Capt Charles R ‘Reg’ Kelso


During my final term in “Conway” – in March 1946 – I decided that I would serve my seafaring cadetship with The Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company and, despite the reservations of the majority of the academic and administrative staff with regard to my ability, I applied for an interview, travelled to Glasgow, had an enjoyable interview and was offered employment, returned to “Conway”, packed my gear and, missing the final examinations, went home to Ireland to prepare for my new career.

A few weeks later, fully kitted-out and not a little apprehensive I took the overnight sailing from Belfast to Glasgow and, on April 3rd. 1946 at 0850 I climbed up the steep gangway of “Good Hope Castle” berthed at No.2 Ballasting Crane, Queen’s Dock. As I stepped aboard a young man in a white jacket appeared from a doorway and said ” Good morning, Sir, have you had breakfast?”  Nobody had ever called me “sir” before and very few (other than my mother) had enquired about my breakfast. I was mightily impressed and I was immediately aware of a feeling of welcome and friendliness – a feeling that was to remain with me for the next 42 happy years.

The ship – an Empire Victory type – had recently been taken over from another company as the “Empire Life” and she was still painted in wartime grey but a few days later – resplendent in a lavender hull (later to be changed to black) and a Union-Castle funnel she sailed out of the Clyde for St.John, New Brunswick, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Trinidad, South and East Africa, The Suez Canal, Genoa, Barcelona and home to Avonmouth - 5 months almost to the day since we left Glasgow.

My fellow-cadet was an ex “Worcester”, Rodney (Rockie) McNeill and we formed a friendship that survived until his death a few years ago.

I served most of my “time” in “Good Hope Castle” and then after a short trip in “Rowallan Castle” to get the requisite sea time I studied, and in June 1949, sat for my Second Mates Certificate of Competency in Liverpool.

After a brief period on Southampton “Staff” (shore based duties) I joined “Cape Town Castle” as Junior Fourth Officer in early August.

First Mates was taken in Liverpool in 1952 and after further Southampton “Staff” I joined “Bloemfontein Castle” in London as Third Officer, being promoted to Extra Second Officer in 1955. During that brief period of Southampton Staff duties I had cause to experience the care and consideration that the Company extended to its employees. One Saturday afternoon I was Duty Officer in Arundel Castle when I got a message telling me that my father had been seriously injured in an accident in Belfast. I telephoned the “digs” of many of my brother Officers but, to a man, they were either out of town or unobtainable. Finally, in desperation I rang Captain Keen, the Marine Superintendent and told him of my problem. Within an hour Captain Keen and the Assistant Marine Superintendent, Captain Hodson, boarded the ship. I look back on my 42 years in the industry with pride and happiness and today I am still in touch with very many of those –ashore and afloat - whose loyalty and friendship contributed so much to that happiness.

Captain Hodson relieved me as Duty Officer and Captain Keen drove me to my “digs” to collect some gear. He then drove me to the airport, bought me a ticket and I was in Belfast that night. Never did I forget the kindness and consideration of these two very fine gentlemen and, some years later, when I was at home in Ireland anticipating my first Christmas at home for many years I had no hesitation in responding to a gentle request to return to “Kenya Castle – on December 23rd - as my relief had gone down with an illness.

Back to the mail ships “Pretoria Castle” and “Edinburgh Castle” as Second Officer and then back to Liverpool in August 1956 to study for my Masters Certificate of Competency.

I passed the examination in November 1956 and after my first long leave for years I joined “Rochester Castle” as Chief Officer, in Liverpool, on a very cold morning in January 1957.

After service in “Rochester Castle” and “Kenilworth Castle” I was appointed to stand by new buildings in Greenock and sailed out as Chief Officer in “Rotherwick Castle” on her maiden voyage in December 1959. I was meant to make one voyage in her and then return to commission her sistership “Rothesay Castle” but the plan was changed and I joined “Carnarvon Castle” as First Officer in July 61 – a few days after my wedding!

After further spells in “Rotherwick Castle” I returned to the mail ships – “Capetown”,”Edinburgh” and “Windsor” – as First Officer and then transferred to London as Chief Officer of “Kenya Castle”.

And so my career progressed on reasonably “traditional” lines – Staff Commander of “Pendennis Castle” and “Edinburgh Castle” was followed by a period of secondment to the London Office and then a three month secondment to the British Rail Board Centre in Watford for a Work Study Course. In late 1966 I led a team of Officers undertaking a study of the Fire and Emergency Procedures in the passenger vessels. Based in Southampton we made voyages in each mail vessel in turn and our final recommendations were accepted and implemented throughout the Company.

On August 15th. 1967 I was appointed Master of “Gladys Bowater” and proceeded to Northfleet on the 22nd to take up my appointment. We moved from Northfleet to Ridham to finish discharge of cargo and then headed off for Charleston, S.Carolina for another load of newsprint. I made a further voyage to Holmsund and Risor and was on the verge of departing for Charleston again when I was told that I was to report immediately to Southampton and take up a two year posting as Assistant Marine Superintendent to Captain Hodson, Two happy years later I was seconded to the London Office and in April 1971 appointed to command “Clan MacLachlan”. A three month commercial voyage was followed by a delivery voyage to Shanghai for “breaking” and after an enjoyable and fascinating stay in China ( during the Cultural Revolution) I flew home to take up a Tanker Safety Course at Warsash prior to taking command of the product carrier “Hector Heron”. The ship left Avonouth on December 21st. 1971 on charter to BP. We loaded at Curacao for the Isle of Grain and Stockholm and after a dry-docking in the Tyne we loaded in Europort and the Isle of Grain for Nouadhibou. Little Aden for orders was followed by Bandar Mahsar, Fremantle and nine ports in Australia finishing in Port Hedland, back to Bandar Mahshar, Lobito, Luanda, Ango-Ango ( an isolated jetty in the Congo bush), Bonny and Lagos. During the Australian coastal passage we rescued three young men from the capsized trimaran “Foam Light” off Coff’s Harbour in the most appalling weather conditions. In Lagos I was relieved by my friend Bob Royan.

My next appointment was to the bulk carrier “King James”. Joining at Wallsend in October 1972 we voyaged to North Shields, Ghent, Monrovia and back to Rotterdam. The next voyage was to New Orleans for an exciting New Year (involving a shoot-up in a top hotel) and discharge in Rotterdam followed by a short dry-docking there. We then loaded in Monrovia for Port Talbot where I was relieved and, after a period of leave, I was instructed to report to London Office for “special duties”. It was the era of mega expansion in Saudi Arabia and more than seventy ships – in varying stages of disintegration – were anchored off Jeddah laden with cement. Someone, somewhere had had the idea that this could be pallet discharged by helicopter and so a trial was carried out off the Tail of the Bank using “Clan Macnair” and a helicopter belonging to the Group company Bristow Helicopters. It was deemed to be “a success” and I was immediately dispatched to work with Bristow’s, at Redhill. as “Marine Adviser”. Few people there had either interest or belief in the project but a few days later three of us landed in Jeddah to investigate the possibilities. It was soon obvious that the many problems could be overcome only by paying vast sums of money to numerous people and despite encouragement from many high ranking officials we pulled out at the 11th hour and 59 minutes! The contract was taken up by an American company and they lost an aircraft and pilot on the first operation.

In August 1973 I was appointed Relief Mailship Master but my first appointment was to the cruise ship “Reina del Mar”. After one cruise I was appointed to “Edinburgh Castle” and then back to “Reina del Mar” for several cruises before secondment to the Marine Department in London. June 1975 saw an appointment to “S.A Vaal” followed by two more voyages in “Edinburgh Castle”. Little did I know when I left her in November 1975 that my seafaring days were over –well almost.

For a few months I was employed shifting and dry-docking ships in Southampton and then in 1976 I was instructed to report to Captain Hart, Group Nautical Adviser in London.

Undoubtedly, Captain Hart was one of the most impressive and straightforward men I have ever met –and, over the years, we had not always seen “eye to eye”. It was the era of “redundancy” and with the fast-approaching demise of the Mail Ships I was in little doubt that I was about to be “chopped”. At the age of 48 it was NOT an appealing prospect.

The interview was short, concise and very rewarding and, an hour later, I left Captain Hart’s office with the title of Chief Marine Superintendent. I was to relieve the very great Captain “Mitch” Mitchell. We soon became good friends but, unfortunately, his health deteriorated rapidly and he died on his 65th birthday.

Massive changes were under way and, although we were not to know of it, the Cayzer family had made a positive decision to get out of shipping. British and Commonwealth Shipping ceased to exist and we became Cayzer, Irvine Shipping. Ships were being sold at an alarming rate and I spent many unhappy hours making my friends redundant. Cayzer, Irvine Shipping became C.I Shipping, a ship management company managed by Alan Corlett (our Chief Technical Superintendent) In 1987 Alan and I spent some time in Korea where we had a team of Officers supervising the building of two reefer ships. One my last visit there alone, in July 1987, I was instructed to “call in Chittagong on the way home and investigate the employment of Bangladeshi officers”. Despite assurances from London that a visa was not required I landed in Dhaka and was immediately arrested for not having one. Seven hours and 146 US dollars later I was given a two day pass to proceed to Chittagong. The monsoon broke on my second day there and after ten days I made a run for it to return to Dhaka by taxi, on foot, train and a bus without lights! Arriving in Dhaka filthy, unshaven and not very nice to be near I was promptly re-arrested and after six hours and all the money I had (not much) told that I would be deported on the next aircraft irrespective of its destination. My luck held and I boarded a BA flight to London via Dubai as a FIRST CLASS PASSENGER. The crew could not have been kinder and I was allowed to use their shower, given a clean shirt and trousers to supplement the few clean clothes I had in my hand luggage - and a litre bottle of “Famous Grouse”.

I recall very little of that flight but I was very glad to see Heathrow on August 1st.1987.

In April 1988 I returned to Korea – avoiding Bangladesh –for the launching, sea trials and delivery of “Pluto” the first of the two reefer vessels. The sea trials were horrendous insofar as we were in dense fog for most of them. Eventually, after three “narrow misses” (one with a VLCC) my nerves failed and I “instructed” the Master to abort trials until the weather improved. The Korean Master was as relieved as I was but told me that his masters would not be pleased and that I would “have to pay”. In the event the fog lifted after about twelve hours and nothing was ever mentioned. The Bridge manning during the trials comprised an exhausted Master and a Second Officer “who knows about gyro compasses” (but little else). The auto pilot was used throughout. On May 25th. 1988 - a few months after my sixtieth birthday – I arrived back in London. I was fast recognising that the delights of being Chief Marine Superintendent of a ship management company employing Third World officers and being directed from overseas offices was not quite as satisfying an occupation as the one I had enjoyed hitherto and so – on Friday July 29th.1988 – I said a sad farewell to my many friends in the London Office (and at sea) and rode off into the sunset.

2017 Merchant Navy Medal

Captain Charles Kelso, for services to the shipping industry and sea cadets

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