top of page

Davy Jones' Locker - Death on an Ocean Wave

On joining Oriana as a junior assistant purser I had a lot of life’s lessons to learn and being thrown into the deep end so to speak was a terrific educator.

My first trip was on Oriana, we had sailed from Southampton on the start of a five-week voyage to Australia. Somehow on my very first night, I had drawn the short straw, or more truthfully rank came into play and the most junior had been allocated the duty.

Duty assistant purser on Oriana 1973

in the Carnival ballroom

Each night after the bureau closed an assistant purser would be nominated as duty assistant purser on call all night should anything untoward happen. Now in the 1970s, there were no mobile phones or even pagers available so during the evening of your duty you had to inform the telephone operator of your whereabouts as you moved around the ship.

As the passengers gradually deserted the bars and ballrooms it became apparent that we had a stowaway on board. I was called from my pit and had to get back in uniform to accompany the nightwatchman to ascertain if the drunken guy was a passenger or as it turned out come aboard in Southampton, drunk more than his fair share and fallen asleep as Oriana set sail.

Although there had been a bomb scare on the QE2 in 1972 security onboard ship was pretty lax. Almost anyone could apply for a boarding pass to see off departing passengers. An hour before sailing an announcement would be made for all visitors to please leave the ship from D deck forward gangplank or similar. As an officer in uniform, it was normal to visit ships from other companies when docked together in port without having to show ID. Can you imagine that happening today?

I had befriended a nice older couple at Captain Wacher’s cocktail party.

Unfortunately, the husband fell ill a couple of days after sailing and passed away. As I was known to the widow she requested to see me. At this stage in my career l had absolutely no experience in dealing with bereavement and was completely out of my depth. The gentleman was buried at sea, with the ceremony taking place early morning from the gunport door (D Deck forward again, quiet the hot spot). This was the first funeral l had attended and it had a profound effect on me. In later life after visiting many cremation services, l look back and think how wonderful burial at sea is compared with the curtain enveloping the coffin before being whisked off to the furnace

The second death on my maiden voyage came as we entered San Francisco harbour, sailing under the Golden Gate bridge. The crew swimming pool on the fo'c'sel deck had been emptied and netted over. Somehow an elderly passenger had found his way onto this crew-only area to take a photograph as we sailed under the bridge.

He stepped backwards and fell between the side of the pool and the netting and sadly loft his life. As we were entering San Francisco there must have been a lot of paperwork required to land his body. I guess this fell on the shoulders of the senior assistant purser.

Fo'c'sle and crew pool on Oriana

All I remember of that first visit to San Fran was spending hours in the shed checking stores being delivered to the ship with Norman the storekeeper and Peter the butcher, we worked to five in the morning, and let me tell you it was freezing on the dockside.

Things always seem to go in thr and the third death on that voyage was the saddest of all. It involved a young Indian seaman. After being reported missing a full search of the ship was taken. I had been assigned to check the Indian crew accommodation and particularly the cabin of the young guy. In his cabin, we found a note that he had left saying the “Tonight I am going overboard” What a tragic loss of a young life.

From what I remember there was a morgue on board Oriana, it led off from the storerooms and consisted of metal container/s that would hold the body until it could be landed ashore or buried at sea. Many stories were circulating about bodies accidentally going overboard when rigging the evacuation shute prior to the ceremony, I expect there is some truth in these stories.

One of the most horrific deaths that I remember was on Island Princess when a crew member got trapped in a watertight door and lost his life.

Another occasion where I came head to head with death was while storing the ship in Sydney, I was on the dockside checking off stores as they arrived at the ship. During the previous cruise a member of the crew had passed away and his body was to be landed at Sydney to a local undertaker. Although l was aware that this was to take place I was unprepared when the conveyor arm loading the ship was reversed and out out came his body wrapped in canvas, as it got to the end of the conveyor I was struggling to hit the stop button and catch the body before it hit the deck, the undertaker’s van eventually turned up to take the guy on his final journey.

A few years later when I had elevated to the dizzy heights of senior assistant purser I remember struggling with all the paperwork connected to landing a body at Suva for repatriation to Australia. I expect there is even more red tape nowadays.

If you have a funny or interesting story from your time at sea please send them to


1,018 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 comentario

Alan Vickers
Alan Vickers
04 jul 2021

I was Bosuns mate on the Oriana 65 to 70and during this time I think we had 3 burials at sea, I believe we had iron bars ordered in stores for this emergency to weigh the canvas shroud down. The Sail makers job was to sew the corpse into the shroud who during my time was one Don Rogers, I think he got a bottle of rum for carrying out this task. The widow was presented with a framed piece of chart with a X on it marking the place where the person was buried, As a chart does not generally have a land mark on it it is possible that a piece of chart of the North Sea could…

Me gusta
     Please subscribe to  Salty Seadog

Thanks for joining us

bottom of page