I first came across this website in late Aug 2016.
I must say that reading those memoires amazed and amused me.
Considering I logged much more Black Star Line (BSL) sea-time than any of the previous participants, I wish to set the record straight, at least from my own perspective.
My relevant credentials are as follows:
I am a Zim Lines and BSL veteran with 6 years experience in the West African Trade, more than half with BSL. I was born in late 1934 and graduated from Haifa Nautical School in June 1951. I obtained my AB ticket in 1953 and my Master’s in early 1959.
I assumed my first command in Zim in May 1960.
On or about September 1957 I joined the s/s Marsdale in London as a chief officer on a loan from Zim Lines. The vessel was soon renamed “Volta River”, flag changed from British to Ghanian and a complete new crew was signed on. Senior officers were Israelis, junior officers British and Dutch, Crew mainly Ghanians plus several Nigerians. For photo of the vessel please see:
The “Volta River” was the first vessel of the new Ghanian-Israeli joint venture.
On 12 December 1957 we arrived at Takoradi harbour to a tumultuous welcome. A goat was slaughtered and two bottles of gin were poured on the concrete wharf near the gangway, in a stately libation ceremony, cheered by hundreds of well-wishers who included selected members of the cabinet. The latter were headed by none other than the Osagyefo (= redeemer) Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the President and “Father of the nation”. At the URL below one can see the vessel’s senior officers being introduced to the Osagyefo, who is shaking my hand.
First on the right stands Dr. N. Wydra, Zim’s MD at the time.
I left the “Volta River” in 1958 and returned to Zim, where I commanded several ships. I returned to BSL in early 1962, to take over the m/v “Otchi River”, where I served continuous 25 months. That period was the finest of my life. Unlike the “Volta River”, which was a genuine rust bucket, the “Otchi River” was six months old, purpose-built for BSL, under Zim’s planning and supervision. She was air-conditioned, had Sulzer engines, state of the art navigation equipment – the works! Officers were mainly Dutch, with a few emerging young Ghanians. It was a happy ship indeed, especially for me, because my beautiful young wife Ruth accompanied me all that period. I left the “Otchi” only after we decided it was time for us to bring a child to this world.
In 1965 I flew to Glasgow, to join BSL’s new-building “Nakwa River”, which was designed with schooling facilities in addition to her usual freighter’s requirements. She had accommodation for 12 cadets, a classroom, teaching gear and extra chief officer and first engineer, who were responsible for educating the cadets. Those worked and learned on a 50/50 work/study basis. It was a very interesting experiment, which within a few short years bore fruit for BSL. Some of the cadets were exceptionally bright. I remember a personal conversation with one, Simon Kpe was his name, whom I cannot forget after 50 years. I told the young man he was wasted at sea, and tried to convince him to trade sea-going for university studies, particularly electrical or nuclear engineering. He politely declined. I hope that later on in life he changed his mind. I had no contact with Mr Kpe since, but recently I received a clipping from Ghana's Daily Graphic, dated 28 June 1976, reporting that on June 4 that year, BSL's m/v "Korley Lagoon" caught fire whilst discharging goods at Apapa. The fire was so intensive that the Nigerian Fire Brigade, which went to the rescue, abandoned its efforts. Captain Simon Kpe and his crew bravely fought the fire and saved the vessel. They were commended by the Ghaian government for their "act of gallantry, to the best tradition of the seafaring profession."
I suppose Captain Kpe has forgotten me since, but reading that clip pleased me very much: It provided another proof that I was a good judge of character. I have no doubt that a person of Simon's callibre found his place even after the demise of BSL.
I commanded the “Nakwa River” until February 1966, when I left BSL and Zim, for the position of Operations Manager in Israel’s new Maritime Fruit Carriers.
Not all with BSL was a bed of roses, though. The new company quickly adopted old colonial habits, two of which I remember vividly. First was the five pounds “dash” (=bribe, commission) each seaman had to pay the crew manager upon signing on. Rumor had it that part of the loot went all the way to the top. I fought it my way – by keeping my crews with me for as long as they wished and not yielding to the crew manager’s attempts to fill his coffer through crew changes aboard my ship. Second was an incident with the MD, who asked me once to bring him from London a crystal decanter. My wife bought a nice one at Selfridges for 25 pounds. I handed the decanter and the docket personally to the MD, who expected me, or ship’s petty cash, to bear the cost. He was very surprised – and indeed upset – to see that I insisted on him opening his wallet… I was young and pretty naďve at that time…
Reading again the captions above, and without any disrespect, I can categorically state:
1. Star Shipping was in fact Zim’s agency in London, but there was no Captain Kahn there.
2. Indeed, Zim masters competed in carrying big (and bigger, and bigger) deck cargos of logs and I participated in that unofficial “competition”. We brought that contest with us to BSL, where at the time 4-5 graduates of my class at the Haifa Nautical School served simultaneously as Masters. The efforts to win concentrated on optimizing stowage, never on “enhancing stability” and endangering our ships. None of us had ever flooded a lower hold, nor overloaded his vessel. Well trained in carrying heavy loads of deck cargo, we knew damn well the effect of free surface on ship stability! Moreover, Zim, and BSL, never paid us a bonus for our efforts and achievements. Nor did we expect one.
3. The story about the Ghanian diplomat and his lemonade, etc., is an urban legend.
4. Captain Gad Hilb was my superior, colleague and friend. In the late 1950s he was one of Zim’s favoured marine superintendents and was transferred to London to look after the BSL fleet. True, in 1946-48 he was in command of several “illegal” Jewish immigrant ships, attempting to break the Royal Navy’s Palestine Patrol’s blockade, which was set to stop holocaust survivors from landing in Palestine. He had a second mate’s ticket at the time and was after long WWII service in the US merchant marine.
Captain Hilb never had a minder, not even when the Palestine Patrol and British MI6 were chasing him and his colleagues. The guy with the eye patch was one of the members of his staff. He lost his eye accidently when he served as a third mate. I knew him too.
5. I agree Dammers van de Heide was an excellent shipping agency.
6. To those interested in the accurate history of BSL, I suggest they refer to:*“The Black Star Line of Ghana from 1957-1997” by James Tachie-Menson. This is Captain Tachie-Menson's MA thesis, presented to The Regional Maritime University, Faculty of Maritime Studies, Accra, Ghana. This highly interesting document on the rise and fall of the first African shipping line is available on line at :
and is worth reading.
Over the years I got to know very well the coast between Dakar and Pointe Noire, including the Delta Ports. In 1966, after 15 years at sea, of which 6 in command, I reached self-fulfillment and decided it was time to move on. I left BSL full of pleasant memories. The only contact I had since with West Africa were “Nigerian Letters”, which I still receive from time to time, notifying me of the millions awaiting me in Lagos and Abidjan.
Pushing 82, I doubt I’ll ever visit again that coast, which sometimes I miss so much.
Dr Avraham Ariel, PhD, MBA, Master Mariner