Each year many hundreds of travellers take advantage of the informal facilities offered by the passenger-cargo ships of Associated Humber Lines on the North Sea passage between Hull and Rotterdam. Whether it’s a one-way trip or a round voyage, the two motorships Bolton Abbey and Melrose Abbey provide a fast, reliable service to and from Britain and Holland, at the same time carrying considerable quantities of cargo in unit loads and containers.
Recently I made a round voyage from Hull to Rotterdam and back in the Melrose Abbey (3,169 gross tons), commanded by Capt. Joe Blackburn, of Hull, who has been in the service of Associated Humber Lines for over 30 years and who ﬁrst went to sea 43 years ago. During the few days I was on board the Melrose Abbey I had the opportunity of talking to Capt. Blackburn and hearing about his seagoing career which has included service in deep-sea cargo ships, tankers, and short sea passenger cargo ships. Sitting in the passengers‘lounge one evening, chatting about his life at sea, Capt. Blackburn told me that he was born in Goole in December 1911 into a seafaring family, his father having served with Associated Humber Lines and its predecessors from 1907 until his retirement in I940.
His first trip to sea was in I928 as an apprentice in Andrew Weir’s motorship Weirbank (5,150 gross tons). He spent l5 months in that first ship, finishing his apprenticeship in 1932 in the same company’s steamer Aymeric. Although he obtained his second mate's certificate in that year, unfortunately it was of no immediate value to him. The depressed state of the shipping industry in the early 1930s made it impossible for him to find another ship and by force of circumstances he spent 17 months at home.
But gradually times improved, and by 1934 Joe Blackburn was able to return to sea, once again with Andrew Weir and Co. Ltd. as third mate in their steamer Luceric. This ship took him away for 18 months on world-Wide trading, and at the end of that time he returned home and successfully took the examination for his mate’s certificate.
At that time Andrew Weir and Company were managing the Lago Shipping Co. Ltd. Which had a fleet of shallow-draft tankers based at Aruba in the Dutch West Indies. Known locally as “the mosquito fleet”, these small and after conversion to a container and unit load carrier in 1967 tankers loaded Venezuelan crude oil in Lake Maracaibo (those were the days before the bar across the entrance to the lake had been dredged away) and transported it to Aruba, where there was a refinery.
In 1935 Joe Blackburn went out to Aruba to become third mate in the steam tanker Icotea (2,402 gross tons), one of “the mosquito ﬂeet” on the run between Lake Maracaibo and Aruba. This was a very different type of work and it lasted until the middle of 1937, when again he returned home and obtained a promotion to second mate in the motorship Rowanbank.
It was in December 1937 that he finally decided upon a change and joined Associated Humber Lines as second mate in the steamer Hodder (1,016 gross tons) sailing on the Goole-Antwerp run. Thus began a long association with the Humber-Continent trade, which apart from wartime service, has continued to the present time. At the end of 1939 he was promoted to chief officer, and served as such in many of the company’s ships until 1949.
The Second World War brought varied experiences for Chief Officer Blackburn. For a time he was sailing between Leith and Iceland, and Leith and Lerwick, and on one occasion in July 1943, having sailed from Iceland in the steamer Don, the ship was attacked by a Fokke-Wulf aircraft, which dropped two bombs.
There was no explosion and it was presumed that the bombs had gone wide of their mark, but later damage was discovered under the forecastle head. The hawse pipes had been destroyed and a 560 lb. unexploded bomb was lodged in the forecastle.
The Don put back to Reykjavik, where a bomb disposal team came on board. The ship put to sea again and ultimately the bomb was released from its lodging and allowed to drop harmlessly into the sea.
The last 15 months of the war were spent in the Don in the Mediterranean area carrying frozen meat for the Allied forces in Italy and Malta, and Joe Blackburn finally returned home to the United Kingdom on VE Day.
Once the war was ended he was back on the I-lumber-Continent services, and in December 1949 he received his first command—the steamer Rother, running on the Goole-Antwerp service. In August 1953 he was appointed to the passenger-cargo steamer Melrose Abbey (1,941 gross tons) dating from 1929, sailing between Hull and Rotterdam. “She was a fine ship”, he recalled, “carrying considerably more passengers than the present vessel. Her triple-expansion engine ran like a sewing machine —absolutely smoothly, with no vibration”. Capt. Blackburn commanded the Melrose Abbey for six years—until the end of her career with Associated Humber Lines, in fact—and then went to the shipyard of Brooke Marine Ltd. at Lowestoft to take over the new motorship of the same name. Since then he has continued crossing the North Sea between Hull and Rotterdam, and has become well-known to many of the passengers who have made the trip again and again.
The present Melrose Abbey was built by Brooke Marine Ltd. as a conventional cargo ship with accommodation aft on two decks for 88 passengers. A twin-screw ship, she is ﬁtted with two 8-cylinder Ruston and Hornsby oil engines with a combined output of 4,300 b.h.p. giving a service speed of 15½ knots.
In 1967 the company decided to adapt the Melrose Abbey and her sister ship Bolton Abbey for the carriage of unit loads and containers. This entailed lengthening the vessels by 52 ft. and the Melrose Abbey was put into the hands of Smith’s Dock Co. Ltd., North Shields on November 8, 1967 for the work to be done.
The ship “surgery” involved cutting the vessel in two, drawing the two halves apart and inserting a completely new section. All the cargo-handling gear was removed, since the loading and discharging of the unit loads and containers would in future be done by shore cranes.
The work was completed on December 14, 1967, and the Melrose Abbey returned to the Hull-Rotterdam service. Her passenger accommodation was unchanged, but the frequency of the service was stepped up, the two vessels maintaining daily sailings from Monday to Friday each week.
Round voyages have always proved popular on this route and are booked up well in advance. Most popular is the Friday sailing from Hull, which allows almost three full days in Holland, with coach tour facilities available for passengers.
The Melrose Abbey carries a crew of 31, including 12 in the catering department. There is a comfortable dining room and passengers’ lounge-bar, with open deck space on the boat deck. The ship is fitted with VHF radio, radar and the Decca Navigator system—al1 useful aids on the 15-hour crossing of the busy North Sea, particularly in the approaches to Rotterdam, the wor1d’s busiest port.