Bowie By Sea

I haven’t seen many pictures or reports of Bowie’s trans-Atlantic and Pacific crossings. It is easy to imagine him dressing for dinner and drinking and smoking into the night in the closest approximation the ship offered of a cabaret, occasionally venturing onto the deck to smoke and look at the sky. His Thin White Duke wardrobe would have been just the thing. The bright polyester Ziggy jumpsuits — well, one has to wonder what the other guests at his assigned table would have made of those.

The first time Bowie toured the US, he and Angie arrived on the Queen Elizabeth 2, departing Southampton (London) on September 10, 1972 for the weeklong voyage.

Queen Elizabeth 2

Once the Bowie entourage was assembled in New York City, Tony DeFries’ approach was that to be a star, you acted like one, and so loads of money was spent on fancy hotels and limos. But I doubt that David and Angie traveled first class on the QE2; after all, their fellow passengers for the most part would not have been in the target audience, and it is not good business to spend to impress the hostile or indifferent.

RHMS Ellinis

Once in the US, Bowie and his band traveled by road and rail from the East to West Coasts, and from the Northwest to Southeast before finally returning to NYC where Bowie boarded the RHMS [Royal Hellenic Mail Ship] Ellinis on December 10, 1972, and sailed home.

If you look closely at the full title of the song commonly called “Aladdin Sane,” you will see it has two subtitles or parenthetical comments: (1913-1938-197?) and (R.H.M.S. Ellinis) so I expect he wrote it aboard this ship.

In late January 1973, Bowie was crossing the Atlantic again, this time for the February and March US Aladdin Sane tour. Rather than returning to NYC after playing the Hollywood Palladium, Bowie sailed to Japan.

Accompanying Bowie on these two voyages was his friend and Spider from Mars Geoff MacCormack. In 2007 MacCormack’s Station to Station with Bowie was published by Genesis Publications (more on that later). Excerpts were published in The Independent:

Bowie and I boarded the SS Canberra at the end of January 1973. I’d only previously travelled on ferries crossing the English channel. The SS Canberra was something else. She towered above us like some giant wedding cake and this mode of travel made what was for me a fantasy journey even more surreal.

Cruising to New York took about a week. Nobody really took much notice of Bowie, apart from a couple of swooning gay hairdressers; they were far too old to know anything about him. The journey was long and languorous; suffice to say, after a while afternoon tea was an occasion to be looked forward to. . . .

Having completed the US, David and I had the delightful problem of getting from LA to Japan. This meant criss-crossing the North Pacific on one of P&O’s finest, the SS Oronsay. Not as grand as the SS Canberra – smaller, older and shabbier – we rechristened her the Old Rancid.

SS Canberra
SS Oronsay
April 5 to 21, 1973, Bowie toured Japan. Bowie and MacCormack then took the ferry from Yakohama to Nahodka. The trip back to Europe would be by train across Siberia.
On April 11, 1974, Bowie arrived in NYC on the SS France.  
SS France

When the SS France was scheduled to be scrapped, reminiscences of her glory days included this anecdote about Bowie, reported by the BBC:

Travelling as a first-class passenger, the rock star was not scheduled to play aboard the France but apparently had heard the crew were disappointed, so he turned up in the canteen with an acoustic guitar.

“We enjoyed more than 10 songs and especially Space Oddity which was the first one, and a few crew members took instruments too and played with him,” Bruno [Rabreau, Le France receptionist]  says.

“It was a really, really good time. He was a very ordinary person and very friendly to us. We really enjoyed it.”

In 1976 when Bowie left the US for the Station to Station European tour, he sailed on the SS Leonardo da Vinci. Andrew Kent photographed him aboard ship prior to his departure [see].

The next time Bowie left Europe, it would be by plane. However, in 2002 when he needed to get to Europe for the Heathen tour, he opted for the QE2. You can see a shot from Jason Fraser’s photoshoot of Bowie on deck at arrival in Southampton here.

6 thoughts on “Bowie By Sea

  1. I was shocked and saddened by the news of David’s passing.

    I have a related story!

    I was on the P&O Canberra on that February trip!. I was wandering, feeling a little sea-sick down a passageway to my cabin when who should come around the corner but Bowie himself. We smiled at each other – we both “knew” – his face looked very white – probably as white as mine, but I’m not sure if he was sea-sick, or if it was make-up, or if he was just naturally pale! Anyway, I wish I had said something, but I was in shock and the moment passed.

    Later in the trip there was “Cabaret Night” in the Ballroom – a wonderfully amateurish Master of Ceremonies breathlessly told us that David Bowie was on board and had agreed to be interviewed! And in he comes, they sit on stools, assume interview position, the MC looks at his notes and says “Well, David I suppose it all started for you with your great hit “Mellow Yellow” – right…?” and Bowie, not missing a beat laughed and replied “Well, mate, , I think you’ll find that was actually a hit for my friend Donovan…certainly got his career going!”

    We all had a good laugh, the MC shrank into his stool and I honestly can’t remember the rest of the interview because it was all so embarrassingly bad!

    We won’t forget you, David

  2. If David Bowie boarded the RMHS Ellinis on the 10th of December 1972 from New York, he was in good company. I was on the Ellinis on the same voyage. I believe it was Voyage 44 to
    Southhampton, England.

  3. If David Bowie boarded the RHMS Ellinis on the 10th of December 1972, from New York, he was in good company. I too, was on the Ellinis on the same Voyage. I believe it was Voyage 44 to Southhampton, England.

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