The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980
As the 1970’s dawned, passenger numbers continued to plummet. By that year, only four in every hundred travellers were still crossing the Atlantic by sea. The jets were unbeatable.
Even the France had started to suffer so, for the winter season, the French Line had started sending her on cruises. These were mainly to the Caribbean, but there was also a couple of special cruises down to Rio for the Carnival. Each spring, she resumed her place on the five day transatlantic shuttle, sailing between Le Havre, Southampton, and New York.
The France was hugely successful as a cruise ship; a role she had never been designed for or envisaged in. The ship had very little usable outdoor sunbathing space, and both of her swimming pools were covered.
These major shortcomings would be addressed during her conversion into the Norway but, for now, the France was a surprising success in the off season cruising scene.
Still, it was on the North Atlantic that she really came into her own. And, even as the noose tightened, she remained a matchless, elegant ambassador for the French way of life; a magnificent, final burst of bravado in the face of the all conquering airlines.
The French Line always asserted that you were ‘in France itself’ the moment that you crossed her gangway. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, even though the bulk of her passengers were American. Onion soup was always available for breakfast and, as on all her ancestors, table wine aboard the France was always free.
In short, the liner clung to her true sense of national identity. Her crew of 1200 was entirely French, including the scarlet jacketed lift boys that whisked madame or monsieur to whichever deck they desired. God forbid that a passenger on the France should actually have to push their own lift buttons.
But the ship was sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. Only a very generous operating subsidy from the French government kept her sailing at all. But, as the old political guard changed back in Paris, some very different thinking began to emerge.
The France made two stunning world cruises in 1973 and 1974, arriving in such unfamiliar locations as Sydney, Singapore and Cape Town. On each cruise, a special supply ship loaded with fresh, clean, high quality linen had to be sent to meet the France at the half way mark; the table cloths, bed sheets and napkins on board were of such a standard, that no foreign workers or machinery could be entrusted to clean them. So the French shipped replacement sets halfway around the planet.
Both cruises were magnificent, headline making epics, but even then, events in the middle east were conspiring to deal a death blow to this floating fairy tale.
In 1973, OPEC increased the price of crude oil sixfold. The France, which guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine, could no longer be immune. On five day crossings, she was burning the equivalent of a million dollars worth a day of crude oil. Crossings were lengthened to six days to conserve fuel and- in a move that really shocked regular French Line passengers to the core- the company started charging for table wine. Many said then that they knew that the end was near.
The government was faced with a stark choice; either to continue funding the joint Anglo-French Concorde project, or keeping the France in service. Doing both was unrealistic. In 1974, it announced the end of the annual, $24 million operating subsidy for the France. What followed was inevitable.
The French Line announced that the SS. France would be withdrawn from service after her October 25th crossing, and put up for sale. One hundred and ten years of unparalleled French excellence on the Atlantic was thus guillotined with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. But all parties concerned reckoned without the liner’s crew.
While many of the deck and engine room staff had the option of transferring to cargo ships and freighters, the hundreds of stewards, cabin attendants and lift boys were left with nowhere to go. Naturally unwilling to see their livelihoods torpedoed thus, they decided to act.
On the evening of September 10th, 1974, the France was approaching her home port of Le Havre, at the end of an eastbound transatlantic crossing. Many of the 1,266 passengers were at dinner. The orchestra was playing in the Restaurant Chambord when, almost apologetically, a steward interrupted them to inform the passengers that the ship had been taken over by the crew. She would be anchored right across the entrance to the port until further notice. With that, the stunned passengers were served their coffee and, in the best traditions of another moment of desperate shipboard history, the orchestra resumed playing!
On the bridge, Captain Christian Pettre had been confronted by a group of men led by Maurice Roulin, a bedroom steward and former wartime commando. Roulin informed Pettre- nicknamed ‘The Pasha’- that the crew were taking over the ship. Pettre asked him if he was mad, but remained impassive thereafter. No doubt he sympathised with his men and their predicament.
The story made headlines around the world the next day. The France was anchored across the entrance to Le Havre; her huge bulk meant that no other ship could either enter or leave the port. The passengers and their luggage were taken off the next day by ferry. Then both sides settled down to what amounted to a classic Mexican stand off.
The government blustered that they had expected anything but this; the France taken over by her own crew, as if she was some common or garden factory. The crew, in no mood to compromise, proceeded to blow its own slim chances out of the water by demanding the retention of the France in service, plus a whopping great thirty five per cent pay increase.
In the event, it was the strikers- the French were careful not to use the word ‘mutineers’- that blinked first. As the autumn weather worsened, the France was obliged to move to Cherbourg, thus ending the blockade. Supplies of certain foodstuffs began to run out on board. The government simply sat back, and waited.
Finally, in October, the crew voted overwhelmingly in a ballot to bring the France back into port. After a final, touching mass in the ship’s chapel, she arrived back in Le Havre on October 9th. And though the crew continued to picket the ship until December, the SS. France was officially stricken from service that same month.
That should have been that. The liner was taken to a quiet backwater called the Quai D’Oubli- literally the ‘pier of the forgotten’- and laid up. Her furnishings were covered over and, with only a skeleton crew on board, a deathly silence fell over the great, grand France.
It hung over her like poisonous fog for five long, lonely years, As Saigon fell and Britain entered the Common Market, the France lingered in silent despair; lovingly maintained, yet seemingly doomed to the scrapyard. Punk rock came, Elvis left the building, and the darkened ship slipped further from the public memory.
A scheme to sell her as a floating casino fell through, as did a bid from the Chinese government to use her as an accommodation ship, But that vast hull contained thousands of tons of premium grade steel, and it began to receive some very unwelcome attention in certain quarters. Around the world, scrap yard owners flexed their cheque books as they began quietly sharpening their knives.
But these gentlemen were to be disappointed, for the last great French liner was not destined to die after all…..
In early 1979, Knut Kloster, the brilliant pioneer behind Norwegian Caribbean Lines, was desperate to acquire fresh tonnage to bolster his quartet of sold out Caribbean cruise ships. Unwilling to wait years for a new build, he embarked on a radical, far reaching course of action. He decided to convert an already existing ship up to his new cruising standards.
Kloster went for the big top, and decided to buy a laid up Atlantic liner for the job. The premise seemed unbelievable. The experts opined that all four available candidates were far too big for the job. But Kloster pressed ahead.
He first looked at the Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello, and then at the lingering SS. United States. And then, finally, he came to the SS. France, by a way the biggest of the bunch.
By that time, the France was enduring her fifth, consecutive soul destroying year in limbo. But she was in immaculate condition, lovingly maintained and, as the Norwegians were quick to discover, obviously built to last for decades. The prime candidate. But there was more to it than just that.
Looking up at the still graceful, flaring bow, Kloster said of France: ‘I looked at her, and she smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for another twenty years….’
Kloster bought the France for $18 million and, in August of 1979, she was renamed the SS. Norway in a simple ceremony in Le Havre. On the 22nd of that month, four tugs towed the former pride of the French Line out of her home port towards Bremerhaven, Germany, and the onset of the biggest conversion project in maritime history.
The atmosphere was tense. The local French unions, flailing desperately around, had threatened to block the seaward channel in a vain attempt to prevent her departure. On the bridge, captain designate Torbjorn Hauge had been assigned a pair of armed guards.
It was all a lot of fuss over nothing. Two days later, the Norway entered the Lloyd Werft dry dock at Bremerhaven, and a miraculous, eight month transformation began to unfold. A rebirth without an equal…