• Brian Simmons

The Pacific Cruise

After a few days provisioning in Sydney and new complement of passengers embarked and we were off again - what fun !

Departing from Sydney the ship was setting out on a circular Pacific cruise although for many of the American passengers it was in fact the return leg of their cruise begun several weeks earlier in San Francisco or Los Angeles. This time the route was clockwise starting with Manila and returning to the USA via Hong Kong and Japan before a long fast sprint via Hawaii back to Australia.

Dining saloon

Running a virtually full First Class saloon required some re-arrangement that resulted in me getting a six table instead of my easier ‘four’. However the four that I’d got to know had left the ship in Sydney so I quite relished the idea of meeting a new group of passengers, three of whom I was to become very fond of.

Winkin, Blinkin and Nod

These three elderly widows were all from Los Angeles and had been touring in Australia for a month prior to boarding the ship for their return trip back home to the States. I christened them “Winkin, Blinkin and Nod” on account of their mannerisms. The first two because they both had this way of screwing up their eyes every so often and Nod because that’s exactly what she did. It was quite confusing when she was saying “No” whilst nodding her head up and down at the same time.

My other three passengers were an American doctor and his Yorkshire born wife plus her sister also from Yorkshire. The one married to the doctor had lost a good deal of the accent but her sister’s accent was still so broad that I had a problem on occasion understanding her so it was small wonder that there were a few communication issues across the table.

After a brief stop in Manila we arrived in Hong Kong where we were scheduled to stay for several days to give passengers a real opportunity to explore the city and for the more adventurous to take up the excursions offered to visit The New Territories on mainland China.

A mile or so from the liner terminal we found waterside and water-born life that was a million miles away from the sumptuous experience passengers were getting on board Himalaya.

However there was another reason too for the longer stay in port. Presumably because of the availability of cheap labour, P&O had arranged for the whole ship to be re-painted.

This is no exaggeration because almost as soon as Himalaya was berthed the ship was invaded by hordes of Chinese workers with chipping hammers that set to work tapping and scraping away all traces of flaking or rusting white paint.

The noise was incessant and almost unbearable, so any passengers who thought they might pass a few quiet hours relaxing on board rapidly changed their minds and were pretty much obliged to go sight-seeing whether they wanted to or not.

The ship was festooned with ropes over its sides supporting planks on which the painters clambered like monkeys in order to reach every square inch of the hull and superstructure. In a couple of days Himalaya looked as though she had a severe attack of measles as she was dotted all over with splodges of lead oxide primer.

Then came the top coat applied by brush or roller by the same workers who must have numbered a couple of hundred and in the space of five or six days the ship was completely repainted in P&O’s signature brilliant dazzling white.

Deep within the ship was a very different scenario. While the painters invaded the outside a quite large but tightly controlled number of local traders were allowed on board and permitted to set out their wares along the length of the working alleyway that ran the length of the crew’s quarters.

There was the usual predictably tatty rubbish in the form of cheap souvenirs but there was also a good selection of other items including watches, cameras, radios and Hi-Fi all at remarkably low prices compared to home.

You had to be careful of course because a lot of the stuff was counterfeit but with care it was possible to come away with a bargain.

The joke always was that if you bought a Hong Kong watch it would stop as the ship left port and on examining the works you’d discover that the cockroach inside had expired.

Clothes were also quite a good bet and while they weren’t exactly top notch they were of acceptable quality and incredibly cheap, and then there was the legendary Hong Kong 24hour suit.

The tailors came aboard with the other traders loaded with pattern books and fabric samples from which the deal was that they would produce a made-to-measure suit in 24 hours. Well at the time the thing everyone wanted was the Italian style with short boxy jacket and slimly tapered trousers so I decided to go for it.

I chose a really nice fabric (at least I thought it was!) – Deep chestnut brown with a sort of shiny finish and the tailor got to work with his tape measure. Full measurements taken and away he went with the promise to return the following morning for a fitting which incredibly he did.

Fourteen hours and counting! It was beginning to look as though it might actually happen. A couple of quick adjustments and he was off again with an invitation for me to come to the shop later that day.

Six o’clock and I collected a fully finished suit with about half an hour to spare. Certainly not the best quality in the world but far from the worst and at a very cheap price that I sadly cannot recall. I was certainly still wearing it three years later.

Just to ensure that I had remembered things correctly I recently checked on the internet. Apparently the HK 24 hour tailors not only still thrive but count the rich and famous among their clients. In reality they now take a bit longer to produce a quality garment but you can be wearing it in 3 - 5 days and still at a very affordable price compared to Europe.

If there were a few rip-off merchants among the Chinese traders that came aboard, the dodgy practice was far from being in one direction. I’m ashamed to say that the crew had a few tricks of their own to balance things up as you might say.

It was simple really. Because competition for pitches along the working alleyway was quite fierce traders would lay out their goods in a virtually continuous display on the floor without any space between their pitches for crew members to get to their cabin doors. This meant that we had to literally step over and among the laid out goods to get in and out.

When one of us saw an item we fancied the MO was to make a show of examining it and then apparently lose interest before putting it back down on the deck within reach of the cabin door before stepping over the goods to enter the cabin.

At this point one of your mates or perhaps I should say ‘your accomplice’ would engage the trader in discussion and barter over an item well away from the door and engineer that the trader’s back was towards the door. At this point the door would be opened for just long enough for the item to disappear into the cabin. With the general level of frenetic dealing going on it was virtually impossible for the traders to keep an eye on everything or to remember what they had sold or not.

Predictably I guess, our last night in Hong Kong was marked by another fairly extreme booze-up that ended around 4 am in the most hilarious fashion.

I had gone out late, having had to serve and clear up after dinner so the group I went ashore with didn’t really get started until around 11pm. We’d had a fairly leisurely start but by around 2 or 3 in the morning we were all pretty well oiled when we ran into a bunch of ‘queens’ off the ship who’d clearly had a great evening and were camping it up outrageously.

They weren’t exactly in drag but were all heavily made-up, and dressed to the nines. One was wearing a bright yellow vest and the skimpiest pair of fluorescent blue hot pants that left absolutely nothing to the imagination at all. His (or her?) friend had a pair of skin tight white pants and a pink shirt tied up in a knot around the waist. I could go on to describe the three or four others but I imagine you get the picture well enough.

Falling into yet another bar with pounding rock music we all basically danced to near exhaustion for another hour or so before once again tipping out onto the street and began heading vaguely back towards the ship.

When we were about a quarter mile or so from the dockyard entrance we came upon what might best be described as a rickshaw parking lot, at which point our pink shirted friend leapt into one of the rickshaws and started screaming “Look. I’m Cinderella. Where’s my fucking prince?”

Then it was Hot Pant’s turn. “Here I am Darling” as he jumps in as well and then starts shouting “We need coachmen and ponies. Come on you lazy sods. Start pulling.”

So a couple of us (what possessed me I’ll never know), grab the shafts and start off with it along the street while another one or two are shoving from behind and the remaining motley crew are trotting along laughing and yelling and the whole thing is a huge joke.

For about twenty seconds, until we hear more shouting but this time in Chinese as a bunch of rickshaw boys come charging out of a nearby alley.

At this point for the pullers, pushers and hangers-on the joke ceased and it became almost a race for our lives but for Cinderella and her Prince who hadn’t sussed out what was going on the ride was just getting better and better and the clamour of the pursuing Chinese was almost drowned out by their shrieks of excited laughter.

Fortunately the security crew at the gates could see what was happening and had the gates open as we careered up. Grabbing a still screaming Cinderella and Prince Charming we just managed to abandon the rickshaw and dive through the gates to safety as the angry bunch of rickshaw boys arrived. There was a fair amount of unintelligible shouting and arguing in Chinese but the security crew managed to cool the whole thing down and if not exactly mollified our pursuers quite quickly calmed down and went off having had their rickshaw returned undamaged although I reckon that was more by luck than judgment.

Over the years I’ve listened to various people describing their holiday or business visits to Hong Kong and for the most part kept my mouth shut. Whilst I don’t feel especially proud of the daft escapades I’ve described, they were of their time and for me as an immature eighteen year old, far more interesting, exciting and memorable than being conducted from one historic or cultural site to another by an umbrella waving tour guide. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to go back as a proper tourist one day. Who knows?

From Hong Kong the ship headed back via Japan towards Vancouver and it was on that leg that we encountered the roughest weather of the whole trip. Fortunately it didn’t affect me much; in fact for all of my time at sea I never once suffered any sickness. It seemed I had natural sea-legs.

After one rough night a group of distinctly queasy passengers appeared for breakfast on my colleague’s table in the Tourist restaurant and he brightly said “Good morning. Who’s for a lovely kipper?”, at which six of the eight got up and left. It was certainly one way to get your sitting finished early.

Talking of weather though, reminds me of a couple of really odd experiences. In order to understand you need to imagine the ship ploughing through a rough sea with waves and spray breaking over it and realise that the bow could be rising and falling as much as twenty feet or more each time.

Now you also need to know that as on a see-saw the part rising and falling least is in the centre which is where the passenger accommodation is concentrated whereas the crew’s cabins are right up in the bow. Ok. Get the picture?

The first experience I had was one day when the weather was just a bit choppy and I was heading back to my cabin. I was in a hurry and almost running so when I came to some stairs I went to jump the first couple just at the moment the bow began to drop into another wave trough. I actually jumped seven steps. It was really odd and just as I imagine weightlessness might be in space.

The other occasion was in the crew bar which is also located well forward in the bow. I was drinking a pint and took a mouthful of beer just at the moment the ship began to drop which meant that I was going down with the ship at the same rate that the beer was falling down my throat so relative to each other the liquid was stationary. It was only for a moment or two but I almost choked.

It was good to visit San Francisco again especially as this time I somehow managed to get a bit more time ashore and got a close-up look at the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge.

This fabulous Art Deco construction took four years to build between 1933 and 1937 and for many years held an extensive range of records for height, length, weight of steel and so on.

Bizarrely it still holds the record as the world’s number one suicide location with an official tally standing at more than 1700 although the true number is thought to be more. (2015 stats)

With a four second drop of 245 feet from the bridge deck very few jumpers survive the fall with most deaths actually being due to trauma arising from the 75 mph impact with the water. Those that do survive the jump usually die from drowning or hypothermia apart that is from one young man who in 1979 survived the jump, swam to shore and drove himself to a hospital. (According to Wikipedia???)

San Francisco’s China Town made quite an impact too with its wealth of smells, sights and sounds.

This enclave of more than 100,000 people in an area 1.0 by 1.3 miles continues to retain its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity. There are two hospitals, numerous parks and squares, a post office, and other infrastructure. Wandering through the largest Chinatown outside of Asia visitors can easily become immersed in a microcosmic world, filled with herbal shops, temples, pagoda roofs and dragon parades. Truly another world. I loved it.

Finally and probably my strongest memory of San Francisco was an evening at the legendary Jazz Workshop where I was privileged to hear the great jazz saxophonists John Coltrane and Stan Getz playing together. Dark, smoky and just so chilled it was at once one of the most relaxing and exciting moments of my life.

This image of a young Coltrane is from a bout 1961. Found online with no indication of ownership. No copyright infringement intended.

A few years ago visiting a blues bar in downtown Chicago I was instantly transported back to that night and the wonderfully friendly and laid-back atmosphere in which nothing matters but the music.

At the next stop in Long Beach (for Los Angeles) I said my goodbyes to Winkin, Blinkin and Nod as they left the ship and went back to their cosseted lifestyle in the hills near Hollywood. They were really lovely ladies and extremely generous with their tip as they left me after breakfast on that last day.

I was allocated another couple to my table for the trip back to Sydney. They were an Australian couple who had been on holiday in the States for a while visiting family and combining it with a cruise. Their view was if you have the time why on earth would you fly if you can cruise - especially first class.

It was on this last leg of the Pacific cruise that things in the saloon really became quite hilarious because after a while as a table waiter you really got to know your passengers and even in First Class you tended to drop the formality at least to a degree. I guess it was also in the run up to Christmas which put everyone in a good mood. As a result mealtimes became one long laugh mainly due to the camp behaviour of a couple of stewards on nearby tables. These two were known as Bunny and Betty below decks but by their proper names to their passengers.

What I’ll call the ‘silly season’ began one morning when one of the passengers made a casual remark.

“I don’t know if it was the fish last night but something’s made me quite queer this morning.”

At which point Bunny turned around with a pout and a shrug of the shoulder in the camp style of Kenneth Williams or Larry Grayson and said “Not as queer as me darling.” and minced off in a much exaggerated way towards the galley.

Well, we all broke down laughing, crew and passengers alike. It was as if what everyone had known was now out into the open and at last we could all admit that half the crew was gay and proud of it, which in those days was quite something.

The Second Steward whose job it was to oversee the First Class saloon told us off for being over-familiar with our passengers but to no real avail. And for those last three weeks the formality of First Class descended to something more akin to Holiday Camp at least in our corner of the restaurant. Every meal sitting was the same with Betty and Bunny bouncing remarks and innuendo off each other whilst flirting gently with the male passengers or sharing conspiratorial jokes with their wives.

There was one very funny but at the same time rather sad episode involving a lady passenger on a table about three away from mine.

She had joined the ship in L.A. and after a while one of the stewards noticed that every time she sat down at the table she would fish about in her handbag for a handkerchief and then with a somewhat furtive look around she would bring the hanky up to her mouth and quickly stuff it back in her bag

At the end of the meal she went through the reverse procedure and after watching this for a while we realised that the poor woman had some problem with her false teeth and was taking them out in order to eat.

I can’t really for the life of me understand why she didn’t do it before coming to the table but sufficient to say, it wasn’t long before not only the stewards but most of the passengers in our corner of the restaurant were watching this performance.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that there were some passengers who might not have bothered with every meal had it not been for the entertainment value of Betty, Bunny and the poor woman we christened The Tooth Fairy.

Anyway the whole thing came to a head one lunch time at the end of the meal with almost everyone in our corner of the room surreptitiously watching from the corner of their eyes, between fingers or via reflections in mirrors.

Tooth Fairy was in the process of getting her denture back to her mouth when it shot out of her hanky and went skidding across the floor to end up under another table. I’m ashamed to say that no-one went to help and left it to her to go and retrieve the denture which she rapidly stuffed back in her bag before almost running from the room.

We didn’t see her for a couple of days but then she came back to the table although now without the tooth problem. Whether she had been to see the on-board dentist or simply done what she should have originally and dealt with the problem outside of the restaurant, we’ll never know. However, praise where it’s due, she came back and carried on as though the incident never happened.

Although Bunny and Betty as well as a number of the other waiters had only ‘come out’ to the passengers in that last month or so before Christmas they would have had to be pretty blind or naïve not to have worked out that a fair number of the crew were gay even though in those days it was not a subject for ‘polite company’.

However below decks, illegal or not, homosexuality was rife with relationships being made and broken, jealousies and arguments between jilted lovers descending on occasions into screaming matches and even fights.

I remember one guy receiving a nasty head wound from the stiletto heel of a shoe wielded by Big Mary after she/he discovered that the ‘boyfriend’ had been seeing one of the other ‘girls’.

Despite the sexual rivalries that existed, most of the effeminate gay stewards managed to arrange to be in the same cabins as each other which meant that there were at least six or seven ‘Queen Rooms’ as we called them.

Not that I spent much time exploring them but to get a look inside was a revelation. It was remarkable how pretty a square steel box could be made to appear. Elaborate drapes and curtains around the bunks, coloured light bulbs and a pervasive heady mix of perfume combined to create an atmosphere a million miles away from any of the neigbouring cabins occupied by half a dozen sweaty seamen.

Of course it’s easy to laugh at things with the benefit of hindsight although at the time incidents can be pretty disastrous if not actually dangerous and that’s how I can best describe my working day in the First Class saloon on that Christmas Day 1962.

We had been at sea for several days and were due to arrive in Sydney a couple of days after Christmas so, not surprisingly seasonal booze had been flowing freely below decks pretty much day and night when we weren’t actually working.

The sea was a bit choppy around lunch time as the saloon began to fill up for Christmas Day lunch but it hadn’t put my lot off their food and before long they were installed and ordering their meals.

First course served and I toddled off to collect the mains from the galley which meant a tray stacked with silver oval servers containing the mains and additional vegetables in divided dishes.

These were all tucked away in my dumb waiter to keep warm until starters were finished when I got the places cleared and began to serve the next course.

Four of my six passengers had opted for roast pork which involved me carrying to each place a dish of the meat with some crackling and juices together with a divided dish of vegetables balanced across my wrist which in normal circumstances was absolutely fine and would have presented no problems.

However, as I’ve said, today wasn’t totally normal in that I was, to say the least, slightly the worse for wear.

So when, just as I began to serve one of my ladies, the ship gave a sudden lurch I almost lost my balance. Although I didn’t actually fall in my passenger’s lap, the contents of the dishes I was holding did.

Now I don’t really know whether it was a good or bad thing that the woman’s handbag was open on her lap. It certainly avoided her clothes and perhaps more importantly, her legs being splattered with hot food but it did result in the contents of her bag swimming about in a fairly grotty mixture of roast pork, gravy, crackling and the odd Brussels Sprout.

Looking back on the event, I’m inclined to believe that on balance she might have preferred to take the hit herself so to speak as I’m sure that the contents of her bag probably proved more difficult to recover than her knees and skirt that would have washed out easily enough.

Not of course that I ever had that conversation with her!

“Oh God! I’m so sorry” I spluttered as I endeavoured to extract a rather nice slice of pork from her bag where it was lodged in a side pocket with her comb. “I don’t know how I did that. It was so clumsy.”

I couldn’t believe how calm she was. Could the storm be about to come? “Don’t worry Brian”. She said. “It was a total accident. We all saw what happened. Not your fault at all.”

“I know, but look at the mess.” I blathered, still trying to retrieve remnants of crackling and the odd sprout. I was beside myself and they were all being so amazingly generous about it. I couldn’t believe it.

“Look,” she said, “this will all clean up. The most important thing is can you get me another one. I don’t want to miss out on a good meal.”

So, that it seemed was the end of an incident that could have been the abrupt conclusion of my waiting career. In the event we managed to keep things so calm that the Chief Steward never even knew anything had happened. I was so grateful to them all but it would certainly be a Christmas to remember.

In all the time I was working as a steward that was the worst disaster ever, but the day hadn’t quite finished with me yet!

Christmas Dinner was the main event of this particular part of the cruise and we spent most of the afternoon decorating the First Class saloon ready for the evening. Special table pieces came out, flowers appeared from the cool rooms, balloons and streamers were draped around the walls to create a real party atmosphere. Glasses and silver were polished as if our lives depended on it so that by the time we’d finished the restaurant looked absolutely stunning.

There had been other party nights on the cruise such as fancy dress events or themed evenings when the passengers were invited to let their hair down and have a good time but Christmas was the big one and as the saloon began to fill up it was clear that they saw it that way too.

They all looked amazing in their formal dinner wear with most of the men in white dinner jackets and the women in the most wonderful variety of evening dress. Some even wore little tiara style headpieces. The whole thing was just so unbelievably opulent. These really were the POSH set.

Port Out Starboard Home is the expression often said to have given rise to the adjective ‘posh’. It was supposed to have originated in the heyday of the ocean liners between UK and India when the wealthy would stipulate a change of cabin for the outward and homeward leg of a journey to ensure the cabins were not too hot in the afternoons.

Well I guess it’s a plausible explanation but as far as I can make out there is in fact no real evidence for this.

And so the evening got under way. Soups, entrees and main courses were served with all the traditional trimmings. Champagne corks popped all around and crackers cracked. Gentlemen posed and ladies glittered whilst waiters buzzed hither and thither attending to their every need. Perfect – so far!

Naturally, the menu included Christmas Pudding which tradition dictated should be flambéed and carried spectacularly into the restaurant by a procession of waiters.

So with previous courses all cleared away we trooped off into the galley whilst the restaurant lights were lowered, collected our puddings and waited in line for the flambé treatment. However, I’d never done this before and as I mentioned previously we had no training as such so it was not surprising that I was feeling a little apprehensive.

The flambé process is very simple. Warm brandy on a hot pudding produces inflammable alcohol vapour which is lit to produce an attractive and somewhat ethereal blue flame and creates an impressive display when carried in procession through a darkened restaurant.

Now if all this sounds potentially dangerous it actually isn’t for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the alcohol vapour does not burn very hot and secondly it burns out very rapidly, both of which are all very fine if you know what you are doing.

The technique is to hold the platter with the flaming pudding high and to one side with the fingers splayed underneath.

This is a bit of a balancing act but quite easily learnt with a little practice and is all very well if you know but as I said no-one told me. Being a bit apprehensive as I waited in line for the lighting process I hadn’t actually noticed that as each preceding waiter disappeared through the door they were indeed hoisting their puddings impressively above their shoulders.

My turn arrived and as the brandy was poured and ignited with a soft ‘whoof’, the chef said “Off you go then.”

Someone opened the door and as I strode forward with the pudding in front of me a slight draught from the door and my forward motion wafted the flames into my face and a gentle fizz accompanied by a smell of burning hair encouraged me to quickly change my grip on the platter.

I realised I must have singed something but not being actually burnt I carried on to the table to be greeted by appreciative applause as I presented the still flaming pudding.

As I began to serve them the one of my passengers said “I can smell burning.” and I laughingly explained what had happened. She looked up at me and gasped “Oh my God Brian. It’s a bit more than that. Your eyebrows have gone and your hair is all burnt.”

Fortunately no serious damage was done but when I checked later in the mirror I was surprised to see that my eyebrows had indeed almost completely gone, my eyelashes were well singed and the quiff I so carefully styled each morning was never going to be the same again.

So that was my Christmas and pretty much the end of our Pacific cruise. We arrived in Sydney a couple of days later passing P&O’s latest flagship, the almost brand new SS Oriana on her way out.

More than half as big again as the Himalaya and much faster she looked really impressive at full speed.

We’d shared a lot of laughs over the previous weeks so it was with some sadness that I said goodbye to my once again very generous passengers and was able to relax for a few days before we were due to sail again for the homeward leg of my trip.

“What a Gay Day”

The crew Christmas Dinner was in the afternoon directly after lunch had been served to the passengers

Himalaya shown with the iconic Sydney Opera House under construction

92 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All