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I joined Canberra as 3rd Mate on May 22nd, 1967, an appointment I greeted with some glee: I had until that time worked on P&O’s cargo ships, tankers and passenger ships (Arcadia, Himalaya, Oriana, and Chitral, albeit briefly on each of those four) and this was my first major posting to a ‘big white one’, a venture which promised – and delivered – a trip or two around the world.

Straightforward, one might say until en route we departed Naples for the Suez Canal. At the mid-point of this passage, on June 5th, 24 hours from Port Said, the simmering tensions of the Middle East erupted: the Israeli army forestalled an attack by the combined Arab Nations, precipitating the collapse of the latter by the Israeli army simply ignoring the Arab defenses: they left the direct road to the Canal and traversed the undefended desert, in the process decimating Egypt’s armed forces. Canberra, immediately ordered back to Gibraltar, thereon commenced its first-ever voyage around South Africa; many vessels that managed to reach Port Said before us later found themselves marooned in the Canal’s Great Bitter Lake until 1975!

The voyage around the tip of Africa and the subsequent rather chilly run across the South Indian Ocean (now, in part, the Southern Ocean, and where we overran a large whale while steaming at 26 knots) was a wonderful time for acquainting ourselves with the passengers and enjoying their entertainment (not that it was as organized then as it would be now, the homely Prickly Heat Trio effectively being the main source of passenger entertainment) along with a number of passenger cocktail parties hosted by Captain Riddelsdell, an apparently gruff man (termed “Woof-Woof”), but one possessed of a subtle sense of humour.

Captain Riddelsdell entertains actresses Inger Stevens and

Sue Ane Langden at a cocktail party on

SS Canberra in 1967 to

celebrate the showing of the movie

" The Guide for The Married Man"

To most of us, the second leg of the voyage seemed to be the most interesting: northeast over the Pacific to Vancouver, down to San Francisco, to L.A., back westwards to Yokohama via Honolulu, then the return to Sydney … thence back to Vancouver for a trip through the Panama Canal and home via the West Indies. (It was almost a sin to be paid for this sort of experience … or so it would have seemed at the time.)

Sydney Opera House under construction in 1967

Sydney was always one of the most civilized of the ports of call, and this time the officers’ wardroom put on a dance for officers and shoreside guests that was far more enjoyable than practically everything to do with the usual elderly and infirm passengers. Two days later we were off to Nuku’alofa, the picturesque capital of Tonga, where we were obliged to go in lieu of Suva, Fiji, because of the ship’s excess draught … a very charming and welcoming place, but too rarely visited by big ships.

Michael Frost and his friends visit Hawaii in 1967

We arrived in Honolulu and some of us decided that a group of junior officers would hire a car and drive around Oahu. The chosen Chevy (far larger than my MGA, then sitting forlornly in Sussex) was ideal for the afternoon, but we quickly abandoned the idea of ‘going around’ part of the island. The 4thR/O, Tony Dyson, and I were accompanied by 2 FAP’s, Valerie and Linda, and the tourist children’s hostess, Patricia, and ended up at Kaneohe Bay. It would be difficult to conceive a more idyllic afternoon, limited only by the ship’s evening departure for Vancouver. As always, 1st class dining served only to seal this sybaritic day.

Vancouver in 1967 - Canberra in the harbour

The run back to Hawaii and on to Japan was, however, not quite so charming, mostly because we were heading into a brisk wind which much impeded active life out on deck. But this was something of a harbinger of things to come. The barometer fell steadily and by the time we reached Yokohama a significant typhoon was on us: it was a rough first night spent largely at anchor and we even had to temporarily leave some passengers ashore to be accommodated by the company’s agents.

But the weather cleared in the morning and we sailed southwards, bound for Nagasaki, a port respecting which the word ‘interesting’ does no justice. Leaving there, however, meant speeding at 26 knots south to Sydney (on passenger ships, the schedule was writ in stone … passenger comfort was very much secondary – most had to get home!).

At midnight I came to the bridge to find that we were heading into seas of gargantuan proportions, much the worst that I had experienced in my 6 sea-going years. But the moon was bright and just as I reached my ‘post’ looking out over the bow at the roiling sea, we fell into a trough: I saw nothing before me but green water: I was evidently heading directly towards the bottom … I even thought that I could see the mud, and momentarily wondered if I were too soon to meet my Maker!

But the bow staggered up … the rogue wave had done its worst. We had much-broken crockery, passengers received some mild injuries (some people just cannot stand to miss excitement), a few portholes were stove in … but drinks were soon replenished and the furniture could always be repaired. Reducing speed (need it be said that suddenly the schedule was writ in sand) eased the motion (such violence can strangely reduce the rigours of mal de mer), and we steamed more sedately towards Sydney.

Taken from Canberra overlooking Sydney Harbour Bridge with Himalaya in the background

(It is noted that in December 1944, when the Americans were pressing northwards in that area towards the Philippines, Admiral Halsey’s battle fleet encountered just such a freak storm: three destroyers were sunk by the ferocious seas and a number of aircraft were washed overboard from carriers. Naturally, by that time in the War such losses could easily be sustained by the US navy. But the event effectively slowed the advance.)

As for those on Canberra, there was hardly a port in the world into which we would have preferred to sail. The idyllic had morphed into the exact opposite, but that ship was always welcome in that port and to the crew – especially myself – the Pacific had been partly explained.

Michael Frost's book

‘Voyages to Maturity Seven Years

before the Mast with P&O’

Available from AMAZON

Salty Seadog Note.

The Kindle edition of Michael's book is badly formatted and difficult to read.

I would suggest you buy the actual book.


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