When one thinks of Railway steamers of the past, the mind is invariably drawn to smart cross-channel or short-sea packets. A glaring exception to this picture was the good ship Dalia, owned by the South African Railway Shipping Services (SAR ships).
This company had once been a large and thriving shipping company that operated a staple trade, with a few exceptions, of coal from Durban out to the Far East, then a ballast passage down to Bunberry in Australia, where they loaded Jarrah wood railway sleepers for Durban. The trade fell away when the South African Railways replaced the wooden sleepers with steel ones and the fleet slowly dwindled down to two ships name Dalia and Hangklip. The Dalia was the sole survivor of a trio of ships named Aloe, Dalia and Erica after South African flowers, the name Dalia being the Afrikaans version of the more scientifically correct Dahlia. These three ships were built in the United Kingdom in 1931 as a South African government initiative to assist in relieving the effects on the shipyards of that country of the Great Depression, as well as to update the Railways’ then existing fleet.
The Dalia was by no stretch of the imagination a pretty ship. Of only 5,162 tons, she had a bluff bow and antique counter stern and was of the old-fashioned “four island” variety, that is to say the hull was surmounted by a raised forecastle, separate bridge structure, the engine room complex and a raised poop. Painted in the same colours as all the Railways’ floating craft at that time, she had a black hull, white superstructure and a tall buff funnel with three green bands, the top and bottom bands being narrower than the broad middle one. This was supposed to represent the green and gold of South Africa.
I ended up serving in her purely by happy chance. I had just spent a nerveracking morning in the waiting room of the Examiner of Master and Mates in Cape Town. It was 1958, but I can still vividly recall the moment when my name was finally called by the Examiner – Captain Bob Kenny. In later life I came to know him as a kindly and affable man, “one of nature’s gentlemen” as the saying goes, but to a young lad just out of his apprenticeship, he was a towering ogre holding a large chunk of your professional future in his hands. The interview was short and simple. His usual stern visage was cracked into a pleasant smile as he extended his right hand. “Congratulations, laddie, you have passed.” A brief handshake; a minute or two while he proffered a “buff form” and that was that! I emerged out on the quayside in a euphoric daze. I had done it! I was now a certificated officer, but what next?
Having completed my apprenticeship with a tanker company, I had felt the need for a change of scene and, full of confidence, had offered my services to the Clan Line “on obtaining my certificate”. They had replied and had conditionally appointed me to the “Clan Malcolm” as 4th officer for passage to the UK at £45 per month. Life was suddenly good. All I had to do now was report back to the Cape Town Nautical Academy for a celebratory Friday afternoon and then wait for the Clan Malcolm to arrive. With a nice spring in my step, I set out on the short walk to the Academy. This involved traversing the old Victoria Basin, now the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, with a stop-in at the Harbour Café for a sandwich for lunch.
Next to the Harbour Café was a tall building housing a clock-tower and the Port Captain’s offices. To the side of the entrance to this building was affixed a large brass plate – “SARships”. Seized by some odd impulse – I still have no idea why I did it – I suddenly decided to enter the building and, making my way to the 3rd Floor, came across a door marked “Marine Superintendent”. I knocked, was bade to enter and found myself in the presence of a darkly handsome middle-aged man, whose name I found out was Lou Ceronie. Another very short conversation followed – basically:
“I am looking for a job.”
“Do you have a Second Mate’s Certificate?”
“Good, you can join the Dalia at L Berth in the Duncan Dock as 2nd Mate, at £75 per month. She is sailing at 17h00. Don’t delay her.”
I was stunned. £75 per month versus £45 with the Clan Line. 2nd Mate with a buff form, versus 4th Mate. There was no contest. In the next four hours I had called at the Academy, rushed home, packed and, with the help of my father, arrived at L Berth just on five pm. Stepping out of the car I found myself looking a typical 1930s tramp steamer – my first ship as an officer!
Saying goodbye to my father, I picked up my suitcase and set off up the gangway. On arriving on deck and looking about me, I saw that the ship was covered in coal dust, with lumps of coal lying about everywhere, but had all her hatches battened down and was obviously ready for sea. Waiting for me at the head of the gangway was the Senior Cadet, Hans Schröder, now promoted to Uncertificated Third Officer. He welcomed me warmly, as he had been one of my junior cadets at the General Botha, and then guided me to the Officers’ accommodation in the bridge structure. There he showed me my cabin in the midships accommodation. I was surprised to find that, notwithstanding coal lying around the decks, the accommodation was spotlessly clean, other than where the coal dust had been trampled in from outside. There was no doubt as to who the ship’s owners were. My cabin had a single large brass porthole, with a large single bunk and drawers beneath it; a varnished desk and chair; a cupboard and a settee covered in green Railway seat leather. In one corner was a curious contraption found on the trains of that time and known as a “compactum”. The upper section of this was a mirror-fronted medicine chest and, on opening the middle section downwards, a stainless steel washbasin dropped down, complete with hot and cold taps. The bottom section contained the waste disposal unit. There were no other toilet facilities and the nearest bathroom was a small washroom, toilet and shower at the far end of the alleyway that I would share with the other deck officers.
Dumping my gear in the cabin, I followed Hans to the dining saloon, a period piece of polished teak furniture, brass, green Railway leather and old framed sepia photographs of South African tourist spots served by the Railways in the 1930s. There I encountered the Captain, Morgan Williams; was introduced to the Shipping Master and was ‘signed on”. Having her full complement of officers, the ship could now proceed to sea.
I also found out from Hans that the reason for this delay, and my employment, was that at the start of the previous voyage and when sailing from Cape Town, the captain at that time and all his deck officers were drunk, the ship having been taken out into the bay by the Railway pilot and the cadets, who then anchored the ship until the officers sobered up. Proof of this was a damaged engine room telegraph on the bridge, where the broken glass bore witness to the captain’s cooperation. When asked by the pilot for a “kick astern” he had promptly kicked in the glass! On the Dalia’s return to Cape Town they were all summarily dismissed and a new group hired – including me.
The new captain, Captain Williams, was a tiny little dark-haired Welshman completely devoid of any sign of that inferiority complex known as “short man’s syndrome” and one of nature’s gentlemen. I never heard him raise his voice in anger, not even when he was obviously annoyed, and he was always the soul of courtesy. He had been one of my navigation lecturers when I was a General Botha cadet and was both an excellent teacher and seaman.