SAILING THE HIGH SEAS…
Retired ship’s captain David McNamee from the Ribble Valley recalls some of the highlights of a career that has been filled with endeavour and adventure
Sailing the world at the helm of cargo and freight ships, Captain David McNamee has negotiated vessels through high seas and typhoons as part of his leading role to deliver grain, sugar, timber products and supplies to far flung ports and rigs all over the globe.
He has navigated the world’s oceans and waterways during a career that has spanned nearly 50 years, and as he openly admits: “I have loved every minute of it.
“As far back as I can remember I wanted to go away to sea,” says Captain McNamee, who settled in the Ribble Valley 40 years ago.
As a boy he lived in Worsley and nearby, was the Manchester Ship Canal which was, in the 1950s, the third biggest port in the UK.
From the tender age of 10 he spent summer holidays ‘ship spotting’ with his box Brownie camera, flask and sandwiches and when he was 15 he got a summer job as a galley boy with Isle of Man Ferries. Shortly after that, his life ‘changed forever’ when, by chance, he got the opportunity to board a general cargo ship that had docked in Manchester: “It had loaded 10,000 tons of grain in Durban, South Africa. We were shown around by the Chief Officer and at the end of the visit we were introduced to the Captain and during the conversation he asked what I wanted to do with my life? I told him, ‘I want to go to sea sir’.”
The Captain invited David for an interview, which went well – and David was subsequently offered a cadetship, joining the MV Bardistan, which had arrived in Glasgow with grain from Maputo in Mozambique.
David was with the historic Frank C Strick line – a 26-strong fleet of cargo ships that sailed frequently to the Persian Gulf on trips, which averaged from six to nine months at sea.
“It took us two weeks to Suez, five days to Aden and a week to the Persian Gulf. It was better than I could ever imagined,” says David, who recalls sailing up the Shat-al-Arab, the river that divides Iraq and Iran (in those days it was still Persia).
“We went to Basra and it just kept getting hotter, it was summer and it was approaching 50 degrees C, with no air conditioning! I can remember it as if it was yesterday.”
The young cadet officer began studying celestial navigation, chart work, ship construction, stability and mathematics – his least favourite subject: “Every Sunday afternoon at 4.30pm I recited, before the captain, what I had learnt that week. I loved it.”
After his first trip, a young David continued his cadetship on various ships for four years, returning to the Persian Gulf and travelling to East Africa, Mauritius and Montreal in Canada.
“I can remember it was really cold in Canada, we were the last ship to leave before they closed the port because of the ice.”
On another trip the ship had loaded bulk sugar in Madagascar for the Pepsi Cola Company in New York, where David was able to visit relatives who had emigrated there in 1913. From New York the ship sailed to Norfolk in Virginia to load tobacco for Avonmouth.
“I had spent 14 months away from home and I was only just 18, but by that time I knew what I wanted to do – I wanted to be the ship’s captain.”
Having completed his Second Mates certificate, David’s career came to an, albeit temporary, grinding halt when John Prescott brought the whole of the British Merchant Navy out on strike.
Some months later and back at sea as Second Mate, David sailed for Stevangar in Norway and into the Arctic Circle: “I thought I would give it six weeks, but I left that ship two years later. I learned a hell of a lot.”
Returning to deep sea sailing, David joined the Newglade – a ‘tramp ship’ which takes any cargo anywhere in the world – the ship had docked in the Manchester Ship Canal from Mexico with sulphur.
“The ship was on her last legs, we went to West Africa where we loaded 10,000 tons of phosphate for Bourgas in Bulgaria and then to Pireaus in Greece, where the ship was eventually scrapped.”
In the late 1960s, when gas had been discovered in the North Sea, David became involved in taking supplies to the rigs there. Fast forward to 1971, and David got his Master’s Certificate which enabled him to command a ship.
Now married David, joined North West Water sailing from Davyhulme on the Manchester Ship Canal getting his first command in 1974, staying with the water authority until 1980 when he came ashore.
Returning to sea full time in the North Sea sailing from Aberdeen and the Shetland Isles, David was able to work one month on, one month off, taking supplies to the rigs.
But it wasn’t long before he was offered a three month contract with a different company, sailing familiar territory, captaining a ship taking supplies to rigs back in the Persian Gulf. He then got an offer of work in Singapore captaining the Hines Tide, a small but powerful supply ship that took Captain McNamee and his Indonesian crew to Burma and Rangoon – and an unforgettable rescue mission.
Delivering to rigs off the Burmese Coast, they were warned of a typhoon approaching, and the rigs were evacuated: “It wasn’t good. We were caught in it for three days and when we went back to the rig it was still quite rough. I could see a small fishing vessel which was in difficulties about a mile away.”
Captain McNamee turned his ship and headed towards the stricken vessel: “The fishing vessel was rolling violently. I got all hands on deck and asked for lifebelts and lifejackets to be made ready and we managed to manoeuvre the ship within three feet of the fishing boat.”
“Ten guys leapt across and within 15 minutes their boat had sunk,” said David, whose actions prompted praise for his professionalism.
But the typhoon was not the first or the last of the dangerous weather conditions he encountered. He vividly recalls captaining a supply ship, the Toisa Conquerer, 150 miles north east of Shetland on New Year’s Eve in 1994: “I had been on the bridge all night and at 3am the weather was atrocious. A crew member, who was a pretty experienced ex-fisherman, and I saw a wall of white water coming towards us – the ship came up on the crest of the wave and then dropped down into the trough, we were completely enveloped as we went through it.”
Later on New Year’s Day the radio operator on the rig wished Captain McNamee a Happy New Year, telling him the wind had peaked at 120 mph at 3am that morning.
“People think you are spinning a yarn when you tell them,” he laughs. “Some time later there was a Horizon programme on TV about rogue waves, and it mentioned one on New Year’s morning in the northern sector of the North Sea, with the wind peaking at 120 mph creating a 60ft sea. I thought, ‘I know that – I was there!’”
Some years later when faced with a decision to re-join the Hines Tide or accept an offer from Seatruck Ferries, Captain McNamee opted for the latter and joined the MV Moondance a freight ferry carrying wagons and drivers from Heysham to Ireland: “I wasn’t sure about it at first. I thought maybe I would have Christmas at home then go back to south East Asia. But I stayed with the ferries for 14 years. It was the nearest I would ever get to owning my own ship. It was wonderful.”
In March 2008 David went out to Spain to take command of the Clipper Point, the first of four brand new ferries built for Seatruck Ferries. He stayed with the ship until August 2011 when he decided to retire. He recalls: “I woke up one morning and I realised that I didn’t want to go away anymore. I had been at sea for nearly 50 years and I wanted to be at home.”
On 30th August 2011 Captain McNamee captained his final voyage across the Irish Sea. His 23-strong crew, some of whom had been with him for over a decade, lined the deck to shake hands with him and when the ship reached the shore, the dockers too had lined up to bid him farewell: “There was more than a tear in my eye,” he recalls wistfully. “That was the end of my sea-going career.”
Captain McNamee, who founded the Ribble Valley branch of the Merchant Navy Association, now lectures at Fleetwood Nautical College two days a week and is skipper of the historic steam ship, the 1903 SS David Adamson, which has been rebuilt and refurbished by the David Adamson Preservation Society