THE AUSTRALIAN MAIDEN.
The defections started in 1960. Attracted by lower fares and sailings canceled by labor disputes, passengers abandoned the luxury liners and took to the skies, jet propelled to Europe on Boeing 707 and Douglas DC8’s. By 1964 the America was losing almost $1 million annually, eating away at capital needed for freight ship replacement. US lines put up the for sale sign
On the other side of the world passenger business was booming. In a move to attract immigrants the Australian and New Zealand Governments offered subsidize steamship ticket to encourage immigration. Using the Australian assisted passage program, an accepted immigrant could sail for as little as ₤10, or roughly $25. Their only obligation was a two year stay. For a slightly higher charge they could leave at any time.
In December of 1959, Chandris Lines introduced its first ship in the Greek Australian migrant service, the 24,000 ton Patris. The venture was a success and in the early 1960’s, Chandris Lines was awarded the Australian Government’s transportation contract. With a ten-year waiting list to emigrate down under, they would have no trouble booking passengers.
To fill the growing need Chandris needed a big ship with a long cruising range; the America was a perfect fit and a bargain at $4,250,000. In August of 1964 Chandris took title and transferred the ship to Greece for remodeling. The Greeks wasted no time and quickly doubled the ship’s capacity, installed an outdoor pool and air-conditioning. In August 1965, the new Australis departed from Southampton with a full load of passengers headed for Australia and New Zealand. The ship continued eastward across the Pacific Ocean, through the Panama Canal and on to Southampton. Over the next twelve years the Australis would make sixty-two around the world voyages, transporting more than 300,000 passengers.
AROUD THE WORLD ON THE AUSTRALIS.
SOUTH HAMPTON TO DOWN UNDER.
Chandris understood the importance of first impressions. In Southampton they rolled out the red carpet and greeted new passengers with a Captain’s ‘Welcome aboard party’. Those expecting a ‘no-frills’ austere immigrant ship were pleasantly surprised by comfortable facilities and a warm friendly atmosphere.
The Greek crew set the tone. More Fun loving and engaging than their North American counterparts on the America they provided a Greek ‘Dolce Vita’ atmosphere. Former passenger Steve Mullis described the atmosphere on board as. “Always great, never a dull moment and the Greek crew were very friendly, especially if you tried to learn a bit of their language and do the Zorba dance.”
AUSTRALIS’s first captains, Demitrios Challioris knew how to spread the charm. “Being the Captain of such an enormous cruise liner was a very demanding job. Every morning you would have to go out onto the deck, greet the passengers, kiss their foreheads, and listen to their wishes and complaints. Very often I was with my wife, strolling together on the deck, so I could easily approach a pretty woman and talk to her, pay her a compliment and she would say, “ Captain would you invite me to your table tonight? “ Madam, consider yourself invited”.
Early on the Australis developed a reputation as a party boat making the TV series “Love Boat” look like a religious retreat. Crew member Margaret Volovinis described a surreal atmosphere where “Life as we know it had been temporarily suspended. That feeling of “life suspended” was striking on all the ships I worked on during migrant voyages. These passengers had left behind everything familiar, including their extended families. They were going to the other side of the world to face so many unknowns. There was a definite feeling that the ship was no-man’s land and whatever they did on board would not be counted…. in the old, or the new, life. This led to parents leaving their children in the playroom for hours or to wander the ship at will, young (and not-so-young!) men and women falling into passionate romances with other passengers or (only too willing!) crew members and a general air of true gay abandon! I never met passengers that had such an effect on me. People enjoying their annual two week holiday in the sun weren’t in the same category.”
In the Playroom Volvinis was one of two working to maintain a certain measure of control. “ I remember my initial fear and amazement that as we were apparently supposed to entertain and care for 400 children (many without English) for 12 hours a day in a playroom that today would be considered inadequate for 40! Having learned to live with clearly impossible job requirements, I went on to acquire the addiction to ships and the sea which has remained with me to this day.”
Darren Byrne and friend Brian were among the children wondering the ship at will exploring every nook and cranny like “Naughty boys should,” venturing into off limits ‘Crew only’ spaces, such as the engine room. Their exploration took them down to the lower decks where one of their favorite activities was using portholes for a toilet, that is until a wave hit the side of the ship and gallons of water started pouring in. “We ran, leaving the porthole open. We were scared in case the ship sank because the porthole was open. As kids we felt every crewmember was looking for us and we were in for it if we were caught.”
NORTHBOUND TO SOUTHAMPTON
The return voyage from Australia and New Zealand to Southampton would take on a very different mix of passengers. Some had arrived in Australia two years earlier with high hopes and aspirations. They were now going back home. Starting a new life from scratch was not for everyone. They were homesick, missing the old country, their friends and looking forward to the familiar change of seasons. Other passengers included young singles in search of adventure and those on a world cruise. As with the southbound passage the price was right. Discontented settlers who met the two year minimum residency had the passage paid for by the government. For all others the cost was far less than flying with a much bigger baggage allowance (40 cubic feet).
Many of the passengers were young and had immigrated with their parents. Now in their late teens and early twenties they set out to explore the world.
Steve Mullis was 21 when he once again boarded the ship in May of 1973. He was …“greeted by a steward, and, with my guitar and cabin luggage, was taken to my cabin on C Deck. As it happened I was going to be in the cabin next to the one I was in as a boy in 1966. The memories came flooding back and the sight of the blue blankets and the Chandris towels was all a bit much. Not wanting to waste time in my cabin I headed for the Promenade Deck and getting to know her through adult eyes. It was a magical experience, I was on my own, I didn’t know anybody, I was going somewhere I knew little about and for once in my life I didn’t care. I was happy at last, free from everything”.
Steve would soon become acquainted with his fellow travelers. Ships at sea have a way of coalescing disparate individuals into one familiar maritime community. Over the next five and a half weeks they would form friendships, explore, entertain, be entertained, relax, love, sleep, eat, drink and play. Nature and time would cure any over indulgences; fresh sea air and a few hours in a deck chair would help revitalize the partygoers. Gazing at the ever-changing seas, the sun, moon, and stars would bring peace to the soul. [Insert picture on Lido Deck 6-9]
The 60 day around the world voyages would go on for 14 years interrupted by an occasional cruise to The Canary Islands, Portugal, Spain, West Africa or the Mediterranean.