THE ITALIAN LINE- AN OVERDUE APPRECIATION

When we think of the Atlantic crossing of fame and legend, minds most often concentrate on the famous, five to six day ‘shuttle’ service that sailed between ports such as Southampton, Liverpool, Rotterdam and Le Havre, to New York. And, almost inevitably, the names of Cunard, Hapag- Lloyd, Holland America and the French Line, are invoked and cherished like some holy mantra by starry eyed students of those classic old liners.

Perhaps that is partly why the Italian Line gets such relatively little recognition. It was a shotgun marriage, presided over by Mussolini, that forced three rival Italian shipping lines to merge into one large, state subsidised entity. Having supposedly made the trains run on time, the egotistical duce was now determined that the Italian flag would have a prime place on the greatest commercial trade route in the world- the Atlantic crossing to and from New York.

First out of the blocks came two of the greatest and most graceful ocean liners ever to cut salt water. The Rex and the Conte Di Savoia were near sisters of just over 50,000 tons each. With sharp, gracefully raked prows and a pair of staunch, no nonsense funnels, they were the first serious Italian challengers in the platinum chip status stakes.

With incredible interiors modelled on a variety of styles, the two vessels were tagged as ‘the Riviera afloat’ by their owners. But it was in their exterior layout that they were truly different from their cousins from the north.

As most of their voyages sailed from Genoa through the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar and then out into the Atlantic, those marvellous Italian maidens spent most of their time sailing in warmer, sunnier climes. And, to cater to the idea of la dolce vita afloat that these ships were meant to exemplify, both the Rex and the Conte Di Savoia boasted on deck swimming pools for each class, surrounded by swathes of open teak sprinkled with table and umbrellas, sun loungers, and served with that quintessentially Italian sense of flair and style. Some of the pools were even surrounded by real sand on deck.

They were a sensational, tragically short lived pair. Briefly, the Rex even took the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. They added a raffish, exotic splash of colour, style and sheer, indolent fun to the idea of what crossing the Atlantic actually meant. Until the outbreak of the war that would ultimately claim both of them, they were a consistently popular choice.

Following Italy’s defeat as part of the Axis powers during World War two, the Italian Line returned to the fray in 1953, with a pair of 29,000 ton twin sisters, the Cristoforo Colombo and the Andrea Doria.

Moderately sized and sumptuously elegant, the two new ships were like sleek, sultry Fiats when compared to the likes of the doughty Cunard Queens, or the restored, heavily powdered ‘ladies of a certain age’ being offered by the French Line. Among other things, they introduced the idea of stepped, exterior lido decks for each class, again featuring outdoor pools and cafes, that would later become a hugely influential model on the first generation of purpose built, full time cruise ships. Each featured a proud, gracefully arced prow and a single, beautifully proportioned funnel that gave them a space age, startlingly modern stance. Those two Italian thoroughbreds were as perfectly elegant as twin charm bracelets and, for a few years, they were hugely popular, often being sold out for months on end in the high summer season.

The tragic loss of the Andrea Doria after a controversial, fog shrouded collision off the coast of Nantucket in July, 1956, left the Italian Line in something of a quandary. Eventually, they decided to replace her with a ship that would be slightly bigger, but externally very similar.

That new ship was the 33,000 ton Leonardo Da Vinci. She arrived in the port of New York for the first time in July of 1960, to an enthusiastic fireboat and helicopter welcome. But even as this latest and loveliest example of Italian flair and taste arrived, passenger numbers on the Atlantic route between northern Europe and the USA were already in free fall, thanks to the speedy fleets of jet airliners that now dominated the commercial trade.

Still, the Italians refused to give up. Travellers from the Mediterranean area tended to be far more sea minded than the people to the north, and thus in 1965- to the sheer incredulity of the maritime industry- there emerged from Genoa not one, but two new identical sister ships, designed exclusively for the Atlantic crossing.

At 45,000 tons each, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello represented the last, triumphant burst of Italian style on the ocean. Painted in bridal white, with gracefully raked prows, terraced lido decks and a  pair of cowled, latticed smoke stacks that crowned their superstructures, these two great sister ships were initially very popular indeed, bucking the overall trend of the contracting passenger trade, and often arriving in New York fully booked, even through the mid Sixties.

It could not last. Gradually, the two sisters augmented their falling passenger revenue by offering warm weather cruises. But a lack of private facilities in many of their inner cabins created a huge problem that only a massive rebuilding could remedy.

As they limped into the seventies, the Michelangelo and Raffaello suffered more and more from sudden, wildcat strikes- both on the ships and among the shore side staff- that resulted in them no longer being able to offer anything like a reliable service. This, combined with a catastrophic increase in the price of crude oil in 1974, ultimately doomed them. In their last years, both of the sister ships guzzled Bunker C crude oil as if it was so much cheap chianti.

When the Michelangelo rounded out the final Italian Line sailing in 1975, she was effectively pulling down the shades on what had once been one of the most highly styled, expertly served passenger lines of all time. Among the passengers disembarking on that last crossing was the aged Duchess of Windsor, making a somehow painfully symbolic comment on the sunset falling on the ocean voyage as the world knew it.

The end of the Italian Line, while inevitable in the context of the 1974 OPEC fuel crisis, was also a cause for great sadness, and a large amount of retrospective nostalgia for anyone lucky enough to sail on one of those vanished palazzos on the ocean. As an operator, as an innovator, and as an actual way of travelling life for many over some five decades, the Italian Line deserves the historical courtesy of being remembered.

The sun finally set o the 'dolce vita' style of the Italian Line in 1975.

The sun finally set on the ‘dolce vita’ style of the Italian Line in 1975.

THE LEVIATHAN; US LINE’S POST WAR PRODIGAL CHILD

USS LEVIATHAN

The Leviathan in post war service for US Lines

Of all the great liners to emerge unscathed from the carnage of the Great War, I think the Leviathan had perhaps the saddest commercial career. In view of her high birth and her heroic war record, there’s something wistful and just damned wrong about her fate on the Atlantic. She was a flower that never seemed to fully bloom.

Designed and launched as the Vaterland, the second of the great Hamburg Amerika Line trio created by the brilliant Albert Ballin, she was in New York harbour, in the midst of her third round trip, when the war broke out. Shackled to her Hoboken pier, she was first interned, before suffering the ultimate indignity of becoming a troopship for the enemies of the Fatherland.

It was a role she performed beautifully. On one trip, she carried almost 15,000 doughboys over to General Pershing’s fledgling army in France, the largest amount of men ever to be ferried over any ocean at any time. At war’s end, she was awarded to the United States Lines as a prize. In all, she had carried an estimated 120,000 American troops.  After trooping duties, the huge liner went down to Newport News, Virginia, for a long, protracted restoration to civilian service.

Here, the huge vessel was converted to oil burning, and a complete new set of blueprints for her was produced from scratch by William Francis Gibbs, a man later to achieve everlasting fame as the designer of both the America and the United States. While much of her original glut of Edwardian elegance was restored, some Art Deco touches were dotted around the ship. By June 1923, the reborn Leviathan, with her funnels painted red, white and blue, was ready to re-enter service on the Atlantic crossing.

She never really had a chance.

In the prohibition era, American liners on the Atlantic were dry in more ways than one. Though an enterprising passenger could always acquire a stash of booze on board, her official moniker as a ‘dry’ ship hurt the Leviathan from the start.

Secondly, the high labour costs inherent in running with an all American crew bit into her potential profit margins. And United States Lines simply had no experience of running such a large and extravagant ship. While rivals such as Cunard and White Star operated a balanced, three ship service across the Atlantic, the proud, doughty Leviathan had no comparable running mate.

Despite that, she was a very prestigious liner, right up there with her sister ships and commercial rivals. the Berengaria and the Majestic. She was certainly the fastest of the ex-Ballin trio. But in many ways, the Leviathan was essentially a ‘not quite as’ ship. Not quite as large as the Majestic. Not quite as fast as the Mauretania.

It was an incredible time; the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was an age defined by steamships, gangsters, flappers, baseball and jazz. And, in her day, the Leviathan was as prestigious and newsworthy as any of her rivals.

Then, in 1927, the arrival of the stunning, Art Deco suffused Ile De France signalled the beginning of the end for the armada of ageing Edwardian theme parks still crossing the Atlantic. Her debut was sensational; within weeks, she became the most striking, newsworthy and successful liner on the Atlantic by a mile. Veteran Atlantic travellers were prepared to wait a full week or more just to be able to sail on her.

The Leviathan was particularly hard hit. Then- irony of ironies- the advent of a new German champion- in the shape of the Bremen- made matters worse still. The onset of the Great Depression in October of 1929 almost finished her. Only a generous government subsidy kept the Leviathan sailing at all.

Even the end of Prohibition did nothing to ease the pain. By now, the Leviathan was being sent on short, five and six day ‘booze cruises’ just to make ends meet. By 1934, she was making only five transatlantic crossings a year, often carrying more crew than passengers. Her grand, ghostly salons, dotted with just handfuls of stoic, die hard passengers, would prove to be an eerie harbringer for the deserted ocean liners of the Jet Age, some thirty years later.

The Leviathan never made another commercial voyage. For four years, she remained shackled to her pier, slowly wasting away. In 1935, she was crowded to capacity for the first time in years, used as a giant viewing gallery for the maiden arrival in New York of the Normandie.

Finally, in January 1938, the great liner was sold for scrap. For the last time, her propellers kicked into life, and she limped across the Atlantic to her own destruction in Rosyth, Scotland. It was a sad, laboured, and undignified end for such a magnificent liner.

That final voyage was her 301st in all. In her years of service for the United States Lines, she carried something like 250,000 passengers. She never earned a cent in profit.

Poor, proud Leviathan never inspired the same awe and affection as her two sister ships. Yet she was every bit as magnificent and glamorous. Fate dealt this fabulous, posthumously fabled ship a series of lousy hands in rapid succession. They were storms she could not weather, sadly.

THE LAST ATLANTIC LINERS- THE 1970’S

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.

TRACING TITANIC- WHAT YOU CAN SEE IN THE UK TODAY…

Launching of the Titanic; the Olympic, just out of sight here, was handed over to White Star on the same day

Launching of the Titanic; the Olympic, just out of sight here, was handed over to White Star on the same day

Though the ship herself has been homeported for more than a century in the dark, silent murk at the bottom of the Atlantic, there are still tangible links between the Titanic and the country and people that gave birth to her. Whether you’re talking in terms of the numerous memorials to the disaster, or the actual hardware used to build her in the first place, a surprising amount remains scattered around the fringes of the United Kingdom to this day. The trick is to know where to look, and also to know what you’re looking for.

Starting at the very beginning, in Belfast there is a huge amount to see. Titanic and her identical earlier twin sister, Olympic, took shape here over four years, from 1908 to 1912. You can still see the vast sloping concrete ramp that the two ships were built on, side by side. Today, their outlines are etched into the slip on the exact spot where each ship grew up and was launched from.

In fact, most of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard has mutated into a kind of theme park (Titanicland?) devoted to the story of the ship’s construction. Even more monolithic is the vast, new Titanic Belfast museum, a five story, interactive masterpiece that tells the story of the Titanic from the unique standpoint of her birthplace.

Here is where you’ll also find the petrified, preserved, pretty little Nomadic, the tender originally built for ferrying first class passengers out to the Olympic and Titanic at Cherbourg. Nomadic is worth the journey to Belfast on her own; an evocative little time capsule. Stand on the same spot where the Astors and the Strausses stood, as they stared at the floodlit bulk of the Titanic, waiting for them in the bay of Cherbourg, and feel the hairs on your neck stand on end. Very highly recommended.

Memorial to the Titanic engineers. Southampton

Memorial to the Titanic engineers. Southampton

If Belfast was the birthplace of Titanic, then Southampton was very much her home port. The famous Ocean Dock was originally known as the White Star Dock, and was especially built for Olympic and Titanic. The bollards that Titanic was tied to are still there to this day, and very easy to visit.

More than two thirds of the crew were Southampton men and women, and the disaster hit home here like a hydrogen bomb. On one street alone, thirty families lost a male relative on the Titanic. The massive Engineer’s Memorial, dedicated in East Park in 1914, is one of the most poignant and evocative Titanic memorials anywhere, and it’s right in the heart of the city.

Newly opened is the Southampton Sea City maritime museum, a two story complex given over to the city’s heyday as Europe’s main ocean liner port. Inevitably, the story of the Titanic occupies a full floor. It’s told in a very personal style from the point of view of the locals who crewed, survived or died in the disaster, and the reminiscences of the relatives that were left behind. Hugely evocative, it is very much Titanic central. You can’t get any closer or more intimate to their story than here.

Over in Southern Ireland, the town of Cobh was the last port of call for the westbound Titanic. She anchored here for a couple of hours just before noon on Thursday, Aprll 11th 1912, to embark just over a hundred Irish emigrants, bound for America. The wooden pier where they boarded the tenders that took them out to the Titanic is still there to this day. There’s also a town centre memorial to the victims, and also another to those lost on the Lusitania, the famous Cunarder torpedoed just outside the harbour during the Great War.

The Nomadic at Cherbourg

The Nomadic at Cherbourg

In 1935, the Olympic arrived on Tyneside for scrapping, and many of her original, elegant first class features found their way into the local White Swan Hotel, in Alnwick. These included a portion of the famous Grand Staircase. as well as the panelling from the smoking room, a ceiling, some mirrors, and a number of leaded glass windows. These have been installed into a so called ‘Olympic Suite’ and, taken as a whole, they offer a unique insight into just how ornate the identical Titanic was internally.

The hotel is around half an hour’s drive from Newcastle and, if you happen to be in the region, it is definitely well worth a visit.

NOTHING TO SEE BUT THE SEA? THINK AGAIN…..

Breakfast with a view?

Breakfast with a view?

There are whole tidal waves of cruise passengers- both potential and actual- who loathe the very idea of a day or more actually spent at sea, anywhere in the world. Horses for courses, of course and, as they say, each to his/her own.

The main bugbear seems to be that people think that they will be ‘bored’ on board. God knows how that one ever gained any kind of leeway, Modern ships today are virtual floating theme parks, brimming with ice rinks, rock climbing walls, flowriders and the rest of all the mod cons that have mushroomed on modern cruise ships. The only way not to enjoy an action packed day on a modern ship is if you embark in a sealed wooden box.

The other one is that ‘there’s nothing to see but the sea’. This one never fails to make me laugh. Anyone who has actually looked at the sea for any length of time, instead of merely glancing idly outboard between burger and cocktail tasting sessions, will tell you that the sea is a fantastical magic carpet, one that changes every few minutes of the day. Endlessly fascinating, it’s moods, whims and occasional bouts of temper is exactly the template that the romance of ocean voyages was built on in the first place.

Think I’m kidding? Consider the sight of dolphins, leaping in and out of the bow wave as the ghost of an early morning breeze drifts across the decks. Or how about early evening, when the slowly setting sun can turn a calm, sedate ocean into what looks like a sea of polished glass?

Crossing the Atlantic, you might get serried tiers of surging grey rollers, flecked with tips of white foam, that lunge at the side of the ship like a series of furious cavalry charges. Or consider midnight off the North Cape of Norway, where the endless summer sun can turn the sea around you into what resembles a field of blazing straw.

Take yourself off to summertime Alaska, and watch giant, glistening icebergs- the true ‘great whites’ of the ocean- as they fracture and calve, and literally thousands of tons of ice impact the sea with a tremendous, thundering roar. Or head down to Antarctica, and watch rose tinted regiments of field ice, drifting skittishly in the austral light across a silent, gunmetal sea.

Try looking at the sea through different glasses

Try looking at the sea through different glasses

And the nights…. have you ever dined alfresco on a cruise ship at night, with a sky packed chock full of twinkling stars and a side order of deep, dreamy moonlight shimmering on the ocean? And, on the right night, you might even see a meteorite shower of incredible clarity, blazing fiery, fantastic trails across the endless expanse of the tropical heavens. Once seen, forever savoured.

These are just a few of the stunning natural brush strokes that can embellish the amazing, sprawling canvas of the ocean. Different times of day cast even the stillest of seas in a literally different light. Stare in idle wonder as fleets of huge, fluffy clouds drift across an endless sky like fleets of giant, ghostly galleons. It’s a quite incredible sensation, an immediate connection to the beauty and sheer immensity of the world all around you.

Nothing to see at sea? Think again…..

CUNARD’S SINGLE TRANSATLANTIC SAVERS FOR 2013

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

In a move that many have seen to be inevitable, Cunard has finally slashed it’s single supplements on a series of autumn and winter transatlantic crossings on the line’s legendary flagship, Queen Mary 2.

Lead in fares for an eastbound crossing now start at £749 for an inside cabin, and £899 for a balcony for single travellers, inclusive of one way flights to or from London. Fares for two start from £499 per person.

This marks a radical change for the iconic transatlantic line. When Queen Mary 2 was built to supersede the venerable Queen Elizabeth 2, she made her debut with no single cabins at all. Supplements for single occupancy have traditionally been at an eye watering 175%.

With the new fares, these are now down to 150%; much more in line with normal single supplements across the cruise industry. So, after several years of intransigence, what has brought about the change?

Traditionally, transatlantic crossings have been harder to fill in the autumn and winter, when the Atlantic is usually more capricious than can often be the case in summer. And, with a huge passenger capacity of 2,760 (compared to 1,800 on the old QE2), the Queen Mary 2 takes a lot of filling. The new fares simply reflect economic reality.

What will be interesting to see is whether these very welcome single supplement reductions will be rolled out right across the Cunard fleet, both for cruises and transatlantic crossings. For now, the fares are being offered only in connection with the handful of remaining crossings between Europe and North America this year.

It is a singularly outstanding deal; no other ship in the world can match the Queen Mary 2 on the Atlantic in terms of size, speed, stability, and sheer, platinum chip prestige. The largest ocean liner ever constructed is a small city on the ocean, and offers a style and level of old world service that no other ship can adequately replicate.

The Berengaria, Cunard's flagship in the 1920's and beyond

The Berengaria, Cunard’s flagship in the 1920’s and beyond

Cabins, too, are large, with even the insides measuring up to 195 square feet. The Queen Mary 2 offers a whole raft of diversions and entertainments on her seven day crossings, together with famous, big name lecturers, The ship also faithfully replicates the formal evening ambience that was a hallmark of Cunard liners in the heyday of the post war Atlantic crossing, in a setting of sublime contemporary splendour.

Truth be told, the giant, iconic Cunarder is a far more comfortable ship than any of her famous forebears. Combined with a city stay in New York, Toronto, or even Miami, the Queen Mary 2 is one of the most compelling and exotic travel experiences on sale anywhere today. And especially at these prices, too.

I’ll keep an eye on the prices as they become available. Stay tuned.

UNFORGETTABLE- THE QE2 ON THE NORTH ATLANTIC

Such a familar sight....

Such a familar sight….

A ship. An ocean. A state of mind. Queen Elizabeth 2 on the North Atlantic. Nothing else mattered…..

The sea is a rolling grey mess, flecked with viciously flailing whitecaps. Looking down from the windows of the Golden Lion (or the Theatre Bar if your memory goes that far back) there is a broad swathe of boiling white, foam streaked ocean stretching back as far as the eye can see. Venture outside, and the cold slaps you with an icy swipe as you stand out by the pool, watching the wake stretching back to infinity.

There’s the gentle shudder of the decks under your feet, and the subtle pitch and roll of a real ship on a purposeful voyage; a true crossing. In other words, pure magic.

In the post war era, Cunard maintained a two ship service on the New York express run with the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. The advent of jet aircraft from the late fifties onwards effectively put that service to the sword. The result was that Cunard decided that one ship in future would service the Atlantic crossing, as well as working as a hopefully lucrative cruise ship in the off season.

That ship, of course, was QE2. She was built partly as a floating resort, capable of offering worldwide luxury cruises through the autumn and winter. But, every year from April through December, she would eschew that, and return to the five day shuttle runs between Europe and America that were her true heritage. For many, the Atlantic was where the Queen really came into her own.

Her hull was very strongly built; a necessity when coping with the most notorious and unpredictable stretch of water in the world. And she had to be fast- far faster than on languid Caribbean cruises. On crossings, QE2 could- and frequently did- hit thirty-two knots without killing herself.

That might not sound like much, but let’s put it in context. Nobody would blink twice at the sight of a cab passing the Empire State Building at thirty miles an hour. But imagine the Empire State Building itself, somehow uprooted from its base and barrelling along at the same speed, and you get some idea of the scope and power of the QE2. She was built to be fast and strong, and she needed both of those attributes in dealing with the Atlantic.

She was an extraordinary lady, and she certainly knew it. A diva, draped in epic moods and capable of equally epic mood swings. For so many years she was out there alone, maintaining the famous Cunard standards on that ancient route as, one by one, her competitors fell by the wayside, or were diverted to full time cruise service.

That fabulous bow

That fabulous bow

Time always seemed to be against her. ‘How long can she last?’ was an almost constant refrain, even in the early eighties. And yet, twenty six years later, the Yacht Club on QE2 was still serving up the best chocolate martinis afloat. The old girl was a real fighter; a true daughter of the Clyde. There was real steel beneath that subtle, sophisticated exterior.

And if ever a ship had heart and soul, it was surely the QE2. You sensed it when you walked into the Midships Lobby as you boarded her. There was something that hung in the air like static electricity; a sensation as intangible as it was undeniable. Only the Norway- her soul mate in so many ways- had anything remotely like it.

The old girl seemed to truly relish being out on the Atlantic, where she could pitch, shudder and roll to her heart’s content. And boy, did she ever.

Don’t get me wrong; the QE2 was wonderful as a cruise ship, pretty much regardless of where she went to. But out on the Atlantic, it was as if her true essence was totally unleashed. That was where those great engines really got into their stride. No one who ever crossed on her will forget the sensation of sitting by a window and watching the grey, foam flecked Atlantic boling along, while the gentle vibration made the ice in your drink tinkle subtly in the glass. Of such memories are legends made.

In the eighties, there would always be a full band on the Southampton quayside to serenade her and her passengers away. To my dying day, I will always remember the band of the Royal Marines, playing christmas carols on the pier as we swung loose, bound for New York on a bitterly cold December night. The sounds floating across that widening gap between ship and shore were so poignant, echoing in that sharp, clear air, that most of the huddled masses on deck that night simply forgot the cold. Our collective breath hung like Channel fog in the freezing night air.

Swinging out into the channel, speed increased. First and last nights were always classed as ‘informal’ dress nights which, for men, meant jackets and ties, with smart trouser suits or skirts for the ladies. The first night of any crossing always crackled with anticipation of the adventure ahead.

Many came to cherish this view

Many came to cherish this view

For the rest of the voyage, it was invariably black tie for the men, and cocktail dresses for the ladies. And in no other setting was the dress code so rigorously adhered to, or just so absolutely damned right. Seeing everyone in their evening finery set a tone that everything that followed merely enhanced, from the subtle lighting to the pre dinner cocktail music. The tinkling baby grand and, of course, the fabulous, formal dining experience itself.

And that food was sublime, from first to last. It was delivered silver service, as it should be, and it fed both the man and his sense of inner contentment at the same time. While no two people ever have the same take on food- and there were always at least a handful of professional, platinum chip moaners on every crossing- I remember the QE2 dining experience as one of the greatest celebrations of food and, indeed, life, that I am ever likely to experience. It made for a longer, more languid and involved experience but, being out on the Atlantic, it wasn’t as if we had to be in a hurry to get off and go somewhere the next day.

It was an epic adventure. You had time to get to know people. The library was vast, and many comfy hours were spent there, sprawled out on a sofa. Lost both in a book, and on an ocean. There was time to enjoy afternoon tea, and a pre dinner cocktail. There were enrichment lectures, dance classes, and a vast, expansive spa complex, located on the lower decks of the ship. And, like millions of Atlantic passengers before us, we amused ourselves with each others’ company, and had enormous fun in doing so.

You could effectively forget about time outdoors, unless you hit a lucky summertime crossing. Atlantic storms tend to travel in four day cycles, and you were almost guaranteed to hit one. In spring and early summer, icebergs still loom across the waters of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Fortunately, radar and ample lifeboats make these potential ship killers- the true ‘Great Whites’ of the ocean- that much less of an occupational hazard.

The Queens Room

The Queens Room

The Atlantic is no respecter of egos; the Titanic found that out. It can make a ship perform that kind of gymnastics that Olga Korbut could only have dreamed of. It took a particular form of psychopath to enjoy the crossing, and yet we came back, year after year. It was like being a member of a secretive, elusive kind of sect.

For this was our ocean, and our ship. 99.999 per cent of the travelling public flew across the Atlantic. Pah. We few, in turn, remained in helpless, eternal thrall to our great lady and she, in turn, returned the compliment. When you boarded the old girl in either Southampton or New York, it always felt as if she smiled at you. It was a totally symbiotic relationship, that’s for sure. She knew her own, and you felt it everywhere on board.

The nights passed by in a whirl. We had after dinner floorshows, piano players, and live bands. There was a popular, full scale casino, and a disco that could, with the right crowd, rock through until the early morning hours, and very often did. With everyone still in evening wear, those nights had a sense of fine style and fun that I still cherish even now. I miss them so much.

You could have breakfast in bed, while you read the news digest that was delivered with it. You could drag out lunch over two hours, or enjoy live jazz with your fish and chips. On westbound crossings, days were always twenty five hours long, to compensate for the time difference between Europe and America. It meant that you arrived in New York without jet lag, but with your baggage.

Those were languid, lazy days, and yet paradoxically, they passed at a truly blistering pace. And at journey’s end, as the fabulous Manhattan skyline splintered the early morning dawn, you knew beyond a shred of doubt that you had completed a truly epic journey.

Unmissable. Unmistakable. Unforgettable.

Unmissable. Unmistakable. Unforgettable.

Regret hung in the air at the end of every crossing like lingering Atlantic fog. The carnival was over. But all that did was to fire you up all over again, and make you more determined to get back on that giddy, rock and rolling fairground ride that we called ‘the crossing’. Once QE2 got her silken claws into you, she never let you go.

But, let’s face it. It’s not as if you really wanted to, anyway….

MUTINY ON THE FRANCE; DOLLARS, CRUDE OIL AND HARD TIMES….

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

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…

TITANIC II- SOME ELEVATED CONCERNS- UPDATED

The original Titanic; doomed opulence on the ocean, 1912- style

The original Titanic; doomed opulence on the ocean, 1912- style

As many of you will be aware, the oft delayed, eagerly awaited announcement for the keel laying date of Titanic II will be revealed this month, we have been told. With two thirds of June almost gone, the sense of anticipation has been sharpened to almost knife edge.

Clive Palmer has promised a ship that is around 96 per cent accurate; albeit with a welded hull, inboard lifeboats (and plenty of them) as well as one extra deck. All of this is by now out in the public domain.

But I’ve been thinking more about the interior structure lately. To be precise, the passenger mobility aspect of the ship. Bear with me.

The original Titanic had four lifts. That’s right- four. Of these, three were the exclusive preserve of the 750 first class passengers. The fourth lift was a welcome, novel addition for the benefit of second class. The third class passengers- by far the bulk of the ship’s complement- had no lift access at all.

Given that Palmer has pledged to keep the numbers, class system and structural integrity of the original ship, the modern voyagers aboard Titanic II will be stuck with that same quartet of lifts. And, as Mister Palmer intends for his passengers to spend two days experiencing each of the three classes on each six day crossing, the logistics of moving both them, and of course all their luggage, begin to look like a very badly orchestrated Monty Python sketch. Repeated three times a week, in case you missed the first show.

Of course, the obvious solution seems simple enough; just add more lifts. But that involves cutting lift shafts right through the entire, nine deck structure of the ship. Lift shafts where none ever existed before. Or intended to be either, for that matter.

Any ocean liner- even the biggest- is a trade off as regards space in every section, from cabin size to kitchen square footage. Massive compromise in this respect is as unavoidable as that iceberg back in 1912.

More lifts means plowing wholesale through deck after deck; obliterating original cabins, and cutting through corridors on every deck; perhaps even cutting through public rooms. It certainly means creating vestibules where none ever existed before. That creates backup in terms of passenger flow; it makes the original form and function of many public spaces impractical and, more to the point, downright uncomfortable.

That end result means a TItanic II that will be a butchered, truncated mish mash inside. It makes even the fanciful figure of ’96 per cent accurate’ a joke.

So, Palmer here inherits a true maritime catch-22 situation, albeit one of this own making.  He wants to create a ship that replicates the original of 1912 as faithfully as possible, and sell it to a society that cherishes the modern creature comforts of 2013.

You could, in theory, create a corridor for the third class passengers to use the single, second class lift. But again, that means cutting away at the original interior. And one lift for the use of around 1500 passengers? Really?

And what about disabled access? How will that work in and across all three classes? My guess is not very well at all.

The shape and technology of ship hulls- from freighters to cruise ships- advances and changes to meet the needs of modern demands. Recreating a century old hull design and expecting it to be adapted to modern tastes strikes me as a fanciful, fatuous daydream.

This isn’t 1912. Palmer can either create a working, potentially viable transatlantic tribute that doffs its cap to its heritage, or he can conjure a real, live 1912 theme park that is woefully impractical, verging on farcical. He can’t have both.

And, thus far, there’s actually no real sign of him doing either.

Update: As of today- Thursday, July 4th- there has still been no announcement of any definite launch date for the Titanic II project, despite Clive Palmer’s promise that this would be forthcoming in June.

CROSSINGS- VALUE VOYAGES?

CNV00137That time of year is almost on us again; the delicious little interval between the end of the winter Caribbean season, and the start of the summer season in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. In the interim, literally dozens of vast white dream palaces will depart from their Florida playgrounds and shape a course for old Europe.

And, naturally, their owners would like to fill them en route with paying passengers. Whoa…

Hold it right there. Because a crossing is not the same as a cruise. That’s the same as saying that football and rugby are both the same, because they are played by teams of men on a pitch. With a ball.

CNV00021But they really are very different creatures. Cruises in Europe, especially, focus on port-a-day itineraries, such as the seven day ‘Meddy-Go-Rounds’ that embark in Barcelona, Venice and Rome. Sea time- the amount of actual voyaging done on the ship- is pretty minimal.

A similar sensibility exists on those winter Caribbean runs, carousing the western and eastern circuits from Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Less cultured for sure, but the lure of a string of sun splashed islands, strung out like a glorious conga line, is the primary lure for sun starved hordes in the bitter winter months.

CNV00049Not so with a crossing, which always of necessity incorporates a string of between four and six straight days at sea, as the ship makes the old style voyage between two continents. Shipowners see them as a necessary evil and, in most cases, simply do not know how to market them.

The shore based revenue guys get nosebleeds thinking about what they see as lost on board spend. Days without the windfall of revenue from sales of shore excursions. And, of course, the fuel costs are that much higher. Taking a transatlantic is, effectively, the equivalent in time of two seven day cruises. You can double that when the ships return back the same way in the autumn.

It’s hard to entice passengers aboard as well, because it takes a particular type of person that can endure, never mind enjoy, several straight days at sea. And the often hideously disproportionate cost of open jaw, transatlantic return airfare can be an absolute nightmare.

CNV00105All of this explains why crossings- and, indeed, repositioning voyages in general- are usually quite amazing value, as well as being truly exceptional experiences in their own right.

For a start, passenger numbers are usually far fewer. Yet, with the same number of crew, you get a better, more personalised level of service. Those difficult to get second reservations in your favourite alternative restaurant? Suddenly, they become a breeze.

Lines desperate to squeeze any extra revenue from these trips will often run spa ‘specials’ at very attractive prices. Days become more leisurely, and less crowded. And- whisper it- unlike on a port intensive voyage, you actually do get time to simply relax.

CNV00167There is time to read a book, or even two. Time to meet and mingle with new people. Time to reconnect with loved ones.

Time to enjoy late, lazy mornings in bed and languid, outdoor lunches. Time to take up a new hobby, or rediscover an old one. The options are really only limited by your own whims and wants. For possibly the only time in your year, time actually works for you.

A crossing allows you to structure your days as much, or as little, as you please. Lazy days  afloat will free you up in a way that no conventional cruise, however fascinating and fun fuelled, can ever do.

Truth be told, crossings have far more good points than bad.

CNV00004If you can go to the expense of a balcony, then I definitely recommend one on the route from Florida to Europe. And these will usually be much more affordable than on warm weather cruises. It’s a safe bet that you’ll never forget watching a late night meteorite shower from the snug fastness of your own balcony, with a side order of starlight to go with the champagne. And yes, it is every bit as splendid and surreal as it sounds.

CNV00015Some lines are getting very good at turning crossings into themed voyages. Crystal, for instance, do these supremely well. They usually have floating jazz, big band and/or film festivals on their elegant ships, with renowned guest lecturers, as well as some truly innovative culinary classes.

For singles, check out Norwegian Epic. She crosses the Atlantic twice a year, and her chic, funky little studio cabins are usually better deals than ever on a crossing.

If you yearn for some of the old style formality without wanting to pay the six star price tag, Holland America offer some truly mouth watering transatlantic crossings each year, on some of the most stunningly appointed big ships afloat.

CNV00001And it would be truly remiss not to mention the classic, almost year round crossings between Southampton, Hamburg and New York on the monolithic Queen Mary 2. The huge Cunarder is the only true ocean liner in existence these days. Strong and sturdy, she can handle the often capricious North Atlantic with a quite magical sense of style and aplomb.

Here, you can be at sea for up to seven or eight days, but the flip side of the coin is that Cunard tie in a one way transatlantic flight at a decent cost. You can also arrange a hotel stay in either London or New York as well but, truth be told, you are probably better off doing that independently, in terms of price and choice.

In the autumn, the stream of traffic goes into reverse. As winter descends on Europe like a wet blanket, the same vast flotilla of ships shrugs off the gloom like so many exotic birds of passage, making the run back to their winter bases in Florida.

CNV00184Other fantastic bargains in autumn can be found aboard the giant seagoing theme parks of Costa and MSC, as they relocate from Italy to South America. Further afield? MSC also run voyages from Italy down to sun splashed South Africa as well, though these are few and far between compared to the transatlantic trips.