My Memories of SS Australis.
It was early in 1966, when as a 13 year old English boy living in Queensland Australia, my family decided for reasons beyond my understanding at the time, to pack up and move to New Zealand. I know now that it was so that my older brother could avoid the possibility of being drafted to the Australian Army with the likelihood of being sent to Viet Nam to fight in a war which my parents objected very strongly to.
The first thing was to construct the packing cases which would be used to ship all of our belongings and that of my late grandfather to NZ. My late grandfather was a collector of sheet music and this collection was moving with us too since my parents were both active singers and into opera they wanted this asset. Not my cup of tea but I did see the Mikado about five times.
I remember the packing cases well because they stayed with us for years after this first voyage on Australis. They were made from pine and painted a deep blue which was fitting for a Chandris ship. Then the packing had to be done and all the crates sealed and labeled. I remember the labels we had to put on all the crates. There was one indicating it was destined for the Hold and another which had a big blue M on it because our name started with an M. Other labels for the fragile things and names and addresses. What a performance. I don't recall all the effort, which went into preparing for this major move, but I do remember the train trip from Brisbane overnight to Sydney. I was extremely excited about going on a ship again since the trip on SS Orion from the UK when I was seven was still reasonably fresh in my mind.
It was June 9 1966 when we arrived in Sydney and so a quick a trip to Taronga Park Zoo and a look at Luna Park and then to the ship. I still remember the first time I saw her. Such a large vessel and all freshly painted white; and those huge blue funnels but only the rear one had smoke coming from it. I didn't know then that the forward funnel was a dummy and only there for looks. They looked great. The memories of that 3 day crossing from Sydney to Auckland are a bit blurry now but I do recall the breakfasts and the runny boiled eggs, the huge public rooms and wide decks. The empty swimming pool with netting over it and standing up at the front of the boat deck under the bridge pretending to be the Captain.
My family is 4 boys and 2 girls or it was then, so Dad and three boys were in a six berth on C deck and Mum, the baby boy and 2 girls were in a 4 berth on B deck. I remember my mother suffered badly from seasickness, as did my older sister. The boys though just got stuck into exploring this vast machine. I haven't got a clue what Dad did but I suspect he found a bar. He was very partial to the odd beer. I remember the crossing to NZ was fairly rough and the weather quite cold being winter. We arrived in NZ and immediately headed off by train for Wellington where accommodation had been arranged. The voyage was all too short and consequently not that memorable but it was my introduction to this great ship and I promised myself I would travel on her again so that I could get a real feel for her.
It would be another seven years before we would meet again. I finished high school and started work with the local radio station as a technician/sound engineer. Went to polytech to gain the necessary qualifications, fell in and out of love and by the time I was 21 I just had to do something. Talk about itchy feet. I was at a fairly low ebb having just broken up with my first love and so decided this was the time to travel. I often passed by the travel agencies with the model ships in the windows and was still attracted to the SS Australis. I had recently seen some colleagues off on the Northern Star, a Shaw Savill ship and was not impressed with her interior at all. It was probably that event which led me back to what was to become my favourite ship. I was in a hurry to travel so booked with the Chandris Lines Office in Grey Street, Wellington. I said to them, when does the Australis sail for the UK. They told me it was due to depart Auckland on 29th July. The year was 1973 and it was May. I booked, paid the deposit and started preparations to go. I was hoping to get leave without pay from my employer and applied for this, which I was granted. They were only prepared to give me six months so I took it and prayed six months would be enough. I received confirmation of a berth, paid the dollars, and started packing. I took far too much as I quickly found out on board.
I arrived in Auckland on the day of departure and headed straight for the Terminal. SS Australis was already there and looking absolutely incredible. Though she was starting to show her age it was nothing a good paint job wouldn't fix, and as anyone who knows anything about ships will tell you, it is a constant job to keep them painted. You get to one end then its back to do it all again. Occasionally they undergo a major overhaul and get a good stripping and a new coat from scratch. I was just itching to get on board and then to get out on deck for the streamers and the blast from the ships horn. I remember that Australis had the most fearsome hooter on the seven seas. Such a low note and so incredibly loud. It echoed around Auckland for what seemed minutes afterwards. The long haul through emigration, and finally to be on board, took about two hours. I was greeted by a steward, and, with my guitar and cabin luggage, was taken to my cabin on C deck. As it happened I was going to be in the cabin next to the one I was in as a boy in 1966. The memories came flooding back and the sight of the blue blankets and the Chandris towels was all a bit much. I think though that the all pervading emotion was one of smell or smells. I hadn't experienced it for seven years and to this day remains a constant reminder. All ships have a unique smell and Australis had hers too.
Not wanting to waste time in the cabin I headed for the promenade deck and the getting to know her again but this time through adult eyes. It was a magical experience, I was on my own, I didn't know anybody, I was going somewhere I knew little about and for once in my life I didn't care. I was happy at last. Freedom from everything.
It was well into the night before we left, and after a quick meal in the Atlantic restaurant for boarding passengers I went out on the Boat deck and waited for the almost imperceptible motion as we started to move. The ships horn blasted and we were on our way. It was 11.30pm and I was getting tired. I watched the lights of Auckland for a while then found the cocktail bar had a quick drink before retiring to my bunk. The cabin now had others in it who were asleep and so I took my allocated berth and settled down for the night.
I slept like a log and awoke to the shuddering and shaking of C deck aft, which would become my home for the next five and a half weeks. The shuddering I have been told, was the result of damage sustained to one of her propeller shafts during her war years. Though it was virtually impossible to have a decent chat or leave anything on the table it was like a sleeping pill at night. I slept so well on C deck. It was a wonderful sound to fall asleep to.
Our cabin as were most on C deck, without private bathroom facilities, so we had to contend with the large communal ablutions which for us was just over the corridor. However this was to prove a bit dodgy in rough weather. Being an American ship it also had the typical American type WC bowl. Great for the "floaters" You know the sort that fills almost right to the top. The plumbing on Australis was just fine in calm weather but the lower down you got, deckwise, the more unreliable the valves or whatever, were. Hence the inevitable overflow happened and this often led to the ablution block being closed for cleaning . It never spilled into the corridor because the doorsills were about six inches high to stop the inevitable accidents.!! We only had one major outage and that was during a storm in the Atlantic, which I will relate later.
Day one started with meeting our cabin steward and getting a cuppa to start the day. This affair would become history very quickly as life on board started to take shape. My cabin steward was a really nice Greek chap by the name of Dimitrios Auastasiou and we would become good friends. He was from the island of Lesvos and a place called Mitilene. We were introduced to the Seascape newsletter which was published daily to inform passengers of upcoming events and advised about dining room sittings the dinner gong and other important things like how to get to the baggage room on D deck etc.
I was allocated a second sitting in the Atlantic Restaurant at a table just inside the door on the port side next to a porthole or two. Not being one for the restaurant scene at this stage of my life I can't remember a hell of a lot about it, except that I went there to get fed and that was about it. My third trip on this ship in 1976 however would be a totally different story. That is later.
Life on board soon began to take shape and the usual safety and lifeboat drills were done. The watertight doors were tested. Huge metal doors driven by great big cogs would close off various portions of the ship such that she could stay afloat in the event of structural damage. They built this ship to be unsinkable but never used those words in respect of the Titanic affair. The SS America was in her day the safest ship afloat. There was a watertight door not far from my cabin and I do remember wondering what it would be like to be trapped as the water gushed in. There was a porthole in our cabin but we were only about two metres from the sea, so it couldn't be opened. Just as well I suppose.
Day three we arrive in Suva, Fiji at 5.00am. It was overcast and so humid and hot it was difficult to breathe. Not withstanding these difficulties I headed ashore later and decided to buy a camera because I didn't have one and I wanted to record some of this momentous occasion for a time like this. It was a Kodak Instamatic with no flashbulb fitting and came with a free black and white 12 print film. How imperial can you get !!! Also in port was the RHMS Patris and the Shaw Savill liner Ocean Monarch. Coincidences seem to happen. I would travel back to NZ on the Monarch. Not a great day weather wise but an occasion to celebrate. My first port of call.
We left Fiji at about 4.30 pm and it was non-stop to Acapulco Mexico. This would be the longest part of the trip, almost the whole Pacific from West to East. A total of nearly 6,000 miles and 14 days in possibly the best conditions you could get for cruising. It was pure magic and the ship life went like clockwork. Not one day of rain and the seas were like glass for the most part. The flying fish zooming along beside the wake and the occasional dolphin pod in attendance together with the occasional ship passing in the night.
There were movies to watch; though I can't recall what they were, There were musical events to see in the Ballroom, there were hotdogs to eat in the Dolphin bar (later known as the Disco). There was swimming to do in the pool though I preferred the indoor pool on C deck because the water was deeper and the ships motion didn't affect the pool water as much, being in the center of the ship. There was this fountain of water spurting forth from the wall at the far end of the pool. I vaguely recall it being a dolphin's head or something like that. Maybe a sunburst. I even did the gym a few times but never dared get into one of the steam cabinets. I remember visiting the bakery on the odd occasion to get some freshly baked bread rolls on my way back from the Indoor pool. The bakery was off the stairs that led down to the pool and the engine room. The engine room was another experience never to be forgotten. The sight of the twin shafts spinning with such awesome power, and being driven by this splendid looking machinery. It was in immaculate condition and very well maintained. I never visited the bridge though and I still wished I had.
SS Australis had this unique, I think, pattern of motion. I know they move ballast around to balance the ship as the bunker oil is used up but she used to travel with a pronounced lean for about half the day and then it would move the other way. It was as if she was zig zagging. Maybe one of you maritime experts could advise me. We used to joke that it was so the stern open deck areas would be free of soot from the funnel during the day. I know for a fact that it was inadvisable to go and sit on the back deck until they had hosed the place down in the morning. It was always coated with grime in the morning. We learnt that one really quickly. From looking at photos from the stern the smoke is always to one side or the other.. could be true huh?
Now about ships passing in the night..!! Being single and alone and free and on an ocean liner with lots of others all doing the same thing meant certain opportunities arose. However I noticed a pattern to the behaviour of the young women on board which would repeat itself the next time I was on board in 1976. During the first 5 or 6 days there was a definite attraction for the women in the guise of Ships Officers who, in their sparkling uniforms and charm combined with good looks, seemed to be having the time of their lives while the male passengers were totally ignored. This changed quite suddenly as the women discovered the fickle nature of some of the relationships they had fallen into. However during the next week just about all the men were ignored. Then as if by magic during the third week it was on again and the young male passengers were seen in a different light. Romances blossomed and the Officers went back to their routines. I met a wonderful person from Perth Western Australia, her name was Robyn and while our relationship was totally platonic we did have a great time exploring the ports and spending time chatting. I never saw her again after we arrived in England. She took the photo on my Introduction page and I took this one of her from where I was sitting in the Hotel El Mirador, Acapulco.
Acapulco has a name which conjures up images of glamour and wealth and is the home of the rich and famous. It certainly has those things but it also has another side. The local Mexicans are a very proud and friendly people and being a tourist mecca they take full advantage of the visitors. I found them to be a wonderful lot and though my bargaining skills in the market places wasn't the best, I did manage a silver pendant for a friend in New Zealand. The onyx chess sets were way too expensive. SS Australis was too long to berth in Acapulco so it was all ashore in the lifeboats and a flotilla of local craft as well. I went in a lifeboat and was amazed at the size of them. Their size was very deceptive Here's a picture of our boat returning to the ship after a day ashore.
It was quite an affair getting on and off the boats especially at the ship end of things. However the crew were excellent and anyone wishing to go ashore was given every assistance. Some of the elderly found it quite difficult but it was a bit of an adventure all the same. We sailed later that night for Balboa, Panama. I vaguely recall heading off to bed in a deck chair after consuming a good portion of the Jose Cuervo Tequila I had brought back on board with me. Silly boy, and the next morning was my first ever Tequila sunrise.
This of course was followed by an even more impressive sunset. I always remember the sunrise and sunsets being so expansive on the ocean. There's nothing between you and the horizon.
We arrived on the third day after Acapulco in the early hours of the morning; it was very warm and incredibly humid. The SS Australis being a Panama registered ship had priority access to the canal and while there were dozens of other ships already queuing up for the transit we just sailed right in past them all. We entered the canal at 7.00 am as it was just getting light. We were soon attached to the four locomotives that would haul us through the locks and maintain control of the vessel for the duration. One on each corner. Australis was a very large ship and only just fitted widthwise and length wise in the locks. I guess someone designed her just right.
As you can see there isn't much space to spare. I recall being amazed at the engineering which had gone into the construction of this waterway and once in the Gatun Lakes quite disoriented because it didn't seem quite right for an ocean liner to be travelling down what were like rivers with jungle on either side. I had bizarre dreams for years afterwards in which I would be on the Australis but navigating around the roads and streets of my home town and other ridiculous places.
Behind or aft of the Lido pool there was this strange looking set of control systems which were always wrapped in black plastic tarpaulin things and never seemed to get used which is probably a good thing. It was the emergency steering system. It had the tile seating all around as well. Gives you a good idea on how close the jungle got at times and it weren't half hot mum.
At the time the Panama Canal Zone was still under US Military control and so there was an obvious presence to be seen in the sky and on the water. Security of the canal was a big issue then. We left the canal at about 2pm and berthed in Crystobel at about 3.30pm. With such a pretty sounding name one would expect a dainty almost romantic Latin American type village. However this would have been the filthiest place imaginable. The waters of the port were inches thick in bunker oil and an assortment of flotsam covering the surface. The stench was unbelievable, and as passengers we were warned about venturing too far IF we went ashore. We were also advised to stay in groups and women not to go alone. Needless to say we heeded the warnings and off we went. My only souvenir was a flick knife and at the time I was crazy and youthful enough to think that this cheap weapon would keep thugs at bay. I threw it overboard before reaching the next port because I feared being caught with this illegal thing. It was a real pleasure getting back to the safety and comfort of the ship. Other than for refueling I can't imagine any possible reason for stopping there. We left late at night and headed for our next destination Miami, Florida.
Cruising through the Caribbean in perfect weather on board a piece of pure history is so memorable. As we passed Cuba on the starboard side I thought of the communist regime there and the events which nearly led to a major conflict and possible catastrophe. It all seemed so far away yet it was just a few miles away where it all happened. This was the famed SS America we were on by chance, and even though with a new name on the bow, she still carried the brass nameplates of her former life, albeit painted over. I'm fairly sure they were on the boat deck below the bridge. Maybe someone remembers where they were but I remember seeing them anyway and thinking what her history may have been. It was during this section of the voyage that we had the opportunity to do some trapshooting from the open Upper Deck aft. I had a go with an over-under, five shot, 12-gauge shooter. Didn't hit any of the clay targets but it was blast all the same, being my first ever attempt with a firearm. Yer gotta have a go mate!!
We arrived in Miami in the early hours as usual and having done passport control stuff a few days earlier (thanks Shirl) we headed off with our reboarding passes for a day ashore. It was hellishly hot and for a change it was a dry heat. I couldn't afford to hire a cab to Miami itself, which was about 30 miles, away so I spent the day in Fort Lauderdale. Plenty of shopping to do so I bought a few cassettes and junk food and drinks and wandered around. I started to head back to the ship, late afternoon and was offered a lift in a gold coloured Camaro. A very pleasant local with his children was heading down to the waterfront just to see Australis. He had heard she was in port and he wanted to show the youngsters this famous ship. We went the long way so I could have a look around, but eventually got there and then spent about an hour dockside chatting about the ship. It transpired that he had travelled on her as a boy when she was the America.
Soon it was back on board for the final leg of the voyage to Southampton. This was my first experience of the USA and still remains a pleasant and vivid memory. The P&O ship Oriana was in port that day too but was leaving as we arrived. The trip across the Atlantic would be a reminder to all of the power of the sea.
I for one had never experienced the fury of the sea in a major storm and we were about to head into one. The surprising thing was that I wasn't seasick nor did I ever seem to get close to it. I know hundreds were and I felt for them being unable to stop the ship to get off. The worst part of the storm happened during daylight so it wasn't too scary. The ship was heading at an angle into the oncoming swell such that the motion of the vessel was both up and down and side to side. I don't know the technical terms but you probably know what I mean. We sailed full steam ahead for 12 hours into the storm but the vessel actually travelled backwards. The mountainous sea was crashing over the bridge on occasion and I was just dumb struck by the size of the waves. It became very clear to me then that ships sink in storms. The dining rooms were closed and passengers were advised to stay in their cabins. It was during a visit to my cabin that I became aware of the failings of the ablution block. The place was awash with, you guessed it, and it was everywhere. Well I left that alone and headed back to the closed promenade to watch the sea again. I recall the lifts weren't working and the stairs were quite a ride. If you waited till the ship was going down on your side of the ship and then made a mad dash up when you got to the top you would literally fly into the air if your timing was good. However if the ship was rising on your side, when you were going up the stairs it was quite a struggle. Going down the stairs was another story and some passengers just couldn't get the hang of it, and came to grief regularly.
One feature of ship life, which became a talking point, was the way in which the garbage was disposed of. I hadn't ever considered the topic until I saw in disbelief what happened to it. Everyday around dusk mountains of this stuff was simply tossed overboard much to the delight of the ever present seagulls. There must be a pile of garbage on the sea floor stretching around the planet on all the main routes. I found the practice appalling but it somehow became acceptable. It seemed to come from the main deck aft or a door on the side of the ship. Couldn't really see exactly but I remember it being on the port side.
The rest of the Atlantic crossing was quite dull weatherwise and occasionally quite rough. This wasn't totally surprising, as we had been advised that the Atlantic is normally like this. Ship life was starting to take on another angle, which I hadn't considered. The romances, which had blossomed, were starting to fade and the ships that passed in the night had gone. Human nature is a funny thing. The young travellers needed to dispense with unnecessary baggage including relationships which weren't real. There were also many strange packets and things being tossed into the sea prior to arrival in the UK. I wonder what was in them?
I also wonder sometimes where all those people went and what they remember about that trip in 1973.
1976 is only three years away and the SS Australis will still be sailing around the world.
Continue to 1976.