Home » Blog » Marine Painting » Ships » Tales from the merchant marine

Tales from the merchant marine

Life on the ocean wave“…

Tales from the merchant marine, these series of yarns to me seem to good to loose, are shared to amuse.

Kenya, Maiden Arrival, Mombassa
Kenya, Maiden Arrival, Mombassa

To spin a yarn was a phrase much used by sailors, derived from, to sit together working on ropes and chatting.

The yarns are individual insights into the characters and world of a vanished breed of men, the merchant seaman.

In the old days the sea men were described thus, “wooden ships and iron men”.

Each thread found it’s way to me via the research into a particular painting.

While arguably not relevant to the painting they seem to good not to share so settle back and enjoy.


Whiskey galore, a consignment of whisky…

From the son of a former British India Steam navigation Company man Barney Leeson.

my late Father was  a Captain for BI , he would have sailed the very same waters – He was Master on the (B I ) ship “Chupra” that called Mombasa in the early seventies.
On an earlier trip to Mombasa on another  ship holding the rank of cargo officer ( Chief Officer) he received a telegram from the London office wanting to know what had happened with a consignment of whisky – the receiver had complained he had no where to store the goods – he had allowed for a high percentage of breakage.
My Father advised it must be the good stow he  had planned on the ship.
The real answer was that my Father whilst in London had spoken to the foreman of the stevedoring company loading the whisky – He said they could take one case to the side, provided they loaded all the other cases safely ! The usual practice was to drop the cases, so that the dockers could all ensure they got a bottle or two.
Fathers method limited the damaged and everyone was happy apart from the poor chap in Mombasa who was not expecting so many cases to arrive safely“.


From the painting “B I Sunday“.

This may appeal to your sense of humour; in my earlier research into this painting a yarn was spun to me concerning a number of B I Engineers who upon returning to the port of Mombasa having celebrated with their ship mates “B I Sunday” as one must,  were a little merrier than usual.

Kenya, Maiden Arrival, Mombassa
Kenya, Maiden Arrival, Mombassa

A small number of them faced an annoyance.

The officers of the furthest berthed “M” class ship reasoned their walk down the long quay after a night out was unduly long.

For marine engineers, commandeering a steam engine left still with “steam up” was to much of an invitation to refuse.

No problem for marine engineers to start a steam engine, they proceeded down the tracks, all going extremely well until the moment came to stop.

No one had considered how…

Thankfully the speed was not excessive, the track end buffers were wrecked but did bring the engine to a derailed stop.

No injuries reported.

Oddly the next morning no one seemed to know how the engine had derailed, the general opinion was it must have self started…


From the painting “Emigration, Plymouth Cattewater

A friend in Plymouth, a kindly Gentleman, has been typing some of my notes collected while researching  “Emigration, Plymouth Cattewater”.
( https://www.frickers.co.uk/art/marine-art/ports/emigration-plymouth-cattewater/ )
There are several yarns that emerged with the story that don’t directly connect to the painting yet to me seem to fine a take to loose so ideal candidates for the new web site page Brotherhood of the sea .
The ship featured and yes she is a real ship, is the 3 masted square rigged deep sea clipper “Samuel Plymsol”.

The following gives an idea of “Samuel Plimsol’s”prowess, the latter entry gives cause for a smile, enjoy.

The clipper ship Samuel Plimsoll loading at Plymouth
The clipper ship Samuel Plimsoll loading at Plymouth (detail from the painting)

Whilst loading for London, she was thus advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald:



100 A1, 1444 tons reg. R. Boaden, late of THE STAR OF PEACE commander.

This magnificent vessel has just completed the passage from Plymouth in 73 days, and having her cargo stowed on board will leave about 7th April.

Then again:
On the occasion of her only mishap a tropical squall carried away the bobstay, and down came the fore-topmast and main topgallant mast.

It happened that a Yankee clipper was in company.

In the true spirit of “the Brotherhood of the Sea” this vessel beat up to the dismantled Samuel Plimsoll and sent a boat off with a message to say she was bound for Australia and would gladly tranship the passengers and carry them on to their destination.

This offer, Captain Simpson, who then commanded the Samuel Plimsoll, declined with thanks, so the American went on her way.

The men of the Samuel Plimsol laboured hard all day until the Aberdeen flyer had fresh masts aloft, after which she settled down to make up the lost time.

Most nobly she did so, one week’s work in the roaring forties totalling 2300 miles.

She eventually arrived in Melbourne, 82 days out.

Some days later the Yankee arrived and her captain, quite correctly, at once went to the Samuel Plimsoll’s agents.

He reported speaking to her dismasted in the Atlantic, at the same time he commented on her captain’s foolhardiness in not transhipping his passengers.

“Is it Captain Simpson sitting over there you are referring to?” asked the agent…

The Samuel Plimsol had arrived a full week before the Yankee clipper.



When I was on Karanja it was common practice to keep an eye out for
Kampala, we used to pass each other about a day out of the Seychelles
and the second would wind everything down so that we wouldn’t make any
smoke until out of sight of each other, seem to remember there was beer


~ ~ ~

Still on the Bridge


As I only did one trip as 3/0 in KENYA and sail with Jimmy McGowan 2/O
(i/c mails), I can assure you that KENYA did carry mail from the UK to
East African Ports  on the maiden voyage.; I remember quite clearly,
relieving Jimmy for several hours, sitting in the adjacent cargo-shed
in Killindini, tallying out the parcel mail. This was the then
procedure at Mombasa as parcel mail, owing to the usual large quantity
in the second half of the year being in “open stow” ex-London;
this tally-point was also from where the local Post Office official
directed each bag according to its label to the appropriate EAR van
viz. Nairobi, Kampala, Jinja  and local  etc..  I say “sitting” because
we sat behind a small table, and the porters presented each mail bag
with label visible  to us  very much in the style of the Raj!.



Another interesting story from past days, which again brings a smile –
You certainly do not see that kind of attention to detail, or care in
today’s Industry. If you do not mind I would like to share the tale
with Gordon Frickers,

It is almost as if you are holding the hand of a child, whilst trying
to find the right balance that they would work with you, rather than
against – I had a little experience on the West African Coast, one
particular port call to Conakry entertained – Stevedores could not find
the keys to about 12 brand new pick up trucks, in their enthusiasm to
drive them off the ship they came to me asking if they could break the
windows!!  Thankfully the keys were found shortly afterwards.

John Leeson


Subject: Re: [BIship] RE: Royal mail flag

I was 2/O in Karanja 1968/69, I recall that anecdotally I understood
that if you lost a red bag you would be allowed to complete your
contract, although I don’t recall ever seeing this written down
anywhere.  I joined the ship in Bombay and about two weeks later we
arrived in Mombasa and I discharged mail, there was one bag of
’empties’ in ‘dispute’.  Having dealt with Mail on the Home Line, where
things were rather more relaxed, mail sometimes arrived at the last
minute and put in tween deck open stowage, I went up to get Commodore
Everett to sign the form, to my huge surprise the man exploded over the
bag of empties, I can’t imagine what his reaction would have been if it
was a red bag, probably a dozen lashes and off home.  While we were so
concerned about the mail count the local Post Officers didn’t appear to
care a less, whether it was in Mombasa, Seychelles or Durban.  On my
last discharge in Mombasa I discharge 23 red tagged bags, (I still
remember the number), it wasn’t a lot and easy to count.  The PO chap
at the document signing said 22.  I was apoplectic and said let’s
recount, he told me they had gone.  In panic I got in his van and we
went to the main PO we came upon the bags casually strewn around the
main receiving hall not secure and in various places.  Finally getting
them all together we recounted 23.  I was most relieved, he couldn’t
have cared a less and wondered what the fuss was about.  We did fly a
mail pennant and I recall on some postcards, letter heads, etc. Karanja
was prefixed RMS.

David (Brown)



I can confirm that on Karanja we flew the royal mail flag in port when
carrying mail.
The second mate was responsible for the mail and if a ‘red’ mail bag
went missing he was at risk of being sent home.
To this end it was rumoured he kept a ‘spare’ red bag to cover this
I was a lowly 3/O.
We used to take the Biera patrol’s mail down to Durban, passed by line,
some times passed by heaving line and sometimes fired by a rod in the
barrel of a rifle.
THe RN were always pleased to view our Rhodesian female passengers
traveling down to Durban for shopping.

Enjoying your visit, found something you like?

Share with friends, spread the word to all who appreciate the sea, fine art and history.

You can help other people discover, enjoy, benefit from this remarkable, unique project widely know.

Copyright 2016:

Mutually Advantageous, Please Read Carefully.

For professional purposes we are happy to issue licences.

Always credit his name and where possible this web site.

Quoting your source helps your credibility, the artist and others to find and enjoy this art.

For educational and private use we allow a free copy. However please note; as with all artist’s work, by International law these pictures and texts belong to the artist and his descendants, so may only be copied after written permission and for commercial use, after a copyright fee has been agreed and paid.

Respect the long hours, years, the art and texts, don’t infringe.

Our fees are friendly our terms always reasonable.

Gordon Frickers ©  14,06,2016, updated 16.06.16, 26.07.2016, 22.11.2016

You are cordially invited to enjoy the fun and facination of following The Art of Gordon Frickers on his blog and or https://www.facebook.com/gordon.frickers

Last Updated on