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.
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.
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.
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.
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.