Maiden Voyage

Notes from a Ship's Harpist

by Sarah Deere-Jones

'Maiden Voyage' - notes from a ships harpist - 'is the story of a young woman's journey of self discovery amidst the bizarre and often comic setting of a luxury cruiseship. With Brysonesque humour Sarah's first encounters with the shocking extremes of poverty and wealth, the beauty of nature and insanity of the characters around her, form a vivid parody of life itself.'

This book was featured in BBC Radio Four's only travel programme 'Excess Baggage' when Sarah was interviewed by John McCarthy about travelling around the world with a concert harp.

To buy a hard copy or an audio version by mail order, please click here-

In 1983 I was lucky enough to be asked, at the very last minute, to play on board the QE2 for three months during its world cruise. With only four days notice, my Salvi Concert harp and I were flown out to Los Angeles where the adventures began, and as a young music graduate with very little experience of any kind of travel, I was in for a shock! In the first 24 hours I had been abandoned at the airport with my harp, rescued by an irate taxi driver from a gangster ridden backstreet, and treated with bewildering hostility once actually on board!

(During one of our harp courses, I was describing an event that took place while on board and someone said 'You should write a book about that!' - well here it is!!)

But on board I discovered the strange underworld of crew that were never allowed above decks with the passengers, I became friends with cheeky scouse waiters, bored band members, eccentric millionairesses, and at Midnight in Mombasa met the first Radio Officer who was to become my husband! All the while the vast cloak of the sea, with its breathtaking sunsets, leaping dolphins, flying fish and lone birds, was a continuous source of solace and fascination.
Playing during the world cruise - I was able to be a tour guide when the ship was in port, this meant I got to keep an eye on the passengers as they toured some of the most incredible places I had ever seen- here the stunning island of Tahiti (left) and Voi game reserve in Kenya (right) - in some 'third world' countries I experienced degrading poverty for the first time, and this from the context of a luxury cruiseship was sometimes a disturbing experience.
One of the most fascinating things about life on board was meeting the vast variety of different characters, from the pampered passengers, many of whom were lovely but some definately slightly mad, to the Liverpudlian waiters with their brilliant wit, and the officers who came from all walks of life. Here I am (left) at the engine control room and (right) in the engine room- the ship was already over 20 years old by the 1980s, and broke down leaving us drifting in the straights oif Malacca, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world- another bizarre and slightly scary experience!
The QE2 was the last of the traditional ocean going liners - she was built for the Atlantic crossings and the storms and heavy seas of the northern hemisphere, and her streamlined elegant shape betrays the heritage of her predecessors. She was at the time the flagship of the British merchant navy, and always recieved a 'royal' welcome- (right) in Madras is typical of the reception we would receive with a military band, red carpet and crowds of admiring on-lookers, she was a very special ship.

However, it was very amusing how often she misbehaved herself, nearly ramming some Pakistani Naval vessels in Karachi harbour, and crashing into the quayside in Gibraltar, even on her last voyage to Southampton, she managed to run aground on a sandbank!

Volunteering as a tour guide was a terrific way to see the sights for free, but had its drawbacks - I had to deal with passengers who were used to getting everything their own way and sometimes they could be very difficult when they complained about virtually everything! I also ended up having to go on trips I would rather have avoided, for example the terrifying cable car trip up Sugar loaf mountain in Rio de Janiero (left)!

On board I played light music and jazz in the bars and restaurants, joined the bands for shows, and performed solo classical recitals, I even busked for charity and had my own pupils amongst the passengers - my little irish harp came in very handy - here (right) I am practising in the transmitter room!

The ship was the biggest vessel of any kind I had ever spent time on, during my first cruise I was unable to take my harp trolley and was reduced to dragging my full size concert harp along all the corridors as I changed playing venues, this could be up to 20 minutes of hard physical pulling and would be quite exhausting!

(right) Thats me by the funnel - the uneven surface is due to an engine room fire some years before!

Left, the 'tug of war' competition was a popular event for crew and passengers alike and was one of many things organised for days at sea. (Right) my husband Phil, then first radio officer, in Sydney harbour in 1985. The QE2's engines were replaced in 1987 but she was finally retired in 2008, we were one of many couples who met on board and were extremely sad to see her go.

 

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