a history and account of one of the all time worst storms off the coast of India.
“Rajula” was a most remarkable British India Steam Navigation Company ship, surprising and long lived ship with a very worthwhile career and an excellent reputation.
No ship gave longer service to the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd (British India Line) than the Rajula.
~ ~ ~
BI ships, general
People write to us…
T: + 44 (0)1865 52 2435 Mobile 00 33 (0) 6 10 66 19 26
or Skype ‘gordonfrickers’
Email: info at frickers.co.uk
The location chosen was one of her regular ports of call, Madras, the period, post 1955.
In the background of this painting is the Elder Dempster liner “Acco” and old Madras docks.
The painting was based on a beautiful model in the P&O Pall Mall (London) offices and on photographs generously loaned by the P&O Archive department.
In this case the research included a visit to the P & O archives at Pall Mall, London who’s staff could not have been more helpful.
One of my regrets is P & O are one of the few British companies I’ve not (yet) painted for… a fabulous company.
This painting contributed to what turned out to be an important part of my career development and life.
As one of a collection, of BI, Blue Funnel, Alfred Holt and other merchant ships exhibited at Queen Anne’s Battery Marina, Plymouth it was seen by Britain’s most famous living sailor, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston who asked to meet the artist.
Robin is an ex BI man who appreciates the value of our marine heritage.
Robin Knox-Johnston, aside from his enviable sailing record which includes first perosn to sail non stop single handed around the world, Falmouth to Falmouth (Cornwall) was for many years a director of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, has specialist knowledge of ancient navigation including experience using original equipment.
Thus ‘Rajula’ contributed to Robin commissioning several new paintings including the “Roaring Forties”.
To this day Robin likes to have “Roaring Forties” in the background when he is interviewed for TV.
A ‘win, win situation’.
The very memorable “Roaring Forties” has been reproduced many times (see ‘copyright guide lines’ on this web site) in newspapers and journals world wide making, excellent publicity for Robin, while “Roaring Forties” has become my best known, most famous painting.
Rajula was a Clyde built Ship.
“Rajula” was licensed when new, for the enormous total of over 5000 deck passengers.
This original number was easily the largest number of passengers in a single hull under the British flag.
Passengers carried: 30 1st, 30 2nd, 92 3rd, 5113 (later 3622) deck.
Rajula’s accommodation was not of comparable quality to most other ocean liners however the demands of the passengers crossing from India to Malaya and back were not complicated; a few square feet of deck space was all that was expected.
The British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd, BI formed in 1856 was one of the largest companies in the British mercantile marine.
This sturdy and much loved ship “Rajula” was built for the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd (British India Line) and their “Straits” service in 1926 by Barclay Curle & Company, Glasgow, yard No 614
In 1955 “Rajula‘s black hull was painted white with a black Ribband.
British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd was and still is among seafarers affectionately known as B I was at one time the largest merchant ship fleet in the world, a fleet that both officers and crew were proud to serve.
Among Indians competition for a place was intense as was their pride in working for BI.
The Rajula meanwhile was one of the first ships requisitioned at the time of the Munich crisis in September 1938 and became permanently a troop ship from May 1940.
In 1940 Rajula trooped mainly from Bombay to Suez.
From December 1941 Rajula carried Indian troops to Singapore for its defence returning on homeward voyages loaded with evacuees until the Island finally fell to the Japanese on the 15th February 1942.
In July 1942 Rajula carried the 6th Australian Division from Colombo to Australia for their redeployment to New Guinea.
She also attended the successful Allied landings at Syracuse, Augusta and Anzio in 1943.
In 1944 she carried troops out and acting as an ambulance, hospital ship, wounded back during the Burma assaults.
The following year she ‘trooped’, carried soldiers, Calcutta to Malaysia and Rangoon for their reoccupation.
Rajula, after a refit in Great Britain returned to the Far East and her normal peacetime duties.
This brief visit to GB was her only return to the country of her building.
In 1955 along with all the other British India passenger ships her hull was painted white with a black ribband, bunks were fitted for most of her Deck passengers.
Aged 35 Rajula was still considered sufficiently important to be sent to Japan, to the Mitsubishi Yard in Kobe for an extensive overhaul in February 1962.
Rajula emerged with her double banked boats replaced by larger fibreglass boats on gravity davits and her heavy lift derrick removed.
Rajula ran into a tropical cyclone on the 3rd November 1966 whilst on passage from Nagapatam to Madras.
A second much more detailed and very personal account of that event closes below, this history.
Rajula was driven for thirty miles along the coast in screaming winds and huge steep seas.
Rajula was eventually driven hard astern with her engines running full power.
She managed to rescue herself from shipwreck by sailing at full speed backwards!
Sadly, seven other ships were not so fortuitous and were driven ashore and wrecked.
This dramatically further proved the skill and bravery of her officers and crew, her amazing seaworthiness.
The following afternoon she berthed safely at Madras with little damage.
It is said, Rajula‘s Indian passengers were so relieved that they held a Thanksgiving Service on the jetty for their stately but dependable old Rajula.
As part of the Group rationalisation, the Rajula along with other B I ships including ‘Uganda’ a ship to become familiar as a Mediterranean youth educational cruise ship and later as the ‘Big White Whale’, hospital ship during the Falklands war, was transferred to the formal ownership of P&O Line on the 19th April 1973.
Although comparatively unknown outside Eastern waters no ship gave longer service to the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd (British India Line) than the beautiful, solid, reliable Rajula.
Few ships can have carried as many passengers safely over the oceans and few enjoyed greater affection and respect.
~ ~ ~
“The remarque on the print that I have with me now is very impressive ” – Mohamed Ashraf Mohamad Yoonus – 14.08.12
Rajula was fitted with early examples of mechanical ventilation and enjoyed the then unheard of luxury of an engineer’s lift.
For working general cargo at either end of her route, and the onion cargoes which came on board from lighters in the roads at Negapatam, she had a powerful set of derricks plus a heavy lift derrick fitted to her foremast.
Rajula was an attractive looking ship with well-raked masts and funnel; the latter set off by a naval style cowl top.
In keeping with B I’s long and successful if conservative policy, Rajula‘s engines were built for reliability rather than latest developments in machinery so were reciprocating steam engines not steam turbines.
The steam ship ‘Rajula’ had triple expansion machinery of a slightly higher power and correspondingly higher trials speed than her sister “Rhona“.
A steady twelve knots was the normal service speed.
After a very worthwhile career in peace and war, and with an excellent reputation, in 1973 Rajula was sold to Shipping Corporation of India, renamed RANGAT.
1974 just short of her 48th birthday, she was stripped of all her contents and fittings and delivered for breaking up at Bombay, laid up, 1974 scrapped.
~ ~ ~
Rajula and The British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd (British India Line), the B I “Straits” service.
BI was formed in 1856 by two enterprising Scotsmen.
B I became largest company in the British mercantile marine until it was finally entirely merged into the Peninsular and Orient Line, P&O in 1972.
BI ships were with only two exceptions, built in Britain and usually sailed for the Far East, not seen again in European waters.
Consequently although the fleet was huge, it is not well known in Europe or the America’s today.
There is a story of a convoy from world war one; arriving at Marsailles, France, of 200 ships, to the astonishment of the French, every single ship was a BI ship.
Rajula’s primary routes were towards Madras (Chennai) – Negapatam (Nagapattinam) – Penang – Port Swettenham (Port Klang) (Westbound Only) – Singapore.
~ ~ ~
Each print of this ‘Rajula’ edition, is individually made to order, a time limited edition, supervised and signed by the artist.
Enjoyed this text?
You can order with confidence, securely with PayPal, our system is quick to use; or ask for a bank to bank transfer
Other useful links
B.I. The British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd (British India Line), W.A. Laxon & F.W.Perry, published by the World Ship Society, ISBN 0 905617 65 7
Return to Rajula at Madras.
The S S (steam ship) ‘Rajula at Madras’ is a classic study of a ship of the British India Steamship Company, a ship which continues to stir the salt in people’s veins.
Available as a signed numbered ‘Heritage Quality” print; purchase a print”.
People write to us…
From: Mohamed Ashraf Mohamad Yoonus.
“I chanced upon your website through a Google search as I was trying to
find information on S. S. Rajula. I am an Assistant Curator of the Indian
Heritage Centre (IHC) in Singapore. IHC is a government funded, small scale,
museum standard heritage institution that will highlight the interactions
between South Asia and South East Asia, particularly Malaya-Singapore.
Although my research into S. S. Rajula began as a professional pursuit, I
found out soon enough that my maternal great grandfather, paternal
grandfather, my father, and his siblings had all travelled aboard S. S.
Rajula. With such connections binding my personal history to this remarkable
steam ship, I wanted to possess a painting or a print of the ship. Thus the
purchase. Would have opted to get the bigger print, but alas, this is my
very first job and finances are tight. You website has been well put
together in terms of providing a wealth of information and would certainly
resonate with those who had travelled aboard the ships and even those
genuinely love maritime history“.
“I would love a print for my BI collection”.
“My Father was a Chief Engineer with BI and sailed with the Rajula in the 1950s”.
Although I painted ‘Rajula’ many years ago, happily we have available signed numbered copies of this splendid classic steamship via www.frickers.co.uk ‘Print Gallery’ and Payment Page.
D.M. from Newcastle upon Tyne wrote to me re this much loved and classic ship;
“My Father was a Chief Engineer with BI and sailed with the Rajula in the 1950s as a 3rd engineer and then as Chief Engineer from 1969 through 1971
I would love a print for my BI collection and also another for a 21st present for my niece who remembers her grandfather and his BI and in particular Rajula stories
I am looking forward to putting my copy alongside the drawing of the Rajula which was done in 1971 by AJ Smythe who was a BI and P&O draughtsman and a friend of my father”.
“send them together in November. It will give me time to sort out some background Rajula details for my niece and serving officer lists for the 1960s and copy discharge notice for the 50’s showing my her grandfathers connections with probably the most famous BI ship”.
The gist of these remarks are added to the Rajula / British India SN Co page particularly to help ex B I people keep in touch with each other.
Medium: Oils. Size:406 x 610 mm (16″ x 24″).The Art of Gordon Frickers
* Available as a signed, numbered collectors print. *
This sturdy and much loved ship “Rajula” was one of the best known ships built for the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd (British India Line).
Built for the British India SN Co “Straits” service in 1926 by Barclay Curle & Company of Glasgow, yard No 614.
BI as the company the largest merchant ship fleets in the world at that time.
During the turbulent independence process of India, B I ships were very actively engaged moving displaced persons to new homes thus saved many lives.
After India gained its independence, the company eventually merged (don’t say was taken over!) with P&O (Peninsular and Orient Line), a company now best known for its magnificent cruise ships and container ship operations.
T: + 44 (0)1865 52 2435 Mobile 00 33 (0) 6 10 66 19 26
or Skype ‘gordonfrickers’
Email: info at frickers.co.uk
~ ~ ~
THE MADRAS CYCLONE 1966
The following, slightly edited by myself, Gordon Frickers, reproduced by kind permission, is a startling factual account of the weather conditions and subsequent difficulty experienced to keep the S.S. Rajula off a lee shore during the cyclone which hit the Madras Coast 3rd November 1966.
The Madras Cyclone of 1966 while possibly one of the most violent ever experienced in the Bay of Bengal fortunately had one of the lesser death tolls, 26 Chinese Seamen and only 5 urban Madras city dwellers.
The damage to property along the Mahabalipuram Coast was extensive and left thousands homeless.
The fortunately low death toll was due to the path or vortex crossing the coast at a relatively sparsely populated point.
The pressure at the eye was recorded by Rajula as being 961mb. To put this in perspective, this can be compared to the Bhola Cyclone of 1970, lowest pressure recorded was 966mb, which inundated the low lying Ganges Delta country (Sunderbunds) in what was East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
Over 500,000 lives were lost to the Bhola Cyclone due in the main to flood surge, of the unlucky souls most were drowned.
That storm was recorded as one of the world’s worse natural disasters.
Cyclones are called Hurricanes or Typhoons in other parts of the world but all are in essence Tropical Revolving Storms.
The story has its beginning when a weather report received by the ship on the 1st November stated that a low cyclonic depression had formed over the South Andaman Sea and was moving slowly westwards.
Later reports stated that the system had strengthened and increased its speed to 25 knots.
“We arrived at Nagapattinam anchorage on the morning of the 2nd November but conditions were such that the port authorities refused to disembark our passengers or discharge our cargo. However a group of 22 Customs and Immigration officials did board and had to be on carried to Madras along with the passengers and cargo that should have been discharged.
After we sailed from Nagapattinam we received two more T.T.Ts (Safety signals in radiotelegraphy informing us that the cyclone was much closer and should cross the Indian coast well south of us.
It is at this point with hindsight we should have abandoned proceeding to Madras and turned Eastward away from the coast in order to achieve as much Sea room as possible.
Instead we headed north towards Madras in order to keep to schedule and at midnight 2nd were abeam Pondicherry.
It was then that the first rain squalls hit us. The weather previous to this had been deteriorating but was nothing abnormal.
The sea was moderate to rough, wind NW force 5/6 (Beaufort Wind Scale) barometer 1008 mbs and still following its normal diurnal curve.
From midnight to 0300hrs on the 3rd morning the barometer dropped sharply to 1002.6 mbs then steadied up.
This gave those concerned a false sense of security, that the cyclone was indeed passing well to the south of us, and that we were just feeling the outer fringe weather.
The engines were placed on ‘Stand By’ from 0400hrs due to reduced visibility in rain squalls, which means extra engineers are required in E/R additional to the watch keeper.
Wind had now veered from NW to N strengthening to force 9. During this period the ship was still proceeding towards Madras but various degrees of leeway was allowed in order to maintain our desired course.
At one point we were steering 024T to achieve 013T i.e. applying 11 degrees of starboard leeway.
Normal speed of ship was 12 knots but we were making 3 knots forward progress, the wind and sea was right ahead and vessel was pitching heavily.
By 0900hrs we were eight miles off the Madras breakwater having achieved our scheduled time of arrival.
The pressure put on ship’s masters to keep a tight schedule by office administrators was enormous and in this case it interfered with the good seamanship procedures the Captain should have followed.
About 20 ships were observed on the radar initially at anchor but then seen to be moving seawards.
The Captain then decided we better follow suit and altered course to 060T in order to be clear of the other ships and to gain Sea room.
We visually sighted “State of Rajastan” one of the 20 ships pass less than a mile from us then kept track of her on the radar screen and saw her go aground just south of Covelong Point.
Shortly thereafter the barometer commenced to plunge and the wind increased in force and veering.
Rajula managed to maintain steerage way until 1030hrs then after that she would not answer the helm and she lay in the trough of the waves, wind on port bow and rose and fell with the mountainous waves.
We had managed to clear the coast by 11 miles and were now completely at the mercy of the elements the cyclone sucking us towards its centre.
During the period 0900hrs to 1440hrs the barometer dropped vertically from 1002mbs to a phenomenal low of 961mbs.
We were in imminent danger of being swept aground on to the lee shore.
We had been caught in the dangerous quadrant of the cyclone and were swept southwards by the in blowing winds, as were 20 other ships in the vicinity.
By midday our position was 10miles to seaward of Covelong Point but then the wind veered further and we were rapidly being set down on to the coast.
The Captain tried various manoeuvres to get the ships head up to the wind and steam away from the coast.
Being a passenger ship with a high superstructure the wind age was exaggerated and it was essential to get the head to wind.
We tried going ahead on one engine and astern on the other (Twin Screw) both ways but she refused to respond.
The wind was now blowing from the SE force 15-17 i.e. 100mph or 200kmph The waves at times towered above the ship but somehow the old girl came up to meet them she was rolling through an arc of 60-70 degrees.
One must pay tribute to the excellent seaworthiness of Rajula.
There are few vessels built that could have come through an ordeal such as this as unscathed as she did.
The rev counters for both propellers were fluctuating from nil to off the scale as they came out of the water with the rolling motion especially the port one as the ship had a permanent list to starboard due to the wind age on the port side and the engineers had to continually control both engines by hand.
The air was full of spray and driving torrential rain. Visibility was absolutely zero.
The glass from one of the outer bridge windows disintegrated and whipped across in front of us and the pressure on the port side wheelhouse doors was so great timbers had to be nailed across to brace them.
It was at the height of the storm that an older member of the crew struggled up to the bridge nearly naked minus his glasses and begged to be allowed to go above to the monkey island to pray.
He assured us he would pray to all the Gods.
We suggested he do it here and he collapsed to his knees and commenced wailing.
This being rather disconcerting to the Captain and officers on the bridge who were already feeling their own appointments with Davey Jones Locker was nigh.
Meanwhile our proximity to the coast was reflected by the shallow waters indicated on the echo sounder, now the anchors may assist us.
The usual forward station crew fought their way up onto the foc’sle head hanging on to the lifelines which fortunately, sensibly, had been rigged at the outset of the storm.
The port anchor was walked back until it touched the bottom then let run for six cables in the hope that even if it dragged it would pull our head up into the wind thus allowing the engines to maintain our position. Unfortunately as soon as the weight came onto the cable it snapped just like a piece of cotton…we had lost an anchor would we risk the other one?
The situation was now extremely serious.
At 1420hrs we transmitted an XXX (Urgency Signal) stating that our position was 5 miles from the Palar River entrance and 3.8 miles off the coast the we were manoeuvring with difficulty, in imminent danger of grounding.
By 1425hrs we were 3 miles off the coast and perhaps minutes away from grounding.
The last possible manoeuvre one from which if it failed there was no return was tried.
The twin engines were placed on Full Astern.
If a vessel is being driven onto a lee shore meaning the wind is blowing directly onshore, with the engines astern the turning point transfers from one third forward when proceeding ahead to right over the rudder post. This means the stern will come up into the wind.
This is what happened to Rajula but the manoeuvre is considered dangerous because this then exposes the stern, rudder and propellers to the full force of the seas.
As Full Astern 2 was rung on the telegraph the sea was muddy brown accentuating our proximity to shore.
This was our last chance to clear the coast … would it come off?
While the second officer stood braced at the radar the rest of us on the bridge held our breath.
Several minutes elapsed before came the terse comment “I think we are holding our own” then after another four to five minutes had passed came the excited yell “Yes I think we are gaining!” …and sure enough we were very slowly making ground away from the shore.
Rajula’s stern took a terrific battering but fortunately we had a high stern and were not pooped nor received damage to the rudder and propellers.
This was the turning point for the best because shortly after the barometer stopped dropping at a low of 961mbs and commenced to rise just as rapidly as it had dropped.
As a matter of interest we saw plainly on the radar screen the Eye of the cyclone cross the Indian coast 10 miles to the south of us.
Sternway was made off the coast for a total of 2 hrs and 22 mins, after which the storm and wind had eased sufficiently to force 10.
We were now able to turn around and steam forward seaward.
During the course of the cyclone much was going on down on the passenger decks.
Passengers numbered 1,323 Crew 195 Officials 22 ….nearly 1,500 lives had been at stake!
The Medical Staff were flat out dealing with mainly superficial cuts and abrasions due to flying projectiles and people falling and crashing every where.
Seasickness was also rampant.
The saloon passengers kept mainly to their cabins Half a dozen extremely inebriated Europeans sat in the corner of the dining saloon which was an absolute shambles and laughed and joked to keep their spirits up.
They were feeling no pain!
One of them was a mature aged American woman who several days previous had taught me to play the card game Bridge.
She indicated at the time that in all her years of sailing she had never experienced a really bad storm.
She got her wish that day!
The deck passengers were having a rough time of it down in the bowels of the ship as “B” deck was running with water despite all watertight openings being closed up at the commencement of the storm.
I passed through the ‘tween decks several times during the storm and studied the faces of the mass of humanity and it reflected an acceptance of their fate.
There was no panic and when I smiled their faces also lit up they were relying on us to save their lives!
One ingenious man had lashed his trunk to a ventilator post placed his mattress on top of so to be clear of the running water then also lashed himself to the post and slept blissfully.
I indicated in my best Hindustani that they should all follow suit which got them all laughing.
In fact on reflection I gained a lot of strength in myself as a result of their blind trust.
The aftermath of the cyclone which caused havoc along the Madras Coast thousands had their homes destroyed but only 5 deaths were recorded in the urban area.
Four ships were blown aground, the worst hit being the “S.S. Progress”.
She had an all Chinese crew of which 26 perished when she was swept up onto the Madras breakwater.
Another ship, “Mari Hora” has also broken up.
The “Stematis” was driven up high and dry on a popular bathing beach and to this day is a tourist attraction but gradually rusting away.
We on board “Rajula” consider we have had a miraculous escape from what could have been a disastrous grounding and are now fully aware that Tropical Revolving Storms are one of the most violent forces that nature can evolve.
~ ~ ~
This article was originally submitted by myself a 23 year old third officer to the editor and subsequently printed in the B I Company’s in house magazine B-I News, with a brilliant artist impression on the cover.
I have edited what was a highly technical piece to layman’s language as far as possible and added a few more memories to spice it up.
You will have detected I have been slightly critical of the ships master Capt. Toby Blackett who made the error of trying to keep to schedule instead of getting the hell out of it and gaining sea room.
I was surprised he allowed me to submit the article to the magazine but anyway it did his career no harm as shortly thereafter he was made Commodore of the fleet.
He was an excellent seaman and very likeable personality.
Five years ago I attended a B-I Reunion in Fremantle and met up with Ted Treacher who was Second Officer on board “Rajula”.
Ted resides in Vancouver Canada and had only recently lost his wife and this was his first reunion.
We ascertained that we were the only living officer survivors who sailed on that fateful day 45 years ago.
He bought me the first beer and remarked that he owed me one.
Do I consider myself a hero?
Not really, it was just a twist of fate that I was there to prompt my superior officers.
Was I frightened?
Yes it was gut wrenching; but I had one advantage, being the junior and youngest the weight of responsibility was negligible, my thought processes were clear, at no stage did I think of perishing !
When you are young you think yourself invincible !
T: + 44 (0)1865 52 2435 Mobile 00 33 (0) 6 10 66 19 26
or Skype ‘gordonfrickers’
Email: info at frickers.co.uk
Copyright Gordon Frickers 2017:
Gordon Frickers © rewritten from previous posts and updated 22,07,2017
Last Updated on