Captain Ken #11 - Memories of Shanghai and a Refugee Rescue

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.  

The eleventh article that we have reproduced on the PONLHeritage site covers Captain Owen's early visits to Shanghai and a refugee rescue while commanding the Peninsular Bay.


Visiting Shanghai in the fifties and sixties, following Mao Tse-tung's defeat of the Nationalist Party, was an incredible experience. The city was absolutely dead with no road traffic at all save for myriads of bicycles and very old electric trams which were constantly overloaded. I was invited by the Chinese Indoctrination Officer, appointed to our ship, to accompany him on a tram journey from our berth on the river to the city centre. I was amazed by the strength and efficiency of these old trams and delighted when I read the maker’s brass plate. It read ‘Metropolitan Vickers - Manchester and Sheffield’.


On a later voyage, as things progressed in China and during a heat wave in Shanghai, some of us were taken on a tour to see how the Communist party was improving the conditions of the workers. First we were shown around an old traditional factory, which had a Chinese tiled roof over which ran constantly flowing water. This was followed by a visit to a new factory which had new electric fans. We were reluctant to comment that the traditional Chinese factory was, in fact, the cooler of the two. We were then shown around the new workers’ accommodation which seemed to have no form of heating whatsoever and, knowing how very cold Shanghai can be in winter, I asked how the workers would keep warm in such an unheated building. The Commissar thought for a moment and I waited for an answer of proud technical achievement and innovation. ‘They wear extra jumper.’ he replied.

Some thirty years later when I was captain of the Peninsular Bay, we were bound from Hong Kong to Busan in South Korea and were in the Taiwan Straits. We spotted a drifting Chinese military navy river patrol craft. At that time many Chinese were trying to flee the Communist regime and were attempting to get to Taiwan or countries in the West. It was a large open boat completely covered with a tarpaulin which was being held down all around the boat by scores of hands. All we could see of these people were their hands. The craft had two huge outboard motors, but neither was working and they were just drifting. The boat was near the Taiwan coast so we tried, unsuccessfully, to contact the Taiwan authorities. I was slightly concerned during all this as for all I knew, this might have been a pirate trap which was not unusual in those parts. We also had an important schedule to maintain so any delay was, of course, likely to prove very expensive for the company. However, knowing the phone number of the Hong Kong Rescue Co-ordination Centre, I called them on the satellite phone and gave them the exact GPS position of the boat and decided to leave any rescue or investigation in their capable hands.

As we resumed our course and speed to Busan, the unfortunate souls undercover in their boat on seeing us sail away, began a loud and mournful wailing which sounded quite uncanny and very disturbing. On reaching our destination in South Korea, I contacted our agent in Taiwan and asked if the refugees had been rescued and felt absolutely devastated when he said he knew nothing about the matter. However, when I called Hong Kong, they confirmed that all the people in the boat had been rescued and were now safely in a refugee camp in Taiwan.


(This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine).

Peninsular Bay

For further articles in this series:

Captain Ken Owen has kindly provided us with a new series of articles which will be published on a regular basis here. If you are interested in reading other articles that he has written which we haven't yet used then please feel free to go to