By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

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.

The legendary Rotterdam closed out the HAL transatlantic service in 1971

The legendary Rotterdam closed out the HAL transatlantic service in 1971

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 France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

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.

QE2- for many years the last great presence on the Atlantic crossing

QE2- for many years the last great presence on the Atlantic crossing

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.



SS United States

If ever there was a determined band of people fighting to preserve something truly legendary against seemingly insuperable odds, then the good people of the SS. United States Conservancy must surely qualify for top marks. For years now, they have been struggling valiantly to rescue and restore one of the most totemic and important vessels ever built, in the face of a tsunami of apathy and ignorance in the land of her birth.

Firstly, a statement of fact. I am English, not American. But- that point made- a truly beautiful ship has an allure that transcends all national boundaries. And, make no bones, the SS. United States is still a beauty even now.

Ah, you might say; many beautiful ships have come and gone. Why should this one be any different?

And I would reply; yes, many beautiful ships have gone. Far too many, as it happens. The ocean liner was the supreme achievement of the twentieth century, until the arrival of the jet aircraft. Ships such as Queen Mary, Normandie and United States were nothing less than seagoing cathedrals; vast, swaggering statements of intent, built to awe, amaze and impress both rivals and the travelling public alike. They were front page news the world over in their day. Superstars whose reputations were built on style far more than hype.

Jets and cathedrals, eh? Look around, and you’ll find the petrified, preserved husks of practically every Concorde that ever flew. As for cathedrals, how many of the world’s great cities still showcase these vast, monolithic constructions from the middle ages- many of them built with wealth plundered from a string of ethnically cleansed civilisations? Yet there they stand, petrified and preserved at enormous expense, for future generations to gaze on in awe.

In the UK, we have a pitiful record of preserving our maritime heritage. In fact, a downright disgraceful one. But in America, so many of the famous battleships, carriers and cruisers of previous conflicts have been lovingly preserved. And how glad I am that they have been, too.

Yet if one ship stands head and shoulder above all of them in the pantheon of great twentieth century American icons, it is surely the United States. No other vessel ever exemplified speed, grace and style as much as the fabled Yankee Flyer. She had panache; in terms of technical and aesthetic excellence, she was-indeed, still is- a perfect ten.

The United States is every bit as iconic and instantly recognisable as the Empire State Building, or the Statue of Liberty. She is no less precious or disposable than either. And it is not as if she cannot be usefully repurposed.

The SS-US Conservancy has battled valiantly to put forward viable schemes for the restoration of this uniquely enduring piece of fifties Americana. And, knowing the ingenuity and love of history of the American people, I cannot conceive that they will just sit by and watch this gigantic, golden statement of past national glory slip quietly away to be butchered in some far off, foreign scrapyard.

The real problems seem to be lack of awareness, mixed with a kind of national apathy; a problem not confined solely to the USA by any means.

Surely she is worth saving? If people can still gaze in amazement at the petrified timbers of the proud old USS Constitution, the mighty, sixteen inch gun batteries of the Missouri, or even the gaunt, gallant remains of the Hunley, then why not also treasure and burnish that magnificent liner, with her twin, towering smokestacks that were the very apogee of American dash and style during the Fifties and Sixties?

The United States is like an emotional lightning rod; living history that reminds us of our past great achievements, and binds us to them. Such things amaze, inform and enthrall. They inspire respect, admiration and reverence; enviable qualities that any forward looking nation would surely wish to instill in the future generations to come.

The price of saving her is relatively small. The cost of losing her is incalculable. Her destruction would be an act of cultural vandalism right up there with the barely aborted demolition of the Art Deco region of South Beach back in the late eighties.

Food for thought, I hope. My sincere admiration for all concerned with this valiant effort. May the wind be at your back, and may your efforts not be in vain.


ImageSo, what do we think? Does flying still retain a patina- even a gossamer thin one- of the perceived glamour of old? Or was that very perception as easily applied as the make up on the actresses that played the cabin crew of the recently aborted Pan Am series, bruited to be a slice of Mad Men in the air? Well, here’s my take, for what its worth.

Of course, flying is a hell of a lot more comfortable if you happen to find yourself ensconced at the front of the plane. But even for those uber privileged souls, the departure and arrival experience of modern airports is no magic carpet ride. In the last thirty years, the hassles inherent in the airport ground experience have done much to dilute any residual magic quality that air travel may have once had. But how magical was that, exactly?

It’s sobering to recall that even the legendary Concorde had a seat pitch of only thirty eight inches- around the same as on Premium Economy on today’s BA. Of course the food and service were in a very different league, but- as any purveyor or retailer of luxury will tell you- it’s all about the amount of personal space.

True luxury air travel was often associated with the great, pre war Empire Flying Boats, with their bar, restaurant, and bunk beds for passengers. How well those passengers could sleep as these propeller driven beasts almost shook themselves to bits as they tried to maintain schedule is a good question. Add natural turbulence to that mixture, and you can see where the ‘bone shaker’ nickname came from.

That said, the experience of taking off, and indeed landing on water, must have been quite magical. And those same lugubrious, lumbering birds had huge portholes from which to admire the view; one very different at such very low altitudes to those we get today.

The airship was a very different creature. The first ever, round the world flight by any aircraft was made by the legendary Graf Zeppelin as far back as 1929. She was the first craft ever to fly over- and photograph- the frozen land masses of Siberia. During her stellar career, the ‘Graf’ quite literally flew all over the world, from South America to the North Pole.  In America especially, she was accorded almost matinee star status.

In 1930, the R100 made a hugely successful maiden flight, from Cardington to Montreal and back. Only the grisly funeral pyres of the R101 and, later, the Hindenburg prevented a pre war rush to the skies by the travelling public. The airship was too early, and way too unlucky.

But the comfort levels on the Hindenburg, in particular, were equal to any ocean liner of the day, except for the small, Pullman sized cabins. The Hindenburg had a sealed smoking room, a bar complete with a grand piano, and a separate restaurant, as well as viewing galleries on both sides, lined with steamer chairs. For the fourteen months that she was in service, the great silver airship really did bring style, glamour and luxury to air travel. It never came back.

The dawn of the Jet Age brought air travel to the masses, and today we take it for granted. As a television series, Pan Am offered an insight into a supposedly more refined era, complete with silver service and immaculately made martinis at 36,000 feet. It all looked very glamorous indeed.

My experience of the real Pan Am was not quite like that……

I flew back from New York with them in 1986, when the airline was already flying on fumes, and just two years before the horror of the Lockerbie disaster. It was, as they say, quite the ride.

An irate, very loud- and very drunken- European gentleman was denied boarding, and hustled away from the gate by a pair of knuckle dragging, cro-magnon predecessors of the TSA, The seats had virtually no recline- and this was a Boeing 747.

The stewardesses were completely uninterested in their passengers. The meal consisted of something called meat, coated in a simmering brown gloop that had almost coagulated. The bread roll was hard enough to take out a pocket battleship at ten miles if thrown properly.

The coffee had the consistency- and the colour- of Bunker C diesel oil, and may indeed very well have been. And, while I don’t expect a lot from being in ‘cattle class’, was it asking too much to have crackers that could actually be eaten without a fight? I suspect that the Siegfried Line was easier to crack.

In conclusion, I don’t think flying has any real patina of glamour. But we live in a world where glamour as a whole is in short supply; a world where the ascendancy of hype over style has reached almost stratospheric levels. So why expect more from air travel?

Forty years ago, we had the Supremes and the Temptations. Now it’s One Direction and Cheryl Cole. The defence rests. Though not in any real comfort.