Ship-spotting on Port Phillip is back, almost as I remember it from my childhood. For ship of course I mean passenger ship. No one is interested in the ungainly profiles of cargo ships piled high with containers making their lumpy way up the bay. But passenger ships - apart from the Tasmanian ferry which doesn't really count - proper overseas international passenger ships, that is, have been a rare sight on Port Phillip since the 1970s, when air transport became the norm for travel abroad. Now, in the form of cruise liners, they are returning in numbers that make it worthwhile to look up the shipping arrivals and departures lists (in the papers but also online at to see what's of interest among the vessels due in and out of port.

In the six months to the end of this month international passenger ships will have visited Melbourne 58 times. If most of those visits are by the same ships that's still 58 opportunities to see a big liner come up or down the bay. There wouldn't have been a tenth that number in a whole year in the 1980s and 1990s. Melbourne is no longer a passenger-ship destination in its own right as it was in the days of the gold rush and mass migration but it is at least once again established as a regular port of call.

To enjoy the sight of a big ship - and there have been some super-big ones in, such as the new Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mary 2 and that Flying Dutchman of the rich and leisured, The World, on which elderly plutocrats in their own private "residences" permanently and somewhat aimlessly cruise the seven seas - you need to have a view over the right part of the bay. Close to Port Melbourne is good, Williamstown advantageous and on the eastern side as far down as Middle Park all right before the angle between channel and shore becomes too wide to see the ship in clear detail. The beach at McCrae is stupendous because it's right opposite the point where the South Channel, the main channel up the bay, comes closest to shore and where the ships turn sharply, from an eastern to a north-north-westerly course if bound for Melbourne, in the opposite direction if outward bound towards the Port Phillip heads.

An even better vantage point is your own armchair. There is a small number of fortunate souls who can enjoy ship-watching without having to go down to the beach. This privileged minority resides on the slopes of Arthur's Seat and Dromana. High above the bay, they can contemplate the arrivals and departures of dozens of fine ships in the comfort of their own homes. Domestic telescopes are very popular in this region, trained on the sea from a hundred balconies and sun decks.

Naturally, this being southern Victoria, the caprices of weather don't always help the ship-watcher. Rain on the water can create a curtain through which the ship is barely visible as a shadowy form. The Queen Mary 2, heading straight for McCrae recently, sailed into a cloud when very close to shore and was lost to sight as though caught up in the Transfiguration.

It is true that passenger-ship traffic is not quite back to what it was in the days when there were sometimes four overseas liners tied up together at Station Pier. That state of affairs lasted even into the 1960s when it was still cheaper to travel to Europe by sea than by air. Young people went Tourist, which was what Second Class (there was no longer any steerage) had been tactfully renamed, their better-off elders, setting out on the long-planned-for post-retirement overseas trip, luxuriated in the plushness of First. Ships were of all nations. The post-retirees preferred British - the Orcades, Orsova, Oriana, Himalaya - but there were also the Italian Achille Lauro and twins Galileo Galilei and Guglielmo Marconi, the Greek Australis and Ellinis and the Dutch Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Their countries of origin were the countries from which most migrants came, which explains why there were few if any French or German ships on the Europe-Australia run. The liners came out from Europe with Tourist filled with migrants subsidised by the Australian government. On the voyage back the youth of Australia making its obligatory pilgrimage to Europe took the migrants' place.

Until at least the 1960s prime ministers and cricket teams travelled to England by sea. Business executives didn't travel as much as today, when they will seize any excuse to board a plane, but they took the ship when they did. Time was somehow found in busy schedules for the three weeks the voyage each way took. Sea travel wasn't considered slow. It was fast compared to what it had been in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when passengers to and from Australia had to submit to voyages lasting months. The Italian line Lloyd Triestino actually described its Italy-Australia sailings in the 1970s as an "express service". All of which goes to show that speed and time are relative to what is possible. If some sort of instant travel as imagined in science fiction ever becomes a reality, planes that can get you to Europe in 22 hours will be as outmoded as windjammers. Unlike ships, which have adapted from line voyages to cruises, it is hard to imagine that they would have a future as a means of conveying anyone anywhere for pleasure.

But if shipboard life on the new cruise liners is about pleasure rather than using the sea as a means of travel that makes no difference to the view from the shore. For the ship-watcher it's the sight of a stately ship that counts, and even though nautical silhouettes have changed, the thrill of watching a grand vessel glide by hasn't.

9 March 2012

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