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A cruise line that cared about God

13 January 2017

THE collapse of Swan Hellenic, the cruise line that sought to blend small-ship travel with high culture, spells the end of free holidays for a number of clergy, including bishops and cathedral deans, who accepted invitations to lecture on board.

I write as one so affected. I was chaplain to what turned out to be the last cruise of Swan’s Minerva, which sailed from Civitavecchia on 21 December. Swan always took religion seriously. Not only were clergy invited as lecturers: space was provided for regular services (Order 1, traditional language, since you ask). I owe my relationship with Swan to Robert Runcie, and, I believe, I was the first female priest to be invited.

Dr Runcie loved Swan, and travelled frequently on the Minerva. He left a cope and chalice to the ship, and, last week, they were still there, behind glass in public view, like relics. On one cruise, a determined Anglo-Catholic insisted that we keep the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and persuaded the cruise manager to free the ship’s cinema for the purpose. There were pastoral duties, too. I conducted a memorial service in the Bay of Biscay for a woman whose brother had perished there in the war.

Our last cruise started in high spirits, with a full ship. We had a delightful stop in Sardinia. One hundred people came to midnight mass as we sailed to the south-west and towards Spain. During the night, the swell increased, and I conducted a Christmas morning service feeling very sick. By evening, calm returned, and most people managed Christmas dinner.

We arrived for New Year in magical Barcelona. The weather was fantastic: landscapes and cityscape were bathed in golden winter light. Then, suddenly, we heard that the next cruise was cancelled. There were no details and no explanations. Rumours circulated wildly. Was there something wrong with one of the rudders? Many suspected the worst, but there was no definite news until we got home and heard that All Leisure Holidays had ceased trading.

I am sad about this, and not just because of the holiday opportunities. Swan Hellenic was always less a commercial brand and more a community. There was a genuine sense of family between ship and shore, cabin and catering, passengers and crew. This was nurtured by the passion for discovery: history, natural history, geography, art. Swan was about civilisation in the widest sense.

Towards the end of the final cruise, the general manager, who had worked for several other cruise lines, said that his two years with Swan were the happiest in his life, and had brought out the best in him.

That is what real human communities do, and losing them is always more of a loss than can be reckoned by accountants.

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