Captain Ken #12 - Visits to the USA and Christmas

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.  

The twelfth article that we have reproduced on the PONLHeritage site covers Captain Owen's memories of visits to US ports and a Christmas at sea, and was first published in the church magazine in December 2020.

Following the tremendous TV coverage of the USA presidential election, I have noticed how often Philadelphia has been mentioned and this reminded me of an incident when my ship M.V. Ulysses was there in the fifties. We were engaged on trips running between the Far East and USA which was referred to as the 'Pendulum service'.   Many years later I was again engaged on the very same schedule which the Americans then called the 'Screen-wiper’ service.   In the post-war years, the USA Immigration department was particularly vigilant, even more so than it is now, and certainly had no sense of humour.  When you were asked, as everybody was for some reason, ‘Do you intend to assassinate the President of the United States? ‘ it was wise to reply with a straight ‘No' rather than to make a joke of the question.  We had one Liverpool engine room hand who, when asked, ‘Is there any record of insanity in your family?' replied, ‘Well I have got a sister who married a Yank’ (she was in fact a G.I. bride). The consequence of that answer was that he was denied any shore leave whatsoever. 

The Immigration officials were particularly strict with our Chinese crew members who were never allowed ashore at any time and to ensure they were confined to the ship, an armed guard was permanently stationed at the top of the gangway and another at the dock exit gate.  You can imagine their surprise, therefore, when prior to our departure, we found one of our Chinese crew members was missing.  We discovered that during the night a particularly cold spell had descended on us and the river had frozen over enabling our Chinese crew member, who had family in Pennsylvania, to simply pack his suitcase, put a rope ladder over the side, and walk across the frozen river, to the city centre. 

In view of the recent world pandemic, National Immigration Departments have been particularly unfriendly to seafarers, and it is believed that some 300,000 are currently desperate to be relieved from their ships, and some 100,000 anxious to return to employment. It is a very serious situation, resulting in some tragic mental casualties. The international basis of worldwide shipping is now truly amazing.   Shortly before my retirement, I was recommended by a Scottish agency to a German management company based in Cyprus.  It was to command a new American owned container ship. To illustrate the complexity of the situation, the ship was built in Japan.  The ship's containers were made in China.  The ship was registered in the Marshall Islands.  It was operated by a firm in Singapore.  It was insured in London. The officers came from Croatia and India and the crew from the Philippines and Myanmar. 

I myself was particularly fortunate in my career to have always been employed by managements of a very high quality and all the seafarers with whom I served, were of an equally high quality.  I regret to say, however, that was not the situation with many of my peers, who have much sadder stories to tell.  

As a rather unusual Christmas approaches, I am reminded of one Christmas a few years ago, when we were west bound from Malaysia to New York on our ‘screen-wiper’ service and called at a new container transit port on the Calabria coast of Italy.  My wife, Allwyn, had joined the ship in Singapore and had the brilliant idea that we could take our Filipino chief cook to the village supermarket and purchase some additional luxury items for Christmas, which we anticipated celebrating in mid Atlantic.  We had been kindly allotted a generous gift of money for this purpose from our owners and charterers.  

Our agent arranged a taxi which dropped us off at a little bar I knew, owned by a former Italian P&O cruise ship steward.  On explaining the situation to my friend, he said, ’Well I've got some bad news and some good news. First, as you know everything round here is owned by the Mafia, including the supermarket, which is closed.  The good news is that the two men sitting at the bar with leather coats and sun glasses are Mafia.’ S o we explained our situation to these gentlemen and they agreed to open up the supermarket for an hour so we could buy whatever we wanted, provided we paid in U.S dollars . The supermarket cashier wasn’t too happy about this as other local customers started taking advantage of the surprise opening.  However, our crew were delighted with the three full trollies of Christmas gifts we had bought.  Allwyn then took a taxi along the amazing cliff-top road to Regio Calabria on the Messina Straits, from where she flew home via Turin In good time to spend Christmas with our family and, of course, to ensure that the donkey had been arranged for the Crib Services at Mellor Church. 

(This article was first published in the December 2020 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