When I went down to Durban in February 1986 I had specifically planned it that I could see the QE2 while she was there. It was her last world cruise as a steamship and I had never seen her before. Come to think of it I had never seen any passenger liner up close before either. As luck would have it I scored a double bonus as the QE2 and Royal Viking Sea were both in Durban during my stay. I also missed seeing Canberra by a week. This trip planted the cruising bug in my mind and left it there to smoulder.
When I got back to JHB I did inquiries about possible voyages. Alas, the Astor had proved a failure in our waters and was no longer available. The only alternative was the Achille Lauro which was due to do a season from December till early January for what was then TFC tours. The Achille, a not so famous ship, had gained notoriety in 1985 when it was hijacked by a terrorist group, on board had been a group of South African travel agents who were experiencing the ship before marketing it here.
I ummed and aahed for 2 months, avidly re-reading the brochures and trying to make a decision. Eventually while speaking to a friend I decided that I would go for it. We had decided to go together, sharing a cabin for a new years cruise. I made that first fateful call and put my name down for a berth. Alas, my decisiveness scared my friend off and I was suddenly all alone. This however played in my favour as I was able to secure a berth in a 4 berth cabin on A deck. It was an expensive decision, costing nearly R1600 for the 7 day 8 night voyage to Mauritius.
Then the long wait arrived, nearly 7 months of agony. As the time drew near our fickle money messed us up as an additional fuel surcharge was added to the bill. With prices on board in $US it meant even more money to be found. Still time dragged by, even the SADF was determined to ruin my holiday by calling me up for a camp when I would be away, fortunately I was not a member of that unit and managed to squirm my way out of it.
Finally on the 26th of December I boarded the late night flight to Durban and my rendezvous with the Achille Lauro. She had just completed her first of many Christmas cruise of the season and would arrive in Durban a few hours after I did. Just after 9 that morning I was on the North Pier to watch the arrival of what was to be my first ship. I was well prepared with camera equipment and watched the big twin funneler emerge from the glare and sail down the channel into the harbour. It was hard to comprehend that in a few hours I would be standing where the passengers were standing now.
It was something to contemplate while waiting through the next few hours. I do not remember much of the next few hours, I just remember handing over my luggage to the baggage master and joining in the queue of about 90 people in what was then the old passenger terminal in Durban harbour. If only buildings could talk what would this one say to me? this had been the place where so many passenger liners had previously berthed and disgorged their cargo of humanity before loading more for the long voyage elsewhere. Now it spent most of the time empty, the demise of Union-Castle in the 70’s and the downturn in shipping from our ports had robbed us of the passenger liners who had called here so often before.
The day was long and hot and humid, occasionally announcements came from the ship alongside and her empty teak decks and calm exterior beckoned. The queue was not moving… it just grew longer and longer and longer but still nothing happened. As the afternoon wore on occasionally a uniformed Italian would consult with somebody and they would return to the ship. Then what was obviously a purser arrived and they set up their table and started processing the passengers. It was a slow process with tickets being checked against the manifest and table allocations being sorted and passports stamped and security checks. Then it was my turn and being alone I was swiftly through the whole rigmarole and stepped into the long tunnel which was the telescopic gangway which led straight into the vessel. As I stood on the open end of the gangway I was able to look down at the hull of this pre-war ship and see her tumblehome hull and the many rivets which held her together, it was amazing.
On board my ticket was checked and I was handed over to an Italian steward who led me down the many corridors and alleys which made up the interior of the vessel, my cabin on A Deck was deep in the bowels of the ship, right aft and next to the engine control room and the open shell doors where the fuel was being taken in from. There was only one staircase which led to this area of the ship and the dining room was just down the passage. The cabin, a four berth inside had its own bathroom and 2 bunks with 2 pullman berths. There was no porthole and while quite a large cabin as 4 berths go, it was no suite ala QE2.
The heat was barely stirred by the feeble air conditioning and I was soon wilting even more. The water from the taps was not drinkable and I would have to rely on the vagaries of the steward and a thermos jug which seem to have come from the ark. My cabin mates, all strangers, arrived in dribs and drabs but seeing as I was the first in the cabin I managed to secure a lower berth. My luggage was also at the cabin, having been brought by one of the army of sweating baggage carrying stevedores/baggage handlers. Then it was time to go look around and try find my way up to the deck.
The ship is reasonably straight forward in design, with cabins on all decks, the better class ones being higher up in the ship. Lounges fore and aft, with 2 pools on the aft deck separated by a tennis court. The twin blue winged funnels dominating the whole scene aloft.
The ship was showing her age, although she was not really tatty at all, maintenance was going on all the time and she was really very clean and well looked after. The riveted lifeboats, recessed into the hull were over the main deck which was the only deck which ran all the way round the hull and this would become one of my favourite spots for strolling around while at sea. On the quayside curious people stood and looked at the ship while I was one of the more fortunate ones who was staring back from the ship itself. Inspite of the chaos of embarkation things were peaceful and quiet on board, but the bustle was increasing as the departure time drew nearer.
It took about 3 hours to get everybody on board, then the flow decreased to a trickle and eventually the gangways started to be raised, tugs arrived and the time had arrived to sail. I cannot really say we left the quayside, if anything it was as if the quayside left us, with us slowly being towed away from the quayside with no discernible motion at all. Then we were swung into the turning basin and the deck started vibrating beneath us as the big blue ship started to head for the channel. The pilot boat drew alongside and accompanied us on our forward progress.
As we had pulled away they started to play the Achille song La nave blu…..
la nave blu
gira per il mondo
come un Delfino fila e va
E’un signo viaggiare
E’un piacere ritornare
Re del Mar!
la nave blu
dall ‘ Europa all Australia
per i mari ovunque va
Achille, I say Goodbye
Then we dropped the pilot and the Achille blew her whistle. By that time I had moved to the area above the bridge and the whistle, was mounted in the mast was above my head. The three blasts were deafening but worth it. Then the RP Jackson blew her 3 blasts back and I swear she was even louder than the Achille. We answered with one blast and so did the Jackson before she turned and headed back to her berth.
The North Pier slid by, people waving as we passed. then the end of the pier and we were out of the harbour, rising to the swell over the bar. The John Rolfe helicopter buzzed us and I suddenly realised I was exhausted and headed for a deck chair and assumed the position I was to prefer…. on each ship I sailed on; feet up against the rail, the sea rushing past, the wind blowing, the feel of being on a ship.
I had been allocated a table in the dining salon with an elderly couple and their son, it was agony because the mother dominated both the father and son and I was left to drink my way almost into a stupor from the carafe of house wine on our table. The conversation was desultory, punctuated by “yes dear” and “yes mother”. It was agony. The food however was edible, predominantly pasta and veal with a nice buffet of cold meats and salad and cheese. The desert was really great and all in all supper was reasonably good. The table service was good, our steward being of the old style Italian table stewards from the heydays of Italia Line.
Usually there were 2 shows to attend after supper and these were often staggered for first and second sitting passengers, often it was difficult to remember which was which but fortunately a comprehensive program was slipped under the cabin door at night. Our cabin steward left much to be desired though, he spent most of the time serving the 4 girls down the alleyway and it was a major story to get him to fill that thermos jug of water. Fortunately I discovered a water fountain 1 deck up and that helped a lot.
I spent the days lounging on a deck chair in the covered promenade deck, the way it should be as opposed to being cooked to a crisp on the pool deck with its hordes of sun worshippers. The sea was glass calm and there were flying fish galore and birds all around us, inspite of the closest land being beneath our keel. It was a 3 day sail to Mauritius with us due to spend 1 day in Mauritius before returning home. This was my first trip out of the country since the army and I was very excited.
The Achille, was fitted with stabilisers and while she rolled very little she did pitch a lot and it was great fun to sit and watch people staggering around as she moved, I was fascinated by the huge bow wave thrown out by the ship from my vantage point on the main deck and it was even stranger to sit in the forward lounge with its muted music and see the bow as an immovable object moving through the blue sea.
Three days later we arrived in Mauritius, sailing through the harbour with this tropical island all around us. I had heard a lot about the place but this was my first visit.
Alongside a band played ineffectual music as we tied up and buses lined up to take us on the prebooked tours. I had elected to take the tour which took in the botanical gardens and the aquarium as well as one of the hotels. The aquarium was stunning and so was the site of the aquamarine sea with its pristine beaches. Unfortunately though, Port Louis was a disappointment and what I did see of the island was not the paradise I had expected it to be.
I returned to the ship but decided to hire a bum boat to take me around the harbour to see the ships and I did this before going back on board the quiet sanity of our ship. The weather had become grey and gloomy and rain threatened. We singled up our lines late that afternoon and with some help from the pilot boat and the 2 tugs managed to get off the wall and head for home.
I managed to get down to the engine room and we were even shown the bullet holes in the control room. Below deck the original Sulzer diesels thundered away, the engine room however was very grimy and this would eventually be partially responsible for the loss of the ship. Amazingly much of the original equipment was still in place and apart from the new radar installation not much had changed since she had been transformed from the Willem Ruys to the Achille Lauro.
The bridge visit was enjoyable too as it was the first ships bridge I had been on and I even took the helm for about 30 seconds.
The entertainment on board continued unabated, there were movies and cabaret and Bingo, trivia quizzes, lectures and lots of food. With our second last day before getting to Durban being New Years day. Old years Eve there was a big party but I did not feel like participating too much, much had been happening in my life which was weighing down on me and I was very introspective. The next day we started packing our luggage, queuing to collect our photos and counting out our tips for the stewards, agreement was that our cabin steward did not really deserve much of a tip as we had had very little service from him at all. Before going to bed we placed our luggage outside our door and went to sleep, lulled by the hum of machinery and the gentle movement of the vessel.
That morning we sailed into a gloomy and overcast Durban, people stood on the north pier and waved as we entered the port, the next voyage would take the Achille to Australia where visa problems awaited the passengers. For me I had a plane to catch and a home to get back to. I watched her sail from my uncles flat and I knew that this had been my first trip, there would be other ships in the future, better ones and nicer voyages. But the Achille would hold that special place in my heart as my first ship.
A few years on…..
I would see her many times on the trips down to Durban, and she was a regular caller during the Christmas season for a number of years.
I even managing a visit to her a few years later, sadly she was not looking as good as when I had sailed on her in 1986 and it was obvious that she had very few years left in service before SOLAS overtook her. When I had sailed on the Achille in 1986 she was being operated by Flotta Lauro/Chandris, while in 1989 operation was being handled by what was known as StarLauro. The Achille briefly carried a new funnel logo in the form of an L with the 5 pointed star. Eventually sanity prevailed and the ship reverted back to her old 5 pointed star logo.
StarLauro was then bought out by MSC, and the annual cruise season out of South Africa became longer. The demise of TFC after the Oceanos loss left a much stronger and dynamic Starlight Cruises to handle the operation of the ship for South Africans. Her hull also took on a more attractive dark blue hue and the blue ships popularity did not decrease at all. However, it was obvious that the writing was on the wall.
Her loss through fire came as no surprise, while cruising en route to South Africa in November 1994, she caught fire, the years of accumulated oil in the engine room contributed to the fire and in the end she went down while under tow. It was a warriors funeral for a ship which had far outlived her contemporaries.
There are 1/1250 models of her out there, the most well known being the CMKR versions of her as Willem Ruys and as Achille Lauro. I managed to snag one in 2019, and was amazed to find that she is available in both the dark blue and light blue iteration. Mine is the dark blue version with unpainted decks.
There is also a plinthed model but I have never seen one in person or know anything about it. I would not mind getting one of them too. The image I found on the internet.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WILLEM RUYS/ACHILLE LAURO.
By Ellen Butland.
In January 1939, the keel of the Willem Ruys was laid down at the De Schelde Shipyard, Flushing, Holland. While under construction, Holland was invaded by the Nazi’s. As a consequence, all work was halted. When the Germans demanded that the ship must be completed for them, the Dutch shipwrights worked as slowly as they dared, and the Dutch resistance committed several acts of sabotage, delaying the work further still. It was only by sheer luck that the partially completed hull was not destroyed by the Germans as they retreated at the end of the war. Seven years and six months after the keel had been laid, the ship finally entered her natural element, and was taken to the fitting out bay to be completed. This took over a year-from July 1, 1946 to early November 1947.
The company decided to name the ship Willem Ruys in tribute to the director who had been taken hostage and murdered during the war. The Willem Ruys was delivered to her owners on November 21, 1947. Originally, the accommodation was divided into four classes, with a total capacity of 840 berths. Rotterdam was the home port, and she to be used on the route to Indonesia, via Southampton, the Mediterranean, Suez and Aden.
In 1958, the Royal Rotterdamsche Lloyd and the Nederland Line signed a co-operative agreement to create a round-the-world passenger service. Together with the Oranje and the Johan Van Oldengarnevelt, the Willem Ruys underwent an extensive refit to prepare her for this new service. The Willem Ruys made two charter trips to Montreal for the Europa-Canada line. Then, from September 20, 1958 until February 25, 1959, 2000 technicians and workmen laboured day and night to prepare the ship for her new career. Her original four class distinctions became First and Tourist. The addition of 100 new cabins increased her berths to 1167. The Javanese crew members were replaced by Europeans, who required upgraded crew accommodation. The liner received full air-conditioning, Denny Brown stabilisers; a new evaporator plant; and new auxiliary engines as well as having her public rooms refurbished, and some deck areas increased in size. Even her funnels received a lift of ten feet. This new service lasted only five years and the Willem Ruys and Oranje were sold to Achille Lauro, owner of Flotta Lauro of Naples in 1964. The Lauro interests had been planning to build two 27 000 ton liners, but when the two Dutch ships were offered for sale, Lauro immediately negotiated to purchase them. Both ships were scheduled to be rebuilt and modernised, the Willem Ruys (now renamed Achille Lauro) by the CN Riuniti di Palermo; and Oranje (now Angelina Lauro) by Cant del Tirreno, Genoa. An explosion and fire aboard the Achille Lauro resulted in serious damage, but in spite of this setback, the liners were ready for their new role in March/April 1966.
Outwardly, they were almost unrecognisable, their profiles changed, their bows altered and their stacks heightened and furnished with large smoke-deflecting wings. Inwardly their public room’s and cabins were completely refurbished (with even more berths added.) They went back into service to Australia, hauling immigrants, their leisurely return journeys to Europe paid for by the outward, crammed voyages. However, by 1972, the lucrative immigrant trade was ending, taken over by the airlines. While undergoing overhaul work at Genoa, the Achille was badly damaged by fire on May 19, 1972. By the end of the year, she was cruising full-time. Some uneventful years followed, marred only by Achille Lauro ramming and sinking the 497 ton Lebanese freighter Youssef off the Turkish coast on 28 April, 1975.
Achille Lauro cruised on, but her problems were not over. The Lauro lines declared bankruptcy in 1982. The Achille Lauro, about to set off on a long cruise to Africa, was seized and laid up in Teneriffe and later moved to Genoa. The Lauro directors were meantime working on ways to re-finance their company. With a secure charter to the Chandris Line, and a reorganised business, they resumed cruising in 1985. The Achille Lauro was reactivated and began cruising in the Mediterranean but, on 7th October 1985, the Achille Lauro was hi-jacked by a PLO splinter group with the loss of one life. The ship continued to operate for Flotta Lauro until 1987, when it was bought by the Swiss-based Mediterranean Shipping Company, who rebranded the company as Starlauro Cruises. In 1989 she appeared with a new funnel logo which was not popular and soon reverted back to the familiar star logo. From 1985 until 1993 she spent at least two months a year under charter to TFC tours and later StarLight Cruises of South Africa for the Christmas season. She served with them until November 1994, when she caught fire off the Somalia coast while on a Genoa-South Africa positioning cruise. The ship was abandoned, and foundered 2 days later while under tow.