Mike Birch’s, great grandfather, on his mother Nancy’s side, was Ferdinand Honey, who in partnership with Alfred Reed, began the Prowse Line of Birkenhead. They started with sailing ships and gradually moved to steamers. According to Nancy Birch, this event saw Ferdinand Honey withdraw from the partnership, which later became Coast Lines. Her father George Honey was employed as marine traffic officer with Coast Lines for nearly 50 years. Nancy’s brother, Stan Honey, was a Liverpool pilot. Mike’s father, Bertram, also had maritime connections, with his own father, William Birch, a boilermaker from Birkenhead, who spent several decades at sea on Pacific Steam Navigation Company ships. Mike started his maritime career by attending HMS Conway, the merchant navy training school at Anglesey. He spent three and a half years there learning shipboard duties, navigation, seamanship, ship construction, ship and boat handling and meteorology.
At the age of eighteen Mike passed out to join his first shipping company, British and Commonwealth, which was an amalgamation of several shipping companies, but the major ones were Clan Line and Union Castle. He was with them for seven years sailing as cadet on the Clan Malcolm, 4th Officer on the passenger ship Windsor Castle and 3rd Officer on a variety of cargo ships including the Clan Maciver. He was also on the tanker Hector Heron, mainly between the ports of South Africa and UK.
The passenger ships more commonly referred to as 'Mail Boats' carried surface mail between Southampton and Capetown. They ran on a very strict timetable, leaving Southampton with the last line letting go at precisely 1600 hours on Thursday arriving at the Capetown pilot station at 0600 nine days later, on the dot! The first mail boat he sailed on was the flag ship of the fleet the Windsor Castle, 2000 passengers in two classes with 900 crewmembers. He also went on a few voyages on the smaller mail boat the Southampton Castle on the same run but south bound going via Ascension Island to pick up deck passengers to take to St Helena before going onto Capetown. These passengers were St Helenians, who worked on Ascension for periods up to three months.
The Clan Line cargo ships traded between the UK and South Africa, East Africa or India, which visited some fascinating places. South African ports were comfortable and modern ports, but the same could not be said for most of the East African ports such as Dar as Salaam, Nacala or Tanga. He recalls being told by the mate to paint the for'd draft marks. The ship was at anchor so Mike and another cadet rigged the bosun's chair over the bow and took turns lowering themselves down the bosun's chair in the blistering heat of the tropics while watching the sharks circling just feet below them… waiting for dinner! Luckily they were disappointed. Those were the places that Mike wouldn't choose to return to on holiday, but the places that he would go back to are Mombassa, Mauritius and Zanzibar. Zanzibar was a fascinating place. The streets smelt strongly of cloves, huge reinforced wooden doors opened into bars, hotel foyers and private houses. The hotel bars, with their slow ceiling fans circulating the humid air in the dim light evoked images of Humphrey Bogart drinking cocktails.
In a bar in St Helier, while on a Solent Sailing Club cruising event, in the ‘90s, Mike bumped into Capt. William Fullerton, who had been his old captain on the Clan McIver, in the mid ‘70s for three round trips, one of which had been a cargo run to Chittagong. They reminisced on that voyage, which was certainly one of the strangest trips Mike had ever been on...here it is in his own words:
The Clan McIver left Birkenhead on a clear crisp Mersey day (!) bound for the distant and possibly exotic shores between there and Chittagong. Passage began uneventfully as we skimmed through the Western Approaches, traversed the Bay of Biscay and then rounded Cap Finisterre, on a heading to take us through the straits of Gibraltar. In the ‘70s we carried radar, but it was used sparingly in cases of anti-collision, fog and landfall, so as the straits of Gib were approached with their confined busy seaways, Captain Fullerton ordered that the radar be flashed up. Of course, this was when the electronic imp that dogged our entire voyage first struck, the radar went down without protest and was not seen to work.
Christmas day was spent cruising through the mild winter climate of the Mediterranean, but as we approached the Suez Canal the temperatures steadily climbed and a day out of Port Said the engineers started up the air conditioning in preparation for combating the sweltering heat of Egypt. The ageing machinery lasted only some twelve hours, before dying a gasping death, and this before we had even entered the Canal! Spares were ordered for picking up at the next port, Aqaba. On arrival in Aqaba the spares were of course nowhere to be found, nor the spares for the radar. It was fortunate for us all that this failure occurred in December and January as we had the whole journey to acclimatise to the heat of India before our arrival. We remained without radar and cooling as we headed south destined for the Ile du Paradis, Port Louis, Mauritius.
We were anchored in the river and spent some ten days discharging and loading cargoes, to and from a motley selection of dumb barges. We discharged ex UK cars and loaded raw sugar products. It was with regret that we departed Paradise with our turnabout port of Chittagong almost in view. Although the passage up the east coast of India provided some anxiety, particularly to the watches at night, with no radar whilst trying to steer clear of local engineless fishing punts, seemingly left out at sea during the night by their mother boat. On this leg our only VHF communication system, decided to join the absent radar and air conditioning, leaving us with but sporadic contact with the outside world, on Medium Frequency.
The visit to Chittagong passed remarkably uneventfully, except for the Watch who experienced the daily flow of carcases both animal and human towards the sea. We managed a quick turnabout before heading southwest down the coast to Kakinada. Off loading was immediately commenced into a series of wooden barges of very dubious construction and as we discharged a part load of scrap metal into one such barge, it promptly sank, alongside, and we then dragged anchor. Various of the barge crew clambered up ropes dangling off the ship’s side, some up the pole of its junk rig but the less fortunate had to take a dip in a swift flowing river that was as interestingly populated as had been that river, in Chittagong. The ship slowly steamed up river to fall back on a new anchor position before continuing with the discharge of our cargo.
Madras was hot like the curry, alas still no air conditioning, so I went off in search of some authentic curry powder to take home. At this time I had a nasty verrucca, so a quayside Sikh chiropodist was called in to attend to me. Taking the offending foot in one hand and a small metal straw in the other, he raised the straw to his mouth and my foot to the straw and much to my amazement he proceeded to suck the verucca out of my foot, root and all. Quite amazing and all for the price of a bar of buttermilk soap.
The old coal bunkering port of Colombo, Sri Lanka was our next port of call. The usual cargo selection was of Tea, Hemp and Palm Oil. A day’s sail across the Gulf of Mannar brought us to the Indian west coast port of Kochin. All of the navigation on the voyage was carried out now solely by sextant, compass and chart. Still no radar. Nelson would have been proud of us and Captain Fullerton polished and honed those skills first imparted to me at Conway. With Kochin behind us we headed West Nor’ west to take bunkers off Aden, before entering the Red Sea bound for Suez, the Med. and then home to Manchester. The electronic imp had not finished with us yet and as we homed in on The Manchester Ship Canal, so did the most splendid finale. All had been proceeding as it should, we had picked up our pilot, traversed most of the length of the canal and we were now on the home stretch and approaching the final lock gates. The Old Man, the pilot and I were on the bridge, the Chief Officer was in charge of the foc’sle, and holding a spring-line, as the ship moved gently forward into the confines of that final lock. The Pilot issued the order ‘Hold onto the forward spring.’ The Old Man spoke into the VHF handset which hideously distorted his command. There was no movement on the foc’sle. The Old Man repeated the order into the Amplidan, a ‘talk back’ system supposedly connected to the foc’sle. There was no movement on the foc’sle.
With heightened colour the Old Man spoke very loudly indeed into the microphone once, twice and three times and received back exactly no response at all from the foc’sle but he was turning a very nasty colour indeed. Although the pilot was being the soul of discretion during this rapid fire of orders, he too seemed to be becoming more agitated as the lock gates loomed progressively larger.
Finally almost apoplectic with horror as we still inexorably though gently approached the lock gates the Old Man rushed past me and seized a battery operated loud hailer, squeezed the talk button and bellowed out the order. His voice emerged none the louder although I was quite surprised that the Chief hadn’t heard him, on the foc’sle. In a final last-ditch attempt to relay his order the Old Man reached up for the cone hailer a manual aid of the previous century. He was heard to utter those immortal words, ‘Well, nothing can go wrong with this!’ Perhaps under the urgency of his grasp, the corroded rivets that ran along the length of it’s seam holding it in shape, popped one by one and the hailer cone opened fan like into a flat sheet of aluminium, in his hands. The order never reached the Chief, who anyway still held a spring-line. And to everyone’s amazement the ship stopped, short of the lock gate but by the time we docked in Manchester we had exhausted all modern means of navigation and communication, it had been a full six months.
During Mike’s time with British and Commonwealth he got his second mates ticket and then applied for a job with, and was accepted, by Maersk Offshore. He joined the first ship in Esberge, Denmark as mate. They supplied rigs off the Danish coast plying back and forth in all weather from violent North Sea storms to dense fog and frozen sea. The work rotas were 5 weeks on, 5 weeks off. The company built bigger ships which worked from other North sea ports in Scotland so Mike was moved to work out of Peterhead or Aberdeen. After 5 years with Maersk, Mike got his master's ticket and the company gave him his first command.
Mike had served 10 years with Maersk when he saw an advert for a vacancy in pilotage in Portsmouth. Working ashore, and not having to endure the North Sea storms were good reasons for applying for the post. This was a time when the pilotage regulations were changing and the organisation of pilotage in the Solent was being split into individual ports. Mike was accepted for the position at Portsmouth. Essentially a Royal Navy port with most ships being piloted by R.N. pilots. Mike was one of four commercial ship pilots responsible for the movement of a regular flow of refrigerated cargo ships and the cross channel ferries. This was no mean feat as Mike had to constantly manoeuvre vessels in his charge around moving warships.
Mike left Portsmouth after ten happy years to take up the position of harbour master at the freshly privatised port of Portland in Dorset. After an armed force review the Royal Navy decided to dispose of Portland. It was bought by a private company and Mike had the privilege of being the first commercial harbour master. The post required that he set up a marine department and pilotage service. It was in at the deep end though; he took over on January 1st when three ships were in the port and a very strong westerly storm was blowing across the harbour. He got no sleep on his first night! After two years he moved on to marine consultancy for a while, before emigrating to New Zealand. Captain Mike Birch is now Marine Pilot at New Plymouth on the west coast of New Zealand North Island under the shadow of the Egmont volcano.