SS UNITED STATES- IS THIS THE END?

The well respected website, Cruise Industry News (www.cruiseindustrynews.com) is reporting that the SS. United States could be sold for scrap by the end of the month.

Despite valiant efforts that have verged on the herculean over several years, the SS. United States Conservancy has been thus far unable to raise funds to continue keeping the former Blue Ribband holder at her Philadelphia pier beyond the end of this month.

The legendary liner- shackled to her berth since the mid nineties- costs some $60,000 per month to maintain in her current state. While externally quite dilapidated, the hull and superstructure of the liner are actually in quite sound condition.

For all that, time finally seems to be running out for the fabled ‘Yankee Flyer’. The next instalment of her monthly fee is due for payment by this October 31st.

It has always been a mystery to me that America- a country wonderfully capable of preserving it’s maritime heritage of fighting ships- has proven so unwilling to preserve the most stunningly successful and iconic merchant ship in the entire seafaring history of the nation.

This is by no means a fallen axe as of yet, but there is a pressing urgency for awareness of the true plight of this mighty, monumental engineering triumph to be raised masthead high, and kept there.

Those of us on this side of the Atlantic are watching this with heavy hearts and anxious eyes.

As ever, stay tuned.

CHILDREN OF THE MERSEY; LUSITANIA AND MAURETANIA

The Mauretania was a famous 'Child of the Mersey' in her early days

The Mauretania was a famous ‘Child of the Mersey’ in her early days

In the annals of legendary, long gone Atlantic liners, few names are as steeped in lore as those of Lusitania and Mauretania. Conceived as a unique combination of pace and grace, they were intended to be complementary but, inevitably, the two ships became engaged in a kind of friendly rivalry. Both also became caught in the cross hairs of German periscopes in time, in circumstances that no one could ever have envisaged. One was to survive by the skin of her teeth; the second would become the victim of one of the most ghastly and controversial disasters in maritime history.

They were built with government money, on a tidal wave of jingoistic pressure. Britain, the owner of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen, was in possession of the world’s largest merchant marine at the turn of the twentieth century. But in 1897, that long unchallenged maritime dominance was given a rude slap.

That year, a brand new German four stacker called the Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse went thundering across the Atlantic, and seized the speed record- the mythical Blue Ribband- on her maiden crossing. The British were thunderstruck. But even worse was to follow.

One after another, three more successive record breakers emerged from German yards, and each one took the speed record in its turn. The advent of that Teutonic triple play was a real smack across Britannia’s imperial face. The upstart Germans had thrown down a four fingered gauntlet, and it was picked up with something of a snarl.

At the same time, an American railroad magnate named J.P. Morgan began buying up transatlantic shipping lines, one after the other, with the intent of creating the world’s first transatlantic travel megalith, an organisation that would have been the equivalent to the Oneworld Alliance of its day. He named it the International Mercantile Marine (IMM). The jewel in the crown of IMM was none other than Cunard’s great British rival, the White Star Line.

The birth of this corporate beast launched a deep and unpleasant fear in the minds of the British government. The thinking went that, in times of war, it might be impossible for these American owned ships to be employed in the service of the Empire. And, with the real possibility that Cunard, too, might also fall into Morgan’s bottomless money pit, something clearly had to give.

In fact, Cunard had judged the entire situation very smartly, and it now proceeded to play the British government as deftly as a baby grand piano. A gigantic loan of £2,600,000 was secured, with which it was to build a pair of world beating new transatlantic liners. These would later become the Lusitania and the Mauretania.

Naturally, there were strict conditions. Cunard had to guarantee to remain a British company. Plus, the two ships would be constructed to naval standards, with very extensive watertight compartments, and specially strengthened decks, capable of carrying six inch guns. For, in the event of a war, it was intended that the two ships would serve as auxiliary cruisers; cruisers much bigger than any bona fide battleship then in existence.

And, more importantly, the new ships would be expected to beat the speedy new German liners. And soundly, at that……

From the start, they were intended to be the biggest ships in the world. So big, in fact, that they had to be built in separate shipyards; the Lusitania on the Clyde, and the Mauretania on the Tyne. This in part explains the fierce but friendly rivalry that would exist between them, right up until the outbreak of the Great War.

At around 32,000 tons each, ‘Lusy’ and ‘Maurey’ had the inestimable advantage of being the recipients of the radical, reliable new steam turbine technology. It gave each of the two ships an unparalleled power plant, as would soon become obvious. For Cunard was aiming for an incredibly ambitious, average crossing time of five days for each ship.

The twins were breathtaking visions to behold; long, lean and graceful, with no nonsense, knife edge prows and a superstructure topped by a quartet of raked smokestacks, garlanded in the traditional Cunard colours of red and black. First to emerge was the Lusitania, in September of 1907. On her second round trip from Liverpool to New York, she set a new record for the Blue Ribband, restoring the coveted title to British care after a decade long hiatus.

Three months later, the Mauretania finally came on line. She had almost shaken herself to pieces on her first trial runs out of the Tyne, and some drastic internal stiffening had been in order before she could make a stormy November debut that same year. Once settled in, she also quickly beat the record just set by her sister. For the first time in ten years, a supremely dominant British duo was once again top dog on the lucrative New York run and, as the owners of that title, the two ships prospered mightily.

For the next seven years, the Lusy and Maurey would play ping pong with the Blue Ribband, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot. Both were sumptuously decorated in first class at least, with two story dining rooms, and salons more reminiscent of the Adlon than an ocean liner. Resplendent with deep, richly carved woods (Mauretania) or awash with gilt, Louis XVI furnishings and gold leaf (Lusitania), they were the absolute epitome of style, grace and grandeur on the often stormy Atlantic crossing.

That crossing was often a rocky road to be sure. With hull shapes dictated by naval architects, the two ships became famous for their pitching and rolling in bad weather. They had long, lean cruiser hulls, narrow in the beam, and not ideally suited for express service on the most unforgiving ocean in the world.

Yet they were instant, spectacular successes. So much so, in fact, that they ushered in a whole new age of rivalry on the Atlantic crossing, one that not even the most infamous disaster in maritime history could end.

For the White Star Line was not about to take this Cunard double sweep lying down. With J.P. Morgan’s almost limitless millions behind it, that company began plotting a giant triple response. First, there would be two new liners, built side by side, later to be followed by a third. Each of these ships would be half as large again as the pair of record breaking new Cunarders.

But the new White Star ships were not built to compete in terms of speed. Coal was expensive, and every knot over the first twenty used up as much coal as that original twenty did. These ships were designed to cross the Atlantic in six days, as opposed to the five day Cunard crossings. Each would be suffused with such a wealth of spectacular luxury and time killing diversions that the extra day at sea would be seen as a positive pleasure. Steadiness, safety, and splendid food and accommodations were the keynotes of the trio. As the first two ships took shape in Belfast, Cunard kept a wary eye on them, even as Lusy and Maurey continued to dominate the Atlantic crossing.

The first of these ships was, of course, the Olympic. As she made her first, triumphant entry into New York in the summer of 1911, the Lusitania was heading downstream, en route for the Coronation celebrations for King George V. Moving smartly down the Hudson, the Lusitania deigned to join in with the noisy salute being accorded to the new White Star liner.

The Olympic became the first of the mega liners to sail regularly from Southampton. Against better judgement, Cunard continued to favour Liverpool as i’s principal port; both Lusy and Maurey would continue to sail from there right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. More than once, they had broken loose from their moorings during severe Mersey stormssometimes suffering hull damage sufficiently bad enough to necessitate urgent dry docking. It was an anything but ideal situation.

As far as travel was concerned, the Olympic quickly creamed off the American travelling elite, though the British aristocracy in general continued to favour the faster Cunard duo. Part of this American fixation with White Star was that its ships called in regularly at Cherbourg, an ideal French port of call that put Paris and the French Riviera within easy reach by fast Pullman train. It was a lead that Cunard itself was to follow after the war.

Then, in the spring of 1912, the second of the White Star ships emerged. Five days into her maiden voyage, the hull of the Titanic glanced against the side of a capsized iceberg for around thirty seconds. She foundered less than three hours later, taking more than fifteen hundred people down with her, as well as a huge chunk of the New York Stock Exchange.

The shock effect was seismic. In the wake of a raft of investigations, both the Lusitania and Mauretania continued in service, albeit with strings of extra lifeboats now festooned along the whole length of their boat decks. Until then, the Cunarders- just like every other major ocean liner in service anywhere- had been just as woefully deficient in terms of lifeboat capacity as the ill fated Titanic.

This sudden, belatedly commendable obsession with boats for all would prove totally inadequate for the screaming thousands trapped on the sinking Lusitania as her shattered corpse sagged headlong into the Atlantic on May 7th, 1915, after her torpedoing just ten miles off the coast of Southern Ireland. But that is a story for another time; for now, this is where we leave the two sisters ships.

GRAND ARRIVALS- DOING IT IN STYLE

MSC is Miami bound, year round

MSC is Miami bound, year round

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.

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting  by James A. Flood

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting by James A. Flood

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.

Even now, New York remains an electrifying landfall from any ship

Even now, New York remains an electrifying landfall from any ship

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.

THE MIGHTY MAURETANIA- A LOST LEGEND

Cunard's 'Big Three' from a 1920's postcard. Mauretania (left), Berengaria, and Aquitania.

Cunard’s ‘Big Three’ from a 1920’s postcard. Mauretania (left), Berengaria, and Aquitania.

The Mauretania. Her very name is the stuff of legend. The most successful speed champion that the Atlantic- and indeed the travelling world- has ever seen. For twenty-two consecutive years, she held the Blue Ribband of the Atlantic, the speed record awarded for the fastest crossing of that ocean. Franklin Roosevelt famously said that ‘if ever a ship had a soul, it was surely her.’

FDR was right. Many liners have become famous, but only a select few have become truly immortal. Normandie. Titanic. Norway. Queen Mary. Ile De France. QE2. And Mauretania.

But she was far more than just a speed queen. Like her sister ship, the ill fated, Clyde built Lusitania, the ‘Maurey’ was the absolute epitome of style, grace and elegance when she first appeared. The two sisters were the first real ‘floating palaces’; their construction triggered the greatest building race in maritime history up until that date. Each in turn swept the board on the Atlantic crossing. In the seven years leading up to the war, ‘Maurey’ and ‘Lusy’ played a kind of maritime ping-pong with the speed record, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot.

Mauretania served with distinction in the Great War, working both as a troopship and then as a hospital ship. On one occasion, she narrowly avoided the fate of the Lusitania when she smartly dodged a torpedo. In her role as a trooper, she shaved several months from the end of that conflict, indirectly helping to literally save many thousands of lives in the process.

When the Mauretania first appeared, she was the largest ship of any kind in the world. She remained so until 1911, when the Olympic made her debut. The Olympic was the twin sister of the soon to come- and go- Titanic.

The Mauretania ran as reliably as a Swiss watch for the better part of three decades. Her proud, four stack silhouette was known and admired the world over. She carried hundreds of thousands of happy passengers on Atlantic crossings, and later on cruises as well. To many, she remains the very image of the ocean liner to this day.

Her timekeeping on the 1920’s Atlantic was so exemplary that she was known as ‘The Rostron Express’ after her skipper, Arthur Rostron. A decade earlier, that same Arthur Rostron had taken another Tyne built liner, the Carpathia, through freezing, ice strewn waters to rescue the shivering souls huddled in the pathetic handful of lifeboats that were all that was left of the Titanic.

So, how do we commemorate this legend today? The answer is that we don’t. Not ONE documentary has ever been made and devoted solely to her that I can recall. On Tyneside, where she was built, her name has been allowed to fade from memory. And, while Belfast profits mightily from it’s sensational Titanic Quarter, the North East of England seems unwilling, or even just plain uninterested, in capitalising on the reputation of the most fondly remembered of all the great, graceful, four funnelled liners.

One of the great benefits of the Belfast scheme was to bring the Titanic ‘home’ to the town and people that created her. Surely now it is time for Tyneside to do the same, and honour the memory of the legendary ‘Geordie Flyer’.

The Mauretania was the landmark achievement of a region noted for its prowess in heavy industry. That region mourns the loss of those industries; the steel, the shipbuilding and, of course, the coal mines. But the Mauretania?

There’s something pitiful, in fact downright indecent, in the way that she has been allowed to just fade away like so much rusty scrap. The memories of the men that wrought her to life, and the men that sailed and served aboard her, deserve nothing less than a righting of this huge, historical omission.

And the faithful, proud lady of the seas herself, the Mauretania- she deserves honour, recognition, and rehabilitation. Tyneside, get your thinking caps on. You’ve kept the lady waiting long enough. It’s time we brought the Mauretania home.

In the words of another famous captain of another legendary vessel- ‘make it so’…….