Captain Ken #13 - Blue Funnel Tales

Captain Ken Owen had a long career at sea which included sailing as master with Overseas Containers Limited (OCL), P&O Containers and P&O Nedlloyd.   Ken is now retired and in 2020 he started writing a monthly article for publication using the pen name 'Captain Ken' in the Mellor Church Outlook magazine.

A number of articles that Ken has written are about his time at sea and he has very kindly agreed that we can share them here.  

In the thirteenth  article that we have reproduced on the PONLHeritage site,  Captain Owen shares some more of his memories from his time sailing on Blue Funnel vessels.  This article was first published in the church magazine in January 2021.

The Blue Funnel Line, with which I served from the rank of Midshipman to Master, named all their ships after heroes in Homer’s Iliad. This was a fascinating fact, but did cause a lot of pronunciation problems over the radio and signal lamps within the fleet. 

I first became aware of this was whilst serving as Second Mate on SS Pyrrhus in the sixties.  We, and three of our sister ships were engaged on a very fast four months’ service sailing between Liverpool and Yokohama and many ports in between. 

In the days prior to every ship being installed with VHF radio communication, the Officer of the Watch on the bridge communicated with other ships visually by flashing messages in Morse Code to them by way of a hand-held signal lamp known as an Aldis lamp.  However, operators receiving the messages, invariably not being familiar with classical Greek names like PYRRHUS were concerned that they were not reading these names correctly and it would take a couple of repeats to assure them that what they were reading was correct.  They were more used to ships names such as Clan McGregor or City of York . 

On one particular voyage I made, the master of the ship was a Captain Harris.  It was his last voyage before retiring after a long distinguished career.  He was very well known throughout the fleet for his extremely tall stories. So much so that he was given a rather rude nickname.  First syllable is male of the bovine species, the second is up to you. 

It was rumoured in the fleet that when he arrived at Buckingham Palace to receive an award, he entered talking with a rather grand military-looking man and the King asked his aide ‘Who is that man, with Captain Harris ?’ He was told it was General Montgomery. 

Once when his ship was in Australia, Captain Harris boasted of being a member of the MCC and that he knew everybody.  Someone thought they would catch him out and happened to mention that as England was playing a test match against Australia in Melbourne, why not invite the team to visit the ship.  Imagine everyone's astonishment when the England captain and several members of the team did arrive on board for drinks one evening.  He once told me that on his orange grove in Florida, he had grown the world’s largest melons ‘you could only fit two in the boot of the car’ he told me and I didn’t dare to question it. 

On this same voyage, halfway down the Red Sea, we came across a Liberian registered wartime Victory ship which had been abandoned and was drifting following a fire in the engine.  The captain of this vessel, who was nearby in a lifeboat, asked if we would tow his ship to Aden.  Everybody on board our ship became really excited about this, as the salvage award involved in such cases can be very substantial, with the captain being awarded the most but each individual crew member picking up a large sum. I myself was particularly excited as my share would have paid off my mortgage.  However, it was very hard work for everyone to prepare for the tow as a very heavy insurance tow wire had to be brought up on deck which was no easy task.  Fortunately just before we attached it, Captain Harris asked if they agreed to Lloyd's Open Form.  This is the most wonderful agreement in maritime law and states that those involved in this type of situation simply get on with the job and Lloyd’s of London will arbitrate a fair award and guarantee to pay.  The captain of the disabled ship, however, told us he would not agree to using the Lloyd’s Open Form agreement and, out of nowhere appeared a salvage tug which was willing to tow the ship to Aden without Lloyd’s involvement.  To us this was a very obvious scam and we were disappointed but relieved to continue our voyage and take Captain Harris home to a well-earned and well-deserved retirement.

(This article was first published in the January 2021 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine).

For further articles in this series:

Captain Ken Owen's articles are being published on a regular basis here but if you are interested in reading others that he has written which we haven't yet used then please feel free to go to