Captain Ken #10 - Peninsular Bay container fire

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.

This is the tenth article that we have reproduced on the PONLHeritage site and this one covers an incident when the Peninsular Bay had a fire in a cargo container stowed on deck.

Peninsular Bay (in the later P&O Nedlloyd livery)

CAPTAIN KEN


In the early nineties I was Captain of the P&O Containers’ recently built container ship, ‘ Peninsular Bay’. We had a completely British crew of only 20, and were employed in a joint service with Denmark’s Maersk company, to run between the Far East (mainly China) and North Europe.


On one memorable occasion, we were homeward bound in the Mediterranean following a successful voyage, i.e., a full cargo of containers and exactly on the advertised schedule when to our horror, smoke was observed emitting from the container stack on deck.


Although we were carrying some four thousand containers, we generally only know the actual contents of those that are declared as ‘hazardous. We were able to identify the one that was on fire as from the cargo plan so we knew it was hazardous.


Strangely enough the cargo was simply charcoal, packed in polythene bags in cardboard cartons. The problem is it can be liable to spontaneous combustion, and that is exactly what had happened. Because of the hazard it had been stowed on deck in a position that the crew could actually reach, and thus we were able to insert high pressure fire hoses into the burning container. Our very serious worry was that in the same container stack we had numerous containers of manila hemp which was also highly inflammable and could easily cause the entire cargo to go on fire.

As an aside, the bales of manila hemp we were carrying were once a very common cargo imported from the Far East in order to make into rope. I had been surprised that despite that now rope was made from polythene and nylon, we seemed to be importing even more bales of hemp. The solution was that the changeover coincided with the invention of the tea bag. The wet strength of the hemp was ideal for making the tea bag paper. A wonderful illustration of the proverb. ‘When one door closes- another door will open.’

I had telephoned to our head office in London to advise the Fleet Management department of the circumstances and explained how we were fighting the fire. To our horror, each time we thought we had managed to extinguish the fire, it flared up again, and I realized we would have to jettison the cargo. Th 40-foot container, with its 23 tonnes of charcoal in hundreds of cartons was stowed at deck level in the centre of the ship so it was possible to access it.

While the Chief Officer and Second Engineer wearing protective clothing and breathing apparatus entered the smoke-filled container, the rest of the crew operated the fire hoses and then formed a queue between them and the ship’s side. And thus, with extreme difficulty they managed pass the cartons hand to hand and jettison all the 23 tonnes of boxed charcoal into the sea.

I remained on the bridge and the Chief Engineer in the engine room and every other person on board helped in the operation. The operation was successful, and we and the Company were highly relieved. Having once actually seen a large Evergreen container ship, aground in the Elbe River, with the entire deck stow ablaze, I was particularly grateful to everybody on board. As required by law, I notified the authorities at Southampton, our first port of call, and when we arrived there the incident was duly investigated, and the ship continued her voyage to Rotterdam and Hamburg.

I was reminded of another of my favourite proverbs, ‘No good deed, goes un-punished’, when the following voyage, I received, by post a hundred-guilder personal penalty fine from the Dutch port authorities who had mistakenly assumed that our call there had been our first following the Incident.


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