When I was 9 years old, my family travelled from SYDNEY to SOUTHAMPTON aboard a passenger ship, and much of what came later – the gravitational pull of the world beyond my hometown, leading to the wanderlust of my early adulthood – can be traced back to this voyage and the year abroad that followed. My family had prepared for this journey the previous year, when “The BIG SHIP” was a frequent topic of conversation at the Baker family dinner table and the daily stick & carrot to keep us 4 young Baker boys in line – “They wouldn’t allow THAT behavior on the Big Ship!” and so on. What we called “The BIG SHIP” was actually the S.S. AUSTRALIS, which departed Sydney for the northbound return leg of its 42nd voyage around the world on the evening of January 3rd 1974, with us aboard.
Despite great anticipation, this voyage began horribly for a little boy. Aboard the overnight train to connect with our departure, I’d learned that my beloved dog JOCK had just been ‘put to sleep’ when friends who’d agreed to look after him backed out at the very last minute. Curled up in the luggage racks of our rail compartment, I’d sobbed for the entire 8 hour journey to Sydney.. I remember streamers at Circular Quay, and Mum giving us kids peace-offering presents, but memories of sailing from one of the World’s most beautiful harbours are vague for what must have been a spectacular experience. I was in my own head for the early part, if not all, of this voyage. If you’re 9 years old and need alone-time while unpicking moral conundrums of the first true heartbreak of your life, 4 weeks exploring a classic vessel from the golden age of passenger sea travel is a wonderful place to do it.
The BIG SHIP‘s full complement of crew and passengers totaled around 3,000 and there was plenty to occupy us – a cinema, swimming pools, gymnasium, library, numerous bars & lounges, games & bingo, deck sports & skeet shooting, salons & barber shops, a store – all the amenities of a town, but on the water. After departing SYDNEY we’d docked in MELBOURNE but my family didn’t get off the ship. About a week later, we arrived at SUVA in Fiji, which I remember as being not unlike a tropical coastal town in Australia. Our time ashore was brief, but I remember police wearing distinctive Fijian ‘SULU’ kilts, and buying souvenirs in a market near where The BIG SHIP was docked. Next, was the long voyage across the rest of the Pacific Ocean, taking almost two weeks.
S.S. AUSTRALIS’ full circumnavigation of the world took 3 months. The Southbound leg was full of European immigrants to Australia, but Northbound passengers included backpackers from Australia & New Zealand heading to America & Europe, making this leg a party boat. I remember announcements over ship’s speakers (and in the daily onboard ‘SEASCAPE’ newspaper) asking rambunctious 20-somethings to desist from pranks with lifeboats or alarms that closed watertight bulkheads.. Today, there are reunion websites and Facebook groups devoted to the S.S. AUSTRALIS where now-elderly ex-youngsters search for ‘missed connections’ met aboard in the 1960s/70s..
Being only 9, I was too young for this ‘Love Boat’ party action and couldn’t even get into the ‘COKEtail parties‘ at the ‘Teen Disco’ (where drinks were Coca Cola but the minimum age was 13). Normally, children my age could attend classes, but not on our voyage which coincided with Australian school holidays. There were activities for kids – costume contests and so on – and I remember playing with my brother Jo at the supervised ‘Children’s Playroom’ on the ‘Sun Deck’ – but felt too old for that scene, where the typical kid was 4-6 years old. I met 3 boys there, also in that awkward in-between age, though older than me, perhaps 11-12. I tried to tag around with them but they regarded me as a glorified toddler, so I mostly explored on my own.
In one of the many foyers of The BIG SHIP was a gallery telling of her storied past. This beautifully designed vessel was launched in 1939 when she was named S.S. AMERICA – flagship of the United States Lines. War in Europe closed the Atlantic passenger route she was built for, so she briefly worked the West Indies until being drafted into military service, when a hasty retrofit converted the queen of the luxury liners into the U.S. Navy’s largest troop carrier of WW2.
Re-named U.S.S. WEST POINT, her art & murals were covered with plywood and inside swimming pool drained to store supplies. Recreation decks now held anti-aircraft guns & landing craft, and her hull was painted battleship grey. Occupancy was expanded from 1046 to hold over 8,000 troops & a crew of 800. In continuous service from before the U.S. had even joined the war until its very end, she completed 149 missions while sailing 436,126 nautical miles and carried allied troops to all theatres of war.
In 1946 S.S. AMERICA was restored to prewar glory, and finally carried passengers between New York & Europe, and is fondly remembered as an elegant vessel. However she soon had to compete with her newer, bigger, faster, sister ship S.S. UNITED STATES and post-war trans-Atlantic air travel, and after nearly 20 years of plying the Atlantic, she was sold to a Greek shipping company in 1964. Chandris Lines had won a contract to bring settlers to Australia, whose post-war Government strove to increase the population (from a mere 7 million at the end of WW2). The BIG SHIP’s large staterooms were yet again subdivided, expanding occupancy to 2,300 passengers. Now called “S.S. AUSTRALIS” (meaning “The Australian Lady”) she was the largest ONE CLASS liner in the world.
All passengers were given full run of the ship, and perhaps the only distinction left was whether your cabin was on a higher or lower deck and had a porthole or not (sadly, ours didn’t). Our 6-berth cabin was on C-Deck, where the large-berth cabins tended to be. I had a top bunk, and became fond of the steady thrumming felt through my pillow, as the powerful engines of The BIG SHIP hummed me a lullaby each night and the sea gently rocked me to sleep..
There were two dining rooms on A-deck where the glamour of the earlier incarnation of the ship was still in evidence, and meals on THE BIG SHIP were fancy. It was the first time I’d seen posh deserts set alight by servers in red jackets, while others in chef’s hats assembled food & ice into sculpted towers. The whole ‘ooh la la’ fancy shebang. Dad charmed the Greek staff with his bits of modern Greek – “Yasu, ti kanis?” is a phrase I heard every day. We’d been assigned to a huge table with another family, and ate together for the entire trip. Mum & Dad made friends with the other parents, socialised with them during the voyage, and stayed in touch with them for years afterward.
When I was a passenger in this beautiful vessel, she was an interesting blend of eras – as 1970s hipsters in Suzi Quatro hair & Dennis Lillee ‘staches partied in lounges, bars & dining rooms still retaining the ‘American Moderne’ murals, lacquer-work & floor coverings of an earlier time. The BIG SHIP’s accommodations had lost their earlier luxury perhaps, but her imposing public rooms & interior decor remained unchanged from the S.S. AMERICA era.
The prow was off limits, at least part of the time, but the stern was always open and a great place to watch the wake of The BIG SHIP. I remember looking down and seeing the charming sight of dolphins frolicking in the churning water. While still in a Southern Hemisphere summer, the outdoor ‘Lido Bar‘ & swimming pool on the rear ‘Promenade Deck‘ were a focus for activities, such as a rowdy ceremony when we crossed the EQUATOR. Someone appeared dressed as King Neptune and anyone could be tossed in the pool, so I watched from a safe distance.
In one of the lobbies was a world map, where our position was updated daily. While journeying North/East through multiple time zones, BLASTS from the The BIG SHIP’s horns announced midday, as a reminder to adjust our watches (mine being a Timex received for Christmas a few weeks prior). There was a cinema on A-deck, and I remember seeing many films there – “Funny Girl”, “Mary Poppins”, “Doppelgänger”, and “Ring Of Bright Water” (a pet-weepy story which destroyed heartbroken me). I’d sometimes see the other in-between kids there and the youngest was slowly warming up to me, but I couldn’t play with them in the pool as I wasn’t yet able to swim.
Roughly two weeks after departing Sydney we arrived at ACAPULCO in Mexico, and anchored offshore because its horseshoe bay was shallow. I remember my family seeing the famous cliff divers, buying knickknacks, and a tour guide’s tales of the town and famous people who’d partied there. However, my most vivid memory of that day is of The BIG SHIP itself..
Typically, entering & leaving a ship happens via a gangway high up, but in ACAPULCO we had to exit the ship and climb down staircases outside the hull to a pontoon at the waterline, where launches took us to shore. Though tiny compared to today’s behemoth cruise ships, The BIG SHIP nevertheless looked absolutely enormous when seen from this low angle, while crouched in a glorified dinghy. Passing by its raked prow, an utterly vast mountain of steel appeared to loom & teeter above us. This dwarfing vertigo was repeated when we returned, leaving an impression that entered into my dreams for the rest of the voyage. Asleep at sea, I had frequent dreams of falling from decks into black waters, as the lights of The BIG SHIP dwindled slowly into the distance and left me behind.
This powerful image dramatised the anxiety of a non-swimmer floating atop the Pacific Ocean, but also my generally stormy subconscious in the wake of my dog being ‘put to sleep’.. People I loved had executed another being I also loved, and my heart was a raging torrent of conflicting emotions.. I had known death before – when a toddler myself, my infant sister died – but I didn’t truly understand that profoundly sad event till much later. The end of JOCK was my first understanding of the finality of DEATH in real time, and all the distress that entails..
Very early one morning I was woken from sleep by Mum & Dad, excited to show me something. Well before dawn, they took me up on deck in my PJs to see a massive queue of passenger & container ships. Running lights showed the traffic jam stretching to the dark horizon, as one-by-one ships were allowed into the locks of the Panama Canal, and we inched closer to the front of the queue as dawn broke. (We discovered later that Dad hadn’t loaded his camera properly and there’s no record of that sight, other than memories). Traversing the canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic took a few days, so there were many chances to view the process. Each lock opened its doors, letting The BIG SHIP in. Doors closed and the water level was changed, then forward doors opened to let us in to the next lock. There were stops in CRISTOBAL & BALBOA, and we got off at one of those ports, where my main memory is a street vendor who took off with my money when I overpaid..
We docked in PORT EVERGLADES a few days later and while the Baker family went ashore, members of the “U.S.S. WEST POINT Reunion Association” came aboard for a banquet luncheon, and showed their families where they’d bunked & stood watch when The BIG SHIP wore a military uniform. Affectionately dubbed “THE GREY GHOST” by her wartime crew, U.S.S. WEST POINT’s record is full of action & narrow escapes – she was strafed while evacuating UK forces & civilians from Singapore, dodged a U-boat near Rio de Janeiro, and evaded Nazi torpedo planes in both the Red Sea & the Suez Canal – but didn’t lose even one of the 350,000 people she carried, which was the largest total of any U.S. troopship in WW2. She often sailed without convoy warships, only protected by her guns and great speed. She crossed the Pacific 15 times and the Atlantic 41 times before Germany surrendered, then brought American troops home and was decommissioned in February 1946. I know The BIG SHIP was much loved by her peacetime passengers (being one, myself) but her wartime crew loved her perhaps even more. After all, she was home to 800 of the old sea dogs for more than four years, keeping them safe in exceptionally dangerous times.
Injuries did happen aboard The BIG SHIP of course, and I can attest to that too.. while Mum & Dad were elsewhere (perhaps at a costume party, where Dad won the prize!) we kids were skylarking in our cabin, when Jo fell from his top bunk, hitting his noggin on the floor.
We downplayed the severity when grownups returned, but Jo now thinks he’d been brained hard enough that he probably had an undiagnosed concussion! His swan dive may not have been entirely due to childish shenanigans however, as The BIG SHIP would tilt sometimes. Especially after we’d left a Southern Hemisphere Pacific summer to enter a Northern winter and the Atlantic became rough. The lively scene at the outside swimming pool was no longer possible, and passengers spent more time inside.
On a wet grey day of rolling seas, we Baker kids were sliding back & forth on the floor of the ‘Children’s Playroom’ when the other members of the ‘too-old for storytime & too-young to disco’ inbetween-club finally warmed to my existence. I remember them off to one side, just out of my earshot, as the youngest of the 3 made emphatic entreaties to the other two while gesturing at me.. The older boys relented and I was finally allowed to follow them on their adventures.
One of them claimed detailed knowledge about the wartime history of The BIG SHIP, asserting that certain divots on decks or hull were remnants of WW2 gun emplacements, or wounds from Nazi shrapnel. I have no idea if he was right, or if we were awed by mere deck scuffs & hull rust, but this notion was electrifying to 4 bloodthirsty little boys and we eagerly sought out more such sites. Exploring a passenger ship is fun when you’re 9 years old, but even more-so when accompanied by enterprising rogues who’d already figured out how to leverage our awkward in-between age to best advantage. Not yet teenagers, we were young enough to be considered harmless little kids when we ‘accidentally‘ entered “Crew Only” areas, and old enough to have naughty ideas of what we wanted to see when we got there.
Down on C-Deck, I remember the sight of the indoor pool drained of water (even indoor swimming being off limits in tumultuous Northern seas, perhaps). Outside the nearby gymnasium, the other lads paused for another debate of hissed whispers.. ‘Should we show him?’ ‘Yeah! Lets!’ One of them looked around to ensure nobody else was present, then motioned us into a hatch and closed the door. We were in a dark space between bulkheads, and SHUSHING for quiet, we crept to a pinprick of light emanating from the wall. Then, like a U-boat captain sighting his telescope, the oldest lad put his eye to the illuminated rust-hole and surveyed the scene beyond.. for a long time.. before hurriedly motioning me over! Thus bidden, I took a peek..
A blinding white glare resolved to behold… a spotty white arse descending – skirts akimbo – to a toilet seat, seen from a rear-view (literally) angle. The other boys presented this like sages unveiling The Holy Grail but my mind was boggling – “What?!“ – struggling to make sense of what I saw – “This hole looks into.. the toilet in the ladies gym?” – I’d been ushered into this crawlspace to see – “A lady’s bum? But… WHY?” At the age of 9, I cared less than half a fart about seeing ladies’ bums, and it would be years until I did (perhaps this early LIVE upshot of a doughy female backside delayed my general interest in the subject). However, expectant looks from the other boys showed that some reaction from me was required to consummate this ceremony.. I did my utmost to appear UTTERLY awestruck by the opportunity bestowed unto me by these 3 wise men as we stepped out into the light. “Yeah, ah.. wow. That was amazing.. yeah..”
After allowing me to enter their mystic grotto and behold such secret wonders, I’d been fully initiated into their tribe. I was indifferent to seeing more lady bottoms but, thankfully, different mischief soon followed, including sneaking into deeper parts of the ship. For the rest of the voyage, we traversed more spaces between bulkheads where there was a lot of rust & grime. Up on deck, an energetic painting crew constantly groomed The BIG SHIP like a Hollywood makeup department, keeping her hulls & decks presentable for her public, but down in her nether regions the old boat showed her age. I remember the triumph of finding what we excitedly thought was the engine room, but might have been a huge boiler. Whatever it was, it made a glorious racket and we got cursed at in voluble Greek when a crew member found us, and chased us out of there. Tee Hee!
The weather changed day by day to darker skies and roiling seas as The BIG SHIP got closer to the UK. Ropes were lashed along walkways both inside & out for passengers to hold onto, as they staggered across shifting decks often slick with rain and sea spray. I clearly remember seeing a man fall UP a flight of stairs when the ship lurched under his feet. I discovered that I had surprisingly good sea legs, and actually enjoyed trying to maintain equilibrium on a rolling deck. Dining room tablecloths were moistened to prevent crockery & silverware from sliding and meal seatings became poorly attended, as many passengers groaned in their cabins with seasickness.
Early in February 1974, we arrived at SOUTHAMPTON, and I remember going through UK Customs & Immigration before catching a train with ice crusted on the windows. The COLD was an adjustment after being in a Pacific Summer mere weeks ago. In LONDON we briefly stayed with my Aunty Marg, arriving at her flat just as Top Of The Pops was on telly, and she excitedly filled us in on the grooviness of early 1970s Glam Britain. The Baker family soon headed to GLASGOW where Dad began a sabbatical year in the UK, which was the reason for our trip. It was a year of marvelous experiences for a kid – long-haul ocean travel, to big cities & ancient castles, with long-haul air travel taking us home the next year via stopovers in Asia.
Many trinkets from this ocean voyage adorned my bedroom for years. Maps, souvenirs & knickknacks picked up in Fiji & Mexico, and coins from Panama & America. I used to have copies of the ‘SEASCAPE’ daily newspaper, a ‘Crossing The Equator’ certificate, a key to our cabin, as well as brochures & deck plans of S.S. AUSTRALIS, but lost them years ago.. At one time, this voyage represented the most vivid memories of my young life, but many details of these long-ago experiences have faded.. However, impressions are as strong as they ever were.
In the late 1970s, cheaper flights across the Pacific meant that Chandris Lines lost the Australian Government migrant contract. The S.S. AUSTRALIS was the very last Australian migrant ship, making her final voyage in October 1977, ending 189 years of continuous sea migration to Australia. She’d made 62 round-trips from Britain to Australia & New Zealand, carrying over 300,000 people. (Chandris Lines is now defunct, reformed as Celebrity Cruises in 1988, which was later sold to Royal Caribbean Cruise Line).
I’m lucky to have experienced the tail-end of that earlier era of sea travel as a child. My parents went abroad by sea in the 1960s, likewise uncles & aunts in the 1970s, but when ready to explore the world myself in the 1980s, the trusty 747 was the vessel that carried my generation of restless Australians abroad. By that time, long-haul passenger sea voyages were gone, but when backpacking through the archipelagos of Asia, l often chose short-haul ships rather than fly, having gained a love of ocean travel as a kid.
The BIG SHIP changed ownership, name & purpose many times after her last long-haul voyage, and the grand old vessel rotted for over 15 years.. until there was a plan to have her restored. She was well loved in Australia & New Zealand – many ANZACs had sailed on her in WW2, and generations of immigrants & travelers in peacetime – so the Victorian Government agreed to have her permanently berthed in Melbourne as a floating hotel & maritime museum. Sadly, before the details were finalised, she was purchased by a Thai Company who likewise wanted her as a floating hotel.
Renamed S.S. AMERICAN STAR, she was being towed to Thailand in 1993 when tow lines snapped in a storm and she ran aground in the Canary Islands, breaking in two. As she slowly slipped beneath the water over the next decade, ex-passengers who loved the old vessel made the trip to see her and buy memorabilia salvaged from the surf. When I’d walked her decks in 1974, as a little boy wrestling with mortality, I began to see that what we love will inevitably be taken from us, if not by the actions of others or ourselves, then simply by TIME. Our lives are all finite, and those of beloved dogs & old Sea Dogs too..
In April 2007, The BIG SHIP‘s starboard side collapsed and this grand old lady of the sea – who’d transported so many people in her various guises since 1939 – finally sank beneath the waves..
..in 2019, underwater footage showed The BIG SHIP‘s submerged debris buried in the sand, now teeming with marine LIFE..