• Paul Curtis

A Lucky Escape from My First Ship

I scored my first job on a passenger ship as a junior photographer. Cruising from Southampton, the Greek Line’s Lakonia used to take English passengers down to the Med, Tangier and the Canary Islands.

With the slightly different spelling, the Lakonia and her running mate the Arkadia were often confused with Cunard ships with identical sounding names. However, once aboard, there was no doubting you were not on a Cunard ship!

I don’t think Greek Line was trying to ‘pass off’ on Cunard as the names were Greek provinces. I guess they had as much right, if not more right to use those names. The Lakonia was the former Dutch ship, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, so, maybe for the Greeks, the renaming was a much catchier alternative.

She was a fun ship, continual wild parties for crew and passengers alike, and life aboard was a real eye-opener for this naïve country boy. One favourite crew party venue was after hours in the hairdressing saloon. The photographers, shop staff, entertainment crew and hairdressers would keep the whole salon jumping into the early hours of the morning. I had never experienced anything like it.

The deck crews were also a very relaxed mob who during the day would wander the boat deck wearing happy smiles and painting over any rust spots that appeared on the lifeboat’s davits, chains, and rigging. Lifeboat drills were often poorly attended and did not see the lifeboats raised or lowered into position. But they always looked very smart and shiny.

Thus, I was truly disappointed when I was transferred to another ship just before the much-anticipated Christmas Cruise. So, when she sailed on December 19th, 1963 from Southampton with 1027 aboard, it was without me.

My position was taken by another new recruit to the company. Like me, he had started his career as a press photographer so when fire broke out three days into the cruise, he sprang into action with his camera, running along the boat deck photographing the conflagration taking hold and passengers hurling themselves over the rails to escape the flames.

The fire had started in that hairdressing saloon and, with all the chemicals about, it spread rapidly out of control. When the time came to head for the lifeboats, it was discovered that many of them had the gear wheels painted over so often, the boats could not be lowered.

My replacement photographer perished in the fire along with 127 others. About half were killed by fire, the others by drowning or by breaking their necks jumping into the water from the boat deck.

But this was not the end of the Greek Line. A year or so later, I was transferred to another Greek Line, the Arkadia. Following the same routes as Lakonia, the Captain would stop his ship at the spot the Lakonia perished and throw a wreath into the sea. On his ship, for the whole cruise, the lifeboats would go up and down like yo-yos.