He tried to imagine himself living in Vang Tao. There were old French colonial villas in the hills above the town that you could buy for a song. He had visited one once with her. Even though it had been run down the old place exuded a charm which he had been almost unable to resist. The teak boards, the old tiles and the geckos on the walls, clicking and whirring like run down clockwork, and outside the remains of a beautiful tropical garden. He had imagined himself out there, shaded from the sun by a broad brimmed Vietnamese hat, restoring it to its former glory. But no. It was not for him. He would be better off back in Washington.   

The captain rang half ahead on the engine telegraph, swinging the big handle back and forward to make sure that the bell rang below. It was answered by the engineers, the small pointer behind the glass aligning itself with the larger pointer on the outside. He had told the pilot that he and he alone would give the orders. It would be the pilot's job to indicate the space on the shore where the ship was to be beached.  

The engine picked up speed. The Eastern Queen was now moving visibly towards the shore. The Captain studied the coast through the binoculars and made sure he was on the right course. Behind him the mate re-appeared, and the third mate and then the apprentice. They all stood respectfully at the back of the wheel house. 

"The other officers have asked if they can come up to the bridge sir" said the mate.

 The Captain was silent for a moment . "Yes, OK tell them they can come up to the port wing – using the outside ladder mind, and tell them not to get in my way. "Full ahead Third Mate". 

The Third Mate grasped the handle of the telegraph and swung it back and forward against the stop. 

The ship picked up speed again and soon she was travelling at her full fourteen knots, causing a stiff breeze to ruffle the little hair that remained between the assembled company on the port bridge wing. 

The captain was now gazing intently through the binoculars. He could see a line of hulls looming out of the mist, all of them with their sterns pointing out to sea and all of them with their bows out of the water. This was the Alang breakers beach.  

The tide had slackened now and the Eastern Queen would be run aground right on high water. There were forty thousand people dismantling ships on this beach, and within days some of them would board and start work. They would begin with the easy stuff and finally cut the hull into sections and drag them into the sand dunes. There the steel would be transformed into re-inforcing bars in primitive rolling mills. 

"Give her a double ring" instructed the captain and the Third Mate swung the telegraph so that he felt that the handle might come off in his hand. 

The pace of the engine increased and black smoke began to trail astern. The assembled company now saw that the hulls were in various states of distress many of them being reduced to no more than steel skeletons, and they saw that there was a space which might be just the right size of the Eastern Queen. 

Without saying anything the captain moved to the front of the bridge and held onto the rail.  The group of men on the wing did the same, and the Eastern Queen steamed on. 

The pilot gave subdued instructions for minor alterations of course to the helmsman who spun the wheel in response. The men on the bridge were stunned into silence by the sight before them. To port and starboard as far as the eye could see the beach had been turned into a nightmare landscape of dismembered rusting hulks and above the noise of the Doxford they could hear the shouts of the breakers crews, the rasp of the metal cutters and the crash of steel on steel.   

It seemed that an eternity passed before the bow touched the sand, and then it was all over in a moment. With a great sliding crash the forecastle rose towards the sky and the ship ground to a halt, the engine pounding away.  

"Stop engines", shouted the captain.

 The Third Mate swung the telegraph handle to the upright position.

 The engine stopped. There was silence.

 "Well" said the Third Mate, "I suppose that's it then".

 "Well I suppose it is" said the Captain.

 He thought about the packed suitcase on his daybed and the box containing the lacquer and the blue pottery. He wondered if there would be room for it in his study back in Washington. Now his shopping trips would now be of a more mundane nature. The Metro Centre was the north-east's ultimate shopping mall with its chain stores, its sports shops and its bingo halls. And the shops in Newcastle city centre. He thought of the restaurant on the top floor of Binn's department store where captain's wives maintained strict segregation from the wives of other seafarers. Would he be expected to sit with them?  

He thought of the old colonial villa on the hill above Vang Tuo, with its dark polished teak floors, empty but for the geckos, and the old tropical garden which he knew he was meant to restore. There he would have no need of any reminders of his voyages. He thought of the young woman and the bar, and the hot dusty street. The Captain sighed and walked into the chartroom. He looked back to where the Third Mate was just closing the movement book. 

"Third Mate, get those charts put away"  he said,  "Oh. And …bring that bridge clock down to my cabin before you sign off".




Deepwater Horizon -The President's Report
Deepwater Horizon - The Progess of the Event

The KULLUK Grounding
The Costa Concordia Report
The Costa Concordia Grounding
The Elgin Gas Leak
The Loss of the Normand Rough
The Bourbon Dolphin Accident
The Loss of the Stevns Power
Another Marine Disaster
Something About the P36
The Cormorant Alpha Accident
The Ocean Ranger Disaster
The Loss of the Ocean Express

The Life of the Oil Mariner
Offshore Technology and the Kursk
The Sovereign Explorer and the Black Marlin

Safety Case and SEMS
Practical Safety Case Development
Preventing Fires and Explosions Offshore
The ALARP Demonstration
PFEER, DCR and Verification
PFEER and the Dacon Scoop
Human Error and Heavy Weather Damage
Lifeboats & Offshore Installations
More about PFEER
The Offshore Safety Regime - Fit for the Next Decade
The Safety Case and its Future
Collision Risk Management
Shuttle Tanker Collisions
A Good Prospect of Recovery

The History of the UT 704
The Peterhead Connection
Goodbye Kiss
Uses for New Ships
Supporting Deepwater Drilling
Jack-up Moving - An Overview
Seismic Surveying
Breaking the Ice
Tank Cleaning and the Environment
More about Mud Tank Cleaning
Tank Cleaning in 2004
Glossary of Terms

An Unusual Investigation
Gaia and Oil Pollution
The True Price of Oil
Icebergs and Anchor-Handlers
Atlantic SOS
The Greatest Influence
How It Used to Be
Homemade Pizza
Goodbye Far Turbot
The Ship Manager
Running Aground
A Cook's Tale
Navigating the Channel
The Captain's Letter

The Sealaunch Project
Ghost Ships of Hartlepool
Beam Him Up Scotty
The Bilbao OSV Conference