Botany Bay and the Neman

A Facebook post back in April of this year prompted memories of an incident off the Canary Islands in 1974 when the Botany Bay was in collision with the Russian ship Neman.   It's almost 50 years ago but some of those involved at the time have kindly recalled the story so that we can tell it here... 

The Botany Bay was on the southbound voyage from northern Europe to Australia.  Radio Officer (2OR) Brian Mullan had joined her in Hamburg on 28 June (1974).  Unfortunately we don't have a full crew list, but Brian remembers Captain Jim Thomson (known to many as 'Gentleman Jim') was the ship's master.

In Brian's own words:

"What I do remember was coming off watch in the evening and, having just poured myself a tot of whisky in the Officers’ Lounge, there was an almighty bang and shake and there was a cloud of paint and other debris that appeared outside the lounge windows.

"All thoughts of a relaxing evening with my fellow seafarers quickly evaporated and I headed straight for the wheelhouse. There was a sense of controlled crisis management from Captain Thomson that was immediately reassuring.

"It transpired that we had been overtaking a ship (later identified as the Russian ship NEMAN (or HEMAH in Cyrillic lettering) when that ship had altered course towards us. The navigating officer saw immediate danger and Captain Thomson was called. From what I learned later, the Russian ship would likely have hit us in the after part of the ship where the engine room and accommodation was. Realising that by this stage a collision was inevitable, Captain Thomson ordered a change of course. 

The collision did occur shortly afterwards – but midships rather than aft.

P&O container ship Botany Bay berthed in Piraeus.  Image copyright P&O Heritage

OCL container ship Botany Bay berted in Piraeus

(image courtesy of P&O Heritage -

"Communication on VHF with the Russian ship was difficult, and it took quite some time to establish that they were not sinking. Aldis lamps were used as floodlighting for inspection rather than signalling.

"When inspected from a lifeboat the following morning, there was a 40-foot gash about 3 feet in width, along the port side. The ship lost water ballast from the tanks there and listed to starboard, but we were not in danger of sinking.

"We had been in touch with CFL management throughout and it was arranged that we would head for Las Palmas for repairs. The Russian ship did not berth for around 24 hours after we did and was visibly much higher in the water than when observed immediately after the collision. We speculated that she must have rendezvoused with another vessel and offloaded some cargo before coming into Las Palmas, where we noted that she had an ice breaker bow (the cause of such severe, ripping damage to our ship).

"Some of us walked along the wharf and waved to some of the crew members. I remember throwing a packet of cigarettes to one of them, before what was probably a commissar appeared and ordered everyone inside. There was no further contact between us.

"Repairs were carried out and we continued our voyage."

Brian Mullan

John Duffy, who was then a first trip Engineering Cadet or Cadet(E) (later engineering officer up to 1OE followed by various shore staff roles including FMD Engineering Superintendent in Beagle House and DRS Implementation Manager in Singapore) was also on board for the voyage.  John recalls:

"First memory of that trip was that we had 35 dogs and 1 cat stowed in the kennel area in the foc'sle hold when we left Europe.  As Suez at that time was closed for shipping the route to Fremantle was south from Europe and round the Cape of Good Hope.  Cape Town would then usually be a stores and mail call.  

"The collision with the Russian vessel happened around midnight so coincided with the bridge handover between the 3ON on the 8-12 (I remember that he was from P&O Passenger Division) and the 2ON on the 12-4.  I was in my bunk when the general alarm sounded, but on getting to my muster station I followed the 1OE out on deck.  On getting outside the accommodation, he unfortunately slipped on a large pile of dog mess left by two Great Danes (we had set up an exercise area on the port side for the dogs).  

"In Las Palmas we were put on a berth where local welders could do the repairs to our port side.  There are worse places to be for two weeks during the summer holiday season!

"The rest of the voyage was pretty uneventful.  Fremantle, Melbourne, Sydney and back home via the same route (we hadn't yet started to cross the Tasman to call at New Zealand ports)."

Bob James, then Electrical Officer (2OL) but later to be Fleet Personnel Manager based in Beagle House, was flown out to Las Palmas to join the Botany Bay before she continued her voyage to Australia via Cape of Good Hope.  Bob kindly provided a couple of photographs for this article showing the damage to both ships.  

The damage the port side of OCL Botany Bay from the collision.

The bow of the Russian ship Neman showing the impact of its contact with the Botany Bay.

Bob says that he was on leave after a trip on the Flinders Bay when he received a call from Derek Smith in Fleet Personnel.  Derek's words were along the lines of "Sorry know you have only been home for three weeks but..." and you can guess the rest.  Bob flew out to join the ship in Las Palmas the next day.

See also:

With many thanks to Brian Mullan, Bob James and John Duffy for their words, Bob for his photos and to P&O Heritage for allowing us to use an image from their collection of the Botany Bay.  

10/07/2023 (updated 11/07/2023 to 

include John Duffy's recollections)