I doubt that few cruise ships are as loved or mourned as the late, great SS. Canberra. She had a following that verged from loyal to fanatical and, indeed, she still does. Her game changing role in the Falklands War earned her the nickname of the ‘Great White Whale’, What follows are just a handful of recollections from sailing aboard her.
I did two cruises aboard the Canberra; the first was a seven night run down to Madeira and Vigo in the summer of 1985. Her paintwork was an absolute disgrace at the time. It looked as if she had just come back from the Falklands. To call her exterior ‘shabby’ is by no means an understatement.
The second trip was ten years later; a short, three day cruise over to Le Havre and Cherbourg in an unfeasible, balmy October 1995. This time, the proud old girl was immaculate; bridal white from stem to stern, and draped in welcoming signal flags. She was definitely quite a sight.
I remember the marble staircase that wound up to the Crow’s Nest Bar. On our first cruise, the Canberra rolled and pitched her way through Biscay like a demented dive bomber for hours on end. Just walking up that damned staircase could make people seasick in slow motion. In fact, it did. But the views out over from that fabulous room were incredible.
I remember watching the sun set in the same waters on our way back. Biscay was as still as a millpond that time. Falling into what looked like a sea of burning straw, the setting sun threw her two staunch, graceful funnels into sharp relief; they flared up like twin ramparts, proud and inviolate against the summer sky. It remains one of my most cherished shipboard memories to this day.
She was almost relentlessly British in temperament, much more so than the rival, highly American accented Queen Elizabeth 2. Many P&O loyalists would not have dreamed of touching the legendary Cunarder, and said so vociferously. On Canberra, you could always get a decent cup of tea, and the currency was always sterling, rather than dollars. For decades, those loyalists were the fuel that kept the ship running.
The Canberra had inside, four berth cabins down on G Deck without private facilities. Showers were down the hall. You could buy individual shared berths in those cabins at incredibly cheap rates. Most people today would shudder at the notion of such accommodation. It was, in fact, this lack of private in cabin facilities that ultimately doomed her. New SOLAS 1997 statutes made it seemingly uneconomical to update her. But back in the day, no-one seemed to mind the showers being just ‘down the hall’.
And the deck space seemed vast to me. There was never a problem with finding somewhere to lay down. Up forward, the steel promenade deck was coated in green paint, and it had the most exquisite upward sheer. It merely accentuated the incredibly fine lines of one of the most beautiful ships ever to cut salt water.
Of course, sometimes she didn’t ‘cut’ so much as hack her way through the sea. In bad weather, the Canberra had a level of stability roughly comparable to that of the late Colonel Gaddafi. if ever a ship could have rolled the milk out of your morning cuppa, it was surely her.
Yet anyone with even a shred of human empathy would forgive her these little foibles. First and foremost, the Canberra was a lady and, like many ladies, she was fickle, quirky, and prone to sudden mood swings. To be honest, it was a huge part of her charm. I smile thinking about it even now.
And what emotions she aroused! The Southampton send offs were amazing affairs, with a quayside band thumping gamely away at everything from ‘Rule Britannia’ to ‘Copacabana’ as the side of the ship vanished beneath a technicolor torrent of paper streamers. The whole vast, soaring flank of the Canberra seemed to be wreathed in a rainbow. There’s no doubt that the people of Southampton absolutely adored her.
Those are just a few of my memories; an affectionate take on a ship that inspired great affection in all who were lucky enough to know her. I’ll always remember those two graceful funnels, proud against the falling sun, until the day I die. And for that, I will always be grateful,