The Union-Castle “R” Boats

The “R” Boats

The company began its program of building dedicated refrigerated ships with the little "Roslin Castle" and "Rothesay Castle", the former enjoyed a long life, only being sold for scrap many years later, the later ending her days in January 1940 on the Scottish coast.   

There followed the "Rochester Castle", slightly larger but of identical profile, as were they all until the last two ships, the "Riebeeck Castle" and "Rustenburg Castle", their accommodation, instead of being split with number 3 hold, was in one, number three being for'd of the bridge. Otherwise, with only slight modifications of size they could well have been built by Harland's from the original plans of the Roslin.   This was not by chance.  The pre-war buildings were, in speed and design ahead of their times, those built in the war years to replace war losses, were built, as needs must as quickly as possible.   Economy and speed probably influenced the design and build of the Riebeeck and Rustenburg.

By the standards of today they were greatly over-crewed, to the point of being crowded!   The war time compliment was 56, later post war it came down to  50. The largest department was the engine room, the chief engineer had a staff of three engineers, a 2nd, 3rd and 4th engineer on each watch, then there was a storekeeper, the engine room equivalent of the deck's bos'un, and a gang of six greaser/cleaners.

Why was such a large staff required?   It lay with the need for the regular overhaul of six generators for the refrigeration plant, we used to call the junior 4th engineers, 'pig iron grinders' because their daily job seemingly was the never ending grinding in of valves. That was whilst the ship was running in ballast, once reefer cargo was loaded the junior engineers had a never ending round of temperature taking.   There were no remote thermometers with the reefer engineer sitting in  a nice warm control room, no, in all weathers, and often it was miserably cold and wet, the engineer went round the temperature tubes on the open deck.   

Each deck, and in four of the holds their were four decks, number three had five, with a thermometer in each corner of each deck, thus there were sixteen thermometers per hold, twenty for number three, to be read each watch.   First the brass cap had to be undone, the thermometer pulled up on its string, replaced, cap back on and temperature recorded on the sheet. Try doing this with freezing hands, on a pitch dark night, rain and spray drenching you for four hours on end.

All the holds were insulated with cork, lined with galvanised steel sheet, the decks covered with wood gratings, these gratings had to be lifted prior to loading cargo, the holds had to be spotlessly clean, otherwise the ship would be turned down.   each deck was independently cooled, the air having been chilled by passing it over batteries of chilled brine, was piped through each deck.   It is an efficient system which is still widely used.

On the deck side, each watch required three sailors, A.B.'s and E.D.H.'s.  The three watches, 12-4, 4-8, 8-12, were, at night for each sailor split into two hours on the wheel, one hour rest and one hour on lookout. During the day the hours rest and lookout was spent instead working on deck work.

The five of the six cadets spent the greater part of their voyage doing all the jobs nobody else wanted to do, mostly soogying and chipping paint work, both jobs never ending.   If hold cleaning was to be done, a filthy job, cleaning out bilges, call for the cadets!   A job in overtime, send for the cadet, we don't have to pay him!   The senior cadet wielded his power over the other unfortunate five, he kept watch on the bridge with the mate, at least you didn't have to endure cold caustic soda running up your sleeve washing deckheads.

Only the master and chief engineer had the 'privilege' of their own bathroom. For the deck officers, and reluctantly the cadets, chief steward, radio officer, eleven people in all, there was just the one bathroom, the engineers were no better off, again for all of them, just one bathroom. It was when you got down to the crew accommodation below that it really became grim. All the sailors, and all the greasers, lived in two dormitories, with two tiered metal bunks and horse hair mattresses.   

The accommodation for all would today be thought of as disgraceful, but we actually considered it to be not too bad! Admittedly several other companies had ships with a far higher standard of cabin, but then there were lots with much worse.   

This was in 1955, fifty years before that crews lived in the foc'sle head, they kept watches four on, four off. No, we did not think our conditions were bad.

Owen Keen

Most people sailed on these ships at least once . They were regarded as “promotion” ships, not a reward for excellent service but the first step on the next rung of the promotion ladder. My own first trip as 3rd Officer was on Roslin Castle and on my two voyages both the 2nd and Chief Officers were also “first trippers”.

The bridge (as shown on this picture of Roxburgh Castle’s bridge ) was of simple, even barely adequate design. Just a magnetic compass, echo sounder, direction finder and a very basic radar. As a first trip 3rd Officer I did not have worry about new fangled technology it was navigation straight out of Nicholl’s Concise Guide.

The annual schedule of sailings started in February when the ships would be taken out of lay-up, generally on River Blackwater, given a quick spruce up and sent on their way to the Cape for the start of the fruit season. Sailing south in ballast loading in Cape Town and then sailing north without a fixed destination.

Once refuelled in Las Palmas or Teneriffe we would be told our destination and it could be anywhere in Northern Europe from Gothenburg in the north down to Brest in the south and anywhere in the UK. It was not uncommon to complete 2 or 3 round trips before returning home. But the trips were short, generally about 5 weeks.

I returned to the R-boats as a first trip 2nd Officer but I got lucky and landed Rotherwick Castle one of the new additions to the fleet.

In the early 60s U-C built 4 new refrigerated ships that were destined to sail under the Clan Line flag but even these had names beginning with R, the Clans Ramsay, Ross, Robertson and Ranald.

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