I’m one of those lucky people who’s actually sailed on an ocean liner. A real ocean liner, purpose-built for transatlantic travel, not cruising. And not just one – I’ve been on FIVE. Five ocean liners, on four ocean crossings. All of this happened when I was a child, or a young teenager, which gives you some idea of how old I am (yes, I’m 60). And it would never have happened at all, but for the fact that my dad was the manager of a travel agency, and the voyages were either free, or almost free.
We still had to get to Montreal to board the ship. We lived in the middle of Canada, on the prairies, so that usually involved a two-day, two-night train journey, also provided with a hefty discount. And when you consider the transatlantic crossing took another seven days – two days sailing up the St. Lawrence River and then five days more to reach Liverpool or Southampton – you can see why the advent of jet planes put the ocean liners out of business. Nine days to get from the middle of Canada to the middle of England… or nine hours. Hmm. Not a difficult choice.
In fact, I remember lying on a deck chair aboard the Empress of Canada in 1971, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, bundled up in a thick seafaring blanket and battling seasickness…and looking up at the sky as a jet winged its way east. And I remember thinking, those passengers will be in London in three hours’ time…and I’ve got another three days of this.
Because, for all its glamour and the fondness with which ocean travel is remembered, the down side is that the North Atlantic is not a placid ocean, and if you were at all prone to motion sickness – as I was – a voyage by sea was pure torture.
I’m not sure why I didn’t get one of those shots. They were advertised and available from the ship’s doctor. My younger sister got one. She suffered from seasickness worse than I did. And she ended up working on cruise ships for about 15 years. I stubbornly refused. Just as I refused to take those little pills. My mum never suffered from seasickness at all and I think I must have been trying to prove something to her. In truth, I was in misery.
One of our crossings was in the winter. We sailed east aboard the Ryndam, a tiny little ship flying the Holland America flag. Here’s a picture of her:
And you can read about her here:
There’s a much newer and bigger Ryndam now, one of Holland America’s biggest cruise ships. The little Ryndam above was only 15,000 tons. Just for the sake of comparison, the largest car ferry that does the 3 hour run between Vancouver and Vancouver Island is 11,000 tons.
I was 7 and it was December 1961, and the ship was filled with women and children who were travelling overseas to join their husbands and fathers in the Canadian armed forces in Germany. We sailed through a massive storm, with huge waves that crashed over the top of the ship and tossed us wildly for several days. My mother told me many years later that she didn’t sleep at all during the storm, and stuffed our winter coats with socks and gloves, in case we had to abandon ship in the middle of the night.
I remember the sound of dishes and other things crashing to the floor in the corridor outside our cabin. I remember the outside decks being roped off with the kind of netting that was used to haul cargo onboard with cranes. And to make matters worse, there was an outbreak of dysentery among all the infants, and then they ran out of fresh milk, and all of the children were served powdered goats’ milk reconstituted with water. I thought it was absolutely foul.
But my main memory of this crossing is the passenger talent show. I was encouraged to take part, because I played the piano, and I was quite good for a 7-year-old. So, this is me, playing a piece called The Merry Go Round:
The piano is bright pink. I’m wearing a navy blue scratchy wool pleated skirt and top set. I’m so seasick, I’m on the point of spewing my lunch all over the keyboard. The fellow sitting behind the piano is playing the drums. He’s a member of the ship’s orchestra. Just after I began the piece, he and his colleagues decided to play along with me, taking me completely by surprise. But I remember feeling rather chuffed that I could command that kind of attention, that I was good enough that they’d want to join in. We finished to grand applause. And, at least for a few minutes, I quite forgot how miserably seasick I was.
We arrived in Southampton a few days later, and, after Christmas, we sailed home again, this time aboard the Queen Mary, the famous one, the one that’s now in drydock in Long Beach, California.
I’ve often wondered if this little performance was one of the small turning points in my life, one of those events that makes an indellible mark that you only recognize in later years, looking back. Rather than being told to stop showing off, to sit down and be quiet, I was being encouraged to do just the opposite. It must have made an impression on me, because I remember it so clearly.
My creative spirit was nudged.
I’ll write about the Queen Mary in another blog, and perhaps about the other transatlantic ships I sailed on – the Homeric, the Empress of England, and the Empress of Canada. In spite of my seasickness, I really did love them all, and my love of those old ocean liners, especially the Empress of Canada, contributed greatly to my novel, Cold Play.
My creative spirit has endured.