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SS MAHSEER. THE THIRD PASSENGER

When I was at sea it was not unusual for birds or insects to land on board ship even if the vessel was miles away from the nearest land. For the bird or insect taking a rest on the deck or railings, its arrival on board might well has been the difference between life or death. The birds were tolerated and looked on with great interest by all of the crew. The insects however were treated very differently particularly if they were large beetles. When these landed on board they were lucky to escape being crushed under the foot of one of the crew, particularly if they could get close enough to the insect before it flew off or scuttled away. Many sailors seemed to entertain a positive loathing for crawling insects particularly beetles.

One insect that I never knew existed and certainly never saw before I went to sea was the cockroach.

Now cockroaches are reputed to be one of the oldest insects in existence and are incredibly adaptable and able to live in the most extreme of conditions. They can live for long periods without food or water and reputedly can live up to a month without a head!

The ones I saw on Thos and Jno Brocklebank’s cargo ships were generally small being between one to two centimetres long (adults). The babies and juveniles were the same colour as the adults but much smaller. I believe that adult cockroaches were capable of flight but rarely did so, preferring to crawl about mainly in the dark or when they were sure they would not be disturbed.

Having done a little background reading into the topic of cockroaches for this story I now know there are different types of cockroach. With the passage of time I cannot say whether the ones I saw on the ships I sailed on, were Oriental, German or brown banded. From memory the ones I became familiar with all seemed to be a uniform brown in colour and devoid of any banded markings.

It was a regular event on board ship, usually on a Sunday morning, for the third mate to go around all of the officer’s cabins and the ship’s accommodation with a flit gun spraying the insides of wardrobes, the backs of drawers and cupboards and any nooks and crannies not covered by the above. The insecticide of choice was I believe to be DDT which is now a banned substance in most of the World.

I suspect that to spray in the same manner today would cause a ship’s safety officer to have apoplexy. I imagine that if any spraying were to take place even with a more benign insecticide than DDT, then the person doing the work would be required to undertake comprehensive training, do a safety audit, undertake a risk assessment, wear a bio hazard suit with breathing apparatus and be extremely conversant with the appropriate HAZCHEM regulations.

I’m not sure that the Flit gun approach was really all that effective because the theory we had on board at the time was that the cockroaches had become immune to DDT and actually thrived on the stuff, consuming it with a similar enthusiasm to a ship’s officer drinking his first ice cold beer of the day.

Even though these small adaptable insects represented a health hazard it was accepted that no matter what you did it was highly unlikely that you could eradicate them from the ship entirely.

Colombo in the 1960’s was a wonderful place to visit. It had gained independence and become a member of the British Commonwealth in 1948 so whilst it was an independent and therefore a “foreign” country, many people that I came into contact with spoke English and the traditions of the country and the way things were run had the feel of the UK about them.

A big advantage from a radio officer’s point of view from being docked in Colombo for a few weeks was that we did not keep radio watches. It was not a holiday by any means as our days were fully taken up doing routine maintenance work. During my two deep sea trips on Mahseer, my Chief R/O, Harry Jefferson and I spent a great deal of time working on the ship's aerial system, in replacing faulty direction finder connection cables and repairing a broken bearing housing on the BTH radar scanner. However even with all of this maintenance work, the evenings and weekends were generally free, allowing us to go ashore, do some sightseeing or spend a pleasant evening at the cinema.

I remember that on one occasion after our evening meal on board, Harry and I decided to go ashore and see a film at a local cinema. I cannot remember now what the film was that we wanted to see. Its title is not central to this story.

At the port of Colombo, whether you were unloading alongside the wharves, or loading from barges when you were at anchor in the harbour it was not difficult to get ashore. Having disembarked shore side, whether via gangway or launch, a short walk along the quay brought you to the Customs hall which although permanently manned, rarely resulted in any sort of check being carried out. On exiting the Customs hall all you had to do to arrive very near to the city centre, was to walk up a slight incline to the dock gate and turn left onto the road where all of the local taxis congregated.

Now there was always a good selection of taxi’s to choose from and for the very adventurous there was the Ceylonese version of the rickshaw. There was no orderly queuing by the taxi owners so it was dog eat dog whenever a prospective fare emerged from the dock gate. You were literally besieged and surrounded by the taxi owners touting for your business. So keen were they to obtain your money that they would often resort to grabbing you by the arm to pull you into their taxicab.

The taxis in question were an assortment of different types of vehicles; mostly British made but all without exception in an advanced state of dereliction. Morris Oxford’s were the most common but there were other makes represented as well. Today you would see cars in a better state in a UK scrap yard waiting to be crushed.

On the night in question after the usual bargaining over the price of the fare, Harry and I selected what I think was an old Humber saloon.

This had been a very prestigious motorcar in its day but as I said, like all of the other taxis it was a little the worse for wear. Never the less it looked capable of driving the few miles we needed to travel to the cinema, so we climbed in.

Apart from the tired leather seats the two other things of note were the dusty smell of age and decay that permeated the inside of the car and the partition between the passenger compartment and the drivers seating area. This partition consisted of an carpeted lower section topped by a number of glass panels that could be slid shut so as to give the passengers some privacy. If I remember correctly there were a couple of hinged “Dickey” seats attached to the carpeted section. On our journey the glass windows had been slid open and both “Dickey” seats were hinged up and unoccupied. Harry as was his custom was enjoying his usual banter with the driver.

For some unaccountable reason, Harry’s conversation dried up mid sentence and I turned my head towards him to see why he had stopped talking. He sat there, staring at the partition with a look of incredulity on his face. I turned in the direction of his gaze in order to find out what had captured his attention and what I saw in the gloom of the cab was enough to drive fear into most people. There on the top of the partition was the largest cockroach I have ever seen in my life or would ever wish to see. It was huge, in fact it was enormous. It was the grandfather of all cockroaches and must have been the cockroach equivalent of the amazing hulk. Its home or lair must have been within the bowels of the carpeted partition.

It wasn’t just its size that was intimidating; it was the fact that it appeared to be taking a great deal of interest in our presence on the back seat. Maybe it was only curious to see who had woken it up from its slumber, maybe it wanted to hear our conversation a little better, but because it was so large, I had the distinct feeling that as it moved its antenna backward and forward that it was looking at us in the same way that I have often looked at the menu inside the window of a restaurant.

Although I was much younger than Harry, on that occasion his reactions were much faster than mine. Snapping out of his trance like state, he shouted “Bl..dy hell, driver stop the car immediately I want to get out”.

I don’t think the driver had any idea why we wanted to vacate the car so soon and Harry did not want to stay inside to offer any sort of explanation. As soon as the taxi pulled to a halt, both rear doors were flung open and we escaped as quickly as we could. Harry paid the driver the full fare for the journey to the cinema and he drove off probably muttering under his breath about the strange ways and habits of the British.

We didn’t have to wait long before we caught another cab that took us on the rest of the journey to the cinema. The film was enjoyable as far as I can recollect and we returned to the ship later that evening without further mishap.

Now two things have puzzled me since that evening in Colombo. The first is where there is one cockroach there are usually many more in which event did we only see the baby of the family? Secondly did the taxi fare that Harry paid, include the price for the third passenger?

copyright © John Leary