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U3A Writing: Tales Of The South Atlantic

Lynette Wood remembers the delights of life aboard the passenger ships which plied between Britain and South America.

It was a dark wet night in October 1953 when Phil and I stood huddled with ten other passengers on a dockside in Liverpool waiting to board "S.S. Romney", due to sail on the tide for South America.

In those days of austerity customs searched the baggage leaving the country as well as entering, in case you made off with the Crown Jewels and as there were so few passengers, inspections were to be carried out in the cabins. The sling was loaded with bags, the winch started, and up went the load Suddenly there was a loud plop, the winch stopped and two sailors jumped down onto the rope fender and rescued the trunk, which being wood had floated. Then, a few seconds later, "Your trunk Mr. Wood",

They did their best to make amends for this minor disaster, we were called aboard and Customs waived their right to search. We opened the trunk to find that the oily water had seeped in and ruined my trousseau clothes which had been carefully placed on top. Quite a disaster when setting off on a non-stop three week voyage, and not the most auspicious start to our new life abroad.

The furthest I had ever travelled was by sea to Ireland and by air to the Scilly Islands. Fortunately Phil was a seasoned traveller having spent ten years at sea, being torpedoed on his first voyage. Comparatively this was a hiccup to him so I tried to take it in my stride.

Well, three weeks at sea made up for my troubles. To wake up day after day with nothing but the sea around, to eat fantastically well, even at that time, some food was still rationed in Britain, to play deck games, and to study Hurgo's "Spanish in Three Months" in three weeks. To see the most wonderful sunsets as the sun disappeared below the horizon and to feel the full force of the ocean when fierce gales sent the ship rolling and pitching in a corkscrew motion, and to discover that I was a good sailor who found the storms thrilling. We would pitch down, down, down into a trough when all one could see was water, then up, up. up. until all one could see was sky.

Over the following years we experienced many great storms at sea and never ceased to marvel at the mighty power of the ocean and the frailty of the men and ships battling with the elements. At times the ship was forced to heave to and ride out the fury of the sea.

On Sunday Mornings we would gather for a service conducted by the Captain and invariably one of the hymns would be "For those in peril on the sea". I never hear it now without recalling the reality of the mighty power of wind and waves.

On one of our trips, bound for Buenos Aires after home leave, we were at Sunday service, halfway between the Brazilian coast and Tenerife, when a small yacht was spotted Even the Captain's eyes were wandering and proceedings were brought to a hasty conclusion. We all rushed on deck and our ship slowed and circled the yacht. The loudhailer was used to inquire whether all was well On board were an old couple and young man, the vessel being the " Moonraker" of Brixham, ten days out of Tenerife bound for Bahia in Brazil The Captain inquired whether they were alright for food and water, and whether we could send any message for them. They asked for a message to be sent by the ship's radio saying they were all fit and well to a friend in the ship's London office.

We went on our way and soon the yacht was but a speck on the horizon. We passengers sat down to lunch feeling very fortunate, and slightly guilty at the thought of the yacht's crew on a diet of bully beef.

On another voyage, this time northbound we had left Brazil far behind when we received a message from a southbound sister ship that they had a stowaway on board who they wished to transfer to us. Even though we sailed in a sea lane it was very rare to see another ship, so this was quite an event. In due course the two ships came within a mile of each other and stopped, the sea being calm. A motor lifeboat was launched and was soon alongside the other ship while we hung over the rail to watch the drama unfold. We waited a long time because the stowaway had disappeared into the ventilation trunk with the aid of the other ship's crew, who sympathised with his plight, he was a deserter from the Spanish army. He wanted to get home to Spain because of his mother's illness but he had taken a ship going the wrong way. Anyway night was falling and the search was all but abandoned when the soldier was found and brought aboard up the rope ladder in a sorry state of seasickness. When we reached Las Palmas the poor lad was handed over to the military police and I expect it was some considerable time before he saw his sick mother in Vigo.

We did appreciate in those twenty years that we went back and forth every three years, how very fortunate we were to travel in such comfort, to make many good friends, who we often met up with again on other voyages. So much fun and laughter, with the children being spoilt by the crew, very often on the same ship, so it was like being welcomed aboard by our own family

We fondly imagined that it was a way of life that would go on for ever, I would watch the old people as I thought them then, the ladies with their blue rinse immaculate hair playing bridge hour after hour, and think. " One day I will be like that". Little did we realise that on those ships we were in a time warp. It was a way of life that was about to come to an abrupt and unexpected end.

The passenger liners all disappeared in the space of a few years, superseded by another liner that reduced the travelling time from twenty one days to twenty one hours or less, the jumbo jet. Nowadays the open decks that we enjoyed are piled high with containers. As for the white haired ladies, I never did join them.

I was given good advice when I was young, never admit to playing bridge aboard ship, unless I wanted to spend the whole voyage at the game. I took that advice as there were so many other things to do. Only once crossing the Bay of Biscay, to make up for rough weather casualties was I roped in and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.


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