Mahseer. The Third Passenger

John Leary
25th August 2005, 15:03
I realise now that prior to going to sea I had led a sheltered and privileged existence. Nothing in my upbringing ever prepared me for the poverty and deprivation that I saw on my trips on Mahseer and the other ships I sailed on during my time at sea. Also up to the time of going to sea in 1963 I had never ever seen a cockroach.

Now cockroaches are reputed to be one of the oldest insects in existence and are incredibly adaptable and able to live in the most extreme of conditions. The ones on board ship were generally no more than half an inch long, brown in colour and although capable of flight rarely did so, preferring to crawl about mainly in the dark or when they were sure they would not be disturbed.

It was a regular event on board ship, usually on Sunday mornings, for the third mate to go around all of the officers cabins and living accommodation with a flit gun spraying all of the nooks and crannies with what I suspect was DDT which is now a banned insecticide.

I’m not sure that this approach was really effective because the theory we had at the time was that the cockroaches on board had become immune to DDT and actually thrived on the stuff, lapping it up like the ship’s officers lapped up their glasses of Alsopps lager.

Anyway in the main these small adaptable insects were accepted and tolerated as yet another part of shipboard life.

Colombo in the 1960’s was a wonderful place to visit. It had not long gained independence and become a member of the British Commonwealth so whilst it was an independent and therefore a “foreign” country, everyone I came into contact with spoke English and the traditions of the country and the way things were run had the feel of home about them.

A big advantage from a radio officer’s point of view was that we could be in Colombo for several weeks and during that time we did not keep radio watches. Therefore apart from maintenance work during the day, a good part of the time in the evenings and at weekends was free with many opportunities to go ashore, relax, see the sights and visit the cinema.

Another advantage which carried certain risks was that there was a lively black market in hard currency which meant that whilst the official rate of exchange was about ten rupees to the pound it was possible to exchange sterling bank notes on the black market for over three times the official rate. This meant that with a few fivers changed on the black market you could have a good time ashore. The downside was that if you were caught carrying sterling notes through customs you could be heavily fined. Fortunately that never happened to me.

I remember that on one occasion after our evening meal on board, the Chief Radio Officer, Harry Jefferson and I decided to go ashore and see a film at a local cinema. I cannot remember now what the film was that we wanted to see. Its title is not important to this story.

Usually when the ship discharged its cargo it did so along side the wharfs so all that we had to do when we wanted to go ashore was to descend the ship’s gangway to the wharf, walk a short distance to the customs hall, walk through (usually unchallenged) stroll through the dock gate and out onto the road in order to hail a taxi.

Now there was always a good selection of taxi’s to choose from and for the very adventurous there was the Ceylonese version of the rickshaw. There was no orderly queuing by the taxi owners so it was dog eat dog the moment a prospective fare emerged from the dock gate. You were literally besieged and surrounded by the owners touting for your business. So keen were they to obtain your business that they would often resort to grabbing you by the arm to pull you into their taxicab.

The taxis in question were an assortment of different types of vehicles; mostly British made but all without exception in an advanced state of dereliction. Morris Oxford’s were the most common but there were other makes represented as well. Today you would see cars in a better state in a UK scrap yard waiting to be crushed.

On the night in question after the usual bargaining over the price of the fare, Harry and I selected what I think was an old Humber saloon.

This had been a very prestigious motorcar in its day but as I said, like all of the other taxis it was a little the worse for wear. Never the less it looked capable of driving the few miles we needed to travel to the cinema, so we climbed in.

Apart from the tired leather seats the two other things of note were the dusty smell of age and decay that permeated the inside of the car and the partition between the passenger compartment and the drivers seating area. This partition consisted of an upholstered lower section topped by a pair of glass panels that could be slid shut in order to give the rear passengers some privacy. On our journey they had been slid back and Harry was enjoying his usual banter with the driver.

For some unaccountable reason, Harry’s conversation dried up mid sentence and I turned my head towards him to see why he had stopped talking. He sat there, staring at the partition with a look of incredulity on his face. I turned in the direction of his gaze in order to find out what had captured his attention and what I saw in the gloom of the cab was enough to drive fear into most people. There on the top of the partition was the largest cockroach I have ever seen in my life or would ever wish to see. It was huge, in fact it was enormous. It was the grandfather of all cockroaches and must have been the cockroach equivalent of the amazing hulk. Its home or lair must have been within the bowels of the partition.

It wasn’t just its presence that was intimidating; it was the fact that it appeared to be taking a great deal of interest in our presence on the back seat. Maybe it was only curious to see who had woken it from its slumber, maybe it wanted to hear our conversation a little better, but because it was so large, I had the distinct feeling that as it moved its antenna backward and forward that it was looking at us in the same way that I have often looked at the menu inside the window of a takeaway restaurant.

Although I was much younger than Harry, on that occasion his reactions were much faster than mine. Snapping out of his trance like state, he shouted “Bl..dy hell, driver stop the car immediately I want to get out”.

I don’t think the driver had any idea why we wanted to vacate the car and Harry did not want to stay inside to explain. As soon as the taxi pulled to a halt, both rear doors were flung open and we escaped as quickly as we could. Harry paid the driver the fare for the full journey and he drove off probably muttering under his breath about the strange ways and habits of the British. We didn’t have to wait long before we caught another cab that took us on the rest of the journey to the cinema. The film was enjoyable as far as I can recollect and we returned to the ship later that evening without further mishap.

Now two things have puzzled me since that evening in Colombo. The first is where there is one cockroach there are usually many more in which event did we only see the baby of the family and secondly did the taxi fare that Harry paid, include the price for the third passenger?

John Rogers
25th August 2005, 15:46
Great story John brought back memories of killing the little devils by using the empty cigarette tins (round ones). We would put a few grains of coffee on the bottom of the tin,grease up the sides and place in the corners of the mess or pantry. Next morning check on your traps, which always contained at least 30-40 of the things. We would then take the tins to the hot steam nozzle on the large coffee urn and give them a blast of steam and send them off to cockroach heaven.

john g
25th August 2005, 21:14
Ah yes cockroaches must be honest saw them but not all that many considering the conditions. Does anyone remember the "flying crabs"..first encountred by myself in the engine room on the Mahout when laying off Sandheads waiting on the Calcutta pilot . As an apprentice on the 12-4 I could not believe my eyes when these creatures came flying down the vent and landed on the plates I s--t myself much to the amusement of the 3rd eng who started racing them up and down the contol platform. Question to all you Brocks and other guests of the city of Calcutta...what the hell where they? After all these years I've never got round to asking that question...john g

michael james
25th August 2005, 23:12
Would it be the Rhino Beetle ? - or am I thinkling of West African Coast, I seem to remember a pretty large flying beetle with a set of pincers vertically orientated as opposed to our UK Stag Beetle (horizontally) fearsom looking but really rather lethargic and more like "pussy cats" one just had to keep digits away from pincers. (*))

John Rogers
26th August 2005, 00:02
Mike the old banana beetle was an ugly thing that had pincers,I seen some as big as a swan match box,matter of fact thats what some of the crew kept them in when they found them in the holds.

26th August 2005, 00:03
There was a type of flying beetle that was common when we were up the Pusser River in Pakistan, I swear it made a click with its "feet"when it landed on the metal mosquito mesh screen, and took a foot print to squash it, the usual flap with the oily engine room steaming bunnet had no effect!

26th August 2005, 01:32
I remember being bombarded by a type of flying beetle in the Nigerian creeks whenever the decklights were lit. They were round like a humbug and about the same size. We were all ducking and weaving trying to avoid them, much to the amusement of the West African Writer who joined the ship in Freetown for the duration of the 'coast'. They bounced off the side of the accommodation like stones, landed on the deck and lay on their backs with their legs wriggling. The Writer calmly picked one up and, with a huge grin, popped it into his mouth, and ate it! Crunch!

Nowadays, in summer in Queensland, we are plagued by something similar, known as 'Christmas Beetles'. I've still never been tempted but the dog thinks they're OK.

John T.

PS A man went to the Doctor and said: "I think I'm a moth." The Doctor said; "I think you should go to the Psychiatrist down the road." The man replied: "I was going there but I saw your light was on!"

26th August 2005, 03:44
John, no need for undertakers in Queensland, the cockroaches can carry the corpses off.

michael james
26th August 2005, 19:33
I remember being bombarded by a type of flying beetle in the Nigerian creeks whenever the decklights were lit. They were round like a humbug and about the same size. We were all ducking and weaving trying to avoid them, much to the amusement of the West African Writer who joined the ship in Freetown for the duration of the 'coast'. They bounced off the side of the accommodation like stones, landed on the deck and lay on their backs with their legs wriggling. The Writer calmly picked one up and, with a huge grin, popped it into his mouth, and ate it! Crunch!

Nowadays, in summer in Queensland, we are plagued by something similar, known as 'Christmas Beetles'. I've still never been tempted but the dog thinks they're OK.

John T.

PS A man went to the Doctor and said: "I think I'm a moth." The Doctor said; "I think you should go to the Psychiatrist down the road." The man replied: "I was going there but I saw your light was on!"

John T,
You had me in stitches over the above, Christmas beetles indeed ! Please dont think I disbelieve you, you just put it down in print so well.
Good on yer mate. More please

Harry Nicholson
14th October 2005, 20:06
Those 'flying crabs' were a sort of huge water beetle, they often dropped onto the deck when we went astern and churned up the Hughli mud. The chippy used to put the odd one down my ventilator when he found out I was interested in insects, it would tramp and rustle round and round on the mesh until the poor thing died. The crew often brought me insects, I'd come off watch and find extremely ugly things on my desk under upturned beer glasses and in Anton Justmans baccy tins. I mounted some of them in proper entomological fashion and just five years ago gave them to a school, they were then 40 years old and still looking good.
One Brocklebank ship had really bad cockroaches (also known as steam flies), I had been on leave on the UK coast (the Holy Ghost) and my cabin had been empty the while. When I opened my desk drawers, there was a layer of golden sand in the bottom; it was cockroach eggs!. In the cold weather they would move into the wireless room and sit around the valves in the transmitter. Chippy told me that the ones that lived in his mess fridge had evolved fur coats.
And then there were the Bombay Tigers...................!

Oh, I wish I could go down to Hull and get myself a ship!

Harry Nicholson

15th October 2005, 11:08
Northbound from Liberia on the Houlder's ore carrier 'Mabel Warwick', I awoke on a balmy tropical morning with a pleasant warm breeze coming through the porthole. I gradually became aware of an annoyingly loud squeaking sound. Suddenly the cabin door burst open and the steward pranced in on tiptoes looking like Basil Fawlty (who hadn't been invented at that time), screeching: "They're everywhere, they're everywhere! They're coming down the alleyway!" He dumped a saucer of tea with a cup sitting in it beside me and fled.

Thinking we'd been invaded by aliens and wondering where my toast was (remember those halcyon days?) I got up and looked out into the alleyway. A zillion inch and a half long insects were marching implacably past me. My toast appeared to be walking past the 2nd Mate's door. With typical British stiff upper lip, I gave a piercing screech, putting the Steward's to shame, and slammed the door. Relieved at my narrow escape, I turned and saw more of them coming through the porthole, I looked down and they were all over the floor! In a panic, I too did the Basil Fawlty prance until, having closed the porthole so tightly it would never open again and dressed in striped pyjamas and black shoes, I was able to bravely clog dance all over the revolting creeping things. When the steward, who should have received a George Cross, had vacuumed the alleyway and cleared a way, I left the charnal house that was my cabin and went to breakfast.

It turned out that as we passed Dakar, a swarm of the insects, some sort of cricket, had landed on the ship. The mate eventually wrote a piece for the 'Marine Observer' magazine, describing them as sounding like "a million squeaky bicycle wheels". They were subsequently hosed down with some sort of chemical, no doubt environmentally unfriendly, but apparantly successful. Soon afterwards, only occasional insects were found, usually eating one of their dead compadres.

Apart from in the 5th Engineer's cabin that is. He had a battery-powered record player which could be used if placed on someone's lap and moved to counteract the ship's roll (as well as pre-dating Basil, this was before cassettes, etc. had been invented), and his cabin was therefore popular for boozeups. He was some sort of Geordie entymologist and wasn't scared of the insects like the rest of us. He kept one, minus eyes, legs and every other wriggly bit, nailed to a sliver of wood, with a paper sail on the nail, floating in his wash basin! He wasn't as cruel as he sounds - he lovingly hand fed it pieces of cardboard which the creature visibly devoured!

His experiment continued until he and the rest of the crickets had apparantly departed in Glasgow. The ship then did a winter trip to Seven Islands in Quebec and the insects were forgotten until a further zillion were discovered, waiting to pounce, in the warmth of the funnel! I made sure I got off on arrival at Newport!

John T.

15th October 2005, 16:33
That's true Derek, but in Tasmania, in true nautical fashion, the bodies go "down by the heads".

John T.
Forgive my apparent ignorance but I fear I am missing something here. "Down by the heads" that surely can't mean down by the toilet, can it? A visit to the heads in shipyard terminology is going to the toilet. Also I never knew steam flies were also cockroaches. I recall visiting the galley on a cargo liner that will remain nameless doing the usual shipyard trick of mooching for something to eat on a cold winter day. On the galley range a large pot of something was boiling away, I think it was referred to as the stock pot. Above this the galley vents ran and on them were a number of these small creepy crawlies which on several occasions dropped into the boiling liquid whereupon they were promptly stirred in by the Indian?/native cook. Needless to say I beat a hasty retreat and had a dipped soda and egg in the canteen run by the Ulster Manure Company (Ulster Menu Company) who did H&W's catering on sea trials.

Derek Roger
15th October 2005, 18:40
I was given this story while bringing the Mahseer from Trincomolee to Colombo
There had been a number of blackouts of the bridge lights and some nav equipment ; the leckey had replaced fuses but could not find a cause . The 2nd Mate noticed however that the occurances were always about the same time . After much slething the culprit was found . It was the Sparks whose name I shall not give here but all Brocks knew him as "Batman "
He was prone to the unusal and on this occasion had hooked up a Morse Key to the power socket with a bare wire running over the door sill of the Radio Shack and with some suitable bait would wait for an unfortunate Roach to try and enter his domain ; At which time he would hit the Key and Zap the Roach and in the process blew the fuse which for some reason fed some bridge circuits . He was taunted with glee for the rest of the trip by one and all .
Happy Days

16th October 2005, 08:26
[QUOTE=Tmac1720]Forgive my apparent ignorance but I fear I am missing something here. "Down by the heads" that surely can't mean down by the toilet, can it? ....

Sorry, Oul Hand, it's a result of interstate rivalry and a tasteless reference to Tasmanians having two heads. I must have been full of bubbles when I wrote it because it took me a minute to understand it too. Think I'll delete it.

John T.

16th October 2005, 13:08
Thanks John, I thought it was senile decay catching up with me (*))

Stuart Smith
16th October 2005, 19:49
Just adding my halfpennyworth to the cockroach and flying beetle saga. While on Mahout in 1964 we were anchored up in the Hooghley on bore tide watch and while sitting in the apprentice cabin with all lights burning, my buddy Dennis and I could hear a series of thuds on the exterior baulkhead. When we checked outside we found dozens of the horrible beetle things armed with their claws. I have never been one for handling insects and they made me creepy and I think we called them Bombay Crabs.
Re the cockroach story. Also on Makrana we apprentices, two engineering and two deck, somehow managed to acquire a spare set of keys to the galley and pantry. Don't ask me how but we kept it very secret. At night when we felt a bit peckish (most nights for we young men) we would creep to the pantry and help ourselves to snacks, be it cold meat, cheese, bread or whatever. The thing that sticks in my mind was that when we opened the door to the galley and switched on the light the floor and worktops were a seething mass of cockroaches which disappeared within seconds of the light going on. I don't mean several dozens of the pests, but many hundreds. We didn't give a thought to the dangers of contaminated food etc., as roaches were part of everyday life aboard ship, we just grabbed any food we could for our supper.

I have another story of our time on Bore Watch and would be interested if any ex-Brock can add any further information.
I will start a new thread as it has nothing to do with this one.

Stuart Smith

Les Hughes
16th October 2005, 23:15
An old seafaring riddle:-
Whats worse than biting into a sandwich from your night box and finding a cockroach----- Biting into a sandwich and finding half a cockroach.

Ron Stringer
17th October 2005, 00:35
A similar type of missile was present widely on the Indian Coast and I especially remember them up at Chalna - 80 miles or so up the Pussur River in what was then East Pakistan. On the City of Lucknow we were anchored out in the river there loading jute for some weeks. There was no port to go ashore in so we used to have film shows on deck each night and the blighters were attracted to the light from the projector and the screen. You quickly learned to take a blanket and towels with you (the temperature was inthe 90s) - the towels were wrapped around your head and shoulders to soak up the sweat and provide some padding and the blanket was draped over the top of you, so that you were in your own tent. This arrangement protected you from the worst of the attacks. These things were so hard and flew so fast that they made a definite 'clang' when they hit the accommodation. Lord help yoou if you took one in the face.

When they fell to the deck it was no use staming on them, they just got up and walked away. The technique was to stand on them and drag your foot along, I think that this pulled their legs off. At any rate, they didn't scratch around in the cabin after that treatment.

Ron Stringer

Ron Stringer
18th October 2005, 09:07
Although the Hall Bros. (Newcastle) motor vessel 'Bretwalda' was fairly new when I joined her in 1961, she was infested with cockroaches. The drystore was similarly 'alive' with weevils. After joining her in Avonmouth we went in ballast to Norfolk, Virginia, where we loaded grain for Belfast. The return trip was memorable only for the insects and an unceasing diet of corned beef salad. At least one meal per day was corned beef salad, the Chief Steward having done some sort of deal with the chandlers that produced masses of tomatoes and lettuce but damn little else. Healthy, what?

At breakfast when you poured your milk on the cereal, up would float a host of little beetles (the adults of the wriggly weevil larvae), frantically swimming for the edge of the bowl. The weevils themselves lay wriggling at the bottom of the bowl. There were so many larvae and adult weevils that it was not possible to avoid eating some, so after a while you didn't even bother trying to avoid them. As the man said, "It is all fresh protein".

The deck of the pantry alongside the officer's dining saloon had black and white chequerboard tiling. When you switched on the lights at night, the deck was all black and then you would gradually see the chequerboard effect returning as the cockroaches scuttled for cover.

When I returned to the ship after she discharged in Belfast, I found that a decision had been made to fumigate the ship. The standby crewmembers were put ashore into hotels, boarding houses etc. All external doors, windows, porthole and vents were sealed with masking tape, and a oisonous gas (the rumour was cyanide, but I believe that would be unlikely) was released into the accommodation. Three days later after everything had been opened up and ventilated, we were allowed on board, a new crew was signed on from the local 'pool' and we were off to Safi, Morocco, to load phosphates for Capetown.

We sailed late in the evening and, lo and behold, not a cockroach in sight. Sarnies could be left out under a plate on top of the pantry press without any danger of them being taken over by a brown, leggy mass. Success! The following morning we all gathered for breakfast. Out came the cereal, on went the milk and up came dozens of little beetles. The difference was that they were no longer swimming, just floating, dead, on the milk. The skinflints had left all the food, including the cereals and flour, on board during the fumigation, rather than spend any money replacing it.

Ron Stringer

31st October 2005, 22:07
My firts trip was 8th Eng on the Bullard King Umgeni, having been shanghaied from Clan Line.
Was in a small inside cabin, she had what was called "Bibby" arrangement of cabins for engineers.Two inside with a long narrow passage to the portlight, the other two sandwitched between. Wondered why they never opened the punka louvre on the trunking system, found out when I opened it and was showered by dead and living cockroaches. On the Maihar (I) there was some kind of beetle on the Pusser River that actually landed with a click on the moquito screen, and actually had to stand on it to despatch it, hitting with a cap or rag was not sufficient.

10th November 2005, 23:02
This string has brought back some memories!

I found one of the armour plated beetles in the radio room on the Malakand one night. 'Twas a fearsome beast and the first attempt to knock it out by dropping a large tin full of assorted nuts & bolts on it from a great height failed dismally - simply shrugged it off and carried on scurrying about. Next attempt to knock it off by attacking it with a ball pein hammer also failed and it disappeared into the woodwork. It was still scurrying around the following morning and only succumbed after getting a goodly squirt of carbon tetrachloride (aka dry cleaning fluid and now known to be carcinogenic) from the radio room fire extinguisher.

Re. a few back: I sailed with the Batman when he was the Burrah Marconi Sahib and I was the Chota Marconi Sahib on the SS Mahronda - truly a gold
medal contender in any alcoholic olympics!

14th November 2005, 10:12
I've patiently read through all the foregoing correspondence on beetles and flying insects, expecting to find some reference to those to be found up the creeks of the River Niger. Anchored in the stream off Sapele, with cargo lights on to deter locals from climbing aboard, large beetles would be attracted to the lights and crash to the deck - often landing upside down. These insects measured up to 4 inches long with one long, upper horn almost the same length as the body and one smaller, lower horn. Their wing cases were dark brown or black. Crew members would collect them, tie a length of cotton to the end of the longer horn, then suspend the unfortunate insects in a tin of varnish. Next morning they would withdraw the insects and hang them up to dry - a sticky end, but a great finish! Some men had several of these arranged in a row, tallest on the left, shortest on the right, much admired by any visitors.

The first time I met cockroaches was on my first trip on the [/I]Gothic [I]when as junior R/O I was told to deal with a complaint of 'no music' in the crews messroom. After checking everything else, I decided to remove the loudspeaker from the bulkhead. I had never seen a cockroach in my life before, but almost dropped the speaker in horror, as the box was home to a swarm of them. Perhaps they had sabotaged the speaker, not liking my choice of music.


Ron Stringer
14th November 2005, 12:59

These sound like the Rhinoceros Beetle which, Iread only the other day, is the world's strongest animal, being able to push over 800 times its own weight.



ian jackson
14th November 2005, 16:37
Reading the thread and seeing the name Batman brought back memories of him hanging off the cabin doorway, looking forelorn. If you made the mistake of asking him in for a can that was the end. He was there until the booze was gone, Didn't matter if you had got your head down or even disappeared on watch.
I seem to have come across evry beetle mentioned but another one I remember was up in Chalna or Chittagong. It was realtively small but if youtried to brush it off and squashed it there was a very powerful nasty aroma. Never did find out what they were?

Ian Jackson
Ex Brocks

14th November 2005, 20:58

your recollection of the Batman was spot-on. I sailed with him on the Mahronda when I was a 2 R/O and we had adjacent cabins, port side on the saloon deck. The Batman's cabin was right next to the bar.

Before I knew better, I invited the Batman in for a nightcap one night. I eventually had to tell him to "go away" as I had to get up in the middle of the night for the Portishead traffic list and company sked. He didn't take the hint so I eventually climbed into my bunk, switched off the light, and fell asleep. When I got the call to go on watch the Batman had gone and my bottle of gin, which had been 3/4 full, was empty.

I don't remember his name now but the 2nd Engineer took great delight in winding-up the Batman. His favourite was to wait until the Batman was trying to get his head down and then play Campbeltown Loch at full volume on the record player in the bar. The Batman's head was right next to the bulkhead next to the bar so he got the full Andy Stewart treatment and the volume was not that much reduced when it hit me. Got to be a bit wearing after a while.

Happy days,


15th November 2005, 10:20
One morning on the Tacoma Star in 1952 I was sent to call the Mate for the 4 to 8 watch, as I opened the his cabin door and put the light on "Jaspers" were crawling all over him and in to his nostrils and as he woke he just flicked his hand across his face and wasnt really aware of them, that ship was alive with them -they were a fact of life! it was said that if they got into the soup in the galley that at least we were getting fresh meat
Peter (Thumb)