The call of the sea - Tex Lishman

Dec 26, 2003
Author: Terry Hutson

Several years ago a group of friends threw a birthday party down the South Coast. It wasn’t just any party, it was special, for a 70-year old sailor who cannot ignore the call of the sea.

Chief Engineer Tex Lishman was the man having the birthday, a man who has been at sea since he left home in Johannesburg to join the navy in the late 1940s, much against the wishes of his father, who wanted him to become an electrical engineer – ‘a proper job’.

After four years with the navy, based at Simon’s Town and Salisbury Island, the young Lishman came ashore briefly but the lure of the sea had gotten a hold and all too soon he was back in his element once again, this time as a tankerman with British Tanker Services (now BP).

Some of the early ships on which he served included British Fortune and British Pride, which helped him realise an ambition of seeing the world.

Later he was to sail with General Steam Navigation and Palm Line Ltd of London, both old established British shipping lines. But, as Mr Lishman admits, he was never a company man. He simply loved ships and joined anything that looked interesting, ending up going wherever they took him.

As he rose through the ranks to engineer, chief engineer and later superintendent engineer, he was to experience a number of memorable voyages. One of these involved taking a reefer ship named San Miguel for scrapping in the Pearl River in China.

First port of call was to East London to load a cargo of titanium-bearing sand, which was delivered in Japan before heading for the Pearl River delta.

Because his father was Irish he was able to carry a British passport, but many of his fellow South Africans on board didn’t, and in the 1970s this posed a problem with the Chinese authorities. Armed guards were placed on board to ensure that the unwelcome South Africans remained on board at all times while the ship proceeded up river.

“Guards are guards the world over and there is little that a few drinks can’t fix. We arranged a few parties and by the time we’d arrived at our destination where we would run the ship onto the mud banks they were our best mates and the entire crew had been able to hop on and off the ship each time we stopped.”

Mr Lishman also worked for Sammy Collins, one of the more colourful characters ever to come this way. He describes the American as the finest person anyone could ever meet and hope to work for. Initially this was on the Saiccor pipeline job off Umkomaas on the Natal south coast but later Sammy Collins ran into financial difficulties, which resulted in his workboat, an ex whaler named Oom Kappie and several barges being impounded in Durban harbour.

“One day Sammy came on board and said he’d acquired a treasure map showing the site of the Grosvenor. Over breakfast he asked us if we were interested in helping him find this treasure. Of course we all said yes, but the problem was we had no ship, as all Sammy’s assets had been frozen.”

Little things like that didn’t stop Sammy Collins. Oom Kappie was double-banked on the far side of another slightly larger vessel, the Friendship 7, with a guard posted on the quayside. Shortly afterwards it was arranged for Friendship 7 to start her big noisy diesels and together with the arrested workboat alongside, she began moving out into the bay.

All went well and soon they were heading down the channel, where the two ships separated, with the guard on shore still blissfully unaware that his charge was skipping.

Once out of Durban they turned south and headed for the Wild Coast and the supposed treasure site. The next few weeks were spent diving and exploring, all to no avail of course, as the map was obviously a fake, and eventually they had to head back to Durban to face the fairly large ‘welcoming committee.’

“The authorities had no idea where we’d been and never did find out,” he says.

Tex Lishman served under Captain Mike Robinson,, another of Durban’s ‘old salts’, on the 880 ton coaster Pondoland, as well as with Green R Line, on which he qualified as chief engineer. He also served with African Coasters, Rennies Coasters, Durban Lines and Smiths Coasters and did the first bitumen charter on board the Pondoland. Later he sailed to Singapore to collect the gas carrier Livingstone for Gas Ocean. This little ship is still in service with FFS Bunkers in Richards Bay.

Mr Lishman also worked for the partnership involving Louis Luyt and Gas Ocean, which arranged to build three ships, but the price of acid dropped drastically, forcing Luyt to pull out, leaving one newbuilding and two on the stocks. Later the LNG carrier Ben Franklin was completed for Gas Ocean – then the largest LNG tanker in the world. However the US enacted a law prohibiting foreign gas into the USA and the huge ship never completed her first commercial voyage, getting as far as Marseilles to be laid up, where she was wrecked in a collision and subsequently scrapped.

One of Mr Lishman’s career highlights was going to America with a team of South Africans to refurbish the steamer Delphine, which then belonged to the US Merchant Academy but was in the process of being sold to a Norwegian who had fallen in love with the old ship.

Delphine was built in the Great Lakes in 1921 by Horris Dodge of the famous Dodge family and had triple expansion hand-built steam engines with piston valves on each cylinder.

Built from wrought iron, Mr Lishman describes her as “beautiful”. One day the ship sank in New York harbour but was quickly refloated and back in service within six weeks. The story goes that Mrs Dodge’s maidservant was entrusted to salvage her employer’s jewellery case along with its contents but disappeared shortly afterwards and both she and the case were never seen again.

The ship was donated to the US Navy in World War II and became the base ship in Chesapeake Bay for Admiral King, head of the Navy. After the war the ship passed into the hands of the Merchant Academy.

Together with his South African team Tex Lishman rebuilt the engines before handing her over to the new owner. Unfortunately he was unable to complete the delivery voyage owing to an injury that required him to be hospitalised in Barbados. When last heard Delphine was still in service in the Mediterranean.

These days Mr Lishman is supposed to have retired, but in recent years has managed to spend seven months out of twelve at sea, as engineer on relief work with various Durban shipping operators.

When he is at home and ashore he helps his family run a caravan park at Clansthal south of Durban, where he has a pub aptly called The Chief’s Cabin. This is filled with marine memorabilia gathered over the years, including ships badges, brassware, bells, bridge fittings, photographs from newspaper articles, badges, lapel epaulettes and so on. There’s hardly a square centimetre on the walls not filled with memorabilia.

But the call of the sea is never very far away. Whenever there’s mention that someone is looking for an engineer for another voyage or two along the coast, Tex Lishman is known to look up with interest.

Footnote: Since this story first appeared in December 2003, and as a result of it, Tex Lishman has gone back to sea... as engineer in the Delphine which is now based in the Mediterranean.

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