Sometimes, history seems to repeat itself in the long, glamorous story of ocean travel, but not always in the best ways. For there are few things as littered with coincidence, or as laden with irony, as the destinies of successive generations of ocean liners.
Here I’m going to look at just one such link; a tenuous, yet all too true timeline that binds three of the greatest passenger ships ever built- Normandie, Queen Elizabeth, and the SS. France. Take from it what you will.
FEBRUARY 9 1942
The enormous French luxury liner, Normandie, catches fire at her Manhattan berth of Pier 88. The Normandie is in the last stages of being converted to a troop ship- the USS Lafayette. While the fire is ultimately contained, a catastrophic ingress of water applied from forty-three fire engines and numerous fireboats fails to drain, turns to ice, and then ultimately causes the Normandie to capsize. Raised some eighteen months later, the most brilliant and beautiful ocean liner ever built is found to be beyond economic repair. She is towed away and scrapped.
During her first six months in limbo, Normandie shared the waterfront with the only other thousand foot long liners in the world, the Cunard siblings, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. New York dockyard workers nickname them ‘The Monsters’ for the duration of their stay.
FEBRUARY 8 1962
The brand new SS. France arrives in Manhattan on her maiden voyage. She ties up at the same Pier 88 spot where, twenty years minus one day earlier, the Normandie had capsized. At her launch two years earlier, President De Gaulle declared ‘I have given you a new Normandie!’ to the 100,000 strong crowd.
The France had endured a stormy maiden crossing that delayed her by several hours, but she poured on speed to arrive on time. Was the French Line desperate to get her into New York- and docked at that self same Pier 88- and perhaps take attention away from a particularly ghastly anniversary?
JANUARY 9 1972
Fires break out in six places aboard the Seawise University, the ex Queen Elizabeth, as she is in the final stages of fitting out as a floating university cum cruise ship in Hong Kong harbour. The gutted ship capsizes, and is declared a constructive total loss. It is exactly thirty years minus one month since the Normandie suffered an identical fate in Manhattan.
C.Y. Tung was, in effect, on the verge of creating what was actually the world’s first mega cruise ship, a full seven years before Knut Kloster would relaunch the laid up SS France as the SS Norway, the ship that changed cruising forever.
In her last years as a Cunard ship, that company had tried to convert the Queen Elizabeth for a partial cruising role by adding a large lido pool right aft. They had hoped to keep her in service at least until the mid seventies. On acquiring the France, Kloster did almost exactly the same thing for the resurrected Norway.
Queen Elizabeth, like Normandie before her, was in the final stages of a massive conversion when she was engulfed. The France underwent an even bigger conversion into the Norway; one that prolonged her life by almost a quarter of a century, and made her a legend for the second time.
All coincidences of course, but ones that verge on both the exquisite and the agonising. Irony, elegance, tragedy and ignominy. The four nautical horsemen of the apocalypse?