Ocean travel brings to mind the mighty monarchs of the sea such as Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth or one of the Oceania Cruise liners. Think gala dinners with the captain, elegant women sashaying down the grand staircase, activities and, high teas … sadly, this was not my experience
When my long-awaited chance for a cruise came, the ship turned out to be a scabrous old tub, long retired from service in the calmer Mediterranean and pensioned off to South Africa’s backwaters. She smelt of faintly of vomit.
My fellow wayfarers weren’t the cigar-puffing, linen-suited scions and minor European nobility of my boyhood fantasies either. Rather, they looked vaguely familiar. As we milled about the customs shed before traipsing up the gangway, I got it. They were the people you see at your more egalitarian beach resorts with the pasty flesh that turns pink in the sun and the ability to root out with truffle-pig accuracy, the nearest bar.
Then, I was a card-carrying member of the same tribe, and joined in the frivolities – even though part of me had been hoping for rubbers of bridge in a wood-panelled room.
The accommodation could be termed “cosy” though the ship owners’ description was more euphemistic. I shared a ‘palatial outside cabin’ on the boat deck with a photographer. We had a window – rather than a tiny porthole – with a sweeping view of the lifeboat, and enough space to almost make it to the bathroom without tripping over each other. We were fortunate, compared to other passengers below deck, cooped-up four to a cabin.
We spent every waking minute in the pint-sized casino or clustered around the glorified plunge pool that constituted the ship’s focal point of entertainment during the torrid daylight hours.
Then there was the crew. “Polyglottal” might be the kindest way to describe them, with senior officers from Mediterranean countries and the rest from lands where foreign aid constitutes a sizeable part of the GDP.
I got to sit at the captain’s table one night. While treating us to a soliloquy on shipboard life, he described a marvel of maritime engineering thus: “The propeller … sometimes she goes this-a way. Sometimes she goes a-that a-way.”
The service left something to be desired. While clearing away my plate, the waiter spotted a speck of food on the less-than-pristine tablecloth and commented: “You eat like a peeg!”
So when, some years later, this empress of the ocean sank to a watery grave – with minimum loss of life I hasten add – I did not shed a tear.