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Wednesday, January 22, 2020
Northern Star

When a good friend from the Shaw Savill Society in the UK, Captain Harry Hignett, recently visited Sydney in November 2017, after a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, he had arranged for me to meet him in the Australian National Maritime Museum’s library at Darling Harbour.

Harry had a surprise for me on one of the library’s computers when I arrived. There on the screen, was Dr Danny Morgan’s Diary, when he sailed as the senior doctor on Shaw Savill Line’s passenger ship Northern Star.

Doctor Danny was only 40 at the time and qualified as a doctor at the age of 34 after serving in the RAF during the war. As a legacy from his time with the RAF he was involved in a serious air crash, which several crew lost their lives. Danny suffered broken ankles which gave way to serious arthritis in later life. After he recovered, he then spent the rest of the war in Egypt and Iraq as a medical technician and then decided he wanted to study medicine once he returned home.

He had never been to sea, until he applied for a job with Shaw Savill. Having been accepted, he was having doubts when he suddenly got the call to fly to Tahiti to join the Northern Star, as the then medico on board had been taken ill. During his last voyage in 1968, he kept a diary.

My brief from Harry was to put it all together for publication, which also meant to write an introduction on Northern Star. It wasn’t until I had read through the Diary over the next few days, that I realised what a gem it was, as the good Doctor had been able to capture a rather unique insight about life onboard during those long line voyages to and from the Antipodes, half a century ago. It was then an interesting mix of passengers, many were migrants, better known as “Ten-pound Poms”, on assisted passages, heading for a new life in Australia and New Zealand. Also, young adventurous “colonials”, either setting off for a working holiday in the UK and Europe, or returning home.

Before I get to the Diary, it’s worth mentioning about Northern Star. She was a larger and more modern version of her running-mate and sister ship, the legendary Southern Cross, which came into service in 1955 and set the trend for liners of the future. Because of the outstanding success of Southern Cross, and to further enhance the round-the- world service, Shaw Savill decided to build a similar vessel. Seven years later in 1962, Northern Star then entered service.

Both ships, were appropriately named from the principal constellations in both hemispheres, depicting their link to the various countries in their aroundthe- world service. Southern Cross – the stars from that constellation are also on the national flags of both Australia and New Zealand. Northern Star - from the constellation of Ursa Minor, which contains Polaris, more commonly known as the North Star.

Northern Star and Southern Cross, with their eye-catching profiles, were much admired by passengers and shipping enthusiasts alike, including yours truly. They became known as the “Splendid Sisters”, from the book by Alan Mitchell, published in 1966. They were revolutionary and innovative for their time, with engines aft, which allowed maximum use of the available hull space for passenger accommodation and were regarded as the ultimate tourist-class passenger ships of the day.

Their rather unique colour scheme of light green (eau-de-nil) superstructure and light grey hull, set them apart from the traditional passenger ships of the day, with the exception of P&O’s Canberra and Holland America’s Rotterdam, both of which had followed the trend, with engines aft design.

Many firsts were attributed to the revolutionary Southern Cross, including when she was launched by Queen Elizabeth, this being the first time a British merchant vessel had been named by a reigning monarch. Northern Star, was also blessed with Royal patronage, as she was launched by the Queen Mother, who continued to take a keen interest in the ship throughout her career. The Royal Family and Shaw Savill Line had enjoyed a great association during the period of the 50’s – 60’s.

Another milestone for the company was when their cargo-passenger liner Gothic, had the honour of being selected as the Royal Yacht, for the World Tour in 1953-54, carrying the young Queen and her Consort, on their first visit to the far reaches of the British Commonwealth. Gothic performed admirably in her role, bringing much pride and recognition to not only Shaw Savill Line, but also the British Merchant Navy.

Incidentally Gothic’s Master during the Royal tour, Sir David Aitchison, who was knighted for his services by the Queen as the voyage was nearing its end, was appointed to command the Southern Cross on her maiden voyage.

When Northern Star was leaving the Tyne on her acceptance trials, she had a narrow escape when caught in a sudden gust of wind, sending her sideways near the entrance. After some very tense moments, with the tugs struggling to control her, she then rather ignominiously, had to proceed through the entrance stern-first.

The medical staff consisted of two doctors and two nursing sisters. The senior doctor was staff, whereas the second doctor, who mainly attended to the crew, would often be a specialist, signed on for just the one trip, and was either going to the UK to further their studies, or returning home. According to a good friend who had sailed as second officer on Southern Cross, their crew doctor was affectionately referred to as the ‘Vet’, although I couldn’t say that it also applied to Northern Star.

These, two magnificent passengers only vessels, the pride of Shaw Savill Line, were then on a round-the-world service, of approximately 75 days, sailing in opposite directions to the Antipodes from their home port Southampton. Northern Star’s then itinerary was: Las Palmas, Cape Town, Durban, Fremantle, Melbourne, Sydney, Wellington, Auckland, Rarotonga, Tahiti, Acapulco, Panama Canal, Curacao, Trinidad then the UK.

Unfortunately, Northern Star was plagued with engine problems throughout her career and eventually had become too uneconomical to operate. With little prospects then for a buyer, during the 73-74 world fuel crisis - not even the Greeks were interested, as she was a “thirsty ship”. In 1975 she was sent to the shipbreakers - after only 13 years in service. On the other hand, Southern Cross, had an illustrious career under several ownerships, spanning 48 years.

I must confess that I hadn’t sailed on either of the “Splendid Sisters”, although as 3rd officer, I had spent 10 days as a port relief officer on Northern Star at Southampton in 1966, when she was undergoing boiler repairs and surveys.

With the boilers out, the ship was without hot water until the day before her departure. Although it was an inconvenience and I had to ‘rough it’ a bit, I was extremely glad to be assigned to Northern Star, prior to my next deepsea appointment. It was certainly a great opportunity to explore the ship, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise been able to. It also gave me a greater appreciation of just how well appointed the ship really was.

Sea Breezes Magazine - August 2018
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