When they began calling at Avonmouth in 1901-3 the banana boats were known to the casual dock workers as the 'plum' boats
because, unlike other ships, they offered a couple of days of solid work with overtime and a good pay packet.
The TILAPA (1928) is seen above arriving in Avonmouth on December 30th 1945 when she brought back the first consignment of bananas to Britain after the war.
By acquiring Fyffes' capital and half share in their main U.S. competitor, the Atlantic Fruit Company of New Orleans, the
United Fruit Company had established a virtual monopoly in the trade. Among small remaining operators was the Cuyamel Fruit
Co. of Honduras which had a number of small steamers and, in 1929, had taken delivery from Barclay Curle at Glasgow of three
refrigerated banana boats, the AZTEC, MAYA and TOLTEC, by far the most impressive they had ever owned. Hard hit by the
depression and by managerial problems, United Fruit and Cuyamel's dynamic boss, Sam Zemurray, took over as President at
Boston. The close links between Boston & London are best seen by the increasing number of ship exchanges between the
A busy scene at Avonmouth is depicted above sometime in the late 1930s with the CARARE (1925) discharging under the Fyffes elevator and taking on coal bunkers and the BAYANO (II), 1917, in the background. The CARARE became a war loss when she struck a mine in the Bristol Channel in May 1940. Alongside in this view is R.& J.H. Rea's bunkering crane Avongarth and a coal barge.
The first part of this history ended with the loss of the CHAGRES (II) outside the Mersey Bar. She was the 43rd British ship
to be lost to a magnetic mine. This reduced Fyffes' fleet to 20 ships, almost half it's strength in 1933. Only the United
Fruit Co fleet had ever been larger while the Germans, French, Dutch and Scandinavians had around 20 banana boats between
them which included many fast motorships. By the end of the war Fyffes' once proud fleet had been reduced to 7 ships.
The sinking of the CARARE May 28th 1940
The next year (1941) was a better one with only three losses. The old "A" class CAMITO was torpedoed in the Atlantic on convoy escort. The "B" class PATIA(II) fitted as an aircraft catapult ship, was sunk by the Luftwaffe in 'bomb alley' off the Northumberland coast where her sister ship, TETULA, was lucky to survive torpedo damage from an E-boat off Skegness in September.
Fourteen ships sunk represented 60% of the 1939 fleet but this takes no account of the damage and heavy wear suffered by the others. The 'lucky' BAYANO(II) made more Atlantic crossings than any other merchant ship. In August 1941, laden with foodstuffs and on escort to a convoy of 74 ships from Halifax N.S., the BAYANO's lookout reported a powerful flotilla approaching on the port quarter. This turned out to be HMS Prince of Wales (soon to be sunk off Malaya) escrted by 7 destroyers. The battleship was carrying Winston Churchill home from his historic Atlantic Alliance meeting with President Roosevelt. A signal was sent - "Three cheers for Winnie" - and back came the characteristic response - "Splice the Mainbrace".
One of the best known of the company's pre-war classic steamers to survive into post-war years was the 1926 built ARIGUANI seen above arriving in Avonmouth. She was broken up in 1956 by which time she was probably the last coal-burning Atlantic liner.
While food controls in Britain and the shortage of dollars to purchase Central American bananas gave some breathing space, it was essential to find more ships. Surprisingly, the first of the 1920 "B" Class ships - the CHIRRIPO (II) sold in 1937 to Germany as the WESERMUNDE - rejoined Fyffes having been seized by the Americans in 1941. The company then purchased a similar ship from the Standard Fruit Co (Vaccaro) of New Orleans and renamed her MANISTEE (III). This vessel had been built as the ERIN (5,824grt/1932) with her sister ship EROS by Workman Clark of Belfast and was registered there. Quite well known at Avonmouth and Garston pre-war these were 15 knot ships, oil-fired with triple expansion engines and exhaust turbines, in appearance much like Fyffes' "B" Class except for their raked stems and cruiser sterns. The CHIRRIPO (II) was very well worn and lasted only until 1952.
The motorships brought a new look to the Fyffes' fleet. All had long fo'c'stles, short well decks, short vertical funnels, slightly curved raked stem and cruiser sterns. The day of the coal burning ship was nearing its end. Wartime demands had also meant that the tonnage and service speed of the average trader had increased considerably and all these factors were taken into account when Fyffes' new ships were ordered.
The CHUSCAL, seen above at Southampton, was completed in 1961
The MATINA(III), below, was launched by Stephen in mid-1946. She was oil-fired, turbine-propelled (17 knots) and measured 6,801grt with a length of 443 ft overall and a 57ft beam. The banana capacity was about 170,000 stems and, although like the old "B" Class she had accommodation for 12 passengers, she could not be seen as a replacement for one of them. Such a powerful ship was certainly not designed for the old 'shuttle' route between Jamaica and Avonmouth/Garston. Within the old 14 day schedule she was capable of running to almost any port in western or northern Europe, discharging whole or part cargoes as required. At one time she was tried on the Cameroon route but it is understood that she proved too big for those ports. The new ship had a raked stem and cruiser stern, otherwise her hull design was reminiscent of the earliest Fyffes' ships.
This 'new' look was also, of course, a feature of the passenger liner GOLFITO which Fyffes launched in 1949. She was flushed decked with a 3 deck superstructure. Elements of United Fruit ship design may have been present but the two ships could not have been mistaken for other than 'Fyffes' liners and Linthouse products.
The GOLFITO was placed on the service between Kingston, Jamaica and Southampton/Rotterdam (with the MATINA(III) turning up occasionally at the Avonmouth terminal even after the "A" Class BAYANO(II), CAVINA(II) and ARIGUINI had restarted the passenger service to Trinidad, Barbados and Kingston). She had a gross tonnage of 8,736 on dimensions of 447ft and a 62ft beam. She was oil-fired with twin screw turbine propulsion and a handsome ship, features of which included a part glazed promenade deck, a large funnel with cowl top, 'knuckled' plating forward and even a short covered mooring deck below the weather deck aft.
The atractive turbine steamer GOLFITO photographed in July of 1956 when outward bound from Southampton. Completed in 1949, she had accommodation for 103 passengers.
When the "A" Class liners were withdrawn Fyffes took delivery in 1956 of a virtual sister ship, the CAMITO(II) fitted out in a way that showed how far passenger accommodation had changed since the days of the BAYANO. The cabins on her two upper decks had private bathrooms and there were two luxury passenger suites forward. The main lounge was sound insulated and finished in Acajour veneer with cherry burr panels. It had a dance floor and projection equipment and its large bay windows opened out onto a tiled swimming pool (the old ships had removable canvass pools). There was a cocktail bar in contemporary decor and a library panelled in ice flame birch with marble boss veneer. The main dingin room on the upper deck seated the full compliment of 103 one-class passengers. Fire resistant materials were used extensively. However, in an age of growing air competition even these refinements and the massive banana capacity were not enough to save these fine 17.5 knot ships from a comparitively early demise.
Readers may recall music hall songs like "Yes, We Have No Bananas" which delighted the publicity men who devised
their own advertising slogans such as "Bananas The All Food Fruit" and "Have You Had Your Fyffes Today"?
After the war they devised an even better one "Unzip A Banana" while in the children's comic "The Dandy"
the 'macho' "Bananaman" was still doing his stuff for the company, unpaid.
The post-war world lacked the stability of earlier times and while trade was very good, many of the new ships in the major British fleets were destined to become old before their time. The former German and French Cameroons eventually joined to form a new country which was not entitled to the favourable import duties formerly enjoyed in Britain. The plantations there were sold by Fyffes/United Fruit and new work had to be found for the CHANGUINOLA quartet. Dollar restrictions had been eased and they were transferred to the Caribbean route, but to save operating costs the CHANGUINOLA, CHIRRIPO and CHICANOA were transferred to United Fruit's subsdidiary company Empress Hondurena in 1970, while in 1972 the CHUSCAL, only 10 years old, was sold to the Greek flag as the MARDINA PACKER. Soon after the OPEC oil crisis in 1973 all 4 went to the breakers. Owners were not prepared to pay fuel oil bills for high speed steamers.
The United Fruit Co had overall control of more than 50 ships under 5 national flags - the United States, Britain, the Netherlands
(Caraibaische SS Co), Honduras and Panama. The steamers under the United States flag in particular were very expensive to
operate and a further decline in trade would result in even the latest ones being 'flagged out' to cheaper European flags.
A series of 6 high speed turbine steamers built by Fyffes/Unted Fruit at Bremer Vulkan between 1960 and 1962 also came out
with the plain Fyffes' funnel but they soon adopted the United Fruit red and white diamond logo. They were 6,700grt, single
screw, 17.5 knot vessels. They had a cooling plant for a wide range of temperatures and were classified by Lloyds as general
cargo vessels, with accommodation for 5 passengers. They loaded 60,000 stems but, fitted with MacGregor hatches, could
and did load everything from meat products to ordinary boxed fruits to general cargo.
Towards the beginning of the 70s new sources of fruit were being exploited, especially in Surinam, formerly Dutch Guiana, and Fyffes 5 year plan for recovery ended in 1969 with the company changing it's name to the Fyffes Group, still United Brands owned. Later two general fruit and vegetable companies were acquired - Monro Limited of London and Jackson & Co. of Birmingham. Banana importation remained paramount but in a changed situation. In 1968 the MATINA(III) (1946) which had remained a one-off design, went to the scrapyard at Bruges. The 8 steam turbine ships transferred to London registration were the PACUARE(III) (ex-TIVIVES), PECOS (ex-HIBUERAS), PATIA(III) (ex-YAQUE), PATUCA(II) (ex-SIXAOLA), RIO COBRE(ex-JUNIOR), ROATAN (ex-COMAYAGUA), ROMANO (ex-METAPAN) and RONDE(ex-SAN JOSE). All were built between 1945 and 1948, the first 4 at Birmingham being 16 knot, 5000 tonners, the others averaging 6700 tons were 18-knot ships built at the Gulf Shipyard. They retained their full United Fruit livery, received little if any modifications and were placed on the same general fruit services as Fyffe's "T" Class vessels. For a few years it was perhaps a little strange to have these very American-style ships in the Elbe, New Waterway and Southampton Water.
One of the 6 German built turbine steamers of the "T" Class, the TILAPA (II) was completed in 1961 for the Surrey Steamship Co. Transferred to Empress Hondurena in 1974, the TILAPA (II) (together with her 5 sister ships) lasted until 1980 when broken up at Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
The high cost of bunker oil, and incipient recession, had made the 70s a difficult time for shipowners and fruit importers. Within a few years United Brands, so far as ship operation was concerned, found themselves in the same position as had the United Fruit Co. in 1968. Some ships had already been withdrawn. The LEMPA and LEON have been mentioned. After a 10 year losing battle to maintain a luxury service (with air-conditioning and optional cruises) between Southampton and Kingston the GOLFITO and CAMITO (II) were scrapped in 1972 soon to be followed by the ex-U.F. vessels. In 1980 the 6 "T" Class ships went for scrapping in Taiwan, no buyers being interested in turbine steamers. In 1981 the DARIEN and DAVAO were sold to the Greek flag, the former surviving for a few years as the Panama-flag reefer KHUMBU.
The tradition of building merchant ships with counter sterns endured in the U.A.A. long after other shipbuilding nations had abandoned this graceful style of construction. The turbine steamer PATUCA (II) was such a ship. Built by the Bethlehem Shipyard, she was completed in 1947 as the SIXAOLA for United Fruit. She is seen above in United Brands' colours, with the US trade name "Chiquita" (Little Girl) on her hull.
As recession deepened, hard decisions had to be taken about the 10 year old MATINA(IV) Class motor ships, operation of which, even with British crews, was too costly. In 1983 the smaller 4 were sold to the Abbar Cold Stores Co of Jeddah and renamed as follows: MATINA - AL ATTARED, MORANT - AL ZOHAL, MUSA - AL ZUHRAH, MOTAGUA - AL MOSHTAREE. The other 4 were flagged out to one-ship companies in Hong Kong with the following names: MANISTEE - FLEET WAVE, MAGDALENA - BLUESTREAM, MANZANARES - BARRYDALE and MAZATEC - SKY CLIPPER.
The MATINA (IV) was one of 8 powerful motor vessels built by the Kawasaki Shipyard. Completed in 1969, she (together with 3 of her sister ships) was sold in 1983 to Saudi owners and renamed AL ATTARED
A regular supply of Fyffes bananas were taken into Portsmouth (Flathouse Quay) from Surinam by 3 comparitively small refrigerated
carriers on charter to Elders & Fyffes Ship Management Co., mainly a distribution company connected with a company registered
in the Irish Republic which purchased fruit handling and distribution rights from the Fyffes Group.
Appreciation to R.M. Parsons from which the above abridged history of Elders & Fyffes is taken. The full history may
be obtained from a series of three articles published in Ships Monthly magazine in April, May & June of 1988.
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