60 years: from ocean to canyon, a sailor’s tale.

[A personal anniversary]

On April 27, 1956,  a few hundred “boat people”, many of them excited emigrants, departed Liverpool with the evening tide on board the Canadian Pacific liner, Empress of France under the command of Captain N.W. Duck, DSC, bound for Montreal.

Empress of France

I was one of these, traveling alone with a few pounds in my pocket (slightly over the legal limit), headed for Toronto and eventually, I hoped, to California. That I failed to make the latter destination is fodder for another story.

The grand dining room was packed for the first formal meal of the voyage, but this was the last time that most of the passengers would put in an appearance. As soon as the ship felt the mighty swells of the ocean beyond the Irish Sea, mal-de-mer overtook the landlubbers, most of whom took to their bunks and did not surface until we reached the smooth waters of the St. Lawrence. Too bad, since dinners consisted of 5 or 6-course meals and were quite an occasion reflecting the 1920s era. I had never seen such menus, not even in my Royal Artillery sergeants' mess.

Fifty years later, Annie and I were on the train that climbs the length of the Copper Canyon in Mexico, going from the desert plain to an icy mountain village. A passenger noticed the traces of my Manchester accent and opened a conversation about my time in Canada. The subject of my initial ocean journey lead him to reveal that he had been a summer medical intern on that ship at which time it was named the Duchess of Marlborough, more familiarly known as the “Drunken Duchess” due to its radical gait through the waves. Sea sickness was almost universal on board. Renaming the ship and refitting as a  Canadian Pacific passenger liner hadn’t changed her character.
Rough sea off Cape Race
The North Atlantic in April can be a very stormy place and my voyage had its share of rough seas. I knew I was a good sailor and yet I hated the accommodation in “steerage”, almost below the water line, which was all I could afford. I discovered that the bar located on the top deck was the place to be and so I spent most of the next seven days in it or near it.

A fellow barfly was an elderly gent, returning from a visit to his World War 1 battlefields and graveyards. An Englishman, he had emigrated to Canada following service and spent his time in the Yukon. I was entranced by his stories of life there in the first half of the century and came very close to following him West. That I didn’t, meant I lost the opportunity to make my fortune in gold.

However, no regrets for that lost Yukon adventure. Well, perhaps one or two.