With the termination in 1977 after 120 years of the weekly Union-Castle Line UK to South Africa mailship service, one ramification that understandably ceased forthwith with the final sailing was the Bon Voyage ritual that was part and parcel of the sailings of the ships.
Family and friends were allowed to come aboard a few hours before departure to bid their farewells. Thirty minutes prior to sailing, the first of three bells would ring, alerting visitors that the sailing of the mail vessel was imminent and accordingly the need for visitors to make their way to the gangway.
Thereafter, onboard staff would issue colourful streamers to the passengers at the ships rail. This coincided with the PA system stirring into action delivering Vera Lynn’s rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”. Part of the tape was “Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye” and as the vessel drifted regally away from the berth and as the streamers that were the final point of contact between the passenger and their loved one stretched and parted, many a moist eye resulted.
Those nimble of foot, who had a vehicle close by, would hasten to the harbour entrance to catch a final glimpse of their loved ones. The whole process was unashamedly choreographed to produce pure maritime theatre and the full gamut of emotions were on display….the sweet sorrow of saying goodbye, competing against the muted joyful anticipation of the travellers and the possible unknown that awaited them at their destination. A touching scene all round, although the cleaners who had the responsibility for clearing up the discarded streamers the following day might just have had a slightly less accepting take on the proceedings.
In 1969 I witnessed a mail vessel departure from Durban that ‘raised the bar’ related to this emotive spectacle, far more than the norm of the weekly sailing.
On board the Windsor Castle on this occasion was the Drakensberg Boys Choir, South Africa’s equivalent to the Vienna Boys Choir. They were en-route to Capetown performing concerts in the Mother City, as well as at the ports along the way I would suspect. They were asked to form up on the Boat Deck and as the ship slowly left the berth they started to sing. It was a far more attractive alternative to the canned music normally provided. By some strange miracle the normal noisy backdrop of harbour sounds of the shunting railway engines, tooting tugs and strident stevedores ceased for a few minutes. The Choir’s crystal clear angelic voices were all that you could hear. The touching strains of “We will meet again” carried across the expanse from Boat Deck through to the side of the Ocean Terminal. The song then commenced a return journey, reverberating off the wall of the terminal and managed to produce an eerie and haunting echo.