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Wither Alaska or What to do with our Ships now !

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

by Michael Frost

In 1969 I was Junior 2nd Mate on Cathay, a pleasing small passenger vessel (about 240 passengers) that was essentially past its ‘best by’ date. She was of 13,808 grt and had been purchased from the Compagnie Maritime Belge in 1961 to replace, with her sister Chitral, P&O’s Corfu, Canton and Carthage, vessels which had for the post-war years maintained the cargo/passenger traffic between UK and the Far East. Although they were relatively new and efficient vessels, their death-knell had, at the time unknowingly so, been sounded by the advent of the 707, but perhaps more obviously, by the disappearance of the British colonial administrators whose bailiwick was fast evaporating. Various colonies had gained their independence and found that they no longer needed the civil servants hitherto believed by the British to be essential for the welfare of these disparate, and latterly somewhat ungrateful (!), nations.

SS. Cathay

Built: 1957 by Cockerill, Hoboken, Belgium

Gross tons: 13809Length: 558ft (170m)Speed: 16.5kn

Width: 70ft (21m)Depth: 28ft (9m)Power: 12500 shp

Propulsion: Steam turbines twin screw

Passengers: 240 in First Class

While I enjoyed my time on the vessel - it was a comfortable, happy ship with a good Captain, and it enjoyed the luxury of reasonably long stops in some excellent ports (notably Singapore, Yokohama and Hong Kong) I had begun to feel that by staying in the sea-going lane of life, I was beginning to resemble Der Fliegende Hollander, which is to say, an occasional visitor in my (or, at least, my parents’) home. Furthermore, on one leg of the first voyage on Cathay I had met a young lady (Judith) from Vancouver whom I thought might be just the one whom I was seeking (52 years of marriage later, I can only admire my perceptiveness).

Baudouinville was purchased from Compagnie Maritime Belge in 1961 by P&O and renamed ss. Cathay

For these reasons, and the fact that I was becoming aged and inflexible (in every sense of the word) at 25, I decided that the time had come for me to leave the sea and join the real world (though I had no qualifications other than ‘A’ level GCE and a foreign-going 1st mates). I therefore sent my resignation to P&O and recall a somewhat loose-limbed ‘exit interview’ with the Marine Superintendent (ex-Commodore Dunkley), with whom I had briefly sailed on Canberra. As a Captain, I had found him rather taciturn, but nevertheless a fair, approachable and decisive man. It was a pleasant discussion, partly because I was entirely satisfied with the manner in which I had been treated in the preceding 7 years.

Naturally, when I arrived home, my parents were anxious to see me settled, but wondered what I had in mind for the future … actually a pretty good question for me as well! I had for the past two years been taking a correspondence course in personnel management, the final exam for which I sat shortly after arriving in UK. With that (actually rather dubious) qualification in my portfolio, I sought a job in various London firms (we lived in Sussex, a 75-minute train-ride to Cannon Street station). My parents thought that a career in the Big City was ideal, for in those days the other major English cities were of less importance if one wanted to get ahead than they perhaps now are. I sent in my superb (but rather vacuous) resume to a number of companies, but at the same time started to apply to various universities, a degree apparently now being far more important for ‘business’ than it had been in the past (my brother was a student at Southampton University, and declared that it was easy enough to get into university, but that the waiting time was very bothersome … and I was ‘getting on’!).


However, just when it was looking a bit more difficult to enter the shoreside workforce than I had anticipated, I received a letter from P&O offering me the job of Assistant Nautical Inspector, a position of which I had never heard. This was a major, albeit easy, decision: my acceptance was communicated by telephone 3 minutes later, and my written confirmation put in the mail 15 minutes thereafter.

No interview proved necessary, so on a pleasant spring day in 1968 I reported for work at the rather elderly P&O building on Leadenhall Street, barely a stone’s throw from Cannon Street. I was quickly introduced to the Marine Superintendent’s empire (surprisingly small for such a major company) by John P. (who I was to replace) and then to Captain Sperling, an elderly, avuncular man whom I suspected to have witnessed about 95 summers; he was the Nautical Inspector and I was to work cheek by jowl with him at an adjacent desk. Contrary to my personnel management curriculum enlightenment, I was provided with no Job Description … I now assume, because there was no thought whatsoever as to the need for such a restrictive covenant – everyone knew what a Captain, 2nd Engineer and Assistant Purser etcetera did without the job having to be constrained by a plethora of terms of art.

John introduced me to the job (lucky fellow, he had obtained a new job with a London brokerage company!) and I quickly found that the lack of a job description simply meant one simply had to answer many, indeed all, of the esoteric technical needs of the seagoing fraternity, and this job also included some odd components: one rather strange one was to ensure that fuelling (termed ‘stemming’ or ‘bunkering’) orders for passenger ships were made in a timely manner (the ships’ Chief Engineers sent in a request, following which we (I!) had to ensure that the re-fuelling was carried out in the least-expensive ports – let us say, always Aden or Los Angeles rather than Colombo or Vancouver).

But the most interesting issue faced at the time was that of the future. As the Far East and Australia (or global), or even emigrant, demands were plainly obsolescent, we were tasked with finding useful (i.e. profitable) assignments for the fleet of passenger ships. The P&O Director to whom we reported was Mr. MacKenzie, an amiable elderly man who, need I say, had been to Oxbridge and, I believe, obtained a degree in Geography … but, significantly, I understood, had never actually been to sea.

The first issue was what to do with Cathay and Chitral, two ships that carried passengers, but only in small numbers because of their cargo facilities. John and I explored various possibilities suggested by disparate people in the office, but as these two vessels were limited (a service speed of only 17 knots) and the need to utilize the otherwise empty cargo spaces, we were advised (by Messrs Mackenzie, Dunkley and Sperling) to concentrate on the Mediterranean. We thus worked on two being based on the ports of Venice, Trieste, or Fiume (Rijeka), from there to visit Alexandria, Beirut, Naples and the like (even perhaps Benghazi, though it was unfortunately very close to revolution and the deposing of King Idris). But, when taken to the next step (the economic viability of these suggestions) the outlook was less promising.

The greater problem was the nine other passenger vessels, ranging from Chusan (24,000 tons) to Canberra (45,000 tons), all with considerable passenger capacity, but also ‘burdened’ by almost unusable dry and frozen cargo spaces. Our enquiries from all others in the office elicited only two new responses (Alaska and the Baltic), and suggestions to expand the already well-served US West coast and Australia (the Atlantic being already well served by a large, though ageing, Cunard fleet).


After John left for a long-term, and lucrative, career, I was left to work through all the possibilities with Captain Sperling. The “brains-trust” left to consider the issue apparently recruited all the best minds in the various P&O offices. However, the group’s final meeting that I attended concluded … well, nothing! The specific responses were predictable:

a. Who would want to go to the remoteness of a cold, uninviting Alaska? The lure of cruising was warmth, glamorous ports (and therefore often a little more understanding of the world’s history) and

b. Equally, who would want to visit the drabness of the Soviet Union, Latvia or Estonia? The Baltic did not connote warmth, good food, fascinating ports or much other than stolid Communism. Lithuania had a great history, but that was all that it had! (Nobody even mentioned the history of that country – once a great empire – which actually could compare with the Greek and Egyptian realms.)

Apart from applying to a number of companies who advertised in the Daily Telegraph, I also applied for a university spot through UCCA (University Central Council for Admissions); but consideration of this application, my brother advised, was apt to take two years or so. As I felt the weight of my 25 years, I was inspired to ask Judith about the prospects for emigration to Canada, specifically Vancouver, a city which I knew reasonably well. I applied to both of that city’s universities.

I was delighted to shortly thereafter receive two positive responses from both Simon Fraser and UBC, the first of which operated continuously through the year (which is to say, one obtained a degree in 3 years. UBC took 4 years with long summer breaks). I didn’t hesitate to undergo a 5-minute interview at Canada House (nobody knew what a Nautical Inspector did … but that seemed unimportant), and in late November 1969 I found myself tossing across the Atlantic (the stabilizers were hors de combat) on the penultimate Atlantic voyage of Canadian Pacific’s Empress of England. I arrived in Vancouver, Judith (in the Personnel Department) found me a menial job in Eatons (Canada’s largest retailer) and shortly after Christmas I began studying at a community college preparatory to applying to UBC (a much shorter commute than was SFU).

The term successfully completed, I found through an acquaintance of Judith a summer job with CNR (the second of the two Canadian Railways, CPR and CN). This, again, was a menial job and involving time-recording for a Portuguese rail-maintenance gang parked on a siding near Blue River in central B.C., a desolate place where I could read books all day accompanied only by a dour ‘bull-cook’, a person if indeterminate gender, but who actually served up excellent, if very basic, food.

Two weeks into this toil-less work, however, I received a call (we had a walkie-talkie communication) from Judith urging me to hop on a train and get to Vancouver: a summer sea-going job was being advertised. Thus, next morning I was in Vancouver, washed, brushed up, and headed by ferry for Victoria, B.C.’s capital. There I walked up the gangway of mv West Star, a smart little passenger ship of 4,437grt. Judith’s assistant had noted a job that required a foreign-going certificate for summer employment from ‘next Monday’, and had arranged an interview with the Marine Superintendent (Mr. Wiggins).

Michael as Chief Officer on West Star

The ‘interview’ was brief: I had the right ticket (though a Master’s would have been better), I was content to work without a break for the summer until , and because watchkeeping was 6-on, 6-off, I was entitled thereafter to day-for-day leave and pay for 4 months after departing the vessel in September, at which point I was to begin the study of law at UBC. When I accepted the offer (May 22 1971) and asked when I would start, he replied “You start as Chief Officer tonight, OK?!” Nirvana!

I was then introduced to Captain Blackwell, a no-nonsense Scotsman, late of Donaldson/Blue Star, who regretted only that I did not have a Master’s: he had no relief Captain for any leave for himself. Shortly thereafter I was introduced to the new 2nd Mate, one Malcolm Pearson: he happened to have a 1st Mates’ almost contemporaneous with mine … but he had caught the ferry from Vancouver one hour after me!

I learned something of the company from Harry Blackwell: we were in a transitional period, for West Star was owned by West Tours, a major Alaska tour company owned by the flamboyant Chuck West, and who had entered into an arrangement (sale, charter or otherwise I never discovered) with Holland America to test the viability of a major cruise company operating cruises in Alaska. Thus, although we acted temporarily through West Tours’ staff, we were actually operating as the larger company’s stalking horse … my learned readers will immediately discern the irony in this deal! Despite our research, the Dutch company had stolen a march over my favoured P&O! Well, so be it … such is business. Nevertheless, the question remained: was the venture a step too far? Despite some months living in Vancouver, personally, I had discerned little in Alaska that would appeal to the average American Joe.

Princess Cruises in Alaska 1975

But my observation was way off. I found that despite the rather primitive nature of the ship (it was built in Spain, its original owner had gone bankrupt and it had laid unloved on the stocks for 2 years: it had then been re-painted and restored in the cheapest possible way) and the average passenger was of the ‘US farmer’ variety, who saw no reason to pay more money to go anywhere outside the Great USA. My watchkeeping job was made easier by our requiring (we flew the Liberian flag) Canadian and US pilots for the whole of each 8-day cruise: during these days, Malcolm and I played very static roles. My job was actually quite easy: the crew knew their assigned role, and each cruise seemed fully booked.

We even had a minor claim to fame: our entertainment staff was headed by the over-the-top Jeraldine Saunders, a glamorous lady, soon to be the creator of the “Love Boat” books and TV shows.

The other issue, of course, was the ports of call. My own previous experience in cruising in the Mediterranean and South Pacific led me to think that these small Alaskan ports (Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway) really didn’t measure up to those others which I had earlier enjoyed. But I was disconcerted to find that my view was quite myopic: the passengers loved this rugged frontier persona … where else but in Ketchikan could you have a whiskey with a mummified human toe residing in the bottle!

The cruise season proceeded; there was little summer warmth, but that wasn’t really what our passengers wanted … this was to get as close as they could to the Old West, gold nuggets, seedy bars, pickled human organs and all! And on September 3rd I signed off, still to receive 4 months pay … and overtime as well (an unknown concept to P&O!).

Skagway 1975

After 8 months in the study of law, in May 1972 I reported back to West Tours to be greeted by a happier Captain: a relief had been found in the Vancouver marine community. By September I had completed 30 Alaska cruises. But times had changed: Holland America and P&O (per Arcadia) had appeared in Alaska and begun Alaska Cruise programmes. When I left the ship that September, West Star sailed over to the Philippines and was never seen in North America again. The big guys had taken over!

Princess Patricia in Skagway

All was not lost however. I happened to be by the cruise terminus in Vancouver in May 1973 and found at the passenger pier a smart little passenger vessel, the Princess Patricia, a CPR ship of 6,062 grt. I realized that this vessel was also a local Alaska Cruise vessel, and went aboard to see if I could find a summer job. My luck was in: upon enquiry respecting needed crew, I came upon the Marine Superintendent, a very pleasant Mr. Yates, an event that proved doubly serendipitous – his son-in-law was a law student who happened to be in my law class at UBC, and whom I personally knew well (and who later became my law partner!). Yates thus knew of a student’s needs for a summer job, so within 30 minutes I was the ship’s 3rd Mate (an old, established company, it operated a fleet of smaller ships and thus had a cadre of experienced, long-service senior employees: all were local (coastal) Masters so no pilots were needed – the 3rd Mate kept a watch with the 1st Mate). I then met Captain Pendry Harris, a rough-hewn and immensely capable seaman who was most impressed by my British ticket and the fact that I was at University. Thus began my third Alaska cruising year (another 15 cruises), by which time there were numerous other major European companies which self-evidently also found the Alaska Cruise schemata highly profitable.

The following year the 1974 4-month summer break was not quite so well constructed for me, as I was effectively appointed as-needed on CPR’s small ships (eg Carrier Princess). In retrospect, they were well suited to my needs: I proposed practising maritime law if possible, and the local Salish Sea knowledge would (and did) serve me well.

After setting up my law practice, in the following years, Judith and I (and our growing family) enjoyed a number of Alaska cruises. The ports were no better, or indeed worse, than before; but the wheel had turned full circle … at least, it had for the two of us!

‘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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2 comentarios

John Martin
John Martin
21 mar 2022

I did indeed purchase the book. In an introduction page it says "Michael went to sea with P&O to see the world and for seven years saw life, shipping and the world profoundly change. His seagoing experience was multi-faceted, world encompassing and intellectually simulating". He might as well have also admitted that his seagoing experience was a good excuse to pursue romantic liasions with the most attractive girls around, especially on the passenger ships in which he served, not only the liner voyages but when cruising too. The fact that these included 'Arcadia', 'Himalaya', 'Oriana', 'Canberra', 'Cathay', 'Chitral' as well as more modest, mainly cargo vessels with passenger accommodation it appears he did seem rather spoilt for choice. And…

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John Martin
John Martin
20 feb 2022

What delightful turns of phrase. Makes it all the more entertaining. I'll be putting it on my reading list. I have just recently given a talk briefly describing Alaskan ports as part of my 'Pacific Perambulations'. As someone asked afterwards "so you were not impressed with Alaska". Luckily, I have a sister, a resident of Vancouver and of Salt Spring Island off Vancouver Island who also has a sailing boat. I m now familiar with the Salish Sea. Also a niece in Ucluelet on Victoria Island's West coast. A much nicer area of that part of the world.

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