All at Sea by Robyn Boswell
My life-long love of the ocean had its beginning in my idyllic childhood where the sea was an integral part of my life. I was only a few weeks old when Mum and Dad first took me out in our old clinker boat for an afternoon’s fishing on the harbour. By the time I was three or four my brother and I had our own boat, a tiny flat -bottomed dinghy that was always known as ‘The Little Boat’. I learned to row early on but took several years to master rowing in the right direction and could only go backwards, much to my frustration. Once I discovered Arthur Ransome, ‘The Little Boat’ became our own Swallows and Amazons and many happy summer days were spent adventuring up and down the bay with a picnic lunch packed by Grandma as we chased pirates and sailed through raging seas. How lucky we were to have parents who allowed us to roam far and wide across the safe, calm waters of MacLeod’s Bay. Sometimes we even went fishing in ‘The Hole’, one of Grandma and Grandad’s favoured fishing spots just off-shore from their house. I remember once actually catching a fish, then being terrified because I didn’t know how to deal with it. I learned to swim in the ocean and still love to swim out from the shore into deeper and deeper water. I have never been happier than out on the water, a passion I have to this day, but there are even more reasons why I love to explore the world by sea.
Aunty Margaret, an enigmatic, exotic figure flitted in and out of our childhood. When I heard that one of her rare visits home was pending, excitement would grip me and I was filled with eager anticipation until at last it was time to pile into the car to head into town to Grandma Kennedy’s place. Adventure awaited us because we were about to be transported to some of the world’s most fascinating destinations.
To me, Aunty Margaret had the most glamorous lifestyle imaginable. She was a senior stewardess on the QSMV Dominion Monarch, a majestic cargo/passenger ship that plied the round the world route carrying passengers, in first-class accommodations only, to and fro between England and New Zealand. Before the war, Aunty Margaret’s first shipboard job had been in the laundry, a thankless occupation in the heat of the tropics and one where you could go for days without seeing daylight. She was soon promoted to become a cabin stewardess and after the war, was lucky to get the job on board the Dominion Monarch. On their brief stopovers in Wellington, halfway through the voyage from England to England, Aunty Margaret would usually just have time to catch a train to the far end of the North Island for a few days at home.
We’d all gather in the lounge at Grandma Kennedy’s, a sheet was hung on the wall, the slide projector turned on, the lights switched off and magic would begin. For a couple of hours, we would be transfixed as Aunty Margaret brought the world to us, from the mountains of Europe to the tropical beaches of the Caribbean; through the Panama Canal and around the Cape of Good Hope. It was mesmerising. In those pre TV days, this was one of the few ways we had to view the world outside of our own small country. One year I remember vividly, she had been to the passion play in Oberammergau and absolutely loved it. I was determined that one day I would have the same opportunity and even worked out which years it would be playing when I ‘grew up’. Sadly, that’s one ambition I have never fulfilled, but Aunty Margaret’s slides opened my mind to the possibilities of the world.
And so, through those exciting evenings of storytelling with my eyes filled with unimaginably breath-taking images, the determination of a young girl to one day follow in Aunty Margaret’s footsteps and sail the seven seas in search of the world was born.
A few years later, Dad had some American friends who he met when they had a year’s sabbatical leave in New Zealand. When they left to go back to the United States they were travelling by ship. Plane journeys were almost unheard of in those days, being prohibitively expensive and mind-numbingly long. Our friends were sailing on the brand new SS Oriana, a sleek, modern liner. How wonderful it was to be invited to farewell them. At last I would actually see what I had only dreamed about! Incredibly we were able to board the ship with them and explore their home for the next few weeks. I was almost bursting with excitement at the opportunity and vividly remember that in one of the bars they had peppermint flavoured toothpicks. It’s funny what sticks in your mind many years later.
That experience only furthered my determination to go to sea one day. At school, I wrote two books about sea voyages, one of them almost spookily prescient. I wanted to be a stewardess like Aunty Margaret, then, even more, I wanted to join the navy, so I joined the Sea Rangers, but to my immense disappointment discovered that women weren't allowed to go to sea in the New Zealand Navy. I had a secret desire to join the merchant navy as well, but was another career that women just couldn’t contemplate. Many years later, sailing through the Panama Canal, the captain of our ship announced that the Russian cargo ship coming towards us had a female captain and first mate. Even then that was astounding. Eventually, I became a teacher and while we were at Teacher’s College, my friends and I made a deal that we would set out together on our ‘Big OE’ (overseas experience) once we finished our compulsory first three years of teaching.
And so it was, in April 1975, my two best friends and I set sail on the SS Northern Star, amidst a flurry of streamers and hundreds of well-wishers waving the ship goodbye, on the greatest journey of our lives, sailing from Auckland to Southampton via the Panama Canal and the Caribbean. It was all I had anticipated and more. Aunty Margaret had ignited a flame in me that has never died and now in the latter part of my life, as I enjoy the adventure of cruising holidays I always remember how she gave me the impetuous to want to sail over the horizon to discover the splendours of the world we all call home.
As to Aunty Margaret – for a while she disappeared altogether from my young life. She had landed a superb job as a senior stewardess on the great Cunard liners sailing from New York to London. In her latter years when she returned to New Zealand, a frail old lady in need of care, she regaled me with scandalous stories of the great New York families who entered her domain. There were the men who took their mistresses on annual holidays across the Atlantic, and another one who, with his bride on their honeymoon, received so many flowers that the suite next door had to be commandeered to hold them all. She had diaries and letters that must have held many secrets, scandals and adventures, but very sadly, not long before she died, she tragically burned them.
The Dominion Monarch, that great old lady of the seas which took her on so many adventures still lives on in the TV series ‘Call the Midwife’ where she takes pride of place in the opening credits.
On a cruise at night when I am on deck by myself, watching the moon dance across the ocean, I imagine Aunty Margaret leaning on the rail, casting her eyes across the sea and I whisper a quiet ‘Thank you’ into the breeze.