The East London Incident on Southampton Castle

Chris Isaac
31st December 2008, 16:21
Southampton Castle nearly came to a sticky end in about 1971.

I was second officer on her then and we were going upcoast when we arrived in East London. We were supposed to arrive at 0600 and then sail at 1800 for Durban.

All day the rain poured down so hard that no hatches could be opened. Knowing that the ship had loads of speed in reserve we stayed overnight hoping to discharge gthe next day.

Next day it poured down even harder, no cargo worked, another night in East London.

Next day it poured down even harder ! no cargo worked.

By now the normally tranquil Buffalo River was coming down at about 10 knots and and ship movement was halted, so we couldn't sail even if we wanted to. During that day the local radio station had been broadcasting that 60 miles upriver was a dam that was showing signs of giving way under the pressure of water and it was being projected that if the dam went then a wall of water about 60 ft high and a mile long would reach East London about two hours later.

The decision was made to attempt to sail. Those of you that know East London will know that the mail ship was always moored facing seaward and in a sheltered corner of the quay out of the main current.

As soon as we let go aft the current caught the stern of Southampton Castle which rapidly swung out into the river. The highly flared bow went over the quay and pushed over a dock crane which in turn demolished a train and the cargo shed (no-one hurt). As the ship drifted down stream sideways the only consolation was that the bows were pointing the right way to go full ahead out through the harbour entrance. As we got to that point double full ahead was rung and we waited for 35000 hp to be unleashed. Nothing! the engine room cooling intakes had been clogged up with the mud churned up by the current and Southampton Castle was going nowhere.

On we drifted into the grain terminal on the eastern side of the river where we moored ourselves.

At about 1800 the master (Captain Alastair Sillars, the Chief Officer Cameron Smith) and me were on the bridge when the port radio issued a warning that they had heard that the dam had broken and they were evacuating the harbour and good luck and god bless to everyone.

We were powerless and moored on the wrong side of the river to evacuate anything except our bowels.

The captain thought it would be best if the rest of the ship were not informed that were were about to meet our maker and the three of us waited nervously on the bridge exchanging infantile jokes.

About an hour later we heard a tremendous roaring noise and suddenly all the lights in East London went out, that was it the end we were going to die.

But we didn't die..... what had happened was that East London power station's cooling intakes had clogged up, just as ours had, and the pressure valves had blown, hence the noise and power cut.

An hour later the port radio came back on to inform us that the dam had not gone. The three of us wandered down to the bar to tell all and to get fortification, evryone seemed somewhat unimpressed.

The next day our brilliant first engineer (and I mean that) Peter Snadden managed to rig the engine cooling system up to the fresh water tanks and we had enough power to get out of the harbour to open sea.

We left Cape Town for Southampton 2 and a half days late but still managed to make it to Southampton on time in just 9 days via St Helena and Ascension averaging over 26 knots (caps on backwards on the bridge) a ten thousand ton ship with 35000 hp can shift when it wants to. Standing on the after deck at that speed was incredible, the after part would squat at that speed so that the sea surface would almost appear above you

31st December 2008, 16:26
Very well told, Chris! It certainly made me chuckle!

31st December 2008, 16:38
Chris, a most enjoyable story & much enjoyed. Thanks, regards and Happy New Year from Rick

31st December 2008, 16:47
It seems Southampton and Good Hope Castles had interesting lives.

Derek Roger
31st December 2008, 17:06
A good yarn Chris . Happy New Year . Derek

Chris Isaac
31st December 2008, 17:34
They were great ships, very rarely overtaken!
We always felt a great sense of pride that we were on the bridge of one of the two most powerful cargo ships in the world.
I had the good fortune to sail on both of them..... they were truly the greyhounds of the South Atlantic. Nothing gave us greater pleasure than to sneak up behind a P&O Strath boat and then open her up and race past!

Derek Roger
31st December 2008, 21:11
Fuel was cheap then Chris ! Dont think any vessel would do that now ( burn the profits )


PS It must have been fun ?

31st December 2008, 22:26
A good story well told, there must be many more such stories out there when a critical situation crops up and we are simply powerless to do anything about it.
Good on the Chief for finding a source of cooling water.
One ship I was on had a cross connection to the ballast deep tanks presumably for that purpose.


1st January 2009, 11:15
I trust that you all changed your Shorts/Trousers before you entered the bar. (LOL) I did know of this incident, being in Durban at this time................pete

1st January 2009, 11:31
Happy New year, Chris did she not have "Blow jacks" fitted?

Chris Isaac
1st January 2009, 11:50
What is a blow jack?
I thought it was something RN Ratings had whilst ashore!

And Happy New Year to All

2nd January 2009, 13:50
A blow jack is used to clear the "crud/blockages" off the main sea inlet valve rose plate, on a steam vessel steam (depending on boiler pressure which was sometimes restricted) was used via 2 manual and 1 non return v/v. In the late 50's R.N. Ratings had to be careful when visiting the "Fes Bar" at Southsea as the two Women sat in the top corner of the Bar had "undercarriages" as two former crewmates found out which was a bit of a "blow" to them bearing in mind their palms had already been crossed with Silver and "Girls" had a no -returns policy. Happy New Year to you

26th January 2009, 11:30
Lol Never served on The Southampton, the Windsor was the nearest I got but the days working on her in the bakery were good days but I do remember an incident on Shaw Savile's Northern Star, We sailed from Brisbane on one of our 3 two week island cruises but had enginge failure just off Lord Howe Island. Now I think you all know that for anchorage the water there is far too deep and the warning went out that we were drifting back onto the island and if the engineers couldn't get the engines startd by a certain time then we'd all be bobbing areound in life boats. Needless to say the engineers did a good job and we sailed to our next port of call none the worse for that little scare... any crew members on the 'Star' remember that little incident early 1973?
Oh by the way I was A/Stewadr on the star but only from December1973-April or May 1973. diningroom officer A/S on the way out to Aus and normal passenger on the way home.. one of the waitresses had to go and get herself pregnant and the officers were the easiest tables on the ship:)

26th January 2009, 12:03
They were the last ships I served my time on at Swans before I went to sea with Ellermans. Although they were fine looking ships, I thought the break from the foc'sl to the main deck could have been better done.

John Beaton
21st April 2009, 16:15
Chris Isaac - I found your item most interesting. You will be saddened to learn that Capt Sillars died some five years ago. I had sailed with him in Clan Line when I was an apprentice, and remember him as one of the most able and pleasant officers I had sailed with.
In more recent years I have sailed that coast again, as a lecturer on Expedition Ships, and was uneasy at how close to the shore we came trying to avoid the southbound current. I recall in the fifties, while we were waiting for a berth in Beira, a Dutch liner hit a pinnacle while skirting the shore. We got her berth, as I recall. John Beaton.

Chris Isaac
21st April 2009, 17:28
Alistair Sillars as a master was exactly as you decribe, very able, yet blessed with the ability to be sociable and pleasant with all.
I sailed with him on Southampton Castle and Reina del Mar, he was a gentleman and I am very sorry to hear he is no longer with us.
Kind regards

John Beaton
22nd April 2009, 17:39
CHRIS --- So glad for your reply! I note that your home location is in Plymouth. I lived in Brixton for over twenty years, but have recently moved to the Scottish Highlands. After I got my masters I landed up in the RAF and towards the end of my service ended up with Air Sea Rescue at Mountbatten. I was a keen sailor and kept my 7 ton sail boat on the river Yealm. When Clan Line took over UCastle we all knew Alasdair would be moved over, for his looks alone! John Beaton.