The arrival of more and more cruise ships to New Zealand ports as we approach our summer reminds me that there’s a difference between travelling by sea and going for a cruise on a ship. I have never been on a cruise but know of plenty of people who have. The idea is not at all tempting. To me a cruise ship seems like something between Las Vegas, Disneyland and a Butlin’s holiday camp – twinkle, glitter and ra-ra-ra.
Most of my long-distance travelling has been by sea. In ships. Big, old-fashioned hotels that float. I’ve been from Nagasaki to Dairen. Kobe to Sydney via Shanghai. Sydney to Durban via Adelaide and Perth. Durban to Port Said. Glasgow to Rangoon. Rangoon to Colombo and on to London via Suez. London to Auckland via the Panama canal. Auckland to London via Miami and Bermuda, and back. There was leisure, style and grace, even the bargain-basement travel.
Those sea voyages took a long time – weeks rather than hours or days – but they were memorable. Apart from the voyages to and from Dairen, I remember them all. Not just the times on the ships but the bits in-between – which is more than one can say of any flight in an aeroplane.
Sydney to Durban in a convoy of ships for example. That meant Christmas at sea; a Japanese submarine torpedoed by one of the destroyers protecting our convoy; loading wheat and coal at Perth so that we were all covered in black and white dust. A few months later we climbed aboard the Reina del Pacifico to sail for Suez in another convoy. My brother, aged six, spent most of his time with the sailors swinging in the rigging and my mother spent hers on the bridge on lookout because she could see forever.
I celebrated a birthday during a ten-day stopover in Colombo. The ship had engine trouble – no calling up another ship in emergencies in those days. That was where my escort – the fourth officer of the ship – had gone to fetch cold drinks at Mount Lavinia and I was offered a lewd invitation while I waited under a tree. You don’t get that just anywhere.
It has to be said however that some people found travelling by sea tedious. On the way to New Zealand AJ, who had finished reading War and Peace, got so bored by the time we reached Panama that he threatened to jump off the ship into the canal and swim the rest of the way.
Those were the days. Since then, for me, it has been aeroplanes – hedge-hopping around the country or across The Ditch. However, it was Robert Louis Stevenson who reflected that, old and young, we are all on our last cruise.