Captain Ken #1 -  Liverpool Bay 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 with the company and he has very kindly agreed that we can share them here.  

We are starting with Ken telling the story of the rescue of 40 refugees on 23 June 1983 by the container vessel Liverpool Bay (v.57) off the coast of south east Asia which was first published In the July 2020 edition of the church magazine .    


It has been such an unusual year so far in many respects and the Mission to Seafarers’ special day, Sea Sunday on 12th July is unlikely to be celebrated in Church.  However, I hope you will at least see the Red Ensign proudly flying from the church tower to mark the occasion.  

A notable quote by Sir Ernest Shackleton was ‘Difficulties are just something to overcome, after all’, and I think we can agree that Mr and Mrs. Editor and their team have well lived up to that. 

It is now some 37 years since I was master of the OCL container ship Liverpool Bay and on one occasion we were on passage between Singapore and Hong Kong.  It was soon after the Vietnam War had finished, and many were trying desperately to flee that country.  As some of these people were comparatively wealthy, they were regularly intercepted and plundered by Thai pirates, who were merciless towards them.  On one occasion it was quite a rough sea and we spotted a boat full of people desperately trying to attract our attention.  This presented us with a slight dilemma, as I had only recently been given instructions from Head Office, that if any of these refugee boats asked for help, we should just supply them with food and water but not take them on board due to the difficulty in disembarking them.  However, as we got closer, I could see that they seemed in imminent danger of sinking, so I arranged to stop our ship to windward of them, and slowly drift down until they were alongside and could climb aboard via our gangway which we had lowered to water level. 

There were about 40 people in the boat (twice the complement of our crew ).  The refugees included many children and one by one they were helped on to the   gangway by our crew.  Among their number was an elderly man who was unable to walk so we had to improvise to get him on board.  I decided that we could solve the problem by using the mail-sling.  This was a canvas and rope sling which was lowered from a special davit and was used to pick up mail and parcels from small craft which were alongside when the ship was rolling.  All seemed to be going well and when the man was safely in the sling he signalled that he was ready to be hauled up.  However, when he was halfway up, the ship rolled heavily and he swung way out seaward and I was concerned that he would collide with the ship’s side when the ship rolled back again.  To my astonishment and relief, he suddenly unscrewed his wooden leg, and used it to fend off a collision with the ship’s hull.  This proved successful and the crew were eventually able to lift him safely aboard.  

The Liverpool Bay, unlike the more recent design of container ships, had a lovely teak  wood  sun-deck  complete  with  swimming  pool  and  we  assembled  the refugees there.  I asked one of the stewards to arrange with the Chief Cook for food for them all and as we had a complete ship‘s crew and so many refugees to feed I heard the steward call to the cook ‘Five loaves and two fishes, please.’  

We watched the refugees’ abandoned boat sink as soon as it was clear of our ship.  We were very surprised when they told us how much money it had cost them to buy the boat in which they escaped from Vietnam.  However, they told us that the most expensive amount they had to pay out was for Valium which they used to sedate the babies in order that they would not cry as they escaped silently down the Mekong River and out into the open sea. 

Fortunately for us, the Hong Kong Immigration authorities agreed to accept all our refugees in order to forward them to the UK and as their launch took them all ashore when we anchored off Hong Kong, I was pleased and amused to hear 20-odd French-speaking Vietnamese children waving in gratitude and chanting ‘Liv-er-pool,Liv-er-pool.’ 

Some of our officers and crew made lasting friendships with the refugees and although they initially came to Britain, I believe they all eventually settled in the U.S.A.  They obviously considered they had had a very lucky escape.

(Article first published in the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine, July 2020)

See also: 

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