Captain Ken #6 - Fire on Board

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 with the company and he has very kindly agreed that we can share them here.

In this sixth article that we are reproducing on the PONLHeritage site, Ken tells the story of a number of fire incidents on one voyage when leaving the port of Hamburg.

As I’m very pleased to note, most of my stories and reminisces, seem to be very happy ones. However, I must confess that occasionally, some are not.

Some years ago I was Master of a very large container ship, and one very gloomy evening we were sailing from Hamburg bound for Bremerhaven.

It was dark, and continuous heavy drizzle made the visibility very poor indeed. Fortunately we were assisted as usual by a very capable German pilot.

While we were letting go the moorings from the container berth all the ship’s fire alarms sounded. Everyone proceeded to their allotted fire stations but thankfully no trace of a fire was observed.

Unfortunately the same thing happened on another two occasions while we were still undocking. We could only assume there must be some undetected electrical fault and as we could hardly proceed down the river with all the alarms sounding, I requested the Chief Electrician to isolate all the alarms. I arranged for our two deck, and two engineer trainee officers to carry out a constant fire patrol. This consisted of patrolling the ship inside and outside, and reporting directly by VHF telephone to the bridge and the engine control room.

The journey down the Elbe river, normally very pleasant on a bright summer’s day, takes several hours but was particularly horrible on this dark rainy night, particularly as instead of annoying loud fire alarms we had no less than three separate actual fires. The first where the curtains were ablaze in a spare empty cabin. The next was in the unattended galley where the cook’s uniform was found burning on a hot stove and the third when the tumble drier was ablaze in the crew’s laundry. Fortunately each fire was well extinguished by the crew as they had practiced on our frequent fire drills throughout the voyage.

So it was obvious, we must have a fire-bug amongst us. Nobody had any idea who was the culprit. It was essential that I should establish this, and make sure he is repatriated from the ship before we leave Bremerhaven, bound for the Far East. I realized that these same circumstances can happen in schools, hospitals, or any place of work, but are especially worrying on a ship. A fire raiser is extremely difficult to identify.

Together with the Chief Officer I interviewed every member of the Ship’s complement, asked where each was when each fire broke out, and asked if they could name a witness to confirm that. I then asked them to name ( in confidence ) who they thought was responsible. The answer to this last question astounded me, as so many named someone they didn’t like. For my part, I could only eliminate those who were on the bridge with me, at the time each fire broke out.

On reaching Bremerhaven I requested the help of the German Police. They were very helpful and said that if it was a German flag ship, they would arrest the culprit I had identified (one of the trainee officers ) but were in agreement with my decision to arrange for him to be flown home immediately due to extreme stress (accompanied, for safety by his colleague). It did turn out that the arsonist was a trainee officer employed by another Company, sailing with us for experience.

He certainly gave me an unwanted experience.

(This article was scheduled to appear first in the January 2022 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine.)

For further articles in this series:

We are up to date with the series of articles relating directly to Captain Owen's time with OCL, P&O Containers and P&O Nedlloyd but will be keeping an eye out for further items of interest. If you are interested in reading other articles that he has written which we haven't used (at least not so far!) then please feel free to go to