That sinking feeling

ANTARCTICA – 1981/01/01: Antarctica, Cruise Ship Ms World Discoverer. (Photo by Wolfgang

Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It’s feels a bit strange to know that three of the ships I traveled in went to the bottom, although, technically, only one did that. One languishes on a beach in the Solomon Islands where she ran aground, and the other was scuttled by a devastating fire.

ms Willem Ruys

In January, 1962 my mother and I boarded the Dutch ship, ms Willem Ruys in Penang, Malaysia, leaving my Dad to finish up his contract in Thailand. The idea of sailing home was that we would enjoy six weeks cruising the long way home in order not to arrive before Spring when, in theory, the weather would be warmer.

She was a nice ship, by 60’s standards , but we were not best pleased to discover that our “private” cabin was not to be private after all. For the first month of the journey, our cabin was shared with a missionary, returning from a local posting.

It wasn’t the greatest match, my mother and I being not religious and my mother having decided that she intended to enjoy her six weeks of freedom. Who could blame her, and it wasn’t as if she planned to go mad, but she did come back to the cabin late and a wee bit tipsy on a number of occasions. Our companion retired early and at any given time of day, upon entering the cabin, you might find her conducting a prayer meeting.

So we tried to stay out of the cabin which was a tad small for the three of us. It wasn’t so bad for Mum and me. I can’t say how discomfited our cabin mate may have been, but a true Christian, she simply kept smiling.

Our good ship stopped briefly in Melbourne, Australia, and Wellington, New Zealand where we picked up more passengers destined for Europe. They were a good group.

This gentleman joined us, literally in the middle of the Pacific. We made an unscheduled stop to pick him up off Pitcairn Island. Unfortunately it was not possible to go ashore as the only means to land would have been in the ship’s launch which could only promise a rough journey through the breakers at the shore. In any event the head count aboard was roughly ten times the population of the island. No-one argued the point.

Mr Christian joined us for the rest of the journey, on his way to Amsterdam. He was a lovely man that I enjoyed talking to. He was a sixth generation descendant from Fletcher Christian of the Bounty. John Christian was the Magistrate of Pitcairn.

Pitcairn Is. No other land in sight. Talk about isolated.

After a stop in blistering hot Panama City, we proceeded through the canal and then made landfall in the United States, at Fort Lauderdale. Our missionary companion disembarked but her bunk was promptly filled by an elderly American lady travelling to Amsterdam with a birthday cake! I kid you not. We never got a look at the cake, so I can’t say how well it fared, but it was 14 days on the high seas. The lady herself was perfectly pleasant but seemed to possess only one set of clothing, a suit that remained permanently on.

One more brief stop in Bermuda and we were almost home. We rejoiced upon hearing that the anticipated dock strike at Southampton had been resolved but 12 hours out, it was back on again and we had to call in at Plymouth which involved a long, inconvenient train journey.

Willem Ruys, departing Plymouth, England 1962

We waved a sad goodbye as the Willem Ruys steamed away. It was many years before I learned the whole unfortunate story of that ship. Her 47 years in service were fraught with incidents, collisions and fires and economical troubles. I had not realized that the Willem Ruys was sold to the Lauro Line in 1965, and re-named the Achille Lauro.

While cruising between Alexandria and Port Said, in the Red Sea the Achille Lauro was hijacked on October 7th, 1985, by 5 Palestinian terrorists who killed an elderly invalid, Leon Klinghoffer, and threw him overboard in his wheelchair.

The ill-fated ship continued in service for another 9 years but on December 2nd, 1994 she was once again struck by fire, off the coast of Somalia and this time 3 passengers were killed. The ship burned for 3 days and was declared a total loss.

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The beautiful ms World Discoverer. My friend Tim and I, and other friends, were lucky enough to make several trips aboard this wonderful expedition ship that we fondly called the “Disco”. When I heard, on May 1st 2000, that she had run aground in the Solomon Islands, it was hard to imagine. There are pictures of her lying there still, but I cannot bear to post one here.

The lead picture of the Discoverer was taken by the amazing photographer Wolfgang Kaehler. It’s how I shall always remember her.


This was the scene on 23 November, 2007 when the ms Explorer struck submerged ice off the South Sheltland Islands in Antarctica . For a time this ship was run by the same company as the Discoverer and we had cruised with her as well. The Explorer was famous for cruising the Antarctic and if she had to sink, this was her place. At least she sank beneath the waves and went to the bottom with some dignity. All passengers and crew were safe after some very anxious and uncomfortable hours awaiting rescue. Conditions in the Antarctic being so unpredictable, there could have been a very bad outcome. Mercifully, the weather held.

in these days she was the ms Lindblad Explorer, know as “the little Red Ship”. A book was written about her, long ago.

As far as I know, the other two ships that gave me passage at one time or another remained safe until they were retired…

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