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AROUND THE WORLD ON THE AUSTRALIS.
Excerpts from S.S. America – U.S.S. West Point – S.S. Australis, the many lives of a great ship. Lawrence Driscoll
AROUD THE WORLD ON THE AUSTRALIS.
SOUTHAMPTON 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”.
Captain Challioris was in command of a crew of 586. Ken Ironside was a gym instructor from 1973 to 1974, and one of the seventy English-speaking members of the crew. He describes the atmosphere on the ship as Greek, but with an international touch. The ship’s officers were Greek however the balance of the crew was a mixture of Indian, Lebanese and African. Ken described the crew as…“Very close to each other, going ashore in groups and also into staterooms in the evening. When there was a party onboard (which was just about every night) we would invite the Greek officers along to join us. I certainly loved working on her.” The ship’s crew made the traveling experience pleasant by maintaining good organization, high standards of cleanliness, and friendly service.”
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.”
Sailing through the Mediterranean the ship picked up more passengers; sailed through the Suez Canal then the long passage to Australia.
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”.
It did not take long to get settled in, and meeting the four or five others sharing the assigned cabin. Then off, as they had once done as young boys, to explore the ship noting changes and the location of the bars and food. They were never far away from cold frosty ale. The bars on the ship would open at 10AM and featured fine Australian beer for only 16c a can, the double scotches were 65c each, making it possible to enjoy a few. Dinner was served in two sittings in either the Pacific or Atlantic restaurants, and with ten passengers to a table it was not difficult to make new friends. Service was excellent, the Ouzo plentiful, and the food was good but repetitive. There were new menu items to try out such as ox tail, the spinach and feta pie that was a Greek favorite, and some dishes that needed a little help. “Without HP sauce the meat would have been terrible”. For variety there were special dinners and buffets on the enclosed Promenade.
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.
THE GOLDEN OLDIE
The AUSTRALIS continued to be popular and profitable into the mid 70’s. By then she was 35, which for a ship, is a rather advanced age. It’s unusual for a passenger ship to work beyond 30 years and many of her contemporaries were gone. The Mauretania, Nieuw Amsterdam and Queen Elizabeth had all been withdrawn from service in the late 1960’s. Passengers boarding the ship noticed signs of age. “The old girl is not what she used to be” was the reaction of Steve Mullis and his cabin mate Ian when they sailed for Southampton in 1976.
On November 18, 1977, the AUSTRALIS made her last sailing out of Southampton with 650 immigrants. After discharging her last passengers in Sidney she sailed to the remote port of Timaru New Zealand where she would once again be for sale.
WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ?