The stay at Colombo was longer, no tying up to a wharf; we lay at anchor instead. But there was a regular
service by ship’s tender to and from the dockside or, for a few rupees, you could get a local waterman to
ferry you to and fro. Colombo was interesting and, if you had time, you could get up to Kandy. Many
passengers did but I never went myself. But Colombo offered other attractions. You could buy Ceylonese
tea at a very low price; it was beautiful tea, pale in color with a subtle fragrance and leaves when wet that
were as big as your fingernail. I took two or three pounds home with me each time, where they were very
You could also buy gemstones: white sapphires, green zircon, tourmaline in various colors,
amethyst, citrine, different types of garnet or lapis lazuli. All were reasonably priced but the best buys,
without doubt, were silk kimonos. These were not local but came from further east. They were
magnificent, made of heavy silk and available in many colors—black, gold, scarlet, emerald, sapphire and
lined usually in white. The back would be embroidered with brilliant, ornate designs—peacock feather, dragons, poppies,
sun flowers, the tree of life—with a belt in the form of a tie, the ends of which would reflect the colors of
the motif on the back. These were given a warm welcome by girlfriends at home and, with luck, that warmth
would extend to the bearer of the goods.
From Colombo, it’s south and a little east down through the Indian Ocean to Australia. Again,
lovely weather, very hot but hardly any motion of the ship other than a slow, gentle roll. Oronsay, it seems,
was prone to this and old hands used to say that she would roll in a field of wet grass. For the first time, I
saw dolphins which would play around the ship. Also, there were shoals of brightly-colored flying fish
which emerged from one wave, flew across the trough and disappeared into the next.
The first Australian port was Fremantle, another dry, hot, dusty town with tin-roofed buildings; we
discharged passengers and cargo and picked up supplies. From Fremantle south, then east across the great
Australian bight to Adelaide for a brief stop, then on to Melbourne. It was in Melbourne that I blotted my
copy book by going ashore and missing a lunch. As a result, I received an invitation from the master to join
him on the bridge where I was duly logged, fined ten shillings and forfeited eight-shillings-and-tuppence
pay. I was a “shellback” at last! However, since I got a double VG (“very good”) at the end of the voyage,
it couldn’t have been too serious.
On the next voyage, my brother-in-law gave me a letter of introduction to some friends of his who
lived in Brighton, a suburb of Melbourne; this led to a pleasant excursion. Also, Bill Keating, the salad man,
with whom I was friendly, on the first voyage paid off in Melbourne when we were homeward bound as he
was engaged to an Australian girl. On the next voyage, I took a couple of suitcases of his belongings out to
him, delivered to Tilbury by a mutual friend. Bill was living in Glengarry and he took me there. These two
excursions gave me a little acquaintances with Melbourne.
From Melbourne, it’s ‘round to Sydney where we stayed for about a week. Because of some ruling,
it was not permitted to take cooked meat into Sydney so any that remained uneaten had to be dumped
overboard after dinner the night before docking. It seemed a criminal waste to see wing ribs of beef, legs,
shoulders and loins of lambda pork going through the gun port door. Rumor had it that not all of it went
overboard, that some found its way into certain restaurants in the city but this may just have been sailors’
The ship virtually emptied of passengers in Sydney and the tourist pantry closed down. This meant
you could get whole days off so Sydney became very familiar. It seemed to have an American feeling about
it, due no doubt to the influence of American servicemen during the war. I remember air-conditioned
cinemas with No Smoking (an excellent idea), also milk bars on practically every corner selling milk in a
whole variety of flavors: raspberry, strawberry, apricot, chocolate and my favorite, malt, not to mention
One little oddity concerning pay took place in Sydney. For some reason, all overtime pay had to be
drawn, it could not be left in the ship. This was, of course, useful, as being in Sydney for a week, money was
required for cabs, cinemas, the odd meal, a trip to Luna Park or whatever. In fact, it was rarely enough but
there was one way of supplementing one’s funds and that was by running ‘bloods.’
The term ‘bloods’ meant fare-paying passengers, but pantrymen could derive their own perks, not
from passengers but from crew (wingers). Many wingers preferred eating dining saloon food to that in the
crew’s mess and so would arrange, for an agreed sum, to have a pantryman provide them with at least one
good meal a day, usually dinner. About four bloods were enough to run, any more than that and it became
difficult to maintain standards. The tariff was usually five pounds from Tilbury to Sydney and the same
back. The trans-Pacific voyage was about eight pounds. So, to pick up an extra 20 pounds in Sydney to add
to your overtime would give you perhaps 30 or 40 pounds to spend, quite a lot in 1954.
Toward the end of the Sydney stay, passengers began to embark and the atmosphere changed.
These were not emigrants seeking a new life but people on holiday and cruising for pleasure. No passengers
on H deck, menus became more varied, vegetarian meals were offered as standard and there were gala
evenings and fancy dress dances.
The first cruise would be a short one: From Sydney to Auckland, then north to Fiji and back to
Sydney was a typical itinerary. Fiji was my first “tropical” island. I remember going ashore and walking the
short distance into town and coming face to face with Boots the Chemist, complete with Philips Milk of
Magnesia. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they had sold Thermogene—a little disillusioning.
However, Fiji had a magnificent police force. They grew wonderful hair-styles, not unlike a round
bearskin. The rest of their uniforms comprised a white shirt and a calf-length skirt in a mixture of brown colors, the hem of which was cut in a large sharks tooth pattern.
Fiji was also a good place to buy coral, always a welcome gift at home. Some of it was dyed in garish colors
but natural colors were also plentiful.
The next leg of the cruise began again from Sydney, the first part much the same as the short
cruise. But from Suva, we steamed north and a little east to Honolulu, crossing the line on the way; much
merry-making among the passengers. It was such occasions as this and the afore-mentioned gala evenings
that gave us in the pantry a work-up preparing trays of canapes. This was where Big George came into his
own.There seemed to be no end to what he could do with sardines, eggs, olives (black, green or stuffed),
anchovies, ham, cheese, radishes, tomatoes, mock caviar (we are still down aft, cruise or no cruise), prawns,
shrimp, capers, mayonnaise etc.
Another happening at this time was conducting parties of passengers on tours of various parts of
the ship and this included pantries and the galley. Everyone was expected to wear freshly laundered working
clothes (incidentally, there was an excellent laundry on board so we did not have to do any washing
ourselves). Our language had to be moderated as well—”Oh dash!” or “Bother!” being about the limit. It
was both something and nothing; passengers rarely spoke to you and their tour was all over in a minute or
Honolulu was a disappointment, even in 1954 it was little more than an American town. Not that
there is anything wrong with American towns but not in the Hawaiian Islands.
Everything was somehow
artificial, you got the impression that the grass skirts and the leis they gave away were not the genuine
article. I suppose they had to be imitation or the place would have been denuded of vegetation.
From Honolulu, we sailed north and east to San Francisco, a great place, an absolute delight. We
didn’t have long ashore but two or three of us would hire a cab and ask the driver to give us a tour of his
city. He was always a warm-hearted chap, as so many Americans are, and entered into the spirit of things.
He showed us Market Street and the cable cars, Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf as well as the Italian
quarter where we ate pasta in the new Pizza Bar. I still have a souvenir book of matches some 15 inches long
containing about 200 strikes.
But a greater delight was turning a corner and seeing a large black marble fascia in which was
carved, in gold letters, the words Wells Fargo. Until that moment, Wells Fargo to me had been a mythical
Hollywood device, an American western movie with bandits attacking the Wells Fargo stagecoach with
John Wayne riding shotgun; now, no longer, Wells Fargo was a reality. Ah, San Francisco, a place to visit
We steamed out of the port, past Alcatraz, under the golden gate bridge and headed north. People
tell me the approach to Vancouver is beautiful. When we arrived after a roughish passage through a raw,
wet, misty drizzle, it was winter, of course. There was time only for brief visit ashore to buy a memento and
for a drink in the most utterly soulless bar in the world. Australian bars along the waterfront are not known
for their atmosphere but any New Yorker or Montgomery was as the Ritz compared to this place. Never in
a million years could the fluid we drank be described as beer; it was difficult to describe it as anything. It
was dispensed not from a hand pump or a bottle but by the barman operating a tap at the end of a flexible
pipe. He strode up and down behind he bar, squirting that fluid into small glasses—about a third of pint.
You didn’t approach the bar but sat at small, dripping wet tables and held up one finger; immediately, a
waiter would deliver two glasses. Hold up two fingers. you got four, and soon. Not a happy visit. I decided
to withhold judgment until a future date but, unhappily, I never went back.
From Vancouver, it was south again into more bad weather, heavy seas and a full gale, so bad that
the steel deadlights on F deck had to be closed. We had two spells of bad weather in the Pacific, this one and
another later on in the southwest. During one of these—I cannot remember which—the motion was so
violent as to render the dining saloon completely untenable, closing the galley for the day. On occasions like
this, or more particularly when disembarkation at the end of a voyage coincided with a meal time, a packed
lunch would be provided.
To make up picnic lunches for several hundred people was a real work-up. The procedure was
follows: One of the stainless steel tables was covered with slices of bread. There would be room for about
six from front to back, running the full length of the surface for several feet. Using very soft butter and a
large brush, you would butter every slice.
Imagine, if you will, the rows of buttered bread numbered one through six from front to back. The
even numbers were left buttered and the fillings—whether ham, corned beef (we are still down aft,
remember), cheese and pickle would be placed on the odd numbers. Then we’d fold the even numbers over
and—presto-changeo—”sarnies!” Then they were trimmed, cut diagonally and placed in a paper bag,
together with a piece of cake and an apple or something of that nature.
The bad weather didn’t last long and we were soon steaming beneath a hot sun, with blue seas,
dolphins and flying fish. The flying fish in the Pacific never seem as bright as those in the Indian Ocean or
perhaps that’s only in my imagination.
PThe voyage across the Pacific was much the same as outbound. The odd boat drill and captain’s
rounds; the latter were eye-openers. Having just completed my national service with clear memories of our
commanding officer’s inspection and his fanatical obsession with neatness, those somewhat perfunctory
shipboard inspections by a chap with a telescope clamped under his arm came as a surprise and an
We did make one extra call on the way back to Sydney and that was at Hobart; I liked it very much
and wish we had stayed in port longer. From Sydney, we sailed on one more short cruise before the long
voyage home. The itinerary should have included Suva but because of bad weather, we diverted to Noumea
in New Caledonia, a French colony. It was here that I had one of the most lasting experiences of my life;
though neither exciting nor dramatic, it will live with me forever.
French colonies had a very different feel about them from those of Britain. British ones are very
much broad daylight, baggy shorts and a whiff of carbolic; whereas the French are definitely after dark,
reeking of Gauloise and a slight hint of decadence. Mind you, I say that as an ardent francophile.
I went ashore first thing in the morning and wandered about town. The architecture was unmistakably
French, with shutters and wrought ironwork. I remember buying a little black lacquered box to take home as
a present for someone. That evening after dinner, two or three of us went ashore again. It was quite dark and
we went into a little bar, just like one of hundreds scattered throughout the South Pacific. A small,
three-piece combo was playing in one corner accompanying a girl dancer. She was not dancing the
slow-moving, hula-type dances of Hawaii, but something with a very rapid hip movement.
Stretching almost the full length of the rear wall was a bar, to the left of which was a door leading
to the rear. Behind the bar were two or three local girls serving drinks. We each bought ourselves a glass of
After a while, I found myself standing at the back of the room, looking through the open door. I
could see an indigo blue sky bright with stars. The band had fallen quiet. Stretching away to my left was the
bar, behind which two of the girls were talking between themselves; a third was moving among the tables,
collecting glasses. In the middle of the room, a small group of expatriate Frenchmen stood together. Dressed
in shabby linen suits and Panamas that had seen better days, they smoked thin cheroots, the smoke of which
wreathed the air above them.
I suddenly thought to myself: “This is Somerset Maugham and I’m part of it.”
(On this haunting note, Mr. Gower concludes reminiscing about his life aboard Oronsay. Articulate and
accurate memoirs from crew decks aboard ocean liners are few and far between and we are indebted to Mr.
Gower, not only for his keen recall of galley life on the run to the far side of the globe but additionally, for
his kindness in submitting his grandfather’s earlier memoir about crew life aboard Ruapehu.This final
episode is being transcribed aboard Sky Princess en route to Sydney, sailing through the same waters
about which Mr. Gower writes so evocatively. Later today, the pages of his manuscript are going to be lent to Constantino Baldassarre, your Editor’s
dining room captain, who was also a dining room captain when the vessel entered service as Sitmar’s
Fairsky in 1984. It would not be surprising if Constantino found much that was familiar throughout Gower’s
memoir. Shipboard’s backstage life, whether on yesterday’s liners or today’s cruise ships, remains
surprisingly and reassuringly similar.)