Travelling to Australia on Fairsky, February 1970.
As we prepared to sail from Cape Town, with hundreds of passenger starting to line the rails, a couple of male passengers still down on the wharf put on a show with one of the thick mooring lines, having a play tug of war. Passengers were laughing and jeering, and the two skipped aboard at the last minute. We set sail and as soon as we left the protection of the harbour and started to round the Cape of Good Hope the Fairsky started to pitch and roll madly as it went dark. It felt like you were in a giant washing machine. Most headed off to bed early, hoping to sleep through it, and we had a very rough night rounding the cape.
The next day it quietened down, and we were off crossing the Indian Ocean, next stop being this Australia place. A couple of days out we were awoken in the middle of the night by voices out in the corridor and cabin doors being knocked on. Our group of cabins were in an offshoot from the main corridor, so it was normally totally silent at night. Eventually there was a knock on our cabin door, it was the steward. He wanted to know if everyone was there. It was slightly confusing, as they had assigned all the male adults (fathers) into shared cabins, and mothers and children into their own cabins. Most didn’t like this and found a way to sleep in the cabin with their wives and children. If I recall correctly my brother and I shared a single bed, top to tail, so there was a bed freed for my father.
My father asked why they were asking and the steward said someone had gone over the side, and he needed to check everyone was accounted for in our cabin. It was 1AM. The whole ship was woken up. A passenger had fallen overboard. It was a shock. With the cabin door wedged open, we could hear the continuous tannoy announcements down corridor. Everyone was being told to return to their cabins. The names of those who weren’t in their cabins were being called out over and over, and told to return to their cabin immediately. It went on for some time. Whilst it was going on we could feel the ship turning sharply, leaning right over, to the left, then the right, then the left, every few minutes. We later found out it was executing a search pattern. The names being called out dropped off one by one as they returned to their cabins, eventually one mans name was being called out over and over and then it just went quiet.
The ship carried out the compulsory six hour search required by international maritime law. We could feel it lurching left and right and left, as it continued executing the search pattern relentlessly. We heard the next day all crew had been called up on deck to look and listen out onto the darkness. Anyone who has been on a ship knows how freakishly scary it is looking out over the railings across the sea at night without any moonlight. It is as though there is a black wall right around you. You can’t see anything. They had every searchlight they had turned on, sweeping the dark seas, and any other light they could, but nothing. He was gone. After six hours they called off the search and carried on.
When you fall overboard in the middle of the night, just in front of massive churning propellers, with sharks always following not far behind, out in the middle of the Indian Ocean thousands of miles from land, , the odds really aren’t very good. It was a sobering reminder to us all that you do not have much chance surviving if you went over the side, and death was always only a couple of steps away, just over those railings. The thought of bobbing away in the middle of the ocean in the blackness of night and surviving, watching the lights of your ship slowly disappear off into the distance, leaving you floating in complete blackness all alone, was utterly terrifying.
The next day, the atmosphere around the ship was very subdued, many were in shock. Of course, everyone wanted to know who it was. Most had guessed his name as being the one called out over and over, and being the last one mentioned before the announcements stopped in the night. Word spread fast it was one of the men who had been playing tug-of-war on the docks in Cape Town. He was ex-Royal Navy, knew the sea, fit, and a strong swimmer, so they thought he might have had a chance. It had been pirates night and all the adults were dressed up as pirates many partying until the early hours. Apparently two crew members saw him out on the deck and throwing up over the side (something you should never do). They said he overbalanced and went over before they could do anything. Later there were some rumours that earlier in the voyage he had argued with some crew members and punched one in the face, and all sorts of other dark rumours with some drawing their own conclusions.
The very same day he went overboard, we were told there would be a ceremony for him at midday. Passengers lined the decks, not knowing what this meant. The captain, chaplain, and other officers and many crew appeared, along with lost mans family. At midday the ship slowed right down and slowly sailed a full 360 degree circle. Everyone watched as his shocked wife and four children threw a hastily assembled wreath overboard onto the sea. The onboard photographer tried to photograph it, like everything else that moved and he might be able to make a quid out of, until the Captain ran screaming at him to go away. A man, a husband, a father, a son was dead and gone forever. A wife was suddenly a widow, and his four children now fatherless. This time yesterday he was walking around the ship, none of them would have ever thought in less than twenty four hours that he would be gone forever. It was a sombre reminder that death could always be just around the corner for any of us.
I heard from relatives later it was mentioned on the news back in the UK, and in Australia, I have searched for it in the vicinity of the third week in February 1970, but never been able to find anything.