Ilorin Palm

All seafarers will tell you that they have sailed on good ships, and bad ships, on a best trip, and a worst trip, the Ilorin Palm for me, was my “Sloop John B” as the Beach Boys song goes “The worst trip I’ve ever been on”

She was owned by Palm Line which was a subsidiary of Lever Brothers, Port Sunlight on the Mersey, that’s the company that make “Palmolive” soap and other well known household products. Their run was West Africa, although I did see one at Hong Kong once, but she must have been on charter or something, as I don’t think even one of these could go that far off course.

I joined her in Dublin on April 25th 1973, having traveled over night on the B & I ferry, Leinster from Liverpool. When we walked on board she was still discharging from her previous trip, but all her deck crew had already gone home before we arrived. First thing we did was head for the galley, as we were all starving after the crossing. There we were greeted by one of the biggest men I have ever set eyes on, the cook, he turned out to be an ex Nigerian boxing champion, and we soon discovered that he should have stayed in the ring instead of cooking on one. Never in my life have I seen anyone that could turn good food into shit so efficiently as this guy, his lack of talent in the galley never failed to amaze me, and all others that were unfortunate enough to sail with him would agree. His “Specialty” was without doubt his breakfasts, he could quite easily fry a whole tray of eggs, and every single yoke would be broken, and swimming in fat off course, his sausages were thrown straight from the freezer into a hot frying pan, and they were black on the outside but still frozen within, and the smell of baked beans burnt in the saucepan filled the air. You would be hard pushed to cook this bad if you really tried. But he seemed to manage this with ease with each and every meal. I can’t think of a single good thing that I had to eat for the whole trip.

The rest of the deck crew joined the next day, in all there were thirteen of us, Bosun, Carpenter, ten Able Seamen and a Deck Boy who was on his first trip to sea, and what a baptism of fire he had let himself in for. We sailed for Rotterdam within a couple of days, and it was only then that we found out why there weren’t any deck hands on the ship when we joined, the mate, a wee man from Aberdeen, had sacked each and every one of them, just before the ship had docked.

We soon found out as well that this was going to be a longish trip by west African standards, usually a voyage down there would be eight to nine weeks, but she had her spare steel propeller in place because of a miss-hap on her previous trip. She came astern to fast when approaching her berth at Tema in Ghana, which resulted in the sinking of a barge, and she lost two of her three propeller blades in the presses. The pilot for his skills in ship handling was thrown in jail. A ships propeller is an amazing peace of engineering, sculptured from bronze to a very fine tolerance, and shaped for maximum efficiency, and many years of marine evolution has perfected it, to cut down on vibration, and return the maximum speed that a hull is capable of. So on my trip on her with her steel prop she could only manage about 11½ knots, which was a lot less than the 16½ to 17 she was capable of. As anyone who has traveled at sea at this speed will tell you, there's a feeling that you’re not getting anywhere, and even short passages seem to go on forever.

The first of many incidents that happened that trip, occurred as we steamed up the channel for the Dover straits, the elderly Carpenter fell down a ladder off the poop deck and amongst other things gouged a piece out of his leg. And as we put the pilot ladder over on approach to Rotterdam, one of the A. B’s slipped on the deck and broke his leg. On the second day in port we awoke to find another two A. B’s had packed their bags during the night, and were probably on the ferry to Harwich before anybody noticed they were missing. And believe you me if I knew then what I know now, the total would have been at least three. Some people have an uncanny ability to see into the future, unfortunately this was not, and still isn’t one of my few talents. Before we left port three sailors joined from the international pool, two Portuguese and a Spaniard, I call them Sailors, as this is what they signed on as, and the implications of this was dire for the rest of us, they would not be allowed or could hardly do any of the seamanship tasks that we were called upon to do, for example, they were not allowed to go higher than six feet off the deck, and neither were they permitted to paint the ships side on stages. They weren’t allowed to do a watch either, as none of them had ever been on a wheel or lookout, so they remained on day work for the whole trip. In fact they were as much use on a working cargo boat, where every man jack had to pull his weight, as an ashtray on a motorbike. This caused a lot of animosity during the trip, as the extra workload on the rest of us was deemed very unfair, especially when we found out that their wages were the same as ours, plus their added bonus of not paying any taxes either.

We loaded at five ports on the continent, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bremen, Antwerp, and of course Rotterdam, before we headed south down the channel for our first port of call Freetown, Sierra Leone.

In days gone by West Africa was called the “White man's graveyard” and justifiably so, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century thousands of European seafarers lost their lives down this coast through Yellow and Black water Fever’s, Cholera, and Malaria. There are accounts of whole ship's crews perishing within days of each other. We on the other hand were inoculated against most of these, except Malaria, you could take a Peledrine tablet every day to combat this, but you had to start the course over a month before reaching the coast, so for the first two weeks or so we would be exposed.

Ships on the west African run always called at Freetown, there they would take on board “Crew Boys” this was a gang of local men that would come with us all around the coast, they did all the jobs on board that no one else wanted to do, like cleaning holds out after discharging, or scrubbing paint work and decks, their number depended on the size of the ship, on the Ilorin Palm about fifteen, which was about average for a cargo boat, the Aureol on the other hand, being a passenger vessel, and much larger, would have twice that many. They lived in squalor in the mast houses amongst old mooring lines, blocks and wires, and they ate their meager meals out on deck. They were treated very poorly on most ships, worked from day break to well into the night, for very little money, indeed, the whole sordid business was the nearest thing to slavery that I ever came across.

Our favorite watering hole at Freetown was Mary’s Bar, this was found (eventually) down a narrow grubby alleyway in the shanty district, it was a corrugated tin hut, about twenty foot square. Inside were a few wooden benches, some low tables, hanging off the ceiling was one of them old colonial type fans, which was fighting a losing battle in trying  to keep the place cool, and in the corner stood a large rusty American style fridge, which was always packed with bottles of ice cold Heineken. Mary herself was a large lady with a big smile and a huge bosom, she greeted us like long lost friends, with big hugs, every time we called, which was every night of our stay. And considering that Mary’s Bar was so difficult to find, it was always full to the brim with seamen from every European nation you could think of, and if I had to name some of the most popular seamen’s bars in the whole world during that time, then Mary’s would surely be up there with the best of them.

Our next port was Monrovia the capital of Liberia, about 250 miles to the south, this was different to Freetown, where the people were very friendly, at this port hardly anyone went ashore, word soon spreads on a ship if things are not quite right, within a particular port, so most of us spent our evenings in the relative safety of our crew bar.

Next port of call Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, (Côte D'Ivoire) to enter the harbour the ship would surf in through a narrow channel (Vridi canal) and on our port side as we entered, high and dry on the beach, was a new French cargo vessel that had miss-judged her approach, and she was in the process of being dismantled. (I’ve often wondered how her pilot got on) Once in through the canal it opened up into a large tranquil lagoon. The Ivory Coast was a French colony then, and Abidjan was very modern for the west coast, with many skyscrapers along its skyline. Communicating with the people was difficult though as French was their only language, but as always, hand signals are universal, so this barrier was soon breached.

The Bosun on any ship is a go between, he had the mate on one side, and us A. B’s on the other, they normally tolerate each other, and sometimes even become fairly friendly, but this one was not turning out to be a marriage made in heaven, we had noticed this by this stage of the trip, things were starting to get sour between them, and would come to a head sooner rather than later. The mate like I briefly mentioned earlier was a wee man, barely five foot, and not very friendly, had an angry look about him most of the time, in fact most of the time he looked like a Bulldog chewing a wasp, and we came to the conclusion as well, that he hated everyone taller than himself, he also knew as much about man management as I know about Polynesian pottery. The bosun on the other hand was a big jolly sort of fellow, well over six foot, always laughing and joking, and would out run anyone to the first bar when we got into port. The problem that we had as deckhands, when these two fall out, we would be the ones to suffer, and indeed this was happening already, we hadn’t had a half-day since we joined, (six weeks) and the mate had also cut our overtime down to the bare minimum.

We called at another two ports, Takoradi, in Ghana, and Cotonou, in the Republic of Dahomey (now Benin) then we ventured inland for about seventy miles up our first creek to Sapele, Nigeria. These creeks were Mosquito infected, they would attack at dusk and by morning you would be covered in lumps which itched like hell, the climate as well was stiflingly hot and humid, not a breath of wind, and the perspiration would run off you day and night. It was also like going back in time, we would pass many primitive villages on the way, with houses on stilts, when we passed by, the people would come out into the river in their dug out canoes, and we would throw them planks of  wood, and old paint drums, which they were very grateful for. We also had to anchor of a night, as there were no navigation lights in these creeks. On the second day at Sapele, all us A. B’s as usual waited on deck at 8am for the bosun to hand out the jobs, but this day he was conspicuous by his absence, in due course an ash faced mate came out, he started blurting out various jobs, and we all disappeared in various directions. Apparently the straw that broke the camels back, had been dished out that morning, which resulted in the bosun throwing in the towel, well to be more exact, he threw his locker keys at the mate, and told him in so many words that if he could do the job better himself, then go ahead. For the next week or so it was total mayhem, the mate was running around like a man possessed, while the bosun sat in his cabin. And neither of them was giving in. We did think at one time that the “Old Man” was going to step in and stop the fiasco, but we suspected that he was enjoying the entertainment as much as we were!!! To our surprise, on about the ninth day, when we were at Warri another creek port, the bosun came out in the morning and handed out the jobs, as if nothing had happened, the overtime resumed again, and we had our first half day of the trip, (which we wasted by playing football, against a Danish cargo vessel, and we lost).




By now at long last we started loading for home, logs, logs, and more logs, the amount of rain forest that these ships transported to Europe every year was quite staggering, apart from a couple of deep tanks full of Palm Oil, and the odd bag of peanuts and cocoa nuts, these ships carried logs, and when the holds were full the decks would be filled up as well, so much in fact that special “Cat Walks” were erected from bow to stern, otherwise there was no way we could have moved around the ship. Our last loading port was Cape Palmas in Liberia, and here is where the decks were filled. Cape Palmas was the only surf port that we called at during the trip, we anchored about a mile off the beach, and great rafts of logs were towed out to us, then one by one these giant logs were lifted aboard by our derricks. These logs were up to four feet across and forty feet long and weighed as much as 20 tons each. On the second day tragedy struck, one of these poor unfortunate souls that loaded these monster logs, was crushed to death when a wire parted, it was all very distressing, because when we finally lifted the timber off, as you can imagine there wasn’t much left of him.

A couple of days later we waved good by to the Crew Boys at Freetown, (that’s after one final run ashore to Mary’s) before heading back to Europe and Rotterdam, our first port of discharge. On all vessels when homeward bound the ship would be painted from top to bottom, but on this one we didn’t have much paint, so only the rust patches were touched up, and quite frankly she looked like an old tramp.

I started feeling unwell as we crossed the Bay of Biscay, it felt at the time like flu, but as the day wore on, the old legs were giving way, and by mid afternoon I was knackered. Then apparently I collapsed and was carried to my bunk. The next thing that I can remember is being examined by a Dutch Doctor, Malaria, that’s all he said, well apart from giving me a bollocking for not taking my Peledrine. Tragedy struck again in Rotterdam during the discharge, a docker was crushed by a log down No 4 hatch, and died of his injuries where he lay. The three Dago sailors paid off as well, but one returned the next evening with a gun and demanded £20 off the Bosun, he claimed he owed him it, and of course his victim paid up. We finally completed discharging at Bremen Germany, before crossing the North Sea for Sunderland and dry-dock where she was to be fitted with her new bronze propeller.

We left the Ilorin Palm on Monday the 23rd of July 1973, I say we because the mate sacked all the deck crew the day before we got in.


Palm Line fleet in 1973




Africa Palm



Andoni Palm



Badagry Palm



Elmina Palm



Enugu Palm



Ibadan Palm



Ikeja Palm



Ilesha Palm



Ilorin Palm



Kano Palm



Katsina Palm



Lagos Palm



Lobito Palm



Matadi Palm (Tanker)




Thanks to Capt Neville Lester and Dennis Williams for the photos

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