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ORCADES RESCUES STALIN-or MAYBE NOT

According to Nick Messinger.


Orcades - Launched in 1947


I joined the P&O - Orient Liner ss Orcades, at Southampton, on the 25th March 1965.

Launched in 1947, by 1965 Orcades was starting to show her age, but under the command of Captain E G Riddelsdell RD*, ADC, RNR, she was a happy and well run ship. ‘Woof-Woof’, as he was affectionately known, due to his somewhat gruff, slightly barking voice, was an Orient Line captain, and an excellent ship handler too. As Fourth Officer, I was the senior of the ship’s two most junior deck officers and kept the twelve-to-four watch with the Second Officer. Chris Clarke, from Ballymena in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, was the Junior Fourth Officer and Ulsterman Pat Quinn-Young, ex Conway, was Third Officer, and with his Irish Republican roots and dry sense of humour, was great fun


My cabin was situated two decks below the bridge, with a window, that looked down onto the stadium deck. It came as quite a shock, when a few days into the voyage, halfway across the Atlantic, I hopped out of bed, opened the curtains and was confronted by twenty or so young ladies, lying on their backs, with their legs wide apart. It was the ship’s yoga class…..


Orcades Stadium Deck - Overlooked by officer's cabin


I dined in the first class restaurant, at the junior officer’s table, which was shielded from the passengers, by a heavy drape curtain, which, on gala nights, was left open, with everyone wearing paper hats and throwing streamers.



Our voyage took us first to Fort Lauderdale, then via the Panama Canal, to Acapulco, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver. Between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on a clear day, with a calm sea, Captain Riddelsdell appeared on the bridge and sent the Second Officer below for lunch, before giving me the run around for fifteen minutes; fixing the ship’s position, altering course for an oncoming tanker, checking fire alarms, watertight doors, port holes and scuttles, before pronouncing me fit to take charge of the bridge watch during meal times. Leaving the ship in my capable hands he, went below for drinks with passengers in his suite one deck down. With my two quartermasters and bridge ordinary seaman, all Liverpudlians, I strode the width of the ship, binoculars at the ready, occasionally scanning the sea horizon for oncoming vessels.


I had only been in charge for a mere twenty minutes or so, when I spotted a grey smudge way over on the port beam. It appeared to be a man on a raft; and as I watched, I could see he was frantically waving one arm aloft. I blinked; it was a man on a raft - and it looked to me like he needed help. We were over ten miles from shore and there was a gale in the offing. I took a deep breath; I knew what to do; I had been trained for just such an emergency.


Sounding one blast on the ship’s whistle, ringing stand-by-below on the engine room telegraphs, I ordered the quartermaster to put the wheel hard a’starboard, and watched as the ship’s head started to swing, then, when we were sixty degrees off our original course, I ordered full opposite helm, bringing the ship round in what is called a Williamson Turn - normally reserved for man overboard. By now, the engineers were reducing the temperature on the turbines and shrouding the funnel and superstructure in noisy, billowing steam. It was all very dramatic; and exciting. With the other quartermaster and ordinary seaman keeping their eyes on the unfortunate fellow, who was still waving madly, I brought the ship round and steadied her on course, with the raft and man almost right ahead, just off the port bow.


By now, the Captain and Staff Captain were on the bridge, together with the Chief Officer and a rather dazed-looking Pat Quinn-Young, who had been roused from his bunk by the din. ‘Christ bloke, I thought we had hit something!’ He cut a rather incongruous figure, with his big hairy chest, bright red tartan sarong and flip-flops. ‘Right Fourth mate,’ barked Woof-Woof, what’s all the fuss about?’‘ There’s a man on a raft, Sir,’ The bridge ordinary seaman, a young lad of seventeen was pointing excitedly and jumping up and down. Everyone on the bridge raised their binoculars in unison. ‘He appears to be waving at us’ said Roy Cookson the Staff Captain, drily. ‘He’s got a sign round his neck,’ said the Chief Officer. He had indeed. It read ‘Poor Old Joe’ in bright red capital letters against a grey background. ‘I think it’s Joseph Stalin, Sir: Dictator of the Soviet Union observed Pat Quinn-Young, holding up his sarong with one hand, and peering through the bridge telescope. It was a heavy, solid brass, unwieldy instrument, and he had trouble balancing it on top of the port bridge wing spray dodger with just one hand. I suddenly noticed his hair was thinning on top.


‘What the hell is he doing right out here?, growled ‘Woof-Woof’. ‘The Third Mate or Stalin, Sir? enquired the Chief Officer, suppressing a chuckle. At just under half a mile it became clear that the man’s hand was only waving because it was secured to the top of a short, stumpy mast, by a length of cord, and that he was dressed in a grey tunic and Russian peaked cap, and did bear a striking resemblance to Stalin. ‘I though he died about ten years ago,’ volunteered Pat Quinn-Young, before the Captain ordered him to get some clothes on.

Captain Riddelsdell - 'Woof-Woof’


‘It’s a tailor’s dummy,’ I declared, becoming more embarrassed by the second. ‘Stand down the crash-boat’s crew,’ ordered the captain, ‘resume course, tell the engine room. Let’s get back to our G&T’s gentlemen.’


Later, just before dinner, I dropped by the Staff Captain’s crowded cabin for a recuperative ‘horse’s neck’, brandy, dry ginger, ice and a slice of lemon. Roy Cookman grinned as his steward handed me my drink, winking as he told everyone, passengers and officers, and the Captain too. ‘This young lady was a student at UCLA. It’s their rag week and the theme is Stalin. Looks like they decided to set him adrift, and young Nick here turned the ship round to rescue him.’ There was polite applause. ‘You did the right thing, young man’ said Woof-Woof, raising his glass. ‘You can never be too sure. Better to make a decision rather than do nothing, only to regret it later. The war taught us that.’


Once we left Sydney, the ship made her way down to New Zealand, then on to Fiji, Samoa, New Caledonia, and home via Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Fremantle, Colombo and Aden, embarking members of the Salvation Army, bound for London and the Centenary Congress, en route. There were hundreds of them; tee-total, of course, and inclined to being kept under tight control by their senior officers. Suffice to say that all fun was strictly off-limits, as were the young ladies, who had to be back in their own cabins no later than ten pm.


Needless to say, it was a relief when the ship made her way up Southampton water and met the London-bound boat train, on schedule.


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Don Hazeldine
Don Hazeldine
Sep 25, 2022

A great story Nick

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