Captain Ken #28 - Narrow Boat Command

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 28th article from Captain Ken on the PONL Heritage site, and in this one we hear about Ken Owen being persuaded to get his qualification to command a narrow boat after many years as a deep-sea Master Mariner.    

This article was first published in the church magazine in March 2023.

(This article was first published in the march 2023 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine).

Just as I was about to retire, my good friend, the late Mark Singleton, landlord of the ‘Ring’O Bells’ in Marple, purchased  the ‘Bell', a 72-foot passenger narrow boat.  He asked if I would help to train and qualify his crew for the 49-passenger boat.

Interestingly, Mark’s father Ron who was once landlord of the Navigation’ pub in Marple, was the only member of the late Blue Funnel Association who had actually sailed as a crew member of the famous s.s. ‘Nestor’, Blue Funnel Line’s tall-funnelled passenger ship that had dictated the road height of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. when it was built.

I contacted the Government’s Maritime and Coast Guard Agency regarding my application to be captain of a canal barge.  I was pleased to discover that the Examiner of Masters and Mates to whom I was referred had once been my second mate on a large Container Ship (and a very good one too, I might add).

He said, "Ken, you are totally qualified to take command of the ‘Q.E,2’ or the largest ocean-going ship, but if you want to take more than 12 passengers on the Macclesfield Canal, you will have to be examined for a ‘Boat Master’s certificate".  This I duly did, after attending Malcolm Alcard’s very efficient canal boat school at Top Lock, demonstrating an ability to turn the boat round in the very limited winding holes, and for the ‘Search and Rescue’ part, knowing the numbers of the nearest road bridges, so ambulances could be summoned, in the event of emergency.

I thought that while the examiner was in Marple Bridge he might be interested to see the remains of the water wheel driven corn mill by the river,  as it was once owned by Captain Flowerdew who was a master in Elder Dempster shipping Company.  He had died at sea, and was buried in Takorady, West Africa,and in his will he left a prize for the best cadet of the year.  It was a sextant and called the Flowerdew Memorial Prize.  "Good Heavens, said the Examiner, I actually won the Flowerdew prize sextant and never knew anything of its history".

Some amusement was caused in London, at the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, of which I am a Livery Member, and particularly when my colleague was appointed Master of the Queen’s Barge, and although a Captain and a Senior Thames Pilot, also had to be examined for a Boat Master’s Certificate.

I must add that the ‘Bell’ cruises between Marple and Whalybridge were very pleasant, and several thousand people enjoyed them.

I recollect one particularly memorable cruise. a lovely evening, black tie gathering with beautiful music, and a female singer, and a gorgeous view towards the peak district hills.  Then it started to rain and as all the hatch doors had to be closed, I was left alone outside in the rain, steering the boat.

I had been quite amused when the Maritime and Coastguard Examiner had said I could take the ‘Q.E,2’ tomorrow, because it reminded me of an incident several years before when I was captain of the ‘Liverpool Bay’, then one of the largest container ships in the world, and we were calling at Keelung, at a new container berth for Taipei in Taiwan.  We could only just fit in.    As we were leaving the berth, I asked the pilot to proceed out stern first and then swing the ship round with the assistance of a tug.  He said, "Yes that’s OK but the only other captain that’s asked to do it that way was on the ‘Q.E.2’ who had just made a maiden call on a world cruise".   Strangely we were the exact same dimensions as the ‘Q.E.2’, the maximum size allowed for the Panama Canal.

(This article was first published in the March 2023 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