Laid up Shell tankers in River Blackwater

£90 a day to keep an out-of-work ship

The retired tanker skipper, now recalled, stared through the shop window on the beach at the idle fleet in the Blackwater estuary.

One quarter of the British cargo ship tonnage, for which no work can be found, is laid up in the Essex river.

Seventeen British freighters, totalling about 135,000 tons, stand out against the North Sea skyline, obscuring our view from West Mersea of Bradwell's maturing nuclear power station. Nine foreigh ships, seven flying "flags of convenience," complete the seascape.

One tanker skipper visits the agent's office, tucked away in a boat-building yard, where he makes a strong appearl for the two local men employed as watchmen on his ship, and in danger of being transferred. It is probably his most important duty of the day.

Local grocery stores are flourishing with the ships' orders shared among them. Dozens of men have found unexpected work as watchmen following the withdrawal of crews by many of the companies.


Of the British ships, eight are Shell Petroleum Co. Tankers, but only the two largest, the HYALINA, 12,267 tons, and the HELICINA, 12,167 tons, operating as "mother ships," retain their full crews of six officers and 40 Chinese each. The other ships mostly employ only one "company man" and two watchmen recruited from local casual labour.

To keep the crews occupied, groups wok on the other tankers in turn. There is plenty to do, painting, stripping, greasing and either keeping up steam for essential services, or in the case of motor-driven vessels, turning the engines over at intervals.

The West Mersea shipping agents, Clarke & Carter, run a twice-daily launch service round the ships which takes nearly five hours to complete. Watching it depart and return, one notics that only a few British officers come ashore. The Chinese seamen find little to attract them on the Essex coast line.


From the Coast Road the estuary is a stirring spectacle, with the ships lined up facing the tide like a drill squad awaiting a delayed command. It appears that they will have to wait a good deal longer yet.

Mr R.I. Barton-Writght, the director of Shel Tankers responsible for the laying-up, told me in his London office: "We are working on the basis that they will be there for a year." Shell have been forced to lay up tankers before, but never on the present scale.

Four other Shell tankers are workless at Rosyth, with five more being added this week. Others are due at Portland. The total, is still only a very small proportion of the total British fleet of 127.

Drawing on past experience, Shell are ensuring that the tankers are maintained in a condition of near-readiness, but some of the freighters, with virtually no seamen aboard, can hardly be improving in the Blackwater.

The Chinese seamen are no trouble ashore, as other nationalities can be during lying-up. The HYALINA and HELICINA have television. Four of the tankers are still loaded.

Each tanker has a skipper on baord, recalled from retirement, and several of them have their wives with them. During their hours few ashore, they move from the agent's office to the West Mersea Social and Sailing Club, and from there to the shop facing the landing-stage, where hours are spent looking out at the bay.

There has been no problem over the Blackwater berths, all of which are rented at £5 a week from the Tollesbury and Mersea Native Oyster Fishery Co. The larger berths are all now filled, although the estuary once held 46 ships before the war.


Shipping companies gave varying estimages of the cost of laying up. With a small maintenance crew, a 10,000 ton ship would cost between £45 and £90 a day, according to the accessibility of the berths, the amount of work being carried out, and many other factors.

Earlier this month, Mr Watkinson, Minister of Transport, said that 163 ships of 900,000 tons were laid up in United Kingdome ships, of which 107 ships of 541,000 tons were British.

The totals would be higher today. Havens and estuaries all round the coast are filling up with ships, waiting like hungry sparrows on the lawn.

Article from Belfast Telegraph 17 April 1958 - By arrangement with the "The Daily Telegraph".
Digitised by British Newspaper Archive

17 April 1958
ID: SHP_STL
Source: Mersea Museum


This item is part of the Mersea Island Museum Collection. The information is accurate as far as is known, but the Museum does not accept responsibility for errors.