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Presidential Handover Lunch

25th June 2024
Venue: Kent and Canterbury Club
The Presidential Handover lunch is being held at the Kent and Canterbury Club on Tuesday, 25th June. Retiring President Rosemary Doyle will handover to incoming President Maxine Blades. The bar
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Final of the Innovation Competition,

26th June 2024
Venue: Old Sessions House, Canterbury Christ Church University
The Rotary Club of Canterbury welcomes you to the final of our 2024 Innovation Competition being held at Canterbury Christ Church University. Eleven young people have reached the final and will be
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Lunch talk: Leslie Stephenson – Tales from the sea

We had a fascinating meeting full of anecdotes served up by one of our members, Leslie Stephenson, when he told us about some of his experiences while working with ships.

Head and shoulders picture of Leslie

Leslie is a Naval Architect and Chartered Engineer who has spent all of his working life in the shipping industry. He was kind enough to step in at the last minute to give his talk to us when another presenter was unable to do so.

Leslie, who is originally from Tyneside, opened with a firm request: “Promise me you will not do three things when you next go on a ship.” He then described three crazy scenarios to the disbelieving audience and then revealed that, in fact, passengers had done all three things on the company’s ships.

“My career has taken many twists and turns,” continued Leslie, adding “for the last 18 years of my fulltime work I was involved in the management of passenger and freight ferries”. The fleet, we learnt, carried over 10 million passengers per year, looked after by a force of around 9,000 members of staff at sea and ashore.

“Most passengers are no problem,” said Leslie “…but…some are just very silly… and some are plain criminal!”

On the topic of toilet paper, for example, Leslie stated: “Before a ship left port there would be three toilet rolls placed in each cubicle…but these would often run out by the time the ship left the harbour! This is why automated dispensers were introduced!” Basin plugs and other random items also got stolen. For instance, Leslie recalled receiving a new batch of ashtrays one day, decorated with the ship’s name. “They won’t last 24 hours,” he’d remarked wryly. He was quite wrong … one managed to last as long as 36 hours!

Sometimes constant thefts meant staff needed to take some unconventional measures. To stop kettles disappearing, for instance, Leslie recalls a notice beside each kettle that read “Danger: not suitable for shore use”. He smiled: “we never lost a kettle after that”.

Leslie also recalled a time when the Continental Port Manager was called by the police to assist a man who could only give the name of a ship company: the chap was naked except for a blanket and couldn’t recall anything about his situation. A couple of days later Leslie learnt that the man, somewhat inebriated on a stag weekend, had agreed for a bet to run around the block naked – but he’d got lost until, eventually, the police picked him up!

On one rather shocking occasion a lorry driver lit a cigarette in his cab after smelling gas. Inevitably the gas burst into a ball of flames – engulfing the driver. Luckily for him, the car behind was carrying soldiers; their prompt action saved his life.

Fire is viewed as a key danger on ships – so it was alarming for the crew to see a group of passengers about to set up a small fire on the vehicle deck. Turned out it was for a religious ceremony – the passengers were oblivious to the great risk. 

Leslie recalls two worrying incidents of fire in public toilets and one in a linen locker on two separate ships. Similarities between the incidents led him to suspect arson by a crew member who worked on both vessels. Going through the crew list came up with no common denominator. Several weeks later, however, a note under the Captain’s door named a suspect: it became apparent that a crew swap had taken place without shore management’s knowledge. The suspect was duly tried, convicted and sent to jail. A few weeks later the jail he’d been sent to had had a fire!

There was another fire-related incident that took place during Leslie’s career: two women got into car that was subsequently seen with flames coming from the back. Crew members frantically waved to try and warn them. The women didn’t stop at first. When they eventually did, and were asked why they didn’t stop straightaway, they responded: “We thought everyone was waving goodbye”!

At times Leslie was able to help Special Branch and customs officers. On one occasion, for instance, he was alerted to five high-value cars being moved to the continent via ship. Berthing was therefore delayed and all five drivers caught. “Four Brits and one Belgian”, said Leslie, who added that the Brits had to be sent back to the UK as ordinary passengers – ”there are no jails on a ferry!”

Another anecdote Leslie shared was about a member of staff who had used his “2 weeks on then 3 weeks off” schedule to alternate between his wife and mistress! Leslie drily remarked: “his wife must have thought we were a lousy company”.

Drawing his enjoyable talk to a close Leslie remarked how the anecdotes he’d shared were “just a snapshot of some of the things that went on”. He was given a warm round of applause and then became the catalyst for discussions between Rotarians, some of whom had worked indirectly with him during his shipping career.

Picture: Leslie Stephenson. Picture credit: Leslie Stephenson/Rotary Club of Canterbury.

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St Lawrence Cricket Ground
Old Dover Road,
Canterbury, Kent,
CT1 3NZ,
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