Canberra at 50

At little thing which has remained forgotten so far during 2011 and, since 14 years ago this week she was tied up at QEII Terminal awaiting her fate, I thought it was high time this fact was remembered.

We all know she began life on the Australia run on the 2nd June 1961, though had a tough start. She was the last passenger liner to be built at Harland & Wolff in Belfast, and the largest for the UK market at that time. The original Oriana and Canberra heralded a return to Southampton by P&O after an absence of decades in London (something the onboard heritage presentation fails to mention). Did an American season and was on the verge of being scrapped in 1973 when a change of heart turned her into a full-time cruiser. We also all know her greatest moment was the TRUE heroine of the Falklands War, having completed a world cruise, then off two days later to the South Atlantic full of troops and conversions. Unlike the QE2, she went as was and ended up in the thick of it before the Cunarder even got there. While the QE2 was away 30 days (8 of which were there), Canberra was gone three months, and ALMOST gone when a Skyhawk flew over a mountain and bombed HMS Antelope instead, which had just changed position with the Great White Whale. She received a rapturous welcome, better than the QE2 since hostilities were still ongoing when she sailed up Southampton Water. Canberra was the nation’s darling, QE2 was relegated apart from in the eyes of Americans who lapped up the war stuff. She was no Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth or even Aquitania. In fact, until recently when books began to write the truth, the ONLY places I ever saw Canberra mentioned and QE2’s minor role was on the internet about the war and the final transat menu in October 2008.

My first proper stalking involved Canberra, who had a joint sailing with QE2 on the 18th June 1988. Canberra came first.

Canberra at Calshot 18th June 1988


QE2 and Canberra at Calshot 18th June 1988

Sadly, her days were numbered thanks to SOLAS, which is responsible for so many ships going. She failed to meet the 1997 regulations (due the 1st October) and it would have cost too much to bring her up to standard.

She and Oriana had a joint sailing on the 16th August 1997. I had a 6 year ship lay-off due to various things and it was Canberra’s imminent retirement which reignited my interest. She was and still is my absolute favourite. I only wish I’d had a chance to sail on her.

She passed the Golden Cockerel to the new Oriana, relinquishing her flagship status on her farewell cruise before proudly sailing up Southampton Water on the 30th September in the mist, her paying off pennant being a whopping 360 feet (or yards – confusion reigns!). No idea why now it’s a foot per year. More stupid SOLAS regs???? I was stuck at home with flu but now nothing would have stopped me going.

The opening verse of Don’t Speak by No Doubt, playing on the radio, were apt I think. She remained at Mayflower Terminal until late on the 1st October, when she was moved to QEII after QE2 had sailed. On the 2nd, Oriana docked at Mayflower than later that evening, said goodbye to her old fleetmate. The 6th I went on the Hythe ferry for photos and video, her future still unknown.

Then it happened on the 10th, although the Echo had her as sailing 9pm in the paper the day before. P&O announced in a two-line statement she was off to the breakers. If you increase the volume on the following video you can hear two of her three whistle blasts at the beginning.

And then she was gone to Karachi but she didn’t die easily. It took a year due to her draft contraint. BBC South screened a retrospective a year on in 1998 which showed footage of the breaking process interlinked with happy onboard scenes until the final shot of her headless. The end was certainly more nigh now. 😦

So here we are, almost 14 years later. But what happened to her things? Much was offloaded before she went, some split between Oriana, Victoria and the new Arcadia while others sold at auction in Southampton. Victoria has gone, Arcadia is now Pacific Pearl for P&O Australia. So what happened to the items???? Where’s the model which was onboard Arcadia???? Holland America recognise heritage. Cunard recognise heritage. Hell even Phoenix Reisen recognise the history of their umpteen-hand ships. So why don’t P&O? Next year is their 175th anniversary and I still think they should NOT call their new ship (due in 2015) Canberra. Iberia would be good or Medina. Reuse OLD names. Canberra was unique. Let’s leave her as such but have a celebration of her life (as well as P&O past) on the new one.

Scrapping is 100% the right thing to do rather than rot for years unloved and unwanted. It was upsetting at the time and I was very angry at the tone of P&O’s statement, as if she was dog poo they couldn’t wait to scrape off their shoe, but I came to realise it was more dignified and for the best. Besides, she’d have looked stupid as a Big Red Boat!

RIP Great White Rust Bucket. You’ll never be forgotten.

6th October 1997

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