Of all the great speed races on the planet since time began, few if any, have held the allure of the Blue Riband of the Atlantic. For almost a full century, the pride, prestige and sheer, technical excellence of some of the greatest nations on earth were invested in creating one, or more, record breaking ocean liners. In time, the very names of these ships assumed an aura and immortality out of all proportion to the actual ships themselves.
Consider this brief list: Mauretania, Bremen, Rex, Queen Mary, United States…. Every one a bona fide, platinum chip maritime legend. Each one at some time (or sometimes more than once) the proud holder of the ancient honour.
Competition for the record was at it’s fiercest between 1897 and 1909, in an era that started with a barnstorming maiden crossing by the first four stacker, the German Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse, and effectively ended when the Mauretania proved marginally faster than her sister ship, Lusitania. The two giant Cunarders had played the maritime equivalent of ping pong with the Blue Riband since 1907.
A second bout of fierce speed racing flared up again between 1929, when the squat, powerful new Bremen finally beat that 1909 run, and 1938, when the Queen Mary finally took the pennant back for Cunard. In between, the likes of Europa, Rex and, of course, Normandie took, lost, and sometimes took back the speed record in what was the most astonishing period of ocean liner rivalry ever seen; the true apogee of those marvellous, majestic, often massively unrealistic ‘ships of state’.
But what of that strange, twenty year hiatus between 1909 and 1929? What happened there? Why, for two full decades, was the greatest speed race of all time shunted off into the sidings like an embarrassing, drunken relative at a wedding disco? Here’s my theory;
As of 1909, the pre-eminent companies that, in theory could have challenged Cunard were the age old rival, White Star, and Germany’s Hamburg-Amerika Line. But both of these lines had set their hats on fuel conservative, six day crossings that emphasized comfort and luxury over speed. Competing with a greyhound like the Mauretania was simply not part of their business model in those days.
Plus, speed record attempts were damned expensive. Every additional knot of speed attained over the first twenty cost as much as that initial twenty. And then came the Titanic disaster.
While that ill-fated juggernaut was not trying for a record crossing, there was no doubt that she was being run at a casually excessive, dangerous speed on that cold April night in 1912. After that, even the perception of a fast running ship seemed downright careless, and just asking for trouble. The haunting spectre of the ‘Floating Ritz’ would dog the Atlantic sea lanes for decades ever after.
When war erupted in 1914, just two years later, the Blue Riband was still held by the Mauretania. Naturally, the war put an end to any potential, resurgent interest in speed racing on the Atlantic or, for that matter, anywhere else.
Post war, it was a huge task just to recondition the surviving liners, and get them back up towards running something like their pre- 1914 schedules. And, although new liners were being built, the tendency was to produce slower, steadier ships of around 20,000 tons that could be run far more cost effectively.
In the cold, sober light of post war travel, slow and steady were the watch words. And, while the likes of the Majestic and the Leviathan turned in some very fast, respectable crossing times, it was considered imprudent to be seen to attempt to revive the speed race.
Then, in 1927, the stunning new Ile De France emerged on the Atlantic. She was the first liner of over 40,000 tons to be envisaged and completed in the twenties and, with her fabulous Art Deco interiors, she set standards for style, elegance and luxury that became the stuff of legend.
The Ile De France was not intended to be a record breaker, but her advent certainly fired the starting gun for a whole glut of new, larger tonnage. Next, in 1929, came the new Bremen, the first of a superb new pair of German thoroughbreds.
The Bremen was a different creature again. While the Ile De France looked externally as if she could have been built in 1912, the German liner was positively space age in appearance. Long, low, with a streamlined, curved forward superstructure and a pair of squat, painfully low funnels, everything about her screamed of speed and modernity.
Below the water, the Bremen boasted a bulbous bow; a kind of underwater forefoot that was designed to lessen water resistance and push the ship through the water at a higher speed. It soon became standard issue almost right across the maritime world, but the one incorporated into Bremen was the first.
There was nothing subtle about her; she had been built specifically to take back the Blue Riband for Germany. And, when she sailed on her maiden voyage in June of 1929, the eyes of the world were on her.
Twenty years of advances in maritime technology could not be ignored, and the Bremen duly took the Blue Riband at the first attempt. As she passed the finish line at Ambrose Light, her steam whistles let out a single, triumphant scream.
It might as well have been a pistol shot, because it restarted the old rivalry for the Blue Riband. In fact, it ignited it as never before or, indeed, since.
After twenty years of moribund silence, the age old rivalries had been reignited. Britain, France, Germany and Italy now engaged in a series of spirited, determined attempts to seize the crown. And, for the first time, an actual physical manifestation of the Blue Riband- in the form of the Hales Trophy- came into being.