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A Sea Story by Alan Mackenzie
My “love affair” with the great passenger liners of the P&O and Orient Lines commenced I suppose, at the age of six when I was taken by my parents for a two-week cruise to the Mediterranean in the summer of 1962 in the s.s. Himalaya.
This situation came about due to the fact that my father worked for P&O (in the London Leadenhall Street office) and had done so since just before the Second World War. Thanks to this connection, we were lucky enough to be able to cruise almost every year from the early sixties to the early seventies, by which time I was very firmly hooked.
For interest, the ships involved, were as follows:
All these cruises, with the exception of the Iberia trip in 1971, were to the Mediterranean, West, Central or East. The 1971 Iberia trip was a 7-day, 2-port voyage to Bergen and Copenhagen.
I think my first conscious decision that I was determined to go to sea, came about aboard Chusan in the summer of 1968, by which time I was twelve years old. I had not really any clear idea of which of the ship’s many varied departments I should try for but tacitly assumed I think, that it would be the Deck Department, to my eyes by far the most glamorous.
This ambition however, was doomed to failure as, when I was seventeen, I undertook a basic Board of Trade medical to ascertain whether or not I was fit to apply to join as a Deck Cadet. Physically I was perfect apart from one vital thing – my left eye was (and still is!) a bit short-sighted and although I did not and do not, wear glasses, this minor imperfection was sufficient, at that time, to knock me out of the running for that particular job.
Bitterly disappointed, I started looking around for alternative ideas. I was not interested in the Purser’s Department and did not have the maths and physics skills to be an Engineer Officer. Then, right at the back of P&O’s latest recruiting brochure, was a small section on the Radio Department, an area which, I’d never really considered. However, this did look promising and I wrote off to the Post Office for a course syllabus and a list of colleges running it.
When the syllabus arrived, I studied it carefully and thought “Well, I guess I can do this!” and having discussed the matter with my parents, who were quite happy so long as I was happy, set about arranging college interviews. I was not due to leave School until after “A” levels in July 1974 at the age of eighteen but already had the five “O” levels required by the Radio Colleges to start the MRGC (Marine Radio General Certificate) training.
As we still lived in North London at that time, it made sense to try for a locally situated college that I could attend and still live at home. The most suitable-looking establishment, turned out to be the London Electronics College, at 20, Penywern Road, Earls Court. An interview with the Principal, Mr. D.C. Evans, was arranged for March 1974 and it was agreed that I should commence my training with the LEC the following Autumn Term, in September of that year.
A rather ironic (and possibly not very psychologically good) aspect of the start of my training at the LEC, was that I had to explain to Mr. Evans at interview, that I would be joining one week after term had commenced. This was owing to the fact that we were already booked to go on a cruise in Canberra in late August / early September and that this would overlap the start of the Autumn Term.
As I had given such long notice of this arrangement however, it was agreed. As things turned out, by the time I did arrive at the LEC, I was actually ahead of the other students in my intake in one rather amusing respect. This was thanks to the fact that my mother, who had been a WRNS wireless instructor during the Second World War, had undertaken to teach me the Morse code during the course of the Canberra cruise. After a fairly well-disciplined daily hour in the morning and hour in the afternoon whilst on board, I arrived at college having learned the whole Morse alphabet, plus the numerals. The rest of the class had only got as far as the alphabet!
The course at the LEC lasted just over two years, from September 1974 to early November 1976. This included of course, the MRGC and in addition, Radar Maintenance. Somewhat unusually, the radar maintenance course was interleaved with the main part of the syllabus and the exam for this was taken at the end of the 1976 Summer Term, on July 13th. The final term at the LEC commenced on 14th September 1976 and the last MRGC Part II exams took place on 1st, 2nd & 3rd November. As the results for the Part II were known at the conclusion of the final day, there was little time for nail-biting before being told that thankfully, I had passed!
Thereafter, events accelerated to warp speed! 3rd November was a Wednesday. The following day I rang P&O’s Personnel Department at Beaufort House in London, confirming earlier correspondence and informing them that I had passed all my required exams and I was called for interview the following week on November 9th.
Many readers may remember that the early 1970s were not a particularly auspicious time for seeking employment with shipping companies, particularly those operating passenger liners. Between 1972 and 1975, P&O themselves had disposed of the majority of their traditional fleet, the remaining vessels being Canberra, Oriana, Arcadia and Uganda (running BI educational cruises). In the same period three small ships (17,000 – 20,000 tons) had been acquired. These were Spirit of London (later Sun Princess), Island Princess and Sea Venture (later Pacific Princess) and these three formed the nucleus of the fledgling Princess Cruises operation.
However, luckily for me, by the end of 1976 passenger ship trading had started to pick up and recruiting in all departments, dormant for some years previously, had at last re-commenced. Interviews in those days were not nearly so formal as they are today and at the end of an hour at Beaufort House during the morning of 9th November, I was told that I had passed and that P&O Cruises could offer me employment as a Trainee Radio Officer! I think I almost broke down at that point, so much did I want to be there.
My first posting (to my delight) was to Canberra on 28th November, in about three weeks’ time! Thus I had exactly that much time to acquire my uniform and documents for going to sea. My uniform was ordered from Miller Rayner & Haysom and collected on 16th November and my Discharge Book and British Seaman’s card were issued from the Shipping Office at Dock Street shortly after that.
On the morning of 28th November, a cold wet and blustery day, my parents drove me down to Southampton and we arrived alongside Canberra, where she lay at 38/39 berth in the Eastern Docks. She had just come in from a cruise to Rio de Janeiro and was to proceed immediately to refit at the (then) Vosper-Thornycroft owned ship-repair facility at the opposite end of the Western Docks, near the container terminal.
Dressed in my brand-new uniform, with its thin half-stripe edged with dark green on the shoulders, and carrying my cases, I ascended the gangway, showing my brand-new seaman’s card to the co’x’n at the top. He just grinned and waved me through. No X-ray machines, airport-style security and miles to walk in those days, you just drove to the bottom of the gangway, stepped out of the car and walked onboard.
At the office I had been told that on arrival, I should go to the Radio Office and report to Mr. Williams, the Chief Radio Officer. Luckily knowing my way around the ship from my passenger days aboard her, I quickly made my way to the Radio Office up on Sun Deck and knocked at the door. A voice called “Come in!” I entered and found a boiler-suited figure with his head buried inside one of the two main transmitters. I introduced myself and asked for Mr. Williams. “Oh, he’s already gone home and won’t be back for a couple of days” came the airy reply. “Anyway, I’m Roger, the Second. Fancy a beer?”
Somewhat taken aback by this, it was after all, only ten o’clock in the morning, I replied, “Uh, yes, OK then, thanks”.
Roger immediately dropped whatever it was he was doing, told me to leave my cases on the deck just inside the adjoining SRE Room and follow him. We ascended two more decks, proceeded along a short alleyway on the starboard side and into a cabin at the end. It was spacious and comfortably furnished and contained, as I soon discovered, a well-stocked fridge. Roger extracted two cans of beer, “Allsopps Lager”, in bright yellow tins and a brand I’d never heard of before. He then said, “Chuck your jacket on the bed and take off your tie – no need to be so formal!”
Within the space of about thirty minutes, Roger had given me the “low down” on daily life in Canberra as a Radio Officer, including the best routes for smuggling young ladies into the accommodation! Suffice it to say my head was in a bit of a whirl by this time and it wasn’t just due to the “Allsopps”! The overwhelming feeling, was the incredibly easy way in which I had been accepted into the ship’s family. This was enhanced later in the day, at about 1800, when as everyone was knocking off, Paul, one of the 3/R/Os, said to me, “We’re all going up to the Cowherds [a Southampton pub] tonight. You coming?”
Needless to say I did and had a grand evening getting to know my new and very extended “family”. This introduction to the ship’s way of life, the automatic assumption that although only the “new boy”, I should be included in all that was going on, moved me deeply and has remained with me ever since. Indeed, later as I achieved various positions of authority, I tried to replicate for other “new boys” the sort of welcome I myself received, that first day in Canberra.
My statutory period of six months as a Trainee, when I was placed on watch with a Senior Watchkeeper, was to be split between Canberra and Oriana. Following the November refit we sailed on the Christmas Cruise (during which I had a number of adventures, including my infamous seduction by a 45-year-old widow, looking for a toyboy! My mates never let me hear the last of that one!), and after the Christmas Cruise, the World Voyage 1977, which sailed on 5th January.
It was planned that I should make the voyage out to Australia in Canberra, leave her in Sydney in February and join Oriana for the remainder of her Australian cruising season and then her homeward bound voyage to the U.K. in April.
The voyage out to Sydney was manic. Very busy indeed, with radio traffic, both W/T and R/T coming in constantly from radio stations all over the world. In addition to normal watchkeeping duties, I had to spend an hour each morning practicing taking Morse direct onto a typewriter (old 1960s-style Imperial, not a word-processor!) from WCC (Chatham Radio in the USA). These were WCC’s press broadcasts and they were transmitted at about 30 words per minute. The first time I tried this I think I managed about 5 letters in a whole line! Huw Williams, the Chief R/O, was very kind and encouraging when he saw me getting totally despondent with this process and told me that the first time I managed to get a good copy of one article, he would give it to the Printer for inclusion in the next day’s “Canberra News”. I managed it about ten days later and the C/R/O was as good as his word.
We arrived in Sydney in mid-February and as I had about ten days to wait for Oriana to come in, it was arranged that I should spend “local leave”with relatives in Cootamundra, about 200 miles inland from Sydney.
To this end, I found my way to the airport, checked the inland flights and booked one to Cootamundra that evening. It is not exaggerating to say that I was on a complete “high” most of the time. All this was so incredibly new and exciting that I had no time either for homesickness or apprehension of venturing into the complete unknown.
The stay with my Aunt and Uncle at Coota was another brilliant experience, during which I experienced an outback-style sheep auction, learned to waterski at Burrinjuck Dam and spent my 21st birthday (19th February) in Canberra ACT.
All too soon it was time for the flight back to Sydney and the Oriana. After having got on so well in Canberra, I was slightly apprehensive that the Oriana experience could never be as good. I needn’t have worried, for, despite having a whole new ship-full of people to get to know, there were never any real problems. The first day at lunch at the junior officers’ mess-tables in the after restaurant, I was asked by a young 3rd Engineer, whether I was Australian! Apparently, my ten days in Cootamundra had left a distinct Aussie “twang”.
Regular cruising from Sydney to the Pacific Islands with Australian passengers was a very different experience to a World Voyage. In the first place our main points of contact were Sydney Radio (VIS) and Portishead Radio (GKA/B) in the UK. There was little traffic from elsewhere, though we did sometimes come up on the ZLD (Auckland) or ZLW (Wellington) traffic lists. Otherwise it was just TRs or the occasional stores request to one or other of the little radio stations in the Pacific Islands.
All in all, life was much more relaxed and a regular highlight was for a crowd of us from all departments, to take away one of the ship’s lifeboats complete with “eskies” of beer and barbecue equipment, to some deserted beach on a coral island. The boat would then chug back and forth all day, to and from the ship, collecting and depositing people as the watches changed whilst the lucky ones ashore would swim, sun themselves or play beach games.
In early April we departed Sydney for the final time that season and sailed for the line voyage back to England. Radio-wise, this was somewhat similar to the outbound trip in Canberra but otherwise I was lucky enough to be given the day off in Los Angeles, in company with several other junior officers, to visit Disneyland. Here we spent several glorious hours in total reversion to childhood, before making our way, tired but happy, back to Oriana and reality.
Arriving in Southampton in mid-May, I had one more short cruise to make before signing off Oriana and proceeding on my first leave.
Following this highly educational, eventful and instructive first six months, I returned after leave, to Canberra, as a full-fledged, junior 3rd R/O. I remained in that ship then until late 1979, following a pattern of mixed Round World Voyages during the first three months of each year, followed by a full season of cruising from Southampton plus an annual refit. Tours of duty generally, were four months on, two to two-and-a-half off. During this time I was gaining in experience (and rank) and in mid-1978 was promoted to Junior Second Radio Officer. This elevation brought with it a significant privilege, one I much enjoyed and was to enjoy for the remainder of my sea-going career. This was the responsibility of hosting a table, with passengers, at dinner each evening in one or other of the ship’s restaurants.
Some of my peers disliked this part of the job of a passenger ship officer, considering it an intrusion on their otherwise free time. I on the other hand, reveled in it, thoroughly enjoying the interest and stimulus this constant meeting with new and varied people provided. In fact, to this day, I still exchange Christmas cards with a number of friends made during those early years and have made firm and lasting friendships with others who came along later.
In late 1979 I was appointed to Sea Princess, P&O’s latest acquisition and conversion from m.v. Kungsholm, originally of the Swedish-America Line but latterly owned (unsuccessfully) by Flagship Cruises. Kungsholm was acquired mainly with a view to replacing Arcadia (1954) in the Australian market as although only 25 years old, Arcadia was considered less suitable for full-time cruising. This I believe, was because of her intended design as a mail-liner, with considerable cargo space and handling equipment as well as her somewhat primitive (by modern standards) former emigrant accommodation at the after end.
In any event, Sea Princess came into the market in April 1979, meeting up with Arcadia in Hong Kong and taking her passengers onboard for the return voyage to Sydney. Arcadia then proceeded to Taiwan, where she was scrapped.
I joined Sea Princess in Sydney in October 1979 and was due to remain until the following February. I cannot say I particularly enjoyed my time in her on this occasion (though when I returned some years later, it was a very different story). She carried only three R/Os, as against the six in Canberra and Oriana, with similar reductions in other departments. I did not get along terribly well with the one other watchkeeper, although the C/R/O was a fairly amiable fellow and seemed to feel I did quite well during my appointment.
I left Sea Princess in February 1980, in Sydney, as planned and joined Canberra when she arrived half-way round her annual World Voyage. Not surprisingly, after a not-very-happy few months in Sea Princess, joining Canberra felt like coming home. This was enhanced by the fact that I joined on my birthday, a fact remembered by my old friends onboard, who had arranged a surprise party for my arrival! Home again indeed!
The voyage back to Southampton was busy, great fun and very successful. We called at Kagoshima and Yokohama in Japan, my first visit to that country, as well as returning through the Suez Canal, another “first” for me.
Departing Canberra at the end of the World Voyage, I was appointed next to Uganda for just one month, from mid-June to mid-July, 1980. This again was a very different experience but this time, one I thoroughly enjoyed. Uganda was engaged in educational cruising, carrying 900 school-children in dormitory accommodation as well as 300 First Class passengers in comfortable cabins. She was a very old ship, built in 1952 (though subsequently modernised in places) and very traditional. The Radio Office, just abaft the Bridge on the port side, was tiny and looked as if it had been taken from the Science Museum! It was also inaccessible to passengers, so watches were very much more peaceful than the frenetic periods on watch I had been used to up until then. She too, carried three R/Os.
I did just two cruises in her, one to the Atlantic Islands and one to the Baltic Capitals. When I disembarked in Aberdeen in mid-July, I was sorry to leave and regretfully, never managed to return to her again.
My next assignment was four months in Sun Princess, commencing August 1980. This was my first time in a ship of Princess Cruises and my first experience of U.S. Market cruising. It was certainly different and I’m afraid I cannot say that it appealed to me unduly. For the first half of my tour of duty we undertook seven-day cruises from Vancouver to Alaska. Every one was identical and I can remember the itinerary to this day…
We sailed from Vancouver on Saturday evening. Sunday was spent at sea. Monday we arrived in Juneau, Tuesday was Skagway, Wednesday was spent cruising in Glacier Bay, Thursday we anchored at Sitka, Friday was another day at sea and we were back in Vancouver early Saturday morning, ready for it all to go round again.
Not only the itineraries but also the meals, followed a rigid structure; every menu was faithfully replicated on a weekly basis, so in other words, every Monday was roast beef, every Tuesday Fettucini Alfredo, etc. etc.
This type of cruising of course, was in its infancy in those days. Now however, practically every mass-market cruise operator, particularly in the U.S.A., follows this pattern. Imaginative cruising, with varied itineraries and long, peaceful days at sea is now, regretfully, very difficult to find.
The ship herself, though an attractive looking vessel externally, was cheaply built and the interiors, to my mind, rather shoddy. The cabins, passenger as well as ship’s company accommodation, were all equipped with thin steel fittings, cupboards, bunks etc. and nowhere was the beautiful woodwork, so much in evidence in all the ships in which I had served up to this point, anywhere to be seen. In fairness it should be said, that this was a common failing of many of these early purpose-built small cruise vessels which appeared in the early 1970s. Newer and larger ships which came later, [thinking primarily of Oriana (1995) and Aurora (2000)], have been very beautifully and tastefully fitted out and if the bulkhead claddings and furniture are not actually solid wood, they certainly look very much like it.
My first encounter with American passengers en-masse, was also an interesting experience. I met many I liked very much, a few who couldn’t really relate to anything outside of their home State and the odd one or two, who did not seem to have “please” and “thank you” in their vocabulary.
Speaking of vocabulary, my early lack of familiarity with American colloquialisms, led to one or two very amusing incidents. Chief amongst these was the look of complete consternation on one poor lady’s face when, having asked me if I could kindly direct her to a “Restroom”, was shown immediately into the nearest lounge! I soon learned that in American, “Restroom” means public lavatory!!!
The second half of my trip in Sun Princess consisted of a 9-day refit at Esquimault, British Columbia (and incidentally, the most scenic dockyard I have ever visited), which finished on 29th September, followed by a repositioning to Los Angeles. >From there we made weekly trips down the Mexican coast, terminating in Acapulco, where there was a three day layover, followed by a week back up the coast to LA. This was certainly more varied than Alaska, if not so attractive scenically. The three-day layovers in Acapulco though, were positively dangerous! There was scope for all sorts of shore-side malarky, amongst the more innocent of which, was a group parascending outing one afternoon and an extremely drunken evening in the company of some very hospitable U.S. Navy personnel based on a USN vessel which was in for some extended R & R! Any further tales of Acapulco turn-rounds are probably best left to lie in the vault of history!
I left Sun Princess on November 15th 1980, to return home for leave. My next adventure was to be an eighteen-month sojourn in Oriana, commencing in Sydney on 5th January 1981 and following the usual 4-on 2-off routine. Although I had enjoyed (up to a point) my time in Sun Princess, I was pleased once more to be returning to a “big, traditional” vessel and her far-flung voyages. As before, Oriana’s routine was a pleasing mix of Australian and UK cruising, interspersed with line voyages.
The most significant event occurring during this second posting to Oriana, was the Falklands War of early 1982. Although we obviously were well away from the operations, Oriana was being prepared, albeit covertly, to be the next vessel to be used as a trooper, should such be required. Such an operation would have involved flying British troops to Sydney for embarkation, then dispatching Oriana at her top speed (of still 26 knots), to the South Atlantic. However, as we know, operations in the Falklands were speedily wrapped up and this contingency never came to pass.
I flew home from Oriana for the last time, on 21st May 1982, the day British troops went ashore in San Carlos Water.
I made a very brief trip in Island Princess from 11th-19th June to fill in for one of the regulars who was taking part in the annual pay negotiations. This was my one and only posting to this vessel and was not long enough to form any firm opinions of her.
In August 1982, I rejoined Sea Princess, this time for a period of two years and a completely different experience to my earlier time in this ship. Perhaps it was because she had settled down properly by now and possibly also, because many of the original faces had changed. In any event, I thoroughly enjoyed my trips in her, particularly as she was now UK based and following a similar pattern to Canberra, that is to say, World Voyages and UK cruising. All sorts of incidents come to mind from this period, amongst them receiving a parking ticket for a hired jeep in Honolulu, which we didn’t pay as the ship sailed at midnight. On another occasion three of us, myself included, were arrested (but soon released) in Lisbon over a broken chair incident in a restaurant and another day I nearly drowned swimming off a beach in Haifa! That was in the good old days of course, when the ships could still call safely at Israeli ports.
My tenure in Sea Princess came to an end in June 1984, this time because I was assigned to a posting as 1st Electronics Officer in the new-build, Royal Princess, then under construction at the Wartsila yard in Helsinki, Finland. Royal Princess marked the beginning of what later would come to be known as the Electro-Technical Department, an amalgam of the former R/Os and Electricians, under the Chief Engineer.
This was the only ship and only time we were ever referred to as “Electronics Officers”, this title soon being dropped in favour of the now-universal ETO.
The experience of standing by a new-build was a fascinating one, as for the first time, it was possible to see all the details of how she was put together, where all the cable-runs were etc etc. During the fitting-out process, those standing by the ship lived aboard a ferry (called the Fennia) which was moored just opposite the fitting-out berth. The food and general inconvenience of the accommodation led to much laughter and joking as this was the best way to deal with it!
Following the final sea trials we sailed for Southampton, arriving on 5th November 1984 following which came a manic two weeks, getting the ship ready for her maiden voyage. On 15th November, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, arrived in Southampton to perform the naming ceremony but as soon as the festivities were over it was back to work again.
The maiden voyage itself was fairly horrendous as, apart from all the standard “new ship” problems, we were also in very heavy weather for several days on end. Royal Princess of course, being one of the new breed of dedicated “fair weather” cruise ships, was utterly unequipped to handle the Atlantic Ocean in late November and at times was reduced to a speed of 5 knots over the ground. Her blunt hull pounded viciously and when we finally did arrive in Miami (two days late), it was possible to see how the thin bow plating had been dinted in against the frames underneath. During the Atlantic crossing, RP was following Canberra and we were receiving regular weather updates from her. It is salutary to note that Canberra’s speed never dropped below 15 knots throughout the crossing and I can quite imagine that her passengers were having a much more comfortable time than were our own!
I returned home for leave after the maiden voyage, rejoining for a four-month trip in Acapulco the following January. Once the ship was properly in service I regret to say that my time in Royal Princess was not a happy one. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that it is the only ship, in which I have served, where I had seriously considered resigning from P&O to get off it!
It is hard to put a finger on the main problem. Personalities, I suppose must have been at the root of it. Also, the very cack-handed way in which the introduction of the Electro-Technical concept was handled. Suffice it to say that when I returned home in May, I requested a meeting with my Personnel Officer and the outcome of that interview, was that I was posted, as First Radio Officer to Canberra, in August 1985. Oh Joy!
I will not attempt to recount in detail, the decade spent in Canberra, from August 1985 to January 1996, as it would take simply too long. I will say however, that it was without doubt, the most rewarding part of my career at sea. As mentioned, I joined as First Radio Officer, as such, responsible for all the electronic maintenance work onboard.
In 1987, Canberra was “ETO-ised” and I became First Electro-Technical Officer, with light green stripe-edgings, rather than dark. This time however, things were so different. We had for some time, been working with, and talking to, the Engineers and Electricians and when the official changeover was made, everything fell smoothly into place. There was no bad feeling on either side and in fact, I found the new challenges interesting and enjoyable.
To be better prepared for this new role, I attended several college courses, the longest of which was of three months duration, at South Shields Marine College in early 1987. This was a course in heavy electrics, principles, practices and hand-on work procedures.
In mid-1989 I joined Canberra as acting CETO (Chief Electro-Technical Officer) for the first time and I cannot speak too highly of the help and co-operation I received from all concerned, particularly the Chief Engineer, Bruce Waller.
Thereafter, I filled what was known as an “Up and Downer” position, sometimes First ETO, sometimes CETO, and as time went by, more in the higher rank than the lower.
We did have a few thrills and spills during this time however. Probably the most dramatic, from a public point of view, was when Canberra broke down off the Isle of Wight in a gale, in early December 1994. I was CETO and we were due into dry-dock the following day once the passengers had been disembarked and everyone had gone to bed early, anticipating a very busy following day. At about one o’clock in the morning, the panic alarm went off, I tried to turn on the bunk light but realised that the ship had blacked out. The emergency lights were working however, and I dressed rapidly and rushed down to the Engine Room, to the Main Console. It appeared that because the fuel settling tanks were low (in anticipation of our entry into dry-dock), a rather heavy roll had caused the fuel pumps to lose suction, thus starving the boilers of fuel and losing steam.
I went through to the Turbo-Alternator Flat where I met the First Electrician and we worked together at the main switchboard, directing our limited emergency power supplies to best effect. Canberra carried two 200kW emergency diesel-alternators, not a large capacity, particularly when compared to the four 1MW turbo-alternators in the TA flat. The first priority was to get the Electro-Feeder pump running. This would supply water to the boilers and with fuel now available, the boilers could be re-flashed and the steam supply restored.
Eventually, everything was powered up once more and we got underway and into Southampton. The local press and TV of course, made great play of all this but it was interesting that no matter how hard they tried (and they certainly did try!), it was difficult for the reporters to find a complaining passenger. Most had slept through the whole thing, whilst the few who had not, simply stayed at the bar and ordered another drink. However, it was an incident with which we well could have done without, particularly just before the refit.
In late 1995 I was told that, following my forthcoming HND college course in early 1996, I would be leaving Canberra and would be appointed to Victoria (formerly Sea Princess) as her regular CETO in July of that year.
I left Canberra regretfully and for the last time, on our arrival in Cape Town on 22nd January 1996 and flew home. At the end of September 1997, Canberra was withdrawn from service and sold for scrap in Pakistan. Many former passengers and ship’s company mourned her passing.
I joined Victoria as planned, in July 1996 and remained in her, as regular CETO (later SETO), for five years. Once more, my work took me mainly to the engine room and associated machinery spaces and strange to tell, I was to become more comfortable and at home with that, than in the Radio Office. The main reason for this was that soon after I joined Victoria, she was converted to GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) and the traditional Radio Office ceased to exist. Instead of an ETO(R) (former Radio Officer) being responsible for communications operations, we now had a GMDSS-trained Electro-Technical Assistant, or ETA for short. She in essence, was a glorified telephone operator, with none of the skills of the old R/O and if any equipment failure occurred, she had no choice but to call one of us.
In my turn, I was unfamiliar with the operation of the new-look Radio Office and was never trained to use it, though no doubt, at a pinch, I probably could have done so if absolutely necessary.
The highlight of my tenure in Victoria was a 66-day Round Africa voyage undertaken over the Millenium, from December 1999 to February 2000. The ship was under charter to the Union Castle Company in celebration of their centenary and her funnel was painted in red and black Union Castle livery. The hull however, was not repainted lavender, I assume, because that would have been too expensive.
It was a wonderful trip, a real traditional sea voyage, with long days at sea, few ports and decent stays in those we did call at. For example, we had two days in most places and no less than four in Cape Town over New Year. The ship was carrying only about 350 passengers (her normal capacity being 750) and she became rather like a floating house-party. I met many excellent people, a few of whom I still keep in touch with and visit, to this day. I feel privileged to have been able to take part in such a trip. I doubt if there will ever be another.
My time in Victoria came to a close in February 2001, when I left her in New Orleans and flew home for leave prior to joining what was to be my last ship, the new Arcadia.
Arcadia was built in 1989 as Fair Majesty for the Sitmar Line. Sitmar was taken over by P&O whilst she was still on the stocks and her name was changed to Star Princess and she was allocated, along with rest of the Sitmar fleet, to Princess Cruises. In 1997, with the passing of Canberra, Star Princess was brought over to replace her in the UK market, refitted and renamed Arcadia, the third vessel of that name to be owned by P&O.
I joined her on 9th May, 2001 in Southampton, for a month’s handover with her outgoing SETO (Staff Electro-Technical Officer, as we were now termed, wearing Engineers’ purple on our stripes). She was a diesel-electric ship, with four large (9MW) diesel-alternators producing power at 6600V (6.6kV). This supply was then transformed down as required to drive the propulsion motors and supply all other electrical needs. Before joining, I had attended a week’s diesel-electric propulsion course at South Shields to familiarise myself with the concepts.
However, the writing was already on the wall as regards the future of my seagoing career. On 27th July, whilst we were alongside in Naples, I received a very distressing telephone call from my mother, then 86 years of age. My father, also 86, apparently had been taken ill, she simply could not cope and could I come home?
I discussed this with Chief Engineer and good friend, Charlie Hill, who said immediately, that I should fly home that day and rejoin a week later, when Arcadia returned to Southampton. This I did and having sorted things out at home as best I could, returned to Arcadia on 4th August.
I continued in Arcadia, completing another four tours of duty until I left her on 25th November 2002 in Bonaire (Netherlands Antilles) and flew home for leave. I was due to rejoin her the following February but during the course of that leave it became evident that my parents’ condition was worsening steadily and I took the hard decision that it was no longer practical for me to return to sea again.
I telephoned P&O Office (now in Southampton) and arranged an interview with the head of Personnel. He understood fully my situation and actually offered me a job in the Personnel Department as Officer for the ETOs.
I accepted this job pro-tem, commencing work in March 2003 but towards the latter part of that year it was becoming evident that my carer duties and a full-time job, were no longer compatible. Sadly I wrote my letter of resignation in November 2003, giving three months notice. I left P&O for the last time, on 24th February 2004.
The Sea Story was over.
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