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Sailing into History: the MV BILU

In December 1964, the MV Bilu became the first car-ferry to cross the Atlantic, sailing from Haifa on a 17-day voyage to Miami, Florida. Described as a "Motel Ship" in a New York Times article, some passengers called her the "floating youth hostel". The Bilu could sleep 524 passengers in 172 two- or four-bunk cabins, and the "restaurant" was a pay-as-you-eat cafeteria. She had a comfortable passenger lounge and even a saltwater swimming pool that held up to 13 people, earning it the nickname "the community bathtub".

Her stern was square and dropped down to allow up to 120 vehicles to drive directly into the ship from the quay. Just under 7,000 tons displacement and 28 meters long, she had a maximum speed of 19 knots when she left the shipyard (but 21-22 knots thereafter). Notwithstanding her practical design and outfitting, she had attractive, clean-cut lines. 

In the spring of 1964, my father Frank (Franklin Kay Jones) and I flew from Los Angeles to London to take delivery of an Austin-Healey Sprite, on the first leg of a European tour. Frank was an expert driver and had researched the trip thoroughly. The car's unusual accessories included a pull-out car radio that also worked on batteries or outlets, seat belts (back when only racing cars had them), a luggage rack, and a state-of-the-art electric car-alarm system.

The next few months were spent meandering through France, Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy with no fixed itinerary or timetable, camping gear strapped to the Sprite's luggage rack and Arthur Frommer's Europe on 5 Dollars a Day to hand. I turned eleven on the trip. There were many mini-adventures along the way - strange, wonderful, a couple eerie - but by late October it was time to head home. The question was: what to do with the Sprite? Shipping it to the States was too expensive and, this late in the tourist season, it would only sell at a loss in Europe. At Thomas Cook & Son in Rome, Frank heard of a car ferry sailing from Naples to Miami in December, chartered for the winter season to run between Miami and the Bahamas.

Tickets for the Miami sailing were not available in Rome, so we dashed north to Geneva where the MV Bilu's owners, Somerfin Car Ferries, Ltd., were headquartered. Arriving late on a weekend, the office manager kindly opened it to book our passage and issue tickets but ... the sailing date was a month away. Why not visit Israel in the meantime and sail directly from Haifa? It was a unique opportunity. So we also booked a Naples-to-Haifa sailing.

At the end of three glorious weeks in Israel - two of them camped out on Eilat's Coral Beach - we went aboard ship in Haifa. Already familiar with the ship and acquainted with Ezra, one of the mates, we settled in during the three-day sail from Haifa to Naples. With so few passengers booked we had a cabin for four, and the occupied cabins were spread throughout the ship. Frank wouldn't let me sleep in the upper bunk but suggested I turn it into a "reading room". I was in heaven most of the time.

At Naples the Bilu took on more passengers, supplies, vehicles and personnel, including an Italian chef and a ship's doctor and nurse. We shopped for supplies and snacks. A US Navy ship was docked nearby.

The captain was relatively young, in his early 40s, attractive, with dark hair and ice-blue eyes. He radiated purpose and authority. We were told his career began on ships running the British blockade, smuggling Jewish refugees from post WWII Europe into Mandatory Palestine. Though I didn't remember his name I have very good reason to think he was Captain Reuven Yatir (1925-2015). {In 1946, the Palyam member Yatir captained the Knesset Israel carrying 3845 refugees and crew to Palestine. Three British destroyers forced the ship to dock at Haifa, deporting its occupants to Cyprus.} 

Next morning new acquaintances were struck up. I doubt if there were as many as 30 passengers on board; a diverse collection of characters in keeping with the time, place and circumstances. Most encounters occurred on the main deck after breakfast, where seats lined the main stairwell's railing between the cafeteria, aft, and passenger lounge, forward, with doors to the outside decks on either side.

To begin with there were Ed and Rocky, whom we had already run into in Eilat and Haifa. Ed was a pale, ordinary looking man with thinning hair; an ex-NASA scientist who hated planes. Rocky, his traveling companion, was blond, compact, very fit, and may have been his minder. They were certainly an odd pair, Ed pedantic, even dour, and careful of himself; Rocky cheerful, alert, and with a sense of humor always lurking just below the surface. Then there was the short, slightly round 80-something lady from the Deep South and her hulking, six-foot plus nephew who called her "Auntie"; a charming South African businessman and his blond girlfriend; an older academic couple; and an American who owned and operated a used-car dealership in Naples for 15 years. They were reminiscent of Isaac Asimov, Travels With My Aunt and Murder on the Orient Express.

The second day out the businessman invited us to join him on the Lido Deck overlooking the empty swimming pool (it was winter). The snack bar was closed and locked - or was it? One of the three heavy, lift-up glass doors wasn't. He lifted it high enough for us to scoot under – and the Lido Club was born: eight people who met regularly to talk, smoke, and snack in comfort, the latter two not allowed in the passenger lounge.

That evening, Ezra invited Frank and me to join him on the bridge on his watch. Besides the helmsman, two sailors stood watch on either wing of the almost completely dark bridge, the most light coming from the green radar screen near the helm. The dark and quiet were awe-inspiring. On the sea nothing was visible - but the radar showed us surrounded by ships, each sweep of the arm over the round screen revealing how many and how close they were – without lights!

One of these invisible ships blinkered a demand for our identification, which Ezra sent. Then he demanded their identification three times without receiving a reply. He looked at the screen again and grumped "Sixth Fleet" sourly. One of their ships had been docked at Naples.

The sailor on the starboard wing stuck his head through the door and said something in Hebrew. "Captain's coming," said Ezra, and without thinking I bolted. A passage ran behind the bridge, like the leg of a 'T', along which were the captain's and mates' cabins and a rarely used elevator at the end. I ducked into this and pushed the Main Deck button. Seconds later I was nonchalantly leaning against the main stairwell railing where I could watch both doors to the deck. Frank came through the port-side door moments later demanding: "What did you do?" I told him I assumed passengers such as an 11-year-old were not allowed on the bridge and didn't want to get – or get Ezra - into trouble. 

A bit of a "blow" came up with rain and wind, just enough to set the ship rolling. Next morning Ed was seated outside the cafeteria looking woebegone. Rocky came out of breakfast and led a chorus of "Sailing, sailing over the bounding main/For many a jolly ship there is that's never come back again!" as Ed groaned and covered his face. Frank stopped the teasing. Next morning I was sick and we saw the doctor, who examined me and prescribed some pills. When Frank asked what was wrong, the doctor smiled and said, "just a touch of seasickness." I had never had motion sickness in my life. Bewildered, outside the office I asked my father 'Was I seasick?!' Thoughtfully looking at the deck, he replied softly 'Sulfa (an antibiotic) is not prescribed for seasickness.' 

Our next port of call was Algeciras, Spain, and we looked forward to visiting Gibraltar again. But the Spanish Government made one of its periodic demonstrations to reclaim "the Rock" from Great Britain, closing the border and cutting off the water supply. This resulted in Spanish day-workers losing their well-paid jobs and tourists arriving only by occasional cruise ship; Gibraltar's water reservoirs were extensive and normally kept topped-up – it was, after all, a strategic military and naval base. So a group of us lunched at an Algeciras restaurant and went aboard early.

It happened in the small hours, somewhere between Algeciras and Las Palmas, Grand Canary. We both woke up to a "bang" when my leg was hit by the upper bunk ladder swinging out and back. I didn't realize what it meant. Frank did. He got dressed, told me to do the same, and said he'd be back in a few minutes.

Per three "abandon ship" drills and an overheard conversation, by the time he got back some 20 minutes later I was dressed in two layers plus overcoat, and life-jacket; Frank's overcoat, life-jacket and document briefcase were laid out on his bunk. I sat on mine, calmly reading. He told me to go back to sleep; only much later would I learn how taken aback he was by my preparations.

After breakfast he told the Lido Club what had happened. The Bilu had five navigation systems: one each manual and automatic, a backup system for each, and a fifth emergency backup system in case the other four failed. Unfortunately, all five systems were housed in the same room and a crew member had left a water spigot open, flooding the room. 

The captain decided to navigate the ship by altering the revolutions of each of the ship's twin screws. Given wind and sea conditions, initial attempts sent the ship heeling from side to side, causing the ladder to wake us up by swinging out and back, and the ship's course to weave like the proverbial drunken sailor. Nearby vessels tracking us on radar offered assistance, but the captain declined with thanks. Amazingly, only one other passenger had come on deck to find out what was going on. Equally amazing, by morning the room had been dried out and at least one navigation system restored.

Another surprise was in store when the Lido Club met a day later. One member had a radio which also picked up the ship's radio traffic, and he had picked up a radio-telephone call between the captain and Somerfin headquarters in Geneva. When our friend realized what he was hearing he started recording, and played the tape for us.

I can still see us huddled around the table, straining to catch every word. Only the captain's side of the conversation was audible. Beginning in the middle of a report on what had happened to the ship's navigation systems, the captain asked whether or not to report the incident to Lloyd's of London. Geneva instructed him not to.

We were silent for a long moment before Frank turned to the tape's owner. "Wrap that tape up very well and keep it handy," he said. "If anything happens, it could be worth a lot of money." Frank also had a law degree.

Our next port of call was Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island. It was a lovely sight, with greenery rising up behind the town. Some of us took two taxis to visit a site in the hills but, realizing it would take too long, we stopped at a nearby farm and bought bags of huge, juicy apples instead. Back down in town, we opted for dinner at a seaside restaurant.

We had just ordered when we spotted the captain, in civilian clothes, arriving at a nearby restaurant with a party of six. He seemed mildly startled and responded when we smiled and waved. At our table there was a collective sigh of relief: the consensus of opinion was that this captain would not have come ashore had there been any serious problem aboard. Again we put to sea at night. Next day there was a brisk trade in wines, cheeses, crackers, fruits, etc. among the passengers. Six large apples traded for a handsome bunch of bananas.

The final leg of our historic voyage was relatively uneventful. The businessman's girlfriend dumped him mid-Atlantic and flirted off. He took it hard, so we kept him company. We didn't notice we were sailing through the Bermuda Triangle (three weeks later, a much larger cargo vessel vanished). Two nights before our scheduled arrival at Miami there was an after-dinner party in the passenger lounge, with amateur entertainment and a costume contest: the academic wife won first prize for a "castaway" dress fashioned from ship's towels. The captain handed out prizes, followed by drinks and dancing; there was a cruise director aboard, but this was the only time passengers seemed inclined to cooperate with his professional bonhomie.

On December 21, as a reception committee waited on the Miami dock and a brass band played the ship into its moorings, we all shared a last chuckle. That morning the captain had guests on the bridge when it suddenly dropped anchor, two hours out of Miami. The captain began explaining when a young lady said, "We know: you're having the ship's name repainted."

The astonished captain asked, "How do you know that?"

"Oh, we all heard about it," she replied, vaguely. The story itself - and how quickly it spread - illustrates how fast ship's news traveled.

It was a historic as well as wonderful voyage: though by no means the first ferry to cross the Atlantic, the MV Bilu was the first car-ferry to do so – a puny Israeli ship proudly flying the flag of its tiny country – and making history.

- - -

Afterwords:

We met Rocky (sans Ed) a few weeks later in Hollywood: his trip to Israel had given him a taste for things Israeli, so with his new Israeli girlfriend he took us to the brand new Sabra Restaurant, and a screening of Sallah Shabati after.

By April 1965 we were back in Israel, looking for a flat in Eilat. Sailing on the Bilu from Nice to Haifa with a new Citroën deux chevaux (2CV), we were greeted on board like old friends.

Bilu's charter route that winter was the inspiration for what became Carnival Cruise Lines.

 

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