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Michael Frost recalls his time as a P&O Deck Cadet

SS. Khyber

Owner’s P&O

7.675 tons build: 1945 ex- Stanmore, 1947 purchased from J. Billmeir renamed Khyber, 1964 sold to Liberia renamed Comet Victory.

I had joined P&O in late 1961, and in November been appointed a cadet to ss Khyber, a general cargo vessel that had begun life as a Victory ship, one of the several hundred transatlantic workhorses manufactured in days rather than weeks in the U.S. for the transportation of all manner of goods from the New World to Britain to sustain the latter’s war effort. This class of ships was brilliantly designed for its purpose, but in my view the excellence of utility was not paralleled by any beauty of form. Not an ugly duckling, but no swan!

My first trip on her as a cadet was of course enlightening in innumerable ways. Importantly, despite its basic fixtures, the ship was a contented, even happy, ship. Secondly, I had gained geographical knowledge, Khyber having called in at Rajang, Jesselton, Cebu City, Iloilo, Labuan, and Belawan, ports of which I had never previously heard … and which I had no desire to re-visit. Educational experiences all, however, and a 19-year old needs all the worldly enlightenment that he can glean.

The second voyage was to be much the same, which is to say, a miscellany of Far East ports prior to terminating in Hong Kong and returning via a southern European port. The one change of note was that we were to call in at Colombo (the capital of Ceylon, then so-called) on the outward trip in order to effect a crew-change: this was necessitated by the fact that the P&O cargo fleet was essentially (though not wholly) crewed by British officers, a Lascar (a generic ‘Portuguese’ term for Indian sailor or militiaman) deck crew, Goanese stewards and a Pakistani engine-room complement. Basically, apart from officers, the whole crew at regular intervals was slated to change in Sri Lanka’s principal port.

The lush greenery of Ceylon in 1961

The voyage to Colombo, via Genoa (judging by our cargo, the home of Vespa and Martini & Rossi) was uneventful. Colombo was for most vessels an anchorage, there being relatively little wharfside space, certainly for a mere crew-change, and we thus dawdled in the harbour until, in late afternoon, we weighed anchor, and set off for Malaya (sic).

Ostensibly, all went well until about 1330, at which point the engine stopped (a not-altogether-unusual event for this vessel!). I, being on the 4 to 8, arrived on the bridge and found all to be calm and peaceful, until at about 1715 power returned and we resumed our southward voyage (the ocean in this part of the world was deep and the wind was still a relatively benign early SW monsoon, so being adrift was not problematic) – but only for about 10 minutes, after which point the Chief Engineer appeared on the bridge, looking grim (actually, as he usually did: a happy Engineering officer was an unusual bird) to declare the problem to be rather serious; the 4th Engineer had neglected to turn on the lubricating oil upon departure, and ‘now the chickens had come home to roost’ – we were on emergency power, with just about enough energy to keep the navigation gear and essential lighting going (and the coffee warm): very little else now worked!

Colombo 1960's

We were happy to hear that when the Radio Officer raised Colombo Pilotage, he was told that a tug would be sent out, but that it would not reach us until the following afternoon (and we were only 27 miles from the port’s entrance!).

Tug Hercules - Colombo Harbour

She was very ornate with lots of brassware, snow-white awnings and all wood decks.

The tug operators should not however have been so sanguine: nevertheless, we were happy to see Hercules appear at our side at 2100 the following night, by which time it was of course quite dark, rendering the attachment of the tug’s line to our then-severed anchor cable a herculean task. But this was only the first problem. The second was the antiquity of the tug: it was about half the size of Khyber and seemed to have barely escaped the age of the paddle-wheeler. Moreover, there was an unexpected issue unique to all of us: the tug had no radio or VHF … all communications, therefore, had to be by Morse Code or semaphore (fortunately, we never had to utilize the latter arcane craft!). After a tedious night-time tow, the next morning our cable snagged the bottom (presumably the tug crew were unaware of the continental shelf) but that snafu quickly became history when the exhausted Hercules was relieved by Samson, a snazzy tug that looked a mere 25 years old. Eventually, we arrived in the Inner Harbour and anchored mid-morning.

At that time Colombo was a busy commercial port (though not overly so, Sri Lanka at the time suffering one of its periodic recessions and, additionally, was experiencing a significant famine) and its ship-maintenance equipment was mostly antique and unimpressive. In addition, World War II had rendered Indian Ocean ship-repair facilities of great importance, but Trincomalee on the East coast (i.e. facing the naval battles) had been favoured and Colombo’s repair shops therefore atrophied. Our berth was thus far from the best equipment and technicians. (Fortunately, we did not need a dry-dock … otherwise, we would probably still be there!) True, we could walk to the centre of the city’s commercial district, but that was, at best, dusty, foetid and smelly.

Not the worst place to be holed up.

There are certainly many worse places to be holed up for a few days, and we had the advantage of being in a port where English was a common language, and as ‘Ceylon’ the country had enjoyed a rich history, being previously called Taprobane and Serendip, and colonial ‘possessions’ of Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain, all of which influences, with local potentates from the Indian subcontinent and Arabia, and even the Romans, had created a rich and virile social fabric. Our berth, however, was to the north of the enclosed harbour, and it was a considerable walk to reach the commercial centre of the city. But by taking a taxi (all ancient, but cheap) one could penetrate into some far more well-kept areas of the city. In fact, if one proceeded southwards far enough, the nature of the cityscape became profoundly different, the coastal culminating point being Galle Face, a famed sporting, hotel and beauty spot from which, if one could look far, far south, the first land to be spotted would be Antarctica.

For we three cadets, however, our experiences included little enough ‘tourism’ or leisure. The Mate, David Hannah, was a gentleman in every respect … except that he wanted to make sure that we three were never bored. The days were hot, often very hot, but we had to learn deck chipping, cargo gear maintenance, Hindustani and all measure of navigation lore, basically only to be permitted to “go ashore” on the weekends … if we were lucky. Of course, the fleshpots of Colombo had little ‘flesh’ on them: there was a ‘bookstore’ which sold papers, local, Indian and British, but the latter were all at least a week out of date, there was an economy in distress (the Chief Steward could give us 10 rupees to the pound sterling, but on the streets one could get 22, and, one supposes, well-heeled and better negotiators could obtain even better deals) and there were more beggars on the streets than one would have thought possible. And, curiously, there were some elderly female beggars ‘nursing’ infants seemingly aged 2-4 – one could only assume that such children were a marketable/hirable commodity.

But, occasionally, some relief intervened. One such was the arrival in the anchorage of P&O’s Himalaya, there, of course, for a crew-change; we hopped aboard and enjoyed an afternoon’s luxury, returning with some fresh provisions (of which none were locally available) and not a little envy. Our sole source of fresh provisions, as I recall, was our 4th Mate, who was an enthusiastic fisherman, and on occasion would take one of the lifeboats out and with a few willing hands cast his net into the outer harbour: I recall some particularly large and delicious prawns!

But the Mate was not without generous moments. On one gloriously sunny day (which describes most of them) he suggested that we take time off and see the sights. We (Bob Young, a cadet, and I) corralled a couple of junior engineers and together decided to visit Kandy, the ancient capital located some way inland. The Shipping Agency was able to hire for us a driver and a car which I believe to have in its youth been a large Austin, but which in the fullness of a car’s life in Sri Lanka acquired so many other spare parts on it that it could best be termed a mongrel-mobile. Our driver, an enthusiastic young man, proved a rather good tour-guide (which was probably his actual employment in good times) and off we sped ( … well, ‘sped’ wasn’t the right word: most of Colombo’s traffic was hand-drawn carts, cumbersome trailers hauled by recalcitrant bullocks, and, as we climbed uphill towards Kandy, quite a few elephants, also hauling carts, or simply standing around, and who seemed always, de facto, to have uncontested Right of Way). But we felt the fresh air, warm sun … and that the national psyche was not limited to plain drudgery.

Elephants taking a well-earned break

Finally arriving in Kandy, we took a ‘walking tour’ around what was a seemingly neat and beautifully designed town, and whose centrepiece was the Temple of the Tooth, the supposed repository of one of The Buddha’s teeth. (It seems a strange coincidence, but in 1968 my wife-to-be, a Canadian visitor to Ceylon, was able to witness an actual perahera, the annual parading of the tooth – in its casket - carried on the back of the finest and most formidable elephant available).

It was, in all respects, a splendid visit, almost rounding out our visit to this multifaceted country.

However, the ‘real’ finale was actually a couple of evenings later when I discovered that the Symphony Orchestra of (Ceylon/Sri Lanka), one of the longest established orchestras in South Asia, was giving a concert at the Lionel Wendt Theater. I taxied down (southwards, into the far more perfectly tidy suburbs) and was delighted by the ambience, and indeed the music (the world’s smaller orchestras must be delighted with the largesse that Mozart and Haydn left them with 145 symphonies and 30 to 40 concertos of the very highest quality: they can never run out of perfect material!). And it was pleasing indeed to see how smart society could be when it enjoyed an evening out: there is nothing more elegant than a perfectly-worn sari. Despite my expectations, however, Mrs Bandaranaika, the Prime Minister, and who lived locally, seemed not to be present. Nevertheless, even the men looked reasonable, with clothes that foreswore the eternal sarong … or occasional lungi.

Two days later we were (not entirely!) surprised to hear that after 42 (long) days, the engine was repaired, tested and ready to go. After all the deck-work that we cadets had undertaken, we could now look forward to days on watch on a warm but breezy bridge, time to operate as cadets should, and engage in pleasant discussion with a Chief Engineer who was now a transformed personality, a man who, hitherto unbeknownst to us, could smile. But “plus ca change”!

Just before leaving Colombo, Bob Young and I learned that we were to leave the Khyber! It seemed that two cadets on ss Mantua, a P&O tanker, had been engaged in the business of selling the ship’s fire-gear (on a tanker!) to nefarious shoreside parties engaged in such trade, and that that ship was due in Singapore just as we were to arrive in Port Swettenham (now known as Port Klang). Serendipitously, we were to go from a frankly decrepit old ship (Khyber was scrapped the following year) to a virtually new vessel, air-conditioning, huge cabins, weekly films, a wardroom, and little or no deck maintenance.

But therein lies another tale

Read more of Michael's Story in his book

Michael Frost, a retired lawyer, now resides with his wife of many years in Vancouver, British Columbia. Upon retirement from the Bar, he took time to reflect on his previous career as an officer at sea with P&O-Orient Lines during the sixties.

Salty Seadog Note.

I suggest purchasing the hardback version of Michael's book. (The Kindle edition is badly formatted)

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25. Juli 2022

I remember David Hannah who was Chief Officer on ORSOVA during my time on her in the late 1960s. As stated, a real gentleman and liked by everyone.

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