My life on the ocean wave

Among globe-trotters who’d rather not fasten seat belts and stare at cloud banks, the growing fleet of Atlantic liners is winning unprecedented popularity. Here’s your ticket to spend a luxurious week with a Maclean’s editor

McKenzie Porter January 16 1960

My life on the ocean wave

Among globe-trotters who’d rather not fasten seat belts and stare at cloud banks, the growing fleet of Atlantic liners is winning unprecedented popularity. Here’s your ticket to spend a luxurious week with a Maclean’s editor

McKenzie Porter January 16 1960

My life on the ocean wave

Among globe-trotters who’d rather not fasten seat belts and stare at cloud banks, the growing fleet of Atlantic liners is winning unprecedented popularity. Here’s your ticket to spend a luxurious week with a Maclean’s editor

McKenzie Porter

WHEN I EMBARK in an Atlantic airliner I am dispirited by the dulcet voice of an invisible female who welcomes me aboard and presumes that I am avid to know the names of the driver and the maids. From my airplane window over the Atlantic I’ve seen little but clouds, an occasional glimpse of a forbidding ocean and, toward the end of the trip, landscapes that suggest those dreary Russian pictures of the backside of the moon.

Nor have 1 encountered much glamour aloft. In my time I’ve flown alongside a hockey player who removed his shoes, an ironmonger who dozed on my shoulder and a brat who~Jwpt grabbing at my glasses. When I flew from New York to London last July I got hopelessly trapped beside a Seventh Day Adventist pastor who spent ten hours telling me why it is un-C'hristian to go to church on Sundays instead of Saturdays.

The last time I went to London my disenchantment with flight gave place to alarm. I read of speakers who warned the British Association for the Advancement of Science that "travelers’ trauma” threatens the sanity of Western society. “It results,” said one diagnostician, “from too many attempts to go too far in too short a time. It is marked by utter exhaustion. If the pace of travel in Europe and North America does not slacken the populations will suffer a catastrophic crash of mass neurosis.”

So I decided to return to Canada by sea.

I was not the only reactionary. At the shipping offices in London’s Trafalgar Square hundreds more were booking berths on old-fashioned sea-borne vessels. Far from shrinking in the growing shadow of the airlines the shiplines are burgeoning. Ship travel between Europe and North America increased from three hundred thousand in 1947 to more than a million in 1957. Today the shiplines' share of the total Atlantic traffic of two and a half million passengers a year is only a fraction less than the airlines’. Ten years ago eighteen shiplines operated fifty-eight vessels on the North Atlantic. Today twenty-six companies operate seventy-one vessels on this route.

Between shiplines and airlines there is little difference in fares. One-way first-class passage in either scales down, according to accommodation and vehicle, from around six hundred dollars to less than four hundred; second class from three hundred and fifty to three hundred; third class from two hundred and fifty to one hundred and seventyfive. But the shipline fare includes between five and seven days of feasting, drinking, flirting, CONTINUED ON PAGE 28

| dancing, gambling, exercising, relaxing

and sight-seeing.

Exalted by the promise of these therapeutic delights I embarked, one warm || Friday afternoon last summer, in the

Canadian Pacific Steamship Company’s Empress of Britain. Against the skyline of grimy Liverpool she looked truly regal. || She’s a three-year-old twenty-five-thou-

| sand tonner with a speed of twenty-one

| knots. She’s almost twice as long as a

| football field and as wide as Yonge

Street, Toronto. In fact she’s a graceful, ¡I white, jumbo - sized yacht, sporting an orange-colored smokestack and a china || dog in the captain’s front window.

Below the open sports decks and glass|| enclosed promenade decks she has a

movie theatre, a swimming pool, a children's playroom, a shopping centre, a daily-newspaper plant, a library, a telephone switchboard, a battery of elevators and a ballroom. Her dining rooms, drawing rooms, writing rooms, cocktail || lounges, and bars are so like similar

facilities in first-class hotels that a pas|| senger whose memory had been dimmed by grog once stepped out onto the deck || and shouted "Taxi!”

| The comfort of the second class com-

f1 pares closely with the first. Like many modern liners the Empress of Britain is a symbol of the leveling influences of postwar economics. The old third-class || accommodation, though still offered by

some shiplines, has disappeared from if; CPS liners; and CPS has also reduced

§f its first-class accommodation to about

f| half the size of that in the liners of the

Û Thirties. On my voyage the Empress was

packed to capacity with nine hundred |f secondand one hundred and fifty first-

11 class passengers.

I went aboard early to watch my felf low passengers embark. The second-class

jff; passengers came first, about half of them

British immigrants. An anxious white11 collar English couple herded up the gangway three small boys in those flannel f| shorts and school - badged beanies and

blazers that are abandoned the day after |f the wearers encounter the derision of

| their Canadian classmates. A group of

| English stenographers came aboard and

| cast about them the appraising, flirtatious

ff; stares of women who'd sworn to find the

| sort of husky Canadian husbands their

§ older sisters had hooked during the war.

| Single young Englishmen, in leather-

11 patch tweeds, smoked bulldog pipes and

fff suggested the engineers, tycoons, butlers,

drapers and con-men of Canada’s tomor!f row. There were also people who’d ob-

| viously emigrated some years earlier and

had been back 'ome to show off their || North American clothes and Hash their |f dollar bills before pursed-lipped relatives

in Tooting Beck, Besses o’ th’ Barn and ¡I Kirkcudbright. Most of the remaining sec|| ond-class passengers were returning Cana|| dians; students who’d made the Grand || Tour at Dad’s expense; middle - aged

fff couples who'd been on “a trip of a life-

| time"; military families and some junior-

| executive types. An old woman in Enroll pean peasant black stumbled up the

| gangway with a big wicker basket, and

If wept.

If The first - class passengers embarked

one hour later, wearing the satisfied cx¡I pression of stage stars who’ve lunched at leisure and know that a respectful fl audience awaits them. Predominant were the widows, ample, elegant, bcjeweled, f nearly all Canadians, the living testimony

fff to a high-pressure economy, the incidence

Iff; of coronary thrombosis and the soundest

if| life-insurance companies on earth. There,

too, were the uniformed officers of Canif ada’s three services, returning from Euro! pean stations, each with a pretty wife,

and children who chattered in a curious blend of English and North American accents. Among them were a handful of young tycoons from booming Britain, in tight suits and curly fedoras, and shaggy English aristocrats spreading their characteristic smiles of weary amusement, and one or two plump American and Continental European businessmen.

When we cast off for Montreal crowds on ship and shore waved, shouted and blubbered and the Empress’ loud-speakers blared out that stirring sea shanty, A Life on the Ocean Wave.

It’s a very high life indeed.

For one thing the nominal baggage allowance of two hundred and seventy pounds per person, against the airlines’ strict maximum of sixty-six, enables passengers to bring many changes of clothes, an advantage the women exploit v/ith the speed and frequency of chorus girls. More than once male passengers, anticipating the fancy-dress ball, have lugged aboard the Empress two-pistol Western outfits, one-man-band kits and suits of armor. Once the Empress carried for an American military antiquarian something that would have made the airlines blow their top; a basketful of Cromwellian cannon balls.

Another factor conducive to gracious living is the manner in which those inconvenient Atlantic waves are snubbed. During the six-and-a-half-day voyage from Liverpool to Montreal the Empress spends only three days in the open ocean. The rest of the time she is cruising in the glorious River Clyde — where she picks up passengers embarking at Greenock, Scotland — and in the majestic St. Lawrence.

Life among the lofty

In my private first - class stateroomwith-bath, which cost four hundred and five dollars, I lived rather like Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, my Jeeves being a steward who pressed my clothes, laid them out, helped me into them, and gave me a heady sense of wealth and importance. The Lucullean meals in the opulent first-class dining saloon, with excellent wines at duty-free prices, were served by waiters who gradually built up in me the conviction that I was born to the purple.

I was swept off my feet in a whirl of rank and renown and it came to me in a blinding flash why some people still travel first. The captain's cocktail party for first-class passengers was a kaleidoscope of fashionable evening gowns, tuxedos of red, white, blue and black, dress uniforms, massed banks of flowers, Hashing fiddlesticks and gently floating silver trays filled with tinkling glasses and delicious canapés.

I was introduced to many people whose names, even if they are not for conjuring with, beg to be dropped. I met, for example, Rt. Hon. Sir David Jenkins, one of Britain's Lord Justices of Appeal, and his brother, Sir Evan Jenkins, chairman of the Eastern Bank Ltd., who intended to see Canada from coast to coast by train; Lady Keeling, the lanky, red-headed, vivacious widow of the late Sir Edward Keeling, MP for Twickenham, who was going to visit friends in Maine; and Lady Henrietta Banting, the handsome widow of Sir Frederick Banting, the Canadian co-discoverer of insulin, who, as a doctor in her own right, was returning from a medical convention in Edinburgh.

Hobnobbing with titled people always brings out the best in me. Lolling among them on my steamer chair I poured a glass of Tio Pepe into my morning bouil-

“Stewards were kept hopping till dawn, carrying ice to stateroom parties”

Ion with all the aplomb of Charlie Chaplin in his most mannered moments. I remembered to say “mantelshelf” instead of “mantelpiece,” “wireless” instead of “radio,” and “scent” instead of “perfume.” And 1 never once poured the cream into my tea first, hitched up my pants when sitting down or wore my shoes too highly polished.

So well did I disguise from my fellow passengers the fact that my grandparents and great-grandparents included plumbers, weavers, crofters and cowhands — and a nut who dyed the uniforms of the American Confederate Army for trunks full of greenback dollars — that I was awarded the supreme social accolade of the voyage. With Mrs. Jennifer Lindsay, an attractive matron with a blue rinse, who was on her way back from Rome, Paris and London, where she’d been buying fashions for the T. Eaton Company’s Montreal store, I was appointed a judge of the fancy-dress-ball costumes. At this packed, hilarious event we awarded the women’s prize to a pretty girl who wore a tattered bed sheet and called herself “A Victim of the Voyage” and the men’s prize to a man who wore a rubber hatchet “buried" in his head and carried a placard inscribed "The Squaw’s Lover.”

The ball went with a swing. The belle was a delicious blonde of about nineteen. Her hordes of admirers cast nervous glances at her father, a senior RCMP officer, six foot four if he was an inch and two hundred and eighty pounds if he was an ounce. “And so bloody vigilant,” moaned a young Cockney.

From morning until night there was always something afoot in the Empress.

I backed horses on the ballroom track. Each model horse advances on the throw of a dice bearing its number. I backed women contestants in the Atlantic Derby. The women cut through a long length of ticker tape with a pair of curved nail scissors to the accompaniment of "hurry up” music from the band. Jpirst home wins. I played Name Bingo: you get your shipmates to fill their names in blank spaces on your card; then names are drawn from the Bingo Basket instead of numbers. The owner of the first card that is filled wins. I saw first-run movies, swam in the pool, and played ping pong, quoits, shuffieboard and deck tennis.

In my wanderings about the ship I learned many things of moment . . .

The supposed ship's bell that rings nautical time is not a bell. It's a bit of old steel tubing which the officer of the watch holds against the public-address mike and thwacks with a monkey wrench.

The passengers’ dogs, in trim kennels on the top deck, are mighty lively. And for a good reason. The man in charge of them is one of the ship's butchers.

If a baby is born on the Empress, and this happens once every three or four voyages, it is a British subject, regardless of the nationality of the parents. When the Empress goes winter cruising in the Caribbean the captain has to refuse passage to many South American women who try to get aboard in an advanced state of pregnancy with the object of bearing a British baby. All babies born in British ships are registered for official purposes by the registrar of Stepney, one of the Greater London boroughs. Even if it baby is born on the Empress ten yards off Montreal docks its birth certificate will show that it was born in Stepney.

The motorized lifeboats on the Em-

press have no oars. If the gas runs out the passengers pump levers backward and forward and the manpower is transmitted to the propellors through gears. The crew call them Barmaid Boats.

The Empress’ crew numbers four hundred and sixty-five. Nearly all of them live in Liverpool. CPS ships are registered in Britain and are manned by British crews because Canadian crews would cost the company about twice as much in wages.

Captain Stanley Walter Keay, master of the Empress, invited me one day on his routine inspection of the crew’s quarters. He is a tall, lean, ruddy, blue-eyed man of fifty-seven. He stoops slightly in conversation, cocking an ear to listen and folding his hands demurely over his midriff. And he is so shy that his once-avoyage cocktail party and his reading of the lesson at a Sunday service are greater ordeals to him than fog conditions in the iceberg tracks off Labrador.

I went down with Keay in an elevator to a deck well below the waterline and found that the crew live in neat air-conditioned cabins for two, four, six or eight, with chintz curtains that draw across the bunks. Pictures of wives and children adorn the bulkheads. Duties of the crew: four hours on and eight hours off. Some off-watch seamen were playing cards in the wet canteen, which they call the Pig and Whistle.

I saw many small messes for ten or twenty men, with comfortable tubularsteel chairs at the tables. Deck hands, stokers and stewards eat in separate messes. “The men like to be with their own kind,” Keay explained.

We passed the quarters of the thirty women crew — the stewardesses, shopgirls, hairdressers, children’s nurses and stenographers. Keay didn't enter the women’s quarters. “They are the responsibility,” he said, “of the surgeon's

nurse, the senior woman aboard.” The crew call these quarters Fluff Alley.

Finally we inspected the kitchens, which look like the kitchens you glimpse through swing doors at hotel banquets, and peeked into the engine room, which looks like a laboratory scene from a television play about atomic scientists.

Later Captain Keay took me to his day room just below the bridge. This resembles the sitting room of any average Canadian home.

Ashore, he lives in Colchester, a southern-English garrison town, and sees his wife and family there for three days once every three weeks. His father was a British army surgeon. At thirteen Keay won a CPS scholarship to HMS Conway, the merchant navy school in North Wales. At sixteen he became a cadet in CPS freighters, doing the job of a deck hand but living with the officers. Over eighteen years he climbed: fourth, third, second and first officer in CPS freighters. Then, in 1935, he became first officer in the old Empress of Britain.

When she was bombed and sunk off the Irish coast in 1940, during a trooping voyage, Keay was so seriously wounded in the back he spent six months in hospital. In 1943 he was first officer in the CPS liner Duchess of York when she sunk off the Azores. During the engagement he, with the help of several ratings, threw an unexploded German bomb overboard. For this he received the OBE and the coveted Lloyd’s of London Medal. This he wears near his right lapel, separate from his service ribbons.

I learned more about Keay from Staff Commander W. E. (Bill) Williams, the lean, dark second-in-command. The captain, said Williams, rarely mixes with his officers. Discipline, you know. Yet Keay is not a martinet. He chides his subordinates with dry humor.

Once, when serving as first officer

under Keay, Williams was on the bridge. “I had to overtake another ship,” said Williams, “but I didn’t wish to change course. As a result I passed this ship far more closely than I had intended to.”

Came a telephone call from the captain’s day room.



“Are you smoking?”

“Er . . . yessir.”

“Have you matches?”


“Oh, good. I thought you were trying to borrow a box from the master of that other ship.”

Williams also likes to cite examples of his captain’s sailing ability. Such as the time Keay conducted a thorough but futile search for a man overboard. There was a heavy mist, but Keay sailed back and forth four times between two lifebelts that had been thrown over as markers, each time swinging the Empress in a tight circle and never once failing to spot the markers. “In a ship of this size,” said Williams, “that amounted to superb seamanship.”

Williams would take command of the Empress if the captain fell ill. But as long as the captain is well he has no seafaring duties. His job is to make sure that the passengers have a good time.

“Actually,” he told me, "I’m just a major-domo. My big worry on this voyage is a consignment of the rubber balls we use in novelty dances. Couples dance with their hands behind their backs and hold a ball between their foreheads. The couple holding onto its ball longest wins. Well, half our latest consignment of rubber balls are glazed and half are mat. Glazed balls slip more easily than mat balls. Imagine the complaints I’m getting from the couples who received glazed balls. No end to my problems, I assure you.”

On my voyage Williams did his job well. Toward the end of the trip hundreds of passengers were on first-name terms with each other. Some even had new nicknames. Sir David Jenkins and his brother Sir Evan were dubbed “The ’Eavenly Twins.”

During the last evening on board there was much discussion about how much to tip. Average for first-class passengers: ten dollars each for the diningand bedroom stewards, five dollars each for the wine steward and bedroom stewardess, two dollars each for the deck stewards and bell boys. Some first-class passengers also tip the head waiter heftily and send the chief steward, the purser and other junior officers a bottle of whisky. Second-class passengers usually tip about half as much as first-class passengers.

On the last night of my voyage stewards were kept on the hop until dawn, carrying ice to stateroom parties. At seven on a Friday morning, six and a half days out from Liverpool, hundreds of hangovers were carried gently into the sweltering heat of Montreal docks. The English, in their thick clothing, looked at one another in consternation. “It’s like West Africa,” said one.

At a farewell breakfast, with Staff Commander Williams, I asked: "How long will it be before the airlines put you out of business?”

Williams: "Not in my lifetime. In fact we’re getting business back from the airlines. Many executives now fly out and sail home. It gives them time to write up their reports and relax a little after their hectic trips. In this company we have no fears and only one regret. We regret we did not think up the advertising slogan used by Cunard, our biggest competitor: ‘Getting there is half the fun.’ ” -fa