|The World Ocean & Cruise
By William H. Miller
on a banana boat conjures up all sorts of romantic, seagoing notions - a long, lazy
voyage, tropic nights and visits to palm tree-lined ports. There were once dozens of
dozens of passenger-carrying banana boats, ships usually fitted with quarters for a dozen
or so passengers. Today, a few still remain. But two of the largest of the more recent
past were the British steamers GOLFITO and CAMITO. They were near-sisters. And while not
especially well-known in the United States, they sailed for a
London-based shipowner, the Fyffes Line, and ran a very popular service in their day.
Expectedly, bananas were their primary business and this was perhaps best exemplified by a
well-known, but unofficial staff slogan: "Every banana a guest, every passenger
The GOLFITO and CAMITO were quite comfortable ships. Each had quarters for about 100 passengers, all first class. There were three passenger decks with cabins, public rooms and open-air deck spaces. All of this was positioned between four large cargo holds, two forward and two aft. These could handle as many as 140,000 stems (or 1,750 tons) of bananas. Their main trade was to take general cargo outwards (mostly British manufactured goods) and then return with bananas in their refrigerated compartments.
"They were very popular little passenger ships," remembered James Moran, who served aboard them as a restaurant waiter. "Their overall style was adequate, but simple. The main lounge, for example, was straight out of an Agatha Christie film. There was a round wooden pool on the deck that was built by the crew. I especially recall the after-dinner fare: the Chief Purser calling out bingo as everyone sat around sipping pink gins. Very occasionally, there might be a film using a projector and portable screen. Of course, at 4 every afternoon, we had a high tea.
"The ships were routed on 4-5 week voyages from Southampton or Avonmouth in England and then sailed across to Barbados, Trinidad and then to as many as 5 ports on Jamaica - Kingston, Port Antonio, Montego Bay, Oracabessa and Bowdin. We used to load the bananas all through the night when it was much cooler and so comes the well-known song by Mr. Harry Belafonte: 'Mr. Tallyman, daylight comes and I want to go home!'
"We tended to carry very upper-class British passengers back then. We had the plantation owners and, of course, the winter holiday crowd. We also carried lots of businessmen, remembering that much of the Caribbean was then British colonial territory. Particularly, I also remember carrying the Mount Gay twins, two wonderfully eccentric women, and Princess Alice, the last of Queen Victoria's grandchildren. She was then the Chancellor of the University of the West Indies in Kingston and so she traveled with us at least once a year. A very delightful, totally undemanding lady and a great aunt to the present Queen, I do recall, however, that she and her lady-in-waiting always sat at opposite tables in the dining room. We also had a rather legendary doctor on board. He always kept a pickled appendix on his desk and, no matter what the ailment, gave everyone a lot of rum in a little medicine bottle."
While the Fyffes Line also maintained a fleet of passenger-carrying freighters (and which later disappeared from the sealanes altogether), these two 8,700-ton ships survived until the mid-seventies. By then, they had lost much of their earlier clientele to speedier jets, were growing older themselves and generally had become less and less profitable. Both finished their days at the scrapyards and so ended the last of the big "banana boats."
Reprinted from a past issue
ofOcean & Cruise News.
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