Emigrants wave farewell, 20th August 1912

Reviving passenger sea traffic to Australia

History of passenger sea traffic between Europe and Australia is fascinating from an engineering point of view, but is it realistic to try and revive it now?

In the mid 19th century, the steamship Great Britain sailed regularly from Liverpool to Melbourne transporting convicts and early settlers to Australia. Alongside human passengers, the clipper was also carrying livestock: sheep, lambs, poultry and even cows to sustain the nutritional needs of the passengers during the journey. For most - and not just the cattle - it was a one-way ticket, with no hope of ever coming back.

The journey took almost four months. Babies were born on board, some of the passengers died and had to be buried at sea, relationships sparked off, and killjoys were writing angry letters to the omnipotent, almost godly, Captain John Gray:

"Sir, May I draw your attention to the fact that some young couples are getting too intimate while walking on the upper deck? This shameful practice must be contained at all costs, and I should be grateful to you for your assistance...

Such letters, alongside weather forecasts, medical reports and details of dinner dress-code, were duly carried by the Great Britain Times - a weekly newspaper published and edited on board.

"Our Captain's Letter. To the Editor of the G.B. Times.

Dear Sir - I am happy to inform you that the progress of the ship so far is satisfactory, having run now a distance of 3,142 miles in 14 days being an average of 224 miles a day... I suggest, for the benefit of the health of all, that passengers should take as much walking exercise as possible, especially in these latitudes, when the ventilators of the ship are almost obliged to be closed. I am glad to say the general health of the ship is good...

I remain Your obedient Servant, John Gray; Nov., 3rd, 1865

Not everything was running smoothly, however.

"Sir, I am sorry to have to report the very sudden death of Charles Wortman, aged 6 years; through a fall from the upper deck into the engine room... The health of the ship is good. Capt. Gray has so far recovered as to be on deck for a short time daily. This morning Mrs George Shaw Wycherley, intermediate passenger, gave birth to a daughter - both doing well. A. Alexander; 1st December, 1865

Great Britain was like a floating microcosm of Victorian life, attitudes and technology on a long and difficult journey to the New World.

The tyranny of distance

Anyone who had lived in Australia for a period longer than a sightseeing visit is familiar with the phrase "the tyranny of distance, which is also the title of Robert Hughes' best-selling history novel. For someone like myself, this literary clich' is full of real meaning.

When I ended up in Australia in 1990 after defection from the Soviet Union, it didn't take me long to realise that I had effectively swapped one tyranny for another - the Iron Curtain, made of dogmas, to a no-less impregnable wall, made of dollars. I did enjoy the freedoms of my new adopted country, but couldn't help missing Europe and was keen to keep visiting as often as possible. My problem was not just the cost of such journeys, but also the fact that in the 1990s there was effectively no alternative to planes, and as an inveterate smoker I didn't take long-haul flights very well.

Theoretically, I could travel by one of the very few container ships, which took a handful of passengers on board, but a voyage like that could take up to five months and cost an absolute fortune. Passenger sea traffic between the Old and the New Worlds was not available in the 1990s, and regular passenger ships from Britain were last seen on Australian shores in the 1960s. With the appearance of Boeing 747 and other jets, the Suez Canal closure and tightening of once relaxed Australian immigration laws, passenger traffic between European and Australian ports became financially ineffective.

I knew a number of other people Down Under who would give anything for an unhurried and affordable sea journey to Europe - back to their roots, but all that was left for us was leafing through the faded pages of old Orient Line directories for passengers. I was (and still am) a proud owner of its bulky and properly dog-eared edition published in 1890, when the technology of sea travel had progressed enormously since the times of SS Great Britain, and the voyage to Australia could be completed "in as little as twenty-seven days steaming time, that is from Plymouth to King George's Sound and would cost between £17 and £52 depending on the cabin class.

Orient Line technologies

The impressive fleet of Orient Line steamers boasted such technological wonders as "an electric bell in each cabin and "an arrangement by which the electric light can be turned on and off at pleasure by the occupant. There were also bathrooms with "hot water - not heated by steam... a great improvement, as the slightly greasy odour of the steam and the noise made by it in warming a bath were equally unpleasant.

'The Guide' explained in great detail the advantages of the new invention - "the small, delicate, pear-shaped lamps, known as incandescent, which are distributed all over the interior of the steamers and "require neither trimming nor lighting; oil wicks, smoke, and all the resulting odours are therefore abolished. It also mentioned "carefully insulated wires along which the electric current is allowed to pass to and from the revolving dynamos.

The cutting-edge (by late 19th Century standards) engineering was, however, the biggest pride of the Orient Line vessels, of which there were five in 1890: SS Austral, SS Chimborazo, SS Cuzco, SS Garone and SS Lusitania - with six more in the pipeline. 'The Guide' was euphoric about the ships' engines, which all worked on the triple expansion principle; about their 65-tonne steel-plated boilers, four-blade propellers, and the powerful pumps "placed high up in the engine-room, connected to the bilges and capable of discharging 4,500 tonnes of water per hour.

"These being all placed well up in the ship are always workable, as steam is available to drive them from the donkey boiler, which is above the height of the main deck, even if water should get into the lower stoke-holes and put out the fires of the main boilers.

'The Guide' also boasted of the musical, smoking and dining salons, "amusements organised by an on-board Amusement Committee, cricket tournaments with "a netting being hung to catch the balls. Once a week every passenger was allowed access to his "heavy luggage in the hold to get a change of clothing ("ladies will find dressing gowns ''''''' very convenient in the tropics).

I finally left Australia in 1996 (by plane), with my dream of the sea voyage to Europe still unfulfilled.

Re-engineering the dream

When at the end of 2012 I learned about the company Project Orient Ltd and its intention to restart passenger sea traffic between the UK and Australia as early as in 2016, my first reaction was disbelief.

"Why now, nearly 40 years after the services were terminated? was the question I asked Asif Mashhadi, the company's CEO.

"The timing could not be better, he said. "More than 700,000 people now travel between the UK and Australia each year, and our market research shows that an ever-increasing number of them are enquiring about a no-fly option. On top of that, more than 20,000 UK citizens retire to Australia annually. Not in a huge hurry to reach their destination, most of them would still be eager to turn the trip into the journey of their lifetime, and we can make sure they won't be disappointed.

"But will they be able to afford it? I asked.

"Our prices will start from under £3,000 - inexpensive by most of the cruising standards. Besides, it will be possible to join the ship in one of the ports of call and do only a half or a quarter of the overall 26-day-long voyage which will reduce the price even further.

"But how are the passengers going to fill their 20-odd days of enforced idleness - a luxury by modern standards that can easily turn into a curse, if there's nothing to do? I enquired.

"Our on-board entertainment will be varied and educational, but - taking into account the age and disposition of our potential passengers - quieter and not as in-your-face as on some large cruise ships.

Mashhadi continues: "Passengers will be able to learn a foreign language, to do a cookery course, master a musical instrument, or learn about the planets during a night-time star-gazing session in the tropics - in short, something they wanted to do all their lives but never found time for... Alongside, of course, the traditional bon-voyage parties, Captain's cocktails after each port of call and five-star dining.

The company's plan is that two specially commissioned and designed ships will depart simultaneously from Southampton and Sydney and will cover the distance of 12,000 miles in 24-26 days, with possible short stops at Naples, Suez, Muscat (Oman), Bombay, Singapore, Perth and Melbourne.

How real is the Project?

"Our ships will be different, says Larry Sylvestre, the project's technical director, an experienced naval engineer and ship design expert. "Modern cruise companies normally build a hotel with a ship around it. We will build a ship first, then add a hotel to it.

"Our vessels will be 'Lido Ships', built for warm weather and tropical voyages as were the P&O and Orient liners in the past. This is a totally different concept to QM2, which was designed for the North Atlantic run where cold, inclement weather and frequent storms are often features of crossings, even in summer.

Sylvestre adds: "Our ships will be robustly constructed liners, capable of very high sustained speeds, with a raked and racy appearance incorporating long and graceful clipper bows, which will make it possible to maintain a demanding schedule of a 20-night voyage from the UK to the Indian Ocean coast of Australia...

I ask him about the anticipated propulsion method.

"Nuclear would be ideal, he says, "but it is not considered suitable at present due to safety concerns. Dual-fuel engines to run on oil or LPG are likely to be chosen instead.

According to Sylvestre, their ships, like the best liners of the past, will have large outside deck spaces, with a traditional teak promenade deck circling the hull, and multiple swimming pools throughout. Light and airy public rooms and cabins, with additional provisions for single travellers, of whom they expect higher than average numbers, will connect effortlessly with the outside decks. "Unlike the Disney ships with their virtual-reality balconies and portholes, on our liners everything will be real, he concludes.

All this sounds good, but how real are the plans themselves? Will Project Orient be able to take the idea beyond the realm of dreams?

Here's the opinion of Tony Peisly, the UK's leading cruise sector journalist and columnist for Cruise Insight quarterly:

"Many cruise start-up ideas pass my desk and, on 99 per cent of them, I wouldn't risk a brass farthing, if anyone remembers what they were. Nevertheless, I do like the sound of Project Orient... The surge in UK passengers choosing to cruise from UK ports reflects a wider trend of people avoiding airports and the whole hassle of flying where possible. And the flight to Australia has always been an endurance test, even when flying was a lot more fun than it is today... This could just be an idea whose time has come.

Well, the ships still have to be commissioned and investment funds put in place, but who knows... I (and thousands of others) may be lucky enough to be able to tick off another realised dream in the long and permanently unfinished list of things to do before we die."

Further information

Vitali Vialiev speaks to Asif Mashhadi and Larry Sylvestre from Project Orient about their plans to launch a passenger liner service between the UK and Australia.

Download the Project Orient podcast

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