Last voyage for Canberra, the Great White Whale of the Falklands

Rebecca Fowler
Tuesday 25 June 1996 23:02

The Great White Whale is preparing for her final voyage after 35 years of service on the waves. She carried a generation of emigrants to Australia; took British soldiers to battle; and hosted honeymooners on cruises around the world.

The owners of the Canberra, as the cruiser is officially known, have decided not to make costly safety changes to bring her up to modern standards. Instead she will retire after a last lap around the world in the autumn, and a career spanning more than 3 million miles of sea.

Her fate is not entirely certain, but P&O Cruises, which commissioned the ship nearly four decades ago, is anxious the Canberra should avoid the scrap heap. It is negotiating alternative uses for her when she returns to Southampton for her retirement next spring.

"Canberra is now an elderly lady and although she remains a much loved ship, no vessel can continue indefinitely," said Gwyn Hughes, the managing director.

"We very much hope the vessel will not be scrapped. Various organisations have approached us about possible uses for the ship. These include her becoming a floating hotel or a visitor centre."

The Canberra, dubbed the Whale by the troops who sailed in her during the Falklands conflict, cost pounds 17m to build.

She made her maiden voyage to Australia in 1961, carrying Britons who had saved up pounds 10 a ticket for the promise of a new life.

It was a short-lived success, and her career nearly ended prematurely in 1970, when the arrival of the Jumbo jet opened up the skies for faster travel. Six Jumbos could carry as many people to Australia in a day as the Canberra could take in three weeks.

She was saved by a resurgence of interest in cruises among elderly couples and newly weds. Rather than scrap the Canberra, P&O refitted her with a casino and transformed into a cruise ship. A timely boost to stirling inspired British holiday makers to book cruises places.

But it was for her role in the Falklands war in 1982 that she is best remembered, when she was called up as a troop ship, carrying 6,500 soldiers and 3,000 prisoners of war, and a hospital.

The man who commanded her through the conflict, Captain Dennis Scott- Masson, said: "We are all mortal. There has to be a time when she comes to the end of her life. For a ship like that to last for 35 years is quite remarkable."

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