Captain Ken #35 - Perfect Storm

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.   Here, in the 35th article of the Captain Ken series published on the PONL Heritage website, Ken recollects some encounters with Atlantic storms while sailing as the master on container vessels.       

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

Some readers of Outlook [the Mellor Church Magazine] have mentioned that although I have covered a variety of nautical subjects, I have never, so far, described a serious storm. So here goes and it really was a 'Perfect Storm', as depicted in the well-known movie of the same name.

I have been very fortunate in my 53 year sea career to have served in well managed and very sound vessels.  And that of course makes all the difference when facing a storm, as all at sea are likely to experience some of the time.  What has always puzzled me is that although there are ships being overcome by storms, very few cases receive much attention by the media.

In the nineteen eighties I was master of the "Strathconon', a medium sized container ship chartered to Trans Freight Lines of the USA.

We ran between the USA and North Europe and in one voyage, which included six crossings of the North Atlantic, I noted that there were 12 ships which foundered in bad weather.  Most of them were giant bulk carriers which at that time were causing great concerns.  What totally surprised me was that the USA knew about the one coming to grief on their side of the Atlantic and the Europeans knew of those lost on their side of the Atlantic but nobody seemed to know both.

However, it was some years later, in fact 1996, I was master of the container ship 'Maersk Newark'. She was owned by Jaya in Singapore and on charter to Maersk Lines of Copenhagen. I had a British chief engineer, a british chief officer, and Burmese officers and Filipino crew.  Also some eight Thai painters, painting the ship, who were not supposed to help the crew.  The ship had been built as a normal container ship, but had been converted aft of the bridge to a Ro-Ro ship in order that army tanks could drive themselves up a special ramp.

On this particular voyage we were bound from Algeciras in Spain to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  From the day we left Spain we experienced awful weather as low pressure after low pressure crossed ahead of us.  And then, when only two days’ time to arrive in Halifax, the weather map, which we received every six hours on the most giant fax machine, showed steady pressure all the way to our destination.

We proceeded full speed to Halifax and sent our Agents a firm Estimate lime of Arrival.  Then to our horror, our barometer began to absolutely plunge.  The new weather map showed that a new low had formed right on top of us. All we could do was to ride out the storm.  The waves were 40 foot or 13 metres high and the gale force winds increasing. I was on the bridge with the duty officer and helmsman and adjusting the speed so we could go as slow as possible but fast enough to still steer the ship.

The ship had several permanent radio aerials and the chief officer advised that they were about to crash down, which they did and the noise was so dreadful that suddenly the whole crew, wearing their life jackets, burst into the wheel house quite sure the ship, which was rolling so heavily, was bound to sink.

I, of course, told them not to worry, everything was OK, though I wished I could have replied with more confidence.  The inclinometer, which indicates how far the ship is listing, only indicates to 35 degrees but, when it would have read 40 degrees, it detached itself from the bulkhead and is currently on the wall in our house assuring me that our house is still upright! 

The anemometer, which indicates the wind strength, was showing 100 mph, which I had never before seen.  The driving horizontal rain prevented any visibility, when suddenly an awful choking smell engulfed us.  The chief engineer rang up to say that this awful smell made it impossible to stay in the engine room as the engineers were choking.  Amongst our container cargo was a 20 ton tank container of tear gas.  A large wave had crashed on board and crushed the tank quite flat.  The contents were dispelled into the Atlantic Ocean, and when we reached Halifax, the chemists who came aboard could find no trace of the chemical at all!  

We reached Halifax safely, but the ship and cargo had suffered a lot of damage, and I was extremely grateful to be advised by an extremely competent lawyer from the UK Club, our P&I insurance company.

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