At about this time some eighty years ago, the brand new French liner, Normandie, was running speed and handling trials in the area around the Bay of Biscay, prior to sailing round to Le Havre to enter commerical service at the end of May. Once there, she would embark passengers for what remains the most spectacular and barnstorming maiden voyage in maritime history to this day.
Watching the ship, the local Breton fishermen were astonished. They reported that the Normandie, rather than ploughing through the waves, instead glided over them ‘like a gull’. It was proof, as if proof were needed, of the extraordinary seakeeping qualities of the stunning hull wrought by Vladimir Yourkevitch.
Not that the French Line wanted to give the former Tsarist Russian naval designer any credit. The Normandie was seen by her owners to extol all the great virtues, both real and imagined, of the mother country. She was ‘France afloat’ on so many levels. In their minds, it would have taken more than a little off the gloss to re-iterate that her fabulous, flowing lines- the decisive feature that made her so distinctive and swift- were actually the brainchild of a foreigner, albeit an amazingly gifted one. In fact, only at the last moment was the French Line shamed into providing free, first class tickets on her maiden crossing for Mr. and Mrs. Yourkevitch.
‘The French Line’ said the company brochure, ‘naturally welcomes any suggestions from passengers for making the ship as agreeable as possible.’ And, while history would garland the Normandie with the accoloade of the most triumphant of all the great ocean speed queens, there were aspects of sailing aboard her in the early days that were somewhat less than agreeable.
While she was not subjected to the nightmarish rock and roll tendencies of her great rival, the Queen Mary, the Normandie did have the tendency to sometimes heel sharply to one side a short notice- ‘like a destroyer coming smartly about’- as someone once put it. She was always quick to correct herself, shearing smartly back to the vertical. In such situations, the Normandie was said to shatter pieces of lalique with careless abandon.
Yet she was still by far the better sea boat of the two great liners. The French Line used to boast that she was so stable that she never had to empty her swimming pools in even the most severe of Atlantic storms. It was a standing joke for many years that the Queen Mary could roll the milk out of a cup of tea. The British liner also suffered from some quite severe vibration problems. But she was far from alone on that front.
For the Normandie, too, was prone to vibration. In her case, it was noted on her trials, and extra stanchions were put into some parts of her stern to provide stiffening. This was not an outright success; once she was in service, it was noted by many that glasses in the aft facing, upper deck Cafe Grill could only be half filled with water, lest the vibration empty them all over the passengers.
This problem was largely cured later by replacing the original quartet of four bladed propellers with a set of newly designed, three bladed models. And it should always be remembered that, when Normandie and Queen Mary first came into service, they were vessels of a size and scale never seen before. Some forms of mechanical problems could only be truly revealed and, hopefully parried, once the ships were in service, and operational experience had been gained with them.
All of this was in the future as the coundtdown begun to the maiden voyage of Normandie in that momentous spring of 1935. The wine cellar had been loaded on board a full six months earlier so that, even if the ship rolled, the motion would least upset the wine. The first class dinner menus that would list no less than 325 separate items had been prepared with agonised, exquisite care. The dog kennels were almost ready, and the famous, scarlet jacketed bellboys- the mousses- were being trained and inspected daily by veteran French Line hands, especially picked for the maiden voyage.
What those Breton fishermen saw in those memorable days was a ship totally without an equal; young, fresh, vibrant, and brimming with unparalelled potential. Blooming in the first full flush of the spring of her life, Normandie was a ship afloat on a sea that was one part pride, another part promise, a butterfly emerging from a coccoon.