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Note: I have not checked any of the statements in the article for accuracy and republished it as presented - apart from changes to the presentation style.

Fazilka - Possibly the Greatest Ever Repair at Sea

Fazilka was one of a pair built at the Northeast yard of Doxford in 1890 the other being her sister Futala. She was named after a town in northern India.
  • Built: 1890 by William Doxford & Son, Sunderland.
  • Tonnage: 4,152g, 2,698n, 5,900 dwt
  • Engines: Single Screw, Triple Expansion, 2, 450 IHP, Three Double Ended Boilers, 11 Knots.
  • Passengers: 12 First Class, 1, 650 Deck
  • Launched: 17th August 1890, completed 11th October 1890. Yard No. 199.
Fazilka [1]
In the October of 1897 during a particularly bad spell of weather whilst on passage she actually ran out of coal and subsequently burnt most of her wood fittings to make port. During the Boer War as Transport Number 30 she had made a trip to South Africa carrying troops it was on the return trip whist in ballast from Mauritius to Colombo on the 6th February 1900 that the incident occurred. A tremendous vibration was felt throughout the whole ship and consequently the ship's engines were stopped.

Assessment and Initial Actions

On inspection it was discovered that the propeller shaft had sheared in two places within the confines of the stern tube. To facilitate a closer inspection and possible repair the crew spent three days transferring ballast from number 4 hold to number 1 hold to raise the screw and tube above water level.

After the Engineers had inspected the extent of the damage, the ship's Commander Captain Goss placed the crew on half rations and instigated the fabrication of booms and sails, in all some 2,000 square feet of sail was made.

The Duncan Haws book on British India attributes the jury rigging of the sails to the Chief Engineer 'Lachie' Brown. Unfortunately whoever's skills were used, the ship was unable to make any headway whatsoever compounded by the inability to steer the ship. During this time (before radio) another British India ship was sighted but she failed to realise that the Fazilka was in dire straits, bow down, prop out of the water, under full sail one assumes that they were quite some distance away.
Fazilka under sail [1]


Meanwhile down below, the Engineers had completed their first repair and after sixteen days without an engine the first trails began. After only one and a half hours the connection failed and a while later a second attempt met a similar fate, the Engineers driven by some desperation decided on a different approach and proceeded on their third attempt. The text and drawing below from MacGibbon's M.O.T. Orals and Engineering Knowledge is a testament to their labour.

'One of the greatest repairs ever carried out at sea is the repair to the tail-end shaft on the 'Fazilka'. The tail-end shaft broke at two places and a piece about four feet became detached, so leaving the after part of the shaft and the propeller disconnected and the ship helpless. She was only a single-screw ship. The stern tube was also broken at the same time as the shaft broke, and had to be cut away to get at the ends and to allow for coupling up.

The last length of the tunnel shaft, which was 14 inches diameter, had to be bored and cut across by hand so as to allow the two ends of the shaft in the tube to come together; the space at the cut was coupled up by a Thomson patent coupling, which was not difficult once the shaft was split at the desired place. The next, and a very difficult job, was to secure the two ends of the tail-end shaft to each other, and to do this bottom-end brasses were used, being secured by plates cut from the ship's bulkheads.

The after peak frames were secured by cross beams which were in the way and had to be cut away to let the brasses have clearance to revolve with the shaft. The gland for the stern gland packing had also to be partially re-arranged, due to the brass liner on the tail-end shaft being drawn nearly through the neck bush.

Notwithstanding all the difficulties due to the small space in the after peak and water coming in through the broken stern tube, the repair was successfully carried out by the engine-room staff; a repair worthy of the pen of Rudyard Kipling.'
Sketch showing repairs carried out to the drive shaft of Fazilka [2]
On the 13th of October the P & O mail steamer Oceana arrived alongside and offered assistance, a line was attached and a tow was commenced. Having reached only a speed of two knots the line parted and the captain of the Oceana brought his ship about to make a second attempt. During this time the chief Engineer Mr. Brown had convinced the Captain that the third repair would work and so Captain Goss (with salvage costs in mind) declined the offer but did accept the offer of supplies. After another seven days the work was finally completed and the Fazilka was able to make her way to Colombo at reduced speed arriving on the 3rd March. In all the trip had taken 48 days since the breakdown with all hope of the ship long since lost and remains in the annuals of history as an example of skill and endurance of the Fazilka's Engine Room staff.

Subsequent Service History

After repairs the Fazilka returned to her normal duties but a short time later she found herself transporting troops to China for the Boxer Rebellion. She was requisitioned again in 1915 as a Troop Transport and in May of 1917 came under the Liner Requisition Scheme. Fazilka saw the war out without further mishap and returned at war's end to her Straits-Madras service. It was on this service that she had the misfortune to run aground on the East coast of the Great Nicobar Island during inclement weather en route from Penang to Calcutta on the 31st of October 1919.

With water pouring into all four holds the passengers were evacuated to the Dutch Steamer Sabang and landed at Penang, the following morning Fazilka sank with no loss of life to the crew who were later rescued by another Dutch vessel. A sad end to a truly remarkable ship.

Image Credits

  1. By courtesy of James Slater and Fred Warrington
  2. By courtesy of MacGibbon's M.O.T. Orals and Engineering Knowledge