I have described cruising as being just like a first class hotel, which moves overnight to a new city. Then, just as you would not stay all the time in your hotel, neither do you spend all your time on board. In each new port you have all those new sites and places to go and visit. On one cruise, the new port was Port Canaveral. At first sight this was a pretty boring port. We were tied up in a mainly commercial dock and there was not really anywhere to wander ashore and relax. We had done our research, so we pretty well knew that this was a port that would need an organised tour to get the best out of the visit.
We had signed up to go and visit Cape Canaveral to see the US space programme museum. We were told that, if we were lucky, we may even see a launch. (We were not lucky). But we did see all sorts of wild life as we were bussed across the marshy terrain to the site. (Alligators and Bald Eagles were the highlight). Then we got to the NASA buildings. Outside was a park full of old rockets from the start of the space exploration right up to the space shuttles. I found this fascinating, but I was truly blown away with what I found inside the museum.
There were all sorts of things inside, from a full blown Shuttle to space capsules that had landed on the moon. But, for me, the most emotive thing was hanging from the roof: large copies of the badges of each of the moon missions. As I reached the one for Apollo XIII, my mind flashed back to that time in April 1970 when I, and my shipmates, had a very small part to play in the rescue of the astronauts.
At the time I was serving as a 21 year old, REM1 (Radio Electrician) on board HMS Rothesay. One of my duties was to use one of the ships’ radios to find news and music, where ever in the world we were, to pipe down to the speakers in each of the mess decks. We had just finished a month-long stint, doing the UK blockade of the Port of Beira, to stop oil getting to the Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith after they had declared UDI. (That is another story that could be told, if you like “salty sea stories”.) On our way home, we had just left the Cape of Good Hope and were heading into the South Atlantic, when we heard on the radio, that Apollo XIII had run into trouble and that NASA was trying to formulate a plan to bring them back safely. Like most of the population of the West, we on board, were avidly following the story as it developed.
Then our captain came on the tannoy to address the whole crew. The Americans had devised a way to bring the space craft home and the astronauts were on their way back. They were expected to splash down in the Pacific and an American fleet was on the way to the Splash Zone. However, because the NASA scientists were not absolutely certain of their calculations, it was possible that the astronauts could come down at two other sites. At one site, back-up US ships would be able to get there in time, but at the third site in the South Atlantic they could not get enough ships there in time. We had been asked to go there as fast as we could to help out if needed.
So we took the regulators off the main engines and fired up to 35knts, shooting off to south of Rio de Janeiro. Our official top speed was 30knts but – under these circumstances – we somehow found a little extra. At that speed, the ships wake was boiling higher than the stern of the ship.
Now we were not only listening to the BBC’s World Service for information, we were in the loop, and were getting updated information from NASA about the rescue. We got to our allocated position in time and waited. And waited. You could have cut the tension with a knife. Then came the news that the Splash Down was now confirmed as being in the Pacific and that all was going well. You all know what happened next. The crew of Apollo XIII were saved. God bless the USA. But we were still, sitting there, waiting, in the South Atlantic. When a ship, even a Navy frigate, goes at flank speed for a long time, it burns fuel as if it is going out of fashion. We were now nearly out of oil. So we had to slowly drift back towards the UK waiting for an RFA tanker (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) to catch up with us to do a RAS (refuel at sea).
So there I am standing under the “Badge” in the NASA Museum, 47 years later, wearing my day-glow coloured Caribbean shirt, when I came over all emotional as the memories came flooding back. I had to go and find somewhere to just sit and ponder. In the museum café, over a cup of coffee, I told Joyce about the episode before we carried on with our tour.
Back on the bus, back to the cruise ship, just another port, just another day out but memories to cherish forever.
Roger will continue to share his adventures at sea in this special cruise ship diaries series. These will be published here on the blog every Tuesday…