QUEEN MARY 2 SAILS ON 250TH ATLANTIC CROSSING TODAY

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The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

The Queen Mary 2 will embark passengers today for an historic Atlantic crossing- her 250th such voyage since she first entered service in January of 2004.

The great liner will sail from the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn, New York, on an eight day eastbound transatlantic crossing this afternoon.

Following her arrival in Southampton on December 3rd, the Queen Mary 2 will conclude her 2015 season with three additional sailings; a twelve night round trip cruise to the Canary Islands will be followed by a return, seven night crossing to New York departing on December 15th.

Following her scheduled arrival back in New York on the 22nd December, the Queen Mary 2 will sail her customary, round trip Christmas and New Year’s cruise to the Caribbean, before embarking once more for Europe on January 3rd, 2016.

Next summer, the Queen Mary 2 will embark upon the most complete and comprehensive refit since her aforementioned debut. Carried through by the SMC Design company, the work will see the installation of some forty five new cabins; thirty new Britannia Club balcony cabins, and a long overdue, dedicated fifteen single cabins.

Also of note is the transformation of the current Winter Garden into a new venture called the Carinthia Lounge. Located on Deck 7, the redesigned venue will hosts breakfasts and light lunches, as well as champagne afternoon teas, and evening entertainment.

Elsewhere, the interior of the liner will be refreshed to give her more of a classic Art Deco feel, a process should help to emphasise her North Atlantic heritage.

The refit is slated to be carried through in Hamburg over the period from May 27th to June 21st 2016, inclusive. Queen Mary 2 will then resume service with a ten night, scheduled transatlantic crossing from Hamburg and Southampton to New York.

The extent of the refit makes this the most eagerly anticipated refurbishment of the 2016 cruising season so far announced. No doubt it will also prove to be the most extensively scrutinised one as well.

As ever, stay tuned for updates.

 

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.

QUEEN MARY 2 TO CELEBRATE 250TH TRANSATLANTIC CROSSING IN NOVEMBER

The Queen Mary 2 will celebrate yet another historic milestone this year when she sails on what will be her 250th crossing of the Atlantic in November.

The giant Cunarder- the largest ocean liner ever built- will sail from New York on November 25th on an eight night, eastbound voyage, scheduled to arrive in Southampton on December 3rd.

Fares for an inside stateroom start at £999.

It’s been something of a banner headline year for Cunard.Tthe company celebrated it’s 175th anniversary this year and, on a more sombre note, there was a pretty emotional voyage of remembrance to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland in May.

Having just completed her first, full decade of service, the Queen Mary 2 is also slated for a major refit, which will see the replacement of the mid ship, centrally located Kings’ Court buffet area among other things. The Kings’ Court has been a bone of contention for many QM2 regulars ever since the ship made her debut, back in 2004.

While it is heart warming to see the great liner passing yet another service milestone, I can’t help but point out that the original Queen Mary – half the size of the current one- used to make the same Atlantic crossing in half as many days.

Still, this really is a cause for celebration, and no doubt the event will be marked on board in suitable style. It should be quite a memorable crossing.

The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

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

CUNARD TO OFFER COMMEMORATIVE LUSITANIA VOYAGE IN 2015

The Lusitania

The Lusitania

In an apt and respectful nod to the most tragic incident in its commercial history, Cunard will offer a seven night, commemorative voyage to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania back on May 7th, 1915.

The giant 92,000 ton Queen Victoria will offer a seven night round trip from Southampton, calling at St. Peter Port (Guernsey), Le Havre, Dublin and, most pointedly, Cobh on May 7th itself. There will be a series of commemorative services on board, as well as a special, temporary display of Lusitania artifacts curated by renowned maritime author, Eric Sauder. The voyage will also mark the launch of a new book on Lusitania by Eric Sauder, who has himself been down to the mangled wreckage of the former Cunard speed queen, just off the coast of Southern Ireland.

Cobh is sure to be an emotional lightning rod for all on board; the Lusitania went down just ten miles off the coast, on a brilliantly sunny day, after being hit by a single torpedo fired by the U20, then under the command of Kapitanleutenant Walter Schweiger. The giant, 31,000 ton liner capsized and went down in eighteen minutes, taking 1,201 passengers and crew with her.

The desperate, improvised rescue effort was mounted from Cobh. A total of 764 survivors were brought to safety here in the aftermath of the sinking. Some 124 victims were buried in a series of heartbreaking interments in the local Clonmel cemetery, where they remain to this day. The dead were still being washed ashore on the beaches here a full three weeks later.

Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Lusitania and her twin sister, the Mauretania, had been the unchallenged speed queens on the Atlantic crossing. On her debut in September 1907, the Lusitania- then the largest and most opulent vessel afloat- had retaken the speed record, held for ten consecutive years by a succession of German liners. With their sharp, graceful lines, quartet of tall, raked smokestacks and sumptuous interiors, the two sisters played ping pong with the Blue Ribband for a full seven years. Sailing between Liverpool and New York, the two sisters continued to beat each other now and again by a fraction of a knot.

The story of the last voyage of the Lusitania has been replayed often, and will no doubt be dragged up for air again next year by a whole conga line of armchair theorists. The bare facts are that the liner sailed from New York on May 1st, 1915, bound once more for Liverpool,  after German warnings had appeared in the press. These advised prospective passengers not to travel on ships said to be illegally carrying munitions to aid the British war effort on the Western Front. Based on this belief, Schweiger slammed his torpedo into the starboard side of the Lusitania on the early afternoon of May 7th, 1915, and sank the ship.

This still buoyant controversy in  no way negates the impact of the tragic deaths of 1,201 people, passengers and crew alike. Nor does it tarnish the tremendous achievement and seven years of largely forgotten success that the Lusitania still represents. One hundred years after her ghastly demise off the Old Head of Kinsale, it is entirely right and fitting that the maritime community in general- and Cunard in particular- pays due respect to this lost, enduring legend.

SAILING TO THE CAPE; SOME OPTIONS WORTH CONSIDERING

The very essence of the old 'Cape Run'

The very essence of the old ‘Cape Run’

The Cape Run. In the old days, it was the thing of legends. In the years before the air was filled with the sound of screaming jets soaring overhead, the famous, lavender hulled Union Castle liners used to sail from Southampton, heading south on the two week long voyage to the crown jewel of South Africa.

As voyages go, it is perhaps second only to the Atlantic crossing in terms of the nostalgic joy that it still conjures. But, rather than the frantic, often cold weather dashes of the great liners to and from the New World, the ‘Cape Run’ was a much more languid, civilised affair, usually stretched out over a couple of weeks.

It was also a vastly different kind of adventure; the Union Castle liners were generally decorated to resemble floating English country houses, decked out in acres of dark wood, and what many would now find to be toe curling chintz. It was a world of languid afternoon teas. shuffle board on long, open promenades, and the odd dinner dance out on deck. Passenger numbers were much lower than on the Atlantic, and the ships were much more intimate.

Leaving the cold of Great Britain, weather would usually improve rapidly after the often stormy passage over the sometimes petulant Bay of Biscay. By the time the ship reached Tenerife, temperatures had usually climbed enough for passengers to use the outdoor pool and sun bathing areas for most of the voyage. Unlike on the Atlantic, the weather seldom made the Cape Run an almost exclusively indoor experience.

Fred. Olsen offers occasional voyages to or from the Cape

Fred. Olsen offers occasional voyages to or from the Cape

Obviously, the voyage had lots of sea days, enhanced by occasional stops in such places as remote Saint Helena, scene of the second, final exile for Napoleon Bonaparte, and the  rugged splendour of Walvis Bay. And, if journey’s end perhaps lacked the instant drama of the approach to Manhattan, then the sight of the cloud draped Table Mountain at the end of the voyage must have had it’s own, immediate drama.

Of course, the voyage ran in both directions, year in and out, for many decades. Finally done in by the droning jet air armada, the sailings finally ceased in 1977, leaving a kind of retrospective, nostalgic yearning for yet another elegant experience, seemingly consigned to the memory bank of history.

Happily, opportunities do still exist to travel the ‘old run’, usually in the shape of repositioning voyages. These usually occur in late autumn, or as part of a World Cruise itinerary, usually sailing in January. So, if the idea of sailing to the Cape appeals to you, here’s a few options worth considering.

Please note that this blog does not cover such passenger/cargo options as the RMS St. Helena, or the freighters of Safmarine which also sometimes carry passengers. These are beyond my bounds of experience. In that respect, you might want to look at a specialist website such as The Cruise People at http://www.cruisepeople.co.uk

Leave winter behind on a voyage to South Africa

Leave winter behind on a voyage to South Africa

The biggest option- quite literally- is usually offered by MSC Cruises. Each autumn, one or two of their enormous, resort style ships usually sails from the Italian port of Genoa, bound for a winter season of cruises out of Durban, with a Cape Town call en route. Interestingly, many of these sail down the east coast of Africa. With hundreds of balcony cabins, and all the razzle and sizzle of a resort type ship, they offer a raft of activities sufficient to keep their passengers occupied for days on end. They usually return to Italy in the spring, sailing on a similar route.

Cruise And Maritime also offer a rather more intimate style of adventure, sailing the 21,000 ton Astor on a line voyage to and from Cape Town each spring, as part of a longer, winter long deployment to Australia. In terms of ambiance, numbers, and with an emphasis on board on intimacy and relaxation, this spiffy little ship is probably the closest in spirit to the ‘old days’ as you are likely to find these days.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines often feature at least one adventure to or from the Cape every year, as part of one of their annual World Cruise programme. Having catered to legions of largely British passengers on their sweetly sized, intimate vessels for decades, Fred. Olsen is probably better placed than anyone to deliver some of the old world, colonial ambiance of the ‘Cape Run’; also, their ships offer a large number of single cabins that make them an excellent value for often heavily penalised solo travellers.

Intrigued? I certainly am. This is a voyage I would love to make and, when it happens, you’ll certainly get the story on here first. Happy voyaging!

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.

TIMESLIP: QE2 AND THE SS. NORWAY IN SOUTHAMPTON, JULY 26TH 1984; A FIRST HAND ACCOUNT

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway at Southampton

On July 26th, 1984, the UK was in the middle of the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The miners’ strike was front page news almost everywhere. In the charts, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were in the midst of a nine week run at number one with their second big single, Two Tribes.

In a sunny, beautifully warm Southampton, Thursday, July 26th was also the scene of a very special reunion. On that day, the two biggest passenger ships in the world would meet again in the famous Hampshire port for the first time in decades. And, naturally, such an event brought out both the cameras and the crowds.

In fact, there were three ‘ladies of the sea’ in Southampton that day. Bringing up the rear of the line- quite literally- was the exquisite Royal Viking Sky. Still sailing today as Fred Olsen’s Boudicca, RV Sky was by far the smallest of the trio in terms of size. But in terms of style and elegance, she was a finely sculpted, gigantic presence.

At her regular berth at the terminal that bore the name of her Godmother was the Queen Elizabeth 2. For the first time, that legendary ship now wore the full, traditional Cunard colours; charcoal hull, white upper works, and black and red smokestack. When I first saw her from the land, she was a tantalising vision; one just out of reach. But I was not too worried. I knew I’d get a very close look at her in a few hours.

A few hours before that, a third, unmistakable presence had come looming out of the darkness. For the first time since her rebirth in 1980, the SS. Norway had made a transatlantic crossing back to Europe. After four years’ of hugely profitable employment in the Caribbean, the world’s largest cruise ship was making her cruising debut in Europe. Based in Hamburg, the Norway would be making a string of seven night Baltic cruises, with an alternating, seven night run up to the fjords of western Norway.

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Canberra was another Southampton stalwart in the eighties

Naturally, she had first to cross the Atlantic. It had been planned to sail her from New York, but the Hudson river had silted up to a dangerous level. The Port Authority was unwilling to pay for massive dredging for what they knew would be a one off visit. So, instead, the Norway embarked a thousand passengers in Philadelphia.

Even then, problems persisted. Some eight feet had to be lopped from the top of her mainmast, so that the Norway could pass safely under the Walt Whitman bridge. But, once that was done, things went very smoothly.

Quite literally, as it turns out. For eight days, the Norway surged gamely eastwards on a glass clam, sunlit Atlantic. She embarked Petula Clark, Sacha Distel, and her own, resident fifteen piece big band for a leisurely voyage, back on her old run, to Southampton.

By the time she swept into Southampton on that gorgeous Thursday morning, the Norway was immaculate; resplendent in her royal blue and white paint scheme. Rumours persisted later that Captain Aage Hoddevik had paint crews over the side in the small hours, touching up any unsightly blemishes, as she stooged just off the Isle of Wight. Heaven forbid that madame should not have her make up just perfect for her reunion with her royal cousin.

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

QE2 has never been forgotten in her home port

The SS. Norway docked at Berth 106, regular home of the rival P&O consorts, Canberra and Oriana. I boarded her there that afternoon, awed as always by those graceful, winged stacks and the beautiful sheer of her lines. Settled in, and with lifeboat drill over, I made it up on deck just in time to see the Royal Viking Sky begin her stately progress downriver. Swinging loose behind us, the languid, Scandinavian beauty was quite a sight.

Early evening sunlight turned the water into what looked like a sea of blazing straw as she came on. The long, flared bow loomed black and massive in it’s light, cutting the swell as smoothly as a hot knife through butter. As she drew level with the far larger Norway, passengers on both ships waved back and forth, though mostly on the Norway. With her single, elegant funnel framed perfectly against a vivid, petrol blue sky, this beautiful ship- graceful and poised as a swan- swept proudly past us, on her way to yet another epic adventure.

And then, it was our turn.

With an absolute minimum of fuss or ceremony, the magnificent Norway warped slowly clear of Berth 106. There was no band, streamers or crowds; the sight of that enormous, thousand foot long hull looming slowly into the stream was ceremony enough in its own right. Our only clue that we were underway at all was the slowly widening strip of sun dappled water that yawned open like some spectacular theatre curtain as she stood out into the stream. And, as that fabulous bow nudged slowly forward, all eyes were locked like lasers on the other principal actress in this performance.

Bathed in mid summer sunshine, the QE2 seemed to shimmer like some ethereal, other worldly presence. Her trim, back and red smokestack loomed ramrod straight, pointing at the vapour trail of some jet, ghosting across the sky high above her. And, as the two ships drew closer, what looked like an army of ants could be seen on board her, scurrying across to line the rails on her starboard side boat deck.

Many came to cherish this view

Many came to cherish this view

At the same time, a human tidal wave flooded every single vantage point on the port side of the Norway. And, as the two biggest and most legendary ships of the post war era drew level with each other, the air erupted with the sound of four thousand voices as they offered up one huge, single cheer.

Seconds later, and a pair of sirens boomed out across the water, as Norway and QE2 saluted each other. Time seemed to stand still as the crowds on both ships whooped, shrieked and waved across to each other. It was a stunning moment; a unique little bit of history. The adrenaline on both ships was flowing like Niagara Falls.

Mellow evening sunlight filled the slowly widening gap between the two divas, as the Norway stood slowly out into mid stream. And, looking back at the elegant, slowly receding enigma that was QE2, I knew beyond doubt that I would soon have to return to her, too.

ON THE DAY; TITANIC’S DEPARTURE FROM SOUTHAMPTON, APRIL 10TH, 1912

....and away; off into the half mythical twilight of history and legend.....

….and away; off into the half mythical twilight of history and legend…..

The morning of Wednesday, April 10th 1912 dawned bright and clear in Southampton, as the Titanic began final preparations for her maiden voyage departure. Captain Edward Smith left his house in Winn Road, Southampton, and boarded the ship at around 7.30 that morning.

He boarded a ship that was an absolute hive of activity. After a week sitting idly at dockside in Southampton as a myriad of last minute jobs were completed, Titanic was all business. Second Officer Lightoller was thoroughly miffed by Captain Maurice Clarke, the marine superintendent from the Board Of Trade. Clarke was there to see that all the regulation life saving equipment and signalling  gear was in top condition.

Clarke had to sign the official certificate of seaworthiness for the Titanic; without it, she simply would not have been allowed to sail. Lightoller’s ire at Clarke was because of the slow, methodical way that he went through everything. At one stage, he demanded that two fully loaded lifeboats be dropped into the water from the starboard side, and then raised again. It was as if he had some kind of premonition. Only when he was completely satisfied did Clarke sign the certificate, and leave the ship. No doubt Lightoller was glad to see the back of the man on what was such a busy day for him already.

At about the same time that Smith boarded Titanic, a very full boat train pulled out of London’s Waterloo Station, bound for Southampton. It fussed to a halt, directly alongside the Titanic at around 9.30. The bulk of the passengers were travelling in third class, and it was these that boarded first. The second and first class passengers went on board around an hour later.

All told, some 922 passengers boarded the Titanic at Southampton, with another 395 scheduled to embark at Cherbourg and Queenstown, before the ship set off for New York. In all, the Titanic was only around two thirds full for her maiden voyage.

And a large number of those- mainly in second class- had come from ships whose own voyages had been cancelled, as a result of the national coal strike which was just then ending. The sailings of three vessels were aborted, and their coal- and passengers- were transferred over to the Titanic. For those passengers, it would prove to be the unluckiest free transfer of all time.

The ship already had steam up; indeed, her boilers had been alight ever since her arrival from Belfast a full week earlier. Simply tied up at her pier, the Titanic had burned over a thousand tons of coal in the acts of keeping lights, wireless, and other electrical services working around the clock. In that mad last week, with a million small jobs needing to be finished, few visitors were allowed aboard the new ship.

As the noon sailing time approached, a large crowd began to congregate along the quays, wharves and streets adjoining the new White Star Dock. Though the company itself had intended to keep the sailing low key, the presence of so many millionaires on the first class passenger list- some fifty eight in all- guaranteed some platinum chip rubbernecking. Helpfully, The Times had listed all these luminaries on its front page a few days earlier.

It was said to be the biggest congregation of wealth ever assembled in one place at the same time, and yet there were one or two notable absences. J.P. Morgan, owner of the White Star Line, had been advised at the last minute not to travel by his doctors. Another last minute cancellation was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the American multi millionaire. Plagued by an unfathomable feeling of doom, Vanderbilt was one of the fifty people- across all three classes- that either cancelled their passage on the Titanic, or who were no-shows on the day.

Fat lot of good it did him; three years later, Vanderbilt went down with the Lusitania, torpedoed off the coast of Southern Ireland.

Shortly before noon, the gangways for all three classes came down. All of the duty officers on board went to their sailing stations. Men stood by the ropes, ready to unshackle the Titanic once her tugs were ready, and prepared to make fast. Her whistle boomed out in the bright spring breeze, triggering a frantic dash from a nearby pub by a group of six stokers, who should long since have been aboard. Instead, they had collectively decided to risk a final pint.

Their pleas to the officer at the gangway- probably young James Moody- were in vain. Moody was having no excuses. The six stood there in stunned disbelief as the enormous bulk of the Titanic warped slowly away from them. Her six tugs took up their stations, like puppies trying to cajole a reluctant dinosaur.

Below the waterline, the three enormous propellers kicked into life. With a combined weight of a full hundred tons, they slowly began to push the liner forward. Still guided by her tugs, the enormous bulk of the Titanic moved into midstream, and the maiden voyage proper began.

Scant minutes later, it almost ended.

As the Titanic came level with Berth 38, the huge wash generated by her forward momentum caused ropes on the tethered liner New York to first strain, and then snap like so much cotton thread as the Titanic came level with her. The stern of the smaller American liner loomed ominously into mid stream, directly toward the Titanic. A collision seemed inevitable.

At this stage, the Titanic was under the control not of Captain Smith, but of the Southampton harbour pilot, George Bowyer. But it was Smith who quickly ordered the port engine to be reversed, kicking up a wash that stalled the flailing New York just four feet short of the Titanic.

At the same time, quick thinking by the captain of the Vulcan, one of the six tugs escorting Titanic, resulted in a line being attached to the New York. She was dragged back to her berth by the Vulcan like a disgraced puppy. Once the distance had opened up between them, the Titanic nudged gingerly forward once more.

No one at the time could have known that this was the closest that Titanic would ever get to anything called New York….

It had been a sensational near miss, and it was the talk of the passengers on board as the Titanic sailed down past Calshot. Once she rounded Spithead, the Titanic exchanged flag salutes with a Royal Navy destroyer passing the opposite way, and then disembarked pilot Bowyer.

Delayed a full hour by the near collision with the New York, the Titanic set out across the English Channel to pick up the passengers impatiently awaiting her at Cherbourg. As dusk fell, these embarked on the White Star tenders, Nomadic and Traffic, for the transfer to the ship.

Those passengers were greeted by the awesome spectacle of the Titanic, anchored in the bay, and floodlit from bow to stern. Right at that moment, she must have been a truly wonderful sight.

Once all were aboard, the Titanic executed a graceful, stately pirouette, and stood slowly out into the darkness. The tenders backed slowly away, like twin courtiers, bowing to a queen. Crewmen on the Nomadic and Traffic watched her disappear into the twilight, certain in the knowledge that she would be back in just three weeks.

They never saw her again.