Troubled Times

On January 4th 1963, Canberra was steaming east at 27 knots across the Mediterranean with 2,222 passengers on board. At around 04:00 when she was about 160 miles north-east of Malta, one of the officers in the engine room noticed that one of the three turbo-generators had shed its load. As the generator began to motor, the crew were unable to trip the circuit breaker, and one of the engine room hands forcibly broke the contact - despite a sign warning against this - creating an electrical arc which caused a fire that continued to be fed electrically by the other two generators and that totally destroyed the starboard side of the switchboard and many electrical distribution cables. The ship suddenly lost all power and alarms rang out around the ship.


With no electrical power, the engines could not work, there was no lighting, no ventilation or power for the galley. Parts of the lower decks also began to fill with smoke and passengers were ordered to their muster stations. Fortunately, lifeboats weren't required as the blaze was under control within an hour.

The P&O liner Stratheden had left Port Said a few days before and was diverted to assist Canberra. Two Royal Navy ships - Lion and Scorpion - were exercising in the area and headed towards the stricken ship and an RAF Shackleton AEW aircraft based in Malta was sent to overfly the area.

At dawn, the Stratheden supplied Canberra with fresh bread and other stores, and by the afternoon the ship's engineers and electricians had managed to restore power to the main engines and the ship got underway for Grand Harbour where repairs would be carried out. Her four-knot speed was later increased to ten knots, and was able to make Malta by 09:00 the next morning - Saturday January 5th.



In London, emergency plans swung into operation. The "Malta Airlift" as it would come to be known, was masterminded by a man named Freddie Laker. Within a week, 14 large aircraft had been chartered and P&O had managed to fly 1,700 passengers to their destinations - mostly Australia and New Zealand. Some passengers refused to fly, and they either continued on other ships or with Canberra back to England. Had anyone had the time to really think about it - the simple fact that almost 2,000 people could be transported thousands of miles within a few days rather than weeks - the future was not bright for the ocean liner.

Early in the afternoon of January 14th 1963, Canberra slowly left her berth in Bighi Bay with around 46 passengers on board who had refused to leave the ship regardless.

Headed for Belfast and more repairs, she steamed through 60-knot winds to arrive back in her birthplace on January 21st. The ship was to be out of service for four months whilst Harland & Wolff fit a new switchboard, and the ship was given a general overhaul.

Shortly after noon on May 11th Canberra left Belfast again to undertake sea trials in the Irish Sea. On the 14th, she anchored off the Isle of Wight, and entered No.7 dry dock in Southampton the next morning for a routine inspection of her underwater hull.

On Friday May 24th, Canberra sailed from Southampton once again - with a record 2,266 passengers on board.


The fire-damaged switchboard


In 1965, Canberra found herself stranded again, though this time through no fault of her own. For 45 days in the summer, British seaman striked over pay and conditions - demanding a shorter working week and a 17% pay increase. The shipping companies refused to give ground, having given a 13% increase the previous year, and so the docks became full with laid up vessels. P&O had to cancel three of Canberra's cruises, but luckily for them the problems were resolved just before her world voyage and things returned to normal.

By the end of the decade, the numbers of emigrants travelling to Australia was begin to slow down as the Australian government was more choosy about who it let in. This, coupled with the flight of the first Boeing 747 across the Atlantic with over 350 passengers on board, signalled the writing on the wall the ocean liner. With soaring fuel costs and falling demand, P&O decided to try something new with Canberra, and so sent her across the pond to New York where she would be marketed (by Cunard of all companies!) for cruises, mainly to the Caribbean.

To say the new venture was not a great success would be an understatement. Bookings for Canberra's voyages were extremely low, and after just two cruises P&O to the dramatic step of laying her up at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The nearest town, Wilmington, was over 25 miles from her anchorage, and it took a good 30 minutes to get ashore in Canberra's tenders. A local fishing boat provided a vital link for the crew, delivering newspapers and mail, as many of the crew did not bother going ashore that much because of the distance.

Things did not look good for Canberra. After being laid up for almost three weeks, she returned to New York and completed her last nine cruises. Less than three months later, however, it was announced that at just 12 years old, Canberra was to be scrapped after her New York cruising season. She was P&O said, not suitable for 'world-wide cruising'. P&O's Richard Adams stated at a press conference that Canberra had lost £500,000 between February and September 1972.

The ship was worth over £600,000 if sold for scrap, or even more if she was sold as a going-concern. There was a possibility, P&O said, of having the ship re-engined as a diesel if the cost was less than £3,000,000. One major problem was her draft. It ideally needed to be reduced from the 35.5ft (which prevented the ship entering some of the shallower cruising destinations) to around 32ft.

Aground on Lloyd's Shoal, Grenada

Canberra did not do herself any favours when she became stranded for three days by running aground on Lloyd's Shoal near St. George in Grenada. Fuel had to be pumped from her in the efforts to re-float her, during which time laundryman Rozario Gomes was accidentally killed when a towline snapped and hit him in the face.

The ship was eventually freed, but just a month later on Tuesday 14th August, she ran aground again in the US Virgin Islands, when extremely high winds caused her to drag her anchor near the mouth of the port.


Despite this, back in London, whilst Canberra lay stranded, P&O announced that due to a massive up-surge in cruise bookings - they would no longer be selling Canberra. Instead, she would take the place of Orsova in her 1974 cruising programe. After 400 tonnes of fuel were pumped into a barge Canberra was refloated with the aid of two tugs, and continued on her voyage. She had not sustained any major damage and went on to complete the rest of her US cruise programe. She was then scheduled to return to England where her class barriers would be removed for cruising.

The mid-seventies saw the loss of many famous names from the Register of Ships. Chusan, Orcades and Iberia were all scrapped in the Far East, and the Himalaya, Orsova and Oronsay followed these. No longer would vessels need to be employed relocating passengers from one part of the world to another - planes could do that much more efficiently. The new era was an era of cruising.

Oriana and Canberra were both converted to one-class cruise ships. Canberra underwent a 10-week refit that saw a number of internal modifications. With only one-class of passenger on board, there was no need for two children's playrooms, so the original first class area became the Card Room.

The Letter Bureau on A Deck was converted to a kiosk (later the Boutique, then towards the end of Canberra life it was converted to more cabins), and the Writing Room on the Promenade Deck was turned into the William Fawcett Shop (later the Ocean Shop).

Alongside at Bonaire in 1973


A number of cabins were also reduced from four berths to two, reducing the ship's passenger capacity to a little over 1,700.

With the change to cruising, Canberra settled back into a happy routine which would see her based in Southampton during the summer operating two and three week cruises, before a Christmas/New Year Cruise followed by a three month world cruise. For the most part, she operated alongside Oriana, except for the autumn when the older of the two ships was based in Sydney alongside Arcadia. Canberra had finally found her niche. In 1977, the chairman of P&O announced that the passenger division had made a £4.1 million profit in 1976, as opposed to a loss of £6.9 million in 1975.

Professional entertainers were now employed of these "dedicated" cruise ships, in 1980 P&O introduced the 'theme cruise' - an idea which is still alive and working well today. This would involve inviting guest lecturers / experts / celebrities on board to conduct additional special-interest talks and classes or arrange games. Themes included golf, bridge, and sequence dancing and later classical music, newcomers and newlyweds.

Things were going well, but the cost of fuel was increasing rapidly, causing an increase in fares. So, in 1980, Canberra was dry-docked in Southampton for her annual refit during which time two re-designed propellers would be fitted. This, in conjunction with new combustion equipment, would mean Canberra would steam slightly slower and burn less fuel and thus operate more cost-effectively.

In May 1981, Canberra's 1600 passengers had to be ferried ashore at the end of their 20-day Mediterranean cruise. Militant Dockers who were striking over conditions forced the ship to abandon berthing in Southampton even as P&O employees were making fast one of her mooring lines. With a very real threat of indefinite disruption to their ferry operations, it was decided Canberra would have to sail back out of Southampton and anchor at Spithead, where the passengers and their baggage would be ferried ashore. Another 1400 passengers were driven to Portsmouth to board the ship in the same manner. It was a little bit of drama and break from routine, but was nothing compared to what would happen a year later.

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