Captain Ken #15 - Signing up for a Life at Sea

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  article number 15 that we have reproduced on the PONLHeritage site,  Captain Owen tells the story of his first steps towards his life at sea.  This article was first published in the church magazine in September 2021.

The disappointing news that Liverpool had lost its UNESCO World heritage status, due mainly to spoiling the Mersey skyline with new building, brought back a very particular memory to me. 

When World War Two broke out, my family were on holiday in Switzerland.  My father was a very keen supporter of the League of Nations which was holding a special exhibition in Geneva. Due to this unfortunate situation it looked as if the family would have to remain in Switzerland for the duration of the war.  Fortunately our government arranged a special train via Paris to bring the last British citizens back to the Channel coast and we were lucky to return to England on the last ferry.  Although I was only five years old, I vividly remember that crucial voyage and the relief of seeing the white cliffs of Dover. 

Although my parents must have been worried to death at this parlous situation, I recollect lying adjacent to a lifeboat and looking up at the stars on a completely blacked out ship, and thinking ‘This is the life for me.’ 

Throughout my school life I was completely obsessed with my ambition to go to sea and was constantly urging my father to take me to Liverpool which was the only place I knew where I could take a Board of Trade maritime eye test certificate.   In those days this was absolutely essential for officers, apprentices or crew members serving at sea in the deck department. The finest treat for me was a trip to Liverpool and a ride on the waterfront Overhead Railway or Dockers’ Umbrella as it was affectionately known.  From a high-up position you rode for some thirteen miles, viewing ships from all over the world and to me it was just magic. 

Eventually, having reached the advanced age of 13, my father arranged to take me for this so crucial certificate.  I already knew the exact address where this eye test took place as it had always been at the famous Liverpool Custom House. 

It is hard to describe the excitement I felt at that age as we made our way to this grand Victorian building and climbed the wide steps up to the impressive colonnade at the front. Suddenly, as we reached the top step, I looked between the huge stone pillars and to my horror there was no building at all, just an empty space.  19 Film on the Hill presents.

Unknown to us the Custom House had been a victim of the terrible Liverpool air-raids in which a great deal of the city had been destroyed.   We were, however, relieved to discover that the Three Graces, the magnificent buildings on the Pier Head waterfront, had survived the bombing raids, and the all important eye test had been transferred to a top floor of the Royal Liver Building.

The testing room was in complete darkness and to pass the test you simply had to show you could see the separate pin-point oil lanterns showing red, green and white at a certain distance. I passed the eye test and an ancient sailing ship captain in uniform shook my hand and wished me luck. It seems to have worked.

(This article was first published in the September 2021 edition of the Mellor Church Outlook Magazine).

For further articles in this series:

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