Spectators in Miami have just been treated to a fantastic, flamboyant first arrival of the gigantic MSC Divina. Preceded by fireboats and an incredible brace of waterborne Fiat cars that kept pace with her, the enormous new ship made a sensational splash for her North American debut; one that emphasised her unique, Italian heritage and the playful, indolent promise of la dolce vita gone South Beach. It was a singularly stunning debut, intended to garner as much publicity as possible for the latest entrant in the Miami based seven day cruise market. First impressions are that the company has succeeded admirably.
Of course, the sensational size and stance of the ocean liner and it’s natural successor, the modern cruise ship, has always been conducive to creating a sensational first impact. For while jet aircraft are certainly often very beautiful, only Concorde could really command the same style, gravitas and sheer stage presence as a great passenger ship. They remain things apart, often close enough to touch and yet seemingly a million miles away. Enduring, inbound icons whose indifference to our awe and admiration is every bit as maddening as a cat’s.
Odd, then, to consider how the creators of liner posters used to exaggerate the size of their subjects, with pygmy like tugs cowering in the shadow of some stately ocean dinosaur, with smoke from its quartet of smoke stacks rising straight upwards.
And yet no amount of hyperbole could have exaggerated the amazing, dramatic impact of what remains the most stunning arrival of them all; the sensational debut of the stupendous Normandie in June of 1935, a dramatic pageant played out on land, sea and sky that has never truly been equalled.
It started at the moment that the Normandie surged past the Ambrose Lightship, the finish line for the westbound Blue Riband. Having shattered the record in a style never seen before, a thirty metre blue pennant was run up the new champion’s mast, and her siren boomed out in triumph. At the same time, every passenger was presented with a commemorative, engraved medallion. Like the pennant, these just ‘happened’ to be on board in the event of a record run.
At about the same time, a small aircraft took off and began to circle low over Manhattan. This two man outfit was a for-hire operation called The Voice Of The Sky and, as it climbed, the loudspeaker in the second seat began repeating a simple message to the commuters of mid town Manhattan:
“Go to the river. The Normandie is coming in….”
It was as if the voice of God had uttered an order. Shops, factories and businesses began to empty at warp speed as a vast human tidal wave surged down to the banks of the Hudson. In one place, the crowds were so dense that the National Guard had to be called out to hold them back. By the time the Normandie began her ceremonial entry into Manhattan, escorted by everything that could toot, honk or howl, the crowd was estimated at well over a quarter of a million strong.
It was a stunning spectacle. This mass of humanity blackened every half feasible vantage point along the shoreline. Meanwhile, more than a hundred tugs, yachts and excursion boats had formed a guard of honour around the great French liner. Fireboats hurled vast, silvery plumes of water skywards in graceful arcs as the Normandie approached the Battery. Bells, whistles and sirens whooped, howled and screamed out a welcome in a stunning cacophony of sound almost thick enough to cut.
Overhead, a squadron of navy planes zoomed above her in salute, while a ponderous blimp floated serenely above the liner’s wake, filming the entire event for posterity. By the time the soaring flank of the Normandie finally kissed the brand new Pier 88, she had already garnered headlines that would only be finally equalled by the first Moon landing, some thirty four years in the future. One daily newspaper alone put out no less than eight editions that day, covering every stage of the new speed queen’s stately progress. There has never been a maiden arrival quite like it since.
In a sense, today’s Miami landfall of the wonderful new MSC Divina echoes some of the style, elegance, and sheer fun of that most auspicious of arrivals. And if it does anything, that sensational, waterborne ceremonial entry into Miami points up the ageless potency of the giant passenger ship to still awe, thrill and amaze huge throngs of people, even after all these years.
Good luck and bon voyage to the MSC Divina, and all those that will sail in her.