She wasn’t really a bad ship but………

I wrote this some years ago for a seafaring website. I thought that it might be of interest. The last I heard of Eagle she was named KNYAZ VLADMIR and laid up.

P&O Southern Ferries ‘Eagle’

The Eagle wasn’t really a very bad ship, it was just that if anything could go wrong it did go wrong. I should have realised this the day I joined as one of her Third Engineers. I’d been told to join on a Friday afternoon in 1973, at the ferry terminal in Southampton Eastern Docks – she finally arrived from her six day round trip to Tangier on the Saturday evening. Her starboard engine outboard turbocharger was held in place with four chain blocks, the holding down bolts having failed sometime during the voyage. The main engines were V12 Pielstick PC3, the first to be put into a ship as far as I am aware.

She was on a wonderful run – leave Southampton Saturday afternoon, arrive and leave Lisbon Monday, arrive and leave Tangier Tuesday, arrive and leave Lisbon Wednesday and back in Southampton on Friday evening, with time to nip to my home and family for a few hours when not on watch. Eventually Algeciras was added to the run, arrive early Tuesday and off to Tangier at lunchtime. As a fairly large ferry, carrying mini-cruise passengers as well, she had most of the advantages of a posh passenger ship with none of the bull.

In my two years or so on her before her sale to a French company the following happened.

We had the entire car deck contents wrecked in hurricane force winds in the Bay of Biscay and it took a number of large fork lift trucks four days to discharge in Lisbon. At one point I spent quite a while chasing a spare cylinder head round the engine room. Probably the only time in my forty years at sea that I have been really scared.

The starboard engine governor single helical drive gear moved on its shaft and tried to engage with the double helical drive gear for the cam shaft. The first indication came when I noticed a large drop in oil pressure across the main lube oil bypass filter (I can’t remember why we weren’t on the main filter.) I stopped the engine and as it ran down I could hear a loud graunching. The fact that the filter basket was full of bits of metal indicated something amiss! Luckily we had a spare and we followed the instructions to remove the gear but when we came to fit the spare the instructions were rather like a Haynes manual – ‘Reverse the removal process’. We did manage but the gear was a couple of teeth out and the engine sounded awful but it did run. It is a good job that it did because we had been under a contract tow from a deep sea tug for a number of hours, the reason being that somebody had managed to stretch the propeller control rod when doing some tests on the port KaMeWa VPP in Southampton and it would only run with the pitch full astern. We had been given permission to make a round voyage to Lisbon, which we could do on one engine in six days. When the deep sea tug handed over to the harbour tugs we had the starboard engine running, thus saving a salvage claim from the harbour tugs.

The following severe damage was caused to the port engine and nobody was really sure which of them caused the final damage which was a bent crankshaft. Cylinder head cracked, liner split open like a banana, conn rod bent, bottom end bearing failed, engine thrust bearing turned in its housing. There was a lot of water found in the oil, although the engineers who changed the liner etc were convinced that it was due to the isolating valve to the header tank leaking by. A scapegoat was needed and as I was purifier king they blamed me, although I was on leave at the time. It didn’t seem to affect my career, I was promoted to Second Engineer a couple of years later.

She hit heavy weather outbound in the Channel and a wooden handrail from a deck below and in front of the bridge smashed the bridge windows and the bridge was flooded. Along with most things electrical the steering was put out of action and an Engineer ended up steering from the steering flat, obeying orders yelled from the bridge to the Chief’s cabin, relayed to the ECR by phone and thence by a runner to the steering flat – control was a little tenuous. Eventually a phone was rigged up on a long extension from the crew Pig and Whistle to the steering flat. She put into Falmouth and unfortunately a pilot died while trying to board her.

The next week I was on watch and was told in the middle of the night to fill the forward ballast tank. Shortly after I has finished I received a call from a rather irate steward who had woken up and leapt out of his bunk into a couple of feet of water. It turned out that there were a number of cracks in the tank bulkhead and frames, caused by last week’s weather.

Somewhere off the mouth of the Mediterranean she took a green sea down her starboard funnel, swamping the lighting transformer and causing a blackout.

She had five English Electric Ruston generators and I only saw four in action at any one time. They were inclined to shed their timing chains when on load, resulting in the machine stopping and the cooling water in the heads boiling. This ruined the O-rings on the cooling transfer bobbins, meaning that all the heads had to come off. We had two very hard working Mechanics and they were very rarely able to work anywhere except in the generator room.

I shut a generator down one morning because the turbocharger and the entire exhaust manifold were red hot. The Second came down after breakfast, opened the cocks and barred the engine over. Unfortunately there was an injector stuck open and one unit had part filled with diesel. It squirted over the adjacent machine, which burst into flames.

All the port pump starters were on the starboard side of the switchboard and vice versa. This caused the odd problem when stopping an engine at sea and putting the lube oil pump onto slow speed!

Things I learned when on the ‘Eagle’.

If someone overflows the fuel overflow tank it comes out of a vent on the funnel and runs across the deck and down the side. (Incidentally causing me great amusement when the J/2/E snarled “Hurry up, open the ****ing valve” as I eased the pressure on to the fire hose that he was holding on the quay. I whipped it open and the result would have made an excellent cartoon as he pirouetted about.)

If the ships davit launched life rafts are stowed near the swimming pool and a couple of clowns try to pull them from their stowage by the inflation cords many passengers end up slowly but surely pushed into the swimming pool, followed by their deck chairs.

If the main engine exhaust pyrometers don’t work then the first indication that you have of an exhaust valve burning out is when the valve head drops off and causes rather a lot of damage to the head, piston and liner.

If the engine room becomes hot enough to cause a two cylinder CO2 fire engine busting disc to fail the adjacent auxiliary boiler rotary cup burner will go out.

If you fill the a/c compressor room with Freon 11, which boils at room temperature, you can pump most of it out with the bilge pump but anyone in the space for more than a few seconds becomes very ‘drunk’ and you have to take the operating handles off the watertight door that you have closed to keep the fumes in, otherwise they try to go back in.

If you keep banging up main engine cylinder head nuts with a big windy hammer, in an attempt to stop a leak, some of the studs will eventually fail, usually deep inside the entablature.

If the Chief is stuck in the engine room lift during a force ten he can cut himself out of the back of it in five minutes if you lower a hammer and chisel to him.

If an engine governor fails the engine can, at sea, be controlled by a rope rigged from the end of the fuel rack and over a pulley with a bucket hanging off it. Power is proportional to the weight of nuts and bolts in the bucket. It requires an Engineer on the rope and somebody signalling through the control room window when manoeuvring.

When I joined ‘Eagle’ I had only sailed on steam ships and one motor ship with a Doxford LB but a Third was desperately needed for a week and I was looking for a local job while waiting for my youngest son to be born. I was taken on via the local MNAOA official who told the Engineer Superintendent that I was a very experienced medium speed diesel Engineer! At the end of the week the Chief said to me ‘You seem keen, would you like a Fourth’s job?’ I said I’d settle for Third and he said ‘ok’. Having signed on for a week I retired from P&O in Dover 30 years later.


There was a French built Ro-Ro I used two visit from time to time doing a bit of ship chandler duties at the time. She had two V16 Pielsticks driving through a Renke gearbox to a single shaft with generators mounted on the front of each engine to run the bow and stern thrusters. There was barely enough room to fit between the engines and the engineers were permanently in a state of exhaustion .
The port engine went into a over speed condition and destroyed itself while berthing and everybody on the Quay ran off with the noise. She went to scrap on one engine.
I saw a Ruston on a very old dredge, built like a brick outhouse and unstressed and had run for years without any problems . I haven’t heard much good about the new ones.

my parents were passengers on the Eagle when the Biscay storm occurred. Most of the cars were wrecked and petrol spewing around as a result.
a tracked Caterpiller Excavator broke its lashings and was sliding around the car deck creating sparks.
By pure chance didnt cause an explosion. Crew trying to lasso the Caterpiller
Many injuries sustained… my Mother had a broken arm.
Not really a bad ship???

The main deck was wet because heavy weather blanks hasn’t been the vent fan suctions so sea came down them. I can assure you that there were no sparks, I was there. The first indication of trouble was when I went on the car deck and found a furniture removal lorry sliding about on the wet deck. It was supposed to be personal effects of someone moving to Portugal but it turned out to be antiques being smuggled out of the UK. That lorry slid into the crawler which eventually broke free and destroyed everything in it’s path. Our biggest concern was that the crawler was adjacent to a ship side door on deck and we had visions of it breaking through, with a good chance of flooding the car deck.


Spent many a happy winter chasing crap around the car decks in Biscay storms.

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Another memory, a camper van driver told to drive slowly along the car deck as he was being put under a mezzanine deck and there wasn’t much clearance above the van. He ignored the instruction, the van bounced, knocked a sprinkler head off and came to a stop with the stub pipe of the sprinkler through the van roof. The resulting flood with 120 psi of sprinkler system water was quite spectacular.


As third mate on a Ro-Ro we had a small forklift break lose in a gale. After destroying the header tank of hydraulic oil for one of the elevators it went through the spud locker. The resulting mix made an interesting surface to move about on, trying to lasso said forklift. At one stage the hoist moved towards a bunch of us and we retreated through the open door into the galley. The 4th engineer, a large lad was standing in the doorway, enjoying the spectacle. He was picked up like a feather in front of a scrum of us and sat down on the still warm galley range.

Had a 4x4 drop a wheel off the floating mezz deck and the next roll in the opposite direction pulled the tyre off the wheel.
It was vehicular pin ball that day, a fantastic mess.