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That Sinking Feeling

John Martin recalls when all is not well down below.

MV Teraaka - Tarawa Marine Training School’s training ship based in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the Pacific Ocean were part of the British Empire from 1892 to 1976. They were a protectorate from 1892 to 12 January 1916, and then a colony until 1 January 1976. The history of the colony was mainly characterized by phosphate mining on Ocean Island. In October 1975, these islands were divided by force of law into two separate colonies, and they became independent nations shortly thereafter: the Ellice Islands became Tuvalu in 1978, and the Gilbert Islands became part of Kiribati in 1979.

The Gilbert Islands which includes the Phoenix and Line Islands (all 33 in black) is now known as Kiribati. Christmas Island is now renamed locally as Kiritmati. The Ellice Islands are now known as Tuvulu.

This picture shows MV Teraaka before it was sold to the Gilbert and Ellice Colony in 1968 in Yugoslavia where she was named the Jadrolinij and reputedly used by Tito as his personal yacht. On arrival in the Gilbert and Ellice chain, her name was MV Ninikoria until it was changed to Teraaka in 1975. It remained in service in the islands until 1990 when it was sold to an American and relocated, although this fact is disputed. Some believed that she was scuttled off the reef when her maintenance became unsustainable. Picture courtesy of Passenger Ship Website

John Martin was recruited by the Overseas Development Agency, part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (as it was then), as a Marine Training Officer (Catering) for the Tarawa Marine Training School, Gilbert & Ellice Islands colony in 1974.

John Martin Recalls


‘Strange’ I thought, ‘that’s the emergency generator being started up – but it is not emergency drill day or the usual time’.

We were on Tarawa Marine Training School’s training ship ‘Teraaka’, en route to visit the Gilbert & Ellice Islands ‘Northern Line Islands’, normally an eight-day sailing across the Pacific from Tarawa at 12 knots. We had been reduced to 8 knots as we were towing a fishing vessel to Christmas Island nearly 2000 miles away. Probably the biggest distance to cover from one location to another in the same country.

I was on the boat deck doing a ‘throw-out’ from the big walk-in freezer that was situated there when our newly joined Scottish 2nd Engineer, who was also on the school’s training staff, arrived to say that he was going to have to turn off the freezer and all the electrics in the galley. A generator’s cooling water pipework had burst, and the engine room was flooding with seawater. They needed enough power to keep the pumps working.

It transpired that of the three main generators in the engine room, one had a cracked crankshaft, another a bent crankshaft and it was the one that was providing our electric power that had the faulty pipework. Thus the emergency generator start-up. EXCEPT that it was not connected to the main electrical switchboard. The national Chief Engineer was seen on the main deck on his knees praying. The generator with the bent crankshaft could JUST generate enough power to manage the pumps so that the main generator could close down long enough to fit a cement box around the faulty pipework.

Our Chief Officer was also doing his first trip after a stint instructing in the school. A very correct Prussian from Hamburg Sud. He had been spending his days in all four lifeboats and was rather shocked to find that the sheaves on the gravity roller davits had suffered a lack of maintenance and were unlikely to roll the boats out should they need to be lowered. He had been doing his best to free them.

All rather disconcerting being in the middle of the Pacific, away from any shipping lanes and too far away from the range of any rotary winged planes. Especially with a wife and daughter on board. There was great relief all round when the ministrations of the Second Engineer worked and we could continue on our way for the colony’s Commissioner of Police and Senior Magistrate to undertake their inspection of the three islands we were due to visit.

Safe arrival on Christmas Island after a two-week voyage. Here with the catering trainees in mufti. Discovered by James Cook on his third world voyage on Christmas Day 1777, en route northbound from Tahiti to try and discover the North West Passage. Christmas Island was used for ‘Operation Grapple’, the testing of nuclear bombs 1957-58.

Normally it was an eight-day passage, but we had in tow one of the colony’s fishing boats that was due to start some sort of fishing project around the island. Tuna was plentiful.

After our return to Tarawa, arrangements were made to sail to Hong Kong’s Taikoo Dockyard where the ship could be brought up onto a slipway so that all the seawater pipework could be renewed and repairs to the generators undertaken. The life rafts were landed for a survey – and found to have perished!

After a 17-day voyage via the south of the Philippines, we arrived in the harbour as darkness fell. Hong Kong at night is awe-inspiring at the best of times….but for trainees from coral atolls who had never seen such bright lights, it was difficult to absorb.

Taikoo is on Hong Kong Island and was opposite what was Kai Tak airport with its main runway extended into the harbour. Watching planes land and take off was mesmerising for them.

Interesting for us too. Would they or wouldn’t they make the takeoff – especially if flying landward.

When the ship went up onto the slipway the crew and trainees were accommodated in the dormitories at the top of the Mariners Club on the Kowloon side of the harbour. Taking them there for the first time, one had to remember that there would be completely new experiences for them. I had to explain how they would experience a lift. Not to panic when the doors closed and they felt like being lifted. That when the doors opened again they would be at a different level. Watching them seeing a television for the first time. Explaining how the beds were made up. Not needing to sleep on pandanus mats on boards – as in the school – or bunk springs as on the ship.

My wife, daughter and I were accommodated in married quarters on the lower floors. Enjoying a first hot bath for many months and watching what I thought was a tan disappearing down the plug hole, I had a panicked thought. I had not told them about hot water! Quickly dressing, I rushed to the top of the club imagining having to deal with scalded flesh. I should not have worried. They were queuing at the showers for a second or third time.

Trainees were not provided with any footwear because all the islanders went barefoot. Although always in uniform during school hours and on the ship they went about their tasks without foot covering for a year. However, when the Chinese, especially the ladies kept pointing to their feet and giggling causing embarrassment to the boys, we realised this needed to be addressed. We would provide them with sandals. However, with broad splayed feet we had to have them made. The largest Chinese footwear sizes just didn’t fit.

We were 36 days in Hong Kong altogether. 15 days on the slipway with shoreside power but no black or grey water facilities followed by 19 days on the buoys. This was after my wife had expressed disappointment that she had not had the chance to visit Hong Kong with me on one of my trips before starting a family. She proudly ended up with a British (Hong Kong) Passport.

MV. Teraaka - Featured on a Gilbert Island / Kiribati stamp.

Heading back to Tarawa, loaded with as many stores as we could, our Chief Engineer, an ex RN PO this time, realised that the spare lube oil was under a couple of tons of other stores when we got to south of Mindanao Island. About turn – to Manila. Another couple of days of civilisation before back to the basics of desert island life.

MTC’s 50th Anniversary Ceremony. Photo: BPA Kiribati

On 22nd July 2017 the Tarawa Marine Training School celebrated 50 successful years of training, during which time over 5000 young men have found employment through the MTC training scheme. Nowadays socks and sandals are part of the uniform.


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1 Comment

Hi John, I don’t suppose your remember that 2nd Engineer’s name? My dad served on the same ship, and Tarawa left a long lasting impression on him.

David Bulloch

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