MAIDEN VOYAGE MISHAPS AND OTHER SEAGOING SNAFUS

The legendary SS Norway was nowhere near fully refurbished when she made her 'maiden' crossing to New York in May of 1980

The legendary SS Norway was nowhere near fully refurbished when she made her ‘maiden’ crossing to New York in May of 1980

Back in the day, the idea of going on the maiden voyage of any new ship had an aura of prestige and glamour that appealed right across the travelling community. Especially in the pre and post war heyday of the transatlantic run, the first sailing of any new ship invariably attracted banner headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

Passengers, in turn, were intrigued by the idea of being part of a piece of history; a headline grabbing maiden crossing was, quite literally, a true rite of passage that participants could dine out on for years. Many did just that.

But the pace and poise of the Atlantic run has largely given way to the indolent largesse of the contemporary cruise circuit. With an ever increasing conga line of new ships emerging each new year, does the ‘maiden voyage’ of today still have the cachet of old?

In many ways, a maiden voyage-especially for a first of class ship- is a bit of a leap in the dark. Shipyard delays are a fact of life in some cases. The crew- all of them new to the ship and most of them even newer to each other- have not really had time to perfect that subtle ballet of interaction with their new surroundings, their crew mates and, indeed, their passengers. Simple fact; anyone expecting flawless perfection and serenity should avoid any maiden voyage like the plague.

Conversely, a second of class ship is- in theory- something of a safer bet. The company will have gained practical experience with the prototype ship, and the new ship will invariably have been tweaked to make her more passenger friendly. In addition, a core cadre of experienced crew members will be transferred to the new ship to make sure that the transition from shipyard to passenger service flows more easily.This is simple common sense.

Many things can also go wrong after an existing ship is extensively refurbished. Public areas and some cabins might still be unfinished, and potential passengers should be aware of that. Sometimes shipyards sign up to completely unrealistic work time tables, simply to gain the work for themselves and/or prevent it going to a rival.

When this occurs, a perfect storm ensues. The line bears the brunt of negative headlines, hugely disgruntled passengers and a harassed, overly stressed crew that simply cannot deliver the experience promised in all the glossy, pre launch literature. Nobody wins in situations like this.

In my mind, a ship generally takes a minimum of four months to ‘bed down’ properly into commercial service. And yet…..

There is still nothing like the glitter, drama and sheer, adrenaline pumping surge of being part of a maiden voyage. Everything is new, with that ‘just unwrapped’ feel that creates a compelling, totally electric atmosphere. The sheer sense of occasion is palpable and, of course, all eyes will be on you. The cachet of being among the first to experience a stunning, sprawling new maritime masterpiece is one that is as timeless and irresistible as ever.

All of these factors are things to bear in mind. The bottom line is that you cannot realistically expect perfection on any maiden voyage. It is far more about the sense of occasion than subtle service and polished opulence.

But would I do a maiden voyage myself? Absolutely. But my expectations would be realistic, and not blinded by hyperbole and glitter. Temper your expectations and just savour the occasion.

And it is always worth bearing in mind that the one and only ship that seemed to approach near perfection on her maiden voyage proceeded to ruin it all when she made an all too perfect approach on a half submerged iceberg.

And those, my friends, are headlines that nobody wants to be part of, however exciting and dramatic it all seems in retrospect.

MAIDEN VOYAGE! VIKING STAR SETS SAIL

in what must rank as the single most auspicious cruising debut of 2015, Viking Ocean Cruises’ first ocean going ship, the 47,800 ton Viking Star, has finally set sail on her ground breaking maiden voyage from Istanbul to Venice.

The 930 guest ship is not so much a clear departure from the contemporary mega ship cruising style so much as an about turn. The elegant, upscale ship draws an unmistakable bead on the former glories of the legendary, long redundant Royal Viking Line and it’s rival, Norwegian America Line.

Scaling down the size of the ship has instantly enhanced the level of intimacy and interaction between guests and staff, resulting in a far more personalised, highly styled environment. Viking Star deliberately eschews a slew of glitzy diversions to offer travellers a more full on, immersive cruise experience overall. The ship will place great emphasis on longer, often overnight stays in port, with a free, comprehensive series of excursions on offer to people in each call.

Just as on board the same company’s slew of award winning river cruisers, wine, beer and soft drinks are free with lunch and dinner aboard the Viking Star, just as they will be on the two sister ships which are heading towards completion at the present time. An option for a fourth ship in the same class remains on the books.

With an elegant on board spa, sumptuous winter garden and a truly spectacular, aft facing infinity pool, the Viking Star has put the emphasis firmly on cool, highly styled Scandinavian luxe in the public areas. And Viking Star also joins a very exclusive club; one of only four in the entire industry to offer every stateroom on board with a private veranda.

This splendid new ship- beautifully crafted in every respect- is due to be formally christened in Oslo on May 17th- Constitution day in Norway.

As ever, stay tuned.

TIMESLIP: THE MAIDEN CROSSING OF THE SS. FRANCE, FEBRUARY 1962

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

When the France was laid down in 1958 as the long term replacement for the ageing Liberte, more than 1.2 million passengers still crossed the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. But that same October, the first ever Pan Am jet airliner flew eastwards across the Atlantic in just six hours, and the apple cart was not so much upset, as reduced to matchwood and splinters.

By the time of her launch just two years later, those same jets had more than seventy per cent of the transatlantic trade, and those numbers were climbing as steadily as a Boeing 707 cleared for take off. So by the time that the France was finally ready for her first passengers at the beginning of 1962, a huge amount was riding on her, both figuratively and literally.

The France was the last true Atlantic liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Europe and America, with  no thought whatsoever being given to ever using her as a cruise ship. She was every bit as much of an Atlantic thoroughbred as the Normandie before her and, to the French, she was intended to be every bit as much a national showpiece as that fabled thirties showstopper. Though her actual cost was astronomical- the American press was already referring to her as ‘an eighty million dollar gamble’- the French invested far more in her in terms of emotional currency.

But this maritime Joan Of Arc (a perhaps unfortunate comparison when considering how many French liners were actually lost to fire) was to turn out to be more of a gilded Canute, fighting valiantly to stem the unstoppable. All the same, she was almost ready by the dawn of 1962 and, prior to her maiden crossing to New York, the French Line decided to send her on a nine day, trial run of a cruise down to the Canary IslandsIt was an idea taken up again by Cunard, when they introduced the brand new QE2 into service in early 1969.

This trial voyage sailed from Le Havre on January 19th, 1962 and, while it was a good exercise in PR, it also served to highlight the numerous potential shortcomings of the France as a cruise ship. It was the equivalent of expecting a premier league centre forward to switch to rugby league, and perform at the same level. These shortcomings- mainly revolving around a lack of outdoor deck space and her glass enclosed swimming pools- would only be permanently addressed during her 1979-80 conversion into the Norway at Bremerhaven.

However, the cruise did serve to demonstrate the excellence of her machinery. The France was the second fastest ocean liner ever built but, with the jets thundering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, any attempt at a tilt for the speed record, held for the past ten years by the SS.United States, was quietly ruled out. The France was expected to excel on an entirely different level.

Finally, at 1400 on the afternoon of February 3rd, 1962, Commandant Georges Croisiele took the flag bedecked France clear of the dock at Le Havre, to begin her maiden crossing to New York. Among the capacity load of 1,958 passengers on board was Madame Yvonne De Gaulle, wife of the president. She was making the voyage in her official capacity as the Godmother of the ship. The young actress, Juliette Greco, was also on the roster.

February was hardly a typical time for a gala maiden voyage, and the Atlantic slammed the new liner with a series of savage, forty five foot waves that forced Croisile to reduce speed from thirty knots right down to six at the height of the gale. That said, the only casualties were a slightly dented anchor housing, one broken window in the first class library and, perhaps most distressingly, some eight bottles of premium scotch. The passengers responded with typical panache, by adapting the dance steps to the brand new ‘twist’ craze to suit the weather conditions and, despite this vicious baptism of fire, France and her surviving, happily ample supply of scotch were able to make up the lost time. She duly arrived off Quarantine in New York on schedule on February 8th, 1962.

The welcome was as warm as the day itself was bitterly cold. A quartet of fire boats arced vast, icy plumes of water into the air all around the France as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her berth; this was the exact same pier where her predecessor, Normandie, had burned and sank some twenty years minus one day before. The arrival date can hardly have been a coincidence.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

A flotilla of tugs and small pleasure craft rode shotgun around the new ship as she proceeded in state past the Battery. Helicopters buzzed her like random, curious dragonflies, filming the event for posterity. Crowds shivered along the freezing banks of the Hudson and banners snapped in the icy breeze as the soaring flank of the France kissed the edge of Pier 88 for the first time. Despite the adverse conditions encountered on the crossing, the France had, indeed, performed flawlessly.

The subsequent press conference held on board was a curious mixture of euphoria and tempered wisdom. The owners stated that ‘the captain is satisfied with his ship- and the ship is satisfied with her captain.’ They then went on to enshrine her as ‘the last refuge of the good life.’

At the same time, the multi millionaire Charles Cloredisembarking from the France, took occasion to deny to the assembled press that he was planning to buy the Cunard Line.

The press were in general, enchanted and awed by the stunning new ship, but elements of it did reiterate the ‘eighty million dollar gamble’ epithet in their subsequent coverage. They also questioned the fact that the huge beam of the liner made her too large to transit the Panama Canal

That drew a classic, Machiavellian retort from no less than General De Gaulle himself, back in France. He said flatly that ‘the ship is not too big; the problem is that the canal is too small.’ In his grandiosity, Monsieur Le President had also conveniently forgotten (or ignored) the fact that the dimensions of the Panama Canal had actually been decided by another determined Frenchman, Ferdinand De Lesseps.