Captain Ken #3 - Peninsular 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.

In this third article that we are reproducing on the PONLHeritage site, Ken tells the story of the rescue of the 14-man crew of a Thai vessel by the (then) P&O Containers' vessel Peninsular Bay.


In 1990, I was master of P&O Containers’ newest ship Peninsular Bay, recently built in Kure, Japan. The ship was equipped with one of the first GPS navigational aids but we were instructed only to observe its accuracy, and not rely on it for the ship’s position, as at that time there were only six of its satellites in orbit and many more were to be added later. Little did we realise at the time that it was a system that would change deep-sea navigation forever.

On one occasion we were in the China Sea, bound from Singapore to Hong Kong, when we received a radio distress message from a ship which informed us she was sinking just off a very shallow shoal named the Macclesfield Bank. This shoal covered a huge area which was totally unmarked and which all ships kept well clear of, except the unfortunate sailing ship HMS Macclesfield, which was wrecked there in the mid-19th century.

We made full speed to go to the aid of the distressed ship, but when we arrived at the position she had given, there was nothing in sight. As it was growing dark, we used the powerful Suez Canal searchlight to aid our search. Eventually, the radar started to indicate the sea breaking on the dangerous shoal, which had no lighthouses or buoys to alert us of any impending dangers.

It was then that we were advised by radio from the Hong Kong Rescue Co-ordination Office that the distressed vessel was the Thai registered ship Angkor 3 which was bound from Manila to Singapore, and that she was sinking on the opposite side of the Macclesfield Bank which was many hours steaming from our current position.

As it appeared we were the only ship in the area, we proceeded with all speed to the new position, skirting the dangerous shoal far closer than we would ever have dared without the navigational accuracy of our new GPS system.

We arrived at daybreak only to find that no ship was to be seen and all we could do was organise the traditional visual search method known as an expanding square. This is where the ship steers on the same course for an exact distance and then alters ninety degrees for slightly longer, and continues this expanding pattern for as long as necessary. All the crew were divided into three search parties. One forward on the foc’sle, one aft on the poop deck and one high up on the upper bridge. Each party was given a map of the exact area of the sea they were searching, and I suddenly realised that this must be the first time this method of search at sea was assisted with the accuracy of the new GPS Navigational Aid. Although we were actually looking out for a foundering ship, to our surprise, on the sixth change of course, we spotted the bobbing heads of the entire 14 crew members swimming in the water. Their ship had leaked and sunk several hours earlier and as it was sinking they had all boarded their flotation raft, only to have it torn apart by the revolving radar scanner as the ship listed and sank.

I manoeuvered the ship very slowly up wind of the survivors, and we were able to lower the gangway down to water level and help them aboard one by one, checking their bags to which they were clinging, just in case they had guns. They were Indonesians and Chinese and the ship was registered in Songkhla, Thailand. They were extremely lucky and were, of course, totally unaware that that the new GPS navigational system with which we were equipped had enabled us to save their lives. We landed them in Hong Kong, whose government was still British at that time and who sent us the rather nice letter below. Visual aids might help.

(This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine.