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.

DOG-GONE! QM2 RAMPS UP THE ON BOARD ACCOMMODATION FOR 2016

Some details of next years’ long anticipated refit of Queen Mary 2 have begun to surface.

The 25 day refit will take place at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, and will begin on May 27th. The ship is scheduled to leave the dock on June 21st.

No less than thirty balcony staterooms for Britannia Club passengers will be added to the ship. To accommodate an extra sixty potential diners, the area currently occupied on board by the Britannia Club annexe will be extended.

Significantly, the ship will also gain some fifteen new, dedicated cabins for singles, thus bringing her into line with smaller fleet mates, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

And, just to prove that it’s not really a dog’s life on the Queen Mary 2, the ships’ kennel complex will benefit from both a new water hydrant and a lamp post. And, in response to demand, an additional ten kennels will be installed in the ships’ aft placed, upper deck dog compound, bringing the total available to twenty two in all.

The company is also getting ready to announce further enhancements in the future. One of these will almost certainly include a massive change to the centrally sited Kings’ Court buffet area, a perennial cause of customer complaint.

More details will be posted here as they are made public.

As ever, stay tuned.

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

THE AGELESS LURE OF THE CRUISE LINER….

Even now, there is something about putting to sea on a ship that just feels so timeless and right compared to being  on any other form of transport.

Yes, that’s a pretty damned profound statement, and it’s one that not everyone is going to agree with. But in defence of such a statement, I’d offer the following as an explanation…..

No one would argue that a jet plane is infinitely quicker and more convenient as a form of mass transport. Which is why liners are largely extinct in the first place. And there are many jet airliners, both past and present, that have been extremely beautiful in terms of appearance.

But nothing for me has the instant drama and majesty of a cruise ship or an ocean liner, or it’s subtle, wondrous progression from a shimmering, implausible mass tethered briefly to a pier, to a fabulous floating wonderland, ablaze with light and music, progressing in state beneath a sky ablze with stars, or lunging gamely towards a flaring sunset, chasing a horizon that it can never, ever reach. No other form of transport presents itself with such dramatic flair, symmetry or sheer poise.

And, while take off on many flights is indeed an adrenaline surge, it is not one that compares with the subtle, beguiling thrill of putting to sea from Barcelona, Genoa or New York on a warm summer night. A beautiful evening, a cold drink to hand, music in the air and the gentle vibration of deck under foot as the gap between ship and shore widens almost imperceptibly- these things are powerful magic, a series of sensations passed down through the ages. They still have the power even today to move people on more than one level.

And it’s the sounds, too. Give me the subtle, seductive sound of deep ocean swishing alongside some sound, sturdy hull standing out on its course to who knows where, rather than the antiseptic interior of yet another transatlantic jet, with its forced smiles and food regulo five.

And yes, many of my friends are just as passionate about planes and, indeed, trains and cars as I am about ships. Which is fine because, if we were all the same, life and how we engage with it would be dull indeed.

And, while there are many charges that even the most ill informed of people can level against sea travel, the idea that it is ‘dull’ is certainly not one of them. The only way not to enjoy a sea voyage is to embark in a sealed, wooden box.

An endless voyage, across a succession of seas ranging from the sublime to the outright stormy, on a series of stunning, elegant vessels, each one as distinctive as a human fingerprint, each as elegant as a charm bracelet.

That’s why I love sea travel.

Timeless and never tiresome. The ocean rolls on in it's endless, fascinating panorama

Timeless and never tiresome. The ocean rolls on in it’s endless, fascinating panorama

FALSE STARTS AND BROKEN HEARTS- TITANIC II, QE2, AND A WHOLE SUPPORTING CAST (UPDATED)

It has been a long goodbye for the classics

It has been a long goodbye for the classics

So 2013 chugs wearily towards it’s end, and the shipping fraternity has suffered a series of shocks, losses and complete non starters perhaps without parallel in living memory. It has, indeed, been both emotional and farcical by turns.

At the upper strata of heartbreaking farce is the seemingly endless, hopelessly unfunny circus that continues to surround the QE2. Hopes were raised for an October departure for a Chinese shipyard, and subsequent conversion into a 300 room hotel. There was even talk of a three month tour, a kind of ‘greatest hits’ voyage around the Far East, to showcase the ship’s legendary charm and alleged, newly ‘enhanced’ elegance.

Of course, none of this has transpired, Today, QE2 remains, slowly suffocating in her Dubai sarcophagus, surrounded by silence and with almost all of her lights switched off. Whatever faint credibility her current owners might once have had has now disappeared as completely as Atlantic fog. People are just so weary of lies, half truths and fatuous bluster that any future pronouncements will simply be greeted with a mixture of apathy and scorn.

Losses aplenty have manifested themselves, too, as the first generation of purpose built cruise ships begins to succumb to a lethal cocktail of age, apathy and sheer indifference on the part of most everyone, save for the owners of those ever hungry scrapyards. The grim procession to the block has already claimed Pacific Princess, Song Of Norway, Cunard Adventurer, and even the 1984 built Fairsky. And, with no word on the stance or condition of Ocean Countess since the fire that partly ravaged her at Chalkis on November 30th, we might yet be looking at another victim coming early in the new year. And, sadly, this list of the lost is by no means exhaustive.

Still marking time

Still marking time

We were also treated to the sobering sight of the partially salvaged Costa Concordia, as her sad, shabby carcass came back onto something of an even keel. Meanwhile, the equally sad, shabby carcass of her former Captain, Francesco Schettino, continues to be butchered in a parallel exercise by an Italian court of inquiry.

People continue to watch with a kind of vaguely uneasy hope all the goings on surrounding the SS. United States, where all concerned are hoping fervently for some Prince Charming to come to the rescue of this legendary ship. Unlike QE2, there is no questioning the sincerity or dogged determination of those fighting so hard to save the ship, and it is to be hoped that their efforts prevail in 2014.

All of which is a million miles away from the ghastly charade called Titanic II. Delayed more often than a First Capital Connect train, it was supposed- yet again- to have a definitive launch date set this December. But since the fickle ambitions of the brilliantine swathed, bon vivant Clive Palmer became gradually more attuned towards Australian politics over the previous summer, the prospect of his much touted ‘ship of schemes’ ever seeing the light of day has vanished as completely as his famously once bruited zeppelin project. Feel free to insert your own jokes regarding hot air and/or serially self obsessed windbags.

So, you will be seemingly deprived forever of the chance to move, with all of your luggage, between each of three classes every two days. Nor will you be able to pose for tasteful ‘Jack and Rose’ style shots on the prow, even as you sail over the gravesite of the real thing. Oh well, it’s all back to the Queen Mary 2, then.

On the other hand, it also neatly deprives Celine Dion of any excuse to get back into a recording studio somewhere.

I suppose every cloud has a silver lining.

AUGUST 19TH 2014 UPDATE

The brilliantined buffoon that is Clive Palmer has just had an extraordinary national meltdown on world wide television. On the subject of China- where he was supposedly going to have his Titanic II built, Palmer has fumed that ‘They shoot their own people; they are mongrels, they have no rule of law, and they want to take over this country.. . (Australia).’

Phew. While it is good that Clive has noticed all of this, it is just a shame that none of it seemed to register with him while he was attempting to get them to build his ‘ship of schemes’.

Amazing how quickly grapes can go truly sour these days, no?

I guess we can also call time on that guard of honour from the Chinese navy as well?

Thanks and goodbye, Clive; it’s been emulsional.

THE AQUITANIA, CUNARD’S ARISTOCRATIC LEGEND

From sea to shining sea....

From sea to shining sea….

Aquitania. A ship whose very name is wrapped in romance, legend and maritime lore. She sailed for thirty six years, establishing a continuous service record only recently bested by another Cunard aristocrat, the Queen Elizabeth 2. Though Aquitania was dishevelled and worn out in her final days, he track record is still one of imperishable glamour.

She was built on the Clyde, to be a bigger running mate for the record breaking sisters, Lusitania and Mauretania. Cunard needed this bigger, far more opulent ‘third wheel’ to run a weekly service from Liverpool to New York.

In terms of scale, design and execution, the Aquitania had far more in common with the rival Olympic than with her smaller siblings. Like the Olympic, Aquitania was meant to emphasise scale, steadiness and sheer, opulent splendour. The Blue Riband was something she never aspired to; she was intended to be a spectacular floating palace, a Palladian bordello writ large. For decades, her proud, four funneled silhouette would be a byword for style and sophistication at sea.

Her initial timing was disastrous. The Aquitania sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage only days after the Empress of Ireland had capsized in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, with the loss of over a thousand souls. The lost liner was very much a ‘Liverpool ship’, and the entire city was in mourning when the palatial new Cunarder arrived.

Aquitania managed just three round trips before the Great War decimated the liner trade. Both  Aquitania and Mauretania were requisitioned as the most improbable, fuel guzzling armed merchant cruisers ever, a role quickly terminated when they consumed every last bit of reserve coal in South Eastern England between them. Both ships were quietly laid up until some more practical role could be found for them.

She re- emerged to be used in a more realistic guise as a hospital ship, ferrying thousands of casualties back to the United Kingdom in the wake of the horrific, ill thought through catastrophe of the Dardanelles campaign. Later still, she ferried American troops across the Atlantic to the charnel houses of the western front. Despite frequently sailing through areas known to be infested with German U-boats, the Aquitania emerged from four years of war without any physical combat damage.

But her machinery had been all but worn out, and a massive reconditioning was needed to bring the Aquitania back to her brief, pre war glory. At the same time, Cunard took the opportunity to convert the ship from coal to oil burning and, in this guise, she joined the Mauretania and the giant Berengaria on the newly established, post war express service from Southampton to New York.

Cunard's fabled 'big three' in the 1920's. L to R: Mauretania, Berengaria, and Aquitania

Cunard’s fabled ‘big three’ in the 1920’s. L to R: Mauretania, Berengaria, and Aquitania

This Cunard ‘big three’ service soon settled down to become the most reliable and consistent operation on the Atlantic. Each week, one of the three ships would sail from Southampton on a Saturday, bound for America. A second ship would leave New York each Tuesday. The third ship would be at sea, heading in one direction or the other.

With very little variation, the Aquitania maintained this pattern of sailings through most of the 1920’s, and well into the next decade. The Great Depression of 1929 combined with the advent of new, cutting edge, state of the art French and German liners to put the Aquitania and her pre war, Edwardian ilk on notice. Time for all of these ships was clearly running out.

The Cunard/White Star shotgun marriage of 1934 saw the Aquitania relegated more and more to short cruises, from New York to Bermuda, and even up to Nova Scotia. With two huge new sisters on order- the Queen Mary and the future Queen Elizabeth- it was clear to one and all that the doughty old Aquitania was on borrowed time.

Aquitania even made a cruise in 1938 down to Rio de janeiro for the Carnival, where she shared the harbour with much more modern masterpieces such as the Normandie and the Rex. If anything showed her advancing age and limitations, it was this mutual proximity to these two transatlantic speed queens.

Ironically, the outbreak of a second global conflict saved her. As Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, it became evident that the British Empire needed every last single potential troopship, no matter how old or jaded. For the second time in her incredible career, the Aquitania acquiesced to the grey guise of an ocean trooper.

In this second stint, the veteran Aquitania ventured to some amazingly unlikely places. Early in 1940, she formed part of an incredible convoy of liners that included the Queen Mary, Nieuw Amsterdam and Ile De France, ferrying virtually an entire Australian army corps from Sydney to bolster General Wavell’s paper thin forces in North Africa. The likes of it would never be seen again.

Tired and yet priceless, the gallant old liner ended up back on the North Atlantic, ferrying American and Canadian troops to Britain in the build up to Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Once again, she managed to make her own unique contribution without ever kissing the edge of a U-boat’s cross hairs. All things considered, the Aquitania was, indeed, a very lucky ship.

At wars’ end in 1945, the Aquitania was returned to Cunard White-Star, and it was clear that she was almost totally worn out. But so desperate still was the shortage of tonnage that the liner spent four final years operating what was, in essence, an austerity service, ferrying both troops and a tidal wave of GI brides across the Atlantic to both America and Canada.

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Though her funnels were repainted in Cunard colours, very little else was done to recondition Aquitania. Her days were obviously numbered and, with both Queens back in profitable service on the Atlantic by the summer of 1947, the end was rapidly approaching for the Edwardian wonder ship.

She was an anachronistic sight indeed when she finally sailed off to a Scottish breaker’s yard for demolition in January of 1950. Sailing from Southampton for the last time into a thick fog bank, the Aquitania looked like nothing less than her own ghost.

Yet the Aquitania left behind an unequalled service record, both in terms of her peacetime luxury sailings, and through the course of the two most ghastly and destructive conflagrations on the face of the planet.  As a ship built for ‘comfort first, speed second’, she represented at that time a complete, radical change to the entire ethos of the Cunard Line. 

Unlike Lusitania and Mauretania, the Aquitania was known throughout her long life as a good, solid, steady sea boat, and this also helped to make her hugely popular. In fact, those two words- ‘solid’ and ‘steady’- both work as singularly wonderful descriptive words in recalling the career, the achievements, and the sheer allure of that sumptuous, wonderful ship- the amazing Aquitania.