COLUMN | A China Sea salvage captain [Tug Times]

Photo: Wikiswire via Alan Loynd

Bill Worrall had no intention of becoming a salvage man. Growing up near Liverpool, he always knew he wanted to go to sea, but it was the elegant blue funnels of Alfred Holt’s cargo ships that beckoned. He went to the well-known training ship HMS Conway at the tender age of 13, and after two years was offered an apprenticeship with Holts.

On his first trip, the captain ordered the apprentices to accompany him ashore in Kobe in their best uniforms and marched them up to the office of the agents, Butterfield and Swire, where he commandeered the agency limousine and sent the apprentices off for a day’s sightseeing. Young Worrall was impressed by the opulence in Butterfield and Swire’s office, but probably thought no more about it as he continued to sample the delights of the Far East.

After four years, he found himself ashore in Liverpool to sit his second mate’s exams, which he passed. Unfortunately there was no guarantee of future employment on the Blue Funnel ships, and Worrall emerged into a world that was in throes of the Great Depression so he was forced to seek work as a seaman.

Every morning at 06:00, job-seekers would turn up at the dock gates and, if they were lucky, would be called across to any captain and boatswain who turned up looking for a crew. The boatswain would inspect the applicant’s documents and, if these met with his approval, would inform the captain that the applicant seemed like a decent seaman. Worrall was called many times, but never measured up in the eyes of a succession of boatswains. Finally, a friend informed him that it was customary for an applicant to present his discharge book with a five-pound note enclosed. If the boatswain accepted the money, a job was guaranteed.

Worrall had only one pound to his name, but this was accepted one morning and he went back to sea as a quartermaster. By keeping his head down and never revealing his true status as a qualified officer, he survived in the forecastle for a couple of years until he heard that Butterfield and Swire were looking for officers on the China coast. By his own admission, he jumped ship in Shanghai and was immediately employed by B&S as second mate on Chungking. They offered him a five-year contract to be followed by three months leave, or six months if he signed a second five-year contract prior to going on leave. It was 1933 and Worrall was suddenly earning the princely sum of £19 per month.

After several years carrying things such as beancake, pigs and buffalo to ports from Penang to Japan, Worrall finally went on leave and obtained his master’s certificate in England before returning to the Far East, with impeccable timing, in the autumn of 1939. In those days, there was a hierarchy in Hong Kong shipping, with Swire and Jardine at the top. All other shipping lines were referred to as “the outside companies” and tended to be considered less prestigious. But promotion in Swire was very slow, so Worrall decided to join an outside company where he was offered command on the Japanese coast. After a couple of years, tensions were rising and foreigners in Japan were regarded with increasing suspicion, so he resigned and was due to pay off in Shanghai.

As he left Nagoya for the last time, a large naval fleet was also leaving the port, so he photographed the warships for the British naval attaché in Shanghai. Neither of them could know that he had photographed part of the fleet heading for Pearl Harbor.

“They thought they were designing a multipurpose tug that would be ideal for moving ships around the docks and also for ocean-going salvage work, but in fact the tug was not really suitable for either role.”

By the time he reached Shanghai, most foreigners had already been evacuated, and there was no way for Worrall to get back to Hong Kong until he found a harbour tug that had been sold to Hong Kong owners and needed a delivery crew. Taking command, he set out on a tug that had never before been to sea, and was alarmed to discover a large compass error. An inspection revealed that the magnets had all been stolen from the binnacle, but he knew the route so he pressed on and arrived in Hong Kong on the very day that Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor and, closer to home, crossed the border to invade the British colony.

Worrall’s plan was to load enough coal to get to the supposed safety of Singapore, but in the meantime he was pressed into service towing several ships away from Taikoo Docks and into safer anchorages. He appears to have learned about towing as he went, but was then instructed to assist with the evacuation of troops retreating from Kowloon and being transferred to Hong Kong Island.

When the order was given to scuttle all the remaining ships in the harbour, Worrall was sent around them all to collect the weapons that merchant vessels carried as an anti-piracy measure. He then drew out all his savings from the bank so he could pay off his Shanghai crew, who planned to sneak through the Japanese lines and try to get home. Hong Kong fell a few days later, and Bill Worrall was interned in the civilian camp at Stanley, where he would spend the next one thousand, three hundred and thirty-nine days.

Two events of note took place amid the hunger and privation – he married a young war widow he met in the camp and he was invited to command a new tug after the war. The offer of command came from a team of senior Taikoo Dockyard managers who occupied themselves during captivity by designing a new salvage tug. They had seen Worrall towing ships clear during the fighting, and assumed he knew what he was doing.

Photo: Wikiswire via Alan Loynd

When Tai Koo was launched in 1950, Bill Worrall was her captain – a role he would fill for the next 20 years. Presumably he spent the years before she was delivered learning how to drive the other tugs in the dockyard fleet, although he does not mention it in his autobiography.

Tai Koo was designed by quite elderly men who were behind barbed wire during the war when technology, unknown to them, was moving ahead rapidly. They thought they were designing a multipurpose tug that would be ideal for moving ships around the docks and also for ocean-going salvage work, but in fact the tug was not really suitable for either role. Their one nod towards modern technology was that after their release from the camp they changed her from a coal-burning to an oil-fired vessel, but she was still one of the last steam-powered tugs ever built.

“Bill Worrall loved the tug and in the next 20 years performed no less than 42 successful LOF jobs in the waters around Hong Kong and throughout the South China Sea.”

The Wikiswire website (which also provided the photographs for this column) states, “equipment carried included diesel and steam-driven pumps with a capacity of 2,290 tons/hr, diving equipment, underwater bolt gun, underwater cutting gear and electric lamps, portable walkie-talkies, salvage anchors and chains, and large quantities of repair materials. The tug was designed to operate at 12.5 knots on 12 tons of fuel per day, however in practice 10.5 knots was the best that could be achieved on 17 tons of fuel per day.

“For a number of years Taikoo Dockyard would make adjustments and alterations to improve the efficiency – but all to no avail. It was said she would roll on wet grass, going 25 degrees in the best of weather. The bridge was well forward and so high that when she lifted over a big swell and crashed down into the trough, the men on the bridge would drop a sickening 30 feet. However, when towing a large disabled ship she would dig her stern deep under the waves and performed well.

“The crew numbered about 33 when on harbour duties, but extra riggers, welders and fitters from Taikoo Dockyard along with spare China Navigation Company mates and engineer officers were recruited for the ocean-going voyages. She was possibly the first Swire-owned vessel to have the Swire flag painted on the funnel.”

It seems that even the Swire website struggled to find something good to say about the tug, and when I later worked with some of the officers who had been roped in to sail on her they were less than complimentary, but Bill Worrall loved her and in the next 20 years performed no less than 42 successful LOF jobs in the waters around Hong Kong and throughout the South China Sea.

In the days before satellite navigation systems, all the reefs in Far East waters were like magnets for ships navigating by traditional methods, so a typical job would see Worrall depart from Hong Kong, normally accompanied by his faithful chief engineer, Chan Kiu, chief rigger Choi Yau, and diving boss Norman Feltham (better known as the Black Prawn). They would head for Pratas Reef or the Paracels, or wherever some unfortunate ship had gone aground, and on arrival would patch her up, lay out ground tackle, and refloat her on a high tide before recovering their gear and towing her back to Hong Kong.

Then the crew would suffer from “bunkeritis,” described by Worrall as, “continual worrying about whether our dwindling fuel supply would last until the tug and her tow got to port. Several times it didn’t, and we had to cast loose our cables and run for the nearest port to refuel.”

Worrall became famous for his exploits, and I am sorry I never met him. But fifteen years after he retired to Australia I became captain of another Tai Koo and was lucky enough to sail with some of the men who learned the business from him. They were superb seamen who taught me a great deal, so Bill Worrall’s legacy lived on in them.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.