THE NORWAY- AN OCEAN OF MEMORIES

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

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

The Norway. Even now, just the mention of her name produces a little shiver of delight. Despite her long and upsetting demise, that name still has an almost supernatural magic that anyone who loves her will recognise without even having to think twice.

But what was it about her that made her so damned compelling and irresistible? Like the QE2, the Norway had an incredible, undeniable star presence that stopped people in their tracks. It was impossible to be blase about the Norway; she was too vital for that; too much of a force of nature to ignore. A diva. One that not only looked better than any other ship out there, but one that knew that she did as well.

She was a stunning piece of maritime alchemy. Her size, combined with her sheer, sprawling beauty, seemed to defy both age, time, and even logic. And that, combined with her miraculous, almost Lazarus like rebirth after five years in the maritime equivalent of a coma, created a deep, real mystique that filtered like stardust through every last nook and cranny of her.

Originally, it had been intended to paint her white, and replace her famous, winged stacks with something of a more modern design. Both those ideas were sensibly thrown overboard. The ship that emerged, butterfly like, from her steel and concrete cocoon in April of 1980 seemed almost too good to believe. If ever there was a real life ‘Ship Of Dreams’, then the Norway was surely it.

That vast, matchless hull, shrouded in royal blue and topped by those easily distinctive, world famous twin stacks, was unmistakable for literally any other ship. At her bows and stern, elegant, beautifully styled gold letters picked out her name. And, when she arrived on station in Miami in June of 1980, she was more than twice the size of her nearest rival. Literally and in every other respect, the Norway towered over the opposition; a revitalised colossus, given a hundred million dollar kiss of life by a benevolent Norwegian prince.

Both said prince and sleeping beauty seemed symbiotic; Knut Kloster was in awed, unashamed thrall to Norway from the moment that he first set eyes on her. ‘I looked at her, and she smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for the next twenty years.’

Smile? Kloster’s kiss of life would keep the Norway at the pinnacle of cruising for the better part of two decades. His devotion to resurrecting this already legendary ship changed the face of the cruise industry forever. Every single modern mega ship owes it’s very existence to Kloster’s pioneering vision, and his sheer determination and sangfroid in reviving the fabled France as the all singing and dancing, show stopping, spectacular Norway.

Internally, she was exquisite. With most of her public rooms built at double height, Kloster hired marine architects, Tage Wandborg and Angelo Donghia, to create the most stunning run of Art Deco rooms seen on any ship since the Normandie. The result was nothing short of sensational.

And, of course, she had more of everything. Back then, only the Norway could boast her own, fifteen piece big band, almost full scale Broadway shows and big name entertainers. No other ship had her own television station- WNCL-  or carried her passengers ashore on custom made, double deck, four hundred passenger tenders.

While some ships had a games deck, only the Norway could stage her own mini Olympics on every cruise. And where else could you find an entire street of shops, complete with strolling musicians, and even a French sidewalk cafe with a separate ice cream parlour? It was little wonder that she blew the opposition out of the water with such effortless, spectacular ease. The ship was a giant on so many different levels.

Yet these bells and whistles, sensational as they were, only sugared the cake. So much about her was deep and sublime, almost spiritual. Did you ever stand up on deck at dusk, under those massive, electric letters that spelled out her name, and just look back at that huge, winged aft funnel as it stood there, black and massive, against a flaring, purple and burnt orange Caribbean twilight, with just the sound of the sea to break the spell?

Or did you ever saunter down the stairs into the stunning, circular Windward Restaurant in evening dress, with the sound of a lilting piano kissing the air, and feel the adrenaline running like tap water? Moments like that- so casual and so many at the time- assume a precious, priceless magic over time and tide. And, when you think about it, you realise without a shred of doubt that such moments could only ever have happened aboard her. No other ship ever quite cut it.

Part of the magic of the Norway was that she maintained more than just a hint of her original, sassy French sense of chic and stage presence. Like any true diva, the Norway could never simply ‘arrive’ somewhere; she always had to make an entrance, and she invariably did.

Even in her last days, the old girl could still cause hundreds of jaws to drop, simply by the act of entering a harbour, maybe already full with six or seven of the modern mega ships. Suddenly, nobody would have eyes for anything but Norway. It was like watching Brigitte Bardot walking into a room full of vacuous glamour models, and completely stealing the show.

And, make no mistake, she loved doing it.

Because Norway simply did not exude magic; she was magic. Norway was the giddy fairground ride that you never, ever, wanted to end. Boarding her was like climbing onto a carousel. Leaving her was like being taken off life support.

She seemed to sense the miracle of her own rebirth, and that wondrous sense of renewal was something that she wore like some sumptuous, shimmering crown. She was beautiful, dramatic and fun. Norway put magic in your soul, filled your head with music, and then danced with you. She was a sublime, beautiful flirt; a platinum chip heart breaker.

And, of course, she knew that you were hers. That you would fall helplessly, hopelessly for her, with no hope of remission. She would smile at you as you left her; that indulgent smile of hers that always knew that you would return. To her. It could never be otherwise.

The Norway was magnificent, magnetic, platinum chip soul food. She had heart, style and class. And she knew how to wear all of them to maximum effect.

Of course, the Norway was not for everybody. But then, not everybody was for her. She knew her own, and she indulged them in the same manner that any queen indulged her favoured courtiers.

Physically, Norway is of course long gone. But a ship like her- an enigma like her- was always something way beyond physical. To the end of my days, I will remember those great stacks, standing out against the sunset. I can still hear the soft, sultry jazz floating along the International Promenade. And, of course, I will always have that star struck feeling of being twenty two years old, strolling down into the Windward Restaurant in a tuxedo.

Scrappers cannot demolish dreams, memories, or that unique, charismatic on board vibe that she alone exuded. As she sails across the oceans of my mind, floodlit from bow to stern, Norway is more alive, vital and fabulous than ever.

And I’m not the only one to feel that way either, am I?

THE LAST ATLANTIC LINERS- THE 1970’S

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By the turn of the 1970’s, the Atlantic liner trade was on life support. With only four out of every hundred passengers still making the crossing by sea, the airlines upped the ante still further with the introduction of the vast, mass market Boeing 747, forever to be immortalised as the Jumbo Jet.

By that time, the SS United States had already been laid up, returned to the same Newport News shipyard where she had been built. On the northern route between Europe and New York, only the QE2 and the France remained in seasonal, spring through autumn service.

The two ships enjoyed a special sort of friendly rivalry. A gentleman’s agreement between Cunard and the French Line ensued that the two ships would always be crossing in opposite directions. When close to each other, the radio operators on the QE2 would salute the France by whistling the Marseillaise at the French flagship. Their French opposite number would respond with an apparently sterling rendition of God Save The Queen. 

But such sangfroid belied the dire straits that both ships were in. By 1971, year round Atlantic sailings had finally came to an end, when the venerable Holland America Line ceased winter crossings with the fabled Rotterdam. It closed it’s almost century old headquarters in Rotterdam itself, and upped sticks to relocate to Seattle, in an ultimately successful attempt to relaunch as a premium cruise product. Happily, it remains so to this day.

From Italy, the great white sisters, Michelangelo and Raffaello were also still making the crossing from Genoa to New York, but a series of strikes by staff on board, as well as among shore side people and tug boat crews, resulted in them often arriving and departing days off their intended schedules. And while they, too, were losing passenger numbers by the early seventies, it was this inherent unreliability that went a huge way to undoing those last great Italian liners.

The legendary Rotterdam closed out the HAL transatlantic service in 1971

The legendary Rotterdam closed out the HAL transatlantic service in 1971

But it was the soaring cost of fuel oil that was the real concern. The Arab oil producing countries, in the form of OPEC, effectively had one foot on the windpipe of western consumers. For the liner companies, it could not have looked worse.

By the fall of 1972, Cunard was actually considering taking the still new QE2 out of service for three months over the winter. There was a vague plan to anchor her off the Florida coast, and then using her as the world’s largest floating casino for that period. Thankfully, it never came to pass and, through thick and thin, this last great Cunarder sailed on.

But the France really was coming to the end of the line.

By 1974, she was costing the French Line- and, by extension, the French government- a million dollars a day for fuel alone. The great liner guzzled the stuff like cheap table wine at full speed. With the barrel price of crude oil soaring almost as high as a Pan Am Jumbo, what followed was pretty much inevitable.

Faced with the stark choice of keeping the France in service, or funding the joint Anglo French Concorde project, the French government inevitably plumped for the latter. In the summer of 1974, the Elysee Palace officially announced the end of the annual, twenty four million dollar operating subsidy for the France.

This was a death blow. The French Line had done what it could; lengthening Atlantic crossings from five to six days and- in a move that many French Line regulars saw as the ultimate portent of doom- the company actually began charging for table wine at lunch and dinner. All to no avail. To nobody’s surprise, the French Line announced that the liner would be withdrawn from service on October 25th, 1974, at the end of her current season.

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

The story of the doomed, desperate effort by her crew to keep the France in service has been told elsewhere on this blog. But by December of 1974, all such attempts had failed, and the France– by far the finest of all the post war Atlantic liners- was laid up at a backwater berth in Le Havre. Her fittings, fixtures and furnishings were covered in shrouds and, with only a skeleton crew on board to maintain essential systems, the great, proud France sagged into a five year long coma.

And, for the Italian Line, arrivederci loomed large, too. The Raffaello was first to go, laid up at Genoa in April, 1975. She was joined by the Michelangelo after her last scheduled crossing that same July. On board for that last crossing had been the widowed Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

Too big to work as cruise ships at that time, and handicapped with far too many small, inside cabins, the two ships were ultimately sold to the Shah of Iran, who had them moved to the port of Bandr Abbas to serve as twin accommodation ships for his military. Both ships were destroyed by air attack during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88; a tragic end for such a fine, beautifully crafted pair of ocean liners.

The QE2 was alone.

QE2- for many years the last great presence on the Atlantic crossing

QE2- for many years the last great presence on the Atlantic crossing

She sailed stubbornly back and forth between Southampton and New York, and she did pick up some of the residue of travellers left high and dry by the demise of the France. Each winter, she operated a spectacular, three month, round the world cruise. In between crossings, the QE2 would make cruises to such exotic locations as Bermuda, the Caribbean, the Canary islands, and the Mediterranean. And in this role, the inherent excellence of her original, dual purpose design- one part cruise ship, one part ocean liner- became apparent. Indeed, it became paramount to keeping her sailing successfully. That last great Cunarder, already well on the way to becoming a modern legend, seemed to lead a charmed life.

At the beginning of 1980, a Norwegian captain, Tobjorn Hauge, was seconded to the QE2 in a guest capacity for some three months. Hauge, a captain from Knut Kloster’s Norwegian Caribbean Line, was on board the liner to learn the pros and cons of steering such a massive ocean liner in and out of limited port spaces.

For Hauge had just been nominated as captain-designate of the newly wrought SS Norway. 

After five years of darkened silence, the former SS France was being slowly resurrected as the largest cruise ship that the world had ever seen. In the spring of 1980, the reborn Norway emerged from her steel and concrete cocoon to gasps of awed amazement. Clad in stunning royal blue and suffused in bow to stern Art Deco, the former French Line flagship was destined for a new life in the lucrative Caribbean cruise market.

But first, there was a nostalgic Atlantic crossing from Southampton to New York. The Norway was not quite fully ready; an army of contractors sailed with the ship, finishing work on a raft of cabins and ancillary services. Still, she had a respectable passenger load of around a thousand on board for what was, in fact, her first westbound crossing in six years.

Following a nostalgic fire boat welcome and three days of celebration, there was an emotional reunion with the QE2, as the two great ships passed each other on the Hudson. A huge mural of that meeting was on display in New York’s Grand Central Station for many years.

AN AGONY OF COINCIDENCE; NORMANDIE, FRANCE AND QUEEN ELIZABETH

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

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

Sometimes, history seems to repeat itself in the long, glamorous story of ocean travel, but not always in the best ways. For there are few things as littered with coincidence, or as laden with irony, as the destinies of successive generations of ocean liners.

Here I’m going to look at just one such link; a tenuous, yet all too true timeline that binds three of the greatest passenger ships ever built- Normandie, Queen Elizabeth, and the SS. France. Take from it what you will.

FEBRUARY 9 1942

The enormous French luxury liner, Normandie, catches fire at her Manhattan berth of Pier 88. The Normandie is in the last stages of being converted to a troop ship- the USS Lafayette. While the fire is ultimately contained, a catastrophic ingress of water applied from forty-three fire engines and numerous fireboats fails to drain, turns to ice, and then ultimately causes the Normandie to capsize. Raised some eighteen months later, the most brilliant and beautiful ocean liner ever built is found to be beyond economic repair. She is towed away and scrapped.

During her first six months in limbo, Normandie shared the waterfront with the only other thousand foot long liners in the world, the Cunard siblings, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. New York dockyard workers nickname them ‘The Monsters’ for the duration of their stay.

FEBRUARY 8 1962

The brand new SS. France arrives in Manhattan on her maiden voyage. She ties up at the same Pier 88 spot where, twenty years minus one day earlier, the Normandie had capsized. At her launch two years earlier, President De Gaulle declared ‘I have given you a new Normandie!’ to the 100,000 strong crowd.

The France had endured a stormy maiden crossing that delayed her by several hours, but she poured on speed to arrive on time. Was the French Line desperate to get her into New York- and docked at that self same Pier 88- and perhaps take attention away from a particularly ghastly anniversary?

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway

JANUARY 9 1972

Fires break out in six places aboard the Seawise University, the ex Queen Elizabeth, as she is in the final stages of fitting out as a floating university cum cruise ship in Hong Kong harbour. The gutted ship capsizes, and is declared a constructive total loss. It is exactly thirty years minus one month since the Normandie suffered an identical fate in Manhattan.

C.Y. Tung was, in effect, on the verge of creating what was actually the world’s first mega cruise ship, a full seven years before Knut Kloster would relaunch the laid up SS France as the SS Norway, the ship that changed cruising forever.

In her last years as a Cunard ship, that company had tried to convert the Queen Elizabeth for a partial cruising role by adding a large lido pool right aft. They had hoped to keep her in service at least until the mid seventies. On acquiring the France, Kloster did almost exactly the same thing for the resurrected Norway. 

Queen Elizabeth, like Normandie before her, was in the final stages of a massive conversion when she was engulfed. The France underwent an even bigger conversion into the Norway; one that prolonged her life by almost a quarter of a century, and made her a legend for the second time.

All coincidences of course, but ones that verge on both the exquisite and the agonising. Irony, elegance, tragedy and ignominy. The four nautical horsemen of the apocalypse?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

As the 1970’s dawned, passenger numbers continued to plummet. By that year, only four in every hundred travellers were still crossing the Atlantic by sea. The jets were unbeatable.

Even the France had started to suffer so, for the winter season, the French Line had started sending her on cruises. These were mainly to the Caribbean, but there was also a couple of special cruises down to Rio for the Carnival. Each spring, she resumed her place on the five day transatlantic shuttle, sailing between Le Havre, Southampton, and New York.

The France was hugely successful as a cruise ship; a role she had never been designed for or envisaged in. The ship had very little usable outdoor sunbathing space, and both of her swimming pools were covered.

These major shortcomings would be addressed during her conversion into the Norway but, for now, the France was a surprising success in the off season cruising scene.

Still, it was on the North Atlantic that she really came into her own. And, even as the noose tightened, she remained a matchless, elegant ambassador for the French way of life; a magnificent, final burst of bravado in the face of the all conquering airlines.

The French Line always asserted that you were ‘in France itself’ the moment that you crossed her gangway. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, even though the bulk of her passengers were American. Onion soup was always available for breakfast and, as on all her ancestors, table wine aboard the France was always free.

In short, the liner clung to her true sense of national identity. Her crew of 1200 was entirely French, including the scarlet jacketed lift boys that whisked madame or monsieur to whichever deck they desired. God forbid that a passenger on the France should actually have to push their own lift buttons.

But the ship was sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. Only a very generous operating subsidy from the French government kept her sailing at all. But, as the old political guard changed back in Paris, some very different thinking began to emerge.

The France made two stunning world cruises in 1973 and 1974, arriving in such unfamiliar locations as Sydney, Singapore and Cape Town. On each cruise, a special supply ship loaded with fresh, clean, high quality linen had to be sent to meet the France at the half way mark; the table cloths, bed sheets and napkins on board were of such a standard, that no foreign workers or machinery could be entrusted to clean them. So the French shipped replacement sets halfway around the planet.

Both cruises were magnificent, headline making epics, but even then, events in the middle east were conspiring to deal a death blow to this floating fairy tale.

In 1973, OPEC increased the price of crude oil sixfold. The France, which guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine, could no longer be immune. On five day crossings, she was burning the equivalent of a million dollars worth a day of crude oil. Crossings were lengthened to six days to conserve fuel and- in a move that really shocked regular French Line passengers to the core- the company started charging for table wine. Many said then that they knew that the end was near.

The government was faced with a stark choice; either to continue funding the joint Anglo-French Concorde project, or keeping the France in service. Doing both was unrealistic. In 1974, it announced the end of the annual, $24 million operating subsidy for the France. What followed was inevitable.

The French Line announced that the SS. France would be withdrawn from service after her October 25th crossing, and put up for sale. One hundred and ten years of unparalleled French excellence on the Atlantic was thus guillotined with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. But all parties concerned reckoned without the liner’s crew.

While many of the deck and engine room staff had the option of transferring to cargo ships and freighters, the hundreds of stewards, cabin attendants and lift boys were left with nowhere to go. Naturally unwilling to see their livelihoods torpedoed thus, they decided to act.

On the evening of September 10th, 1974, the France was approaching her home port of Le Havre, at the end of an eastbound transatlantic crossing. Many of the 1,266 passengers were at dinner. The orchestra was playing in the Restaurant Chambord when, almost apologetically, a steward interrupted them to inform the passengers that the ship had  been taken over by the crew. She would be anchored right across the entrance to the port until further notice. With that, the stunned passengers were served their coffee and, in the best traditions of another moment of desperate shipboard history, the orchestra resumed playing!

On the bridge, Captain Christian Pettre had been confronted by a group of men led by Maurice Roulin, a bedroom steward and former wartime commando. Roulin informed Pettre- nicknamed ‘The Pasha’- that the crew were taking over the ship. Pettre asked him if he was mad, but remained impassive thereafter. No doubt he sympathised with his men and their predicament.

The story made headlines around the world the next day. The France was anchored across the entrance to Le Havre; her huge bulk meant that no other ship could either enter or leave the port. The passengers and their luggage were taken off the next day by ferry. Then both sides settled down to what amounted to a classic Mexican stand off.

The government blustered that they had expected anything but this; the France taken over by her own crew, as if she was some common or garden factory. The crew, in no mood to compromise, proceeded to blow its own slim chances out of the water by demanding the retention of the France in service, plus a whopping great thirty five per cent pay increase.

In the event, it was the strikers- the French were careful not to use the word ‘mutineers’- that blinked first. As the autumn weather worsened, the France was obliged to move to Cherbourg, thus ending the blockade. Supplies of certain foodstuffs began to run out on board. The government simply sat back, and waited.

Finally, in October, the crew voted overwhelmingly in a ballot to bring the France back into port. After a final, touching mass in the ship’s chapel, she arrived back in Le Havre on October 9th. And though the crew continued to picket the ship until December, the SS. France was officially stricken from service that same month.

That should have been that. The liner was taken to a quiet backwater called the Quai D’Oubli- literally the ‘pier of the forgotten’- and laid up. Her furnishings were covered over and, with only a skeleton crew on board, a deathly silence fell over the great, grand France.

It hung over her like poisonous fog for five long, lonely years, As Saigon fell and Britain entered the Common Market, the France lingered in silent despair; lovingly maintained, yet seemingly doomed to the scrapyard. Punk rock came, Elvis left the building, and the darkened ship slipped further from the public memory.

A scheme to sell her as a floating casino fell through, as did a bid from the Chinese government to use her as an accommodation ship, But that vast hull contained thousands of tons of premium grade steel, and it began to receive some very unwelcome attention in certain quarters. Around the world, scrap yard owners flexed their cheque books as they began quietly sharpening their knives.

But these gentlemen were to be disappointed, for the last great French liner was not destined to die after all…..

In early 1979, Knut Kloster, the brilliant pioneer behind Norwegian Caribbean Lines, was desperate to acquire fresh tonnage to bolster his quartet of sold out Caribbean cruise ships. Unwilling to wait years for a new build, he embarked on a radical, far reaching course of action. He decided to convert an already existing ship up to his new cruising standards.

Kloster went for the big top, and decided to buy a laid up Atlantic liner for the job. The premise seemed unbelievable. The experts opined that all four available candidates were far too big for the job. But Kloster pressed ahead.

He first looked at the Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello, and then at the lingering SS. United States.  And then, finally, he came to the SS. France, by a way the biggest of the bunch.

By that time, the France was enduring her fifth, consecutive soul destroying year in limbo. But she was in immaculate condition, lovingly maintained and, as the Norwegians were quick to discover, obviously built to last for decades. The prime candidate. But there was more to it than just that.

Looking up at the still graceful, flaring bow, Kloster said of France: ‘I looked at her, and she smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for another twenty years….’

Kloster bought the France for $18 million and, in August of 1979, she was renamed the SS. Norway in a simple ceremony in Le Havre. On the 22nd of that month, four tugs towed the former pride of the French Line out of her home port towards Bremerhaven, Germany, and the onset of the biggest conversion project in maritime history.

The atmosphere was tense. The local French unions, flailing desperately around, had threatened to block the seaward channel in a vain attempt to prevent her departure. On the bridge, captain designate Torbjorn Hauge had been assigned a pair of armed guards.

It was all a lot of fuss over nothing. Two days later, the Norway entered the Lloyd Werft dry dock at Bremerhaven, and a miraculous, eight month transformation began to unfold. A rebirth without an equal…

THE FRENCH LINE- UNSURPASSED OCEAN ROYALTY

ImagePainting of the Normandie by James Flood, maritime artist extraordinaire

In the world of travel, no people are as nostalgic as fans of the vanished ocean liners. I know. I am one. An incurable case, with zero chance of remission.

Yet of all those long vanished icons of ocean travel, none for me exerts the regret or sense of loss that the French Line does. Because if ever a line could be said to embody the real panache and elegance of ocean liner travel, then the French Line is surely it.

Why? For me, there are a number of factors. Where lines such as Cunard and White Star built ships in pairs to operate as running mates, the French Line never did. Each one was a true individual, as finely crafted a statement of intent as it was possible to produce.

There’s also no doubt that the French Line offered the best food and service afloat of any of the great lines. The dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less then 275 different items each evening. ‘Bon Voyage is always French’ was the line’s mantra. It was something the line lived up to in deed as well as the spoken word.

For instance, the wine cellar on the Normandie was stocked on board a full six months before her maiden voyage, in order to give the wine time to settle. What is more, it was loaded in such a way that, should the ship ever roll, the motion would least upset the wine. Seasick passengers were an unavoidable hazard of Atlantic travel, but bad wine was a mortal sin.

On the subject of wine, vin du table was always free aboard the French Line; the company considered it a vital part of the ambiance of ‘France afloat’. The French Line insisted that you were actually in France the moment that you boarded one of their ships. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, despite the fact that most of the passengers were, invariably, American.

They had style in spades. When the Ile De France first made her stunning debut in 1927, a churlish passenger remarked to her captain that she was smaller than many rivals. His reply? ‘She may not be the biggest, madame; but then, neither is the Ritz’…

Of course, the Ile De France became a legend. She introduced Art Deco to the Atlantic crossing, and her striking, modern interiors at once made every other liner afloat look dowdy and old fashioned. So sensational was her impact, that many veteran travellers were prepared to wait for a week, just to cross on her. For years, she carried more first class passengers than any other Atlantic liner. Even Noel Coward immortalised her in song.

And, even after the war, she was regarded with awe and reverence; a place where you could have onion soup for breakfast, even in tourist class.

The post war Liberte became the most popular ticket on the Atlantic. No matter that the Cunard Queens were bigger,  and the United States faster. And she became a movie star three times over. When Marilyn Monroe tells Jane Russell that she is off to Europe, Russell asks; “On the Liberte?” Marilyn’s reply; “How else?”

Those grand, French Line public rooms had scale to match their splendour as well. When the company introduced it’s first, stunning SS. France in 1912, she featured a magnificent, two story first class dining room. The reason? ‘Low ceilings do not aid the appetite’, said the line. In fact, this was nothing less than a dig at the single story, first class dining room aboard the rival White Star line’s Olympic and Titanic.

But the impact of the Normandie was nothing short of seismic. No ship, either before or since, has made such a sensational, stunning debut as the immortal French Line flagship. Even now, the superlatives flow like fine wine.

The first ocean liner over a thousand feet in length, and the first of the eighty-thousand ton monsters; the first to be the largest, fastest and most luxurious on her maiden crossing. That crossing itself was the most epochal in maritime history.

In terms of beauty, style and chic, she was unapproachable. When she and Queen Mary were playing ping pong with the Blue Riband in the 1930’s, it took the similarly sized British ship an extra forty thousand horsepower just to reach the same speed as the Normandie. The French masterpiece was space age, sumptuous and spectacular. The world would never see the likes of her again.

But that did not stop the French from trying…

‘I have given you a new Normandie!’ With that fatuous burst of egotism on his lips, General De Gaulle watched as his wife, Yvonne, set her successor afloat on May 11th, 1960. Two hundred thousand people cheered as the second France slid serenely into the River Loire, launched from the same slipway as her elegant predecessor.

France was lithe, fabulous, and way too late. By the time she arrived in New York for the first time, the jets already had more than seventy per cent of the transatlantic trade. The writing was truly in the sky.

Everyone knew it, too. The American press described her as an eighty million dollar gamble. The French Line called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

Yet, to the end, the last great flagship embodied all that was special, elegant and stylish about her country. Audrey Hepburn fell in love with her. The France even carried the marginally less beautiful Mona Lisa to New York for the 1964 World Fair. Salvador Dali liked to walk his pet Ocelots on deck. Burt Lancaster would show passengers his hand spring skills.

The dining rooms were still double height and, naturally, Camembert cheese would only be offered to passengers on the fourth day out from Le Havre, when it was considered to be at its absolute best. A French Line Maitre d’ would have chosen suicide over slightly over ripe cheese. It was the French Line way.

Her layup in 1974 brought down the guillotine blade on 110 years of French Line excellence and style. But the great France, magically resurrected as the fabulous, Art Deco suffused Norway, would go on to become a legend for the second time in her magnificent career.

Something of her grand, French Line past always lingered like fine perfume within that sumptuous hull. And those great, winged stacks made her unmistakable. For that, and for the memories that she embodied, I for one will always be grateful.

THE HAPPY RETURN- SS.NORWAY IN LE HAVRE, SEPTEMBER 1997

The crowds were unbelievable. They surged forward in a human tidal wave that blackened every practical vantage point along the Le Havre waterfront. They filled the beaches and swamped the nearby streets. Hundreds poured out onto the balconies of small houses that lined the approaches to the old port.

Traffic snarled up, hopelessly inert in the face of this immense outpouring. Factories, shops and offices emptied at warp speed as their occupants joined in this communal march to the sea. Old women still clutching shopping baskets. Young families with pushchairs and grizzled old dockyard hands, limping unsteadily. Many exhibited traces of the warm trickle of tears. But they were tears of joy.

Out on the river, an armada of small boats dotted in and out of the fret. Bright red and green fishing trawlers and fussy little excursion boats, seemingly full to bursting.Yachts, tugs and even wave skimming zodiacs that thumped across the rolling swell. All of them dressed in brightly coloured bunting that hung limp in the damp, early morning breeze.

And suddenly she was there, in their midst…

A brusque, no nonsense fire boat nosed though the murk, throwing shimmering, silvery grey plumes of water on all sides in a series of graceful arcs. And then, through the rainbow prism of fire boat spray, two enormous, winged funnels ghosted out of the gloom to stand out like sentinels against the Le Havre skyline. The deep, gut shaking boom of her siren roared out in salute, seeming to shake the very buildings with its power and intensity. And from crowded shore and curious, bobbing flotilla alike, one enormous, ragged cheer rent the grey sky like a thunderclap on a day nobody would ever forget.

The Norway had come home.

For twelve memorable years, the Norway ex-France had been a constant in the life of the people of Le Havre. The huge, sumptuous ocean liner was a world class symbol of French seagoing excellence and style. World famous and wonderfully over the top, she was a final, magnificent burst of bravado in the face of the all conquering jets, She stood for the very best in exalted, luxury travel. Not for nothing did her owners call her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

But it went way beyond even that for the Havrois. The ship provided a huge amount of local work for dockers, railwaymen, victuallers, taxi drivers and countless others. The local economy benefited hugely from the spending power of the crew. The France dominated the town in far more ways than one.

Her loss verged on the heartbreaking. After five years of soul destroying limbo, the pride of France was towed out of Le Havre to begin her miraculous transformation into the show stopping Norway. The locals were far from happy.

Her new Norwegian captain, Torbjorn Hauge, was provided with bodyguards on the bridge as she was towed down stream, presumably forever. Hundreds watched her disappear in stunned, sullen silence. The sense of loss and humiliation for the locals was almost apocalyptic as a huge part of their lives and history was swallowed up in the fog.

But now, she had come home. The prodigal child- loved and mourned, but always proud and never forgotten- was once more threading her way through those old, familiar waters. Any residual enmity in French hearts was soon overwhelmed by a tidal wave of affection, nostalgia and sheer awe as the homecoming queen made fast to her old pier, and the crowds surged forward just to be near her again.

I know all this because I was there, standing on the upper deck of the Norway as we swept past the breakwater and into the port. All of us on deck were stunned by the warmth and extent of our welcome, And yet far more was to come. There was a lump in my throat big enough to play football with. And what I thought was simply condensation on my face was the salt of my own tears. On that day, the seemingly impossible had truly come to pass.

Ashore, I talked to a young man who had travelled five hundred miles to be here. He told me that, as a child, his father had brought him here to see the France sail in and out quite often in the seventies. Now he held up his own son in the shadow of those graceful, flaring stacks. The child’s eyes were as wide as saucers.

Even for those of us who knew the history of the France/Norway, it was something of a revelation to see just how much the French still obviously adored the ship. A gendarme on duty said that they estimated the crowd at well over a hundred thousand people. They surged and gazed at her in awe as a searing summer sun smote the gloom and smiled on her towering upperworks.

A band played for most of the day under her shadow; some spectators literally fainted in the heat as they stood there, and had to be rescued by the French Red Cross. That night, old French Line black and white movie reels featuring Ile De France, Normandie, Liberte and, of course, France herself were shown on a giant, implausibly pink blow-up movie screen, with the illuminated ship as a stunning backdrop. Even at three in the morning, there were still hundreds just sitting there.

Our departure the next evening was pure theatre. Thousands thronged the quayside at ten in the evening as Norway shrugged off her shackles to glide effortlessly into mid stream. Astern of her, fleet mate Norwegian Crown was also undocking.

In a gesture of pure homage, the Crown blew her whistle in salute to the Norway like a courtier bowing to a queen, and then held respectfully back to let the Norway make her grand exit. From on shore, hundreds of torches lit the warm night air. Car headlights blinked and horns beeped as the great liner stood on into the stream.

On board, the sounds of a big band flooded the lido deck as the champagne came out in waves. And then, as Norway began to move forward, the night sky was rent by the most staggering pyrotechnic display I have ever seen.

From the black rolling hills right down to the breakwaters extending out into the harbour, the night sky erupted into a sizzling, spectacular, technicolor palette on an epic scale. For a full thirty minutes it rolled on and on, a thrilling, exhilarating torrent of light, colour and muffled booms, interspersed with the slowly fading cheers and ‘bon voyages’ of the crowds on shore. And, like the graceful, ageing diva that she was, the Norway acknowledged the adulation of her besotted fans with a series of loud, imperious booms on her whistle that made the very soul shiver with delight. And then we were off, into the pages of history and legend.

“I know I just saw all that, but I still don’t believe it…” The guy standing next to me fondled his champagne glass without really seeing it. His eyes were wide, and wet with tears. There were a lot of those about that night. The adrenaline out on those open decks was flowing like tap water.

We know the rest. It is all too sad and familiar. But nothing will ever rend, rape or rip apart the memories of that incredible time and place, when the homecoming queen and her cargo of daydream believers went home, mended fences, and made new friends. Only something truly epic, monumental and legendary could pull off such a stunning coup. But Norway did it. I know. Because I was there.

ENDLESS SAILINGS ON A STARLIT SEA PART TWO- WAR AND OTHER HAZARDS

ImageIn September of 1939, Adolf Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, igniting the time bomb that mushroomed into the most destructive war in history. By its end six years later, millions would be dead, and the ranks of famous Atlantic liners would be decimated.

The outbreak of war found both the Normandie and Queen Mary in New York, shackled to their piers. They would be joined the following March by the brand new Queen Elizabeth, after the incomplete new Cunarder made a spine tingling dash across the Atlantic. Converted for trooping duties, both Queens would go on to make an indelible contribution to human history.

The Normandie was not so lucky. A catastrophic fire, started in the last phase of outfitting her as a trooper, would be compounded by a disastrous ingress of slowly freezing water that eventually capsized her in the middle of New York harbour like a beached whale. Her scarred, gutted remains were refloated in 1943, but by then she was useless. The most brilliant and original ocean liner of all time could have shaved another six months from the end of World War Two. Instead, her carcass was butchered in a New Jersey shipyard. For all her magnificence, she never earned a penny in profit.

Of the German liners, the Bremen escaped the Royal Navy by the skin of her teeth at war’s outset, only to be burned to waterline level by a disgruntled crew member in 1941. The two Italian beauties, Rex and Conte Di Savoia, both succumbed to bomb and rocket attacks in shallow home waters. Only the Europa survived to become a prize of war, awarded to France as a makeshift replacement of sorts for the fallen Normandie.

But it was the two Queens, Mary and Elizabeth, that were the real game changers. Sailing alone, at high speed and painted grey, they often wafted up to fifteen thousand troops each across the Atlantic to swell the ranks of the D-Day invasion force. Between them they carried more than 1.2 million men, without the loss of a single life. It was the greatest single troop lift in history, and it ultimately decided the outcome of the war in Europe.

No less a person than Winston Churchill recorded that the two ships between them shortened the European war by at least a year. Adolf Hitler was no less aware of their potential; he offered a quarter of a million reichsmarks to the U-boat commander that sank either of them. None even came close.

After the war, the two proud but grimy Queens were completely refurbished. By 1947 they were offering the most spectacular and successful two-ship service ever seen on the Atlantic. Despite their size, both were sold out more than six months in advance. Anyone who was anyone travelled on them, and Cunard was profiting as never before.

Stunned by the loss of Normandie, the French Line resumed service with the sassy, legendary Ile De France. Just over a year later, she was joined by the Liberte. This was nothing less than the heavily powdered, art deco suffused Europa. She arrived in New York to a grand welcome in August 1950 as virtually a new ship. With fabulous food and service, she quickly, quite inexplicably. became the most popular ship on the Atlantic.

Up above, commercial air travel across the Atlantic had now begun. Fledgling airlines like TWA, Pan Am and BOAC used propeller driven planes that were usually derivatives of heavy, four engined, World War Two Allied bombers, converted for passenger service. The flights were noisy, often shaky affairs. And they were also very expensive. A one way flight from Europe to America typically took around twelve hours, and often necessitated a fuelling stop on some barren Canadian airfield en route.

But, while the vast majority of the travelling public continued to prefer the fun and frivolity of crossing by sea, those flights were still a warning shot that the shipping companies closed their ears to. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Meanwhile, the old Atlantic run boomed like never before. When America got in on the act and introduced the brilliant, barnstorming SS United States in 1952, more than 1.2 million people were crossing the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. In high summer, even the biggest and most prestigious ships- the Queens, the Liberte and the Ile De France- were sold out many months in advance.

The United States was built for rapid conversion into a trooper, and outfitted with engines designed for fast aircraft carriers in the Pacific war. It was a power plant without equal; one displayed to dazzling effect in her July 1952 debut, when she swept the board in the Atlantic speed stakes. For some years, the ‘Big U’ carried the cream of American society, though the Brits continued to favour the clubby Queens, and more cosmopolitan types swore by the French Line.

It was an incredible time. It became common for the liners to sail from their New York piers at midnight, wreathed in technicolor showers of streamers and ablaze with light from bow to stern. On board farewell parties would continue until the last possible minute, and sometimes beyond. It seemed that the good times were here to stay.

There were occasional salutary reminders of who was really the boss. In July 1956, the sumptuous, state of the art Andrea Doria sank off Nantucket, after being rammed in thick fog by the small Swedish liner, Stockholm. This was despite both ships being radar equipped. Some fifty-six passengers and crew lost their lives.

Then, in October 1958, the first Pan Am jet airliner flew from New York to Paris in just six hours, and the death knell of the ocean liner screamed overhead at thirty thousand feet. Within two years, the jets had seventy per cent of the travelling public on board. Soon, the once crowded Queens were often compared to deserted seaside resorts. An irreversible decline had begun. Even the United States was suffering, and badly at that.

There were attempts to use all these ships for warm weather cruises, especially in the quieter winter months. But the Queens, especially, were woefully ill suited to this kind of a role. One somewhat akin to expecting a professional footballer to adapt to playing top level, championship rugby. The attempt eked out their careers for a while, but often at the expense of their fading dignity. The United States fared better, but her deep draft meant that she could dock at very few of the more attractive cruise ports. She, too, was on borrowed time.

ImageSo it was with bemused amazement that thousands lined the banks of the Hudson in February, 1962, to witness the maiden arrival of the brand new SS. France. Built to be a ‘second Normandie’, she embodied all the style, grace and panache that the French Line had proudly excelled at for almost a century. Food and service aboard her were as impeccable as ever. Her owners called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

She was the longest passenger ship ever built. The American press called her an eighty million dollar gamble yet, for years, she averaged more than eighty per cent occupancy. She was joined in 1969 by the new Queen Elizabeth 2, a radically modern replacement for the venerable Queens. For the Elizabeth, that retirement ended with her destruction by fire in Hong Kong in 1972. The more beloved Queen Mary remains a proud, petrified relic of sorts in Long Beach to this day.

From Italy, a pair of lithe, white swans called the Michelangelo and the Raffaello were briefly able to buck the airborne assault. Highly styled and snappily served, they were ultimately to fall prey to the jets. Ironically, both were destroyed by bombers while serving as static Iranian garrison ships in the 1980’s.

ImageThe United States fell by the way in 1969, leaving the France and the QE2 to struggle on. Then, in 1974, the French government finally guillotined the $24 million operating subsidy for the France. Unwanted and abandoned, the great French liner was laid up to await an uncertain fate. The QE2 was alone,

ImageA scheme to convert the France into a floating casino sank without trace. For five dark and silent years she sat alone and unloved. And then, even as scrapyard owners around the world opened their cheque books and sharpened their knives, there came a sudden, fantastically implausible reprieve….

Against all the odds, the beloved liner France was converted over eight months into the Norway, the largest, most staggering and revolutionary cruise ship ever created. Her new Norwegian owner, Knut Kloster, envisaged a bright future for her as a Caribbean cruise ship; one three times larger than her nearest rival.

His rivals thought the idea mad, and not without reason. But Kloster had the last laugh. The first thing he did was close down the forward of her two engine rooms, reducing her speed to a level more suited to leisurely cruises than fast ocean crossings. In her French Line days, the France had guzzled fuel like so much cheap table wine. At one stroke, Kloster slashed her fuel bill by a full two thirds.

With a vast amount of open deck space superimposed on board and a pair of new swimming pools added, the Norway went ‘back to the future’ with a total art deco refurbishment from bow to stern. Two vast, 400 passenger tenders were shipped on board for ferrying duties in the Caribbean. On board came the first television station ever to go to sea, an indoor promenade with eleven different shops set along a pair of window walled boulevards, and the first Broadway style shows ever to go to sea.

It went on and on. The Norway loaded aboard a fifteen piece big band, embarked a thousand passengers, and then set off on a nostalgic crossing to New York and her new home port of Miami. She became a resounding success, paving the way for every modern cruise ship that would follow her. She would dominate the Caribbean for years.

ImageLeaving New York, she passed the incoming QE2, and the air reverberated with their whistles as the two great ships saluted each other for the first time in six years. A massive mural of that meeting was displayed on the walls of New York’s Grand Central Station for years.

And here, with that moment and those two ships, is where the story of my sea travels truly begins…….