The first few years on the “Canadian Empress” provided me, as an Officer, memories of events that will last a lifetime. Working on the “Empress” was a totally new and interesting marine venture as we watched many enjoy life on a cruise ship for the first time. Several members of the crew in those early days, had no experience working on a ship of any type, in any position.
Those that had worked on the day-time tour boats that ply the St. Lawrence River through the Thousand Islands, got to go home every night and tomorrow brought all new passengers. One only had to deal with them for about four hours or less. Those trips for the most part, were a rubber stamp of the last one. “Ho-hum,” we would say, “another day another dollar.”
A cruise ship’s crew has different rules of life which depended on what position you hold. The Empress crew had two different levels of quarters. The Captain, Mate, and Engineer’s quarters are in the back of the Bridge/wheelhouse. The rest of the crew enjoy their well appointed quarters, below deck.
The main change in living condition is for the officers, which includes the Captain, Mate, Engineer, Purser, and Chef, all of whom have full use of the ship. The rest of the crew were only allowed in the grand salon and stern deck, when on duty or to serve the passengers. They had the foredeck to enjoy, plus their quarters.
The officers are expected to mingle, and they enjoy their meals, when off duty, in the Grand Salon with the passengers. In the evening, they often share their stories of the River.
In my days on the Empress, we were required to be in full uniform at meal times. Also, we were to split ourselves among the guests so that all could enjoy that rare marine pleasure of sharing a meal with the Captain or the Mate.
We would wait until the passengers were seated and then look for a table that had space for one. Which brings me to a memory of a lady aboard the ship on one trip.
That day, there was a table of five ladies, so I choose to join them for lunch. I introduced myself and asked if I may join them and I also asked if they would object if I removed my double-breasted officer's jacket, for even with air conditioning, it was very warm, indeed.
We started with the usual introductions and chit chat, but it was not until I was waiting for dessert that I noticed one lady, with a very soft British accent, had not eaten much of her lunch and that she appeared to be stressed to some degree, about something.
She excused herself and left the table before dessert. I never really noticed, but my having to be in many places at the same time, the day passed quickly. At supper time, I noticed that she was not in the first sitting, nor the second.
The next morning, we were under way, and I was in and out of the salon several times, but I never saw her. Just as I was getting concerned, I spotted her roommate.
Upon returning to the bridge, I updated the Captain, who suggest that I go with a stewardess to make sure the lady alright.
The roommate answered the door and quickly stepped out into the hallway. I learned that her friend was not ill, but was still in shock that a ship's officer would lower himself to sit at a table where she was sitting.
At this point, I was most puzzled as to what could have caused such a reaction and a fear of a Ship’s Officer. The roommate shared the knowledge that throughout her friend's life she had felt like she was a scared and second class person.
The story was simple. When she was a young teenager, she had immigrated to Canada with her parents. Her father was a distinguished gentleman. About the second day of the crossing, the ship’s Captain sent his porter to their cabin, to inform her parents that they were expected to be at the Captain’z cabin for supper. So without knowing the marine protocol in those days, her parents and the young child got suitably dressed for a dinner evening with the Captain in his cabin.
When the knock came, they opened the door in anticipation, only to be informed that children were not allowed in the Captain’s Cabin. Then they were informed that the child was also not allowed to be in the main dining hall alone, either. To solve the problem the porter coldly informed them, the Captain was waiting, but he would call a maid, to see that the young girl got supper.
Her mother and father had a great evening, but little did they know their daughter, fully dressed for a ball, was taken down below into the 3rd class section, where she was the brunt of all the foul mouth jokes and language of the “common people.” Once was bad enough, but her folks enjoyed several invites to the Captain table on that trip.
Without a second thought, I knocked on the stateroom door until the lady opened it, and I then informed her that the Captain requested that I bring her to the wheel house.
When we got there, the Captain was a bit surprise, but quickly stepped aside and let me carry on with my unplanned event.
I placed the high stool behind the ship’s wheel and asked the lady to sit down and steer the ship. Before she could object, I placed my hat with scrambled egg on the brim, on her head, and informed her that she was an honorary mate of the “Canadian Empress.”
I stood beside her and paged our purser to bring her roommate to the bridge and then I called the galley to send up a mid-morning snack for four.
As they say, the rest is history. But that was some hug, I got from the roommate, as they disembarked the ship.
By Mate Preston
Robert W. (Robbie) Preston has enjoyed life working in many different fields of endeavours - ranging from Master Industrial Model Builder, Merchant, Charter Pilot, Master Minor Water Licenced mariner and International Auto Racing Official. He has also been a volunteer Fire Captain, Home Builder, Author and award winning Photographer. He has received many awards over the years, from a Queen’s Scout and World Jamboree Scout in the 1950s to being recently named, along with his wife, Environmental Hero in 2012, by the City of Kawartha Lakes. Presently he resides in Cameron, Ontario and as he admits he is still - burning the candle at both ends. See his TI Life February 2016 article. The Canadian Empress–Why Not?