Life at Sea with Union-Castle

By Rodney Gascoyne

© 2003 Rodney Gascoyne

Photos and other material on the Union-Castle Line

Bookmarks: Stirling  Braemar  Edinburgh1  CapeTown  Edinburgh2  Windsor  Reina Del Mar

A few days after answering an Ad in the Personal columns of The Times, I received an invitation to meet Mr. Baker of the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company Limited. He was the Superintendent Purser and the Company ran mail ships mainly to South Africa but also through the Mediterranean and down past East Africa. They were very well known ocean liners that ran a regular service with a fleet of twelve passenger ships. 

In Britain, the major shipping lines were established when they were awarded a Royal Mail contract to carry this precious cargo to the far corners of the Empire. Cunard had the North America contract for the US and Canada, and P&O those for India, Asia and Australasia. Union-Castle held the important South African contract and others for East and Central Africa. Other contracts of less importance covered remaining regions. Royal Mail ships, allowed to use the lead letters RMS, for steamships, or RMMV for motor vessels, before the ships name, were then given top priority in entering a busy port. 

We had an interesting meeting and he offering me a job immediately. This did amaze the bank but I think they quickly realized that I was serious and agreed to release me with best wishes. The next few weeks were filled in being measured for uniforms and arranging to buy a sea trunk and other things I would need in this new life. 

Out of interest, our officers' braid was unique for the merchant navy. As a result of  large losses suffered during WW2, when ships were commandeered and armed by the Admiralty as aircraft or troop carriers and support ships, our fleet was granted the privilege of using Royal Navy gold braid for their officers' uniforms, including the treasured 'curl'. This privilege was granted to no others. As it happened they were also financially recompensed for those losses and new ships were built with subsidies after the war in case they would be needed again. Two of those ships, entering service in 1948, were designed to be quickly convertible to become aircraft carriers, they being the sister ships "RMS Edinburgh Castle" and "RMS Pretoria Castle". This wartime need never arose of course.

I was to report as soon as possible to the offices of the Crew Purser in the New Docks, Southampton. This meant me moving 80 miles to the south coast of England, where we were put up in the Merchant Navy Hotel at the Company's expense although we could go home to London on weekends when we wanted. I was one of five young men in late teens or early 20's who joined at the same time, presumably all from answering that one ad. One of them owned his own car, so transport was easy for the time we stayed there. 

Our duties were to help prepare the wage details for each ship as it finished its voyage and arrived back in Southampton after a six week trip, and then to help pay off the crews with cash. We also signed on the crew for the ship about to sail that week, spending much time on each ship, eating lunches there and meeting their Purser's staff. This was just temporary work as we waited to be given a vacant position on one of the ships as Purser's Clerk. They did try one new idea of sending one of us out on one ship to Las Palmas or Madeira, then transfer to the homebound ship and complete the final details on board while sailing back to Southampton. In the two or three times this was tried I was not the lucky person.  

I did though get one or two other nice assignments. Every week or so I would go to Waterloo on an early train, First Class and in uniform, where I would transfer to the platform where our Mail Ship train would depart that brought passengers down to Southampton to join the ship. The train pulled directly into the customs shed alongside our berth 104; my duties were to assist the first and tourist class passengers and answer any questions they had about the embarkation that afternoon.  

One other great solo trip had me going to London and joining one of our African East Coast ships at the end of her voyage. I stayed in Gravesend and very early the next day crossed the river to Tilbury, in uniform, to join the ship, "ss Kenya Castle",  as she docked for a few hours to land passengers that needed to get away fast. She then sailed again, up the Thames, to berth in the King George V Docks in the east end of London where she would unload. The Purser's staff played a trick on me, as a novice, and so when I was sent to the bridge, I saluted the Captain as instructed but he seemed disinterested and unimpressed. I think that was about the only time at sea I saluted anyone in cap and uniform. During this time I helped complete the wage calculations and then pay off the crew before leaving late in the afternoon to return to Southampton. This was my first time on a moving ocean liner.

While much of the work was boring and the trips more interesting, we were restless to get on a ship and sail for Cape Town. This eventually came for me after three months of waiting and just after New Year in 1965. I was the third to be assigned and was told to join the "Stirling Castle". As we had by then met all the eight ships in rotation twice, that served the west coast, or Cape Mail service, I knew her well and to be the oldest ship in the fleet. She had been a troop carrier in the war, mainly between North America and Britain, carrying as many as 6,000 men at a time, whereas her near sister ship "CapeTown Castle" ventured worldwide as a trooper and was the only Union-Castle ship to sail through the Straits of Magellan, around South America. After the war, "Stirling" returned Australian troops to their homeland.

The service was run like clockwork. At precisely Four O'clock every Thursday, a ship would leave Southampton and at the same time locally another would leave Cape Town for England. Those two would pass, midway, at sea one week later on Thursday evening. On Thursday 6am two weeks after sailing, the outbound ship would arrive in Cape Town while the northbound arrival was early morning Friday. The southbound ship would stay in Cape Town overnight and then sail for Port Elizabeth, East London then finally reach the end of the run in Durban, on the Indian Ocean. 

Some, like the "Stirling" would also put in at Mossel Bay, before Port Elizabeth, and anchor off  for a few hours to unload into lighters. Any passengers were 'loaded or unloaded' in a large, tall wicker basket, with a door, lowered over the side to a waiting launch. This was often used in the early days before coastal ports could accommodate our Mail ships. It was first used by the Union Line in 1880 for the ex Empress Eugenie of France when she needed to land at Durban. The basket was a vast improvement on a rope ladder down the ship's side, particularly in choppy seas.

The return journey would retrace those same steps except that each ship called at either Las Palmas or Madeira during the ocean passage, one each in either direction. Each ship was away just six weeks broken up as two weeks southbound, two up and down the South African coast and two weeks home, followed by two more while the ship was unloaded and then reloaded for the next voyage. Eight weeks  required eight ships to maintain weekly service all year round, beginning with the "Stirling Castle", the other ships followed in order, "Windsor Castle", "Pretoria Castle", "Transvaal Castle" , "CapeTown Castle", "Pendennis Castle", "Athlone Castle" and lastly "Edinburgh Castle". 

R.M.M.V. Stirling Castle

I joined the "RMMV Stirling Castle" on a Tuesday to start signing on the crew. My cabin was just forward of the Bureau in First Class and overlooked a well-deck (or sunken deck) under the foredeck of the ship but with openings to the sea on each side, allowing daylight into the cabin. It was a converted first class cabin with a sink and a full bunk, together with a desk, a day bed and wardrobes, built in teak. 

She was mainly powered by two large diesel engines, one for each propeller and thus was a Royal Mail Motor Vessel, with a gross weight of about 25,500 tons. The massive engines, with 10 cylinders each, were powered by a low grade heavy oil that needed to be super heated to make it combustible. There were also separate generators to produce electricity when the main engines were not running. Union-Castle had built motor vessels during the interwar years but reverted to steam driven ships thereafter. 

Rod Macaskill recently wrote the following: I joined Union Castle as a junior engineer officer in '59. I sailed on the Stirling Castle and the CapeTown Castle. They were both motor ships (diesel, with huge piston engines) and absolute nightmares to work on. I clearly remember coming out of the generator room (where juniors worked, outward bound) to cool off under the blowers in the main engine room where it was only 105degF. In the generator room it sometimes touched 140deg!! Homeward bound we worked on the freezers. All Mailboats carried a large amount of chilled fruit and frozen meat back from the Cape. This was much better!

In 1960 I was one of a party of engineers and deck officers who were sent to Camell Laird at Birkenhead for the final fitting out and sea trials of the Windsor Castle. That was really great and we all had a marvellous time. We stayed at a hotel for a couple of weeks and then on the ship. We took it out for the sea trials and the proving runs up and down the measured mile, off the Clyde. There were lots of 'big-wigs' on board and the food was unbelievable. I was having pheasant and caviar (for the first time) every day until I got sick of it!!

The plan was to return to Mersey to pick up more knobs and then have a 'shakedown' cruise around the British Isles and finish up at Southampton. This was abandoned as there was a union dispute in the docks and they didn't want the ship to get trapped there and miss its maiden departure date. We left Southampton, as always, at 4pm on Thursday. The maiden voyage was fantastic, especially when we reached the Cape. Partying all the way. And how!!

Nearly 750 feet long, "Stirling Castle" had a width of about 84 feet and went into service first in 1936. All the ships had lavender coloured hulls with white superstructure, and a vermillion red funnel with a black top. The two class ship carried a maximum of about 175 First Class passengers, 500 Tourist Class passengers and had a crew just over 400. Some earlier ships had three classes and the Cabin class was later renamed Tourist. 

She was nearing the end of her economic life but had been well maintained over the years and still looked clean and tidy. One of the nicest features was a large expanse of teak veneered, inlaid panelling, particularly in First Class passenger areas. Two negatives were that she mostly sailed in the tropics but had no air conditioning nor did she have stabilizers, a post-war invention. Each ship was like a floating village when at sea, completely self contained. We had a Printer, a Baker, a Butcher, many Chefs, Storemen, Barmen and Stewards to look after the passengers, a Laundry, Able Seamen under the Bo's'un (Boatswain) to maintain the outside of the ship, Engineers, Radio Officers and even a Carpenter and a Lamptrimmer (usually called Chips and Lamps respectively). 

The crew, including the officers, signed on to the ship's Articles, a legal contract between them and the Master, or Captain, who was the ultimate authority onboard. The Master was obliged to feed the crew a stated minimum diet. He also maintained discipline and could fine crew for offences at sea or in port while under Articles, including self imposed injuries such as being sunburned and unable to work. In those days he was also charged with burying people at sea and could even perform marriages in deep ocean. His word was law. He ran the ship with a team of senior officers, one of those being the Purser. The official Ship's Log, maintained by the Purser, recorded all official matters including all disciplinary measures taken and fines imposed.

All our ships were registered in London and so could fly the British Red Ensign, or "red duster" as it was called, as our national flag, except where the Captain and a certain few other officers were members of the Royal Naval Reserve, in which case we flew a similar flag with the Union flag in the top left quarter but with a royal blue background. Few of our ships needed to use the red duster.

Most of the Deck, Radio and Engineering Departments ran a 'Watch' system, working 4 hours on and then 8 hours off, on either a 12-4, 4-8 or 8-12 Watch each half of each day. The senior officers, Pursers and Catering Department worked dayshifts from as early as 5am some days through to midnight, taking time off during the day as appropriate. For example, we could get up at about 5am when due into port early or worked till the end of the entertainments when at sea. Most afternoons, stations were staffed minimally between lunch and 4pm. Overtime was earned by crew many days and we all earned paid leave in lieu for working weekends at sea or in port.

Soon after breakfast had finished daily, the Catering and some Deck crew started cleaning the ship in what was known as 'Happy Hour', where everything was polished and made to shine, such as all the brass fittings and all surfaces. After their morning meeting, the Captain and senior officers would then tour the ship on inspection making sure everything was shipshape. This was the main means of keeping the cleaning and maintenance systems up to the Company's high standards.

The Deck department comprised the officers, all trained navigators and certified master mariners, plus about 30 seamen under the Bo's'un, Bo's'un's Mates and Carpenters, the main leading hands, in addition to two Masters-at-Arms and the Quartermasters, who originally took the ship's helm to steer her. They oversaw different levels of seamen, from Able Seamen (ABs), through to Efficient Deck Hands (EDHs) and down to Ordinary Seamen (OSs) and Deck Boys. Much of the instruction and tuition was shore based in colleges, but then sea time was needed for certification, as they progressed. The eight boy ratings, aged 16 or 17, were just starting their training but this was not the only means to get a first step on the ladder; they worked the most menial tasks and served as messengers on Bridge duty or for the leading hands. 

The main Deck duties involved steering and handling the ship, particularly all ropes, lines and anchors when entering or leaving harbour, or rigging and manning the cargo hoists, as well as scrubbing the decks, polishing the brass work, sanding and varnishing all the exposed woodwork, and painting the ship's exterior. We normally also carried four Radio officers, a Surgeon, the Nursing Sister and a male hospital attendant.

Apart from the many engineering officers, including electricians and refrigeration engineers, all trained and certified ashore initially, there were about 20 greasers and cleaners, under a few leading hands. They assisted the engineers in all the heavy maintenance work and repairs that needed to be carried out. There was a workshop aboard where they could machine certain parts not found in the stores, when needed. 

The Catering Department was by far the largest group, lead by three officers and many leading hands in each of the sections. In the Galley, there were many areas, with a hierarchy of chefs, bakers and butchers, ably assisted by those learning these trades or just handling the cleaning duties. There were many stewards who worked in different parts of the First Class or Tourist areas, and a few general workers, like the Printer, the Masseur, a Boots and four Bellboys, two each for the Pursers and the Catering officers. In the Laundry there were two leading hands and a team of four women and four boys to do the main work. Storemen and barmen made up the remaining roles. Like the other departments, training was first received ashore before going to sea.

There were five other members of the Purser's staff, the 2nd Purser who ran Tourist Class matters, an Assistant Purser who ran First Class with the Purser and three Purser's Clerks (two of them women for the secretarial and typing duties in addition to the social roles). In the case of the Union-Castle Line, we had a very lucky role and one that was unique. As well as running the ship's finances and paying the crew, we handled all money, stamps and currencies, passenger accounts in First Class and the customs and immigration papers to clear the ship into and out of each port and country. 

As part of the crews wages we also handled 'allotments', money sent home regularly by crew to their wives and families, 'cash advances' to them on board during the voyage and accounts for all items they could purchase from the ship during the trip like cigarettes and clothing (slops). Officers could also buy bottles of spirits and beer for their personal use in their cabins. Crew could buy single beers or soft drinks in the "Pig and Whistle", a bar come mess and relaxation hall during certain hours.

These were the duties that Pursers performed on most ships in old ocean fleets or now on modern cruise lines. We were luckier though because we were also responsible for the care of passengers and their travel needs, and for all entertainments for them. This gave us the run of the ship, and meant all officers ate in the First Class Saloon, or dining room, and could mix with passengers all over the ship whenever we wanted, except for the First Class Cocktail Bar, as it was considered too small for other than senior officers. Most lines, and particularly P&O and Cunard, the other two major shipping companies with ocean liner services based in England, restricted most of their officers to their separate Mess and/or Ward Room  where they ate and relaxed. They then employed separate entertainment staff to run the events for the passengers' amusement.

January is often not a good time to sail south from England because that means crossing the Bay of Biscay in winter weather, which usually entails high seas and winds and a rough passage. My first trip started in precisely these conditions as we left the English Channel in a force nine gale. Although the ship rode a wave relatively well because of her design, long sleek and low, any ship would be tossed around in such conditions and added to that, as we turned south, we needed to run 'broadside on' to the normal westerly winds and swell, taking the worst of the weather on the beam. This makes any ship roll from side to side in a violent manner. The result was that I spent much of the first thirty six hours at sea flat on my back in my cabin wishing I was dead. Apparently this is the definition of true sea sickness. 

As I was to learn over time, I was not a natural sailor but needed to gain my sea legs each trip. After about three days at sea on a new ship I would be alright, but could always suffer in the short term. You could start to loose those sea legs with just a week or so ashore. Its a nice feeling, rolling around on a ship as she heaves in heavy weather when you have your sea legs and lucky for me this was usually the case after that bad start. 

The ship also needed to adjust in bad weather: tables were fitted with retractable "fiddles", or wooden railings that could swing up over the edge of the table, held with brass catches, that prevented utensils, cruet or plates from dropping off; some chairs and other furniture were tethered by chains or straps to stop them wandering too far; while our bunks had a side board on the outside edge with a lower portion in the middle to let you get in and out - at either end the sides were high enough to mostly prevent you from being rolled out of bed. In really bad weather, open internal spaces could become dangerous and so ropes were strung up between pillars, grab rails and stairwells so passengers could work their way around those spaces by hand and stay on their feet. Even entertainments had to be changed occasionally to suit the situation, delaying dances and other active events to a time with a more moderate pitch or roll of the ship. 

On the Saturday morning the weather began to get better, we left the Bay and the sun started to warm us up. By Sunday afternoon as we approached Madeira we were in summer like conditions and changed from our heavy blue wool uniforms into our tropical whites. During the day we wore shorts and short sleeved shirts with epaulettes and white shoes and socks. In the evenings we wore dress uniform with a white 'monkey jacket', again with epaulettes and with blue wool dress trousers. Our dress shirts had detachable starched collars that needed studs under the bow tie. On Sundays or evenings in port we worn Number 10s, a long legged and long sleeved white suit that went right up to a full collar at the neck, with a row of brass buttons down the jacket front . The uniforms were good to wear, comfortable and good looking and laundered and starched by the ship's laundry for free whenever needed. Our full blues or dress blues were only rarely worn, in colder weather, and not often in South African waters. It was equally rare to sail into or from England in whites. First Class mostly dressed formally at sea each evening except on Sundays or the first and last nights. Female officers wore either blue or white dresses to match our dress, again with epaulettes.

Passengers also had various options for their clothing needs on the voyage. Besides the cases they would have in their cabins, unpacked into the dressers, drawers and wardrobes, they could also designate additional cases or trunks as "Wanted on the Voyage" and these were stowed in the Baggage Room amidships. Each day they could access these bags and rearrange what they kept in the cabin. For emigrants and those with even more packing cases full of possessions, they had a further limit of what could be stowed in the holds, only to be returned to them in the customs shed on arrival.  

In Madeira we anchored off and were besieged by local traders in small boats that came alongside, using a line with a basket to raise up goods to passengers on the open decks. Those they liked they paid for by sending back the agreed sum. Much was on display, like lace goods, and these were held up for display too before being sent aboard for inspection. Those same boats also held a few local boys who would dive for coins that passengers threw overboard. The water was so clear you could easily see them go quite deep before retrieving the silver. When docking there or in some other ports we often had local traders come aboard and set up stalls and sometimes a dance display was put on to show off the local culture and help with the sales.

After about four hours at anchor off  Funchal, Madeira, where many passengers transferred to Reid's Hotel, we continued our passage, with the next ten and a half days at sea without getting close to land and largely just an open, empty ocean. We steamed due south past Dakar and Cape Verde, the most westerly point of Africa, to just west of the Bijouga Breakers when we changed course for a straight line run directly to Cape Town across the wide expanse of the South Atlantic. Life settled into a regular and easy pattern where you almost lost track of time and the day of the week. Mealtimes were announced by a gong on the public address system to keep you aware of the time of day and you realized it was Sunday when officers turned out in Number 10s. I often had to change quickly when I forgot it was a Sunday morning. Sometimes the blank horizon and seas would be broken up by passing ships or fishing boats, dolphins, flying fish, or even whales that were sighted from the bridge and announced over the tannoy. 

A great sight was when we encountered the doldrums, where we seemed to slice our way through a glassy sea - a condition that sometimes occurred near the equator and where there was no perceivable ripple or movement on the surface of a completely flat sea, and our wake seemed to stretch right back to the horizon. Mostly our voyages were calm and without incident once we passed the Bay of Biscay, a much more interesting and relaxing ocean trip than many other liners enjoyed. Rain storms were unusual and mostly short  lived. As we were largely well out at sea we seemed not to suffer high humidity that often, although we were often over 90 degrees. The ship was only cooled by a 'punkah louvre' system of forced air drawn in from the top decks. If we encountered high humidity, we would work in the Bureau with the main lights out and only the personal desk lamps lit , so as to reduce the effects of the stifling heat that could build up.

Midway we met up with the "RMMV CapeTown Castle". It was about dusk on a beautiful evening with a red sky in the west and near smooth seas. We passed each other at about a thousand yards distance, they to our west and we hooted each other as everybody crowded the ships' rails. We were to learn later that our sister ship had suffered a major theft aboard at about the time we passed her. 

Our ships were also unique in that they were a mix of cargo and passenger ship. This meant that we had seven large holds filled with freezer or general cargo that occupied much of the interior of the ship and thus we had fewer passenger cabins than normal and hence more passenger deck space per person than most other liners. Our major cargo going north was meat or fruit from the Cape in the freezers and Gold from goldfields in the Transvaal, destined for the Bank of England. The gold was  normally stored in special vaults in a forward hold . On that trip the gold cargo was greater than normal and a special compartment had been constructed to hold the excess, next to the normal vaults in the same forward hold. (On another ship a year later I relieved the Purser for an hour while he lunched and I myself supervised and recorded the loading of the gold.) 

During the passage from Cape Town, a couple of  the crew had discovered that ventilation shafts into this temporary area had not been blocked off. They used them to enter the cages and steal ten boxes of the gold bullion, in the standard bars two to a box, valued at about £100,000 but many times that amount today. Gold was worth $35US an ounce back then. The loss was discovered when the ship unloaded in Southampton but for months no trace could be found of the gold. 

The entire ship was searched many times before she sailed as usual for Cape Town two weeks later. They had no clues or suspects. Scotland Yard had decided that it was an inside job and that the people responsible must have left the bullion untouched, hidden on board. A strict watch was maintained over the next number of months, probably by undercover officers on the crew and eventually were rewarded when the thieves did make their move. An attempt was made to sell a few bars in Durban. The rest of the gold was discovered concreted into the base of a sand filled container on deck near the stern and was ultimately recovered and returned to the bank. Two seamen were sentenced later to ten years in jail.

We ran the entertainments each day and evening on the ship, with films on occasions and dances, tombola sessions (bingo), quizzes, races  and special evenings. The races took many forms: there were horse races with cut out horses that were moved round an oval, canvas, painted track by the throw of dice; frog races that employed wooden frogs on ropes that had to be hopped down their lines; or dog races where the model dog was pulled by reeling in its cord around a roller. These races were run with a tote, a betting system where the odds were fixed by the ratio of the bets on each contestant and thus redistributed the money bet to those that won, minus a 10% contribution to seamen's charities. For such events, all our staff joined in whether it was First or Tourist Class.

Special events included cocktail parties, dinner dances in the Saloon with the ship's orchestra, fancy dress parties with prizes followed by a dance, or  live shows when some of the officers dressed as minstrels and performed a selection of songs and a line show maybe followed by a sing along. On rare occasions a boxing match and wrestling, with crew members showing their stuff or a talent show. Some special events like the 'crossing the line' ceremony or cricket matches, on a netted side deck,  or aquatic sports, with wet races and a greased jousting pole, were run in the daytime and for both class passengers together. Separate daytime tournaments were run for deck or card games with prizes.

Our 'crossing the line' ceremony was very traditional and carried out on each ocean passage. That first trip I was a victim but after that I was one of the male officers that ran the show. Some of us dressed up extravagantly as King Neptune, his Queen, the Court Clerk, the Surgeon, the Barber, Policemen or assistants and 'bears'. Wigs and skirts for Neptune and the Queen were made from rope and the name of the game was fun. Each of the four or five victims, either a male officer or passengers who had not crossed the Equator before, were led in one at a time and accused of some deep sea misdemeanor, read out by the clerk of the court, such as "Being stupid enough to imagine the Equator is merely an imaginary line and that the Court of King Neptune is a relic of the dark ages." Neptune would then sentence them to some form of disembowelment, being cast to the ocean's depths and there eaten by his royal bears. Remaining victims were kept well out of view and hearing.

The Surgeon would place the person on a table covered by a sheet and then proceed to 'operate' with wooden instruments and emerge from under the sheet after a while with 'innards' in the form of raw sausages or other meat parts from the galley, that were then thrown into the pool, all covered in ketchup and jelly. The victim would then be placed into a special seat facing away from the edge of the Tourist Class open air swimming pool. Here the Barber would lather them up with large volumes of different coloured whipped cream  before attempting to shave them with a large wooden cut-throat razor. Without warning they were then flipped over backwards, head first into the pool by the chair that could tip when a pin was removed. In the pool were a couple of  'bears' who were meant to duck them too but also to ensure the victim was not in any trouble from the treatment. A rough and messy exercise for victims but fun for them and audience alike.

Something happened each night and on many mornings but not on the constant basis as on modern cruise ships. In those days passengers also wanted to be left alone to enjoy sea life their own way, perhaps on their personal steamer chair on deck or curled up in the library with a good book. Steamer chairs were personal, cost 30 shillings for the ocean voyage and could be placed exactly where you chose, every morning, by the First Class Deck Steward. A few years later we had an unofficial entertainment on one voyage while transferring a troupe of circus performers from the Cape to Europe. They were travelling in Tourist and would practice some of their acrobatics on deck and once gave a mini show which was fascinating and thrilling on a slowly rolling ship.

Another 'entertainment' at sea was the daily Auction Sweep on the Ship's Run. Each mid-morning, interested passengers would meet in the First Class Cocktail Bar, Smoking Room or on the Verandah. An estimate was made about that time by the Captain, or the Officer of the Watch on the bridge, for the likely distance steamed between noon the previous day and that noon, allowing for any changes to the clocks overnight. Tickets would be on sale without limits for a period at a nominal sum, collected into the 'pool'. The Purser often ran and organized the Auction.

At 10.30am a draw would be made against those tickets for the Captain's number, plus fifteen numbers above and below it, plus a 'high field' and 'low field' ticket, 33 in all. A list was prepared and posted with the name or nom de plume of each owner. At 11am the auction of winning tickets would begin where owners could also bid but paid only half the final bid into the 'pool'. Outside bidders paid half to the owner and the other half to the 'pool'. Shortly after noon, the bridge or Captain would announce the actual mileage steamed, after the Noon Sightings. Half of the 'pool', less 10% for seamen's charities, would go to the purchaser of that ticket and 25% each to those 10 above and 10 below.

Further reading was delivered to cabins each morning from a newspaper taken down in Morse code, from the wireless overnight and typed up by the radio officers. The purser's clerks then took it in turns to get up early to run off copies for the bellboys to deliver before breakfast. The two bellboys delivered mail, cablegrams or anything else needed around the ship, carrying smaller items on a silver platter, with their white gloves tucked into their shoulder braid. Sometimes news was also delivered by radio broadcast,  throughout the ship's public rooms, of the BBC's evening news from London. This was how I listened mid ocean to the funeral for Sir Winston Churchill. Broadcasts were made from the Band Repeater Room on the Promenade Deck. This ancient piece of equipment with valves and dials, could be set to relay messages to the precise parts of the ship as desired. It also amplified the evenings' entertainment locally as required.

The pools and bars were available most of the time for those that wanted them although quiet time ruled from 2 to 4 each afternoon, during the heat of the day. All in all it was a relaxed and casual passing of time, with plenty of hours to just sit, sip and chat with your fellow travellers. On a ship with a good atmosphere and a happy ambiance, time just flew and before you were ready, the trip was over and the gala or farewell dinner arrived. 

The trip south took a little longer than normal, partly from the gale in the early days and also because the old ship was stretched to nearly her top speed to maintain the service at about 18.5 knots. On the Thursday morning at 6am, instead of being alongside in Cape Town harbour we were still about twenty miles out at sea approaching Table Bay. This gave me the pleasure of watching the City and Table Mountain emerge out of the morning mists as we approached port in daylight, unlike our normal approach in the dark where we got up early at about 5am, after being woken by the deck boy on orders from the bridge, to collect and distribute the mail that came aboard with the pilot, but too dark to see anything worthwhile except the city lights. Cape Town is a most remarkable city, with the mountain looming above it and tightly containing the downtown core within its arms. It is one of the greatest city and harbour settings anywhere in the world, perhaps closely matching only Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Hong Kong, Gibraltar or Vancouver. Not even New York, Quebec or San Francisco can match them. 

When we were docked we started a busy day clearing the ship with officials and then disembarking most of our passengers who would set off for the Blue Train en route to Johannesburg or the Rhodesias, or transfer to the Mount Nelson Hotel, other hotels or homes of  friends or relatives more locally. Some would stay onboard for our coastal trip round to Durban, joined by South Africans who used our coastal hops rather like a cruise holiday and easiest method of moving between major coastal cities. A few passengers in the winter continued for the complete round voyage as a form of cruise away from the European or British cold weather, or at least come to Cape Town, stay there two weeks and then return on the same ship to England.

One particular tradition, each arrival in Cape Town from England, was getting the ship cleared by officials for health, immigration and customs. All this happened in the First Class Bureau with the paperwork and forms we had prepared. As each set of orders was issued, we would inform those on the Bridge. The most important one was for health issues, this being an old custom to ensure that no-one boarded a ship before it was declared free of yellow fever or any possible contagious diseases. Another was for immigration to say we had no undesirables aboard, so we had to fly the "I" flag from our mast before arrival. When the official was happy, I was often the one to phone the Bridge to tell them they could take down that flag, showing we were cleared. Some voyages later the watch officers presented me with an unused "I" flag to remind me of those calls.  

After a night in Cape Town, the ship would sail for Mossel Bay and then Port Elizabeth, arriving on Saturday. That evening we would sail again for Sunday in East London and then Monday 6am arrival in Durban. On Wednesday afternoon the ship started its return trip, calling at East London on Thursday and then Port Elizabeth on Friday and an overnight stay before leaving for Cape Town with a full day at sea, arriving 6am on Monday morning. Adjacent ships were met on the coast, those one week on either side we met in Port Elizabeth on Saturdays, and those two weeks apart in Cape Town on Thursdays, when the one arrived 6am into Berth F from England and the other departed for Southampton from Berth A that same afternoon at 4pm. It worked like clockwork and you could almost set your watch by our arrival and departure from those ports, always using the exact same berths. In advertising those days the company extolled the precision and regularity of the sailings and even its postal impression stamp stated "Every Thursday at 4".

I grew to like South Africa with limitations. The countryside was absolutely gorgeous and I loved to get away and explore the local areas behind each port when I could. I also occasionally met people ashore and went to their houses. Some we met on the ship but others elsewhere. These were the early days of apartheid and the more draconian pass laws were only introduced later. The atmosphere between the races was generally not bad while I sailed the coast but you could not fail to notice the signs and other evidence of separation that kept the blacks, coloureds and whites apart. Japanese were considered whites because of the trade with their country but most other Asians were considered coloured, a sort of middle ground between the other races. There was never any racial tension or demonstrations in my years and none of the turmoil that developed later. Except for the rule of never walking in or out of the docks after dark, I very rarely felt uneasy or in any danger in those ports, cities or further inland. Most people I met were welcoming.

I did feel uncomfortable on some occasions and this largely coincided with contact with a certain few Afrikaners, the descendants of the early Dutch settlers whom the British had displaced but who mostly ruled the country after independence. Their approach to the other races was obviously different but as they sailed the coast with us occasionally, there was nothing to do but try to avoid the more obviously rude passengers and say nothing. As much as I loved the country and the weather, I never felt I could live there ashore. I also clearly remember one other occasion ashore that shook my senses at the time. I was served by an elderly African man in a cafeteria and he addressed me as 'master'. I realized immediately that he meant what he said and had been taught over years to treat Europeans in this manner. Mostly my contacts with people in the country were polite and pleasant and not an issue for me, no matter what their race. 

Oddly, there was no television in those days as it was seen as a bad influence and might weaken the ruling party's control of the country. A big night out was going to the 'bioscope', or cinema, and some people even dressed formally for normal evening films.

That first voyage was fascinating for me with each port a new adventure. We offered tours ashore for the passengers, such as to the wild elephant park and reserve outside of Port Elizabeth, and the tour companies would let us go on those trips for free as an incentive to sell more tickets and so we could describe what the tours were like. The weather was also great almost all the voyage as the northern winter is summer in South Africa and the sea passages were right through the tropics. Because we carried cargo, we spent longer than many passenger ships in port to load and unload. This allowed our staff to take time or even days off in each port on a rota basis, just so long as sufficient staff remained aboard to handle the work, but we also had a great social life aboard ship amongst the officers. One past-time we pursued in a group was golf. We only had to say we were mail ship officers and the best clubs on the coast would let us play midday. I played a lot there and learned the better parts of the game from the young caddies who helped us. 

At sea and sometimes even in port the officers held cocktail parties most evenings before dinner for an hour. At sea we could buy duty free bottles of spirits or beer at almost cost price and in port we could retain a reasonable volume in our cabins to last till we got back to sea and could restock. We could also buy drinks at similar prices in the bars or on deck when we wanted to drink or party there and we often gathered together in the First Class Smoking Room or the Long Gallery for coffee after dinner before the entertainment started. 

Sunbathing and exercise were also important to us in the warmer, sunnier weather. Officers would mostly use an upper sun deck, behind the bridge that also had a few courts set up. Afternoons were whiled away taking the sun there, or occasionally, on the Monkey Island. This was a small open-air Bridge position, rather like a lower level lookout, extra to the one on the foremast, above the wheelhouse, with its own compass and message tubes to the level below. Another gathering time was late afternoon, after five, when we would play deck bowls, quoits or tennis followed by a cool soft drink on the Verandah before retiring to change into mess kit at 6 O'clock. 

Officers' cabin parties were accompanied with music from portable record players or sometimes a radio. We bought all the latest records and LPs amongst us, but could play them only on battery models, as the voltage on board was DC current and all normal players were AC. On some ships you could dangle a wire out of your porthole and pick up a few radio stations, but it was hard to find the right sort of music or program when you wanted it. Sometimes, a few of the girls added a great extra, Irish Coffee after dinner, where they were expert at floating the cream on top of hot coffee and brandy. A nice variation on other offerings. 

With female officers and passengers near our age, mostly from Tourist Class, we had plenty of company and would spend much of the dances up on the floor joining in. Officers also took an active role in the entertainment and races often included special officers' events where they would have to drink beer with crackers before proceeding into the race actions. All in all this created a lively and happy atmosphere on the ship where the passengers took their lead from the officers and a high level of participation was always achieved. 

In First Class, evenings were more sedate but we could also engender a warm atmosphere there and many passengers would invite officers to join their party or family group on occasions. Among the Purser's staff, we danced alongside or with each other and would get solo passengers to join in and dance with us. This was never forced and most dances went on till they had to end not long after midnight. Dances were to a live orchestra and we ran and announced the events and directed what dances were played. We also included special dances and even contests with cheap champagne as prizes. Sundays were also sedate and a mid-morning church service was held at sea, taken by the Captain, where officers sat in the front rows. Luckily, these were optional for us.

The food in First Class was excellent with a choice from a menu of at least forty items each meal and a normal routine of  four courses although more were on offer. What with mid morning coffee and biscuits, afternoon tea with sandwiches and cakes and three full meals a day, we were never hungry. On special occasions we would get deck buffet lunches or even midnight snacks to fit the entertainment on offer. The problem for me in eating so well for so long was to remove the thrill of eating out for decades as most restaurants could not match the food and sauces we ate at sea. I never did put on weight though as I could eat without worries in those early days. Senior officers hosted their own tables in the First Class Saloon all the trip and occasionally junior officers were asked to host a table on a casual basis, in Tourist Class just for the one evening. I enjoyed this duty when asked.

By the time we returned to Southampton in March, I was sold on ocean travel. There was though just one more surprise in store for me. One day after Las Palmas and two days out from Southampton the Assistant Purser became seriously ill and was confined to his bunk and cabin. As a result I had to pick up his duties as well as my own, with help from the Purser and the girls. As all this was new to me this was not a simple thing and I had to quickly learn all the work that needed to be done and the papers prepared before we docked in England. To make it worse, a few of the crew members had sudden emergencies that required attention or special treatment, and cables sent ashore, that just added to my workload. Somehow I got through it all with help from all around me and we did everything necessary for landfall and the trip finished as it should. He did recover over our break and was back healthy again for the next voyage. (I was a year later placed in isolation for some days with German measles, on another ship, and so then learned how hard it is to stay in your cabin against your will and missing all the good life onboard.) 








6 Arr.  Cape Town 


Bay / Biscay


4 Sail for Cape Town

CT - F Berth

4 Sail for England

Farewell Nt.


Bay of Biscay

10 Sail >Pt Elizabeth

At sea 6 Arr. So'ton

7 F/C Cocktail Party

(Call Mossel Bay)

7 F/C Cocktail Party

Sign Off


At sea                    SC

6 Arrive PE         AC

At sea                 CTC          PretC

6 T/C Cocktail Party

6 Sail >East London

6 T/C Cocktail Party



Church Service

6 Arrive EL

Church Service


Las Palmas /Madeira

6 Sail for Durban

At sea  


At sea

6 Arrive Durban

At sea  
  At sea

D - Ocean Terminal

At sea  


At sea


At sea  

Pass Cape Verde


At sea  


@ Bijouga Breakers


Cross Equator

  At sea

6 Sail >East London

At sea  


At sea

6 Arrive EL

At sea Berth 102

Pass N'b Vessel

6 Sail >Pt Elizabeth

Pass S'b Vessel

move ship 


At sea

6 Arrive PE

@ Bijouga Breakers

Berth 104
  Cross Equator


Pass Cape Verde



At sea                    EC

PE                     PenC

At sea                    TC             WC
  At sea

6 Sail > Cape Town

At sea  


Church Service

At sea

Church Service

  At sea

At sea

At sea



At sea

6 Arrive CT

Las Palmas/Madeira  
  At sea

CT - A Berth

At sea  


At sea


At sea

Sign On

  At sea


At sea

Sign On


At sea


At sea

Sign On


Farewell Evening


At sea

Sign On

(The Mail run being so reliable,  Union-Castle printed a circular chart , showing above details, plus berths and  times, arranged on the outside border together with a rotating central disk that contained the name and image of each ship, in the sequence of the fleet sailings  -  8 weeks and ships resembling a compass in 8 segments.) Saturdays am above show the relative positions of the eight ships - SC is Stirling and all others respectively.

I made four complete voyages on the "Stirling". Most of the last three trips were similar to the first one and I enjoyed them all. The same Captain and Purser were there for all four as well as most of the other officers. Each of those trips had something special or unusual about it. One time, the engineers made a small mistake when filling the indoor First Class Swimming Pool, positioned one deck below the First Class Saloon. Instead of using sea water pumped in from the ocean, they took bunker oil from our own double bottom tanks. This made a fair mess before it was noticed and the pumping reversed. The pool was closed for days while some poor person had to scrub it clean and remove all traces of oil, and fill it again with sea water. 

Another time, while 'swinging round the hook' in Mossel Bay, unloading cargo into lighters and passengers by wicker basket onto the waiting tugboat, on the starboard side, some of the crew noticed a very large shark idly swimming close to the ship on the port side. The water was so clear and calm, it was easy to look straight down and see it lazily turning this way and that, even if his dorsal fin did not break the surface. Someone went off and came back with a big piece of meat from the galley, together with a rope and a large hook. But try as he might, he could not get the shark interested in taking the bait and after cruising around us for quarter of an hour or more, the shark left to explore other more interesting things.

I have two separate memories of Durban. One was the noise we endured when they decided to chip old paint off the side of the ship. This mainly happened in Durban when we would rarely have any passengers aboard. Teams of Bantu workers would be hung over the side on platforms and they would attack the hull with small, sharp hammers. This could last for hours before they repainted the exposed patches. Another time, an accident occurred on the quayside alongside us when a Bantu dock worker fell from one level to the next on the tiered loading platforms. Our Doctor and Nurse ran to the site the moment the Bridge called them, and the man was tended on the quay until an ambulance arrived to take him to hospital. Later, the workers assembled to express their extreme thanks for the speed and nature of the support given by the ship to their man.  

Other instances involved stowaways and DBS's. Our ships were an attractive target for stowaways, particularly failed immigrants who wanted to get home. Usually they would be found within 48 hours of sailing when they became hungry and had to find food. When uncovered they were put in the isolation hospital, under guard by the Master-at-Arms and kept locked up till we next reached port. After that they might be returned by the next ship or arrested by police when we finally docked, depending on the circumstances. 

Sometimes a crew member would miss their ship, occasionally through illness or accident, other times because they were drunk and lost track of time. Mostly they would not be taken back on board when that ship returned and so needed to be sent home to England. The British Consul in each overseas port had an arrangement with British ship owners to cover such occasions. The crew member would be placed on the next available British ship heading for England in a category called 'Distressed British Seaman', or DBS. They would be fed and allowed reasonable freedom in the crews quarters, but no work or wages, and landed on arrival. 

Their discharge book, that recorded details of each voyage and a report on their ability and conduct, usually VG for Very Good, would be marked up with the full facts, including a possible unsatisfactory rating from the ship they had missed, referred to as a DR for Decline to Report. This would make it hard for them to get future places on the better ships looking for new crew. We carried many DBS's, most often northbound from Cape Town and we also had our share of stowaways too. Luckily I never experiences the other incident that could occur, when a passenger or crew member fell overboard in mid-ocean.

On my first few trips I was fascinated by everything aboard and toured every part of the ship to see and understand it all; even down to the fo'c's'le chain lockers, or the stern glands in the engine room and the rudder assembly. I also became friends with the Bo's'un and Chips, who both liked to explain the inner workings and tell tall tales of shipboard life and past experiences. They invited me into their mess for morning coffee occasionally, or chatted on the foredeck, or they would stop by the Bureau en route to other duties. I learned a lot from them and Chips even made me a wooden frame for a photo of the ship at anchor in Madeira, for my cabin. After a while, though, the Purser remarked that I was far too casual with them and that I should respect the normal separation that officers should uphold. We remained friendly when we passed but the visits had to be dropped. 

One phenomenon  I did witness on the "Stirling", occurred on the coastal trip back to Cape Town when we rounded the Cape of Good Hope. People often think this Cape is like Cape Horn and is the most southerly point of the continent. For Africa this is the unobtrusive Cape Agulhas, some way further east between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. The Cape of Good Hope, on the other hand, is the point at which the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet and is very near to Cape Town. The Cape is not that obvious a sight as you might expect, from well out at sea you could almost miss it among other hills and rocky headlands on either side of False Bay. What happens at this Cape is unusual in another way and not repeated at Cape Horn as I later discovered for myself. 

The oceans meet at this point and there is also a sudden change in water temperature. The Atlantic is a much colder ocean in southern waters because the Benguela currents mix water from the Antarctic with other flows sent across from South America at low latitudes. The Indian Ocean in those coastal waters is mainly influenced by the Agulhas and Mozambique currents coming south down the eastern side of Africa. One night as we approached the Cape at about midnight, at a very slow speed so we could dock at 6am the next morning, I was on the bridge chatting with the Officer of the Watch. 

Most ships have a thermometer in the hull of the ship that reports the sea temperature close to the surface. As we rounded the Cape that evening, I watched as the thermometer recorded the change in oceans and dropped by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit within a period of less than five minutes. There is no other way to experience this phenomenon as there is no churning of the waters or other physical signs although the wider area does experience more mists and fog that other parts of the coast.  You could notice it when swimming in the sea, where it was always much warmer at Muizenberg, on False Bay, than off Sea Point next to Cape Town. I had already visited the Cape overland by car, touring the national park and wider area.

Together with other officers, I would get inland whenever I could, hire a car and take a look at the surrounding countryside. Other Cape Town trips included Stellenbosch and the wine region, and famous old houses in the district as well as the Parliament buildings and other famous buildings and sites in the town, including the Castle, University Drive and Look Out Point, or Signal Hill as it is called, a beautiful way to see the city at sunset, as well as the mandatory trips up the mountain by cable car. Port Elizabeth was a city where I had a local contact, apart from ship friends, as well as the Addo Elephant Park. In East London we once managed to get invited to a Sunday swim party by young passengers from King Williams Town. It was there I first saw the use of an electric carving knife and it made short work of the roast turkey. From Durban it was the Drakensberg Mountains and the Valley of a Thousand Hills, behind the city, and the Zulu villages and kraals throughout the Hills.      

On the southbound trip on our final voyage, about four days out from Cape Town, the ship was hit by some underwater object and we lost the tip off one of the blades of the starboard propeller. We discovered later that this blade had been damaged on a previous voyage and had been repaired by welding on a new tip. It seemed that the same tip got knocked off again. As this shortened one of four blades by a few feet, it made the propeller and hence the ship vibrate awkwardly. To reduce this and to prevent further damage all round, the engineers had to reduce the revs of that propeller and the port one too so that we did not sail in circles. This slowed the ship and so for the second time we docked late in Cape Town. As we needed to continue to Durban to remain on schedule we could initially do no more about the damage. 

In Durban we had our usual two and a half days before sailing and so they put the ship in dry dock to inspect the damage. We had a spare propeller but that was located in Southampton and would cost too much to fly out. As an unusual necessity, the crew and any passengers stayed aboard as the ship went into dry dock and the water was removed from beneath us. I believe they also continued to work cargo that could not wait till we returned to our usual berth at the Ocean Terminal. We maintained a gangway and it was odd to have to walk on and off the ship with a drop of fifty feet or so to the bottom of the dry dock. We stayed in there overnight and their only solution was to remove an equal amount of metal from the other three blade tips so that the propeller would run in balance although somewhat reduced in overall size. Even at higher revs this reduced our speed for the complete voyage home and so meant us reaching Las Palmas and Southampton later than normal and off the timetable by some hours, on 20th August 1965. 

One other thing that happened on that trip home was a death at sea. We had had a death in port on an earlier trip but that was simple to handle and the body was landed. Mid ocean our Masseur died of natural causes and so we arranged a burial at sea after the ship's doctor had signed a death certificate. It was my duty to go through his belongings to look for details of his religion and his family so that they could be notified. I bagged and sealed up those belongings too so they could later be landed and sent on. 

I also attended his funeral service. It was held at 6am and the ship was brought to a complete stop. With a short and dignified service the Captain went through an appropriate form of prayers and his body was tipped overboard from a temporary, flag draped  platform. The body had been prepared by the doctor and the Bo's'un and sown into a canvas bag with weights inserted. It was also an old custom, I believe, to put the last stitches through their lips and nostrils. In olden days, seamen often wore a gold ring in their ear, that then served as payment when they needed burying away from home. The precise location was also recorded and passed on to the relatives.  It was a very moving experience, one I had to repeat two years later when a passenger died mid  ocean in a similar latitude. Passengers both times were unaware of the stop or the funeral service and that was the reason for the timing.

On our way up the Channel, nearing the end of the last voyage, we passed the "Queen Mary" outbound for New York. In our home waters we more often met with other ships. I remember seeing both the Queens, the "France" as well as other big ocean liners of those days, as we passed at sea or close to land, and managed to get close to a few in Southampton too. One time the "Queen Elizabeth" went into the George Vth dry dock near to us in the New Docks. I walked up to there and it was fascinating to see her high and dry and all the way down to her keel. She looked even more enormous that way. Another time the "United States" berthed next door to us and I managed to get a tour on board before she sailed. I just walked up the gangway in uniform and cap and asked if I could. An officer offered to give me a quick tour. 

As I mentioned before, this was to be the last trip for "Stirling" anyway and so why the repair was the most economic in the circumstances. It had been decided many years earlier in London to speed up the service and reduce the number of ships on the Cape Mail run accordingly. The ocean liner trade was already seeing the first signs of strain and competition from commercial passenger aircraft and other new trends. Jet liners now meant faster and safer flights to all parts of the world and were a much faster and cheaper alternative to the old travels by sea. In addition, cargo traffic was beginning to change and general cargo ships were no longer the best way to move all goods. Specialized tanker ships and bulk carriers were beginning to be built and a new idea was being tried out - the container. 

All these in the next few years would change forever the old ideas of shipping around the world and jets eventually killed off the ocean liners for good in the early 70's.  This was not a new issue for me as I always understood that a life at sea was not for the long term but I was happy to be a part of it while it lasted. I always expected to go ashore eventually to earn a proper living. I had seen that family life was impossible or very hard for my fellow officers.

The Line built two new ships that were mostly cargo ships, carrying up to 12 passengers but not in the same style as on the ocean liners. They were just 10,000 tons, entering service in 1965/6, but could maintain the new speed average of 22.5 knots needed to run the ocean passage service in 11 and a half days instead of the old schedule of thirteen and a half days. They were then the fastest cargo ships in the world. 

This meant a ship leaving every Friday at 1pm, arriving in Cape Town at 6am each Wednesday. The northbound ship would leave at 4pm Wednesday and dock in Southampton 6am Monday. Times were also adjusted for the coastal trip within South Africa although no further days were saved there. This meant a complete turn round of seven weeks and thus only seven ships needed for the service, including the two new mainly cargo ships. They had made the previous change to the service in 1938, to increase the speed, reducing the ocean passage down from the earlier seventeen days.

This made three older passenger ships redundant, the "Stirling Castle" and her exact sister "Athlone Castle" were now surplus and were sent for scrap, after nearly 30 years of hard life including the war years. "RMMV CapeTown Castle" was the third that was no longer needed but they still had some work for her outside of the Mail runs, but more about that later. To maintain the new schedule they had built new ocean liners in the late 50's and early 60's and then refurbished the engines and mast arrangements for the "Edinburgh" and the "Pretoria" so they could maintain the new speeds needed. It also meant no more fleet meetings at sea mid-ocean during daylight hours under normal circumstances, although the coastal meetings remained similar.

My last voyage on the "Stirling" was also the very last trip of the old schedule and eight days later on 16th July 1965 the "RMS Windsor Castle", the new flag ship that entered service in 1960, at 37,500 tons the biggest ever Union-Castle ship, sailed out on the first voyage on the faster service to Cape Town.  She was followed by  "Southampton Castle" (1965), "Edinburgh Castle" (1948), "Transvaal Castle" (1962), "Pendennis Castle" (1959), "Good Hope Castle" (1966) and  "Pretoria Castle" (1948). This order was maintained till the fleet was finally disbanded starting in 1975. The last passenger mail ship sailed north in October 1977 and the service ended, after 120 years of history for the mail contract, having been started by the Union Steamship's liner "Dane". 

List of my Ships and Trips

These sailings were not all made by lavender hulled ships. In 1966 there was a move to give South Africa a more obvious interest in the service and so two of the ships were transferred to a South African subsidiary and repainted with white hulls and a grey funnel. The "Transvaal Castle" was renamed "S.A. Vaal" and the "Pretoria Castle" was renamed "S.A. Oranje", but other than meeting each on the South African coast on the usual schedule, I had nothing to do with them, even though still staffed by Union-Castle. 

S.S. Braemar Castle

After leaving the "Stirling" for the last time in Southampton, I took leave for about three weeks and was then assigned to the "ss Braemar Castle". At 17,000 tons,  steam driven, she was one of three exact sister ships, entering service from 1951, that now made up the East African coastal service. This move was pure luck because these ships were also under sentence as it had been decided to close down this route in 1966 as the cargo levels and passenger numbers were now well down after many of the British ex-colonies in East and Central Africa were made independent countries. 

It was also very fortuitous for Union-Castle. Within months of the final ship sailing north through Suez in 1967, a war broke out between Israel and Egypt and closed the canal for over 10 years, forcing all the other ships and  liners to sail around the Cape of Good Hope to get to India, Asia or Australia. I was moving from the last voyage of the "Stirling" to the last voyage of the "Braemar". These ships sailed from London docks and went through the Suez Canal, then down to Durban before retracing their steps. The trip took about 10 weeks but could vary as port times were not always certain. 

Early September 1965, I joined "ss Braemar Castle" in King George V docks in the east end of London. She was a one class ship for a maximum 450 passengers. After signing on a crew and taking on our passengers, mostly students going to Uganda to start teaching, and about 250 people in all, we set sail for Gibraltar. We also visited Genoa, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Mombasa, Dar-es-Salaam and Beira before reaching Durban. The return took us to Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), Dar-es-Salaam, Zanzibar, Tanga, Mombasa, Aden, Suez, Port Said, Naples, Gibraltar and home to London. 

Our accommodation was purpose built, as for all post war ships, and was sandwiched between the Bureau Square and the ship's Medical Centre, Port side forward on B Deck. As usual they were fitted cabins with a day bed and desk as well as the normal extras, and its own porthole over the fore and aft bunk bed. They were quite spacious and light and airy, but not air-conditioned.  

She was a great ship but everything was scaled down - no live orchestra but a record player come tape machine and amplifier, called 'Pandora's Box', that we rolled around the ship when we needed music - a Purser's staff of just six - and having to wait on arrival in port for the next berth, as no priority treatment for us. This delayed us on occasions as we would anchor off till we could get a berth. As we were still a cargo passenger mix we got long times in port and this allowed me to go on a couple of safaris, one from Beira and the other from Mombasa. On the way north I went on the Cairo tour while the ship sailed through the canal, letting me ride a camel around the Pyramids and Sphinx, and seeing the treasures of Tutankhamen's tomb, in the Museum. 

With this routing, we had some additional precautions we needed to take. On the East African coast we sailed through a malaria and yellow fever infected zone. In Mombasa the company sent all new crew ashore for yellow fever injections and then from there south and till we reached Aden going north again, they supplied salt tablets and malaria pills for us to take regularly. The salt tablets, I believe gave me a life long liking for more salt on my food than most people. The pills worked too and I never had any problems with malaria although some officers who forgot to take them regularly did get caught and would have suffered bouts of malaria at intervals for the rest of their lives, although mainly brought on in hotter than usual climates. I was also lucky in that my passage through those waters was not made during either monsoon period.

Something else occurred in Mombasa on that first call, and was my first and last time to order handmade shoes. The Asian traders in the port came down to greet us on arrival, seeking out the officers in the Bureau. Their quotes were irresistible and so I ordered a pair of white calf leather shoes, to wear with my daytime uniform in the tropics and hotter regions on our trips. He asked me to take off my right shoe and to stand on a piece of cardboard, while he drew round my foot with a pencil. He returned to the ship two days later with a perfect pair of shoes. I used them continuously for the next two years, whenever we wore whites. They were the best and most comfortable shoes I have ever worn or owned. I paid very little for them and wish I could have repeated that experience many times later in my life. Years later I ordered handmade shirts in Hong Kong, but with nowhere near the same satisfaction or long wearing results.

The ship was generally happy but not as good as the "Stirling". The Purser's staff were not cohesive and I shared duties with the other Clerk, but he was lazy. This often meant him failing to appear or coming late to duties we both needed to do and hoping that I would have done all the hard work before he arrived, such as moving 'Pandora's Box' around the ship. This seemed to stem from his feeling such work beneath him and quite happy to leave it to anyone else. Others did not notice or care about his goofing off. We also had a young Purser who wanted to be one of the boys most of the time  but then acted tough when it suited him, not a good combination. We as a group once held a party in the waiting area for the Medical Centre, together with the doctor's staff, but, after the party was over, everyone else disappeared and just me and the nurse mopped, cleaned and tidied up the place, to restore it. 

These matters did not really concern or worry me too much but it did mean the atmosphere in the Bureau was not great. It also showed up in a very unbalanced allocation of time off where the senior people took off when it suited them and others had what was left and did not fit their plans. Having been told when I was off in Mombasa northbound I made arrangements to hire a car to go on safari with other officers. At the last minute they changed this as they wanted to be off that day and so I had to take off immediately, alone or lose any chance to get inland at all. 

That trip upcountry went well but did have its story to tell too. All I could hire at the last minute was a not too new VW beetle. I drove up to Tsavo park and spent a pleasant, hot, sunny day roaming around, including visits to the Mzima Springs and Kilaguni Lodge. I saw most game and animals, including hippopotamuses, but not lions or rhino. After dark on my way back to the coast the headlights were poorly adjusted and I had to drive 100 miles on bad, graded roads before reaching the end of the tarmac road. The rough dirt road was covered with potholes and ridges the whole way back to Voi. This was also the main road from Mombasa  to Nairobi but was still under repair to add tarmac in its middle section near Tsavo National Park. 

After an hour of this hazardous driving, I noticed a strange shape I could not make out ahead. I slowed down and just in time to avoid driving straight into a massive bull elephant that was ambling across the road. Had I got closer I'm sure I would have upset him let alone maybe hitting him. We heard tales at that time of accidents at night involving elephants who were just as likely to turn on a car and trample it and maybe kill its occupants if it got in his way. I wound down the window and kept an even sharper lookout after that before I reached the tarmac. I had previously known not to get in the way of an elephant on its chosen route as we had been charged by a large bull elephant in Gorongoza Game Park, Mozambique on the earlier safari, but he calmed down the moment we moved away. 

The social life among the officers at large was also far short of the "Stirling" although some parties were held, including my 21st birthday the day after we left Aden northbound, while in the Red Sea. Another time in Dar-es-Salaam, while still anchored mid harbour before we could berth, a number of us took a ship's lifeboat and visited a deserted island with a great beach on the edges of the harbour, where we picnicked and swam all afternoon. 

A strange experience also occurred in Dar-es-Salaam southbound, when I took the tender ashore to try to visit the Indian Market I had heard a lot about. I picked up a taxi at the dock and immediately another local man got into the passenger seat alongside the driver. We drove for a while and I recognized where the market was eventually but it now did not look so inviting. I also realized that we were driving in large circles and the two in the front seat were talking quietly all the time. I told them I knew where we were and wanted to return to the dock immediately and even told the driver which turns to make to get there directly. Apart from cranking up the meter fare I thought it likely they were also planning something else. At the dock on the harbour I got out to pay the fare while surrounded by others from the ship and only then did I feel I was safe again. 

In that port northbound, I kept with other officers and spent my time ashore at the Flying Angel sailors' centre, with great tropical gardens and an open air pool, all afternoon, followed by a trip to the cinema in the evening to see "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines". I was not going to venture ashore alone again in that town. Our Master-at-Arms had previously been a senior police officer in the City, before independence, and he remarked later that Tanzania had changed a lot in those few years and the locals generally did not seem too friendly to strangers any longer. This was the only problem I had in port that whole trip.

On the return trip we had very few passengers, maybe less than 100, and it was generally boring with little to do. I spent a lot of time on deck in a steamer chair reading through one section of the Library. Luckily we had a collection of almost all the books in the James Bond series by Ian Fleming. I read the lot. 

The greatest interest and joys on the whole voyage were the ports of call and the trips we could arrange ashore. We also met other ships in port and when possible I would visit them and find out how life was for their Purser's staff and get a tour of their ship, such as British India's "ss Kenya". We courted danger at least twice because of current world events - in Aden there was a rebellion against colonial rule and we were advised not to leave the port area. Local rebels were staging occasional attacks against British troops in the Crater district just miles from the port. 

In Zanzibar, there had been an uprising against the Sultan a couple of years before and his Government had been overthrown and he put to flight from the island. A Leftist government was still in control and shooting was experienced in the streets some nights. We normally would have gone into the port but it was decided we should anchor off. As this happened at night and we were less than a mile offshore, we did not feel too safe as our decks were awash with lights and we were still within range of rifles from the shore. Luckily nothing did happen during our more than two hours there but we did leave at the earliest opportunity, even though we let local traders aboard to sell their ivory wares.

Other ports provided great entertainment and interest too. Many times I went ashore with other officers and ate and relaxed there, including my first experience at a drive-in movie, or exploring the beautiful city, coastal area and a beach hotel in Lourenço Marques, or travelling well inland on a minibus safari, run by tour operators from Beira. Other times I walked ashore and around, alone in small coastal ports such as Tanga, observing the local life first hand.  I even discovered my aversion to gambling, at the casino in Gibraltar. The Cairo trip and then the tour of Port Said was also an opportunity not to be missed or repeated, let alone the trip south through the canal itself.

Despite the negatives I made some good friends and enjoyed my time on the ship and the chance to see places and ports that were not easily reached. This was something I would not repeat as on our way north we passed the other two ships on their voyages, the "Kenya Castle" and then "Rhodesia Castle". They finished the service soon afterwards, in the reverse order in which they entered service, with the "Rhodesia" having been first and last. I took a lot of slide photographs on that trip and captured many memorable images. It also allowed me to see Africa before the ravages set in from the later abuse of power by many of their leaders who turned their respective countries into one party dictatorships. I fear returning to Africa now because I would lose all those beautiful images and memories I still retain and they would be replaced with the modern reality of an Africa which is far less appealing. On other occasions of returning to a cherished site later in life I have always found earlier memories are 'overwritten' and cannot be recovered, no matter how hard you try. 

One point of interest was the ship's cat. She had sailed on every single trip of the ship but belonged to no one crew member. She attached herself as she needed and moved on when it suited her. She also had a habit of going ashore at any port but always made it back before we sailed. This is even more interesting if you know that Britain had a strict quarantine law at that time requiring imported animals to be caged for nine months to keep rabies out of  the UK. When you think of it we sailed to many unsavoury and dangerous parts of the world and yet this cat was never ill or detected by the British authorities although she also wandered ashore at will in London just like any other port. I wondered what happened to her when the ship sailed to the breaker's yard after our last voyage. 

R.M.S. Edinburgh Castle (1)

We got back to London late November but I was off again in less than three weeks when I was assigned to the "RMS Edinburgh Castle", back on the Cape Mail run. She was a steam driven ship of about 28,700 tons and like a slightly bigger and newer version of the "Stirling",  except that we had air conditioning in the First Class Saloon. We sailed just before Christmas and spent that day in the Bay of Biscay but luckily it was relatively calm that time. The Purser was the same from the "Stirling" and he and I got along fine. I knew a few others on her too which helped. Because of an overflow in the accommodation of the Purser's staff, my cabin was a Junior Engineer's fitted teak space, in the block just under and forward of the funnel, up on the Boat Deck.

The Captain was actually the Commodore of the fleet. He had been on the "Edinburgh" for many years and wanted to stay there rather than take to the flag ship, the newer but colourless "Windsor". When he was made Commodore he had them agree to let him keep his old ship. It was also the friendliest and warmest ship in the fleet despite her age. Partly that atmosphere emanated from him but also from the complete officer group who seemed to get on very well with each other and this was infectious among the passengers too. The "Edinburgh" had been the flagship, as well as the "Stirling" "CapeTown" and the "Pendennis", previously in their turn, when each was the largest and newest member of the fleet.

When I joined the ship I learned of an incident that had occurred just a few weeks before on the previous voyage. A few days out of Cape Town northbound, during an unusually bad storm, the "Edinburgh" encountered a wall of water that caused damage to her foredeck, pushing one large winch off its mountings and throwing it against the front bulkhead section of 'A' Deck. Here windows were broken and a great deal of water entered the First Class accommodation and flooded down the stairwells. It all happened very suddenly, I was told, and was over as soon as it started. Those on the bridge that night likened it to a very deep wave trough, almost as if one complete wave was missing, or caught up to its neighbour, such that the ship fell off the preceding wave and seemed to enter a hole, making the next wave break fully onto the exposed foredeck. The damage had been repaired in Southampton and so no sign was left when I joined her.

Often dismissed as legend or perhaps very rare events, research has revealed that "killer waves" do exist and have sunk vessels all over the world. For no known reason, massive walls of water rise up and can destroy ships or even oil rigs. These giant waves cannot be predicted by standard meteorology, they are not tidal waves or tsunamis, nor are they caused by earthquakes or landslides. In an Observer article, it was reported that scientists believe that these so called rare events are more common than thought earlier. 

The liner "Queen Mary" was hit by a 75 ft wall of water while carrying 15,000 troops in December 1942,  it was later reported, bringing her within moments of capsizing. September 1995, on a transatlantic westbound crossing, "QE2" ran near to hurricane Luis and was reduced to 5 knots, recording a maximum wave at 90 feet in winds that rose to 130mph. In 2000, the cruise ship "Oriana" was struck by a 70 ft wave that smashed windows and sent sea water cascading through the ship. More recently, the Norwegian Dawn was hit by a 75 foot wave in 2005 when returning to New York harbour. Previously, scientists generally asserted that waves at sea should not reach much more than 40ft. Walls of water up to 100ft are being observed, thus suggesting that something is wrong with current meteorology theory, as the origin of freak waves still baffles scientists.

On the first trip I managed to get certified in two ways by the ship. I now had enough sea time to be eligible to take my exams as a qualified Lifeboatman. This taught me all the aspects of commanding and running a lifeboat in emergency situations, including launching them and steering them. We practiced lifeboat drills each week, known affectionately  as the "Board of Trade Sports", during each voyage, as we were required to do, to be alert to passenger and ship safety. This involved fire drills and passenger musters at boat stations. When in port in South Africa and occasionally in Southampton, we also launched a few boats and took them in circles. I passed my test in Port Elizabeth. From this time onwards I was usually in charge of a Muster Station and could command a boat in the water if needed. Luckily my duties were with the passengers rather than being in a fire fighting party.

My interest in all aspects of running the ship also led me to want to learn how to steer one. As I knew the Second Officer well, from the Minstrel show we were both a part of, I had him teach me about navigational aids and ship handling. On quiet evenings in deep ocean we took the ship off auto pilot, known always as 'George', and for a total of ten hours I physically manoeuvered the ship, using the big, traditional, wooden-spoked wheel with brass fittings,  to a compass heading or to his instructions. The Commodore later presented me with my Steering Certificate, normally part of the Able Seaman program . 

This time on the "Edinburgh" was my second season during the Southern summer months and this meant we met a few more other passenger ships on the South African coast. Two were the "ss Northern Star" and the "ss Southern Cross", near sister ships owned by the Shaw Saville Line. I saw both of these on the coast or in port but my memory of them is hazy and suggests they were unimpressive and we had little in common with their Purser's staff. Both ships ran from the UK, via the Cape of Good Hope, to Australia and New Zealand. 

A much better meeting was with Royal Mail Line's "ss Andes". One trip, we closely matched their coastal sailings as we moved up to Durban. I first went aboard as they docked close in Cape Town, had a tour and met a few of their Pursers. We got along well and I liked the ship. She was 27,000 tons, close to our ship's tonnage, but had had air conditioning and stabilizers retro fitted. She was ambling around the globe that trip, on a Round the World cruise. We exchanged ship visits in Port Elizabeth and then again in Durban, and I enjoyed good contact with their officers. It was with regret that we parted company as they continued their easterly circuit and we returned down the coast on our way home. Their staff worked in a very similar manner to us.

R.M.M.V. CapeTown Castle       

I spent two very happy and uneventful voyages on the "Edinburgh" at that time, running through to March 1966. With just one week's leave I was then promoted to Assistant Purser and sent to the "CapeTown Castle". She was the odd ball of the fleet after the previous year's reorganization of the Cape Mail run. She was slightly larger than the "Stirling" at 27,000 tons but otherwise a near sister to her and entered service  in 1938, just before the war in which she had a distinguished career as a troop ship and was even attacked a number of times, without serious effect. When built she was the line's biggest and world's fastest motorship afloat.

Years earlier the Line had run an Intermediate service and a Round Africa route. These were ships that ran in addition to the Mail ships, often through the Cape ports, but on less structured timetables. Ships sailed either clockwise or counterclockwise right around Africa, calling at all the usual ports, but these had already ended in 1961. Intermediate ships called at unusual ports, including rare trips to Mauritius or going to Angola and South West Africa, or stopping at the Atlantic islands of St. Helena, where Napoleon Bonaparte was finally imprisoned, and Ascension. 

These last two islands received few calls but this route was essential to maintain supplies to the British outposts. Calls to these islands had been stopped by the new faster mail schedule and so the "CapeTown" was initially assigned to stop there while also serving an extra link to Cape Town to cover for the cargo ships. She even filled in on the mail run when the "Good Hope Castle", the new cargo ship, was delayed in coming into service until early 1966. Later, the cargo mail ships picked up the islands service.

Whereas she used to be a two class vessel on the Mail run, she was now operating as a single class ship. This meant only one set of entertainment although we had all the old public rooms at both ends of the ship in use. We still used the old Tourist Class Bureau at times rather than making everyone come to the old First Class Bureau in the front section that was better equipped. Otherwise we acted as one integrated staff and now I was often in charge of the entertainments for the full ship as the Purser liked to delegate much of this and just looked on. Our first of two trips was to take us to the Atlantic Islands and it was great to get ashore on St. Helena and take the tour of Napoleon's past house and original gravesite, and the Governor's mansion, plus climbing up Jacob's Ladder for a grand view of the town and waterfront and our ship off at anchor.

It was a bit like walking back into history as this island was first garrisoned in the seventeenth century and there were few changes that had happened since then. The local inhabitants were the descendents of the early troops who had intermarried with local islanders. Their English accent and vocabulary sounded at least two centuries out of date and was incredible to listen to. The accent sounded closest to a West Country style but the grammar and words used were quaint and quite unusual, like they were captured in a time warp.   

I met more of this later when my ship carried back to England some of the islanders from Tristan da Cunha, an even more remote South Atlantic group of islands. After the volcano on the main island erupted in 1961, all the islanders were carried to England where they were put up on an old army base. When the volcano died down, most of them returned except the younger ones who did not want to be parted from TV, the cinema and other modern conveniences. After returning, some of the older people also found that they could not readjust to island life and so it was arranged to let them return to live in England and they travelled with us from Cape Town. I spent much of that trip northbound speaking to them and learning about their community and it was fascinating. Most of the people were from one or another of just five main island families and their accents, grammar and words used sounded similar to those of St. Helena.

Ascension by then was largely an American base for spy-radio listening and so we were not allowed ashore even to the English base on the island. Otherwise it was largely uninhabited. We called there to pick up St. Helena islanders who worked for the Americans but took leave every so often back at home. We carried them on deck for the overnight run between the islands, as deck passengers, meaning they stayed in the open and fed themselves too. They camped out in the outdoor pool's Verandah Café down aft. That way they travelled far cheaper but otherwise had very little contact with other passengers and did not use the public rooms, dining saloon or cabins at all. They were friendly and a pleasure to chat with. We turned round quickly in Cape Town and sailed back to Southampton, via both South Atlantic islands again, and Las Palmas. 

These islands then generated revenue by issuing special stamps for every occasion. I would buy many of these and send them to my younger cousin. The best way was to stamp a self-addressed envelope and mail it on the outward call at St. Helena, directed to myself on the same ship, dated for our return visit. My cousin retained these and recently it was nice to see the envelopes again. 

The second trip proved to be even more interesting and unusual. It started by us going to Flushing on the River Schelde, on the border between Belgium and Holland. Here we were to pick up largely German or Dutch passengers, with little or no understanding of English, who lived in, or were emigrating to, South West Africa. We would drop them at Walvis Bay, where we anchored off. The country was an old German colony that was placed under South African protection by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the Great War. (After later revolutions and guerilla fighting she became the modern country of Namibia and gained her independence.)

The trouble started early in the morning when we entered the river Schelde and took on the pilot. Our Captain had only just joined the ship and was on his first trip as a passenger ship Master even though he had been Captain on many of our cargo ships for some years. He was also new to the "CapeTown Castle". When using a pilot, the responsibility for the ship rests still with the Captain and the pilot is just there to advise about local conditions. The usual way it worked was for both to be on the bridge at all times and for the pilot to give instructions to the helmsman and for the telegraph instructions to the engine room and via radio to any accompanying tugs. The Captain would then only step in or countermand orders that he did not agree with. 

For instance, on the "Edinburgh Castle" previously we were entering Cape Town with strong winds blowing across the harbour entrance. To prevent us hitting anything because of the cross winds and not wanting to stay out in Table Bay till the winds abated, it was decided to make a run into the basin at greater than normal speed and then apply all the brakes. We dashed in at a slight angle as the port was not too wide and the pilot ordered both engines full astern as soon as he could and asked to drop the port anchor as a final measure. The Commodore spoke quietly and suggested we drop both anchors, immediately. We did and pulled up eventually about ten feet from the wall of the inside edge of the docks!

Other times later my ships encountered strong cross winds trying to enter or leave other ports. In East London we had to back up to the end of the inner harbour so we could dash as fast as possible to get out of port or risk getting late on our schedule. On another morning going into Durban we sped into the harbour and were rolling violently as we approached with near gale force cross winds and high seas. We knew when we entered the outer breakwater because suddenly the rolling stopped and we quietly proceeded to our berth at the Ocean Terminal as normal.

A bit of history is also helpful at this point. In 1960 the "CapeTown Castle" had a serious accident entering Las Palmas on a northbound voyage. An explosion in the crankcase of one of the diesel engines sent a blast through her engine room, sadly killing her Chief Engineer and seven officers and ratings. An engine room fire followed that was put out with help from our other passenger ship that happened to still be in port. It was the  "Windsor Castle" on her second voyage. She was out of commission for some months for extensive repairs. 

Rod Macaskill, a Junior Engineering Officer on the Windsor Castle that trip wrote:     We were tied up at that long jetty in Las Palmas. I was on the 8-12 watch and was in my bunk when, around 5am, all hell broke loose. Bells were ringing, alarms were sounding, people were running in all directions. Complete pandemonium. The CapeTown Castle, homeward bound, was manoeuvring to get in the harbour (though, as I recall it was not a harbour, more just a long jetty) when there was a catastrophic engine-room explosion followed by a massive fire. A party of engineer and deck officers and ratings were sent from our ship to the CapeTown with firefighting equipment to tackle the fire and transfer the passengers. Fortunately I was not sent with them. I had sailed on CapeTown before, this was its second trip after I had left it and joined the Windsor. Had I not been transferred I would undoubtedly have been in the engine-room when it happened. I don't think anyone survived in the engine or generator rooms. Certainly 6 engineers and 2 ratings were killed. I can only now remember the chief engineer, Chief Logan, a terrifying Scot, about 5'6'' and 250lbs who could knock you over with a verbal blast at 25 yards. Everyone was scared rigid by him. Despite appalling injuries and being on fire he insisted in making the engine-room safe before getting on a stretcher. He died later.

All the passengers were safely transferred to the Windsor and then to hotels while we left on time. I will never forget us passing the stricken Cape Town, about a quarter mile off the jetty, listing at about 45 degrees with lots of its paintwork blackened. The list was caused by the amount of water pumped on board to put out the fire and its own pumps could now not pump the water out as they had no power.

My understanding of the events was that there was a design fault with the controls which meant that it was not easy to restart and reverse the engines when needing to go astern, such as when manoeuvring in harbour. This was the cause of the accident in Las Palmas. As a result they developed a technique to push them from very slow ahead and then immediately reverse direction and throw them astern, to prevent any reoccurrence. This was known and allowed for on her voyages for many years after that. The Captain on that fateful voyage was the later to be promoted Commodore I sailed with on "Edinburgh".

Engineering report on Las Palmas accident.   RMS Windsor Castle log of that day

Photo of the ship Aground   Photo #2

In the mouth of the Schelde that morning the pilot was turning the ship so as to reverse into our berth and make our departure easier. As neither he nor the Captain really knew how the ship handled from past experience, this manoeuvre was happening at too great a speed, so the pilot ordered the engines to be reversed, to slow down or stop our forward speed. His command was also given rather late and we were nearing the shallower waters on the side of the estuary. As practiced before, the engines were first going very slow ahead then immediately reversed as instructed. Unfortunately that small motion ahead was enough to throw us up onto a sand bar before the reverse motion had any effect and we gently became held fast, aground. This also happened just at or near high tide and very shortly we started losing water under the keel and so became even more embedded. As we were sideways on in the mouth of the river we blocked access from the sea and most other shipping was prevented from coming into or leaving the port.

Our engines running full astern could not help nor could the tugs that came directly to us or were already attached to us. Those tugs could not prevent what happened nor could they shift us. We had tugs attached at the time of running aground but they were positioned to help us turn not to assist us with forward or astern motion. As the tide went out, we became more embedded and began to take on an angle as we were only held at the bow. Within an hour or two we had seven tugs, some coming from Rotterdam or further, attached and all pulling in a star pattern at our stern but still to no effect. 

Our predicament was causing attention and we even made the BBC One O'clock News. It took till the next high tide and with all the tugs in the area to finally get us off that evening. At its worst, we took on a forward/aft rake of nearly 10 degrees and it was a strange sensation walking around a sloping ship that day. Divers were sent down to inspect the bow and hull when we reached our berth and they declared the ship and plates undamaged. We loaded up our passengers and got out of port as soon as we could. This was not the end of the matter though, as many passengers made themselves up as a grounded ship for fancy dress night, to the obvious discomfort of the Captain. I believe he was reassigned after the voyage and may never have seen a passenger ship again.

I recently found the following account of the grounding on Ships Nostalgia, from a then shipmate, Chris Isaac. As he was on the Bridge for much of that day, I defer to him on many of the details that I recalled from memories of conversations with many other officers that trip:    I had just been appointed Junior Uncertificated 4th Officer on the Capetown Castle (a rank somewhat junior to the ships cat). The Capetown had just been replaced on the mail run by the new Mini Mail Ship Southampton Castle. But as there was still some life in the old girl she was placed on what UC called "The Extra Service". The Capetown Castle could not pick up her skirts and scamper down to Cape Town in 11 and half days which is what the new schedule required. So she was given an easier task that meant we sailed out of Southampton Water and TURNED LEFT... what ! No UC liner ever turned left there!
First port of call was to be Flushing to pick up German passengers and take them to Walvis Bay. Then on to Cape Town and then home again.
It was a lovely May morning in 1966 when the Capetown entered the buoyed channel leading to Flushing. What a lovely sight she was, flags flying, band playing and many Dutch holiday makers on the beach ahead of us.
At the end of the bouyed channel the ship had to turn 90 deg to port to enter harbour. Approaching the turn the pilot ordered full astern on both engines..... nothing happened. Pilot orders double full astern on both engines..... to the engineers' undying credit they gave it absolutely full power.... unfortunately they gave it forwards not backwards and 27,000 tons of lavender colour splendour went straight onto the beach.
Head office was called and told of our predicament, they contacted Smits in Rotterdam and about three hours later who should appear on the bridge but Captain Rom Colthoff, the very same Salvage Master that had failed to save the Ayrshire. Much to the amazement of Captain Matthews on the Capetown we greeted each other like long lost brothers but once he found out the reason for such a friendship he was no longer so pleased with the choice of Salvage Master.
The tide went out and for a few hours Capetown Castle sat serenely on the beach with scarcely an inch of water around her.
As the tide rose no fewer than 17 tugs were made fast and nearing high tide she was pulled free. The only damage being a snapped tug hawser wrapped around the port propeller but that was freed by a diver in port.
Some days later when we reached Madeira we received a letter from the Cayzers expressing their disappointment to see UC officers waving at the BBC News camera crew that had circled around in a light aircraft, whilst we were aground. Otherwise no harm done !

The rest of the voyage was uneventful and we progressed to Cape Town after Madeira and Walvis Bay, then back to Southampton via Las Palmas. But when we arrived home we got into more trouble. Some weeks earlier, soon after we had sailed for Flushing, the National Union of Seamen in England had called a walk out strike. There had been disputes for some years and the Union was concerned about a dwindling number of ships being crewed from England where all crew had to be Union members. The strike was still on when we docked and so we were land locked like a large number of our fleet and other liners. We were actually the last Union-Castle ship to get caught and at the end there were thirteen of our ships, including some cargo boats, all tied up in Southampton, some of them as many as three deep on one berth. I am reminded by another account from Chris Isaac, that CapeTown had to wait, off the Needles, for the Windsor Castle to pass, allowing her to dock an hour before us.

Rather than being given leave I was assigned to become a safety officer for some of our ships and we had to make regular fire checks and tours of the ships in question. I was assigned to the three  berthed together in the New Docks, "Edinburgh Castle", "ss Reina Del Mar" and "Good Hope Castle", the cargo mail ship, on the outside. The "Reina" was our cruise ship that we chartered from its owners, The Pacific Steam Navigation Company, but more about her later. For about two weeks I walked around those ships making sure no fires or hazards existed and no damage or intruders were detected. Not much fun but at least it was the summer in England. The strike was called off late in June 1966, I'm not sure how or with what agreement, and so we scrambled to get back to our normal schedule. I was again lucky for I was reassigned to the "Edinburgh Castle" and she was to be the first ship to sail after the strike. Unlike many others, I was in England far shorter, having come in last and being out first. 

R.M.S. Edinburgh Castle (2)

To get our ships back onto their normal schedule was not too bad a job. We were lucky that the strike lasted almost as long as our turnaround time  - 46 days strike and 49 days turnaround for the fleet. The "RMS Edinburgh Castle" could sail almost immediately close but before her normal departure date, to be followed by each ship in rotation on their scheduled dates, each just having lost one complete round voyage. 

For some weeks no ship had been able to sail to Cape Town or round the South African Coast. To fill in the "Windsor Castle"  would sail on the next Friday but would turn round in Cape Town and return so as to fit back into her normal place in the fleet sailings on her next voyage. They ordered us to leave first on the Monday ahead of our normal Friday date and dash down to Cape Town via Las Palmas, Ascension and St. Helena. When we got to the Cape we were then to continue round the coast and home again in the normal fashion and call at St. Helena, Ascension and Las Palmas again on our return, arriving back in Southampton on our normal Monday, on time, having used the four extra days for our special trip. The "Windsor" would get to Cape Town soon after us but we did not meet up before her return. 

As I had only just left the ship three months earlier I knew the "Edinburgh" well and most of the same officers were still aboard. Her atmosphere was just as good as before and the Commodore and Purser were still in fine form. As the Assistant Purser now I took over running all the First Class entertainment and the First Class Bureau. This I enjoyed and spent the next nine months on the ship on five and a half voyages without much incident. 

The accommodation for the Purser's staff was unusual. The forward, outer Starboard passenger section of 'B' Deck, behind the First Class Bureau, had been blocked off and converted, and a row of about seven officers' cabins had been constructed, tailored as normal into well fitted rooms with a full bunk, day bed, cupboards, wardrobe and desk arrangement, all built in teak. This section also had its own set of showers, bathrooms and heads, together with a wide hallway that proved perfect for holding parties that could take all guests at one sitting. 

We had our own steward too. 'Ernie' was a fixture on the ship, having been with the Line for ages, and he fussed around us whenever his duties as a First Class Dining Saloon Steward allowed. He set up office in the storeroom where our empty cases and trunks were kept and every mid-morning and early evening he buzzed around looking after us and the section. When he could he would even lay out our mess kit for the evening or clean our shoes, or act as barman for our parties, until he was called down for his work on passenger tables for Dinner in the Saloon. For meals, we were served as usual by officers' stewards who also looked after the accommodation for the Deck, Radio and Engineering Officers.

One voyage does stand out though because I managed to get to Johannesburg on holiday for two days, a rare opportunity. A family travelling with us previously for a holiday in England, rejoined us southbound to Cape Town for their return home. They got to know us well and particularly myself  in the twelve days each way and we shared a lot of drinks and chats on great and relaxing trips. As we neared Cape Town the wife suggested that I might like to see Johannesburg as I had never been inland more than a few hours on past voyages. They offered to meet me, put me up for the night and escort me around the area by car. I talked with the Commodore and the Purser and they saw no problem if it could be arranged during our normal stay in Durban. I fixed up air flights from there and then the family left in Cape Town and took the Blue Train home. We continued around the coast and then I flew up to meet them about five days later. 

The weather was prefect, we had a great time and the wife drove me all over Pretoria and Johannesburg as promised. They had the nicest of houses including a great pool in which I took a dip when I woke early the following morning. We had a relaxed dinner too in their home on my only evening there. We managed to see all the sights including the Voortrekker Monument, historic houses and the government centre in Pretoria and the Tower and city centre in Johannesburg before I had to go to the airport to fly back. It was a perfect trip and let me see the places I had heard about but never expected to see. 

I got back to Durban in the evening, rejoined the ship and we sailed for home the following day. One extra twist was that in order to leave the ship I had to sign off Articles. This required a vice-consul from the British consulate to come down and witness the act and then for him to return to witness when I signed on again after my return to Durban. Luckily he was always visiting us in port and so it was easily arranged with his normal duties for us. 

Durban in the summer could be a very hot, sticky place - I remember a few times when the heat and humidity became so bad that any effort or worse, prolonged work inside the ship, made you feel instantly tired and worn out. This was even harder on sailing day when we had a large crowd of new passengers to take on and process. We then had that night to prepare all the passenger lists for arrival in East London the next morning. The rest of the coast was more agreeable.

In September 1966 we docked in Cape Town, from England, the morning after the assassination of the Prime Minister of South Africa, Dr. Verwoerd, in the Parliamentary chamber in Cape Town. We heard the news of the stabbing on the radio the afternoon before and were not certain what we would meet when we arrived. As it turned out and we learned later, the assassin was a Greek immigrant and so the racial upsets or riots that could have followed any uncertainty did not happen and the news of the murderer's identity became quickly known. 

Christmas 1966 was spent in South Africa and we were at sea between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, heading back to Table Bay on the actual day. The officers got dressed up in crepe paper and white pie ruffs, making us look like choir boys and girls and we toured the ship on the evening of the Eve singing carols, the only time I ever did that at sea. On Christmas day we also followed another tradition and the officers went to the crew's mess and we served them their Christmas Dinner. Fun was had by all but it was also a light hearted and happy event and none of the crew took unfair advantage of the situation. On Boxing Day we sailed into Cape Town at 6am for two and a half days stopover before sailing for England on Wednesday. 

By now the staff had been increased in numbers. We had a new Chief Purser who controlled a combined Purser and Catering staff, but otherwise had no direct duties beyond being the most senior officer of our group. For the newer faster schedule, the old arrangement for the Crew Purser's office no longer worked and so each passenger mail ship carried an additional Assistant Purser whose sole duties were to look after crew matters and prepare the Payroll, or Portage Bill as it was called. I did this duty for one trip but was otherwise lucky to retain the Bureau and Entertainment duties for all the other full trips on the "Edinburgh".

The Portage Bill purser did not handle any cash and so even the Bureau purser had a lot of contact with crew members. It was he who still paid out all cash advances on the voyage at intervals, usually once southbound before docking in Cape Town, others twice on the coast and then once more on the homeward trip. Department heads would collect requests by each of the crew and we had to check to see if this was in bounds from their other wage commitments. Over time, I preferred to seek out those who asked for more than they had earned net at that point, to stave off arguments in the "Pig and Whistle" when I paid out their money accompanied by the Masters-at-Arms. With that long, continuous spell on the "Edinburgh" I knew all crew by name and tried to create an atmosphere of mutual respect when dealing with their requests or demands.

I had one bad experience with a colleague whom I trusted when dealing with cash. We often gave IOUs to each other when temporarily swapping money. Once, when I returned the borrowed notes, he claimed to have mislaid the IOU but I stupidly believed his assurance he would tear it up when it surfaced. Days later he claimed not to remember the return but had now found my IOU. He was adamant and the Purser had little choice but to make us share loss of the missing sum.  

The Bureau role required constant contact with senior leading hands as well, to gather items for accounts we needed to raise for crew, officers and passengers at intervals during the trip. The Laundryman, Chief Barman and Chief Storekeeper each provided details to keep me up to date on all charges I needed to collect. To help prepare forms for arrival in each port, we also needed figures and input from all departments on the ship. Over time these meetings led to an easy friendship and I enjoyed the chance to become involved in many aspects of the smooth running of the ship, along with other officers. Our role kept us central and in touch with everything going on.

They added the rank of Hostess, an opportunity to allow the girls to progress and the main job was as a roving hostess to assist with entertainments; chat with and help passengers on a one on one basis throughout the trip; run some of the tournaments in the mornings; and, to prepare and present port talks to tell passengers about the attractions on each stopover and advise on tours and trips they could take ashore. This meant that we usually now had five female officers on board; two Purser's Clerks, or Purserettes as they were sometimes called, one in each bureau, the Hostess, the Nursing Sister and a Children's Hostess. 

We had a great team on the ship and one of the best Minstrel shows I was ever in. It was organized by the Chief Barman who had been on the same ship for many years. He drilled us, arranged our costumes and orchestrated the show and songs that we sang. There were often seven of us, four guys and three women, maybe the two Purser's Clerks and Hostess and sometimes other female officers. A few times we expanded to nine. One trip we also put on a second officers' show when about ten of us, under the direction of the professional dance couple, put on an exhibition of  'Zorba's Dance',  and that was a lot of fun too if hard to learn.

About this time my brother's wife gave birth to their first child and I was asked to be his godfather. As they wanted to have this carried out in Worcester Cathedral, the Dean had a few words to say about it. Close to the end of the war, things got a bit hectic for my mother and our part of London was subject to both doodlebugs and V2 rockets exploding every so often. In all this my christening had been overlooked, although my brother had had his service before in quieter times. It now became necessary for this to be corrected although the Dean would also have preferred that I had been confirmed too. On one of my last visits to Cape Town I contacted a friend who was a suburban Anglican priest, who I had met onboard ship a while before, when he helped to teach me contract bridge on lazy afternoons. He drew the line at instant confirmation but at least saw no problem with a convenient baptism. The Dean accepted this after a hurried service had been conducted and so the christening took place while I was on leave not long afterwards.  

L'amour could regularly raise its head on board. Female members of the crew, the five officers and about twenty or so stewardesses or laundry women, could and did enter into relationships with other crew, but they were mainly kept quiet and restrained in public. On the Transvaal Castle, later the SA Vaal, jealousy was more of a problem because she was the first to use waitresses, instead of stewards, in the Dining Saloon. It was also well known that some homosexual affairs took place and were generally tolerated as long as people were private and discreet. Senior officers could bring their wives with them on occasion, sharing their cabin, but otherwise acting very much like a passenger. Captains could take their wives on one trip a year, I believe, and others maybe once every two years, effectively travelling for free, signed onto articles as a Supernumerary.

Affairs could also very easily happen between passengers and crew, mostly the officers, as they had the run of the ship. Young women, mostly in Tourist, would often want and seek short term relationships with an officer during their trip. Mostly this meant public meetings and sharing of the entertainments on offer, and some escorted tours of the accommodation, but such matters needed also to be discreet. One occasion, this got out of hand and a senior officer was carpeted by the Captain after being observed leaving a passenger's cabin late at night. This was logged and the officer in question was confined to his cabin when not on duty, for the remainder of that voyage. Another time it was the Captain himself, who was known to be often entertaining one particular passenger. This became awkward, as his wife often travelled on that ship and was much admired and liked by all the officers, but somehow they needed to tolerate this unusual situation.    

After about eight months I was beginning to feel I was in a bit of a rut and the routine of the port calls seemed to become much like a bus service with little variation. There was not much choice or variety though as we had lost the East Coast route and now there were just the five ships on the Mail run, the "CapeTown" doing similar trips and the cruise ship "ss Reina Del Mar". She was not easy to get posted to as she spent summers cruising European waters, mainly the Mediterranean, and then in the winter she cruised the South African coast with a few trips from Cape Town over to South America, Rio and Buenos Aires. This made it a seemingly good posting for any officer. 

There were now just seven passenger ships as against the twelve in the fleet when I joined two and a half years before. This meant that there were many staff people ashore, perhaps on unpaid leave when they ran out of earned paid leave. Luckily I had never been in this position and I had a lot of leave still due. It also meant that some Pursers were now having to sail as 2nd Pursers and others had to face temporary demotion to stay at sea. It confirmed my view that any further promotion for me would be a long way off but I felt I needed a new challenge and perhaps sail on one of the newer ships. When in Southampton I would ask about such possibilities when I met the new Superintendent Purser and left it to him to see if anything could be done.

R.M.S. Windsor Castle

After one more full trip I got  a pleasant surprise and was told I was to join the "RMS Windsor Castle", but as she was at sea I would have to make the transfer in Cape Town. Our ships always crossed paths there as the southbound ship arrived early in the morning each Wednesday while the northbound ship did not leave until the afternoon, 4pm the same day. This therefore meant a fast change as I had duties on arrival from England and yet had to be packed and signed off Articles by lunch so I could cross the harbour and join the new ship. It was a bit of a rush but I made it with time to spare and was signed onto Articles just before we sailed north, back to England. That was my fastest stay and turnaround in the port, and within eleven hours I was back at sea again with another 6,000 mile journey ahead of me.

A rumour had been started on the "Windsor", before I joined the ship, that I was the younger brother of a very well know British TV personality, Bamber Gascoigne. I did not discover this until later. As a result my initial treatment on board was anything but normal. I was welcomed by everyone and they were all very friendly from the start although I knew almost no-one from previous ships. It was also odd when I started to get invitations to parties with senior officers and was the only junior officer from the Purser's staff asked to attend. One was the golden wedding anniversary for the Commodore Chief Engineer and I realized I was the only junior officer from any department. This was odd too because on my previous ships, almost all officers' parties included all staff in all departments and very few were restricted in attendance. 

The final clue came about three days out at sea when I needed to go to the Captain's cabin for his signature on cables we were sending home to Head Office. He asked me to confirm the rumour and was a bit shocked when I said I was no relative of his as far as I knew. I pointed out that our names were not even spelled the same. Well that did it. He must have told the senior officers at their next meeting and the invitations stopped instantly. My treatment returned to normal and I saw that this ship was no friendlier than others, in fact it proved to be one of the coldest ships I was even on. I found it amusing in hindsight that people's attitudes and behaviour towards me could be so influenced by such a minor matter - well of minor importance in my opinion at least.

As the flag ship and largest in the fleet, she had a larger Purser's staff than normal and I was placed as the Assistant Purser working in the Tourist Class Bureau. As before I was in charge of the office as well as mostly running the entertainments for that class. The 2nd Purser was the man I had sailed with on the "CapeTown Castle" as Purser and we had got along fine. He liked to delegate much of the work and entertainment duties and this was fine with me. His office was next to the bureau but separate and so really looked very much like the Purser's setup on most of our ships. We continued to get along well and it was a good partnership. Our accommodation was just forward of the Tourist Class Bureau, abaft of midships, well back on the Port side of C Deck. No teak, but spacious. 

The other staff in that Bureau were good and it was a happy shop. Unfortunately that was the extent of it. The Purser and his staff in First Class seemed a rather remote lot. Luckily we saw very little of them. Their attitude was also the norm for many of the other officers on board. Radio and deck officers kept pretty distant much of the time and no-one else seemed to want to mix or talk with the Engineering officers. This affected the overall atmosphere and thus the whole ship seemed to be so cold. It was certainly the worst I had encountered and was harder because these officers had to share a few tables in the First Class Saloon for all our meals. I continued my normal attitudes and still had Engineers and others regularly join in the officers' races and events that I ran.

The ship was still relatively new and instead of the veneered teak  we now had a light coloured Formica on most of the bulkheads and passageways. This just made it feel even colder added to the air conditioning throughout the ship that always seemed to be set so low. Most of the time in the tropics I needed to wear a sweater to keep warm in the Bureau. This made it hard when you went out on deck into temperatures over 90 degrees and then returned to the cool insides before too long. I seemed to have a cold or the sniffles on and off for much of the time, and no wonder. 

I learned from this that the older ships not only had the warmest atmosphere of any in the fleet but that the ambiance on those ships was far better than the feel of the new ships and the new materials they were built and decorated with. The older ships also used to make a great wooden creaking noise in any real sea - it was said "if she creaks she will not crack". I used to love it with those noises and the ropes they would string up in open, internal spaces in real rough weather so passengers could safely move around if we heaved violently or suddenly. The new ships were devoid of such noises or sensations and good memories of storms when you had your sea legs.

The next full voyage had a few good memories but those occurred in my cabin. Along with one of the clerks in my bureau we checked out the models for sale in the shop.  He had chosen the  "HMS Victory" and I bought the "Golden Hind", Drake's ship. We then sat down to paint and build our models over the next few weeks in the early evenings. Such past-times had never been necessary on any other ship. Sailing out of Cape Town up the coast, I started to paint the hull of my model ship a deep brown that I mixed up from my set of paints. I made enough for the complete job and all the other decks, spars and masts that should be the same colour. There must have been a dull film on that night so I settled in for a long evening's work. 

Before too long we had rounded Cape Agulhas, the most southerly point in Africa and the weather seemed to get even worse. It had been blowing a bit but now I guess we began to take the weather more on the beam and the winds rose to about force nine, just below storm force. The ship started to roll violently in the corkscrew pattern, when you get a combination of rolling and pitching at the the same time and you start to pitch, roll, pitch and roll in sequence. She had stabilizers but they had little effect or so it seemed that night and less as the winds later rose to a full storm. By then I was committed to my painting job and so I wedged myself in between my bunk and the desk and  finished the job anyway, with my sea legs well honed by then nothing was going to upset me. Before the end of the voyage we had both finished our models and they looked great in their fresh paint. I kept that model for years until it finally fell apart from too many moves. 

A few days later while still in the painting phase, the 3rd Officer came down to my cabin for a drink with a few of us but then stayed on as they left. I had to go out to set up the entertainment for a short while but when I returned he was still there with a smile on his face. I then saw that he had been busy at work in my absence. I had a large poster on the wall above my bunk , showing a painting of one of our East Coast ships entering Dar-es-Salaam harbour - it could even have been the "Braemar". This was a famous poster that Union-Castle used to advertise "The Big Ship Way to Africa" and I had been lucky enough to get a copy on a duty call to our sales office in Bond Street in London some months past. 

He had repainted the funnel on that ship to have two red rings on a black background. These were the colours of the Clan Line cargo ships, our sister fleet also under the ownership of the British and Commonwealth Shipping Company. Lucky for me he left the hull lavender instead of their normal black He was mainly a Clan Line officer but like many others he occasionally was asked to fill in on the Mail ships when they needed deck officers. I left the poster the way he painted it and many years later even had it laminated and it still hangs above my bed at home to this day.

That trip north to Southampton from Cape Town did have one unusual occurrence. For some publicity purposes, a race was staged between the "Windsor Castle" and a Ford rally car. The two drivers and backup team were on the dock in Cape Town as we sailed at 4pm. The car then set off overland to try to get to Southampton before the ship, on our normal schedule. They drove up through the Transvaal and then the Rhodesias and continued north. They were forced to fly over three countries who would not co-operate, then eventually they crossed over to the west coast and through Nigeria to make the Saharan crossing on the old camel tracks near Timbuktu. The route also took them to Tangiers and over to Gibraltar for the simple trip home on European roads through Spain and France and across the Channel by ferry. We received some notes of their progress as we sailed north but not too much detail. When we docked on schedule they were there waiting for us. I don't remember that much of the rest of the world, let alone England, knew or cared about the race or its outcome.

S.S. Reina Del Mar

I was still feeling rather bored with the routine nature of our voyages and was now not too happy with my surroundings. I felt therefore that I had not too much to lose by requesting another change. If this upset them I was near to making the decision to leave and start a real career ashore anyway. I had just not yet determined what that career should be. My luck seemed to hold and I was reassigned to the "ss Reina Del Mar" when we got back to Southampton, after only half a  week off. She sailed on two week cruises and it was usual to stay on her for up to four trips in a row, take a trip off for leave and a rest, then rejoin. The cruises left from Southampton  and mostly headed south. This was May 1967 and the summer was just starting in Europe.

Initially I was working in the Crew Office looking after wages and crew matters but also rotated and some trips I was in the one Bureau as she was a one class steamship of about 20,000 tons, 600 feet long and 78 feet wide, with up to 950 passengers, with all upper berths filled. She was also reputed to have the longest bar of any ship afloat. About 15 years old she had been built for the South American trade but was now under charter to us since early 1965. The holds had been converted to cabins and the lounge was extended out over the foredeck which is also where that bar was built from one side to the other of the ship in an arc. A cinema was also added just forward of the funnel. The Pursers' accommodation was mostly in converted passenger cabins, decks down in the old cargo holds, but close to the Crew Office, abaft on the Starboard side.

I think I was filling in for one of the more regular members of the Purser's staff and so did not really expect to get the chance to go down to Cape Town and over to South America that coming winter. I was happy enough though to be on a new routine and to sail to a few more places and ports that were new to me. There was one oddity aboard - an all Chinese crewed laundry - taken on as a group with their own leader and not individually. Most of them could not speak or understand any English and we had to deal almost entirely with their leaders. They even employed their own cook and ate and lived separately to the rest of the crew. 

The atmosphere was far better than on the flag ship except for one small problem, not just restricted to the Pursers. Most of the ship's company seemed to feel that cruise passengers were expecting some kind of a holiday camp at sea and were somehow not too sophisticated or worldly. In Britain at that time there were a series of holiday camps on land run by Butlin's that had a very low image for most people as they were intended to be cheap and to cater to the 'working classes'. (Years later after emigrating to Canada, I finally realized how class ridden a society there still was in Britain and how much it permeated much of daily life in the country.)

This attitude had never prevailed on the other ships but it seemed deep rooted on this one. This meant that there was little respect for our passengers and many people almost looked down on them even if they were our bread and butter and they had to pay a high fee to cruise with us. In the time I was on her, this atmosphere never changed and I guessed never would. It spoiled the ship and affected everything that happened on her. Some of the Purser's staff also made a practice of skimming an amount off the top of money related entertainments such as the totes on races or for Tombola sessions. They then shared it out amongst themselves. I was invited to join the group and help out. I refused to assist and so they made sure I was never responsible for money transactions and accounting for those events. They said that this happened on other ships too but it was the first and only time I encountered it, let alone heard of it in all my years at sea.

Apart from that the officers were pretty friendly amongst each other and I knew a few of the others in the Purser's office, although the level of officers' parties was not up to that of the Mail ships. The Captain was also once the same one on the last voyage of the "Braemar". Here we formed a song and dance group to entertain on the Edwardian Night that we ran each cruise, instead of the Minstrels from the Mail ships and so this was another welcomed change. We had a larger entertainment load as it was thought appropriate to run events all day, morning afternoon and evening when at sea and even some times when in a foreign port. 

Instead of just the one money change we handled on the Cape Town run, we were now faced with multiple languages, currencies and postage stamps for all those countries. Tours were a big matter too as most passengers wanted to have planned trips in each port rather than organizing their own days ashore. This all rather reminded me of the bureau work on the East African run.

The four trips I made were all different. The first one took us to Cadiz, Cannes, Barcelona and then Gibraltar before returning to Southampton. We would dock at 6am and have a fast turnaround and swap of all passengers and then sail again by 7pm that same evening. We should have called at Tangiers on this and Casablanca the next trip but a war between Israel and Egypt had erupted and it was considered too dangerous for a British ship to visit a Muslim country. There had already been anti-western protests and riots in Morocco and some Arab countries by then. Both times Gibraltar was the substitute stop. The second trip went to Gibraltar, Las Palmas, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Madeira, Lisbon and home again. Next we went to Gibraltar, Nice, Genoa, Naples and Lisbon before returning to Southampton. These were great tours and involved many days at sea between stops. We got a lot of time off in port and were able to get ashore, even get away inland in a hired car if we wanted. Added to that it was summer and the North Atlantic in those latitudes and the Mediterranean  were sunny and hot most of the time.

The last of the four was the best though and very unusual. We sailed for Hamburg, Copenhagen, Leningrad and finally Bergen. Till then no adult passenger ship had been allowed to visit the Soviet Union or Russia. One year before, a British ship had visited Leningrad but the passengers were almost entirely British school children on an organized educational cruise. That had gone well and so the Russians decided to let us be the first adult ship in 1967. We had just the one cruise there and on that depended their attitude to future stops by other western cruise ships.  

The passage initially went well and the first two stops were interesting and went according to plan. The trip to Leningrad though had to be done at full speed because someone in London had made a basic mistake. They had assumed a certain routing past Copenhagen and Sweden on our passage but our navigators noted that we needed to change that as our draft would not allow us to safely pass through one particular channel. We had to make a longer passage by another route and through deeper channels between the islands of the Kattegat, before entering the Baltic. 

We eventually approached the Gulf of Finland and then cruised past the islands and area that led up to Leningrad. This was even more interesting as we passed the berths and pens used by the Soviet submarine fleet at Kronshtadt, crowded with subs of all ages, sizes and shapes. We advised people not to photograph them but there was little way to enforce that. The same was requested for the docks area in Leningrad and on the roads into the City where we were asked not to take pictures of the women in the road repair gangs. In the docks there were many fishing vessels of all sizes and all of them bristled with hardware high on their masts and superstructure, looking like radar and satellite communications equipment that was mainly used to monitor and spy on western fleets and countries all over the world. Very few of the ships in port seemed to be normal and unenhanced.

We docked at about midnight and had to clear the ship with the authorities. Everyone had been warned to have a current passport and for crew to have their seaman's cards with their photograph or there was a risk they would not clear the entire ship. We had to gather and tag all these documents and have them in drawers for them to check and stamp. We would also have to go through the same routine for hours before they would let us leave. This would be made harder as everybody going ashore had to be given their document to carry and then hand them back in on their return to the ship. After the check they found that the Purser, of all people, had no acceptable document. After some confusion and a few drinks all round, they decided to accept his British driving license, even though in those days there was no photograph included. So much for their rules and our planning.

The ship also had to be cleared for customs and other matters and this meant a detailed inspection of the bars and shops as well as the paperwork we had prepared. As all this took place cartons of cigarettes and further unopened bottles of spirits were piled up in every corner of the room we were using to meet the officials. They were invited to help themselves and when a comment was made about some nice cameras in the shop, they were quickly produced and added to the collection, most of which quietly disappeared overnight. I never saw any hint that the officials were initially looking for such gifts, that we had been pre-warned or that they were needed before we would be cleared. It seemed more to me that the Purser and maybe some other senior officers had determined that this should just be offered to smooth our entry. Either way I thought at the time that the officials must have been horrified by the bribes but took them so as not to offend and to avail themselves of a golden opportunity in a country with many shortages. It also worried me that this would make them think this was normal practice in the west and maybe come to expect it of all other western contacts in future. I was appalled even if no-one else was. This scene was then repeated the next evening as we sought to get ourselves released from the port.

The following morning at about 7am we were cleared and passengers were allowed ashore to go on their tours to the palaces and sights in the city and surrounding countryside. Each bus had an Intourist guide as well as their tour leader. There may also have been others, planted to ensure safety and everybody stayed with the tour, that we did not know about. We were given an armed guard also on the end of the gangway although we realized later this was to keep the locals off our ship and not us on it. There was a large shop set up on the quay next to us where you could buy all sorts of Russian and Soviet souvenirs. For those going ashore but not on tours they laid on extra buses. In addition to their tour guides and staff they then required that we send a ship's officer on each of these buses. I was assigned to take one of these in midmorning and this is how I got ashore and into the City, otherwise it looked as if we would not get off at all. 

My bus drove into town and dropped our passengers at the Russian Museum just off  Nevsky Prospect, the main street near the river running through the City. It seemed that we were to wait there for two hours before returning so I wandered into the museum myself and took a tour round. As I was in uniform they did not charge me or there may have been no fee anyway. After that I walked round the park outside and back to the bus where the young Intourist girl was still sitting. By then many of the passengers had done the same and were also back at the bus. 

I talked to the girl and told her how much I liked the city and what I had hoped to be able to see before we had to leave. I listed the statue of Peter the Great, the cruiser "Aurora" that fired on the Winter Palace to start the revolution in 1917, The Winter Palace itself and the square outside where the troops fired on the people and the nearby Hermitage, plus other major sights and buildings of that great city, like the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Admiralty. She listened to all this and then went off to talk to the driver. She returned to say that as we had an hour to wait anyway, the driver was willing to take us round to all those places but we would not be able to get out and wander off on our own at all. I gathered up the passengers still waiting around and they all wanted to come too, so we set off. It was all very unofficial and I hope neither the guide or driver ever got into any trouble for it. 

They took us to all those places and then back to our park after about 45 minutes, so we could wait for the rest of the passengers to return to catch up and for us all to return to the ship. When in the Palace Square we saw them preparing rows of seating where they planned to hold the 50th anniversary of the revolution later in the year in November. As we still had a few minutes to wait I went round the corner to a nearby subway entrance and went down into the station. I had heard how magnificent were the interiors and also wanted to at least see a train. This I did somehow with my few words of Russian, using my entire vocabulary, although a Russian person had to feed the machine for me to let me into the station. I guess they thought I was a visiting Soviet naval officer. The station and trains were interesting but not as grand a style as those in Moscow. On the way back I dropped into a store on Nevsky just for tourists and brought a few things with English money and then dashed back to the bus. After a while we were all accounted for and so we set off back to the ship. I got a lot of time to talk to the girl from Intourist and her English was good. All in all this was a great experience and far more than I had expected. I enjoyed my short stay in what is now renamed St. Petersburg.

We cleared the ship without incident that evening and sailed not long after midnight. The visit to Bergen was also a highlight, as was the cruise up the fjords just to reach the town. After that it was back to England and some leave for me. At some point in the last few months I had arrived at a decision concerning my future. I'm not sure when but one day it all seemed clear as can be. I wanted to train as a Chartered Accountant as this seemed the best widely accepted qualification that also restricted you the least as to where and how you could use it. All companies needed accountants and there were also many other avenues you could follow. As training started each year in September, I was running out of time to make a final decision.

When we returned to Southampton from Bergen I informed the Superintendent Purser and my fellow officers I was resigning and going ashore for good. I did not do it sooner as I did not want to risk losing the trip to Russia. I was owed a lot of leave and so I worked out my notice using it without the need for me to do any more time or work with the company. I was finished with that ship it seemed and was to take indefinite shore leave, but was not sure where or when I would have been reassigned afterwards, so I never knew what I might have done next if I had not resigned. I did make one last trip to see the ship and meet up with a fellow officer when she next visited port but it was obvious that our futures lay apart and not in any way together. I moved back to London and started to think how I was going to run the rest of my life, after more than a quarter million miles of travel by ocean liner.   

List of my Ships and Trips                Photos and other material on the Union-Castle Line