I am getting a bit old in the tooth and in my long life I have acquired the knack of courting dangerous pursuits often finding myself in positions where I find myself saying either “What the Hell am I doing here?” or “Here we go again!”. From Arctic Warfare training with the Special Boat Squadron, to skirmishes in Aden, Cyprus and Suez, I then took up Ocean Racing and Rock Climbing just to keep the adrenaline flowing.
I was looking through the latest travel leaflets with a view to this year’s holiday plans. I went to sea at the age of 15 and travelled the world and ever since I have visited most parts of the world, a lot of it when the countries had real names not their PC ones. Korea was just Korea not North and South, Siam wasn’t Thailand, Burma wasn’t Myanmar, Formosa wasn’t Taiwan . . . . . .
I digress but you get the picture I was probably looking for pastures new. (“Hello Sailor you want something different?” “Why what have you got this time, Leprosy?” – nasty naval humour rears its ugly head)
Back to the travel brochure, I opened it to look at Madeira and immediately delved into the old memory bank.
I was 17 years old and serving as an Extra, Extra, Junior Fourth Officer aboard Union Castle Line’s Royal Mail Steamer Capetown Castle we had called in at Freetown in Sierra Leone – now the home of the dreaded Ebola disease. I too picked up a dreaded disease; it wasn’t Ebola but an equally deadly one, a particularly virulent form or Malaria. I don’t remember much of the rest of that trip around the Cape but not only did I think I was going to die, that was also the opinion of the ship’s surgeon.
Obviously I didn’t pop my clogs as I am still here but it was decided that I needed convalescence (either that or the surgeon didn’t want the publicity of a corpse in his sick bay). It was decided that I should be put ashore in the beautiful island of Madeira to recover at company expense. I found myself luxuriating in what then was the most lavish hotel on the island, the Savoy, where I spent six memorable weeks being pampered; bliss! My memories bring back lovely cobbled streets, the biome wall lizards and the heady smell of fennel growing everywhere. Fennel in Portuguese is funcha which gives Funchal its name.
All good thing come to an end and the company agent decided that rather than wait for my ship to call for me, I should fly back to Blighty for further recovery.
In those far flung days Madeira did not boast the lovely Santa Catarina Airport; in fact it had no airport at all. What it did have was Aquila Airways who operated a fleet (three I think) of second-hand Short Solent Flying boats that flew two of three times a week from Madeira to Southampton. I stress that these monstrosities were second-hand former WWII military machines. You know how experts can scientifically prove that a bumble bee cannot fly, well you get the picture. http://streaming.britishpathe.com/hls-vod/flash/00000000/00067000/00067485.mp4.m3u8 for a better idea.
This barely recuperated sickly teenager was ferried out with around 18 other souls into Funchal Bay, The sea was flat calm, Tennyson’s painted ship on a painted ocean, calm! The so called flying giant sat wallowing looking more like a hippopotamus than an aeroplane and I was helped aboard by a beautiful liveried and heavily made up, air hostess. There were dining tables with crisp, white tablecloths, and the seats facing in from either side. I also remember there were lovely frilly curtains at the portholes.
Remember this was the early 50s and I had never flown before. All the passengers were comfortably seated and the very precisely spoken air hostess went through the doors to manual drill with great emphasis on lifejackets. The captain spoke over the Tannoy and after introducing himself told us that because the weather was so still and there were no waves the liner as he called it may have trouble unsticking itself from the surface tension.
He would make his first run and attempt take off but we were not to worry if it didn’t work, it was standard procedure and our first attempt would make sufficient waves to enable a successful launch on the second run. The engines made an unbelievable deafening roar and he gave it full throttle for what seem like a couple of miles. As he predicted we couldn’t get airborne and the throttle shut down and this flying pig slumped from about seventy or eighty knots and lurched forward and down to near standstill, then turned into our wake, engines roaring flat out and pop . . . we came unstuck and shot into the air. . . .
Once again I thought I was going to die. Not only that, when I looked at the faces of the other passengers and the cabin crew, they thought so too! I won’t worry you with the hellish landing in Southampton Water, suffice to say I later chose the Royal Navy rather than following my father into the RAF.
Do you know I think I shall give Madeira a miss this year and just cherish my memories.