11/04/2012...6:51 pm

From our mail bag: An engineer’s tale of life onboard Union Castle lines

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The RMS Windsor Castle

Editor’s Note: Following on our blog, “Nickel and diming back in the day,” James Wilson, a former engineer for the Union Castle line, wrote in to tell us about his time there and with the Canadian Pacific line, as well as various and sundry other details about life as a crewmember. Here’s what he had to say in his own words:

I was most surprised by the comment naming Union Castle line as the Easy Jet of the time. In my opinion, nothing could have been further from the truth. Their beautiful ships were immaculately kept and the company paid more than their competitors to attract and retain the best staff. Even paying first class travel for their officers to go on leave when not many companies paid travel arrangements home at that time.

In the early 1950′s I served as an engineer with Canadian Pacific. On gaining my Chief Engineer’s steam certificate, I had to leave the company briefly, as I wanted to gain a Chief Engineer diesel certificate. This was when I joined Union Castle.

The steam driven Empress vessels burnt 10 tons of fuel/hour but the diesel driven vessels that replaced them were much more efficient and required a lot less engineering staff. There were weekly sailings by the larger steam driven 28,000 ton mail liners between Southampton/Cape Town. Their intermediate class 18,000 ton diesel driven liners sailed from London.

I joined the Bloemfontein Castle as Second Engineer. On reaching Cape Town, the ship then took on passengers from Southern Africa for a cruise calling at the beautiful ports, all with stunning beaches namely East London, Port Elizabeth, Durban, Lourenco Marques, Beira and Mombasa before turning around for the trip home.

A lot of Brits worked in Kenya who joined us for the trip home. When in Cape Town, the most popular Hotel was the Nelson which had great entertainment with guest singing stars Dennis Lotus and Lisa Rosa who both went on to sing in Ted Heath’s big band in the UK.

New comers to Cape Town were encouraged to have a drink called ‘Tickie’. This was the sediment left in the bottom of the sherry casks and was very potent. Not many could manage more than two and remain sober. The term ‘Tickie’ was South African slang for a small 3p silver coin.

All Senior Officers had their own dining table in the main restaurant. A Second Engineer had a table for 10 guests. All the Officers were given a very generous allowance to purchase drinks for passengers at unbelievable discounted prices (1p for a pint of beer and 3p for a Gin and Tonic).

The last night before docking all the crew were too excited to sleep. (This condition is referred to as “the channels.” ) The crew bar (known as The Pig) always did a roaring nights trade. All along the working alleyway, every form of gambling was taking place. A lot of the stewards stayed up all night gambling, and the amount of money that changed hands was enormous.

The length of the voyage was three and a half months for the Intermediate size vessels but the larger mail ships voyages were 4 weeks long. The Mail ships left Cape Town at 4pm prompt deliberately intended to co-incide with the departure of the famous Blue Train.

The former Transvaal Castle was one of the first vessels to join Carnival Cruise line who renamed her the Festivale.

Before leaving Union Castle, I was asked to stay and join the team to supervise the building of the Pendennis Castle in Belfast.

On returning to Canadian Pacific I joined the newly built Empress of Britain. Having previously been promised to be part of the team to supervise the building of the Empress of England and the Empress of Canada. The latter was Carnival’s first cruise ship which they renamed the Mardi Gras. On the maiden voyage under Carnival management they put the ship aground in the Bahamas Islands off Florida. The ship was re-floated and provided many years of service for the company.

In the 1950′s the St. Lawrence river would be closed in winter when it froze over unlike today when it is kept clear with ice breakers. In the winter therefore, most of the Canadian Pacific fleet sailed between Liverpool/St. Johns and Halifax. I was very fortunate to sail on the Empress of Scotland, which was one of the top cruise ships of the time. They did one long cruise from Southampton to the Caribbean. The price was very high which was reflected in the passengers who could afford it. Following this it did 6-8 short cruises between New York and the Caribbean carrying the cream of society from Canada and the USA. Many were household known names who returned to cruise each year.

Whilst the food was outstanding in contrast with the modern cruise liners of today not all the cabins were en-suite. Some just had the wash basin in the cabin and shared bathrooms. Some people were puzzled as to why the baths had 3 taps. One was for hot sea water and special soap was issued to achieve a good lather. Most of the modern vessels today make a lot of the required fresh water onboard.

It was quite common on the Atlantic crossing for people to share cabins. A complaint that I repeatedly heard on Celebrity cruises is the cost of single travel, although some companies are now starting to pay attention to offering solutions. Rather than travel in a smaller inside cabin maybe Cruise Critic could offer the ability for visitors to the site to find others looking to share a cabin.

With regards to tips: For the short Atlantic crossing, it was said that some of first class stewards would refuse to accept a tip of the equivalent of a weekly wage to a workman ashore, and inform the passenger he would need the money for the baggage porter ashore.

–James Wilson, Guest Contributor

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  • James- that was a fascinating account.
    I believe it was my comment about Easyjet to which you objected …..it wasn’t the standards my OH was comparing, but the fact that by going 2nd class, you could still have a reasonable time, and get back to the UK at the same time as the 1st class pax! His visiting relatives certainly travelled 1st class, but when he and his parents sailed, there would be 7 of them in various bunk beds….and he still thinks of those trips as transport, rather than cruising. Obviously, as a young boy, going on a ship was a special occasion, whatever the class you sailed. he retains a special fondness for the ships, and often mentions them.

  • Ah thank you for sharing. Sometime indeed the beauty of the ship is as spectacular as the sights and destinations themselves. A great story to share with fellow cruise lovers!!

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