The Book Club Presents.... 'Yesterday'.
The 1960s were years of upheaval, revolution and discovery for Western society; to those that lived through it, the decade would prove unforgettable. (For those that didn’t party too hard, at least!) Writer Sandy Coghlan was just 21 when she set off on the adventure of a lifetime, sailing aboard Chandris Lines’ magnificent flagship Australis. Fortunately she had the presence of mind to record her journeys in wonderful detail. This year Sandy has published ‘Yesterday’, a delightful romp through the golden era of cruising. For our first instalment of the Liner Designs ‘Book Club’, we interviewed Sandy and quizzed her on her life, experiences and brand new book!
Above: Sandy Coghlan set off for ocean-going excitement at just 21.
Liner Designs & Illustration (LD&I): Hi Sandy! Congratulations on releasing 'Yesterday'! Can you just give us a little bit on your background - where you come from and how you came to be on board Australis?
Sandy Coghlan (SC): I'm born and bred a proud Aussie, but all through my teenage years I longed to visit Europe. The penpals I gathered from the age of 14 may have been the catalysts, or perhaps they were simply my way to 'armchair travel' by learning about my new friends' countries and cultures. Even though I doubted I could ever afford to do so, I promised them all that one day I'd come and visit them, especially my handsome Dutch penpal, Peter.
During the 5 years we corresponded, my other penpals began to drift away, or I did, and the letters between Peter and I became increasingly romantic. I day-dreamed about sailing off to Rotterdam but doubted I could afford it, or even that I was brave enough to make such a trip alone.
Peter's father worked on the Holland-America ship, the Rijndam, and when I was 16, it had docked in Melbourne. My mother took me to visit and he gave us a tour of the ship. I had never been on board a big passenger liner and instantly fell in love with the romance of it.
For the next 5 years I visited Station Pier whenever a liner docked there, and in those days, that was often. I'd contact shipping lines and obtain passes to go on board (not something you can do today!) and walked the decks of the Chandris ships as well as those of the Sitmar, P&O and Lloyd Triestino lines.
At 17, I travelled to Sydney on the Galileo for a brief holiday, but eventually decided that if I ever managed to save enough to travel — and found enough courage — it would be on the Australis. There was something so comfortable and inviting about her, like a home away from home. She might not have been as luxurious as some, but she oozed character and charm.
When I was 20, my 18 year old cousin set off on the Australis, bound for Ireland. I decided that if she could do it, then so could I.
It took over a year to save my fare, and during that time Peter invited me to stay with him and his family in Rotterdam, found a job for me, arranged my working permit and planned our engagement. That meant I needed no more than my fare (both ways, just in case!) and a little spending money for the voyage. I booked on Australis' first sailing following my 21st birthday — appropriately voyage 21, departing October 12, 1969.
Above: The ship Sandy would call home for some happy weeks in 1969; Chandris Lines’ ‘Australis’. Image source: S Coghlan.
LD&I: Many of us keep a diary or journal but leave them in dusty boxes. What motivated you to turn yours into a memoir?
SC: Well initially, it wasn't a meant to be a book at all. It began simply as a spring clean-up! My mother had kept the letters I'd written to her during my travels, and I'd also kept Peter's letters. And there they were, along with the diary I'd faithfully confided in every day, all tucked away in a dusty old box. I couldn't resist... just a peek. Too late!
I always credited myself with an excellent memory, but soon discovered that after almost five decades there was much I'd forgotten. As a member of the Chandris facebook page, I began posting amusing or memory-provoking extracts, hoping to prompt fellow-travellers to recall the tastes, sights, sounds, smells and emotions they may also have forgotten over the years. Their response was most encouraging.
The letters weren't easy to read though as the ink was fading, so I decided to transcribe them and the diary entries to make it easier to find and post worthwhile extracts, and to avoid losing those disappearing words and memories forever.
I'm a writer by profession, and I'd just spent 3 years researching and writing a book about my personal search for evidence of the afterlife following my mother's recent passing, so it was a pleasant distraction to do something that didn't require research and also offered me the pleasure of re-living happier days.
As I typed, I realized there was a book hiding in there. The journey had been my Rite of Passage, and probably had also been for thousands of other boomers, but it took 50 years to see that.
Above: Sandy (right, blue dress) and friends are waited on in the Dining Saloon.
Most people born after the end of the 70's know little about the decade-long wave of brave baby boomer travellers, and indeed, we were brave! It is estimated that between 1965 and 1977, around two million boomers born or raised in Australia set off to see the world. Most of us were barely out of our teens, some were even still teenagers.
As so many migrants had done in the previous 20 or 30 years, we left our homes and families and everything familiar and headed off into what — at the time — was very much the Great Unknown. Few of us knew anyone who lived in England or Europe, or for that matter, anyone who had been there. For most Aussies, overseas travel was reserved for the rich and famous.
Many of us also hitch-hiked around Europe (myself included, and who would do that today?) because we wanted to see it all. It took us a lot of saving and sacrifice to get there and who knew if we'd ever be back. We thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. How little we knew!
I was also hopeful that if I turned my journey into a book, it may stand as a testament to a time that will probably never come again. A family heirloom was my great-great-great grandfather's fascinating hand-written diary of his (and his family's) voyage in a sailing ship to Van Diemen's Land in 1836, and I had read it often. It occurred to me that those of us who made those trips in the 60's and 70's were also pioneers, even if we weren't quite as hardy as our 19th century forefathers.
Our journey across the oceans may not have been as fraught with danger as theirs, but heck, the Australis (and many of the other ships of that time) didn't even have stabiliziers so we got tossed about in rough seas. As the years go by, there are less and less boomers left to tell stories of ropes strung along corridors to help us move about during stormy weather.
Above: Australis was an ocean-going giant but even she could be at the mercy of the weather. Here, 3-story waves batter her stern. Image from the wonderful Chandris facebook community found here; https://www.facebook.com/groups/ssaustralisphotosnstories/ Photo by W. Dallwitz
Sooty black smoke pouring out of Australis' funnel often had us looking like minstrels. How many cruise passengers would tolerate that today? And of course, there were the inevitable shipboard romances that occasionally led to 'happy-ever-afters', but more often to heartbreak.
Then, just when I was sure I knew why I was writing a book, I saw an even bigger picture emerging. It's easy to see the importance of events in retrospect, not so obvious while you're living through them.
We boomers hadn't travelled to take a quick look and rush home. The rest of the world was so far away and so expensive to reach that most of us planned to live and work there and absorb what we could of other cultures. Meanwhile, back home, the influx of post-war migrants had continued the slow and painful process of changing the face of Australia. As a result of our exposure to new ways of thinking, we returned to embrace those changes and helped to make them part of Australia's emerging culture.
As I wrote in the book's introduction:
[We] absorbed whatever Europe had to offer, then returned to share that knowledge with all who cared to listen. As a result, Australia was dragged — kicking and screaming — from an isolated colony of Mother England into a vibrant and thriving cosmopolitan nation.
One hope I have is that future generations might come across Yesterday and see that we boomers were once young and brave too, so I was particularly delighted when one reader wrote ...
"This is an item I want to hand down to the grandchildren so that in the future they can read about our generation's sense of adventure."
Another hope is that more boomers will write books about their own voyages. I spent hours searching Amazon and other book sites hoping to find some, but there were very few that included descriptions of the actual sea voyage. I devoted over a quarter of the nearly 300 pages of Yesterday to the voyages to and from Europe, and I encourage those who sailed on any of the grand old ladies of the sea to also get their memories down on paper so those glorious old ships are not forgotten.
Above: Chandris' Lines’ magnificent ‘Australis’. Illustration by Liner Designs. Learn more: www.linerdesigns.com/australis-1975
LD&I: To many the 60s are remembered well by those who lived them but others were born too late to see the decade. What was the prevailing attitude and mood like at the time?
SC: Fun, mostly. But we also believed we were going to change the world. We wanted to stop the war in Vietnam and expose dishonest politicians and unfair laws. We didn't trust those who wanted to keep us in line with their out-dated rules and regulations. We wanted to throw off the shackles our parents lived by and had tried to instil in us.
Most of us weren't interested in devoting our lives to boring, uninspiring jobs, and while girls were encouraged to find husbands and submit to becoming domestic goddesses — producing children and taking care of their husband's every need — we had other ideas.
Above: Sandy (second left) sits with her mother in Australis’ Smoking Lounge on Departure Night.
In protest, we staged a revolution. We wore revealing outfits in bright colours to counteract the drabness of our parents' apparel. Boys wore their hair so long that — shock, horror — it actually covered their ears. We were blissfully unaware that we were merely doing what every generation before us had done, and what every generation after us would also do - trying to find our individual identity by copying our contemporaries.
We conveniently forgot how tough our parents' lives had been. They had lived through at least one, if not two wars and the Great Depression. To survive, they'd developed rules about how things should and shouldn't be done, but we had dreams and ambitions that didn't include those outmoded rules. They had seen how sad and dangerous the world could be, while we imagined how much better it could become. They enjoyed few pleasures, we wanted to experience them all. They economized while we indulged. They accepted their 'lot' in life, we questioned and tested everything and asked "if not, why not?". The pendulum always swings both ways.
LD&I: Your ocean-going voyages are recounted in wonderful, vivid detail in 'Yesterday'. What were the highlights to your time at sea?
SC: Everything was a highlight, Michael. From waking up in the morning - or more likely, the afternoon - to dining on scrumptious meals three times a day without having to lift a finger. Making new friends and enjoying coffee and lively conversation with them in the Smoking Room. Dressing up for the cabaret and dancing the night away.
One memorable highlight was being invited to the bridge by our captain and dining on finger food and Turkish coffee as we watched our daybreak arrival in Acapulco. Another was joining with a group of crew members on the sports deck at 2am to celebrate a Greek holiday, doing Zorba's Dance (with lots of ‘opas’) to a tape of Greek music.
[Extract from Yesterday]:
"What a lovely night, our arms outstretched on each other's shoulders and doing Greek dances around the open deck under a star-filled sky, the salty breeze in our hair and waves lapping against the side of the ship."
Above: Australis’ crew always did their best to create a party atmosphere on board. Here Sandy (left) poses with the ship’s head waiter and Chris, a friend she made on board.
I loved watching the sea in all its moods, even (maybe especially) when it was rough, and never had a single moment of sea-sickness. As I wrote in one of my letters (and reproduced in Yesterday) ....
“I can't tell you what a joy it is to stand near the bow, clinging for dear life to the railing as we dive headlong into the churning troughs, each time emerging triumphantly and pointing skyward on the crest of the next wave, then plunging again and again as ship and ocean seem to merge into one continuous wave.”
Of course, visiting ports was also exciting, even if we couldn't wait to get back to our ship after a day ashore. Auckland, Suva, Los Angeles, Acapulco, Panama, Miami, Southampton. How wonderful to see the world before you even reached your destination.
There was a timelessness that came with ship travel. We were a world unto ourselves, and ports of call were almost intrusions, although pleasant ones. As I wrote in a letter (reproduced in Yesterday) ...
I wonder what's happening in the real world. We have no idea. We used to read the news bulletin every day on the wall near the purser's office, but after a week none of us really care what's happening in the world. This is our world and the rest doesn't exist any more. Or if it does, it's not real.
Above: Sandy with two cabin mates and a friend.
I could never understand the preference to fly, but found it interesting that when I returned to Europe in 1973, many of the passengers were expressing impatience at the time it took to reach Europe, insisting that next time they'd fly. In just 4 years the human race seemed to have sped up and the writing was on the wall for the grand old passenger liners.
Today, people jet off to Rome, Paris, London for a few week's annual leave and probably can't imagine how precious the world was to us in those days, when the majority of Aussies hadn't even travelled as far as the next state. Even flying to Europe on the famed 'Kangaroo Route' back then in the late 40s and 50s was an adventure. It took 4 days and included 6 stopovers!
After a year away, having lived in Rotterdam, London and Rome, hitch-hiked through Italy and Spain, visited Ireland, France, Monaco, Gibraltar and Tangier, the Australis brought me safely home again, and what a joy it was to be back on board.
Three years later, in 1973, I travelled back to Europe on the Marconi (mainly because of the ports of call in Europe) and returned home once again on my beloved Australis.
And of course I was at Station Pier, Melbourne, to tearfully wave goodbye to her the last time she visited Australia in 1977. I know she retains a special place in the hearts of all who sailed with her.
Above: Station Pier, Melbourne. This was the site of countless tearful departures and happy returns. Image source: S. Coghlan
YESTERDAY: A BABY BOOMER’S RITE OF PASSAGE
Sandy’s wonderful new book ‘Yesterday’ makes for more than just entertaining reading; rather it now serves as a historical record for an era and setting relatively few experienced. If you ever travelled by ship in the 60s or 70s, ‘Yesterday’ will paint vivid pictures and revive some happy, long-forgotten memories. If, like me, you were born a little too late then the book will fire the imagination! I would also highly recommend Sandy’s great blog found here.
YESTERDAY IS AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE TODAY AT AMAZON. LEARN MORE!
You can order a signed copy of ‘Yesterday’ through Sandy herself. Simply contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Signed copies are paperback and valued at $30 AUD.