The Adventures of a Conway Lad on RFA Pearleaf 1977-78


Pennant No. A 77                      International Callsign GGHA                 Registered LONDON


Previous Name N/A                                                                         Lloyds Identity No. 5272593


Builder Blythswood Shipbuilding Co. Ltd, Scotstoun, Glasgow.


Launched 15th October 1959.                                                        Completed 15th January 1960.


Displacement (Light-ship) 6,400 tons.                          (Loaded) 24,900 tons.


Measurement Tonnage N.R.T. 7,051               G.R.T. 12,353               DWT 18,500


Dimensions L.O.A. 568 ft.                          Beam 72 ft.                           Draft 30 ft.


Main Machinery Doxford 6 cylinder marine diesel, built by D.Rowan & Co. Ltd.       Single shaft.

Speed 15 knots.


Ships Badge Granted in 1959.  It depicts a golden pear and sprig of dark green leaves on a white background.


Remarks “PEARLEAF” was a freighting and fleet support tanker.  She was modified in the late 1960’s with a single goalpost gantry, supporting two abeam replenishment derricks.  She had a limited capacity for dry stores and drummed lubricating oil, which could be transferred from two light jackstay positions.  She had the capability to replenish ships with fuel oil and diesel via stern rigs.


“PEARLEAF” and her sister-ship “PLUMLEAF” were originally built for and owned by Jacobs & Partners Ltd, London.  They were both taken over on completion by the Ministry of Defence, on a 20 year bareboat charter.


Having served with the RFA for 26 years, the “PEARLEAF” was returned to her owners on 8th January 1986.


She was then sold to ‘Petrostar Co. Ltd’ of Saudi Arabia, where she was re-named “NEJMET EL PETROL XIX” and served as a static fuel storage facility.


In 1993 she was sold to shipbreakers ‘Nasir Trading Co.’ at Gadani Beach, Pakistan, where demolition commenced on 8th March 1993.


The previous “Pearleaf” was an RFA oiler built by W.Gray & Co, West Hartlepool and launched in 1917.  She was a sister-ship to “Brambleleaf” and other “Leaf” class oilers of that time.









28th September 1977 to 21st March 1978

Hong Kong Chinese Crew

Chief Officer


My new appointment took me up yet another step on the ladder of promotion.  I joined the “Pearleaf” at Gosport where she was lying at the oil jetty opposite Portsmouth Dockyard.  A connection of trains from Plymouth had got me to Portsmouth Harbour Station, from where I got a taxi and liberty boat across the water to my destination.


“Pearleaf” was sitting high in the water as she finished off a full discharge of cargo.  After a quick look-around with me the outgoing Chief Officer grabbed his bags and left.  So that was me now, in at the deep end!  I finished off the discharge with the duty officer, getting as much oil out of her cargo tanks as possible with the main pumps.  I then switched to the stripping pumps, which had smaller pipe-work and ‘elephants feet’ suction heads located right at the bottom of the tanks and usually in an aft-end corner. The stripping system usually managed to slurp out just about all the dregs in the tanks. After loading some seawater as ballast we sailed for Curacao in the Caribbean for a new cargo.


Like the “Brambleleaf” that I had sailed on as a 3rd Officer, “Pearleaf” was originally a commercial tanker, which had been chartered by the RFA on completion of building.  She had been run for several years in a freighting capacity, with just the ability to replenish other ships via a stern hose.  More recently, she had been fitted with a gantry amidships on which were mounted two abeam replenishment rigs.  In her main cargo tanks she carried a cargo of FFO (Furnace Fuel Oil) and diesel oil. She also carried cargo fresh water and drummed lubricating oil for issuing to other ships.


As Chief Officer I was responsible for the Deck Department, ship and equipment maintenance and of course the cargo.  To stop me getting bored I also kept the 4-8 watch!  This watch was normally kept by the Chief Officer on commercial ships and RFA’s with smaller complements such as this ship.


At sea, the day started with a call at 0345hrs, to be on the bridge to take over the navigation watch at 0400hrs.  After a cup of tea with condensed milk, a sandwich and a few minutes to familiarise myself with the situation outside I began to prepare for my dawn star sights.  Come twilight I would need to be ready to take sextant readings of up to six stars, or a mix of stars, planets and the moon, all in rapid succession.  Through navigational tables and maths calculations it was necessary to establish the rough location of the six selected stars, which would then give the best crossing of position lines.  When twilight arrived it was all go for about half an hour.  Whilst the stars were still visible and the horizon was clear enough to see, the exact altitude (angle between star and horizon) of the stars were taken with the sextant, whilst at the same time noting the precise time of the reading using a stopwatch and the ship’s chronometer.  That process took about ten minutes at the most, after which it was twenty minutes of rapid calculations.  If all went well, within half an hour you had plotted the results of the calculations on the chart and obtained a good cross of all the position lines. That was the ship’s position QED!!!  How the hell John Wayne did it by just looking at his sextant, no other navigator will ever know!


Whenever warships and RFA’s were in company, the navigators of each ship would pass their ‘star’ and ‘noon’ fixes to the senior ship, just as a confirmation of accuracy for the senior ship’s navigator.  It was quite satisfying to pass my fix to the accompanying ‘senior’ warship sometimes many minutes before they had worked it out and confirmed it for themselves.


Once the early morning navigation business was out of the way, it was time for a cup of tea and those welcome slices of fresh toast.  The stewards had probably been up and about for a little while and the smell of toast and cooking breakfast would waft up the stairs to the wheelhouse.  It was time to be sorting out the day’s work for the Bosun and crew, before he arrived on the bridge for his orders at 0730hrs.


At 0800hrs the 3rd Officer took over the watch and it was time to go below to freshen up and have that long-awaited cooked breakfast.  When on the 4-8 watch I reckoned that it was the best meal of the day!


During the morning, or ‘forenoon’, it was time for checking maintenance progress, the cargo and fresh water situation, to have a chat with the Captain on forthcoming events and dealing with the multitude of other things that keep a ship running.


At 1200hrs it was time for a beer or gin & tonic in the bar before lunch.  This was a very social time and was where a lot of liaison work was conducted between the various departmental officers. The 2nd Engineer had a similar job to mine but in the engineering department.  He and I became good friends, along with the Radio Officer and the Purser.


After lunch and if nothing was pressing, it was time for a nap before going back on watch at 1600hrs.  The 3rd Officer came up at 1730hrs for half an hour whilst I got an early dinner.  Going back to the bridge it was time to prepare for those star sights to be taken at dusk, followed by calculations to find the ship’s position.  The watch finished at 2000hrs, with a bit of time to relax or watch a movie before going to bed.


The above routine was fairly standard for un-interrupted deep-sea passages.  Coasting did not involve the celestial navigation procedures, but introduced more navigation hazards and of course more work in port if cargoes were constantly being loaded or discharged.


Arriving at the Dutch colony of Curacao, we discharged ballast water and loaded a full cargo of FFO and diesel oil, bringing it back for discharge at Devonport.  We then got involved in a bit of freighting around the U.K., with calls to Thameshaven refinery, Portsmouth and Portland.  Constant loading and discharging on top of watchkeeping and other work was very hard going and very tiring.  Some of the officer’s wives and children, including mine, joined us for a while during this coastal period.


After a month or two we were packed off again to the West Indies to load.  This time, however, we had an important customer en-route.  The Royal Yacht was also on passage out to the West Indies, where the Queen would join her for a Royal Tour.


Having met up with the “Yacht” in mid-Atlantic, we refuelled her with FFO via our stern hose.  During this replenishment the Royal Marine band played requests which we could hear coming from her forecastle!  Afterwards we both stopped so that her doctor could come over by boat to examine our 3rd Officer who was ill.  At that time we were part way through a ‘beard growing competition’ and the doctor must have thought he was boarding a ship crewed by a band of cut-throats!


Departing from the “Britannia” we set off again for Curacao to reload.  Our new task was to support the “West Indies Guard Ship”, a British frigate stationed in the Caribbean to look after British interests there.  The frigate, which at this time was HMS ”Antelope”, would also be escorting the Royal Yacht during her cruise and both would need the occasional top-up but did not need us in company all the time.  Left pretty much to our own devices, we worked out our own “West Indies Tour” between the replenishments.


Our first call was to Tampa, on the west coast of Florida.  From here, a few of us were able to get a ‘greyhound’ bus to Orlando where we spent the day at “Disneyworld”.  I think a week would have been more appropriate as there was so much to see and do, but we had a good time anyway.


Following Tampa we had a cruise around the British Virgin Islands, anchoring off a couple of the smaller and uninhabited islands where we put one of the lifeboats over the side and went ashore for a swim and a barbecue.  We also managed visits to Miami, where we berthed amongst the cruise ships at the top of the long port channel.  Using this channel between the shipping, we saw several flying boats landing and taking off.  A call to New Orleans was also squeezed into our tour where we were well entertained by the local US Naval Air Station.  I had an interesting run ashore and saw the French Quarter and listened to the live jazz bands that were playing in almost every bar.  Replica paddle-wheelers carried passengers up and down the river past our berth.


A call to Freeport in the Bahamas was where I experienced the most wonderful rum punches.  Another stopover was at Bequia, a small island in the Grenadines, (Windward Islands).  This is where we anchored in a small bay in company with the “Antelope”.  They threw a cocktail party for us which was good fun.  Arriving back at our ship in our lifeboat after the convivial party, the Captain stepped from the gunwale of the lifeboat onto the pilot ladder, but somehow slipped and fell into the water.  We were all in our white tropical uniform with caps and as he dropped into the pleasantly warm and calm water, all we saw for a moment was his cap floating off in the breeze!  He was quite alright and regained the ladder but what a laugh we had.  He looked like a drowned rat and his blanco’ed white shoes left soggy white footprints all the way back to his cabin!  We had accumulated several empty 40-gallon oil drums on board over the past few weeks which we gave to the local school for their calypso band.  I remember them being towed ashore by one of our lifeboats, with the drums all strung out behind us like following ducklings!


During a visit to Port of Spain, Trinidad, we were entertained ashore by a group of ‘ex-pats’, who took us to a party with fantastic calypso music.  The band sold us a music tape which frequently got played during the following weeks.  A large US Naval Base on the island of Puerto Rico called ‘Roosevelt Roads’ is where we stopped a couple of times.  We played the Americans at football once and I recall getting half bitten to death by the insects living in the grass.  This is probably why we lost the match.  Absolutely nothing to do with our lack of skill or fitness!!


It was a few hours after leaving Roosevelt Roads on one occasion that we had rather a bad accident on board.  One of my Chinese seamen, who was working aloft on the RAS gantry, fell about 30 feet to the deck.  He was busy painting from a ‘bosun’s chair’ suspended by a length of rope.  For some reason the rope parted causing him to fall.  At the time I was working on the foredeck with the pumpman, consolidating some cargo oil from the part empty wing tanks into a centre tank.  When I got to the injured seaman he was being tended by the 2nd Officer and it seemed that he might have some broken bones.  We immediately put out a call for medical assistance and fortunately there were two Canadian frigates within helicopter range.  They airlifted our injured seaman back to Roosevelt Roads for medical attention and he was later repatriated to Hong Kong.  I later heard that he was making steady progress towards a full recovery.

Meeting up with the “Yacht” on one occasion later in mid Caribbean, our Captain was invited across to join the Queen for lunch.  Quite an honour for him and it left me the ship to play with for a few hours!


Whenever a replenishment of the Royal Yacht was programmed, it was very important beforehand to pressure test the hoses in the rig to ensure that there were no leaks in the hoses or the couplings.  “Britannia” burned black FFO, therefore any leak of oil would soon become very conspicuous.  I religiously carried out tests before each RAS, which involved inflating the hose with compressed air and watching for any reduction in pressure over a period of time.  During one replenishment however, it was not my lucky day as about five minutes before the RAS was about to finish a pinhole leak appeared towards the far end of the rig.  It began blowing minute black spots of oil down the side of the “Yacht”.  We stopped pumping immediately and disconnected.  After both ships went their separate ways I dismantled the whole rig and reassembled it using up my stock of spare hoses.  I never wanted that to happen again.


I had now had two brushes with royalty and neither of them had covered me with roses.  No MBE for me I’m afraid!


During this deployment we called two or three times at Curacao to top up our tanks.  The harbour entrance at Willemstad was quite interesting.  The ship had to pass through a narrow canal to enter the harbour area known as the Shottegat.  Spanning this canal was an old floating pontoon bridge which carried a lot of the local traffic.  When a ship approached, the pontoons were hauled around to one side of the canal to allow the ship to pass.  The houses on the waterfront of the canal were prettily painted and of traditional Dutch design.  High above the canal there was a modern suspension bridge, over which the majority of the road and rail traffic passed.  Having entered the harbour we usually berthed at the large Dutch “Shell” refinery to load our cargo.  Once or twice we also went to another loading facility at Caracas Bay, just along the coast.


I paid off “Pearleaf” whilst she was still in the Caribbean.  We called into Kingston, Jamaica, to take on some fresh provisions prior to the ship joining an American naval exercise.  I stayed at a rather nice hotel in Kingston for a couple of days whilst a flight was sorted out and eventually came home with British Airways on a half empty Jumbo Jet.