Jim Shaw recalls a voyage taken on Blue Funnel’s Centaur to Singapore in the 1970s, and the ships seen off the ‘Lion City’ in that decade.
Five decades ago there were still a number of passenger ships trading between Fremantle, Australia, and the island nation of Singapore, where relatively cheap charter and scheduled air flights could be obtained to onward destinations. Towards the end of the 1970s, I took advantage of the situation by booking passage on Blue Funnel’s Centaur, following an overland journey by train from Sydney.
The one-way fare in a four-berth cabin on B-Deck at the time was A$290 and I found that, by paying an extra A$10, I could board the ship on the evening of my arrival, dinner included, before departure for Singapore the following day.
Centaur was a unique ship. I was somewhat surprised the following morning when lorries began arriving with hundreds of sheep, all making their way into the lower decks over gangways, while arriving passengers were soon doing the same several decks above. After talking to the chief purser, I found Centaur had been completed in 1964 by John Brown & Co, Clydebank, as a replacement for two older ships; the pre-war-built twins Charon and Gorgon, which were then retired.
Centaur herself had been designed to carry not only passengers and cargo but also livestock, and her hull, like those of her predecessors, had been strengthened to allow her to rest on the mudflats of tidal ports in northwestern Australia.
However, the coastal trade had been given up several years earlier and, by her second decade of service, Centaur was beginning to feel the impact of containerisation and air travel, along with competition from other vessels. These included the Russian twins Felix Dzerjinsky and Turkmenia, operated on a seasonal basis under charter by CTC Line, and Pacific International Line’s Kota Bali and Kota Singapura, formerly the Dutch twins Twijangi and Tjiluwah which, like Centaur, were capable of carrying livestock on their lower decks.
At the time of my passage, Centaur was sailing from Fremantle about every three weeks on a 17-day round trip that carried her through the Sunda Strait to Singapore, then on up the Malacca Strait, to both Port Klang and Georgetown.
On this cruise-like circuit all round-trip passengers were given two-and-a-half-days on the upward journey and one-and-a-half days on the southbound trip, to do sightseeing and shopping in Singapore while the vessel loaded and discharged her cargo. Day excursions were also available in Port Klang and Georgetown, while the ship was being handled and, at times, Centaur would divert to Christmas Island to drop off and pick up mail.
Passenger accommodation on Centaur varied from twin-bed suites located on A deck, where a library/card room was located forward and a bar/lounge and shop aft, to four-berth cabins without facilities on B-deck, the latter also containing the hospital and doctor’s office forward and the centrally located Purser’s bureau. The dining room, laid out in an ‘H’ pattern, was located aft on C deck, and was decorated by a line drawing of Centaur and her former namesakes, by Laurence Dunn.
Outside this room was a small casino harbouring a collection of very unsympathetic ‘one-arm bandits’, but a popular gathering point before and after meals. There was also a small launderette on board, which eluded many passengers because of its location, tucked away between cabins, and a children’s room with outside play deck. The swimming pool area, located at the aft end of A deck and opened to the main lounge in good weather, became a popular spot once the Tropic of Capricorn was passed and Centaur proceeded into the tropics.
In the 1970s, passenger access was still available to the ship’s working decks and many people, especially those with farms in Australia, liked to carry out a morning inspection of the livestock being carried, all easily visible through the open hatchways. Besides the hatches, which were only closed during inclement weather, venting for the livestock was accomplished by using large suction fans, which changed the cargo hold air 30 times per hour and vented the exhaust through the two hollow main masts.
The livestock spaces were specially designed to provide double-tiering for sheep and single-tiering for cattle, although cows were seldom carried. However, on this trip 170 breeding cattle were on board, along with 1,600 sheep. Besides her passengers and livestock, Centaur also transported frozen meat, machinery, potatoes and fruit northbound, while limited amounts of Chinese foodstuffs, tropical fruits, lumber and veneer were carried south.
A tight schedule
Because of her tight schedule, Centaur had been fitted with two, 11-cylinder, 8,250hp B&W turbocharged diesels driving twin propellers to give a speed of 18 knots. A tour made of the engine room with the second engineer disclosed four auxiliary diesels driving 50kW alternators located forward of the main engines. These provided the ship’s electrical supply and powered more than 265 electric motors on board, as well as the refrigeration machinery.
The sewage plant and firefighting pumps were located aft of the main engines, while an emergency genset was found on the boat deck just behind the funnel, where controls for CO2 flooding and firefighting were also located. Courtesy of my guide, I was also shown the officer’s lounge/bar, which was situated just above the main lounge and overlooked the swimming pool area.
Because of the wide diversity of crew and passengers on board, there were three galleys capable of providing Chinese meals for much of the steward staff, Malaysian dishes for most of the seamen and European cooking for officers and passengers, although the latter were also able to taste some of the Asian specialities from time to time. The livestock also dined well, as over 18 tons of special feed and hay was loaded at Fremantle, the actual amount depending upon the number of animals being carried.
Sunda to Singapore
Our northbound passage in the Indian Ocean took us through Sunda Strait and into the Java Sea, where we continued along the east coast of Sumatra. Traffic intensified and we were soon passing, or being passed by, a large number of ships, several of which appeared to be old Koninklijke Paketvaart-Maatschappij (KPM) inter-island vessels. One of these was the slow-moving Ogan, which we overtook off Banka Island and, which later research disclosed, was KPM’s former Kalianget of 1948.
More of these ancient ships were seen upon our arrival at Singapore, where Centaur first discharged her load of livestock at the Jurong wharves before threading her way through the anchorage to take up a berth in Keppel Harbour. Following disembarkation, I had a full day available before my flight out of the city’s old Paya Lebar Airport.
This allowed a visit to the Chinese godowns along the Singapore River and their attendant bumboats, as well as a tour out to the anchorage area from Clifford Pier. The latter contained a vast collection of ships of the period, all gone now, as is Centaur, which was retired in 1982 after operating an unsuccessful 25-day cruise circuit that included calls at Manila and Hong Kong.
After a one-year charter to the St Helena Shipping Co, and several years of lay-up at Singapore, the British-built combination liner was sold to China’s COSCO in 1985, and demolished two decades later at Guangdong, China as Hai Da.
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