I was born in 1953 in Branscombe, a small village in Devon (in southwest England), and we lived a couple of miles outside the village. Although I was born eight years after the second world war, we still had rationing, so it was fairly austere. My father was a farm labourer, my mother worked for the market garden and I had a younger brother and sister. It was a tremendous place to grow up, we had the beach in the summer and shooting in the winter, but I knew there were no jobs unless I wanted to work on a farm. All the men I knew had been in the war and they talked about the places they’d been. My uncle had fought in North Africa, my father had been all over the place with the Royal Navy. I wanted to go to sea and see those places. Shipping out I went to a good school, Colyton Grammar School. I didn’t like it much, but I managed to get a bunch of O-levels and applied to several shipping companies. I went to the interviews in my school uniform because I didn’t have a suit. I chose to join the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), these were the merchant navy ships that supported the Royal Navy and did replenishments at sea and passed fuel, stores and ammunition to the navy ships. They tended to do most of their work at sea and get long periods in port, which was brilliant. When I joined my first ship, in September 1969, I’d just turned 16 and we went straight to sea. It was my first time abroad and I couldn’t believe we were going to Gibraltar, Malta and Naples. It was fabulous – and I was getting paid to do it. We went to Hong Kong and Singapore, which were big naval bases, and St Helena, where I met a tortoise that was alive when Napoleon was there, and to Pitcairn, where I met Fletcher Christian, the great-great-grandson of the original Fletcher Christian from the Bounty. Eastern promise I did six years with the RFA. When I went back to the UK to get my chief mate certificate, there was a Labour government and defence cuts were coming in, which meant we wouldn’t be going around the world any more having the wonderful voyages that I’d had. I loved the Far East and saw that the China Navigation Company, a Swire shipping company, was advertising. Hong Kong educator who overcame abuse to help children of the poor I applied and was accepted, and arrived in Hong Kong in 1976. Cargo ships would spend a week loading in Hong Kong. It was break-bulk cargo and we had to plan the stow to avoid contamination, you had to know not to stow coffee and cocoa together or that shark’s fin can’t be mixed with tea. We’d head off around the Pacific, at least one or two nights in every island port from Hong Kong to New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and out as far as Samoa, Tahiti and New Caledonia and then back to Singapore and Hong Kong. The young master I’d met my Christina at a party in Hong Kong. She was a police officer. When I came back to Hong Kong with Swire, I looked her up and we got married in 1978. We rented one room in a flat in Mei Foo – we were the posh ones because we had a balcony. In those days, Mei Foo was on the harbourfront. We overlooked Lai Chi Kok Bay and could hire a walla-walla right outside the flat. When our first son, Mark, was born, in 1980, we emptied the top drawer of the chest of drawers to make a cot for him. Swire invested in some offshore supply vessels in the oil industry and I joined. After six months I was promoted to chief officer, so the money was better, and I was learning to drive the boats. The captain desperately wanted to go home, so he talked me up to the company and I became captain at 25. I got my master mariner certificate of competency at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and sailed on the passenger ships. We moved to Yuen Long and spent the next 40 years in the New Territories. Christina ran the family finances because I couldn’t do that when I was at sea, and she raised the kids almost single-handedly – we have two sons and a daughter. A royal visit The government of Tuvalu, in the Pacific, approached Swire saying they had a maritime school and needed a captain to get it going again. I took the job and brought Christina and Mark with me; we landed on a grass airstrip in October 1981. Tuvalu Maritime School was on its own island, six miles across the lagoon from the capital, Funafuti. I was told that they’d sacked all the expatriate staff, there were no teaching materials, or rope or wire to train the students and Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were arriving for a royal visit in three weeks, and I was to show them around. Why Asia must reject the Western economic model: sustainability advocate The Royal Yacht arrived, and the queen and Prince Philip were brought ashore perched on chairs tied to canoes. I showed the queen around the maritime museum. She was delightful and spoke to everyone. I told her I wanted to set up a library, but we had no books and she suggested that I write to the countess of Ranfurly, who ran a service that distributed books to developing countries. I wrote to her and answered a questionnaire about the students and, six months later, six tea chests arrived filled with books. If I could have picked the perfect library for those boys that was it. Kai Tak crash I worked in Tuvalu for more than two years and, when I returned to Hong Kong, I worked as the chief officer on Swire’s big ships and as a captain on the supply boats. In 1987, a friend put me forward for a job at Hong Kong Salvage and Towage, which needed someone to set up a safety system. It was a six-month job, but I ended up spending 20 years with the company. We were so good you’d never heard of us, because had we spilled oil or let any ships sink in Hong Kong waters, you would have heard of us. The one time we did make it into the papers was in 1993 when a China Airlines plane crashed off the Kai Tak runway. The accident investigators insisted the plane be recovered to work out what went wrong, and we were given the job. There was no manual for this. We decided to treat it like a ship – which meant keeping it afloat. We took the seats out and the trolleys of food before they went bad. To lighten the plane, we cut through the floor to get the waterlogged luggage out. My boss discovered the strongest point on a plane is the main landing gear and if you cut through the top of the wings you could get to the landing gear and put wires around it and lift it from there. Dominic Brittain, the police bomb disposal expert, agreed to blow the tail off and said he’d need a tug, a bit of weight from a tow line would help (the tail) land in the water at the stern of the plane, not on the plane. Dominic did just what he said – although when he pressed the button, he was a mile away behind sandbags and I was just 50 metres from the back of the aircraft on the little tug. We had the biggest floating crane in Hong Kong and bought 40 double mattresses to stop the plane rubbing against the crane when we lifted it. It’s the only 747 that’s ever been recovered in one piece from the sea. Salvage operations We salvaged a lot of log carriers – the sap from the logs is acidic and eats the metal in the ship so log carriers coming up from New Guinea or Indonesia would crack and take on water in the middle of the South China Sea. We would go out with 16 people on a small tug – fitters, welders and divers. Our divers patched up the cracks while we pumped the water out and then we’d tow them. In 1992, a passenger ship collided with a container ship in the Taiwan Strait and we got both those jobs. The container ship’s bow had gone, so I had to tow it to Hong Kong backwards. Ships coming towards us didn’t see a tug towing a ship backwards, what they saw was a tug coming towards them and a container ship in the distance going away. Despite our radio warnings and flashing lights, some sailed between us, risking cutting the wire, so we stopped the engine, let the tow line go slack, and when they’d gone over it, we got the engines going again quickly before the tow ran us down. Bad timing We never knew what was going to happen, so I was always prepared and had a go-bag in the office with working gear, spare boiler suits and a change of underwear, so I could go at a moment’s notice. Salvages always seem to happen at 11pm on a Friday, never at 10am on a Monday. I missed the Rugby Sevens for seven years running because I was out at sea on a salvage job. After 30 years with Swire – 10 years at sea and 20 years at Hong Kong Salvage – I took early retirement. Every captain who retires from Swire is presented with a leather-bound album with a picture of every ship he’s sailed on from the Swire Group. Mine included old deep-sea general cargo ships through to super tankers, container ships, tugs and offshore supply vessels. All at sea In 2007, I set up my own company, Branscombe Marine Consultants, specialising in accident investigation, supervising salvage and wreck removal projects, and overseeing the construction of ships, doing towage approval surveys, and acting as an expert witness in court cases. In 2017, a ship went aground in Discovery Bay and another one hit the rocks in Cheung Chau a few months later. I was employed by the insurers for both of those to help them find suitable contractors to remove the ships and supervise the operation. Work has been slow during the pandemic and it’s given me the time to write my memoir, All at Sea: A Memoir (Proverse Hong Kong, 2021). Christina and I plan to stay in Hong Kong. We try to go to Devon [in southwest England] every year for a break but haven’t been back for almost three years now. Our kids are here, and we’ve got six grandchildren, they all live close to us in Mei Foo.