A Very British Institution

Canberra's first post-war cruise commenced on 11th September. The sailing time had been advanced to 1300hrs so that massive media coverage could be devoted to the event. Hundreds of spectators lined the quayside, whilst passengers lined the decks.

There was a flypast by the Army Air Corps, and the band of the Royal Marines played as the ship left her berth and was escorted down river by a flotilla of small boats. The Sea Princess (now Victoria) was alongside 38/9 Berth and both ships - along with the Port Stanley registered 'John Biscoe' exchanged whistles.

As Canberra passed Dock Head, down in the machinery spaces the ship's engineers gave their only little salute by making the fuel-air mixture much richer - causing a the funnels to spew thick, black smoke.

A message from the ship's engineers as Canberra leaves Southampton on September 11th, 1982

Bookings were very high during the following months - partly because of a so-called Falklands Factor (people wanting to travel on the 'Great White Whale' of San Carlos Water) - but also due to the backlog of passengers whose cruises were cancelled because of the War. Most cruises were fully booked, and Canberra had a very successful Australian season before returning to operate out of Southampton.

She continued to be a success purely because of her design and layout, and because of the atmosphere on board. Because of her original two classes, she offered a much greater range of cabins (and therefore prices) and a better variety of public rooms than many newer ships. This, coupled with the fact that she was simply a very British ship - never really seeking or succeeding to attract patrons from any other market - namely Americans - who seemed to have cornered the rest of the cruise market. The entertainment on board was polished, and again aimed generally at the British - with one of the favourite shows being the Old Time Music Hall. On Canberra, bingo would always draw a bigger crowd than blackjack ever would.

Until 1986, she continued to switch bases between Sydney and Southampton. When Sea Princess was moved to the control of Princess Cruises in America, Canberra moved back to the UK on a permanent basis, and again took over the role as the annual world cruise ship. Canberra had gained such a loyal following, mostly due to her inimitable 'family' atmosphere, that she really became a poor man's Caronia ("poor man's" only in the sense that she was far less élitist, although she was, of course, arguably less refined than the Caronia). The repeat business of her passengers was phenomenal, and the ship always felt like a home-from-home.


1986 also saw the most radical changes to Canberra for some time. The £3m contract for her annual refit was awarded to the Lloyd Werft shipyard in Germany.

During the refit, the William Fawcett room was completely refurbished and renamed the Ocean Room, whilst the Peacock Room was given a nightclub feel and renamed Neptune's. There were also many changes to cabin layouts, the overall décor of many of the public rooms, both restaurants were refitted with different lighting and furnishings - and even the Stadium Theatre - once an open-air games area - was given tiered seating.

P&O also instigated a number of other changes that included new officers' uniforms, better menus and wine lists, different ports of call and longer opening hours for the night nursery.

Time in the dry dock was shared with Cunard's QE2 which was also at Lloyd Werft undergoing conversion from steam to diesel power.

During Canberra's 1987 world cruise, she was involved in a dramatic rescue of the Mexican coast. Mr and Mrs Jones and their three children were sailing around the world when they encountered extremely bad weather they sailed home from Australia. When two huge waves crashed into their 35ft yacht - breaking the tiller - it began to take on water and start to sink. The family tied themselves together with rope and took to their 7ft dinghy with just a few flares and meagre rations. The next day with the seas still heavy, a Korean freight spotted one of their flares, but was unable to help. The freighter managed to put out a radio distress message - and Canberra was only 12 miles away from their position.

The sea was too rough to launch one of ship's own rescue boats, so Captain David Hannah manoeuvred her slowly toward the raft from the windward side - gently drifting towards the Jones family. With perfect accuracy, the tired, wet occupants of the raft managed to grab a rope hanging over Canberra's side, and were helped up the pilot ladder into the warmth and comfort of the ship. None of them seriously hurt, the family was able to occupy two spare cabins until Canberra reached Los Angeles, from where they were flown home. Upon the ships return to Southampton, the Jones went back on board and presented Captain Hannah with a framed photo of Dorothy Anne - their stricken yacht.

Canberra was firmly fixed as Britains favourite cruise ship by the end of the eighties. Her interiors were still in excellent condition, and her friendly 'club-like' atmosphere still remained, but below decks the crew of the great ship could see things starting to go downhill. She was plagued by, albeit minor mechanical troubles. In June of 1989, one of her propulsion motors malfunctioned and engineers had to be flown to Spain to assist with the problem - and during the Christmas Cruise that year she suffered a complete power failure shortly after leaving Southampton.

She was getting old. She had far exceeded the life expectancy for a ship of her type, and in 1991 P&O announced that in order to "maintain the quality of their vessels" they would be building a new ship for Princess Cruises and £200m replacement for Canberra over the next few years. Later the same year, her annual refit was carried out by A&P Southampton in the King George V dry dock. Despite a replacement now in the planning stage, Canberra would still be required for the next few years with cruising in Britain becoming more popular and more affordable year-by-year. In addition to the usual refurbishment to passenger areas, A&P carried out maintenance on the structural steelwork and machinery, as well as carrying out tank surveys. Just one couple of months later in January 1992, an order was placed with the German Meyer Werft shipyard for the building of a 67,000-ton cruise ship - designed specifically for the British market. The final act had had begun.

The 1994 Fleet Review - part of the 50th Anniversary of D-Day commemorations

The year 1994 would see the fiftieth anniversary of the Allied landings at Normandy. To commemorate this event, the Royal British Legion charted Canberra for veterans and their families. She set sail on 4th June to take part in a Spithead Review by the Queen the next morning.

Following the fleet review, Canberra headed towards the French coast. Commodore Ian Gibb held a remembrance service around the Bonito Pool for the veterans and their families, and a Lancaster bomber flew overhead and dropped 850,000 poppies. Many said it was the most moving experience of their lives.

In December that year, the ship was about to suffer another major problem. Early in the morning of the 7th December, the engineer's switched fuel tanks for the main boilers, but in doing so noticed severe pressure fluctuations - forcing them to return to the original tanks. A little while later though, it was noticed that fuel oil and steam pressures were dropping and standby pumps were not doing their job correctly. The engines were slowed to minimise the power consumption. With the main propulsion lost, Canberra began to lose headway and drift slowly towards St Catherine's Light eight miles away to the northwest.

Just before two in the morning, a request for towage assistance was sent out as she drifted closer to land around four miles away now. An hour later the port anchor was let go but dragged, so was followed just after 0300hrs but the starboard anchor. Within another hour, the main propulsion motors could be given full power and the order was given to weigh anchors - which were now entangled with each other. The assistance of the tugs was never actually required, and at 0622hrs Canberra was underway and proceeded to the Nab Tower to take her pilot.

On Tuesday 25th June 1996, P&O made the announcement that Canberra would be retired from service on 30th September 1997, when she would be replaced by the 'Star Princess' which would be renamed Arcadia. It was the news nobody wanted to hear.