We aren't sailing, we aren't sailing: Delay drives 'Aurora' to free drink

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If all had gone to plan, the webcam on the bridge of the Aurora installed to excite envy with live images of the £106m ship's travels would have shown the turquoise seas and white sands of the tropics yesterday.

If all had gone to plan, the webcam on the bridge of the Aurora installed to excite envy with live images of the £106m ship's travels would have shown the turquoise seas and white sands of the tropics yesterday.

Four days after leaving port, passengers who have paid up to £42,000 for a 103-day "Grand Voyage" round the world should have been sipping cocktails at a carnival night in Catfish Bay on the Cape Verde Islands off equatorial Africa.

As the breathless brochure of P&O Cruises puts it: "Head off on an epic voyage, knowing that adventure, sunshine and some of the world's most wondrous sights lie just days away."

Instead, the vista before both the Aurora's webcam and its 1,792 passengers yesterday was the somewhat less wondrous sight of the grey-roofed warehouses of Southampton Docks and the chilly waters of the river Test.

Crippled by the failure of one of its two giant electric motors, the 886ft-long Aurora remained moored to the concrete quay from which it had been due to depart on Monday on its three-month tour of 40 glamorous destinations from Honolulu to Bora Bora.

P&O Cruises, owned by the American leisure giant Carnival, confirmed last night that 30 customers had decided to accept a refund and disembark.

After 48 hours of tests, which included a whistlestop cruise around the Isle of Wight instead of the planned visit to the Portuguese island of Madeira, managers said the earliest departure date for the Aurora was now next Tuesday - eight days late.

Among those abandoning their gin and tonics to walk down the Aurora's gangway were Roger and Alice McDonald, who had left their home in Lerwick in Shetland expecting to wake up next Tuesday in Brazil.

Mr McDonald said it was unlikely they would be returning to the ship: "It's a cruise of a lifetime. But if you cannot get to the port that you want to get to, that kind of spoils it all."

The cruise company pledged to reimburse all passengers on the full voyage for the eight days they will lose from their trip and offered immediate refunds for the remaining 40 per cent who were undertaking just part of the itinerary.

But faced with a delay and compensation bill potentially running into millions, the managers of the German-built and American-owned vessel resorted to a very British remedy to placate their remaining travellers - free booze.

Philip Price, the company's brand manager, said: "We will do all we can to look after our customers, many of whom have sailed with us before. We are working very hard to ensure that the repairs to the Aurora are successfully completed. In the meantime, we are laying on extra entertainment and complimentary drinks are being offered on board."

In the Aurora's 12 bars, five restaurants offering delicacies from champagne and caviar to Belgian truffles, West End-style theatre and fully equipped library, there was evidence of suitably stiff upper lips being deployed among the stranded passengers, who have paid a minimum of £9,800 for the full voyage, rising to £41,985 for a two-level penthouse with a personal butler.

Marian Miller, 70, from Poole in Dorset, who is travelling to Australia with her husband David, 71, for their 50th wedding anniversary, said: "Most people are prepared to make the most of it. It's not a big problem and we are all very comfortable.

"I don't mind about the delay. I was looking forward to going to Madeira but I've been there before and most of us really want to go to South America. We have every single thing we would want. Why would we want to go home?"

Others, such as Joan Withnall, 81, a retired delivery driver from Hull, were quite happy to swap the delights of Catfish Bay, where the Aurora was originally due to arrive tomorrow, for some retail therapy. She said: "Most people are very happy. There have been a few grumbles, but on the whole everyone is pleased and we have free drinks."

The problems began for the Aurora last week as it limped back into its home port from its previous cruise. Overheating coils in one of the two motors that transfer power to twin propellers from the ship's four diesel engines meant it could only operate at a fraction of its top speed of 24 knots.

Engineers identified the problem on Tuesday after sea trials included an impromptu cruise around the Needles at the western tip of the Isle of Wight. But a further five days are needed to complete repairs and another sea trial.

Managers insisted that the full cruise, now reduced to 95 days, was not endangered but admitted it was still possible that the Aurora would not meet the revised departure date.

Mr Price said: "We are confident that she will sail but, due to the complex nature of these repairs, there is still a possibility we will not sail on Tuesday."

It is not the first time the Aurora has hit problems. On her maiden voyage in 2000 she broke down with damage to a propeller shaft after less than 48 hours. And two years ago a stomach virus made 580 passengers ill, causing a diplomatic incident with Spain when the ship docked in Gibraltar and Madrid ordered its border shut.

P&O Cruises said it was happy with the ship, pointing out that despite the mishaps more than 200,000 people have taken cruises on the 10-deck vessel.

Those suspicious of maritime omens, however, might think differently. When the Princess Royal officially named the Aurora four years ago, the traditional bottle of champagne failed to break on her bow and plunged straight into the water.