I recently discovered a fascinating website called ssMaritime, written by maritime historian Reuben Goossens. Anyone who was Australian immigrant in the 60s would have travelled on one of the great liners that plied the UK-Australia run across the International Date Line to the other side of the world. I personally did that run three times, coming to Australia in 1964 as a passenger on the P&O liner Iberia, on a working visit, and returning on the Sitmar liner Fairstar in 1965, and returning for good on the P&O Oriana in 1969.
Goossen’s site has so much information on these ships that I was happily lost for hours, reliving my voyages through the many photos and ephemera he has collected. But what really caught me eye was the accident-prone Iberia. I was on board this ship in July 1964 when she nearly turned turtle, like the Poseidon in Paul Gallico‘s novel. It was a relief to learn she was accident prone, actually, since I always believed I was a bit of a jinx at sea, and I suspected it was my fault for being on board. But I guess when you mix an accident prone ship and a human jinx that’s what happens. Anyway I was prompted to write about my adventure. You can see what a great looking liner she was at ssMaritime’s Iberia page.
My near-Poseidon Misadventure
On July 21 1964, the P&O ship S.S. Iberia left Southampton docks in the UK to begin the long voyage to Australia. I was on board with my parents. We were to spend a year down under on a working trip, to return in 1969 as immigrants.
The Iberia was my first cruise ship – the luxury and elegance of it all was such a new experience. I loved walking around the decks, watching the sky change from day to night – never in my life had I seen so many stars, and never would again until I travelled to the Australian outback.
I loved life at sea, and having grown up around boats was never sea sick, but I also knew its dangers. However, I never expected anything as big and grand as this floating city to give me one of the biggest scares of my life, and come within a whisker of ending it.
We were approaching the Australian coast when it happened. I am not sure if we were still out to sea or within Australian waters. I think we must have been in the Australian Bight because the water was choppy and the ships stabilizers were operating. But one of them got stuck, and this naturally caused the ship to roll heavily.
Talk about the Poseidon Adventure! I was sitting in a lounge on one of the upper decks. There were a few other people there, but the seats were mostly empty. I was sitting near the blackboard for the daily tote, where people bet on the ship’s speed every day. It was covered in chalk marks for the day’s bets.
Across the lounge I could see the window overlooking the deck, and the ocean beyond. There was no one on the deck at the time, which turned out to be quite fortunate. It was all so quiet and peaceful, and the first inkling I got that something was horribly wrong was the ocean rushing up to stare me in the face.
I think I was facing left – the starboard side. The windows became filled with the flat surface of the ocean; the ship was dipping so low on that side. I hung on to my chair for dear life, and my eyes must have been huge as I stared back at the sea. Something crashed behind me and the tote board flew loose, barely missing me as it shot past.
I could hear crockery and glassware crashing all around me. The noise was deafening. But no screams – like me, the few other people in the lounge were too shocked to make any sound and hanging onto their chairs so we did not end up like the tote board.
It was the most disorienting experience. The only thing I can compare it to is having one of my eyes popped out during an examination at the optometrist. The floor suddenly tilted up toward me. In this case, the sea tilted up and for a long agonising moment I thought we were going right over.
But just as suddenly as she toppled over, the Iberia right herself again. Of course, this caused more commotion as the broken crockery slid across the floor and crashed into the wall. Fortunately for me, however, the tote board decided not to come flying back.
It was amazing that no one was killed or drowned, but there were a few broken bones, from what I heard. A huge amount of crockery and glassware was destroyed and some furnishings came loose, while other unmoored tables and chairs went flying about. A friend who was resting in her cabin was thrown out of her bunk, but suffered only minor bruises. A young mum we knew got a huge fright when the baby pram tipped over, but the baby was unhurt.
I have no idea if anyone sought compensation for injuries – I wasn’t one of them. The tote board had missed splitting my head open by mere inches and in retrospect it seemed like a huge lark. One minute I was sitting there gazing out to sea, the next minute the sea came up for a closer look at me. I dined out on that story for a while.