By the turn of the 1970’s, the Atlantic liner trade was on life support. With only four out of every hundred passengers still making the crossing by sea, the airlines upped the ante still further with the introduction of the vast, mass market Boeing 747, forever to be immortalised as the Jumbo Jet.
By that time, the SS United States had already been laid up, returned to the same Newport News shipyard where she had been built. On the northern route between Europe and New York, only the QE2 and the France remained in seasonal, spring through autumn service.
The two ships enjoyed a special sort of friendly rivalry. A gentleman’s agreement between Cunard and the French Line ensued that the two ships would always be crossing in opposite directions. When close to each other, the radio operators on the QE2 would salute the France by whistling the Marseillaise at the French flagship. Their French opposite number would respond with an apparently sterling rendition of God Save The Queen.
But such sangfroid belied the dire straits that both ships were in. By 1971, year round Atlantic sailings had finally came to an end, when the venerable Holland America Line ceased winter crossings with the fabled Rotterdam. It closed it’s almost century old headquarters in Rotterdam itself, and upped sticks to relocate to Seattle, in an ultimately successful attempt to relaunch as a premium cruise product. Happily, it remains so to this day.
From Italy, the great white sisters, Michelangelo and Raffaello were also still making the crossing from Genoa to New York, but a series of strikes by staff on board, as well as among shore side people and tug boat crews, resulted in them often arriving and departing days off their intended schedules. And while they, too, were losing passenger numbers by the early seventies, it was this inherent unreliability that went a huge way to undoing those last great Italian liners.
But it was the soaring cost of fuel oil that was the real concern. The Arab oil producing countries, in the form of OPEC, effectively had one foot on the windpipe of western consumers. For the liner companies, it could not have looked worse.
By the fall of 1972, Cunard was actually considering taking the still new QE2 out of service for three months over the winter. There was a vague plan to anchor her off the Florida coast, and then using her as the world’s largest floating casino for that period. Thankfully, it never came to pass and, through thick and thin, this last great Cunarder sailed on.
But the France really was coming to the end of the line.
By 1974, she was costing the French Line- and, by extension, the French government- a million dollars a day for fuel alone. The great liner guzzled the stuff like cheap table wine at full speed. With the barrel price of crude oil soaring almost as high as a Pan Am Jumbo, what followed was pretty much inevitable.
Faced with the stark choice of keeping the France in service, or funding the joint Anglo French Concorde project, the French government inevitably plumped for the latter. In the summer of 1974, the Elysee Palace officially announced the end of the annual, twenty four million dollar operating subsidy for the France.
This was a death blow. The French Line had done what it could; lengthening Atlantic crossings from five to six days and- in a move that many French Line regulars saw as the ultimate portent of doom- the company actually began charging for table wine at lunch and dinner. All to no avail. To nobody’s surprise, the French Line announced that the liner would be withdrawn from service on October 25th, 1974, at the end of her current season.
The story of the doomed, desperate effort by her crew to keep the France in service has been told elsewhere on this blog. But by December of 1974, all such attempts had failed, and the France– by far the finest of all the post war Atlantic liners- was laid up at a backwater berth in Le Havre. Her fittings, fixtures and furnishings were covered in shrouds and, with only a skeleton crew on board to maintain essential systems, the great, proud France sagged into a five year long coma.
And, for the Italian Line, arrivederci loomed large, too. The Raffaello was first to go, laid up at Genoa in April, 1975. She was joined by the Michelangelo after her last scheduled crossing that same July. On board for that last crossing had been the widowed Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.
Too big to work as cruise ships at that time, and handicapped with far too many small, inside cabins, the two ships were ultimately sold to the Shah of Iran, who had them moved to the port of Bandr Abbas to serve as twin accommodation ships for his military. Both ships were destroyed by air attack during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88; a tragic end for such a fine, beautifully crafted pair of ocean liners.
The QE2 was alone.
She sailed stubbornly back and forth between Southampton and New York, and she did pick up some of the residue of travellers left high and dry by the demise of the France. Each winter, she operated a spectacular, three month, round the world cruise. In between crossings, the QE2 would make cruises to such exotic locations as Bermuda, the Caribbean, the Canary islands, and the Mediterranean. And in this role, the inherent excellence of her original, dual purpose design- one part cruise ship, one part ocean liner- became apparent. Indeed, it became paramount to keeping her sailing successfully. That last great Cunarder, already well on the way to becoming a modern legend, seemed to lead a charmed life.
At the beginning of 1980, a Norwegian captain, Tobjorn Hauge, was seconded to the QE2 in a guest capacity for some three months. Hauge, a captain from Knut Kloster’s Norwegian Caribbean Line, was on board the liner to learn the pros and cons of steering such a massive ocean liner in and out of limited port spaces.
For Hauge had just been nominated as captain-designate of the newly wrought SS Norway.
After five years of darkened silence, the former SS France was being slowly resurrected as the largest cruise ship that the world had ever seen. In the spring of 1980, the reborn Norway emerged from her steel and concrete cocoon to gasps of awed amazement. Clad in stunning royal blue and suffused in bow to stern Art Deco, the former French Line flagship was destined for a new life in the lucrative Caribbean cruise market.
But first, there was a nostalgic Atlantic crossing from Southampton to New York. The Norway was not quite fully ready; an army of contractors sailed with the ship, finishing work on a raft of cabins and ancillary services. Still, she had a respectable passenger load of around a thousand on board for what was, in fact, her first westbound crossing in six years.
Following a nostalgic fire boat welcome and three days of celebration, there was an emotional reunion with the QE2, as the two great ships passed each other on the Hudson. A huge mural of that meeting was on display in New York’s Grand Central Station for many years.