Oriental Valiant, Chapter One
Forenoon, Monday 1 December 1941
‘How’s the prickly heat?’
‘Och, shite! Was I scratching again,
Mate Ian Lamont glared accusingly at the hand scrubbing at his chest.
‘I’ve got a tin of Meritt’s powder in my
cabin,’ I said. ‘You’re welcome to borrow it.’
‘I’ve tried that, and Johnson's. Best thing
I’ve found was the bottle of calamine lotion from the Medical Hall in
Singapore. I’ve nearly run out.’
‘There’s bound to be a chemist in Bangkok
that can fix you up.’
raised my binoculars to study the white-painted hulk moored off the mouth of
the Chao Phraya River. The pilots were stationed there. We were waiting for one
to navigate us across the bar and upriver to the city. I’d
wired our estimated time of arrival before leaving Hong Kong, and the flag
whipping on the signal halyard in the brisk nor-easter confirmed our request.
As yet, there was no sign of the pilot cutter and high water was less than an hour
‘I wish they’d get a bloody move on. If we
miss high water, we’ll be stuck here until tomorrow morning.’ I reached into my
pocket for the tin of Senior Service—and swore. I’d given up smoking.
strode to the end of the bridge wing and gazed down at the muddy water of the
anchorage. Its brown surface was chopped into sharp wavelets by the stiff
breeze. Thick clumps of vegetation swirled around the ship in the eddies, where
the last of the flood tide met the outflowing river current. It was the dry
season when the flow of the normally swollen river slackened. It was also
supposed to be the cool season but, even at the start of the forenoon watch,
the temperature was already over 70 degrees and the humidity approaching 80
percent. Sweat trickled down my chest but, unlike Lamont who had joined me on
the bridge wing, at least I hadn’t erupted with miliaria.
‘Take your shirt off. The breeze will cool
‘Och, that would never do, Skipper. Can’t go
letting the side down by appearing semi-naked. What would Mr Khoo think?’
‘I’m sure the chairman’s seen a man’s chest
before. Anyway, Second, what are you doing up here? It’s your watch below.’
‘Couldn’t sleep.’ His hand lifted
involuntarily towards his chest. Grimacing, he forced it down again. ‘Too
bloody hot.’ The grimace turned into a grin. ‘I told the clerk at the Reserve
Pool that I was looking for a nice quiet berth in a Clyde Puffer, running out
to the Western Isles on nice days only. Rothesay, Oronsay, Taransay. How was I
to know that Cathay was on the far side of world?’
‘Didn’t they teach you geography in
‘Aye, they did. But I must’na been paying
attention that day.’
previous second mate had contracted influenza which had turned into pneumonia.
Lamont had been sent down by the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool to replace him. The
Pool had been established in May, to ensure the supply of officers and ratings
for merchant ships. More importantly, it meant their pay was guaranteed if their
ships were lost or they were taken prisoner.
was surprised the Pool had sent us Lamont. He bore the clear hallmarks of a
future captain, and by rights deserved something better than a berth in an
ageing, coal-burning tramp steamer. Their loss was my gain. He was short and
stocky, almost as wide as he was tall, with a face that looked as if it had
been hewn from granite with a blunt chisel. Brimming with confidence, he was a
born seaman with the briny blood of the Norse Gaels flowing in his veins. His father
was a minister in the Scottish church and he had a younger brother in the Royal
Navy, but I couldn't hold those against him. Apart from ebullient cheerfulness
and the pipe he smoked, there was little to fault. He was also DEMS trained and
happy to assist Petty Officer Bullen and his gunnery team.
‘I still find it hard to believe you’ve
been at sea all these years and never been to Asia,’ I said.
‘Aye, never left the Atlantic. It was all
trips to the Med for iron ore and sugar from Cuba. The owners, Maclay and
McIntyre, were men of little imagination.’
had also never crossed the equator. We rectified that on the passage to
Singapore. King Neptune appeared at noon as we crossed the line off the Gulf of
Guinea. A trident wielding Brian Cramp, the shipwright, had been accompanied by
an elderly Nefertiti played by Chief Engineer Fraser with the head of a mop
plastered over his sparse grey hair. They dragged a weakly protesting Lamont
onto the main deck. After the traditional punishment of a slathering with
galley scraps and waste oil, they turned a fire hose on him. He took it in good
grace, and I stood his afternoon watch while he shared a couple of bottles of
rum with his shipmates to celebrate his new shellback status.
a temporary distraction from the war, it had been good for morale. The Nazis
had invaded Russia in May and Britain was no longer fighting alone, but the Red
Army had crumbled and the Panzers were on the outskirts of Moscow. The Royal
Navy was doing its best but, at sea, the only thing that could be said of the
war was that we had not yet lost it. Ships were still being sunk and merchant
seamen lost at a terrifying rate. We’d been fitted with the long-awaited 4-inch
naval gun soon after arriving back in Liverpool in February, and our
anti-aircraft capability boosted by a 12-pounder on a high-angle mount. They
provided some comfort that we could hit back, and Bullen had claimed a share in
a Condor shot down on a subsequent voyage. Despite that, I was glad when the
Ministry of War Transport ordered me to take the ship back to the Far East.
These were waters I knew, in which U-boats and surface raiders were few and far
were warmer waters too, although Lamont was finding it hard to acclimatise. His
thicker Scottish blood was better suited to the wintry reaches of the North
‘Pilot cutter’s on the way, Skipper.’
turned, to see Third Mate Lakshman pointing towards the anchored hulk. A steam
launch was puffing its way towards us.
‘Nip below and tell Cramp to go forward to
raise the anchor.’
bounded down the stairs. Lamont continued to shadow me on the bridge wing. That
was another of his faults. He had an insatiable curiosity about any place he
was visiting for the first time.
‘I can’t promise you an interesting river
passage. The country’s as flat as a chart table and the river twists and turns
until you imagine you’re heading back on yourself.’
‘I have my guidebook.’ Lamont pulled a slim
paperback out of his pocket. ‘Conrad took up his first command in Bangkok, the
He describes steaming up the Chao Phraya on
his way to join her.’
‘The Shadow Line … don’t look so surprised. You and Lakshman
are not the only ones who read. I’ve even seen the chief mate absorbed in a
copy of Fu
reached into the other pocket for his pipe.
‘You can put that away,’ I snapped, before
he managed to strike a match. ‘No smoking on the bridge while I’m here.’
me on the foredeck, Cramp climbed onto the forecastle head. The pilot cutter
had rapidly closed the distance. I raised an arm and circled my hand. There was
an answering hail, followed by the clank and hiss of the windlass as Cramp
engaged the gypsy to haul the anchor in.
minutes later, the anchor was stowed, the pilot safely embarked and the ship
steaming towards the Outer Bar lightship.
‘What your draught please, Captain?’ asked
the pilot, an immaculately uniformed Siamese.
‘Ten feet aft.’
feet over the bar today. Should be plenty clearance, but maintain good head
steam and close boiler feed valves as far possible. Also plenty weed. Keep eye
on sea chests.’
blew into the engine room voice pipe and relayed the instructions to Fraser.
‘Tell him he’s teaching his granny to
riddle the fire grate.’ The gruff Scottish brogue boomed up the brass pipe. ‘It’s
the same every time we cross a bar, whether it’s here, the Hooghly or the
‘Thanks Angus. No need to be so touchy.' I
quickly replaced the cover, hoping the pilot hadn’t heard.
of us, the broad expanse of muddy water stretched away to the low-lying coast,
a brown smudge along the horizon. Beyond the Pilot Hulk, the Outer Bar
lightship marked the start of the passage across the bar. It was hardly a
channel; the chart showed a narrow gutter, between six and nine feet deep at
we passed the red-painted lightship at little more than half a cable to port,
the pilot called a small course alteration. The helmsman spun the wheel spokes.
‘Steady as she goes.’ The pilot raised an
arm and pointed right ahead. ‘Five miles to Inner Bar Lightship. Steer straight
to it. Then leave to port.’
raised my binoculars and rotated the adjustment ring until the green painted
lightship swam into focus. There was nothing else to mark our way, other than
the gap between the fishing stakes thickly populating the shallows on either
was standing beside the engine room telegraph, jotting down entries in a small
‘Good work, Third, You’ll need that to
write up the log at the end of the watch.’
‘It is also for my own education, sir,’ he
replied, his brow knotted with concentration. ‘I make notes of all the
pilotages I observe.’ He finished the entry and looked up. ‘If I might ask,
sir. Why did the pilot suggest the boiler feed valves be partly closed?’
‘That’s a good question, Third. But this is not the right time. I suggest you ask Mr Fraser after we’re safely moored.’
‘I can answer that,’ called Lamont, from
the bridge wing.
‘The third mate’s got a job to do,’ I
growled. ‘I don't want you distracting him. A moment’s inattention and we’ll be
on the putty.’
clattered up the bridge wing ladder and McGrath appeared in the wheelhouse. ‘Both
anchors ready for letting go, Skipper. Cramp’s standing by on the brakes.’
nodded in acknowledgment.
‘What are you doing up here, Ian?’ McGrath
said, seeing Lamont on the bridge wing. ‘It’s your watch below.’
‘Making a bloody nuisance of himself,’ I
said, before Lamont had a chance to reply. ‘Distracting the third mate. And I
had to stop him lighting that foul pipe of his.’
failed to suppress the smile that split his lips.
‘And you can wipe that silly grin off your
face.’ I’d suffered bouts of irritation ever since giving up smoking. There was
an unopened tin of Senior Service in my day cabin in case of emergency. I took
a deep breath and resisted the temptation to fetch it. It would be twenty
minutes before we drew abeam of the lightship, and the pilot appeared to know
what he was doing.
‘It’s in case we go aground, Third,’ I
said. ‘The boiler feed valves are closed just enough to keep a full head of
steam up, while restricting the amount of water in the boiler drums. It’s not
recommended by the boiler manufacturer, it’s dangerous to starve the drums. But
if we get stuck in the mud with them full of water, the steam demand by the
engine will immediately drop. That’ll send the boiler pressures soaring, blow
the safety valves, possibly damage the drums and risk the loss of the feed
water.’ I paused, glancing across at Lamont. ‘Anything to add, Second.’
looked down at his feet. ‘No, sir.’
‘Good. Well enjoy your sightseeing, but let
the rest of us get the ship safely to Bangkok.’ He still had the irrepressible
grin on his face. ‘And if you want to light that bloody pipe, keep well out on
the bridge wing.’ I smiled. There was a better alternative. ‘On second
thoughts, since you’re up anyway, you can take charge on the forecastle. Keep
Cramp company. He can point out the sights. That’ll keep you occupied until we
‘Aye aye, sir.’ Clamping the curved stem
briar pipe between his jaws, Lamont clattered down the stairs.
later he reappeared on the foredeck, thick clouds of smoke billowing from his
pipe. My nostrils twitched at the aroma of tobacco wafting aft on the breeze
and I felt a desperate longing for a Senior Service. Fortunately, Da Silva
chose that moment to appear with a pot of coffee. I waited until he’d
served the pilot, then savoured the strong, steaming brew.
bright green, Inner Lightship slid past close by to port.
‘Port ten.’ The pilot watched the bow swing
onto a northerly heading. ‘Midships the wheel. Steady as she goes.’
helmsman had hardly settled onto the new course when the pilot again ordered
the wheel hard over to port. This time he let the bow swing four points to the
west, until Sunken Junk Lightship was fine on the port bow.
‘Midships. Steady as she goes.’
estuary narrowed as we cleared the bar and entered the deep water channel
leading upstream. Sunken Junk Lightship marked the gap in a line of stone laden
junks that had been sunk across the river mouth early the previous century.
They, together with a heavy chain strung from shore to shore, were intended to
prevent Europeans penetrating upriver to Bangkok. They had failed, although
Siam, or Thailand as it had been named since 1939, was the only country in
South East Asia that had not succumbed to western domination.
the lightship was the fortress at the end of West Point. Its white-painted
fortifications concealed 6-inch Armstrong naval guns. Mangroves grew thickly
along the tide line either side of the channel, and beyond them a flat, tree-dotted network of paddy fields stretched away on either side. Bamboo walled
houses thatched with palm fronds clustered amongst the trees, and the occasional
gilt spire of a temple gleamed in the sunlight.
West Point, the river twisted and turned through numerous bends. There were no
buoys to mark the channel and the brown, vegetation strewn water provided no
indication of its depth. The pilot stalked from one bridge wing to the other,
watching the banks and issuing course corrections. McGrath and I took station
in the wheelhouse, with all the windows lowered to catch the breeze. I’d
made the passage several times before, but had never worked out what the pilots
used to guide them. Without one, I would have just followed the centre of the
channel as best I could, and trusted to luck to miss any snags or mud banks.
on the bridge wing ladder announced another arrival, and I turned to see Mr
Khoo climb up to join us.
‘Good morning, Captain Rowden, gentlemen.’
He nodded to each of us in turn, including the helmsman. ‘Might I request your
permission to join you on your bridge, Captain?’
‘It’s as much your bridge as mine. You don’t
need my permission.’
the heat and humidity, Mr Khoo, the line’s chairman, looked as cool and crisp in
his cream linen suit, white buckskin shoes and Panama hat, as if he’d stepped
out of the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. He raised his hat as the pilot strode
past. Pausing only to flick two fingers to the peak of his cap, the pilot
continued out onto the other bridge wing. He watched a Junk scrape by, drifting
down on the start of the ebb, its fan-shaped, battened sails spread wide to
catch the breeze.
‘Nevertheless, you are the captain. I am
merely a passenger.’ The smile that crossed Mr Khoo’s lips suggested he
believed it less than I did. ‘I have never been to Bangkok. Have I told you
that before, Captain?’
nor explained why he’d joined us in Hong Kong. Our orders were to load a full
cargo of rice and deliver it to Singapore. We were too big to cross the bar
fully laden. Instead, we would part load in Bangkok and top up from barges at
the anchorage outside the bar.
‘No, sir, you never mentioned it.’
‘It was Hong Kong merchants who developed
the Siamese rice trade,’ said Mr Khoo. ‘Such as the Wang Lee family. Their
junks arrived in Bangkok with ceramics, tea and silk, and returned to Hong Kong
full of rice. They migrated here in the eighteen fifties. I am distantly
related. It would honour me to meet the descendants of such forward-thinking
Khoo had a remarkably wide network of clan relations, including among my crew.
Some of them had been pirates in the junks sailing from Bias Bay, north of Hong
Kong. His nod to the helmsman was probably more than mere courtesy.
‘I didn’t know that. So, it’s something of
a busman’s holiday.’
soft chuckle brightened his steely eyes. ‘Not at all. Merely sightseeing. We
could have loaded the full cargo at the anchorage. But that would have meant
hiring a steam launch to convey me to the city. What better way to arrive than
on the bridge of my own ship?’
completed a series of ox-bow bends, in which we seemed to be steaming back
towards the coast, the surrounding countryside became increasingly populated
and industrial. Wood and bamboo dwellings clustered thickly alongside either
bank. Interspersed among them were godowns, factories and rice mills with their
chimneys belching smoke. Behind them rose the gilt stupas of temples with
glittering spires. Ships were ranged alongside rickety wharves loading bags of
rice. Others were anchored mid-stream. I kept a close eye on the pilot as he conned
the ship past them.
the final bend at Bangkolen point, the industry thickened to include sawmills,
slipways and oil tanks. Ahead of us, the city sprawled out on either side of
the river. The east bank was dominated by the grand buildings of European and
American trading houses, hotels, diplomatic legations, the Dock Company and the
Customs House, with the spires of the Royal Palace rising in the background.
The west bank was densely populated with low housing, rice mills and temples.
Many of the wooden houses fronted right over the water, supported on stilts.
Women washed their clothes in basins dipped straight from the river. Children
tumbled into its brown depths, splashing to the bank, uncaring of the current
or the multitude of craft plying back and forth. A line of ships was anchored
towards the western side of the stream, all with their bows pointing towards
the city. Even at the height of the flood, there was usually enough fresh water
flowing downstream, floating on the denser salt water beneath, to keep the
ships from swinging around.
pilot bustled in from the bridge wing, mopping the sweat off his face with a
checkered handkerchief. He pointed to a space at the head of the line of
anchored ships, opposite a large temple on the western bank.
‘You anchor there, Captain. Six fathoms
even at low water springs. Good holding ground.’
‘Thank you, pilot. Slow ahead.’
allowed the ship to slow until we were just stemming the ebb and then nosed her
into position. My hail to the forecastle was followed by the splash of the
anchor and the clatter and rumble of the chain tumbling over the gypsy. A cloud
of rust enveloped the forecastle. The ship dropped slowly astern with the ebb,
dragging the chain out of its locker, until I raised crossed wrists and Cramp
furiously screwed on the windlass brake. He peered over the bow as the ship
snubbed up, watched until he was satisfied, and hailed to confirm the anchor
recorded the time in his notebook. ‘You can ring Finished with Engine, Third.
We’ll maintain sea watches. I’ve never dragged an anchor here, but you never
know. Even in the dry season, the current can get up to four knots. So establish
some transits and keep a sharp eye on them. Call me if you have the slightest
doubt. Let Mr Lamont know when he relieves you.’
‘Aye aye, sir.’ Lakshman rang the engine
telegraph and made another note.
journey upriver had occupied most of the forenoon watch. My stomach twitched at
the welcome smell of curry wafting up from the galley. Free of the dreary
restrictions of Britain’s rationing, since Singapore our diet had
returned to something approaching pre-war normality.
was a polite cough and I turned to see the pilot holding out a chit for me to
‘Would you care for a drink and some lunch?’
‘No thank you, Captain. The launch is
watched over the bridge wing until he was safely embarked onto the cutter, and
then went below to join Mr Khoo and the others in the saloon.