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Cleanliness is next to Godliness

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

As every cockroach knows, thriving on poisons is the secret of success. - Mason Cooley

“Why”, I was asked “has there been such a surge in cockroaches on board?”

I had been ‘called in’ into the office to explain voyage reports from my two trips as Catering Officer onboard, Elder Dempster Lines ‘Aureol’. As part of the report, we were asked to comment on pest control activities. I had reviewed previous reports which had blandly stated ‘that there was evidence of some cockroach activity’.

John Martin as Catering Officer on

RMMV 'Aureol" explores the humble cockroach

I thought truth ought to be told; especially as we had had to move passengers from a particularly bad section of the ship into other cabins while we tried to fumigate the area as best we could with sprays. I also reported a heavy infestation in the galley areas but left out that we were having to fish the little beasties out of the milk churns on the service counter at breakfast, after they had dropped out of the lagging from the overhead pipes.

The ship had been transferred from Liverpool as its UK terminus port to Southampton earlier that year. I asked if a pest control contractor had been appointed since her move. They were regularly onboard in Liverpool, asking where we would like them to concentrate on.

‘Aureol’ sailing from Lagos

As any Salty Seadog knows who has spent time in the tropics, the winged ‘wee beasties’ could be found anywhere on ships that provided dark and warm hiding spaces, especially if there was any food in the offing, nor were they fussy as to what that might be. Not only the ‘creepy crawlies’ but also the four-legged varieties of pest as well.

The ones I had been reporting on were mainly of the smallest of the variety, the German cockroach (Blatella germanica) which we tended to refer to as steam flies. The ones that used to crawl out of the cracks and crevices of the Half-Deck where we, when trainee seafarers, resided during the night and crawl into our ears as we slept. I was also aware of the larger members of the family and learnt of their habitats and habits. Having them tickle the inside of my leg while minding my own business – doing my business proved disconcerting. How did they find their way into toilet bowls?

At the Pacific Island Marine Training School, while trying to locate a rat’s nest in which its residents were seemingly happy to share our bagged rice and sugar as well as other goodies in the school’s victualling storeroom, we managed to disturb the home of a large family of ‘Oriental’s (Blatta orientalis)

Armed with insect spray, my catering trainees on ‘defaulters’ had a good go at eliminating these interloper cockroaches.

As the storeroom was of a double-skinned wood construction, it was soon obvious where our adversaries resided. On leaving the school compound we were required to salute the ‘gangway watch’. Some of these winged beasties had taken refuge in my uniform cap. As soon as I touched the peak their repose was disturbed. Having cockroaches crawling in my hair was not something I wished to experience again. I happily reported to the school’s Captain Superintendent that I had pretty well demolished the storeroom as part of my pest control blitz. His response “Well, you can now rebuild it”. We did, but a more pest-resistant structure. A more solid storeroom with a concrete swill area.

In a different role, having recruited an Indonesian catering crew to replace the Indians on an Oil/Bulk Ore carrier that was employed as an FSO on a static oil storage contract off Jakarta, I was determined the cockroach population on board should not take advantage of our location.

One might think lying offshore would prevent an infestation. I had soon learned that these insects mainly came on board with stores purchased in the tropics, hidden in crevices and baskets.

IRFON’ with her personnel transfer basket

suspended ready to receive crew joining

A supply boat came out twice a week to serve the installations in the Ardjuna oilfield. I had the crane driver hold our stores in the net on the deck while we liberally sprayed them. We would then chase the escapees and jump on them before they could find some other hiding place…in the hope that we would eliminate any females before they dropped their oothicae (egg cases). The ‘Bombay Jaspers’, the misnamed American Cockroach (periplanetna americana), the Orientals and ‘Smokey Browns’, an Australian variant (supella longipalpa) all tried this method of hitching a ride out to the ship.

Type of Cockroach

Their nymphs (youngsters)

Their oothicae (eggs)

I was particularly disappointed when I re-joined an LPG carrier a couple of years after I had been part of the team that had brought her out of the builder’s yard and sailed on her maiden voyage. From brand-spanking new, she now had an infestation of blatella germanica in her galley, messrooms and officer’s dining saloon. The problem with insecticide sprays is that they tended to drive the little beasties from one area to another and does not get access to their hidey-holes. If the females dropped their oothicae before expiring, it didn’t take long for the emerging nymphs to mature and so start the cycle all over again. The trick was to try and fumigate again before any surviving juveniles became mature enough to breed. I was now on a mission. Having managed to acquire phosphine gas cartridges we managed to seal all exit routes from a space, doorways, cabling, pipework and letting off the capsule to work overnight. It was a lot cleaner than sprays and only needed ventilation in the mornings – and the sweeping up of dead bodies. Galley, crew and duty messes and dining saloon got the treatment. Repeating the exercise five weeks later pretty well eliminated the problem.

Acquiring the CIEH Advanced Food Hygiene Certificate granted a license to deliver and certify their Basic Food Hygiene Certificate for food handlers. In my case, for those so employed on board cruise ships and ferries.

It involved sitting of two papers, an oral and a project thesis. The oral was undertaken by a local environmental health officer. “So, what is that?” he asked showing an example from a small box. “That is a periplanata americana” I replied. Either he thought I was being a smart-arse or had been over-studying. “It’s a cockroach” he responded. From another box; “So what are these?” “Oothicae from blatella germanica, sorry, German cockroaches” I ventured. Rolling his eyes, he suggested cockroach eggs was an adequate enough answer. He obviously realised that I had more experience of pest control that he may have had, especially when he showed a sample of rodent droppings, and I suggested the type of rat that had been the culprit. It was an ADVANCED Food Hygiene Certificate I was being examined for after all.

Read more from John Martin

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11. Juli 2021

I recall as a Cadet Purser on ORSOVA working with the Storekeeper to clear one heavily infested storeroom, throwing in gas canisters, closing up overnight and going back in next morning to the crunch of dead cockroach bodies underfoot which we then swept out and dumped overboard.

Also, whilst on standby, I think in Tilbury, the whole ship was fumigated over a three day period and everyone had sore throats and running eyes. Not sure Health and Safety would allow that these days.

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