Abandoned, the £23m world cruise that never got beyond Devon

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The Independent Online

They had boarded with dreams of sailing through the Strait of Magellan, eating soft-shelled crab in Osaka and being entertained by fire-eaters in Aruba during a three-month round-the-world odyssey.

But the memory the 1,367 hardy souls on board the ill-fated cruise ship Aurora will take home will be of the free drinks chugging about in the drizzly English Channel watching the emergency cabaret by Jimmy Tarbuck and Paul Daniels.

After 10 days of limbo caused by a faulty 176-ton motor, the £200m liner was due back in Southampton last night after sea trials revealed more problems. And the owner, P&O Cruises, finally cancelled the 103-day Grand Voyage, ending the fiasco that will cost it nearly £23m.

The ship had pulled away from Southampton's Mayflower terminal on Wednesday night bound for the Portuguese island of Madeira, but got no further than the Devon coast before engineers found a week of repairs had failed to fix the propulsion system fault.

Philip Price, brand manager for the company, which is part of the world's largest cruise operator, Carnival, said: "What has happened is regrettable. But these are very complex pieces of machinery which very occasionally go wrong. We felt we owed it to our customers to do everything to ensure the Aurora could undertake the voyage but it was not possible."

Marine engineers were hoping overnight "endurance tests" on Wednesday would allow the Aurora to sail at the 20 knots required to complete its reduced 94-day itinerary. Instead, the ailing ship could produce only 16 knots before vibrations in its vast motor, one of two which drive the shafts for the twin propellers, exceeded acceptable levels.

Passengers, whose number had been reduced by 375, were told of the cancellation at 9.30am yesterday over the intercom as the Aurora sat 25 miles off Start Point. If the ship had stuck to its original schedule, the travellers would have been preparing today to arrive in Rio de Janeiro after coral reef-diving off the Brazilian coast and a stop in the tropical Cape Verde islands. Instead of a voyage of 26,000 miles, the Aurora had sailed 220 miles.

The problems began shortly before the 76,000-ton vessel was to leave Southampton on 9 January when engineers reported excessive vibration in the faulty motor and managers ordered emergency repairs. To placate customers who had paid up to £41,985 for the 40-port "epic voyage", P&O Cruises offered free drinks during the delay. The bar bill for the nine days last night stood at 9,000 beers, 9,140 bottles of wine and champagne and 7,250 cocktails.

A "comedy cavalry" of Tarbuck, Daniels and the veteran comedian Tom O'Connor was also drafted in by P&O Cruises to provide extra entertainment, along with a performance by the West End doyenne Elaine Paige.

But there was little sign that when the remaining passengers, with an average age of 56, disembark at 8.30am this morning, they will do so with broad smiles. Joyce Adams, 68, a retired nurse from Wolverhampton, who paid £9,800, said that despite "exceptional" service, the complimentary gin and tonics could not subdue the sense of disappointment among her co-passengers. By phone from the ship as it limped back to Southampton, she said: "People appreciate the way they have been kept informed and let's say some have made the most of the free booze.

"There have been a few bottles of champagne ordered to cabins. But I arrived here expecting to come home with stories about far-off places. All I've got is the story of how I spent 10 days in Southampton and saw the Isle of Wight. Many people feel the same. It will take a bit more than a few bottles of Moet to make up for that."

The owners of the German-built Aurora, which has been plagued by mishaps since its launch in 2000, said all passengers would be given a full refund and up to 25 per cent off another cruise.

Now the Aurora is being sent to a German yard for five weeks of repairs. But P&O is keeping faith with its floating public relations disaster. First the champagne bottle the Princess Royal swung to launch it failed to break; on its maiden voyage, a propeller failure left it stranded in the Bay of Biscay, then there were two outbreaks of a vomiting bug. A P&O spokesman said: "There is no question of putting a 'for sale' sign on her. Actually, we're very proud of her."

BOAT TO NOWHERE

* 9 January 1,759 passengers board the Aurora expecting to weigh anchor for a 103-day Grand Voyage to 23 countries. They are told the ship has a technical problem and is subject to a 24-hour delay.

* 10 January After a sea trial which takes in a circuit of the Isle of Wight and the Fawley oil refinery, P&O Cruises informs its customers they will get free drinks for the duration of the delay.

* 12 January Managers announce they have identified the fault but it will take a further six days to fix. Thirty-five passengers leave the ship.

* 14 January A "comedy cavalry" of Jimmy Tarbuck and the magician Paul Daniels is brought in to provide weekend entertainment, along with Elaine Paige.

* 18 January The revised departure time of 5.30pm comes and goes, complete with a military band and waving passengers. But Aurora stubbornly remains.

* 19 January Captain Hamish Reid finally eases the Aurora out at 8.30pm with P&O Cruises "confident" the repairs have been a success.

* 20 January Passengers are told at 9.30am that the repairs have not been a complete success and the voyage is cancelled.

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