Captain Ken #19 - Communication at sea

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 19th article in the series reproduced on the PONLHeritage site, Captain Owen goes back to his Blue Funnel days and the limitations of the methods that they had on board for communications.     

This article was first published in the church magazine in December 2022.

It was good to note that the PCC Charitable Committee had voted once again to include the Mission to Seafarers, as one of the four included in the Church’s Charitable Giving Scheme.  It really is a most remarkable Charity, providing great help to seafarers and their families, all over the world.


One of the great changes that took place during my sea career, was the improvement in communication, both with the shore and other ships.  


In the nineteen sixties I was the 3rd Officer of a lovely cargo liner ‘Rhexenor’ and bound for Australia.  A job always required on our voyages was to lower a lifeboat anywhere in mid-ocean, leave the crew to sail around and then return to the ship.  On this particular occasion, this was being conducted in mid-Indian Ocean with no other ships in sight.


Of our four life boat,s only one had an engine and this was the one that the Second Officer was instructed to test.  When we had launched the boat, the Second Mate proceeded to steam away from the ship,while our Captain left me in charge on the bridge while he retired to his room.  While he was down, I began to get a bit worried as the life boat headed away from us until she had almost disappeared.  I had taken the precaution of noting the compass bearing of her disappearance, and so when the Captain returned to bridge we were able to steer this bearing until we could actually see the lifeboat again.

It seemed that the Second officer had misunderstood his orders as he continued to steam away from us.  This was before the days of VHF radio, so we could only communicate by flags.  "Hoist the signal for ‘Come back’" said the Captain.  I told him, I'd look it up in the International Code book, but he said "Don’t be stupid, just hoist C above B, which obviously means Come Back".

In the meanwhile, a French cargo liner similar to our own ship arrived on the scene and asked (by flashing Morse code) if she could be of any help.  "Tell her to go away, said the Captain. but she still hung around, refusing to leave us.

It then occurred to me that she would have consulted her International Code book to see what CB meant.  I looked it up and discovered it meant ‘I have spotted an airship, at time indicated, bearing indicated'.   No wonder the French ship wasn’t going to miss the fun.  

We did eventually recover the lifeboat successfully, but not before the Captain suggested we prepare a straightjacket for the Second Mate

Later, a good friend of mine was approaching a port in an old banger of a ship with serious engine trouble, and steering problems.  In order to advise other ships to keep clear he looked up in the International Code book for ‘Please keep clear, I am manoevring with difficulty, L A M .  He took the flags out of the flag locker and having bent them together, handed them to a seaman to hoist.  Unfortunately, the seaman hoisted them upside down, and he found himself flying M A L and approaching a very suspicious warship flying

‘Stop your engines or I will open fire.’

There’s a lot to be said for the VHF mobile phone!

(This article was first published in the December 2022 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine).

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