THE SOUTHERN CROSS; THE END OF CTC CRUISES

The Southern Cross

The Southern Cross

For many years from the 60’s onwards, CTC was a regular player in the UK cruise market. Operating mainly with a constantly changing roster of the ‘white sisters’ that were built to operate as partial car ferries in the Baltic, and such stalwarts as the Mikhail Lermontov (which sank off New Zealand in 1986) and the Alexsandr Pushkin, still going strong as the Marco Polo, it introduced generations of British passengers to budget cruising.

It was, in fact, the Airtours of it’s day; more downmarket and, for many, more homely than the likes of P&O and Cunard. CTC was a valuable source of foreign currency revenue for the Soviet Union and, for a few decades, it did good enough business.

The CTC ships used to sail predominantly from Tilbury, and sometimes from Liverpool in season. But when the line acquired the Southern Cross in 1994, it introduced what amounted to the first real programme of regional sailings ever seen in the UK.

Built in 1971 as the original Sun Princess, the Southern Cross was sold to CTC by Premier Cruises, for whom she had been operating in the Bahamas as the Starship Majestic. CTC was intending to follow it’s traditional programme; sailing the ship to Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and the Canaries during summer, and sending her on a line voyage to and from Australia each autumn and spring respectively.

The company did very little to her by way of change; even her deep red, ‘coke tin’ Premier paint scheme was left intact. At 17,000 tons, the Southern Cross was a good fit size wise for the average CTC passenger. She had small cabins, and a centrally located pool that was not much bigger than a postage stamp.  Still, she was to prove initially popular.

What was different was that you could board her in several UK ports; Liverpool, Greenock, Tilbury, and even Bristol were all on the menu, In effect, she introduced what the Americans would subsequently call ‘homeland cruising’ many years before 9/11. Both Fred. Olsen and Cruise And Maritime now follow a programme that was actually initiated by this ex- Russian import.

Artwork for the Southern Cross. CTC seemed to have everything invested in this ship.

Artwork for the Southern Cross. CTC seemed to have everything invested in this ship.

Often as not, the Southern Cross would reposition between two ports, such as Liverpool and Greenock. These trips would be offered as two night party cruises, and they were very popular. It was in this guise that I first sailed on her in August of 1995.

She was a trim, tidy little ship, with passable food and entertainment and, like her predecessors, she offered outstanding value for money. Then, after a couple of seasons, she- and CTC- were suddenly gone. The line quite simply sank without trace.

I caught up with her again a few years later, when she was sailing for Festival Cruises as the Flamenco. By then, her hull had been painted white, with a blue and yellow stripe at the top. Internally, she was almost exactly as I remembered her from the CTC era. However, they had kicked the food service up by quite a notch. I spent a very enjoyable week sailing the Baltic on her. She remained a very pleasant and appealing little ship even then.

Incredibly, she is still going strong, now apparently working as a cruise ship for the Chinese market, but she must surely be on borrowed time now. Like her contemporaries such as the Cunard Adventurer, Song Of Norway and, of course, the Pacific Princess, a sad end is probably not too far away for her.

Still, this diminutive little lady was the ship that premiered regional sailings from UK ports. Small and largely unsung, she left behind a legacy that continues on to this day. She should be remembered for that alone.

WINTER MELODY- WHAT’S NEXT FOR MSC’S PRODIGAL CHILD? (06/12 UPDATE)

The laid up MSC Melody could be a candidate for start up operator, Royal Asian Cruise Line, or for a more established operator such as Louis Cruises

The laid up MSC Melody could be a candidate for start up operator, Royal Asian Cruise Line, or for a more established operator such as Louis Cruises

Sailing into the early morning light of the Bay of Naples last week, I was at once charmed and then saddened to recognise the silhouette of an old friend, outlined in ominous relief against the shadowy backdrop of Mount Vesuvius. It was MSC Melody, still looking pristine, and seemingly unwanted since being withdrawn from service in January. A sad, unloved vibe covered her like a funeral shroud from stem to stem.

It’s little over thirty years since she first sailed triumphantly into New York harbour in 1982, under the name of Atlantic, to join her larger sister, the already legendary Oceanic, on the weekly Home Lines service to Bermuda. Each winter, like migrating birds of passage, the two ships would head south to Port Everglades, to run a season of very popular Caribbean and Bahamas cruises, before returning to New York with the spring.

With the demise of Home Lines in 1988, the Atlantic and Oceanic were sold to Premier Cruises, a company that specialised in short, three and four day cruises from Florida to the Bahamas. With her hull painted bright red, and under the moniker of Starship Atlantic, she sailed from Port Canaveral to Nassau and a private island known as Salt Cay. Tied in with Walt Disney land stays, these cruises were extremely popular. So much so they that eventually made Disney decide to create its own cruise line. We all know the rest.

She was then sold on to MSC, the nascent cruising arm of the former Lauro fleet, in 1997. Here, she joined the smaller Monterey and Symphony in offering a series of more personal, highly styled cruises in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Though smaller than the new breed of mega ship then entering service, the ship- renamed Melody- was a popular draw, known for her good food and service. With a tonnage of about 30,000 and a passenger capacity of around 1100 looked after by 535 crew, she was the flagship of the fleet.

The rapid and dramatic expansion of MSC in the last decade left the Melody- renamed MSC Melody in 2004- looking small and outdated, Lacking balcony cabins, the ship was used as ‘pathfinder’ for the company; pioneering new routes such as from Italy to South Africa, where she had a number of successful seasons operating cruises out of Durban.

It was while returning from one such season that she had her finest hour. The Melody was attacked some 300 km off the coast of the Seychelles by Somali pirates on April 25th, 2009. The raiders were kept at bay by a barrage of furniture rained on them by the passengers, and then driven off altogether by gunfire from the Israeli security team on board. The story made headlines around the world at the time.

Now laid up again for sale, the ship could have a new role operating for a company like Louis Cruises, for whose short, destination intensive itineraries she would be perfect. But at the time of writing, a new Indian start up company called Royal Asian Cruise Line is actively seeking up to five small to medium sized start up vessels for a new cruise operation, centered on the Indian sub continent. The laid up Melody would also be a good fit for this as well.

Whatever happens, I hope this doughty, finely styled lady of the seas ends up back in her natural element sooner rather than later. She still has several good years in her, and looked absolutely beautiful in the early morning Neapolitan sunlight the other week. A sublime sleeping beauty, waiting for a wake up kiss. Good luck……

UPDATE: Cruise Industry News is citing various reports, emanating in Italy, that the ship is heading out to Goa to be used as a floating hotel, under the management of a company called Sahara India.

Her funnel logos-still in place when I saw her in Naples in October- have apparently been removed, indicative that a sale of some nature has been made.

Of course, there are many Indian scrapyards not far from that general area as well. Stay tuned for further news.

UPDATE 6/12: Portuguese sources are reporting that the MSC Melody is now at anchor off the entrance to the Suez Canal, and bearing the name of Qing. She is also reported to be now registered in India, an en route to a new role as a floating hotel.