WHY DID WHITE STAR GIVE UP ON THE BLUE RIBAND?

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When the White Star Line introduced it’s brand new Oceanic in 1899, the company broke the mould of traditional Atlantic voyaging in one spectacular respect.

It was not so much in terms of size- the Oceanic represented natural evolution rather than a seismic advance. It was not even in terms of her beautiful, elegant interiors that the new ship really made a splash.

With Oceanic, White Star instead went against the single prime tenet that had governed Atlantic steamships for decades. For here was a ship that, almost uniquely, was designed to steam at a slightly more economical speed than her British and German rivals.

The unspoken rule had always been that liners should be ever swifter, with the in built possibility of making record speed crossings. But with Oceanic, White Star formally opted out of the speed race, never to return.

Why?

Firstly, fuel was very expensive. Each additional knot over the first twenty attained cost as much as that original twenty. And the potential wear and tear on hulls pushed at flank speed could be considerable.

Instead, White Star chose to concentrate on building larger, more economical ships that would emphasize comfort and luxury over bone shattering speed. And it was a policy that worked admirably right up to the outbreak of the Great War.

And I think that it is worth remembering that this comfort-before-speed policy was enshrined in the White Star playbook before the formal takeover of the line by J.P.Morgan’s IMM. And the fact that Morgan allowed this mindset to stand shows that he was in agreement with that direction of travel.

I think by that stage that White Star was not so much keeping an eye on it’s age old rival, Cunard, as watching developments across the channel, in Germany.

Here- just like in Britain- two great shipping lines fought tooth and nail for the lion’s share of the travelling trade.

North German Lloyd dominated the turn of the century era, with a quartet of long, lean four funneled racers. Each in succession took the Blue Ribband (except for the Kronprinzessen Cecile) on their Atlantic debuts.

Their main German rival, Hamburg Amerika Line, replied with a speed record champion of their own, in the shape of the very similar Deutschland.

That ship almost shook herself to pieces in her ambitious grab for the crown. And she proved to be a profligate, hideously expensive fuel guzzler right throughout her career.

In Germany, company chairman Albert Ballinn looked at the new White Star liner Oceanic, and decided that the British company was on to something. He, too, decided to go down the ‘comfort is more, speed is less’ route.

Their first toe in the water came in the stunning form of the Amerika of 1905, a ship so opulent and luxurious that she immediately became the most successful ship on the Atlantic. Slower but steady, and complete with marvellous cabins and a hugely popular, separate a la carte restaurant in first class, the Amerika drew passengers in droves. In many ways, she was just as epochal a ship as the Oceanic, if subsequently a much less well remembered one.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star, found himself confronted with the imminent, looming reality of a pair of record breaking new vessels from the rival Cunard Line. Lusitania and Mauretania would be half as large again as any other ships afloat and, inevitably, they would be far faster, too. These two liners would reduce the time on the Liverpool to New York run by several hours.

But Ismay’s eyes were not just on Cunard; they were also on the continent of Europe. And, even as Cunard contemplated it’s new pair of crown jewels, the White Star chairman acted.

In 1907, White Star took the unprecedented strep of transferring it’s first run transatlantic liners- the so-called ‘Big Four’- from Liverpool round to Southampton.

The Hampshire port had a far superior harbour to the Mersey in many ways, but it was convenient access to continental ports that was the key factor behind Ismay’s decision.

In a chilling echo of current times, Europe was awash with a human tidal wave of people on the move; streams of refugees fleeing war, poverty, and prejudice trekked the length of the continent to board transatlantic liners, hoping to find a new life in the promised land of Canada and, more especially, the USA.

This trade was so vast that tapping into it made simple, logical sense. From Southampton, a White Star liner could reach Cherbourg in six hours to embark passengers from the continent. Steaming overnight along the English Channel, that same liner could arrive in Queenstown to pick up Irish emigrants- just as their Cunard rivals did- before beginning the westbound crossing proper to the new world.

Thus, White Star ships could fill up their empty cabins at two ports rather than just one, as well as picking up passengers almost directly from London via the better rail links that existed to the Hampshire port. Once achieved, their ships could then steam westward at a more stately, fuel conservative speed that made them slower, yet more comfortable, than their Cunard rivals.

And, in planning it’s response to the Cunard wonder ships, White Star refused to be pushed back into an arms race in terms of speed. Instead, they opted for a pair of colossal ocean liners, later to be followed by a third. Each would be half as big again as the new Cunarders. From the start, these giants were intended to be ‘Southampton ships’ and, as a result, massive infrastructure upgrades were initiated across that port. Upgrades that Cunard, ironically, would benefit from significantly after the Great War.

While the design of the new ships was in theory a response to Cunard, White Star still kept it’s other eye locked on the progress of Hamburg Amerika and it’s chairman, the savvy, fastidious Albert Ballinn. It was, incidentally, a compliment that Ballinn himself duly reciprocated.

These new White Star ships would offer stunning, expansive luxury and largesse in first class, while also offering a wealth of cheap, utilitarian but extremely practical accommodation for the desperate hordes of migrants flooding into European ports. While they were intended to take a full day longer to cross the Atlantic than the speedy Cunarders- six days as opposed to five- they would be jam packed with a wealth of time killing amusements and diversions for the wealthy, moneyed travelling elite.

Of course, those two ships were the Olympic and the Titanic. But, as this article hopefully attests, their eventual genesis owed as much to the opulent German vessels of Ballinn as to their fabled Cunard rivals.

CELEBRITY DE-SCALE; INFINITY AND SUMMIT TO LOSE LINER THEMED RESTAURANTS

Celebrity Cruises has just announced some major refurbishments and enhancements to two of it’s popular Millennium class vessels- Celebrity Infinity and Celebrity Summit- to be implemented between October 2015 and March, 2016.

The overall aim- and a perfectly laudable one- is to enhance the range of leisure features and dining areas available to the premier suite class passengers on both ships.

In line with this enhanced dining philosophy is a plan to eliminate both ‘themed’ ocean liner restaurants in each ship, and replace them with a specially crafted new Tuscan Grille, the line’s signature Mediterranean themed steakhouse.

In the case of Celebrity Infinity, this will involve stripping out the decor taken from the legendary SS. United States- herself tottering on the edge of the scrapper’s scaffold right now.

For Celebrity Summit, it will mean the stripping of the gorgeous Normandie restaurant, and the removal of all the fantastic, original, 1930’s Art Deco luxe from the ship.

Two things worry me here.

Where will these beautiful, evocative fittings- currently available to the travelling public- end up?

Secondly, will these moves also presage the removal of the similar, themed restaurants from siblings, Celebrity Millennium and Celebrity Summit? Sadly, it seems inevitable.

On Celebrity Millennium, the themed ocean liner restaurant features the original wood panelling and fixtures from the RMS Olympic- the twin sister ship of the Titanic.

Again, what will happen to these fittings?

In creating these themed restaurants aboard ship in the first place, Celebrity established a totally unique, nostalgic dining experience at sea; a tour de force that was at once both elegant and, more importantly, accessible to the travelling public. It was something of a masterstroke at the time, and an enviable coup for the premium, highly regarded line.

Now, it seems, all four are to be thrown away for the sake of creating some quasi-Italian themed dining experience.

I have no objection to the idea of a Tuscan Grille, but at the expense of some of the most poignant and alluring real estate at sea? It seems to me that this is not a fair trade.

Within that eminently capacious quartet of 91,000 ton hulls, surely there must be some area that can be used- or built on to- to create an additional fine dining experience?

But the idea of removing those idyllic, themed dining rooms, with their all too obvious links to the hushed, illustrious dining experiences savoured aboard liners long since gone, seems too high a price to pay in my opinion.

Dear Celebrity Cruises; please think again.

It looks like the sun is setting on Celebrity's elegant, evocative themed ocean liner restaurants....

It looks like the sun is setting on Celebrity’s elegant, evocative themed ocean liner restaurants….

TITANIC 103 YEARS AGO; THE WORLD WAKES UP TO THE NEWS…..

“We have absolute faith in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is non-sinkable….”

These were the first words spoken in public by Phillip Franklin, the head of the White Star Line in the United States, in response to a series of alarming rumours that were beginning to circulate in New York and other cities.

Those rumours stated that the brand new Titanic, flagship of the White Star Line, had struck an iceberg en route to New York on her maiden voyage.

No one at first believed it. Wireless was in its infancy in those days. The last distress calls from the damaged liner had been cut off abruptly. The silence thereafter was deafening.

Gradually, a narrative gained momentum; the Titanic had, indeed, struck an iceberg, but all of the passengers had been put off safely in the boats. The Titanic herself was being towed by the Allan liner, Virginian, to the port of Halifax in Nova Scotia.

The White Star Line swept into action; a special train was hired to travel from New York, so that families of the passengers could be ushered quickly to Halifax to be reunited with their inbound loved ones. It set off full of hopeful, relieved souls.

Halfway through the Maine woods, the train was flagged down and stopped. By now, the world knew the awful truth.

The Titanic had gone down in the freezing Atlantic. Her only known survivors- some 700 souls- were aboard the Carpathia, and were actually en route to New York. The great liner had already been at the bottom for hours when Franklin made his hopeful, fatuous boast to an incredulous media.

The shock effect was seismic. Fifty seven millionaires had been on board, and now most of them were gone. The cold water culling of this group of platinum chip plutocrats had the inevitable knock on effect. The New York stock exchange almost followed the Titanic to the bottom.

Ironically, the simple, concise truth about what had befallen the ‘non-sinkable’ Titanic came, finally, from none other than her twin sister ship, the Olympic.

The end in sight, and the music is still playing.....

The end in sight, and the music is still playing…..

FLASHBACK; 1935 SOUTHAMPTON DEATH ROW; MAURETANIA AND OLYMPIC

The maritime community in 1935 was awash with interest in the future. After a long, stagnant period of inactivity, work on the brand new Queen Mary was racing ahead on the Clyde at a frantic rate of knots. The inauguration of the new Cunarder was now just over a year away.

Even more imminent was the debut of the Normandie; the first ever of the 80,000 ton, 1,000 foot long ocean liners was due to sail on her maiden voyage in May and, in every respect, the new French flagship was expectd to make an enormous splash.

Time, space and tide would crown each of these great creations with it’s own garland of immortality. And yet, even as they prepared for their first apperances, other, once equally lauded liners sat languishing at Southampton’s Berth 108, waiting for that last, lonely voyage to the scrapyard.

Both Mauretania and Olympic were products of the pre- war Edwardian steamship race between Cunard and it’s great rival, White Star. Each had been a sensation in its day, and for many years beyond. Each had served its country during the Great War with great gallantry and energy. And each ship had lost a sibling in a ghastly maritime catastrophe.

Of the two, it was Olympic that was larger by half, and younger by four years. And Mauretania, as the unchallenged holder of the Blue Riband for two full decades, has left behind an imprint on maritime history that can never be equalled.

Each of the two liners had been the absolute epitome of style and glamour through most of the post war era. But a combination of natural ageing and plummeting passenger numbers courtesy of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, had made their retirements not just inevitable, but even necessary if the fragile new shotgun marriage of Cunard and White Star was to have a fighting chance.

In short, the past had to die so that the future- in the growing shape of the Queen Mary- might live.

For Mauretania, her last scheduled westbound crossing was in September, 1934. Now painted a shade of cruising white, the liner was laid up at Southampton’s Berth 108- a kind of maritime death row.

She was joined there by the Olympic in April of 1935, after her final transatlantic crossing from New York. Over the winter, the Cunarder’s paint work had grown grimy along her entire length. Now the Olympic was shackled to the berth just in front of her to await their fate.

Their silent, yet still dignified demise was in sharp contrast to the pair of great new hulls readying to take to sea in their stead in that spring of 1935. Both ships were soon enough to sail their final, desultory ‘green mile’ to the breakers.

Despite that, it is safe to say that the memories of each- what they were, what they achieved and, indeed, what they have become over the course of the years- continues to sail on to this day.

And that is exactly as it should be.

1935 was a year of spectacular sunsets on the Atlantic liner circuit

1935 was a year of spectacular sunsets on the Atlantic liner circuit

THE NOMADIC; WALKING AMONG GHOSTS

The Nomadic at Cherbourg. Now back in Belfast and completely restored, she is open daily to the public

The Nomadic at Cherbourg. Now back in Belfast and completely restored, she is open daily to the public

My first encounter with the Nomadic was as soulful as it was sobering. For any ship lover, she is nothing less than hallowed turf; a diminutive yet very tangible link to that most famous, feted, ill fated ocean liner of them all- Titanic.

I’ve been fortunate enough to sail on more than my fair share of storied, fabled legends; Norway, Canberra, Rotterdam, Queen Elizabeth 2. But this was something else, and it is not easy to really describe. That said, I am going to try and put the story into some kind of context.

When, in 1907, the White Star Line decided to shift its first line Atlantic express service from Liverpool to Southampton, they also made the very shrewd decision to start including outward calls at the French port of Cherbourg. With proximity to such must see European gems as Paris and the French Riviera, Cherbourg became a hugely popular embarkation port for wealthy Americans at the end of their European tours.  But operations at Cherbourg presented one huge logistical problem.

The port back then simply did not have a pier capable of accommodating the largest Atlantic liners. So the big ships had to anchor out in the bay, the Grande Rade, and embark passengers and mail via tender boats. It was a time consuming, awkward job but, without a pier, there was no other option but to carry on.

By this time, White Star had also committed to the building of the gargantuan Olympic and Titanic, by far the largest liners that the world had ever seen. For their intended visits to Cherbourg, White Star realised that a huge upgrade in the local tender service would be needed.

Nomadic saloon, May 31st, 2011

Nomadic saloon, May 31st, 2011

So, even as the two new giant liners began to rise like skeletal twin cathedrals against the Belfast skyline, Harland and Wolff simultaneously began construction of a pair of specially built tenders; the Nomadic and the Traffic.

As built, the Nomadic was intended to carry the first and second class passengers out to the Olympic and Titanic. So the owners created a kind of ‘mini me’ version of the two sisters, to give the passengers a kind of appetiser to the main course. At 1,200 tons and crowned with a single funnel, painted in the company colours of buff and black, the Nomadic had elegant interiors, including a saloon and a bar. She was a spiffy, sparky little creation; a workhorse with a veneer of polite aristocracy. She would continue serving liners arriving off Cherbourg right into the 1960’s.

She was handed over as completed in Belfast on that memorable May 31st, 1911, when the Titanic took to the water and the Olympic was officially handed over to the White Star Line. Together with the newly completed Traffic, she left Belfast for Cherbourg that same day, parting company with the Olympic as the huge liner headed for a courtesy call at Liverpool. They would not be separated for long.

The June, 1911 debut of the Olympic was a worldwide media sensation. She was the first of the great liners ever to sail from Southampton at the start of her career, and would remain a ‘Southampton ship’ throughout her near quarter century of service. And she would also inaugurate the new tender service at Cherbourg, where some very prominent and well heeled patrons were awaiting the arrival of the much touted new wunderschiff with more than a little anticipation.

They would have to wait a little longer.

The Nomadic in dry dock, May 31st 2011

The Nomadic in dry dock, May 31st 2011

The Olympic arrived in the bay of Cherbourg exactly on time on the evening of June 14th, 1911, and the doughty duo, Nomadic and Traffic, duly loaded up with passengers and cargo, and waddled proudly out to the breathtaking new liner. But there was some problem with getting gangways up between tenders and parent ship; a not totally surprising incident considering that cross decking onto a ship of this size had never been attempted before. It was eventually sorted out, but a number of the more forthright first class passengers were left cooling their heels- while not curbing their tongues- as the people on Nomadic and Olympic worked awkwardly to sort out the glitches.

But this was a one time fail; ever after, the tender service at Cherbourg worked like clockwork. For generations of Americans, the end of their European vacation would be confirmed by their first sight of the Nomadic alongside the quay, smoke curling from her funnel, as mountains of baggage and mail were hauled aboard. She was, quite literally, the portal to the New World.

On the evening of Wednesday, April 10th, 1912, the Nomadic got up steam and headed out into the bay for her first, and as it turned out last, appointment with the second of the giant sisters- the Titanic.

Thanks to a near collision with the liner New York in Southampton, the Titanic was a full hour late arriving off Cherbourg, and the passengers already aboard Nomadic fumed quietly at the delay. Among them was the American multi millionaire, John Jacob Astor and his pregnant teenage bride, Madeline.

Porthole on the Nomadic, the 'mini-me' version of Olympic and Titanic

Porthole on the Nomadic, the ‘mini-me’ version of Olympic and Titanic

Millionaire and merchant seaman alike must have caught their collective breath at the awesome spectacle of the Titanic, floodlit from bow to stern as she loomed ever larger into their field of vision. For the embarking passengers, there would have been that time honoured sensation of leaving the biting cold for the warm, welcoming interiors of the sparkling new liner. Job done, the Nomadic backed away from her huge new client like a courtier bowing to a queen. As she bumbled back into safe harbour, all eyes on the tender were on the Titanic as the giant liner slowly gathered way. Ablaze with light, she slowly receded into the distance, bound for Queenstown and New York.

Of course, they never saw her again.

The rest of the story is well known. How the Nomadic fell into decades of neglect and near destruction. And how, incredibly, she came to be brought back home to her place of birth in Belfast. As the last surviving, intact ship of the White Star Line still in existence, the Nomadic was to be restored to her original. pristine appearance. Now lovingly maintained and open to visitors, the Nomadic provides the eternally curious with a spellbinding trip back in time. People flood aboard her today with as much palpable excitement as the hordes she once carried out to embark on the Olympic, the Majestic, or even the Queen Mary.

But my encounter with her had more than a little nostalgia.

Through one of those quirky fates of history, I toured the Nomadic in Belfast on May 31st, 2011. The ship was nowhere near ready to open to the public yet. More to the point, it was exactly a century to the day since she had been completed. Just a few yards away was the crowded former slipway from which Titanic herself had taken to the water on that same, memorable day.

These same bollards once tethered Nomadic to Titanic

These same bollards once tethered Nomadic to Titanic

The stone grey day gave way to pale blue sunny skies. Fleets of plump white clouds flitted across the skyline like so many ghostly galleons. Covered in a layer of grey primer paint, and without her funnel, the Nomadic crouched in her dry dock, shrouded by a massive, overhead tent. As this was  a working area, I had to put on a hard hat and hi-viz jacket before walking aboard her.

To call the mood ’emotional’ would be an epic understatement. The adrenaline was running like tap water. Inside, working lights reflected on the ghostly, newly uncovered wall sconces and decorations that had once made the Nomadic such a tempting advert for the Olympic. In the spartan, chaotic half light, the ghosts of earlier times seemed to wander through their own memories, looking for once familiar touchstones, or maybe a pre embarkation Martini.

There was the palpable feeling of having stepped back through a time portal. Outside, I touched the vast, cast iron bollards that had once tethered Nomadic to Titanic with as much reverence as a fragment of the ‘one true cross’. And my mind wandered back to that cold, starlit evening in Cherbourg, way back in April of 1912.

I wondered if Astor had admired those same elegant wall sconces just inside, musing idly that some might look good in one of his Newport mansions. Perhaps he asked for a blanket for the delicate, five months pregnant Madeline? On the fantail, I pondered whether old Isidor Strauss had maybe pulled a shawl tighter around the shoulders of his beloved wife of many years,  Ida, shielding her from the cold as they stared up at the awesome bulk of the floodlit Titanic, waiting for them out in the bay.

What of Molly Brown? Under the fulsome cover afforded by one of her huge, famous hats, had she discreetly scoped out the other first class passengers waiting to board Titanic, slowly working out who to cultivate on the crossing and, more to the point, who to avoid….

And, of course, there are the shades of many more famous people that walked these same, hallowed decks. Charlie Chaplin. Marie Curie. Even Burt Lancaster. The Nomadic is nothing less than living history, returned to the place of her birth in one of the most perfectly exquisite pieces of irony ever, in my humble opinion.

Nomadic. Compulsive, compelling time travel. A wondrous voyage. Enjoy.

Titanic porthole, salvaged from the wreck

Titanic porthole, salvaged from the wreck

TITANIC CUISINE- CATERING AND FEASTING ABOARD THE ‘FLOATING RITZ’

White Star Line crockery of the sort used on Titanic

White Star Line crockery of the sort used on Titanic

What did it take to provide first class food and service aboard a ship like the Titanic?

The first thing to remember is that the Titanic- at least in first class- was staffed and run like the Ritz. That mentality suffused every aspect of the food and beverage operation on board. Only the very best was even considered, and even then not always accepted.

Among the other goodies embarked for the maiden crossing were some 1,500 cases of wine, 20,000 bottles of stout and other beers, and some 850 bottles of spirits. In addition, some seventeen cases of cognac found their way into the ship’s cavernous cellars. Much of the wine was loaded aboard months before her propellers ever turned, in order to allow it to settle properly.

As well as this tidal wave of booze, an additional, reserve cellar held another seventy cases of wine, and another one hundred and ninety one cases of hard liquor. No less than 1500 wine and champagne glasses went into the mix.

As regards food, a great deal was taken on board the ship in Belfast, before the liner even reached Southampton. The Irish city was- and still is- famous for the quality of the seafood, especially for the Mourne Bay Oysters. That said, the bulk of the foodstuffs were taken aboard during the week that the Titanic spent tied up in Southampton, prior to her first sailing on April 10th.

The Titanic would also have taken on extensive provisions during her four day scheduled stay in New York. The big liner was due to sail from Manhattan on her first eastbound crossing to Europe on April 20th, and she was booked solid.

We looked at the first class dinner menu in the last blog, but the Titanic also required a vast amount of crockery and cutlery in first class. And again, it had to be absolutely top quality.  In all, the Titanic had something like 57,600 items of crockery on board, 44,000 pieces of cutlery, and some 29,000 items of individual glassware. The crockery was specially commissioned for the White Star Line, and delivered by companies such as the Stoke based Stoniers & Co.

Filet Mingon Lili, served as a main course on the last night aboard Titanic

Filet Mingon Lili, served as a main course on the last night aboard Titanic

The first class main dining room aboard Titanic stretched for the full width of the ship, and had a curved, moulded Jacobean style ceiling. It could seat some 518 first class passengers at one sitting, and had floor to ceiling windows running down both sides of the full length. It also featured the first ever carpet to go into the dining room of an ocean liner, and individual chairs at table, each one upholstered in green leather. In its day, this was easily one of the most sumptuous and palatial rooms anywhere on either land or sea.

The cuisine was under the direction of French born, 49 year old Pierre Rousseau, who had previously honed his craft on the Olympic, the earlier twin sister ship of the Titanic.  The story goes that Chef Rousseau declined to jump into a lifeboat on the night of the disaster, on the grounds that he was too fat, and might have injured somebody else in the boat. Either way, monsieur le chef went to the bottom with the ship, as did most of his catering department.

I think statistics as a rule tend to pale in the reading, but in this case they provide a perfect entree to the mentality that conceived, created and, indeed, permeated the Titanic during her abortive maiden voyage.

I mentioned at the start that the Titanic was staffed and run like the Ritz. And therein lay the entire problem. Because the Titanic, for all her fabulous adornments and opulent luxury, was still a ship. And if she had been run more like a ship, and less like a five star hotel, then perhaps the tragedy of April 14th-15th, 1912, might have been averted.

Everything imaginable was done for the comfort, luxury and leisure of her passengers, and almost nothing at all for their safety. That is their real epitaph.

CHILDREN OF THE MERSEY; LUSITANIA AND MAURETANIA

The Mauretania was a famous 'Child of the Mersey' in her early days

The Mauretania was a famous ‘Child of the Mersey’ in her early days

In the annals of legendary, long gone Atlantic liners, few names are as steeped in lore as those of Lusitania and Mauretania. Conceived as a unique combination of pace and grace, they were intended to be complementary but, inevitably, the two ships became engaged in a kind of friendly rivalry. Both also became caught in the cross hairs of German periscopes in time, in circumstances that no one could ever have envisaged. One was to survive by the skin of her teeth; the second would become the victim of one of the most ghastly and controversial disasters in maritime history.

They were built with government money, on a tidal wave of jingoistic pressure. Britain, the owner of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen, was in possession of the world’s largest merchant marine at the turn of the twentieth century. But in 1897, that long unchallenged maritime dominance was given a rude slap.

That year, a brand new German four stacker called the Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse went thundering across the Atlantic, and seized the speed record- the mythical Blue Ribband- on her maiden crossing. The British were thunderstruck. But even worse was to follow.

One after another, three more successive record breakers emerged from German yards, and each one took the speed record in its turn. The advent of that Teutonic triple play was a real smack across Britannia’s imperial face. The upstart Germans had thrown down a four fingered gauntlet, and it was picked up with something of a snarl.

At the same time, an American railroad magnate named J.P. Morgan began buying up transatlantic shipping lines, one after the other, with the intent of creating the world’s first transatlantic travel megalith, an organisation that would have been the equivalent to the Oneworld Alliance of its day. He named it the International Mercantile Marine (IMM). The jewel in the crown of IMM was none other than Cunard’s great British rival, the White Star Line.

The birth of this corporate beast launched a deep and unpleasant fear in the minds of the British government. The thinking went that, in times of war, it might be impossible for these American owned ships to be employed in the service of the Empire. And, with the real possibility that Cunard, too, might also fall into Morgan’s bottomless money pit, something clearly had to give.

In fact, Cunard had judged the entire situation very smartly, and it now proceeded to play the British government as deftly as a baby grand piano. A gigantic loan of £2,600,000 was secured, with which it was to build a pair of world beating new transatlantic liners. These would later become the Lusitania and the Mauretania.

Naturally, there were strict conditions. Cunard had to guarantee to remain a British company. Plus, the two ships would be constructed to naval standards, with very extensive watertight compartments, and specially strengthened decks, capable of carrying six inch guns. For, in the event of a war, it was intended that the two ships would serve as auxiliary cruisers; cruisers much bigger than any bona fide battleship then in existence.

And, more importantly, the new ships would be expected to beat the speedy new German liners. And soundly, at that……

From the start, they were intended to be the biggest ships in the world. So big, in fact, that they had to be built in separate shipyards; the Lusitania on the Clyde, and the Mauretania on the Tyne. This in part explains the fierce but friendly rivalry that would exist between them, right up until the outbreak of the Great War.

At around 32,000 tons each, ‘Lusy’ and ‘Maurey’ had the inestimable advantage of being the recipients of the radical, reliable new steam turbine technology. It gave each of the two ships an unparalleled power plant, as would soon become obvious. For Cunard was aiming for an incredibly ambitious, average crossing time of five days for each ship.

The twins were breathtaking visions to behold; long, lean and graceful, with no nonsense, knife edge prows and a superstructure topped by a quartet of raked smokestacks, garlanded in the traditional Cunard colours of red and black. First to emerge was the Lusitania, in September of 1907. On her second round trip from Liverpool to New York, she set a new record for the Blue Ribband, restoring the coveted title to British care after a decade long hiatus.

Three months later, the Mauretania finally came on line. She had almost shaken herself to pieces on her first trial runs out of the Tyne, and some drastic internal stiffening had been in order before she could make a stormy November debut that same year. Once settled in, she also quickly beat the record just set by her sister. For the first time in ten years, a supremely dominant British duo was once again top dog on the lucrative New York run and, as the owners of that title, the two ships prospered mightily.

For the next seven years, the Lusy and Maurey would play ping pong with the Blue Ribband, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot. Both were sumptuously decorated in first class at least, with two story dining rooms, and salons more reminiscent of the Adlon than an ocean liner. Resplendent with deep, richly carved woods (Mauretania) or awash with gilt, Louis XVI furnishings and gold leaf (Lusitania), they were the absolute epitome of style, grace and grandeur on the often stormy Atlantic crossing.

That crossing was often a rocky road to be sure. With hull shapes dictated by naval architects, the two ships became famous for their pitching and rolling in bad weather. They had long, lean cruiser hulls, narrow in the beam, and not ideally suited for express service on the most unforgiving ocean in the world.

Yet they were instant, spectacular successes. So much so, in fact, that they ushered in a whole new age of rivalry on the Atlantic crossing, one that not even the most infamous disaster in maritime history could end.

For the White Star Line was not about to take this Cunard double sweep lying down. With J.P. Morgan’s almost limitless millions behind it, that company began plotting a giant triple response. First, there would be two new liners, built side by side, later to be followed by a third. Each of these ships would be half as large again as the pair of record breaking new Cunarders.

But the new White Star ships were not built to compete in terms of speed. Coal was expensive, and every knot over the first twenty used up as much coal as that original twenty did. These ships were designed to cross the Atlantic in six days, as opposed to the five day Cunard crossings. Each would be suffused with such a wealth of spectacular luxury and time killing diversions that the extra day at sea would be seen as a positive pleasure. Steadiness, safety, and splendid food and accommodations were the keynotes of the trio. As the first two ships took shape in Belfast, Cunard kept a wary eye on them, even as Lusy and Maurey continued to dominate the Atlantic crossing.

The first of these ships was, of course, the Olympic. As she made her first, triumphant entry into New York in the summer of 1911, the Lusitania was heading downstream, en route for the Coronation celebrations for King George V. Moving smartly down the Hudson, the Lusitania deigned to join in with the noisy salute being accorded to the new White Star liner.

The Olympic became the first of the mega liners to sail regularly from Southampton. Against better judgement, Cunard continued to favour Liverpool as i’s principal port; both Lusy and Maurey would continue to sail from there right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. More than once, they had broken loose from their moorings during severe Mersey stormssometimes suffering hull damage sufficiently bad enough to necessitate urgent dry docking. It was an anything but ideal situation.

As far as travel was concerned, the Olympic quickly creamed off the American travelling elite, though the British aristocracy in general continued to favour the faster Cunard duo. Part of this American fixation with White Star was that its ships called in regularly at Cherbourg, an ideal French port of call that put Paris and the French Riviera within easy reach by fast Pullman train. It was a lead that Cunard itself was to follow after the war.

Then, in the spring of 1912, the second of the White Star ships emerged. Five days into her maiden voyage, the hull of the Titanic glanced against the side of a capsized iceberg for around thirty seconds. She foundered less than three hours later, taking more than fifteen hundred people down with her, as well as a huge chunk of the New York Stock Exchange.

The shock effect was seismic. In the wake of a raft of investigations, both the Lusitania and Mauretania continued in service, albeit with strings of extra lifeboats now festooned along the whole length of their boat decks. Until then, the Cunarders- just like every other major ocean liner in service anywhere- had been just as woefully deficient in terms of lifeboat capacity as the ill fated Titanic.

This sudden, belatedly commendable obsession with boats for all would prove totally inadequate for the screaming thousands trapped on the sinking Lusitania as her shattered corpse sagged headlong into the Atlantic on May 7th, 1915, after her torpedoing just ten miles off the coast of Southern Ireland. But that is a story for another time; for now, this is where we leave the two sisters ships.

CRUISES TO THE NORTH EAST OF ENGLAND

Durham has a magnificent setting

Durham has a magnificent setting

North East England’s amazing cities, historic sites and stunning, sweeping coastline is receiving more cruise ship visitors year on year. And, when you look at the wealth of attractions encompassed within such a welcoming, relatively compact area, it’s hardly surprising that the really savvy, forward thinking lines are already visiting and, in some cases, even basing ships on Tyneside during the long, light days of summer.

History in it’s most classical sense is on display in dignified, dramatic Durham, the third oldest university city in the United Kingdom, and also the site of a truly stunning Norman castle and cathedral, dating from the year 1086, that sits overlooking the meandering sweep of the River Wear. Granted UNESCO World Heritage Status, this remarkable brace of Romanesque revelations constitute the most completely intact constructions of their kind anywhere in Northern Europe.

All cruises to date arrive at North Shields/Port Of Tyne, the gateway to the region. Not far away is Newcastle, a swaggering, graceful city garlanded with some stunning Georgian architecture, and an amazing span of bridges that vault the steel grey Tyne itself. This alone makes for one of the most heart stopping and dramatic photo opportunities in the world. Not too far away is the stand alone Angel Of The North, initially controversial, but now as much a symbol of the region as the famous Tyne Bridge itself.

Intrigued by Harry Potter? Just north of Newcastle is stately, patrician Alnwick, with the castle and formal gardens that were used as sets for the world famous film series. And the local White Swan Hotel also contains many of the first class fittings and fixtures from the Olympic, the almost identical twin sister ship of the Titanic. It’s a wonderful setting for afternoon tea, or just a look around.

The keep of famous Durham Castle

The keep of famous Durham Castle

That same coastline of Northumbria is famed for some amazing, honey coloured beaches, crowned by ancient ruined castles clinging to stunning headlands, where the play of light across sea and landscape is truly breathtaking. This is the area around Lindisfarne, a storied and stoic outcrop steeped in lore, legend, and memories of Saint Cuthbert.

Moving south from Durham, you have cities such as Stockton, quite literally the birthplace of modern rail travel, and historic Hartlepool, with its preserved old naval quarter that plays home to the HMS Trincomalee, an outstanding example of a Nelson era, fully restored ship of the line. Sunderland has beautiful, covered winter gardens, with a riot of gorgeous fauna displays, and swathes of sturdy old Victorian architecture right throughout the city centre.

When you combine all of this with world class shopping and dining, and add in the natural warmth and friendliness of the local population, the wonder surely is that more cruise ships do not have Port Of Tyne on their schedules. As time passes, expect that to change dramatically.

And, if you want to actually cruise from here to the convenient, absolutely spellbinding scenery of Norway and Scandinavia, both Cruise And Maritime and Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines have ships that sail, round trip, from the Tyne during the summer. A great opportunity, then, to combine a fantastic cruise adventures with the warmth and beauty of North East England.

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.

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.