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Article: Southbank and her Sisters...

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    Southbank and her Sisters...

    1 Comments by Alan Rawlinson Published on 15th May 2019 03:38 PM
    Bank Line's M.V. "Southbank", and her sister ships.


    Post war, the iconic Bank Line commenced a rebuilding programme which was to accelerate throughout the next 3 decades. Like most British shipping companies, a number of U.S. built liberty ships were providing a useful stopgap until the fleet could be restocked with new tonnage. The first new purpose built vessels to be added to the fleet came from Doxford's yard at Sunderland, and they were named Eastbank, Southbank, and Westbank in that order, and they were built in 1947 and 1948. They were the first in the history of the company to bear these names, and it was to be another 10 years before the missing cardinal point of the compass was added, when the Northbank, also a Doxford vessel came into service. That vessel was part of a different design however, with a larger tonnage, and she was part of a massive 21 ship order built between 1957 and 1964, starting with the M.V. Firbank. If anything, the building programme then accelerated, and looking back almost 60 years later, after the decline of British shipping, it seems almost like a mirage. How the board could have done with a crystal ball!

    All 3 sister ships were shelter decked, with deeptanks, and 5947 gross tons, 444.0 x 60.0 x 25.5ft with single screw, 5 cylinder 2 SCSA oil engines from the builder. The deeptanks were the essential feature that made these sisters ideal for carrying lubricating or other oil from the USA to Australia and New Zealand, and then the valuable edible oil homewards. It was a major challenge switching the tanks over, involving thorough cleaning to a standard that would satisfy the shipper's surveyor. Many a Mate dreaded not only the cleaning, but the tricky business of lid sealing with bent threads and interminable nuts. It was a salutary lesson to first trip apprentices who quickly became familiar with wrenches of all shapes and sizes. There was also the wrestling with slippery heating coils used for maintaining the correct temperature on the homeward leg. Coconut oil solidifies in the cold and assumes an appearance of candle wax. Should general cargo go into the deep tanks at some stage, the coils had to be disconnected and stowed away for safety.

    The author sailed on all three of the new vessels at various times and in capacities from first trip Apprentice to Chief Officer. The design and ease of working lent itself to Bank Line's Pacific island services loading Copra and valuable coconut oil destined for the UK and the Continent, and they were dubbed ' Copra vessels' by some, with the lure of a 'short' six month voyage. However, flexibility was a by word in the company, and they often strayed all over the world giving each voyage the touch of mystery which was the Bank Line hall mark.

    On departing sea school in 1951, these ships with their rather plain but appealing lines were the cream of the fleet, and in the seamanship room at the sea school, there was a highly coloured pull out chart with an exploded diagram of the M.V. Eastbank. newly in service. How lucky could one be? I felt like I had won the jackpot, being accepted by the Bank Line, little realising that Apprentice places on the new ships were highly prized and usually went to relatives of the directors. Instead, I joined the 1929 built Forthbank in Cardiff Docks, but was more than pleased to do so. Within a few months I did however, find myself on the Eastbank making a positioning voyage up to Calcutta to serve on the white ship M.V. Inchanga, which ran regularly between that port and Durban. Flying out to join and leave vessels was a relatively new thing, so where possible officers and crew travelled on other vessels to reach their goal. Everything on the newish Eastbank seemed so much more efficient, faster, and more impressive, as could be expected. The engine especially thundered away like a heavy duty sewing machine, and the Doxford design allowed for glass windows in the alleyways giving a topside view of the cylinders with associated pipework and lifting caps popping up and down. It was a mesmerising and comforting view for a 16 year old.

    After a further 18 months away, it was time to be routed back to the UK, and it happened to be another sister, the M.V. Westbank lying in Durban, Natal, that was to be my homeward vessel. She had just survived narrowly from total disaster when she ran onto the island of Juan De Nova in the Mozambique Channel in the early hours at full speed. Pulled off on a spring tide by the B.I. Tug " Arusha" she had been repaired temporarily in Durban for the homeward run. Huge steel beams were added at the starboard bilge keel level. Bank Line, never a company to miss a trick, arranged for a full cargo of manganese ore bound for Immingham. This begs a lot of questions but presumably the classification society were satisfied, and it was not something a lowly apprentice could ask about!

    An internal enquiry re the 'accident' threw up some interesting facts. First, the Mate on watch had just completed his morning star sights, and they gave an odd and suspect position. Before they could be acted upon however, the ship ran up the beach, and the conclusion was that there was a strong and unusual current in that area. As part of the investigation, the superintendents office in London called for the figures and re-worked the sight details. The Indian lookout, when questioned, confirmed that he saw the land ahead, but did not ring the Foc'sle bell, believing that his job was to report lights only! My homeward journey was made more interesting by the first hand accounts of the stranding that were fresh in everyone's mind.

    We made it safely to Immingham on one unforgettable freezing dark January morning and paid off. The last few days had been tortuous, creeping through fog from Ushant up through the North Sea with the fog horn blaring out every two minutes.

    5 years later and with a new Mate's ticket I was to join the M.V. Eastbank, again, but this time as second Mate, and on what proved to be a memorable 9 month voyage. No Copra this time. Instead, a round the world voyage with great shipmates, and a loveable Master who painted for a hobby, and who struggled a bit against the temptations of the job. He was later to die tragically at sea.

    Joining in Surrey Docks in London, I had the opportunity to invite my parents down to the ship for a look around. During our tour one afternoon we unfortunately stumbled upon the Lascar crew slaughtering a goat, aft, near the poop, and it rather spoilt the occasion especially for my sensitive Mum!

    We loaded General cargo as usual in the USA Gulf ports, finishing off in New Orleans and after transiting the Panama Canal with no traumas, set off across the Pacific. I was in my element, enjoying the navigational role, especially as circumstances had left me an enhanced responsibility. The reason was that the Master rarely, if ever, completed his sight taking, and the 3/0 was uncertificated and still getting up to speed. That left the Chief Officer, who, again, rarely put a fix on the chart, blaming poor visibility or some other reason for the regular DR (dead reckoning) positions that he offered up. It was slightly bizarre, and wouldn't happen today with GPS and Sat Nav readings instantly available.

    The Chief Officer, who later became a lifetime friend, shared a moment with me that we kept secret. When in mid Pacific, and at the change of watch at 0400hrs, we handed over at a point where we were supposedly passing a low lying unlit island atoll at 5 miles distant, only for me to see breaking white water on a reef, and hear the surf thundering as I descended the bridge ladder. It was no more than 2 cables away on the starboard side, and I scrambled back up the ladder to hastily alter course away from the danger. Fortunately, we sheered off and continued on. Nothing was said, and given the vagaries of the many Pacific islands, it was hard to conclude what had gone wrong. The Bank Line lost ships and had several major incidents around the islands, and I was only glad we hadn't added to the total.

    We duly discharged our general cargo all around the New Zealand coast, and to our surprise were then ordered to Spencer Gulf ports in Australia to load grain for India. Thence it was onwards to one of the favourite ports of British seamen, Buenos Aires. In India we loaded bales of gunnies, and a special consignment of medical heroin in plastic bags. This, we stowed in safe steel lockers in the after tweendeck and as a precaution the doors were welded shut. Despite these precautions, we found on arrival B.A. that the doors had been forced, and the contents partly stolen and partly strewn around the tweendecks in a random fashion. Suddenly, there were gun totting security guards everywhere as the bags were collected and piled in a heap in my cabin! Writing this today I can't imagine how this was agreed, but I clearly recall the pile of plastic bags with the soft gooey contents and a uniformed guard for company. Luckily this didn't last long as the bags went off under guard to the consignees address which was a hospital in the city. We enjoyed the delights of Buenos Aires as always, including the steaks and the heavy night life and then orders came to sail around the coast to Enginiero White, the port for Bahia Blanca, to load grain for the UK. Here we entered a sort of twilight world where work was very desultory, resulting in a prolonged stay of weeks as the the grain sacks were laboriously brought to the ships side a few wagons a day, and then hoisted on deck for the contents to be bled through the hatchboards into the holds. Each day the work only lasted an hour or two, before the supply dried up. We played football by day, and trawled the bars in Bahia Blanca by night, and this kept the boredom away! Eventually, we got down to our marks and set off on the long haul home, discharging in Newcastle upon Tyne, berthing almost beneath the iconic bridge.

    Xmas 1960 saw me joining the third ship of the trio, the M.V. Southbank, this time as chief officer having passed for Master's earlier in the year. It was to be a 'Copra run' although we didn't know this on sailing. Neither did we know that 3 years later, the Southbank would be lost on the remote Washington Island in the Line Islands 600 miles south of Hawaii, where we were destined to load.

    She was a fine ship, in good condition for a 12 year old vessel, and we made our customary trip over to the Gulf ports to load sulphur in bulk and tractors and general cargo to top off. Then it was onwards to Sydney, first discharge port, where the Master was to get married. We were all invited, and dressed in our finery, we gingerly tried the caviar, rich cuisine, and fine wines that were laid on by the bride's father. They were a prominent family in the city, and it was a grand occasion. I took a sudden liking to being in a suit for a change, and resolved to seek out a career where a suit was the normal day wear, as opposed to the boiler suit that featured large in the Bank Line. Someone hung the ' just married' sign over the stern, and the new bride boarded for the onward trip home to the UK.

    The normal loading pattern and stowage on these voyages, was to put some 4000 tons of lead or copper ingots in the lower holds for deadweight and stability, and then top off with the high volume Copra, which is the dried flesh of the coconut. It was collected round the islands after it had been sun dried. Sometimes mechanical drying was employed. The copper ingots were loaded in Townsville, Queensland, and we sailed through the barrier reef, somewhat cautiously, and headed for Western Samoa to commence loading Copra. This was done at anchor in Apia Bay, a beautiful location.

    At this time (1961) money was only just coming into circulation, and we were amused to see wages being used to joy ride around in the town's only taxi! The reception on board and the friendliness of the locals was exceptional. Workers loading the Copra would bring guitars and impromptu serenades would take place in the evenings, and we were also made welcome ashore, and partied in the open sided native huts. It was an unforgettable time. We loaded around a few islands, with the last call being at Fanning island, in the remote Line Islands. This low lying island took some finding, and the tree tops were only spotted by someone on the bridge when they were nearly abeam!

    In those days, it was also normal practice to take workers from Tarawa in the Gilbert and Ellis islands up to load the Copra, and they lived on the hatch tops with a tarpaulin over the lowered derricks as a shelter. On deck we also had considerable quantities of stores, loaded in Sydney for Fanning Island. Basic foodstuffs like salt, flour, and rice made up the bulk but there was also batteries, beer, and general store items. The largest item was a 50ft piece of hardwood. It was a beam, intended for the roof of a new community hall, and this was accidentally lost over the side on arrival when it slipped out of the sling upon discharge. The incident was a tragedy for the islanders, and tears were shed, not least because everyone rushed to the rail expecting it to surface after a minute or two. We all waited in vain, as it was a dense hardwood which went down, and stayed down.

    Eventually, we were full to the top of the hatch coatings, and commenced the long run via Panama to the U.K. discharging in the Victoria docks, London. The deeptanks were full of valuable coconut oil, and this had to be monitored throughout the homeward journey, both temperature and ullage being recorded twice daily.

    Fast forward to 1964, and a week when the Southbank was on the front of all the U.K. newspapers, with graphic pictures and lurid headlines like, "Paradise Isle castaways await rescue" , and, " Stranded on the Beach" . This followed her Boxing Day loss at Washington Island. She touched bottom at 0706 on the 26th December. It was a day or two before the news filtered through, and attending a radar course in Liverpool, I picked up a copy of the Liverpool Echo which had a front page picture of my old ship in two pieces. It was a shock.

    Loading in the Line Islands involved steaming out to safety at night, and coming in close during the day time to load from surf boats, still underway, but with engines stopped. Anchoring is impossible due to the depth and the steeply rising bottom. This tricky business led to a couple of stranding and some close calls over the years. The Southbank had joined the casualty list, grounding on a reef in the swell, and the force broke her back just abaft of the engine room. Everyone got safely onto the beach, but a decision to return to the wreck to retrieve mail that she was carrying led to the sad death of the young second Mate who was in a boat alongside the wreck when a huge wave overcame the boat. He was buried on the island in a grave with the wreck as a back drop. Some newspapers sent reporters out at great expense to the middle of the Pacific to record the story and to get photographs. The survivors spent 13 days stranded on Washington Island. After a few days, the U.S.S. "Winnebago" arrived from Hawaii, and transferred the castaways over to Fanning Island before eventually taking them all up to Honolulu for repatriation. The rescue was not without incident and a report by one of the survivors describes how the American crew insisted on dumping most of the Indian crew's possessions over the side before proceeding. Some of the wives on board fell in love with the island life during their brief enforced stay, and they gave very favourable accounts of the way they had been looked after by the islanders, preparing breakfast, and generally treating their guests in the laid back island lifestyle. Friendships also formed between the young island girls and some of the officers.

    The ocean swell and storms quickly broke up the vessel over the next few years Some 4 years later only the bow section remained and this also slowly disappeared until only a solitary engine piece remained visible above the waves.

    Of the three sisters, the Eastbank was to serve until 1966 in the Bankline, and ended her days in 1980 after trading for various Greek owners. The M.V. Westbank also left the fleet for the Greeks in 1967, and was scrapped in 1974. The Northbank was sold out of the fleet also for Greek ownership in 1973, but was lost near Punta Arenas on the West coast of South America the same year. Although many new ships were to join the Bank Line fleet throughout the 60's and 70's, the compass point names were never to be repeated.

    website: banklineonline.com.

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    Default Re: Southbank and her Sisters...

    Interesting, cheers.

    Keith.
    "Our veterans did not forget about us .... Let's not forget about them." From Michael Levesque

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