The Final Weeks

Sailing from Southampton on her last commercial voyage

The Farewell Cruise was something no one who was there will ever forget. It was to be a celebration of Canberra's long, successful life - rather than a sad goodbye.

The quayside at the Mayflower Cruise Terminal was packed with spectators taking photographs and waving flags. Homemade banners, bunting and flags hung from the ship's railings whilst a flotilla of small boats and passenger ferries filled the upper reaches of Southampton Water.

As she pulled away from the berth to the accompaniment of the traditional marching band, thousands of balloons were released from her upper decks, whilst daytime-fireworks were launched from the roof of 106 berth shed. Fire tugs and the flotilla of craft escorted Canberra down river as she set sail on her final commercial voyage. The last-ever fare paying passengers were in good sprits and in the mood for a party.

The 20-day cruise would take them into the Mediterranean as far to the east as Haifa. As she left Gibraltar for the last time on 13th September, small boats sailed out of the harbour with her blowing their whistle and hooters - and a Royal Navy warship gave a water salute from her deck hoses and a moving exchange of whistle ensued. Everywhere she went Canberra was given the send-off she deserved.

When she and Oriana were both anchored in Cannes on 25th September, passengers were able to go across in tenders for a visit on P&O's new flagship.

Later that day, the 'Golden Cockerel', a large metal silhouette of a cockerel on a pole - traditionally carried by the fastest ship in the fleet - was handed over to Oriana in a ceremony eagerly watched by passengers of both ships, to the accompaniment of Gerard Kenny singing the song he had written specially for Canberra.

At Cannes, with Oriana

Canberra final return to Southampton was to be even more spectacular than that of her send off nearly three weeks earlier. The 30th September dawned cold and very foggy. The usual early morning arrival had been delayed to allow the ship to dock at lunchtime, giving spectators and the media a real feast. It's apparent now that P&O wanted it to be a happy memory for everyone - the last memory they would have of Canberra.

Returning home for the final time - reminiscent of 1982

The fog was too thick for people on the Isle of Wight to see anything as Canberra sailed past Cowes, but miraculously, as the ship made her turn at Calshot, the mist began to lift and the flotilla of small boats - the likes of which had not been since in Southampton since 1982 - began to catch a glimpse of the Great White Whale.

There were ships and boats of all sizes, from tiny dinghies to the Shieldhall and Waverley. She was escorted by HMS Cornwall who took up position astern. Together, everyone made their way up Southampton Water - all the time the visibility improving.

Firetugs joined the foray, then there was a flypast by a single Canberra bomber and Gazelle helicopters in a V formation. The Red Devils - the display team of the Parachute Regiment dropped into Mayflower Park, whist the ship was given a gun salute as she passed.

In the upper swinging ground as she turned for berthing, hundreds of coloured balloons were released from upper decks of Canberra.

She came alongside and began to make fast her lines to the music of a military marching band. Then it was over. Every VHF radio for miles around crackled with the countdown to Rory Smith's command to "Finish with engines" - following which were the sounds of hundreds of boats blowing their whistles and horns. The boats and the crowds began to disperse, and then the final passengers disembarked and everything was quiet again. It was then time for a massive crew party!

The following evening, Canberra had to make room for Oriana, so in the darkness she was shifted to the recently vacated 38/39 berth - home of the QE2. As she came alongside, a few of the Indian crew stood on the Promenade Deck watching the quayside activity, whilst further forward others were playing on the passenger ping-pong table - something that would have been unthinkable just a short time before. With the ship safely alongside and the telephone landline in place, de-storing would start in earnest. The process of de-storing had been well planned.

There was a 36-page exclusion list of things that would not be included in the sale of the ship (buyer and future role were still not known - at least publicly - at the time) and these would all be removed for transfer to other ships and storage facilities. Coloured tape had been delivered during the call at Piraeus on the Farewell Cruise. Boxes and pallets marked with red tape would be de-stored first. These were due to be transferred to Oriana and she would be back in Southampton on the 2nd and the 5th of October. Yellow tape indicated things for Victoria, whilst blue would be for Arcadia. White taped goods may be destined anywhere else. Tamper-proof tape had also been delivered at Piraeus for the high value goods. Cabin C71 was designated the de-storing meeting room, where heads of departments met at 1730hrs each evening. Twenty foot steel shipping containers were loaded onto A Deck aft and filled before being lifted to trucks.

There had still been no announcement about Canberra future. Despite repeated questions by local news reporters, P&O's Gwyn Hughes was unable or unwilling to provide an answer. Would she be scrapped? Would she be sold as a floating museum or hotel? One thing was certain, P&O would not let Canberra operate anywhere as an ocean-going ship. The de-store schedule estimated completion on 10th October, with the passenger gangways and fire detection equipment being some the last items to go ashore. That morning, in a press statement, P&O announced Canberra would be sailing that evening to a scrap merchant in Pakistan, where she would be broken up.

The reactions to the announcement were mixed. Some thought it a fitting end, better than rotting away in some Chinese port like the old Oriana. Others just couldn't bear the thought of a world where Canberra no longer existed. P&O themselves were obviously in turmoil over the decision to scrap what was probably the most popular ship in history. They had already agreed a price and trading restrictions with the American 'Premier Cruise Line', but had pulled out of the deal at the 11th hour.

Under the cover of darkness at 2100hrs on Friday 10th October, under the command of Captain Mike Carr, Canberra slipped away from 38/9 berth.

The ship that seemed over the last ten days to have become an embarrassment and an awkward public relations problem to P&O was assisted from her berth by two tugs.

There were probably less than a sixty people on the quayside, but at the last minute a small crowd of ex-crew members (probably waiting to be transferred or repatriated) came rushing along cheering, whistling and screaming at their old comrades on board.

Setting sail from Southampton for the last time...for the breakers yard

Captain Carr and Radio Officer Freddie Lloyd had arranged for a cassette of bagpipe music to be played over the open deck circuits as the ship sailed. All that could be heard were the strains of Flowers of the Forest, Dark Isle and Flower of Scotland along with the shrieks and whistles of those on shore. It was a heart wrenching few minutes. When the ship was in mid channel, she gave three long blasts on her whistle then slowly began to make headway down Southampton Water for the very last time. As she passed Fawley, she was given a water salute and received messages and whistles from other ships, whilst cars along the riverbank flashed their headlights.

On board was a skeleton crew of just 72. Once underway and en route to Pakistan, Captain Carr moved all the crew from their cabins into passenger cabins with telephones, leaving the officers in their normal accommodation. The Bonito Club was converted into the wardroom for the entire ship's company, and the pool was kept full with a water slide having been built out of the main laundry trough. As Canberra headed toward the Suez Canal at 15 knots, the crew were mainly employed in securing the accommodation to reduce the possibility of fires.
At 0200hrs on 13th October, Canberra passed Oriana bound for Vigo, and twenty-four hours later she transited the Strait of Gibraltar for the last time. Five days later on 19th October, the ship anchored off Port Said awaiting orders. It had still not been decided whether the ship would end her days in Bombay or Karachi. That evening the Canal Pilot boarded and Canberra commenced her final Suez transit. The following day, the ship anchored in Suez Bay where she bunkered, before weighing and heading to Karachi.

At 0730hrs on 28th October, the ship anchored off Karachi. The next day, representatives on the new owners boarded for meetings and to inspect the ship. The following day, the stop-start voyage continued with the boarding of the beaching party. With the anchors aweigh, Canberra made for Gadani Beach where she arrived at 2300hrs before anchoring for the night.

Full speed towards the beach at Gadani

On 31st October 1997, the draft was trimmed to the angle of the beach at Gadani. Then, steaming at almost full speed - accompanied by the bagpipes being played full volume over the open deck circuits - Canberra beached at 0940hrs local time.

One of the ship's pontoons and accommodation ladders were rigged and the crew went ashore in tenders via the starboard shell door on D Deck aft.

By 1300hrs, all crew had disembarked.

P&O's insistence that Canberra never sail again was highlighted within the bill of sale itself. The breakers, who paid $5,640,818 for the ship, signed a contract with the following macabre clause:

"ownership of the propellers shall not pass until blades have been cut and removed from the vessel and ownership of the boiler, turbine-generators and propulsion motors shall not pass until the vessel is cut up to the extent that it is not practicable to rebuild the vessel"

With the transferral of ownership came the transferral of problems. Canberra's age-old draft trouble was to haunt the new owners. She had run aground too far out for dismantling work to go ahead properly, and attempts to winch the ship closer inshore proved less than satisfactory.

Then the following (mistakes included) appeared in the Pakistani press:

"Karachi, July 23 - Precious goods worth millions of rupees, taken out from the British Royal Family's vessel Canberra last October, were burnt to ashes at Gadani ship breaking yard's plot no. 55-56, in Karachi's adjoining sea coast in Balochistan Province, last Monday night (Jul 20).

"Although the cause of the six-hour fire, quenched by Hub and Gadani Fire Brigade, could not be established so far, police investigations suspect that the fire was due to careless play of light emission shells by neighbouring crowds who were flying the shells at night.

"Investigators believe some of the shells may have fallen onto the cargo, kept at the shipyard for safekeeping, and set fire to the cargo, including unique and rare wooden furniture, doors, windows, almirahs etc, as well as precious foam plastic and fibre goods."

The dismantling job, which was expected to take just three months, took well over a year, and it is believed that the yard lost great deal of money trying to scrap her.

But scrap her they eventually did, and all we have left now are our memories, our photos and our little bits and pieces that we collected over the years.

There will never be another ship like Canberra. Thanks for the memories...

Canberra...still and silent