• Brian Simmons

World Cruise - Bring it on !

In this post I continue the story of my time as a steward with P&O between 1962 and '63.

Following my interesting introduction to ship-board life in the two week cruise, which was not exactly uneventful, we were next scheduled to depart for some very far flung places. I was so excited.

Our stay in Southampton was to be short. We had just ten days before the ship was due to leave on a five month trip that would circumnavigate the globe. This meant that shore leave would be very limited as a great deal of work was involved in provisioning and deep cleaning.

Some of the older hands weren’t worried about heading home for such a short time but we younger ones were actually encouraged to touch base with parents for at least a couple of days, a policy I thought was surprisingly sensitive. I took about five days off but then came back to work-by as it was known in preparation for the next departure. It was also an opportunity to earn a bit of extra money.

The itinerary for the next trip was very exciting and involved a quick cross-Channel hop to Cherbourg to pick up some more passengers followed by a trans-Atlantic run to Trinidad. We were then scheduled to pass through the Panama Canal, up the west coast of the USA stopping at Los Angeles and San Francisco, continuing to Vancouver before dropping down to Hawaii then across to Japan and Hong Kong. We would then head down to Manila, Fiji, New Zealand and then to Sydney our southern terminal port.

The schedule then included a Pacific cruise back around the same places returning to Sydney before commencing the return leg around the south of Australia, across to Colombo, Bombay and home via Suez.

I quite forgot to mention the princely sum we were paid by P&O.

My salary was (wait for it!) £36.50 per month. It is necessary to bear in mind that this was in 1962 and it was ‘all-found’, meaning all my food and accommodation was provided and if this still sounds very little, a quick conversion to today’s value comes out at £640 which while still not a lot, was not such bad pocket money for an 18 year old.

In common with most of the crew I made an allotment of £20 that was sent home to my bank so that after 5 months I had £100, which in today’s money equates to almost £1800. So I knew that when I got home I would at least have a little nest-egg which was already earmarked for the purchase of a car.

I fully expected to be continuing with my plate-house duties and indeed that’s how the trip started, at least as far as Cherbourg when one of the other utility stewards was sick and had to be taken off the ship.

His job had been as a ‘locker man’ meaning he was responsible for the silver-ware used in the First Class saloon and it was his task to keep it in good order and dish out items of cutlery and tableware as required by the waiters.

I must have impressed someone because this poor guy’s demise turned out to be my escape route from the grotty dish-washing when after just a day into the trip I was given responsibility for the silver locker.

One of my new tasks, which I found very rewarding, was burnishing. Apart from some highly polished centre-pieces, tableware such as cruets sugar basins, milk jugs and the cutlery had a semi matt finish but being silver was also liable to tarnish.

The process of burnishing involved tumbling the items in a large hexagonal barrel together with the burnishing medium. This comprised thousands of stainless steel shot and some mild abrasive powder. Just a couple of minutes in the machine restored quite knocked-about items to virtually new condition – most satisfying.

One slight downside to burnishing was that it wasn’t a lot of good for knives as they would come out with almost no edge, which necessitated re-sharpening. I quite enjoyed that too if I had the time but usually the silver knife handles were very satisfactorily polished by up-ending them in a mildly caustic solution for just a couple of minutes and then buffing them to a nice bright shine.

Apart from maintaining the condition of the company’s silver-ware it had been made very clear to me that I was also responsible for keeping records of what I issued and to whom.

It was well known that items of cutlery were sometimes used by dishonest waiters to trade for goods in some of the locations Himalaya was likely to visit around the world. (Really? Who’d have believed such a thing!!)

I was expected to report suspicions I had about any individual waiters to the Second Steward, which talking of knives, as we were a moment ago, left me having to walk that knife-edge between loyalty to the company and my crew-mates. In order to avoid ever having to blow the whistle on a friend I became the tightest and most ‘by the book’ locker man P&O ever had.

However, I can’t in all honesty say I was quite so careful of the company’s property a few months later when I needed some negotiable items for a trip ashore in Manila, but maybe more of that later!

For that first leg of our trip, our passenger list comprised a wide variety of individuals. There were Brits emigrating to the US, Canada or Australia who had decided to build a couple of months cruise into their travel plans and they were mostly travelling Tourist Class.

There were also the better-off Brits who were simply holidaying plus the ‘money-to-burn’ American tourists who were the largest contingent in the First Class section of the ship. Finally there was a relatively small group of other well-heeled business and leisure travellers comprising a mixture of nationalities most notable and noticeable of which was a bunch of extremely noisy and greedy Greeks.

One way or another we had a quite a laugh at the expense of the passengers and it has to be said, especially the Americans who were particularly gullible. They’d believe pretty much anything you told them. The first little joke, and I understood that it worked on every trans-Atlantic trip, was in relation to the Panama Canal.

Within a couple of days of leaving port the waiters and bedroom stewards would have built up a friendly rapport with most of their passengers who came to regard the crew as the source of all knowledge by virtue of their experience and time at sea. They would question avidly about all aspects of the trip and pretty much hang on their every word.

As something quite outside most passengers’ experience the ship’s passage through Panama was a topic of great interest and in answer to their questions passengers were often advised to save a few bread rolls for the mules that would pull the ship through the canal.

“Gee. That’s incredible. This huge ship is pulled by mules?”

“Sure is.” came the answer and good as gold on arrival at the canal all the yanks would turn up on deck with bags full of bread rolls.

What their new ‘friends’ had omitted to tell them was that they were diesel-engined ‘mules’ each one amounting to several hundred or thousands of horsepower. They usually took it in good part and had a laugh at their own expense.

On another occasion when the ship was hundreds of miles from the nearest land one of the passengers (also American) happened to glimpse a splash of spray blown past the window. You need to know that this was in one of the public rooms at least thirty feet above the water.

“Wow! Was that a bird” she exclaimed.

“Yes. Penguin actually.” Came the poker –faced reply.

“You guys are so interesting.” she said “I always learn so much on these trips.”

After a quick hop to Port of Spain in Trinidad the ship headed for Panama, which, as I’ve always had an interest in things even vaguely technical, was a really fascinating and amazing experience.

Firstly the geographic orientation needs to be understood as the general assumption would be that transiting Panama from the Atlantic is an east to west journey. Not so. The way the Isthmus of Panama is located means that the journey is actually north to south.

Secondly, based on most people’s experience of canals there would be a certain expectation of how it might be. Panama is absolutely nothing like one might expect.

The scale is awesome. With lock chambers more than thirty three metres wide, almost as deep and at 320 metres in length they can accommodate all but the largest of modern cruise liners and tankers, indeed such is the strategic importance that American warships have been specifically designed to be able to pass through the locks with literally inches to spare.

Thirdly, it is so much more than a canal. The fifty mile journey through Panama includes six locks that lift vessels almost 100 feet above sea level to cruise across man-made Gatun Lake surrounded by pristine tropical rain forest. It was unbelievable and I was still only a few days into my trip. What more could lie ahead?

Leaving Panama behind, Himalaya sailed north towards Long Beach – in effect the port city for Los Angeles, where we picked up many more American passengers who were joining the ship for the pacific cruise.

My abiding memory of Long Beach is how enormous everything seemed.

Also how, when running to cross the road before the lights changed, I caught my jacket pocket on a fire hydrant and ripped it out sending a cascade of small change all over Ocean Boulevard. Well, money’s money, so there I was trying to pick up my hard earned pocket money with huge gas-guzzling American cars whizzing by and doing their best to avoid splattering me across the tarmac.

Long Beach also marked the end of my ‘locker man’ days. With the increase in the number of First Class passengers they were short of waiters in the saloon so I was offered the opportunity to become a ‘winger’. It’s probably as well that I didn’t think too hard before agreeing or I would almost certainly have declined because it turned out to be one of the most nerve-racking things I’ve ever done before or since.

Training was non-existent.

“Just ask the others,” they said, “You’ll be alright.”

I was allocated a ‘four’, as in a table of four people who had paid for and were entitled to expect First Class service and I didn’t even know how to lay the table. There were eleven pieces of cutlery per person for Heaven’s sake. The most I had ever seen over and above the basic three was a soup spoon!

Another ever-so slight difficulty was that we were not allowed to write down orders. This meant that I often had to go hot-footing it back to the galley for something I’d forgotten, or just as likely, I could end up with a couple of spare courses if not whole meals in my dumb waiter at the end of the sitting.

Dumping them in the plate-house was an option of course but seeing good food wasted has always irked me so I was much more inclined to smuggle them back to the cabin and as a result got very used to eating cold posh food. At least I got to know what the various dishes tasted like and was able to give later passengers a bit of guidance around the menu which even for many of our first class travellers was a bit haute-cuisine.

One thing that did appear on the menu from time to time were sautéed frogs’ legs but the name in French (Cuisses de Grenouille ) gave absolutely nothing away and if I said they were frogs’ legs some passengers wouldn’t believe me so I had this little trick to help.

If they were on the menu I would get a pair that had not broken up in the cooking process and put them to one side so that if required to explain exactly what the menu item was I’d take the little pair of legs and dance them on the table. It was a bit ‘make or break’ as some passenger though it hilarious and others were put off completely.

Long Beach was followed by San Francisco and I’ll always remember arriving there.

There is a strange optical illusion as you approach the Golden Gate Bridge.

We were all up on the crew’s deck from where the foremast rises and standing there as the ship headed towards the bridge you’d swear it’s never going to get under but literally in the last moments the mast appears to telescope down on itself as the ship passes below the deck of the bridge with room to spare. Odd that.

The other major thing of note on entering San Francisco was Alcatraz Island. Known as The Rock, the island was a high security prison for years but I notice now on Google maps that there is a visitor centre and residential apartments so clearly The Rock was not destroyed by the combined efforts of Nick Cage and Sean Connery in the film of the same name.

More passengers joined the ship in San Francisco and then in Vancouver so that as we set off on our Pacific cruise Himalaya was carrying very nearly her full complement and life on board was busy although unlike the Tourist Class saloon we only ever had one meal sitting so things were a little less hectic for us.


In my next post we head for exotic Hawaii which turned out not to be so much so - certainly interesting though. I did feel I had of a bit of a head start over my peers when Hawaii Five-0 came on the TV in 68 - as could smugly say -"Been there - done that"

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