William Palk's northbound journey on the Australis.

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I sailed on the Australis in 1970, departing from Auckland, New Zealand and returning to England having emigrated to New Zealand in 1964 via the assisted passages scheme. I was 11 years old in 1970, I travelled with my mother and father, my brother was aged 9 and my sister who was just 18 months old. My memories of these events are patchy, but certain elements are so firmly embedded that they'll never fade. I'm sure that, as I age, the story of this voyage will move to the forefront of my memory and this will become one of those tales endlessly repeated to (hopefully patient!) grandchildren.

We were originally booked to sail on the Ellenis, but for some reason, which I'd have to consult my parents to clarify, the arrangements changed and we arrived in Auckland to board the Australis. I remember my first sight of her, tied up in the harbour maybe a quarter of a mile away, looking gaceful, but rather old and sad. My mum immediately said she was unhappy about sailing on her, and I understood why, but we were committed, and what were the chances of anything serious going wrong?

My next memory is being awoken by my parents in a cabin full of grey acrid smoke which stung my eyes and caught the back of my throat. I have never seen my parents more serious and urgent as they were then, and I only understood the fear that they obviously felt when I had my own children years later. I remember following them through smoke filled corridors - breathing wasn't easy.

We were only a day or two out of Auckland, the first stop was supposed to be Hawaii. We couldn't go back to the cabin because the fire was still burning, in the galley. There was smoke coming out of one side of the ship, starboard I think. I remember my dad taking me to the stern to look at the main-mast showing a distinct list. We slept on the deck for two or three days,(or so my memory tells me), but having looked at one or two other sites which cover this incident more fully, it seems it was only one night. We only had cheese and crackers to eat, and cans of bitter lemon to drink. The crew were busy working on the lifeboats and davits, burning off years of paint, trying to get engines started and freeing up rudders. They managed to lower a boat so they could use it as a platform for dowsing the fire through a porthole.

As an 11 year-old boy, living on deck wasn't too much of a hardship, although I do remember feeling hungry, and I still hate bitter lemon. However every time we take a ferry across the channel with my kids, it brings home to me the sort of thing my parents must have been thinking about as they considered what might have happened. I remember being taken to the gents by a man Mum and Dad had befriended. The ladies toilets were inaccessible because of the fire, so I was stood at the urinal trying to 'relax', with a queue of women behind me waiting for the cubicles. Traumatic enough I suppose, but this man, I later found out, had approached my parents offering help if the ship sank, realising that they would struggle to cope trying to look after three children.

After three days (again I'm sorry for the inaccuracy), which in fact was only one, we docked in Suva, Fiji, then stayed in hotels ashore while arrangements were made to get us home. We were finally let back onto the ship to collect luggage just before our flight to England. Everywhere smelt of smoke, everything exposed had a grey coating, and the floor of the cabin was still under half an inch of water.

The Australis looked impressive tied up to the quayside in Suva, but she, or rather her owners had let us down. When I came across your website I didn't know what to expect, being ignorant of the ship's history. I was shocked by the images of her wreck, as I always am by pictures of dismembered ships. I am certainly troubled by the glowing references to the Chandris line and its founder. In my opinion the ship was not well maintained and could not have been properly inspected. The situation was obviously serious as we had to divert to the nearest port, and the ship couldn't continue its voyage. (I acknowledge another factual inaccuracy here, in that she did continue after repairs.) The fact that it did reach port must be due to the efforts of the crew in controlling the fire, but why were the lifeboats in such a state, and what does that say about the state of the rest of the ship?

I hope I haven't overstated the case too much, please remember I was only an 11 year old boy at the time. I would like this episode to be included in your site, as I believe there was some press coverage, and I think it adds to the story of the sad decline of a once proud ship.

William Palk

Many thanks to William Palk for his contribution to the site

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