Saturday 27th June 2009
The early morning summer mist was slowly clearing as I walked in the direction of a Southampton quayside, and in front of me was a little motor vessel dressed overall with welcoming flags. Hooray, I was going to sea again - this time on the little ship BALMORAL.
Saturday 27th June 2009 was the exact date of the Diamond Jubilee of the MV BALMORAL as she had been launched in Southampton on 27th June 1949. She was built by John I. Thornycroft & Company at their Woolston, Southampton, yard, and designed for Red Funnel. It was the wife of the then Chairman of Red Funnel, Mrs C. B. Pinnock, who was invited to launch the ship and she smashed a bottle of champagne tied with red, white, blue and green ribbons against her bow. A recording had been made of this ceremony and, to my delight, this was later relayed over BALMORAL’s tannoy system to those of us listening on deck. We were told that after the launch, over two hundred VIP guests were invited to a special lunch at the Polygon Hotel in Southampton, now demolished. I remember going there many years ago to several functions, and first hearing the (alleged) joke about ‘What do you call a sick parrot?’ and the answer of course is ‘a polygon’.
We were also told that BALMORAL was designed for Red Funnel with the dual purpose of being a ferry from Southampton to Cowes, and as an excursion ship, and after her launch she entered service at Southampton in December 1949. She became known for her annual summer cruise round the Isle of Wight, and this is what we were to enjoy for ourselves today. Soon the mist cleared, and the sun hurled heat down from a cloudless blue sky.
We sailed just after 10 a.m. with probably 100 people on board, and enjoyed a midships position on deck, with good views forward and aft.
Our group decided not to use the ageing white chairs, but chose new dark green ones instead, placed in a circular position so we could enjoy the views. And what views! With a toot of the horn we left the quayside and headed off down Southampton Water. I’ve done that a few times – firstly on the stylish TRANSVAAL CASTLE and other Union-Castle ships, and then latterly on the wonderful QUEEN ELIZABETH 2, before even more recently waving QE2 goodbye from the SHIELDHALL as she sailed off to Dubai in November 2008.
Photographs had been taken of GRAND PRINCESS and OCEANA in port in Southampton, and soon we could see ferries and other vessels in the busy waterways around us.
These included: RED OSPREY in her Ikea colours, TOKYO CAR, CALSHOT, VOLANS LEADER, ST. CATHERINE, TAGUS,
RED EAGLE, RED JET 3, ST. CLARE,
a Hovercraft too fast to see the name,
and FASTCAT SHANKLIN.
This time though our route took us firstly towards Portsmouth, round the sandbank, past the Castle and the huge Portsmouth Millennium Tower, also known as the Spinnaker Tower. We saw a Gosport Ferry, HMS VICTORY, MOUNTS BAY, FASTCAT RYDE, a Sikorsky helicopter overhead, the large Brittany Ferries vessel MONT ST. MICHEL, and a brown-sailed Thames sailing barge ALICE as we entered the harbour.
At the Portsmouth berth we picked up many more excited passengers and then set off for Cowes in the north of the Isle of Wight. The NORMANDIE EXPRESS left the harbour at great speed, and we realised our re-enactment cruise was now truly underway and next landfall was due about three hours after leaving Southampton.
At Cowes we were rather startled at the number of people waiting to board our little motor vessel and felt so glad we had secured our own ‘base’ on deck.
Whilst we looked around I could see for the first time the premises of the famous maritime photographers Beken & Company. This reminded me of some of my maritime friends, several of whom are left-handed, and I've noticed they seem to be particularly artistic, so I was amused by two signs on board BALMORAL, directing passengers to particular places, and both using a left hand!
The new passengers boarded and so did a special piece of cargo: a huge celebration cake made by a local lady. We watched this carried carefully on board, and marvelled at the size and four stone (56 lbs.) weight. The proud baker sat beside the vast iced cake, which had a red satin ribbon around it, and shyly posed for photographs. She had been asked to make the size sufficient for five hundred and forty passengers and suddenly we could understand why!
At the quayside pontoon we were surrounded by other welcoming craft, including the tiny steam paddler MONARCH, busily making her way around and blowing her loud whistle frequently. BALMORAL answered of course, with her own horn.
With the cake safely stowed on a big table down in the Saloon, coloured paper streamers were handed round to all of us on board, and we set off on our sixty mile cruise, clock-wise round the Isle of Wight. This had been the route of the original cruise.
Below decks, accessed by the gleaming wooden staircases,
the VIPs (Very Important People) were invited to watch the cutting of the cake and enjoy a piece of it, and then it was cut up into the rest of the 540 pieces.
The streamers were hurled around (so satisfying to have paper ones, which would recycle, rather than the ubiquitous plastic ones), deck rails were decorated, often inadvertently, the dogs were garlanded, quite happily in several cases, and the cake portions were finally distributed to the rest of us.
Cups and glasses were raised as the tannoy system replayed the original launch ceremony, and we settled down to enjoy the happiness of being at sea, on a glorious English hot summer’s day.
Osborne House, Norris Castle, Ryde, Tennyson Down, Sandown, St. Catherine’s Point and Lighthouse all came into sight as we motored along.
Suddenly there were few sights as we entered a sea fog, and it became eerily quiet. On our port side we could just make out the top of a huge car carrier, whose shape rose out of the top of the fog;
other ‘ghost ships’ – the laid-up car carriers – could also be seen through the fog banks. Above us was a barely visible blue sky, but all around was a chilly fog, so out came the waterproofs for a short time. Just as suddenly as we entered the fog, it billowed away again, and we were back in warm sunshine. We were now heading towards the famous Needles, and I was so looking forward to seeing them again from the sea. When I worked as a Purserette for Union-Castle Line, the beautiful lavender-hulled Mailships sailed down Southampton Water and then took the westerly Solent route south with the Isle of Wight on the port side, sailing past The Needles. I hadn’t seen this sight since working on EDINBURGH CASTLE, so it was a rather nostalgic moment. It’s one thing to look at my Admiralty chart at home, but quite another to see the reality in front of me.
We rounded the point and the coloured sand cliffs and chairlift of Alum Bay came into view,
as did distant ships against the mainland skyline on our port side,
The decks cleared and we could enjoy easy views around as we left Cowes.
As we left the port, far ahead we could see the two cruise ships heading down Southampton Water towards us, and beginning their turn around the east of the Isle of Wight. First was Grand Princess heading south, and then Oceana.
My list of ships seen today also included RED JET 4, RED FALCON, CAEDMAN, WIGHT SCENE, CENRED and CENWOLD laid up in Southampton Water,
Wallenius Wilhelmsen's TAGUS (laid up), ST. CECILIA, ST. HELEN, ST. FAITH, FREEDOM 90, JENNY R, SPIRIT OF PORTSMOUTH, SPIRIT OF GOSPORT, Thames Barge ALICE, OUR LADY PAMELA, and SPARKLING LINE from Weymouth
The sun was lower in the sky but the light on the water was glorious. So our journey continued back to Portsmouth, and on leaving the port one man and his dog waved to us.
and Thames Barge Alice headed into the port.
A stern view of BALMORAL and her Red Ensign.
As I’ve said many times, we are a maritime nation, and should glory in our Merchant Navy and be grateful for all they do for us: the latest leaflet from The Mission to Seafarers reminds us that over 90% of the goods we use in this country come here by sea and mariners always need our support.
So we finally sailed up Southampton Water to the quayside in Southampton docks at 9 p.m. It had been a wonderful day, celebrating the first sixty years of BALMORAL, and long may she continue sailing.