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Oriana - Flagship of the Orient Line

By Commander Nicholas Messinger

'Futtocks & Buttocks' Memoir

Nothing had quite prepared me for the Oriana; she was simply enormous. Modern, state of the art, shiny and nearly new, unlike the dear old Strathmore, tired, old and just about worn-out.

I joined the Oriana on the 19th November 1963, at Southampton, for my last voyage as a Cadet, prior to sitting for my Second Mates Foreign-Going Certificate of Competency.

Everything about the Oriana was new - from her corn-coloured hull, to her distinctive and highly collectable ashtrays. She was by no means a beautiful ship - but she was certainly impressive, with a profile that was recognisable all over the world. To the aesthetic eye, she was, well, unusual, and totally unlike any of the P&O liners of her day. For a start, she had two funnels more akin to upside down flowerpots than anything I had even seen before - and the after one was a dummy, designed to house the engine room exhaust fans. She had over 110,000 square feet of public rooms, not counting the staircases and entrances spread over eleven decks.

My cabin was on the port side, aft of the captain’s quarters, and had originally been designed as sea cabin for any pilot who found himself having to remain on board overnight.

‘Are you RNR?’ was the first question I was asked on reporting to the Chief Officer. I nodded, ‘Yes Sir. Midshipman Messinger, RNR List One.’ He looked me up and down, taking in my neatly pressed monkey jacket and white-topped cap. ‘The captain’s chairing a meeting of Royal Naval Reserve senior officers in the Silver Grill. You are to meet them on the gangway and direct them to the lifts.’ I acknowledged the order with a seamanlike, ‘Aye, Aye Sir'. ‘Don’t forget to salute them as they step aboard. I suppose they taught you how to do that in the P&O’. I nodded, ‘and aboard the Worcester too, Sir’. ‘I might have known it,’ he growled, ‘another bloody Worcester man. We’re being overrun with you bastards.’

The following morning I bumped into the ship’s ‘padre’ in the lift as I was going down to breakfast. Dark navy blue double breasted suit and gold rimmed spectacles, he glanced up from his bible and smiled. ‘Welcome on board my Son. I heard you were joining us. Would you like me to hear your confession?’ ‘How much time do you have? I replied, laughing and vigorously shaking his hand. It was Archie, the Chief Officer from the Somali, one of the nicest blokes in the fleet. ‘Pop along to the Stadium Deck suites at ten-thirty; mine’s on the starboard side. You can’t miss it. It’s the biggest one on board this floating house of sin.’

His spacious cabin comprised a double bedroom, separate lounge and dining room and a luxurious well-fitted bathroom. Archie had certainly landed on his feet. It crossed my mind, albeit briefly, that he must have won the football pools. There was a knock on the door. ‘Quick, hide in the bedroom, but keep quiet, OK?’ To my surprise, there were half a dozen officers crowded into the bedroom, pursers, radio and a fourth officer I recognised from the Strathmore. The radio officer was wearing a pair of headphones and fiddling with a tape recorder, a Grundig reel-to-reel machine.

Do come in my child,’ said the padre, loud and clear. ‘Welcome to the Oriana. I will be responsible for your spiritual welfare while you are onboard. Now please tell me your name.’ ‘Alison, father,’

‘What a lovely name. Are you joining us from head office?’

‘Yes,’ she replied.

’And is this your first ship?’

‘Yes, I was in the typing pool, and then in the accounts department.’

‘Excellent, so all this is new to you?’

‘Utterly, and all rather daunting if I say so myself.’

‘Don’t worry my child, you’ll soon get used to the ways of the ship and you’ll soon settle in. Now tell me, are the bureau staff looking after you?’

‘Yes, they’re all very nice.’

‘Anyone in particular caught your eye,’ asked the padre.

Alison giggled, ‘no not yet, Father.’

‘So you have a boy friend back home do you?’

‘Actually he’s my dance partner, not really a boy friend.’

‘Now, I have to ask you a very personal question; have you ever been intimate with him?’ Alison coughed, I had no idea who she was, never having met her, but I could imagine her embarrassment at receiving such a direct question from a padre. And on board an ocean liner too.

She was silent, probably blushing like mad.

‘Are you a virgin?’ enquired the padre, sotto voce. ‘If so, you must tell me. We don’t want you succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, now do we? I am responsible for your spiritual well-being after all.’

‘Technically, yes, Father,’ said Alison, after a breathy few seconds. ‘I’ve never gone all the way.’

‘What a quaint saying,’ replied Archie, stifling a chuckle.

Then someone pushed the door open and the poor girl found herself confronted by the whole gang. Her initiation was complete, and there were two more to come. Unfortunately, Archie was not sailing with us. He was only on board for dock staff duties, prior to joining the Arcadia. He had a wicked sense of humour.

The next girl to ‘report to the ship’s padre’ was a petite brunette who I had met, albeit briefly, outside the Purser’s Office. I decided I had heard enough, made my apologies to Archie and opted to get to know the workings of the ship instead, starting with the galleys.

Despite my Far East adventures with the fairer sex, I retained a deep respect for women, and besides, I felt uncomfortable. Something wasn’t right.

With two-thousand passengers and almost a thousand crew, Oriana was an incredible ship and the galleys were a source of genuine fascination for me. Feeding that many people, three times a day, took some doing. The galley was located nine decks below the bridge, aft of the first class restaurant, and two decks above the ship’s boiler room. Spotlessly clean, the chefs were supervising the loading of refrigerated stores, in readiness for the long voyage south to Australia.

Elizabethan Restaurant - Oriana

Dinner was served promptly at six as many of the crew were local men eager to get ashore.

I sat and chatted with Dee, the very pretty first-trip Junior Female Assistant Purser, who had somehow managed to escape the clutches of the ship’s ‘padre’ and his merry disciples. The dining saloon was empty, with just one or two stewards wiping down. Dee, was a petite brunette who had been recruited from the company’s West End office, and over coffee, we chatted about this and that. Then the ship’s broadcast system crackled and just before seven, the BBC announcement came over the loudspeakers:

"President Kennedy was shot at today while riding in a motor convoy. A photographer reported seeing blood on the President's head." President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas? We could not believe what we were hearing, stewards and bell boys and the head waiter crowded around the nearest loudspeaker, then the announcement continued in a more sombre tone: "News has just come in that President Kennedy has been shot. There's no news yet of his condition. It happened as the President was riding with his wife in an open car through the streets of Dallas, Texas. Several shots rang out and the President collapsed into the arms of his wife. One eye witness said he saw blood on the President's head. The Governor of Texas, Mr John Connally, who was with him, was also shot down. The President was rushed to hospital, where there's still no word of his condition."

Then Leonard Parkin was on the phone from Washington with his first dispatch.

Kennedy had been shot in the head. His condition was critical. And then the news we all dreaded: "We regret to announce that President Kennedy is dead."

Dee suddenly sobbed in disbelief; concerned for the President’s wife and young family. We simply could not believe what we had just heard. The US President and his lovely young wife were part of our lives. He was loved and respected the length and breadth of the country. The tragic news cast a sombre cloud over the whole ship.

Suddenly, the ship felt very small, a microcosm of humanity afloat on oily black water on a Southampton November evening. Dee and I adjourned to her cabin and drowned our sorrows in a glass or two of port.

Stewards were busy preparing the restaurant for the ‘eve of departure dinner’, an Orient Line tradition of which I thoroughly approved - particularly as my Mother and Grandfather were coming as my guests. They were driving down from Essex and staying overnight in Southampton.I could only imagine what my dairy farmer Grandfather would make of the ship. Apart from the training ship Worcester, he had never been on board a ship in his life. Silver service cutlery gleamed, and wine glasses shone. Every table was laid up for five courses, and all compliments of the P&O - Orient Line. If anything could cheer us up after the dreadful news from Texas, this would go some way to lifting our spirits. I strode through the restaurant with a feeling of real pride, and caught the occasional smile from an effeminate-looking steward. One of them gave me a wave, and a cheery, startling ‘Hello Hunk!’

With over seven hundred in the catering department, the ship’s stewards greatly outnumbered the deck and engine room crews and, as far as I could see, most of them appeared to be queers. Although, on shore, homosexuality was still illegal, on board Oriana, it appeared that anything goes. With the majority of the crew cabins being two-berth, lots of the boys had paired off, and partnered for the duration. Cabins were decorated, often at considerable expense, with many resembling the fragrant boudoirs of French bordellos. Not that I had ever seen one! Crew rounds was a real eye-opener; inspecting the cabins and checking for illegal alcohol and drugs, and coping with the feather boas and frilly frocks, was a right of passage for me. As were the ‘daisy-chains’, noisy parties where, under the guidance of the ‘queen mother’, the ship’s ranking steward, bodies were joined in anal intercourse, to the throbbing beat of a cha-cha. Oriana was a good grounding for my later life on board Orcades and Oronsay, where my nickname, ‘Hunk’, followed me. I have no objection to homosexuality, just as long as it’s discreet and doesn’t endeavour to seduce impressionable young men, often far from home for the very first time. The ship’s Bell Boys were invariably the youngest members of the catering crew, running messages and manning the ship’s lifts.

Easy prey for the predatory old queens.

I was preoccupied, connecting a battery to my record player, and cueing the pick-up arm over a forty-five, ‘Love Me Do’ by the Beatles, when a very distinguished gentleman poked his head inside my cabin, just as the music started.

‘So, you’re the new boy are you?’

It was the ship’s entertainments officer, James Craig, or more accurately, The Right Honourable James Craig, the Second Viscount Craigavon, Baronet. Eton educated, and ex Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, he was the son of the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland - but more importantly, he was a thoroughly nice bloke. He told me had just been to see the captain, discussing the seating plan for the departure night dinner, and just wanted to say ‘hello’. ‘And by the bye, I’ve got a little job for you.’ The ‘little job’ was to meet and greet a photographer from Vogue Magazine, who wanted to shoot a couple of stills, ‘round the front of the ship’. I met him at the gangway, couldn’t miss him, dressed by Carnaby Street, in a guardsman’s red tunic and purple velvet slacks, Beatle cap on head, cameras dangling from his neck on leather straps, and a stunning young lady on his arm. ‘This is Penelope, mate. Just want to shoot off a roll of film, then we’ll be out of your hair’.

Penelope didn’t have much to say for herself, she just pouted and thrust out her hips, and took up a couple of poses, and then they were off, in a bright red Jaguar XK150 - just about the most beautiful motor car I had ever seen.

The eve of departure dinner was a great success; my Mother and Grandfather were welcomed by the Captain, introduced to the Viscount and marched off to the first class dining room by yours’ truly. It was lovely to see them, but I did feel a bit like a fish out of water. Oriana was nothing like the dear old Strathmore - but Grandad loved every minute of it, and my Mother was very proud of me. As they were leaving, my Grandfather pressed two ten-pound notes into my palm, and with a kiss from my Mother, they were off to find their hotel. I worried about them driving all that way, but then, I always did, offering up a little silent prayer for their safe journey home.

My station for leaving harbour was on the bridge. Oriana’s bridge was enormous, and Captain Edgecombe, senior master of the Orient Line, was very much in charge, ably supported by the staff Captain, Chief Officer, Navigator, Third Officer, and me, plus two Quartermasters and an Ordinary Seaman. The Southampton Pilot gave the order, the Captain repeated it, and thence down the chain of command, until I rang the engine room telegraph, or the Quartermaster turned the ships’s wheel. ‘Dead slow ahead port engine, starboard ten, ease to five, midships, dead slow ahead starboard engine’……

On 12th March 1962, the 30,800 ton veteran USS aircraft carrier Kearsarge and the Oriana had collided in dense fog off Long Beach, California. The Kearsarge received a 25-foot gash about ten feet aft on the starboard side, while Oriana suffered a 20-foot hole near the bow and a small fire broke out in her boiler room, requiring the ship to be repaired at Los Angeles. Captain Edgecombe had been in command, as he had been ever since her maiden voyage, but fortunately, blame was allocated fifty-fifty, with both ships having been going too fast in restricted visibility. The term ‘Master under God’ better than anything else sums up the high expectations of the captain as the ultimate authority aboard ship, completely responsible for all the souls and the ship itself and therefore requiring a redeeming sacrifice when things go pear-shaped. Edgecombe was something of a martinet and known by all as The Ginger Tom, and it didn’t take long for me to incur his wrath. It was right at the start of the voyage in fact, less than an hour after we had let go our lines and the ship had cleared Southampton Water and was heading westwards, down the Solent, towards The Needles.

‘Cadet, take the pilot down and see him off the ship.’

As we were going down in the lift it suddenly dawned on me that I had spent too much time in the galley, and not enough time familiarising myself with the layout of the ship. The pilot wasn’t much help either. As the P&O’s ‘choice pilot’ he hopped from ship to ship and limited his knowledge to the bridge and the ship’s handling characteristics. And rightly so. Ten decks down, I pressed the button that opened the lift doors and looked around for someone to ask. ‘Sorry, mate’ said the first steward we met, ‘no idea where the pilot’s door’s located.

With a nasty knot in the pit of my stomach, I led the pilot up and down the deck, and the one below, until at last I found a member of the deck crew, smoking a crafty cigarette in a cross alleyway. Laconically, he pointed aft, ‘Just down there. Through the watertight door, turn left and it’s on your right’.

Back on the bridge, the Captain was apoplectic with rage, while the Staff Captain tut-tutted, the Chief Office shook his head from side to side, and the Navigator reminded me that the ship had been stopped, dead in the water, for over fifteen minutes, with the pilot cutter alongside. ‘You’re a bloody idiot,’ growled the Captain. ‘Banned off passenger decks for seven days. Now get below.’

The Chief Officer told me he wanted to see a plan of the ship, with every fire hydrant, fire extinguisher and ship’s side door clearly marked in red ink.

The bad news was that my record player battery was flat and I had nothing to distract me from the hum of the air-conditioning ventilator in my cabin as I copied out the ship’s particulars, in biro. Blowing refrigerated air, I woke up one morning with my left side completely paralysed with cold. There was no way of regulating the temperature; it was either on or on. My first air-conditioned ship and I was complaining!

Oriana was a fast ship, steaming at close to thirty knots and with a wire tail streaming astern in her wake. It turned out to be a new form of cathodic protection, to prevent the propellors being damaged by galvanic corrosion. It seemed that sacrificial anodes bolted to the hull were no longer enough. Once the ship had cleared the Channel Islands and was charging across the Bay of Biscay, I spent time on the bridge, copying out the ship’s damage control plans and generally making myself useful. The Fourth Officer was a pleasant, diminutive chap, who kept the eight-to-twelve watch with the Senior Second Officer, a rather morose and aloof figure, who was more Orient Line than P&O.

At around eleven o’clock one night, the bureau telephoned the bridge to report a ‘peeping Tom’. Some bloke or other had apparently climbed up into one of the lifeboats on the starboard side of A-deck, and was peering through a woman’s cabin window. I was instructed to investigate and report back to the officer of the watch. With my new found knowledge of the ship’s layout, I was able to identify which boat it would be and set off to apprehend the voyeur - only to discover that I too was of that persuasion myself. I clambered up into the boat and shone my torch around; it was empty, but as the beam of light reflected off the nearest cabin window, the curtains were opened to reveal a well-proportioned lady of a certain age, in a very revealing evening dress, which she promptly started to remove, slowly and seductively, until she was completely naked, at which point the curtains were closed and the cabin lights extinguished. My lasting impression of her was of her large breasts, pressed against the glass. It crossed my mind that perhaps I should have applauded; but then, I remembered I was in enough trouble already and it was probably best to remain a silent observer. I reported to the bridge, that I had done a thorough check, but there was no one in the boat and it was well secured for sea. The ship did experience stowaways, quite a few in fact, and we always kept our eyes open for suspicious-looking characters. Discharged from my duties, I turned in and dreamt of those breasts, pressed against the cold glass.

Commander Nicholas Messinger RNR

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