Grand exit for the Great White Whale

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The Independent Online
With a complement of 1,600 passengers, 870 crew and more than 25,000 bottles of champagne and wine, the great cruise ship Canberra embarked from Southampton last night on her 22nd and final world voyage.

The cruise marks the end of a chequered but glorious career as one of Britain's best-loved liners. In the early Sixties, she took thousands of emigrants to a new life "down under"; in the Eighties, she risked her very survival during the Falklands war; and in the Nineties carried hundreds of veterans to the Normandy beaches for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. She heads into retirement in September, and demand for places on the final voyage was so great that tickets sold out within three days.

Streamers flickered in the breeze and the band played "Sailing" as Canberra - dubbed the Great White Whale during her time in the Falklands - drew slowly out of harbour at 6pm last night.

"I think it's very emotional for everybody really. It's the end of an era," said a spokesman for the ship's owners P&O. "She's a much-loved ship by the people who work on her as well as those who sail on her."

Captain Rory Smith, 52, who first sailed on Canberra 24 years ago and has been at the helm since 1993, was "very proud" to be steering her through the final 92-day world tour. "There will obviously be a certain amount of nostalgia and I think it will become pronounced as we progress through the voyage looking at ports we know this ship will never look at again," he said.

"Things like leaving the majestic port of Hong Kong with the lights blazing at Chinese New Year and I'm sure it will be the same in Sydney. But the really nostalgic moment will come when she arrives back and sails up Southampton water."

Maria Mann, the deputy cruise director in charge of entertainments, was close to tears at the thought. "I know every single little creak she makes. She rides the rough weather better than any other ship I've known. I even know my way round the boiler room and most of the galley," she said.

"The Canberra's like a good wine. She's improved with age and developed a heart of her own and our passengers love her. There will be a lot of boxes of tissues at the end."

When Canberra was built for pounds 17m by Harland & Wolff at the end of the Fifties she was the largest post-war British passenger ship. She was ready for launch in 1961 to serve Australia as a liner. By the early 1970s she had switched roles to become a cruise ship, and in 1982 was requisitioned to carry troops and act as a hospital ship in the Falklands. She spent 94 days with the task force.

The current trip will take in many ports with which she has had a long association, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Darwin, Brisbane and San Francisco. During the three-month cruise, passengers will consume an estimated 24,400 bottles of champagne and wine, more than 92 tons of meat, 327,900 fresh eggs and 5,654 gallons of ice-cream.

Like everything on board Canberra, the statistics are impressive. The 818ft ship, weighs 44,807 tons and has 780 cabins. There are three pools, five orchestras in addition to a bar-room pianist, and facilities running through the alphabet from the Alice Springs Bar to the Writing Room. Around 400 of the passengers are taking the complete global navigation at a cost between pounds 5,595 and pounds 33,995, and a total of 3,400 will join her for sections en route.

Una and Keith Laing, both in their late sixties, flew from Tasmania on Sunday to do the whole trip, fulfilling a dream they first entertained 20 years ago. "It was now or never," said Mrs Laing. "It was something we've always wanted to do."

Mary Brown and Bill Sanderson, a brother and sister from Hepscott, near Newcastle, have travelled the globe on Canberra three times before and would not have missed the final tour for anything. "That's why we booked," said Mrs Brown, 66.They regard the crew as personal friends. Mrs Brown first met Eric, the night steward, in 1963 when he was just 21 years old. He, too, is retiring this year.