The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT -

Hol­land Amer­ica Line’s 11-night Panama Canal Sun­farer cruise, roundtrip from Fort Laud­erdale, Florida, de­parts Novem­ber 26. More: hol­lan­damer­ their ship. Bri­tain was of­fi­cially in mourn­ing and many of the women aboard wore black un­til after the fu­neral. On Jan­uary 25, my grand­mother wrote, “The BBC news was broad­cast at 6pm but the re­cep­tion was very bad. It was nearly all royal fu­neral news. It is re­mark­able how many women are all in black at din­ner for the king. I sup­pose the colours will come out after Tues­day next.”

On the day of the fu­neral, Jan­uary 28, her ship was docked at Las Pal­mas in the Ca­nary Is­lands: “At 12.30pm all the Bri­tish peo­ple as­sem­bled to keep two min­utes’ si­lence in mem­ory of King Ge­orge. It was rather nice to know that we could do this as be­ing in a for­eign coun­try it makes rather a good im­pres­sion … at 6.15pm there is a me­mo­rial ser­vice for the late king on the ship and the evening danc­ing was can­celled. How­ever the na­tional mourn­ing is now over and peo­ple feel a lit­tle more free.”

As I take a leisurely bath (tubs are stan­dard in most Zuider­dam state­rooms; a real lux­ury on a mod­ern cruise ship) and blow-dry my hair in air-con­di­tioned com­fort, I con­sider what it must have been like for 30s pas­sen­gers at the mercy of the heat in a much smaller ship with­out sta­bilis­ers or en­suite bath­rooms. Just two days out of the Ca­naries my grand­mother wrote that it was too hot to sit in the din­ing room. “After tea I felt my first taste of gid­di­ness. It was not nice. I bathed Tony in such a hot room with no air and I sup­pose the steam just fin­ished me.”

Within an­other four days most pas­sen­gers had given up danc­ing be­cause of the heat, and later, berthed at Cris­to­bal in the then Amer­i­can-run Panama Canal Zone, her cabin had be­come an oven. “We spent the most ter­ri­ble night I can ever re­mem­ber. We had an elec­tric fan go­ing all night and ev­ery­one felt on the verge of col­laps­ing. One could not pos­si­bly sleep. This trop­i­cal heat can­not be un­der­stood un­less one has ex­pe­ri­enced it.”

The ex­tra­or­di­nary feat of hu­man endeavour that fi­nally linked the At­lantic and Pa­cific oceans across Panama was the high­light of my grand­mother’s day.

She wrote, “We went to the army quar­ters (Amer­i­can). They pro­tect the place five miles ei­ther side of the canal. Their houses are fine and the place is beau­ti­fully kept … it re­ally is a most won­der­ful thing, this Panama Canal, when one sees and hears what had to be con­tended with while it was un­der con­struc­tion … how it took 10 years to cut through one part alone and what it re­ally all meant in the way of hard­ship.”

A cen­tury after it opened, the canal still wows visi­tors. It is why most pas­sen­gers on my cruise chose this itin­er­ary, which goes through the first set of locks — into Gatun Lake, 25m above sea level — and I like to think it was see­ing the Panama Canal that in­spired my fa­ther to train as an en­gi­neer.


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