A classic voyage has many joys, as Jim Gill discovers on a trip from London to Perth
There is nothing remotely salubrious about London’s cruise terminal. Tilbury Docks is a decaying grey edifice and all the more grim on a bleak November morning.
But it is here that 504 of us gather to board the good ship Astor; ahead of us a momentous two-month, 27,000km journey across the globe to Fremantle.
Even a rendition of I Am Sailing from the local brass band fails to lift the gloom as we wait patiently in a vast hall to be “processed”.
Mercifully, it’s a quick procedure and soon we are steaming down the Thames and out into the English Channel.
The Astor is on its biennial relocation voyage. Every year in October it makes the long trip south to operate out of Fremantle during the Australian summer.
The following March it journeys back to the UK to exploit the northern hemisphere’s warmer climate.
The atmosphere onboard is different to that of a short cruise. It’s more relaxed and, with so much time at our disposal, we quickly slip into an easy routine.
There are hotly contested trivia quizzes and lectures ranging from military history to solar eclipses and the lives of the rich and famous. There are also the traditional deck games such as rope quoits and shuffle-board.
Our fellow voyagers are an experienced cruise bunch and many have travelled on the Astor before. I am surprised to recognise at least 20 from a previous voyage I made on Athena, now a sister ship to the Astor and renamed the Azores.
One of the real joys of a long voyage is the strong sense of community and the opportunity to forge new friendships.
There are some amazing characters onboard. Graham, from Como, is 92 and recently widowed. Over a beer he tells me of his continued lust for life. He gained his pilot’s licence at the age of 85 and recently took up tandem skydiving.
A number of original “Ten Pound Poms” are also making the voyage, among them Fred and Doris, from Adelaide. They emigrated from Scotland in 1971, just after getting married, but their honeymoon was slightly unconventional. They were segregated into men’s and women’s quarters for the entire six-week voyage.
The evening entertainment is provided by a hard-working song and dance team, supported by a show band plus an outstanding violin and piano duo from the Ukraine, who prove a huge hit.
But it’s the ports of call that make a voyage like this and the Astor is testing a new and ambitious route ... crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and, in between, transiting the Panama Canal as it heads for the Antipodes.
Our first stop is Madeira, the beautiful Portuguese island beloved by Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, among others.
Then the West Indies and three ports of call in as many days: Antigua, St Lucia and Barbados.
For many, though, it’s the Panama Canal that proves the highlight. It takes almost nine hours to transit and it is the only stretch of water in the world where the captain must hand over total control of his vessel to a local pilot.
Our transit is from the Atlantic side to the Pacific, so we enter the huge Gatun Locks first and move into the Gatun Lake, a massive man-made expanse.
Then we move into the Gaillard Cut, the great channel hacked out with pick axes and primitive diggers more than a century ago.
Two more sets of locks, the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores, take us back down to sea level and we head out into the Pacific. As we do so, fireworks explode over Panama City for the country’s independence day.
Three days later we reach the Mexican port of Acapulco. Here we seize the opportunity to watch the famous cliff divers, a group of daredevils who launch themselves from a precarious ledge 41m above the sea into a narrow inlet, just 3.9m in depth. It’s a thrilling spectacle.
Armistice Day is commemorated onboard with a moving Remembrance Service, which ends with the captain tossing a posy of flowers into the sea.
A couple of days later the skipper is in a slightly more irreverent mood, dressing up as Neptune to celebrate the crossing of the Equator. He “punishes” his wayward crew and any “first time” passengers by forcing them to kiss a bloated old fish, before tossing them all into the swimming pool.
Days merge into each other as we cross the Pacific. At noon every day the captain announces our exact position, spouting meaningless co-ordinates before adding, more alarmingly, that the depth of the sea beneath our little bobbing ship is a mere 5000m.
After a week at sea we reach the beautiful islands of French Polynesia. Our chosen three are the tiny Nuku Hiva, Tahiti and, everyone’s favourite, Bora Bora. At each of them we are given a warm welcome by local bands and singers before soaking up the magnificent South Pacific beaches.
Then another week at sea as we head to New Zealand. We lose a day as we cross the International Date Line. Thursday, November 26, might have been special for you. For those of us aboard Astor, it didn’t exist.
A day out of Auckland there is high drama as a medical emergency evacuation takes place. In a spectacular operation, a sick female passenger is winched into a helicopter hovering above the ship and flown to hospital on the mainland.
Sailing into Sydney Harbour is emotional and uplifting. There’s hardly an inch of spare room on deck as passengers and crew vie for a good view as we enter the Heads. Everyone cheers as the opera house and bridge come into view and, as we sail under the “coathanger”, the climbers atop stop to wave at us.
It’s a three-day “hop” from Sydney to Adelaide before our final stop at Kangaroo Island, where to everyone’s delight the local koalas prove easy to spot.
From here we head along the Great Australian Bight where, curiously, we encounter the roughest seas of the entire voyage. The Leeuwin Lighthouse comes into view as we round the cape and head north for home.
Finally, on a warm, sunny December morning, we cruise into Fremantle Harbour at the end of an amazing voyage.
To be honest, we almost sneak in.
There is no band to greet us in our home port and very few spectators, but it matters little.
We are home — and home in fine style.
And it sure beats flying.
The Astor takes passengers to a mix of destinations, with tropical islands a special treat.
Cruising into Sydney Harbour proved emotional and uplifting for passengers.