Captain Ken #30 - Remembrance

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.  

In the 30th article in the Captain Ken series on the PONL Heritage site, it seemed appropriate to pick an article that Ken Owen wrote to coincide with Remembrance Day 2021 in which he talks about the sacrifices made by the Merchant Navy.    

This article was first published in the church magazine in November 2021.

In the nineteen fifties and sixties the Blue Funnel Line, in which I was serving, was the major cargo liner company serving the Far East.   Besides our newly built liners at that time, we had many wartime-built Liberty ships, known as Sam boats, which had been purchased to replace half of all our former fleet which had been sunk by enemy action. 

November Remembrance Day is an appropriate time to remember that the Merchant Navy lost half of its ships and a quarter of its men in the last world war, a proportion higher than any of the other Service. 

This month is also the eightieth anniversary of the Outward Bound Trust.  In the early days of the war, Lawrence Holt, head of the Blue Funnel Line, had noted that a great many young seafarers were being lost at sea after their ship had been sunk, due to difficulties in dealing with lifeboats.  He contacted Kurt Hahns, Headmaster of Gordonstoun School (which Prince Charles attended) who had moved from Scotland, where an invasion was expected, to North Wales, and asked him to organise the Aberdovey Outward Bound Sea School which taught how to handle small boats in severe weather.  Lawrence Holt ensured that all newcomers joining his ships attended that Outward Bound course, and from that day on no deaths occurred of any person from a sinking ship who had managed to reach the ship’s lifeboats. 

We often utilised our Sam boats to load bulk cargo, such as copra, the dried kernel of the coconut, which was prevalent in Indonesia, Borneo and Celebes where we could anchor off the ports of these small islands and use the Sam boats. Before embarking on the above, however, we would have to go to the port of Makassar and take on a labour force, known as Bajos, who would set up their tents on the main deck of our ship and cook their meals on open fires on the deck.  Their lavatory was a wooden structure hanging over the side and was referred to as The Thunder-Box. 

We were, however, always apprehensive about this temporary labour force, as they far outnumbered our ship’s complement, and as Indonesia had just expelled their Dutch colonisers, they were not too friendly towards Europeans.  In fact, they had recently murdered a ship’s officer who had apprehended a man suspected of stealing. In view of this situation, our agents in Djarkarta advised us to land our temporary labour force off Makassar, together with the lighters and tug-boats, and to leave Indonesia as soon as possible.

Boats came out to collect the labour force, but the tug boats refused to collect the lighters.  Fortunately, as a young Midshipman aged 18, I had managed to tie the lighters together and attach them to the tugs which were now happily steaming towards the port where a huge riot seemed to be breaking out.  Unfortunately, I was stranded in the last lighter. However, fortunately for me, my colleagues had managed to launch our ship’s very fast petrol lifeboat and rescued me just before we reached the hostile mob.  We managed to weigh anchor and leave for the safety of Singapore. However, I distinctly remember being so thankful for my Outward Bound course which had virtually saved my life.

(This article was first published in the November 2021 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