This page is Captain J.D. Coxe's account of the last days of the British India ship Uganda as he took her on her final journey for breaking at Kaohsiung.
Uganda had been launched as Karatina but her name was changed by the time of her completion by Barclay, Curle & Co. in 1952 as a passenger/cargo ship with refrigerated storage.
In 1968 she was converted into an 'educational cruise ship' and continued in this role when British India became part of P & O Line. She retained her B.I. livery when BI was completely absorbed in 1973.
In 1982 Uganda was put into service as a hospital ship during the Falklands War and was hastily converted for this purpose at Gibraltar. After performing honourable service, she was refitted for educational cruising again and continued in service in various roles until being laid up at Falmouth in 1983. Sold to the Triton Shipping Company in 1986, she was renamed Triton and taken for breaking as described in the account below.
It is a year now since the demise of the ss Uganda, but such was the impact of this vessel's life on passengers and seafarers alike, I feel the time has come to let it be known how she spent her last days.
The Uganda was lying at a set of buoys just above the King Harry Ferry on the River Fal. Here I set eyes on her for the first time since she had been converted for cruising. I had sailed in her as an extra second officer after an Eastern tour of duty with the Bl over 30 years before. So indeed it was ironical that I should be her master and take her to sea for the last time, but sad to know it would not be long to go when no more will anybody see the famous British India black funnel and two white bands again after well over 100 years of British shipping.
I got into a waiting dory from a taxi at King Harry Ferry and as it rounded the little stone jetty and moved out into the river and I was thus able to see the Uganda at her moorings, the sight made me catch my breath and heart miss a beat for even from astern her once proud and graceful hull was blemished with red rust and her superstructure also heavily streaked, her funnel was dull and the white bands tarnished and, to make her look worse, she had a list and was flying light, if you can say that about a passenger ship, exposing dirty boot-topping.
Uganda's decks matched her outside appearance, with the deck planking heavily stained with fuel oil from portable generators used during the 13-month lay-up, and with soot streaks on the deck heads from the exhausts, coupled with junk lying about, she presented a depressing scene. Grass and weeds were growing and sprouting in the mooring ropes on the fo'c's'le where they were turned up on the bitts and in gratings round the swimming pool. Where the hawsers dipped into the river short of the buoy, hung festoons of marine weed also.
Bringing the Ship to Life
However, our ship delivery reactivation team, some of whom were to sail with us, were beavering away below day and night to get the ship into life, first starting up the main ship's generators for proper power for lighting, to work pumps, galley, domestic services etc. the freezers, in part at least, had to be tested and charged with gas ready for stores. Then boilers, main engines and auxiliaries had to be attended to as well as all the safety equipment. Luckily we only had to refurbish two out of the 14 boats as there were to be only 21 of us.
Uganda had been converted from a passenger vessel with a five-hatch cargo-carrying layout to a cruise ship for the school children's cruise programme and this made her a more complex job. For example, part of the electrical equipment was DC and the rest AC, and her accommodation had been largely rebuilt and altered with the inclusion of many watertight doors in the old cargo bulkheads. She had a considerable amount of pig iron stowed in bins on the tank tops (in lower holds not converted to store rooms) for additional stability.
Alas, now the inside of the accommodation was in keeping with the exterior in its degradation. The great dining saloon was one mass of mould on tables and chairs, etc. The officers' cabins were the same, although the passenger cabins fared a lot better. The engineers' cabins, apart from mould, were full of dumped old tools, sea boots, etc., so all 20 of us made our home in that section of the passenger accommodation below the deck officers' and the bridge, except for myself, who occupied the master's room no less than 76 steps in the ladder from the saloon! I ended up living in reality on a piece of private deck abaft the master's accommodation, sleeping on a sunbed as none of the ventilation could be made to work and the deck insulation had never heard of the Red Sea or anything else east of Suez. Out of interest the cabin never got below 94°F after Port Said.
Renamed and Reflagged
Having taken on stores and signed on our sea staff - all of whom were seasoned characters from England, Scotland, Wales and, yes, Cornwall - we were obliged to rename and reflag the ship because she was now under Taiwan ownership. Therefore, for the demolition voyage as it is called, the name Triton, after our company, was used, and we put her under the flag of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Boilers tested and steam raised, we weighed our very muddy anchors and the tugs then turned us in the very confined space of the river bend and towed us seawards. As we passed a laid-up gas tanker we had shared our stern buoy with she gave us a fine stentorian blast of the sailor's farewell on her air whistle. To help cheer things up, we dressed the ship overall as best we could, having only a short signal mast.
I was delighted to find a large new British India House flag which was duly hoisted on high. It was noticed that some loyal soul had also hoisted a BI House flag, albeit at half mast, on a shore flag pole.
Eventually Uganda arrived down the river and into Carrick Roads where she was joined by many small craft and even a service helicopter which actually made a kiss landing on our helideck, still a Falkland relic. The fateful time had come to cast off the tugs and to ring down for the first engine movement. The engines purred into life beautifully - God bless steam turbines. We proceeded round Pendennis Point at slow speed, emitting a tremendous pall of black oily smoke as the forced draft motors were at first reluctant to take the load and tripped out. The engines had to be used in tandem as most of the port engine telegraph was missing due to rather over-zealous souvenir hunters. This meant that the two engines did not synchronize but lagged a bit; working as one gave the ship a rather large turning circle for her size when maneuvering. We even discovered that brass name plates on machinery and telltales had been removed similarly.
The good folk of St. Mawes could not have seen much other than the smoke which headed their way, but crowds gathered along Castle Drive and Pendennis Point to see us off and sound their car horns. Alas, our wonderful three-tone siren refused to utter anything but very wet steam, as if the ship were overcome with emotion. HMS Brecon and the harbour tugs all joined in with bon voyage and good-bye messages, the latter spraying their fire nozzles skywards until we cleared Black Rock. Our sea 'trial' was a record in brevity.
Through the Canal
The weather turned foggy, cold and bleak with quite a wind which really persisted all the way to Port Said. Here we experienced a lengthy delay because the Canal authorities were apparently reluctant to accept us as a lump of scrap in ballast and not a passenger ship. But, eventually, we joined the tail of a convoy.
I think the real delay was to give every thief in Egypt the chance to muster. A large flotilla of boats greeted our arrival in the harbour, carrying at least 100 men who literally plundered from the tiller flat bowards, even lifting our cooling tubes of ale. The bureau door was kicked in and safe door opened. It was empty. They had a grand time in the passenger cabins-even coat hangers disappeared but worst of all our food and soap was stolen, even from the freezers; apart from being busy, w.e were heavily outnumbered. A lot of damage was done before the Port Police arrived.
After this, the thieves retreated to their boats, but in a fit of depravity cut our mooring ropes aft from the buoy, and as there was a strong northerly wind the ship swung across the harbour blocking the canal and narrowly missing other shipping before a tug came and restored the situation. On clearing the canal, the pirates at Suez tried their luck, too, but as soon as we dropped the pilot we proceeded, and even our full speed was luckily too fast for them to follow with the distance from home increasing.
On to Aden
Now the heat started to inflict itself upon us and all the rain water sloshing around in the public rooms, coupled with our bath water which was ever creeping up the scuppers, began to steam and give off an unpleasant odour which prevailed to a lesser degree all the way to Taiwan. Our next stop was to be Jeddah for the final bunkering, and from thence non-stop to Kaohsiung.
A few hours before reaching Jeddah our agents informed us that the Uganda was blacked because she had traded to Israel during her cruising lifetime. Our London principals decided we should go to Aden so the belts got tighter. We had no charts for Aden but frequent visits in the olden days helped out; caution had to be exercised as there are new wrecks, the aftermath of the political fracas which took place earlier in the year. However, we got good service and stores, and thus set off finally for Taiwan.
I was a bit concerned about the lateness of the season as the typhoons had started in the South China sea and as we were to find out the monsoon had started with a bang.
After leaving Aden two more problems arose. A heavy steam leak on top of the starboard boiler near the ship's side developed and the condenser decided in sympathy to leak also. It was clearly too hot to work on the steam leak until out of the Gulf of Aden. The port boiler was not in such good order having also been slightly cannibalised; however, it was flashed up temporarily once round the north of Socotra, and a couple of days away from the main onslaught of the monsoon things quietened down enough for remedial work and the starboard boiler was put on line again. Something smiled on us because the shaking up we got off Socotra shook the leak effectively away in the condenser, never to trouble us again.
The rigors of the long voyage were becoming manifest now. The starboard propeller shaft began jumping about, which meant no possible increase of speed in an emergency, and thoughts of the South China sea came to mind again. Also both stern glands were pouring half the Arabian sea into us with no more turns available on the packing. The diesel generators were the worse for wear, too, and several blackouts had been recently experienced. This forced us to do some work on the cylinder heads of one of the generators as a stand by, but work could only be carried out a few minutes at a time due to heat and lack of ventilation. The machinery spaces on Uganda were very compact, and thus congested. The boiler room was forward, with the diesel generator room between it and the Engine Room, which being turbine was very small.
The only heavy rain encountered was in the Dondra Head area - real Indian monsoon stuff where you could steer round the rain drops but in contrast the Malacca and Singapore straits were as dry as a bone from end to end. I think I have only seen this phenomenon once in my experience over the years, but it was another bonus as it took the edge off any anxieties of navigation in these very busy waters. There were no pirates or marauders this time, but ships used to close us out of curiosity.
We arrived off Kaohsiung on 16 July 1986, 55 days out from Falmouth, and as instructed anchored one mile off the southern harbour entrance after threading our way through several large unlit vessels at anchor awaiting demolition. The next day the steelworks owner and some Japanese prospective buyers inspected the vessel for possible further trading, which did not materialise.
That evening we moved the vessel out to a safe distance and anchored her with eight shackles on the port anchor and commenced shutting down. Apparently all the breaking berths were occupied so they decided to leave her outside with the other vessels, which at least relieved us of the pang of running her on to the breakers hard among the dismembered remains of once proud ships. The next morning we left by launch, the Chief going down and stopping the generator for the last time. In complete darkness and sudden quiet we emerged out of the side gun port and down the pilot ladder. As the launch drew away, it was farewell Uganda as she lay with her cable up and down in spite of the swell, with a large new Red Ensign fluttering at her gaff. We were to see her once more as we flew over bound for Taipei and home.
A month later, still unattended at anchor, she was caught by the typhoon Wayne and drove ashore, where she now lies at an angle of 70 degrees on her starboard side with her keel shoreward and port propeller above the surface sticking skywards, so refusing to die directly from the breakers' torch but by the elements she so nobly lived by for her 33 years.
I understand that the steel owners of the day sold her 'as is' together with some other ships also driven up by a previous typhoon.
- By courtesy of Captain J. D. Coxe
- By courtesy of The Allen Collection