This copy of the newsletter contains some information about the loss of the Stellar Daisy. a short article about the use of the beaufort Wind Scale, something about the old British nautical colleges, Conway, Worcerster, Pangbourne and Warsash and the shipping companies they served, and lastly the Norwegian Ship Tunnel.


A photograph of the Stellar Dairy used in the media and probably from the company website.

On the first day of April the Very Large Ore Carrier Stellar Daisy disappeared in the South Atlantic about 1500 miles from the coast of Uruguay and up to today only two Filipino crew members have been rescued. The ship was owned by a South Korean company Polaris Shipping and it was on a voyage from Brazil to China. It was flagged in the Marshall Islands and classed with KR the Korean Register of Shipping, and it was carrying 260,000 tons of ore. As time has passed information about what a very large ore carrier is, and how the Stellar Daisy became one, have entered the public domain. It was once a VLCC, a very large crude oil carrier, but back in the 1990s single hull crude oil carriers were phased out as they were replaced by double hull ships, and some were converted into ore carriers. This conversion  involved cutting big holes in the centre tanks and the construction of hatch covers, and therefore a substantial strengthening of the hull in compensation. This would leave the wing tanks to provide buoyancy when loaded. There has been speculation that the conversion might not have been totally successful and hence the ship will have fallen apart. The two survivors have said that it split in two. Also suspected has been the means and the rate of loading the ore, which can be up to 10,000 tons an hour. Apparently at some loading points the ships are shuffled under enormous hoppers which are opened to pour the ore into the holds. Could this technique have caused unwanted stresses in the converted hull? Indeed one would think that such a loading method would only require a tiny mismanagement to put a ship at risk.  The Korean Seafarers Federation have also suggested that there is always an unofficial association between businesses and government departments and the culture has little respect for “rules, safety or human lives”. They imply that there is an inappropriate connection between the construction, classification and  operation of the country’s ships. Since the ship sank in 12,000 feet of water it is doubtful that the actual reason for the loss will be found, however the company have converted further VLCCs so there is scope for investigation.


I am a follower of the gCaptain forum where seafarers, mainly American, express views about stuff. There has been a lot on the site about the loss of the El Faro and lately some discussion about the Beaufort Wind Scale, and the photographic representations used by seamen to tell how windy it is. This stems from a line of questioning during the enquiry about anemometers and their importance. The master being questioned did not attach too much importance to having an anemometer and so some of the contributors to the forum have suggested that pictures of rough seas did not mean much, whereas an anemometer would provide proper information. I have reflected on this judgement and would suggest that initially having the pictures can be useful, and indeed may be more useful that having an anemometer, which will always be vulnerable to the speed of the ship and its position in the upperworks. Having spent several years working in a difficult marine environment I can say that while having the pictures is useful to start with, after a while it is possible to tell how windy it is just be observation. Importantly when the wind speed approaches Beaufort Force 9 you begin to see streaks appearing in the waves. When it gets to about Force 11 visibility begins to be reduced by spray in the wind and past that the Beaufort scale becomes unimportant – you are in survival mode. Indeed by then it is possible that the little propeller of the anemometer will have blown off. Indeed it seems to me that the anemometer could be weather observation for dummies. The sheer size of the waves is not quite such a good indication since this depends on the fetch and the duration of the adverse weather, and it is always good to go outside, then you really get to know how windy it is.


A Nemi ship shortly after its recovery from Lake Nemi back in the 1930s. See the human figures in the foreground. 

As a bit of a student of the Roman emperors and their times I was interested to learn that Caligula had had two ships constructed on Lake Nemi some 30 miles south of Rome on which he would spend time enjoying their luxurious accoutrements. Because the lake was situated in the bowl of a volcano there was not possibility that they would do anything but provide accommodation on the water. They could not go anywhere. However, they contained technology which was not rediscovered until the middle ages. Fishermen in the area had always been aware of the presence of the ships, which had been sunk after Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD, but they were too deep for meaningful exploration. In order to recover items from them they would use ropes with hooks attached and drag fitting and planks to the surface. It was not until Mussolini became dictator of Italy that a real effort was made to recover the ships, and the means used was to drain the lakes using pumps in starting in 1928. By June 1931 the first ship had been recovered and the second exposed, but the reduction in weight in the crater resulted in a vast eruption of mud and so with the second ship still under water the project was abandoned. Later work was resumed and the second ship was recovered in 1932. There-after a museum was constructed in the area and the ships put on display there, together with the various decorative items which remained. On the night of May 31 1944 an artillery battle took place between the Americans and the Germans and the Americans landed several shells on the museum, forcing the Germans into retreat. Later the museum as seen to be on fire, and in the end only a few charred timbers and the bronzes remained. The Germans blamed the Americans, but it seems more likely that the retreating army set fire to the place, either to prevent the building being used by the Americans or just for devilment. 


 The house in which Devitt and Moore started the Nautical College, Pangbourne in 1917 - as it looks today.

Back in the day there were over 100 British shipping companies carrying goods to and from every country in the world. They employed around 50,000 British officers who were often trained at one of the several nautical training establishments in UK. Such training was not essential; potential deck officers could go to sea straight from school and serve for four years, but there was an advantage in going to a training school, the sea time required for Second Mate’s was reduced from four years to three. There-after, after studying and passing the examination, the guys with their new Second Mate’s certificates would often re-join the companies who had employed them as apprentices.

The main nautical colleges were the Worcester and HMS Conway both of which started up in the 19th century based on retired ships of the line, and then later the Nautical College Pangbourne which was established by the Devitt and Moore shipping company in 1917. In the 1930s the School of Navigation at Warsash was to expand from its initial role as a means of providing study for the marine examinations into a pre-sea training establishment.

On completion of the pre-sea training period the young men, and in those day it was only men, would apply to join the shipping company of their choice, often without having any real information about them. They might at that time be aware of the countries with which the companies had commercial links, or sometimes whether they ran cargo ships, passenger ships or tankers. Possible employers included the P&O, who managed a fleet of cargo ships and a number of substantial passenger ships, many running from UK to Australia and some to the Far East, the Port Line whose cargo ships ploughed a furrow between London and the antipodes, the Union-Castle who operated passenger ships between Southampton and South Africa, or Manchester Liners who carried cargoes across the Atlantic to and from the port of Manchester at the inland termination of the Manchester Ship Canal. And many many more.

These were large organisations managing their ships in a very traditional manner, quite often in what were known as the liner trades, which meant that they would pick up cargoes at either end of the voyage, visiting a number of ports and delivering them to the ports at the other end, following some sort of a schedule. There were also what were known as tramp companies who would pick up complete cargoes at one port at one place and deliver them to one port at the other end, often steaming in ballast to the next port for another complete cargo. The latter companies were less popular with the product of the training colleges, possibly because they made less effort to recruit their staff, relying on the fall out which usually occurred after the seafarers had taken their Second Mate’s certificates. In addition to these trades some organisations operated their own cargo carriers. The banana companies Fyffes and Geest both managed their own fleets of ships, and even Tate & Lyles carried their raw sugar in their own ships, originally known as Silvertown Services (Shipping) as opposed to Silvertown Services (Lighterage) their tug company.

Many ships operated by British companies were torpedoed during the Second World War and so it was necessary for them to rebuild, or sometimes operate ships taken over from the German merchant service as war prizes. Many also took over American wartime construction, Liberty ships and Victory ships. Ellerman City line for instance bought some Liberty ships which they had managed for the government during the war and P&O known as the poshest of the British fleet had two Victory ships still in their fleet in the 1950s.

By the 1970s most of these ship-owners had realised that it would no longer be possible to operate in their traditional way and branched out into other trades, with only a moderate level of success. They were also faced with the initiation of the container trade, which might have been developed due to the difficulties shipping companies were experiencing in labour relations in all port of the western world. Strikes were frequent, often on the encouragement of far left organisations. They built or bought bulk carriers and tankers and even began to operate offshore supply vessels in the hope of reviving what were by then failing fortunes, and it could be that their demise was sealed by Margaret Thatcher who committed the country to free trade economics. It became unnecessary by then to employ British masters on British registered ships.

But what did it all matter, by now it had become cheaper to register ships somewhere other than UK, heavens you could register a ship in Bolivia if you wanted, or even in Mongolia, and of course the standards of training and certification for their officers was variable. Hence it was often cheaper to  employ officers from the third world, and so the need for the training and certification of British officers was reduced to almost nothing. The Worcester shut down in 1968, and Conway was closed in the early 1970s. The Nautical College, Pangbourne has become Pangbourne College and no longer sends anyone to sea and what used to be the School of Navigation at Warsash faces a bumpy future as it is absorbed into Southampton University.

So why this bit of history which many people will already know all about. Well, last week I went to an event which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Nautical College, Pangbourne. There were many of us – grey haired old guys -  going on a bit about the past, as well as a sprinkling of more youthful old boys and old girls, all working in publishing or the city or advertising. But amongst us, the old guys, we found ourselves asking the question – where did it all go wrong? How was the largest commercial national fleet in the world reduced to a fraction of its previous importance.

There are no easy answers, but at the very least it is likely that the ship-owners in UK were resistant to change. They continued to operate out-dated tonnage in their traditional trades, and maybe started to work in new business areas which they did not really understand. Back in the 1970s  the major ship-owners in UK had also taken over lesser fleets, and had diversified into property and other forms of transport. This diversification had made them vulnerable to take-over, particularly by the predators who would be likely to break up the company taken over, and dispose of the ships to anyone who would give them a reasonable price.

And so in the end there we were, a group of old boys from an unusual nautical inland academy mourning the loss of the organisations for whom we had worked and for which it was evident many of us retained great affection, and I was struck by the sense of comradeship amongst us. We were a dying breed and the information about the companies we worked for is mostly being kept alive by amateurs, people who have an enthusiasm for ships but no real experience of them. The other nautical colleges also have old boys associations and collectively we make up a group of people who have similar experiences and memories of a time when Britain really did rule the waves. There are probably four or five thousand of us in total, and we are scattered all over the world. Time is reducing our numbers, and my recent visit to my old school has made me feel that somehow we should find a way of recording our experiences for posterity, for our offspring and for the nation before it is too late.

I have had one or two communications about this article and have some ideas which I will broadcast later.



The intended dimensions of the ship tunnel

Archaeologists suspect that the Vikings in Shetland hauled their ships over a narrow strip of sand at the bottom of Yell Sound so as to avoid a couple of days sailing up the sound and down the other side, and over the centuries civil engineers have continued to find the means of connecting one area of sea with another, so avoiding lengthy voyages. The Emperor Nero attempted to construct the Corinth Canal connecting the Aegean Sea with the Saronic Gulf in 61 AD although it was not completed until 1893. The Suez Canal was opened in 1869 and the Panama Canal, possibly the most ambitious of all the canals was completed in 1914. They were all intended to reduce the lengths of voyages. However, the latest artificial connection between two bodies of water to be envisaged is the Norwegian Ship Tunnel, to be built to avoid the predominantly adverse weather in the northern North Sea. It is a project which first surfaced in 1874 but it did not get a green light until 2007 when the expected savings, particularly from marine accidents, was considered to make it economic. The tunnel is to be 162 feet high and 118 feet wide and hence able to handle ships up to 16,000 tonnes deadweight. Construction is intended to start in 2019 and might possibly be completed in 2023.

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