WHY DID WHITE STAR GIVE UP ON THE BLUE RIBAND?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two things worry me here.

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

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

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

Again, what will happen to these fittings?

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Celebrity Cruises; please think again.

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

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

THE TITANIC- WHY DID IT TAKE SO LONG TO LOWER THE BOATS?

If any one thing is guaranteed to raise hackles in the whole, sorry saga of the Titanic, it is the subject of the loading and lowering of the boats.

Consider this; there were twenty boats in all. There were some fourteen regular, five ton lifeboats, and an additional pair of cutters, as well as four emergency boats on board. Their total capacity was something in the region of 1180 people. Yet only 705 would actually make it into those boats.

The Titanic hit the iceberg at 11.40 on the evening on Sunday, April 14th. But not until 12.45 on the morning of the 15th was the first boat- number 7- lowered from the sinking ship. With a capacity for some sixty five people, it left the Titanic carrying just twenty eight.

In many instances, the pattern was repeated. Boat number one, capacity forty, left carrying just twelve.

How could it happen? How could those boats- insufficient for around half of the 2200 plus people on board the sinking liner- leave with something like 475 empty seats? And how did it take so long to begin an evacuation that soon thereafter became almost ruthless in its desperate haste?

Some of the answers lie in the way that the Titanic was conceived and run in the first place.

When the writer Joseph Conrad derisively referred to Titanic as ‘a kind of maritime version of the Ritz’ not long before she set sail, he was closer to the truth than many then realised. The ship was staffed and run- in first class at least- like a top end, five star plus hotel.

There were literally hundreds of stewards, stewardesses, bell boys, chefs, musicians, postal clerks, and even a gardener on board the Titanic. They were there to deliver a level of service and catering excellence that would leave most land based hotels reeling in her wake.

But, for all of her finery and panache, the Titanic was not a hotel; she was a ship.

Of a total crew in excess of nine hundred, there were only something like sixty five trained seamen on the entire ship. That is to say, men who could be expected to carry out emergency duties in the unlikely event of an accident. Including, say, the loading, lowering and, indeed, the manning, of all the lifeboats.

Sixty five men out of a crew of nine hundred….

But the owners had thought of that. They had fitted the Titanic with a wonderful, new advanced system of launch gear for the boats. Known as the Welin davit system, it allowed for each lifeboat to be lowered smoothly to the sea by small, electrical engines. No need for a large amount of manual labour, and time saving to boot.

Of course, the boats could still be lowered manually, in the old fashioned way. This was all well and fine, if only one or two boats needed to be lowered that way.

But what happened if all of them needed to be lowered by hand, and quickly? That was the nightmare scenario that no-one could ever have envisioned. But that is exactly what came to pass on the night of April 14-15, 1912.

After the Titanic glanced against the iceberg at around 11.40, Captain Smith brought the ship to a standstill, and sent both his carpenter and Fourth Officer Boxhall down below to make an inspection tour of the damage. The carpenter’s report indicated that the ship was making water very quickly indeed.

Instead of ordering that the lifeboats be uncovered there and then, Smith himself then set off on a tour of inspection with Thomas Andrews, the chief builder of the ship. Their increasingly baleful progress through the damaged areas convinced both men that the Titanic was, indeed, going to sink. Here, valuable time was lost while the captain confirmed for himself what a perfectly qualified carpenter had already told him.

Now, Smith swung into action, and started swinging out the boats. He ordered that each boat be uncovered, filled with women and children, and then lowered away. On the port side, Second Officer Lightoller would be in charge. First Officer Bill Murdoch would officiate over on the starboard side.

Stunned, half asleep and disbelieving, the seaman of the Titanic began to gradually report to the boat deck. What followed was a black comedy, played out across the sloping decks of the sinking liner.

The normal, scheduled boat drill which should have taken place that Sunday morning had been cancelled at the last moment- by Captain Smith. There was nothing unusual in that back in 1912. Cancellations were as regular as Atlantic storms, just part of the increasingly cavalier mind set that had taken over even the best and most formerly prudent of ocean liner captains by the second decade of the new century.

Thus, the men had no actual boat assignments; everything they did that night was by instinct, rather than routine. And that work was far from easy.

Every single boat had to be stripped of it’s canvas cover- no small job in itself. Then they had to be swung out on brand new davits, lowered flush with the boat deck, filled with women and children, and then lowered a full seventy feet down the side of the Titanic.

Once afloat, they had to be disconnected from the ropes that had lowered them, and then rowed to the assumed safety of some nearby rescue ship. Each boat weighed five tons empty, and they would take the additional weight of sixty five frightened souls on board. In those days, each boat had to be rowed manually. There were no electric motors for the lifeboats.

You can see that all of this was a pretty tall order, in and of itself. It would have presented a huge challenge to a perfectly trained crew; even one that had grown used to working together over a long period of time.

But for the crew of the Titanic, untried and unused to working as a team, it was about to get a whole lot worse.

With the electrical supply available to the ship slowly failing, Chief Engineer Joseph Bell had to decide on priorities, and quickly at that. He decided to concentrate on keeping power going to the lights and the wireless room on board.

To facilitate that, he shut down the power to a whole raft of redundant, now pretty much superfluous power outlets. As the situation worsened, Bell and his heroic engineers ruthlessly culled every bit of machinery that they could in order to keep those other, more vital elements alive and in play.

One of the first casualties was the lifeboats’ winches. After all, the boats could be lowered by hand, couldn’t they?

So now, the small band of sixty five seamen set about the loading and lowering of something like twenty lifeboats. There were two groups of four boats on the forward deck, and another group of four located aft, on both port and starboard sides. The four collapsible boats were on top of the officer’s mess right forward, and were somehow supposed to be manhandled down and fitted into the forward davits, once those were empty. It was an utterly farcical placement.

Both Murdoch and Lightoller knew that the Titanic was sinking by the head. As her bow sagged down, the water would inevitably rise to the forward end of the boat deck first. Which made getting those first, forward boats away something of a necessity, if anyone was to be saved at all.

Now this woefully inadequate band of sixty five men embarked on a herculean task for which they had not been trained or prepared, in circumstances that could hardly have been more dire. They knew almost from the start that they were truly up against it.

The passengers, alas, did not.

While the all too alarmed passengers in third class were kept below by the series of locked gates mandated by US Customs to keep the classes segregated on ocean liners, their counterparts in first and second class were reluctant to even come out on deck, never mind enter the lifeboats. And, after all, why would they?

The only coherent thought that seemed to occupy Captain Smith’s mind that night was the need to prevent a panic. Simple maths informed his thinking on that front.

Some 2200 souls had been entrusted to his care, and he had lifeboats for less than 1200. The nearest responsive rescue ship was some four hours’ steaming away. And the Titanic had just over half that time to live.

Smith knew that over a thousand of his passengers and crew had nowhere to go but down. And he also knew that, as the ship sank further, awareness of their truly desperate plight could trigger an unstoppable panic, one that might result in even more fatalities.

There was no public address system available to the Titanic, so no general alarm was ever sounded. This largely explains why there was a lack of any initial panic; it was the end product of people’s largely complete lack of awareness of the true nature of the ship’s plight. And, up to a point, that fed into Smith’s hand.

So, instead of opening up the gates to third class, Smith tried to play an unwinnable poker game; passengers in first class were lulled with lively ragtime and other upbeat tunes in the warm, well lit interior of the ship. Outside, the night air was freezing, and the sound of the ship’s boilers, venting off steam through the whistles, was akin to a deeply unpleasant roar that made conversation- and, indeed, hearing any shouted orders- all but impossible. No, better by far to stay inside in the warm, comfortable surroundings that they had enjoyed so much over the last five days.

At the same time, the under resourced, over worked handful of officers and men on the boat deck were desperately trying to coerce passengers into the boats. But even the few passengers that did come out into the frigid night air were reluctant; wives did not want to leave their husbands. Extended families were reluctant to be parted.  And the idea of climbing into those little boats, there to endure a potentially terrifying, seventy foot drop down into the darkness to drift about on the sea, seemed ridiculous. After all, they would only have to come back up the same way in a little while. After all, wasn’t the Titanic unsinkable anyway?

So, in that first, desperate hour, we find a fatal cocktail of events taking shape; overworked seamen, unused to working together, carrying out backbreaking work- so backbreaking that many of them were sweating in the freezing cold air- working frantically to manhandle these large, five ton boats out over the ship’s side, only to find that the handful of passengers that were about were extremely reluctant to enter them. Combined with an understandable desire to get those boats most threatened by the rising water away first, it is little wonder that things went to pieces.

Urgent, often haphazard work by a desperate crew was met with the utter complacency of many passengers in first and even second class that night, at least in that first hour. The result was the loss of almost five hundred more lives than were necessary; a shocking indictment. On the Titanic, almost everything possible was done for the comfort and leisure of the passengers, and almost nothing at all for their safety.

And, inevitably, as the tilt of the deck grew greater, the fear and panic did spread like sleeping sickness right through the foundering ship. When a wave of terrified third class passengers did come pouring up from down below, they had to be physically pushed back in some cases. For sure, shots were fired in the air.

For by now the boat deck was crowded, but the boats were mostly gone. And, as a few able seamen were sent away in each successive boat, so the numbers available to launch those last boats dwindled, even as their work load grew ever greater and more desperate.

What could they have thought themselves, as they worked like manic automatons to load and lower those boats, knowing full well that they had scant chance of finding a place in one for themselves?

Perhaps the one, true mercy accorded to those men is that they could at least lose themselves in a job of work. But those brave men would never be lauded like Wallace Hartley and his immortal musicians, or be showered with the kind of praise rightly directed at the likes of the wireless operators, the stewardesses, or even the hapless Captain Smith himself.

Complacency was the chief catalyst for this ocean going catastrophe without an equal. People will continue to cite the freakish weather conditions of that incredible night as a prime contributor to what followed, and that may well be so. The iceberg wasn’t seen until it was far too late.

But, in truth, nothing was a greater danger to the huddled masses on the Titanic than the ingrained mind set and mentality of those that conceived, commissioned, and then sailed her. That collision of overconfidence and nature was fatally compounded by a kind of complacent, Olympian blind faith in technology; one that eventually found its comeuppance on that cold April night back in 1912.

Titanic sinking. April 14-15, 1912.

Titanic sinking. April 14-15, 1912.

DISASTERS AT SEA, AND HOW WE SEE THEM……..

When you think of disasters at sea, what are the first names that trip off your tongue?

I’m betting that, almost without exception, it is the same two ships; Titanic and Lusitania.

I would also guess that the names Dona Paz, Wilhelm Gustloff and even perhaps the Empress Of Ireland mean little to most.

And that is quite incredible; because the Dona Paz remains, quite simply, the biggest peacetime maritime disaster ever. The total loss of life was some 4,386 people. There were just 24 survivors.

So, why have so few people heard of this tragedy, with it’s death toll almost three times as great as that of the Titanic? A lot of it has to do with perceptions of how we view shipwrecks, and the stature of the ship itself.

The Dona Paz was a simple, working ferry that sailed around the islands of the Philippines. She was criminally overloaded by an appalling two thousand passengers when she was rammed by an oil tanker, the Vector, on December 20th, 1987.

Her passenger list consisted entirely of local working people, commuting to and from their daily jobs, or perhaps just intent on visiting family and friends.

It had none of the platinum chip drama of the floodlit Titanic, sagging helplessly into the starlit Atlantic as Wallace Hartley and his bandsmen sawed desperately away at dance music.

There were no millionaires, film stars or railroad owners lining the decks of the Dona Paz. In fact, the story- ghastly, horrifying and absolutely beyond belief- created hardly even a ripple in the international press. It was something that happened a long way away, in a strange land.

By contrast, when the car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise had capsized and sank off Zeebrugge that same March, with the loss of 188 lives, the story made headlines right around the world. In media speak, some lives obviously have much more value than others.

As for the other ship mentioned, the Wilhelm Gustloff took perhaps as many as 9,000 people down with her in January, 1945. She was a commandeered German liner carrying civilians, wounded troops and Red Cross personnel away from the advancing Russian army, when a Soviet submarine slammed a trio of torpedoes into her on the night of January 30th.

Again, the ship was massively overloaded with terrified people. And yet, her destruction and horrific death toll has raised none of the righteous horror and indignation that the torpedoing of the Lusitania by a U boat did in May, 1915. 1,201 men. women and children went to the bottom with the famous Cunarder. That story garnered a tidal wave of horror and infamy so vast that it eventually played a huge part in bringing America into the Great War on the Allied side.

So why one, and not the other?

Perhaps part of it is down to the fact that the Wilhlem Gustloff was packed to the gills with wartime Germans, fleeing potential revenge for the string of unspeakable atrocities initiated in their name by Hitler and his SS. Even the most innocent of nurses and children were irredeemably tainted by association with such an evil regime. Besides which, the Gustloff was carrying wounded personnel from the German armed forces. In the Russian view, that made her a perfectly legitimate target. In that war, there were few real civilians- a view shared by both sides.

And what about the Empress Of Ireland? She capsized in the freezing Saint Lawrence on a foggy May evening in 1914 and sank in just fourteen minutes, leaving over 1,000 of her passengers and crew to expire within screaming distance of land. It caused horror and outrage that was as brief lived as the ship itself.

Again, the Empress Of Ireland was full of mostly ordinary, blue collar workers and their families, heading over to Europe and beyond. The ship, while comfortable, was a modest and unassuming liner, rather than a floating palace like the Titanic.

When the Titanic ship sank, she dragged half of the New York stock exchange down with her. Most of her famous first class passengers were names known the world over, and most of them went down with her. It triggered a media tsunami without equal perhaps to this day.

As for the Empress Of Ireland, she sank just three months before a global conflict of unimaginable horror erupted right across Europe and beyond. Soon, the daily death tolls coming in from the Western Front made the loss of a thousand souls, thrashing and gasping for breath in an icy Canadian waterway, seem almost quaint.

In received wisdom, the deliberate targeting of the Lusitania seems somehow more ghastly and unacceptable than that of the Wilhelm Gustloff, though each sinking was undeniably as carefully targeted and ruthlessly carried through as the other.

Awful beyond words, the Dona Paz disaster will never be immortalised in film. The story, like so many others, has been allowed to founder with indecent haste, and very scant recognition and remembrance.

Are some lives really perceived to be more or less valuable than others? Viewed through the skewed lens of our current historical prism, it certainly seems so. Nothing else explains the lurid acres of grisly coverage accorded to the Herald of Free Enterprise, while news of a ship that killed more than twenty times as many just nine moths later, created nary a ripple.

The ocean remains an equal opportunities killer; she will take her victims regardless of colour, age, wealth or any self assumed notions of social status. And, at the end of the day, every single soul lost across that infamous glut of maritime tragedies- passengers and crew alike- was a simple, terrified person. Most had families; all were loved, mourned and missed to a lesser or greater degree. No doubt they all prayed to the same idea of what we call ‘God’ for a salvation that, ultimately, never came.

I think that the least we can do is to acknowledge that sad fact.

The Lusitania.

The Lusitania.

ESPECIALLY ESPRIT- CRYSTAL’S NEW YACHT GOES HIGH TECH

Imagine being able to glide right up to the wreck of the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic, as she lies sprawled like some great, fallen beast on the bottom of the Aegean. Getting up close and personal to her giant, thirty eight ton propellers; almost close enough to touch them, in fact.

Imagine cruising around the nine hundred foot long hospital ship as she looms over your small, two man submarine like some ancient, felled building.

Sounds like something straight out of the pages of a James Bond novel, right?

But soon, thanks to the newly wrought Crystal Yacht Cruises, this kind of experience could be one of the items on the menu for the sixty-two privileged guests of the soon to be commissioned new luxury yacht, Crystal Esprit.

The Crystal Esprit will carry a small, two passenger submarine on board for expedition dives on each of its voyages; a truly remarkable first for any line. And, while the circumnavigation of the Britannic, outlined above, is not an advertised activity offered on the yacht, it does serve to illustrate the sheer range of undersea possibilities that Crystal can add to complement it’s ‘wonderful world’ of adventures on the surface.

Currently being converted from the platform of the luxury yacht, Megastar Taurus at the Sembawang shipyard in Singapore, the Crystal Esprit will take highly styled, mega yacht cruising to new heights. And, on an adventurous level at least, to new depths as well.

Due to debut this winter with a maiden season in the Seychelles and Dubai, the Crystal Esprit will move to the Aegean and Croatian Riviera for the summer of 2016.

For those sybaritic souls in search of true, all inclusive style in a very intimate atmosphere, the Crystal Esprit will offer the best of all worlds, and comes complete with the all inclusive fares, together with the superlative service and cuisine that the Crystal brand is synonymous with.

At just 3,300 tons and with a capacity for sixty-two guests, the yacht will feature sumptuous, all suite accommodation, both indoor and outdoor restaurants, as well as some very expensively primped outdoor maritime real estate; think plush sofas, pod beds, and the sort of poolside service you would expect to get at a really top notch Ritz Carlton hotel- but without the bill.

In addition to the submarine already mentioned, the Crystal Esprit will also offer the use of four, ten passenger Zodiacs for exclusive adventures ashore, as well as a one off, 12 passenger, 32 metre long yacht, built by Winder, for out of this world meandering around the islets and waterways where the ship sails.

If you’re not quite ready for the level of playing Captain Nemo, there will be a whole raft of less tech-intensive ‘water toys’ available for use from the yacht. These include jet skis and wake boards, and there are also options such as scuba diving, water ski-ing, or even just fishing.

Crystal Esprit has been cruising as a deluxe yacht for Star Cruises, ever since the company acquired her in 1994. She was originally built in Germany for the long defunct Windsor Line as the Lady Sarah, back in 1991.

As things stand, the yacht has a maximum capacity for eighty passengers, which Crystal intends to pare down to sixty two. Public rooms and accommodations are spread over some four decks in all.

This hip, beautifully styled little adventurer raises the bar yet again on small ship cruising. And, for those really wanting to play at being James Bond in an amazing underwater world, there is also the welcome assurance that, this being Crystal, the Martinis served up topside will be superb as well.

Quite the fascinating premise, this one. As ever, stay tuned for further news.

Sail the best of the balmy Aegean on a stunning Crystal Yacht cruises adventure from 2016.

Sail the best of the balmy Aegean on a stunning Crystal Yacht cruises adventure from 2016.

JOHN MAXTONE-GRAHAM; AN APPRECIATION

Like many, many others in the maritime community, I am incredibly saddened to hear of the death today of John Maxtone-Graham. My thoughts are with his wife, Mary, and his family at this time of great personal loss.

I personally owe John Maxtone-Graham an unfathomable debt; it was his taut, articulate prose, at once both factual and poetic, that served as an inspiration and a benchmark for me on so many levels. I did not read The Only Way To Cross and it’s subsequent pair of eloquently wrought follow ups, so much as devour them.

His books were crafted with the same loving care and exquisite attention to detail as the great ships that he wrote about with such verve, flair and authority. He wrote about the likes of Normandie, Titanic and Norway in such a vivid and compelling way that those grand, dramatic ships suddenly became very real once more, emerging bows on from the mists of time. The sounds, sights and smells of another era danced through my mind like wisps of Atlantic fog.

And the man was unfailingly courteous; immaculately attired, his shipboard lectures were always packed to the gills. We would sit there, spellbound, as he told us stuff that many of us already knew by heart. And often, his take on seminal maritime events just cut straight to the core of a story with effortless ease.

Consider this John Maxtone-Graham classic quote; ‘There will never be a coherent account of the last hours of RMS Titanic, because nothing coherent actually happened…..’  It’s a stark, simple statement that goes like a laser to the heart of that awful night in April, 1912; a surgical scalpel, simple, elegant and true. I was hooked on his work from the moment that I read that line.

And I was lucky enough to meet the great man; he signed a copy of one of his books for me and answered the questions of this awed, star struck young neophyte with the calm, polite patience of a man who has heard it all before. And he did it with breathtaking ease and matchless authority.

So, I bid John Maxtone-Graham a very thankful and heartfelt bon voyage as he no doubt continues on his own, very personal, fantastic voyage of discovery. It is my fervent hope that he now finds the answers to those compelling questions from maritime history that even he could not resolve in this world. No doubt he will find those answers to be fascinating. And I, for one, would give anything to read his take on those answers.

Good sir; I cannot thank you enough for the inspiration and education that you provided me with. Your prose remains as proud, sharp and magisterial as the prow of the great Normandie herself. And, like that incomparable French liner that he so adored and described so well, John Maxtone-Graham was, truly, a one off; a paradigm that defies replication. Merci.

THE LUSITANIA; 100 YEARS AGO TODAY…..

It was the original ‘shot that was heard around the world’…

When the stately bulk of RMS Lusitania loomed against the cross hairs of U-20’s periscope on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915, Walther Schweiger did not hesitate for one second. He slammed his last available torpedo into the glistening black flank of the liner. The rest is history, and no more relevant than today, the centenary of the sinking.

She went down in just eighteen minutes, leaving almost two thousand people gasping and thrashing for their lives in the frigid, sunlit waters off the coast of southern Ireland. 1,201 men, women and children were lost altogether. Bodies were still being found draped across Irish beaches some three weeks later.

The story was a sensation across the world. How could anyone torpedo an unarmed passenger liner, full of women and children, and leave them to such a ghastly fate? The media hyped the sinking into the ultimate act of barbarism; the despicable work of a dastardly enemy that would sink to any depths- in this case quite literally- to impose his cruel world view on humanity.

But, truth be told, the gloves were off from the first days of World War One. Any notion that the contest would be fought in a gentlemanly style between two rival power blocs, one that would do it’s utmost to spare civilians, was shot to pieces when the German army trampled all over the neutral status of petrified little Belgium.

That was followed by the British blockade of German ports, which soon resulted in severe rationing for women and children across Germany proper. In return, Germany introduced unrestricted submarine warfare against British merchant shipping, and announced that foreign nationals should not travel on passenger ships sailing under the British flag, which would now be liable to attack.

By this time, the German navy had already carried out coastal bombardments of towns such as Hartlepool and Scarborough, inflicting civilian casualties in all of them. And in towns across both France and Belgium, hordes of terrified civilians had already discovered for themselves that this would be anything but a ‘gentleman’s war’. No, the cat was out of the bag long before the Lusitania swung clear of New York’s Pier 54 for the last time on May 1st, 1915. It was total war in all but title.

And the Lusitania herself was no innocent party in all this. She was carrying a large amount of small arms munitions and stores, bound for the British army on the western front. The carriage of such stores in a liner loaded with passengers was blatantly illegal, and both the British and the Germans knew it. And it was also true that both sides knew that supposedly impartial US customs officials were turning a blind eye to these illegal shipments. For a nation fighting on two fronts, this was all like a red rag to an already enraged and careless bull.

For this last, fateful crossing, the Lusitania had 1,266 passengers embarked, plus a crew of 696. The biggest passenger load she had carried since the outbreak of hostilities. And, although the weather was fine and sunny as the liner romped across the springtime Atlantic towards Europe, everything else was actually working slowly, yet inexorably, against her.

Not long before the liner reached the coast of Ireland, her intended escort, the old, armoured cruiser Juno, was ordered back into port in Queenstown- for fear of submarines known to be lurking in the area. And, despite this laudable care for navy lives, no message ordering the Lusitania into Queenstown was ever sent. And, by now, the liner was looming massively into the danger zone.

I suspect someone at the Admiralty dropped the ball here; with the disastrous onset of the Gallipoli campaign just two weeks earlier, the navy was now adrift in a nightmare situation of it’s own making, and perhaps more effort was being concentrated there than elsewhere. But it is strange that the Lusitania was deemed safe to proceed where a ship of war like the Juno patently was not.

In the ghastly aftermath, the navy did what any huge public body under adverse public scrutiny does; it kicked the blame down the field, and attempted to make a villain of Captain Turner, the man in command of the lost liner. He had, they said, blatantly disobeyed Admiralty standing instructions about sailing in a war zone.

These stated that ships such as the Lusitania were to steer well clear of headlands, and zig zag at maximum speed, so as to throw any submarine off a good aiming point.

But Turner and the Lusitania spent most of the fateful morning of May 7th, 1915, enveloped in a fog so thick that visibility was almost nil. Lusitania was coming up to the coast of Ireland at a smart clip and, in these pre radar days, Turner was effectively blind in the fog. So, when the weather did mercifully clear, he did what seemed perfectly sensible to him and many others; he brought the Lusitania closer in to the now visible shore in order to get an exact bearing on his position. And this put him on a course towards the lurking U-20.

But Turner did not zig zag, and kept the Lusitania romping along at a steady eighteen knots. Even with one of his four boiler rooms closed down as an economy measure, he could still have powered the Lusitania up to twenty-one. Perhaps he planned to do just that once he was satisfied with his bearings. We will never, ever know.

Once Walther Schweiger fired his torpedo into the path of the oncoming Lusitania, the die was effectively cast. The young U-boat captain knew exactly what he was doing, and he followed his orders with ruthless, tenacious efficiency.

He would have known that he was about to torpedo a very large passenger liner, one carrying many, many, women and children. But he also knew that the same ship was carrying arms and munitions to the British army on the western front, at a time when the British blockade was bringing hardship and even starvation to the streets of Germany. That knowledge probably steeled his determination to hit such a prize target.

Not that he expected this one puny, unreliable torpedo to sink such a huge ship; one built with all the strength and watertight sub division of a Royal Navy cruiser. Ships less than half the size of Lusitania had survived torpedo strikes before. At most, he expected to cripple and delay the liner.

Of course, that’s not how things played out.

Despite his determination to hurt this prestige enemy target, Schweiger was unable to watch the horrific events that unfolded as a result of his strike. It was simply too ghastly, too overwhelming, for any man to actually watch, let alone enjoy.

Such was the loss of the Lusitania, one of the ‘unholy trinity’ of great maritime tragedies on the Atlantic. It is sobering to reflect that the Titanic, the Empress Of Ireland and the Lusitania were all lost in the four years, between 1912 and 1915.

But those first two tragedies were accidents; the sinking of the Lusitania was a deliberate act of war. And it is that stark, simple fact that lends it the particularly grisly cachet that it still has to this day.

And, of course, other Cunarders would sink in the service of their country. In 1940, the Lancastria would take more than six thousand British soldiers down with her when she was dive bombed off the port of Saint Nazaire- a death total that exceeds all three of the above named liners by a mile. But, by then, we had become so immured by the concept of ‘total war’ that the loss of yet another troopship would not have registered so resoundingly as, say, the sinking of a ship that took down half of the New York stock exchange with her in mid Atlantic. Blood has always been a currency of wildly fluctuating value when the fate of nations is at stake.

Still, it is totally apt that, today of all days, we remember the Lusitania and her human cargo of sad, lost souls. They did not ask to be pitched, shuddering and terrified, into the freezing Atlantic on a fine spring afternoon. Certainly, they did not expect it.

They deserved much better, of course. As did the Tommies, the Poilous and the Landsers, cringeing and terrified as they cowered in the trenches of Flanders. You can say the same for the shell shocked civilians of Amiens, Ypres and Brussels and yes, even the scared, twitchy crew of U-20, crouching fearfully in their claustrophobic little tin bolt hole as it beetled along under a sea dominated by its foes.

The Lusitania. Lost 100 years ago today, May 7th, 1915. RIP.

The Lusitania. Lost 100 years ago today, May 7th, 1915. RIP.

GOING, GOING, GONE.. TITANIC STEAMER CHAIR SELLS FOR £85,000 AT AUCTION

The only surviving, authenticated first class steamer chair to be recovered from the wreckage of RMS Titanic was sold at auction on Saturday for some £85,000.

The chair was auctioned off by the same man- Andrew Aldridge of Devizes, Wiltshire- who recently oversaw the sale of Wallace Hartley’s violin for almost a million pounds.

The new owner is described as a ‘UK based collector of iconic pieces of history’. In other words, the buyer’s actual nationality remains undisclosed.

The chair is understood to be one of seven originally fished out of the Atlantic by crewmen aboard the Mackay-Bennett, the first of three vessels sent out from Nova Scotia to recover the bodies of the 1500 victims of the sinking in April, 1912. Once she returned to port, it came into the possession of the ship’s French captain, Julien Lemarteleur.

The most recent owner of the deckchair is understood to be an English Titanic enthusiast, who had kept the steamer chair for around a decade and a half.

While £85,000 is an astronomical sum, it just goes to show how buoyant the level of interest in anything even remotely connected to the Titanic remains worldwide. There is no doubt that the lost liner remains a powerful, totemic talisman of recent history. In fact, no artefacts from any other ship command anything like prices for Titanic memorabilia.

These steamer chairs, seen on the deck of the Deutschland, are very similar in design to the one from Titanic, just sold at auction for a staggering £85,000

These steamer chairs, seen on the deck of the Deutschland, are very similar in design to the one from Titanic, just sold at auction for a staggering £85,000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE LUSITANIA; THE FIRST REAL ACT OF MARITIME ‘TERRORISM’?

When Walther Schweiger slammed his last remaining, famously unreliable torpedo into the glistening black flank of RMS Lusitania on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915, he could never have foreseen what would follow.

One relatively tiny ‘fish’ was not expected to fell such a graceful, gigantic beast. Ships half her size- and much less well constructed- had survived torpedo strikes in the past.

But the torpedo exploded in the middle of a volatile brew of low grade American coal dust that hovered in the liner’s depleted fuel bunkers like a poisonous cloud. And, for the world famous Cunard liner, the result was catastrophic.

It was this second, far bigger explosion that sank the Lusitania in just eighteen minutes. Passengers were literally trapped in elevators between decks. Lifeboats splintered like matchwood. Almost two thousand people found themselves thrashing, gasping and flailing for their lives on the sun dappled waters off the coast of southern Ireland.

The horror of the scene was indescribable; some 1,201 passengers and crew were lost that day. Bodies were still being washed up on Irish beaches a full three weeks later.

Almost inevitably, the Lusitania became wrapped in the same kind of rosy, grisly aura of dreadful fascination as the Titanic before her. And there they remain to this day; the two most famous pieces on the chess board of maritime tragedies.

Of the two, it was the Titanic that had the greater death toll, by a little over three hundred. And yet, in so many ways, the sinking of the Lusitania seems infinitely more horrific, at least to my mind.

At the end of the day, what happened to the Titanic was an accident. A ghastly one to be sure, but an accident all the same.

The sinking of the Lusitania, and the death of the helpless souls lost with her, was deliberate. Cool, pre-meditated, and carried through with single minded determination by a master submariner who knew exactly what he was attempting to do.

Consider the sheer violence of her brief, bloody end. Walther Schweiger no doubt believed that the Lusitania was carrying a certain amount of contraband war munitions. And, from examination of the shattered wreck, we now know that assumption to be correct. And we can also safely assume that he thought it unlikely that his last torpedo would bring down such a giant prize as the Lusitania– a ship he knew full well to have all the built in safeguards and watertight subdivision of a Royal Navy cruiser.

But- those points made- when the young captain of U20 fired at the Lusitania, he must have known that, without doubt, some civilians would be killed. And it was the fact that a submarine could target what was essentially an unarmed passenger liner that lent the Lusitania disaster an immediate air of world wide outrage; a loss of innocence. After all, what kind of barbarian would deliberately target a large passenger liner, simply going about its usual business?

And there is no doubt that those on board the Cunarder on her last, fateful crossing had been lulled into something of a pampered stupour by their stately, six day progress across a calm, sunny ocean. At a time when most of war torn Europe existed on starvation rations or worse, the Lusitania was provisioned like the Ritz.

Those passengers also knew that the Lusitania was faster than any German warship, and much more so than any U-boat. It never seemed to occur to them that she could not outrun a torpedo.

When Schweiger made his strike on that sunny May afternoon, that fondly imagined pretty balloon exploded with an almighty bang. Quite literally. And nobody on board was in any doubt about the impending catastrophe from that first, awful moment of impact.

By contrast, the Titanic was a ship that had come quietly to a halt on a beautifully lit, glass calm sea. Her side had been ripped open by a gigantic, half concealed salt water assassin with deceptive, gentle ease, and most people never even felt the impact. Most of the passengers were in bed, and had to be woken by stewards. There was no panic at the beginning because, quite simply, there was no awareness. And, faced with a nightmare situation that no amount of experience could parry, Captain Smith decided to try and keep it that way for as long as possible.

The ghastly black comedy that was the sinking of the Titanic unfolded slowly, but with awful certainty. But throughout it all there was a sense of stillness, of disbelief. Survivors later said that they felt as if they were witnessing some great, dramatic story unfold from a distance, rather than actually being part of it.

There was time to uncover and lower all the lifeboats, however ineptly it was done. Time, too, for Jack Phillips and Harold Bride to send out their desperate calls for assistance from the wireless room. Time for many people to absorb the enormity of what was happening, to take in the ghastly, mortal peril that they were suddenly in. Time, at least, to maybe say goodbye to loved ones.

Those on the Lusitania were denied most of these things. The jolt from U20’s torpedo was the first, warning shot that ushered in the age of ‘total war’. Nothing would ever be quite the same again afterwards.

The Lusitania.

The Lusitania.