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SS MAHSEER. THE SPORT OF KINGS

I was never very interested in horse racing until I experienced the Merchant Navy version during my first voyage to Colombo in 1963 on Thos & Jno Brocklebank’s, SS Mahseer. Somewhat confused by all the discussions amongst the officers during meal times on the outbound voyage from the UK to Ceylon about the prospects of successful on-board race meetings, I had absolutely no idea about how these could be organised or what form they would take. The prime movers to set up and organise the races were the Chief Engineer, the Chief Electrician and the ship’s Carpenter (Chippy).

Eventually by the time the ship was in the Red Sea and after what I believe was a great deal of time and effort on the part of the Chippy, a race course was produced consisting of a metre wide strip of awning canvas about five to six metres long, painted in a shade of green identical to the colour used on Mahseer’s decks. The length of the course was divided horizontally (with thin white lines) into sections that were slightly longer than the length of each horse.

The horses with their mounted jockeys that all had different racing poses, were literally works of art. Each one was made from a thin strip of ply wood that had been finely sanded, primed and then hand painted in the colours belonging to their imaginary owners. The horses were held upright by one or more of their legs being secured to small, varnished wooden plinths. If I remember correctly, funnel blue, boot topping red and superstructure white were fairly common colours amongst the owner’s silks. I cannot now remember the exact size of the horses and their riders but would estimate that they were approximately twelve inches (thirty Centimetres) long and ten inches (twenty five Centimetres) high.

The selection of the horse and its progress up the field was determined by the throwing of two wooden dice made from a piece of four inch by four inch timber. They also had been sanded, primed and painted and then varnished so that they shone even under artificial light. One was painted black and the other red with the spot number indentations being painted in a contrasting white. One dice selected the horse and the second determined how many spaces it moved forward.

The only other piece of equipment used was an enamelled bucket that spent most of its non-racing time in the ship’s laundry. This was used to contain and shake the dice.

The numbering constraints imposed by the dice meant that each race had to be confined to six runners. Each horse therefore had a number from one to six painted on its hindquarters. To add variety and to cater for those who preferred steeple chasing to flat racing, three or four, five bar hurdles were also produced which were placed across the course at random distances from the start line.

Due to the passage of time I cannot be certain as to the names given to the horses but they were likely to have been along the lines of Captain’s Tipple, Black Smoke, On-the Blink, Stewards Enquiry, Navigators Folly and Oily Rag.

Mahseer’s officers on that voyage were a very sociable bunch so the decision was made for the first race meeting to be deferred until we reached Aden where it was hoped that the officers from other ships could be invited on board to swell the numbers and so create a more memorable event. On arrival in Aden, after reconnoitring what other ships were in the harbour the decision was made by Mahseer’s Captain and Chief Engineer to invite the officers from a United States of America Naval warship and those from a Royal Navy (RN) Frigate that were both at anchor close to Mahseer. I was enlisted to back up the Third Mate when he contacted each ship by Mahseer’s Aldis lamp as I never had any difficulty reading morse code by light.

We called the RN vessel first and I was impressed by the speed of their response, not in terms of the Morse but the fact that the first call from the Third Mate produced an immediate reply to our call. In the case of the US Warship they responded quickly as well but their keyed light was one of their searchlights. Possibly Aden Harbour had never been so well illuminated at night before or since.

Although the response to Mahseer’s Aldis lamp call was rapid in both cases the answer to the invitation took a little longer in coming. Quite possibly permission from each of the Naval ship’s commanders had to be obtained before any answer could be given. Within about thirty minutes both ships had accepted Mahseer’s invitation for a race meeting the following evening.

After dinner the following day Mahseer’s dining saloon was cleared of its tables and chairs except for two tables placed end to end along the portside (left hand) bulkhead. One table was loaded with a cold buffet, salads and freshly baked bread rolls whilst the other table supported a wide selection of bottled spirits and mixers. Tins of beer and larger were held in buckets filled with ice. These buckets were refilled many times as the event wore on!

The course itself was laid out down the centre of the dining saloon port to starboard (left to right) which allowed the eager punters to watch the proceedings from all sides and angles of the course. The finish line which was marked with a miniature finishing post was on the starboard side of the saloon.

To say that the evening was a great success would be an understatement although my recall of events is not so clear after two o’clock in the morning. The race card was divided up so that after every second or third race there was time to eat, socialise and of course mitigate the inevitable de-hydration brought about by Aden’s very dry climate.

Mahseer’s Chief Electrician ran the book and he must have been happy with the final result because he remained with a fixed smile on his face until we reached Colombo. Possibly this was also due to him setting the US Dollar/pound Sterling conversion rate as betting was with real money and the American officers did not possess any Sterling.

The noise during the races was tremendous particularly when any runner fell at the hurdles or the most heavily fancied horse for that particular race was pipped at the post at the end of the race.

It was the first time in my life that I had mixed socially with any Naval officers whether British or American and the camaraderie and good natured humour was a delight to witness. Our guests had a tremendous time and were eventually persuaded to leave the ship just before dawn the following morning, in some cases poorer but possibly very much wiser. The horses themselves seemed as fresh as they had been at the start of the evening unlike yours truly who was feeling no pain whatsoever.

The upside for the US Navy was that for those that drank beer, they had had their first taste of Tennents and Alsopps lagers and had survived to tell the tale.

Before we left Aden both naval vessels reciprocated with equally generous hospitality to Mahseer’s Senior Officers. Juniors such as me were not invited to participate so we had to make do with being told how things went when our Seniors finally came back on board.

I had always believed that American warships were dry as far as alcohol was concerned but any restriction seem to have been lifted on that occasion as judged by the laughter and merriment of Mahseer’s Senior Officers when they came back on board.

My Chief who had been a senior rating in the RN during World War 2 was absolutely delighted to have been invited to the officer’s Ward Room on board the British Warship, a treat that had been denied to him when he was serving in the Royal Navy.

After Aden our next port of call was Colombo in Ceylon. There were further race meetings held on board when we were unloading and loading at the port. However these meetings tended to be more private affairs as our guests were always personal friends of specific Senior Officers.

At a later time and on a different ship, I attended a proper race meeting in Calcutta (India) whilst the ship was berthed in the Kiddapore Docks. At that time, it was not unusual for some very famous UK jockeys to go out to India for the winter to ride at meetings such as the one I attended. My companion from the ship claimed that he had a fool proof system for selecting winners but his system failed on that day or perhaps my presence put a jinx on his selection process. Having lost a fair number of the Indian Rupees that I had taken ashore with me, I concluded that betting on horses, even though it is the Sport of King’s was not for me.

I know from others who served in the Merchant Navy at that time that on-board race meetings were fairly common particularly in the Far East. However that voyage on Mahseer was the only time during my sea going career that a race meeting was held on board any of the ships that I sailed on. Perhaps because of that, my memories of the event remain clear to this day (except for the closing bit!). As Mahseer was an oil fired steamship, it is only right that Black Smoke was much in evidence in the winner’s enclosure during the event.

copyright © John Leary