Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

By the dawn of 1960, the writing was on the wall for the transatlantic liner as a viable means of transport. More accurately, it was in the sky, carried in the vapour trails of the new Boeing 707 jets of Pan American, TWA and BOAC that had cut the journey time, down from five days to almost as many hours. When that new decade dawned, the jets already had around  seventy per cent of the transatlantic passenger trade. The trend was irreversible, the prognosis terminal.

And yet, incredibly, new liners were still being built.

The first- and without doubt the greatest- of these was the SS. France. The longest passenger ship ever built, she arrived in New York for the first time in February of 1962. Her owners called her ‘The last refuge of the good life’. The American press said that she was an eighty million dollar gamble.

The France was a pure express liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Le Havre, Southampton and New York. There was never any intention that she would be used for cruising. In fact, she had very little open deck space, and her beam made her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. Built as a one ship replacement for her legendary forebears, the beloved Ile De France and the Liberte, she embodied all the cherished traditions for which the French Line had been renowned for almost a century.

She was also fast- very fast indeed. Only the United States was faster. But with the jets whispering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, the French Line directors decided that any attempt to run for the Atlantic speed record would be archaic. They preferred to let the style, service and cuisine of the new ship speak for itself.

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

This was a wise decision. The France guzzled fuel oil like so much cheap table wine and, like the Normandie before her, she was kept in service only by a very generous operating subsidy from the French government.

When she emerged, the France joined the rump of a transatlantic trade still dominated by the ageing, increasingly expensive to operate Cunard Queens, the Mary and Elizabeth, and by the record holder, the legendary SS. United States. All three of these ships were already running winter cruises; something to which they were wholly unsuited, in a Canute-like attempt to halt the rising tide of red accountant’s ink that threatened to swamp them. It was a temporary palliative at the very best.

The France was, however, very popular from the start. Incredibly, she would average an occupancy rate of some eighty per cent through the decade; a quite astonishing achievement. But even that was not enough to save her from being sidelined to winter cruising; either to the Caribbean, or even sometimes down to Rio.  Ironically, she was also very successful in this role but, even so, she was still on borrowed time as well.

Three years later, it was the turn of Italy to stun the industry with the introduction of not one, but two beautiful sister ships, also designed for the transatlantic run. At 46,000 tons each, both the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged in the first half of 1965.

A view largely gone from the Atlantic...

A view largely gone from the Atlantic…

The sisters were typical Italian beauties, graceful as swans and both sheathed in bridal white. Their twin, latticed funnels and beautifully flared bows made them unmistakable from day one. The Italian Line had high hopes for them and, on the face of it, not without some reason.

The twins operated on the age old ‘Sunny Southern’ route between Genoa, Cannes, Gibraltar and New York. While their British and French rivals had to battle across the stormy northern ocean, the Italian ships spent much of their time on sunnier, calmer seas. They had outdoor pools for each class, and expansive, open lidos. Above all, they boasted the indolent, raffish, Fellini-esque vibe of la dolce vita afloat. They had style and panache by the boat load.

The Michelangelo and Raffaello also benefited in their early years from a residual, sea minded mentality that existed in southern Europe at that time. People as a whole in Italy and Spain were reluctant to switch to the jets, however much faster they were. The Italian Line was thus able to buck the trend of the airborne assault on their coffers for quite some time and, for a good few years, both ships sailed with very healthy passenger loads.

With their outdoor lidos, they should also have been much better set up for a cruising career in the winter seasons. But they were actually hamstrung by the large number of inner cabins on each ship, little more than shoe boxes with upper and lower berths. These compared poorly with the far nicer counterparts aboard the even earlier France.

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Later, the two ships would suffer from falling passenger numbers, random crew strikes, and a resultant, fatal inability to keep to a reliable schedule. But, for the sixties at least, these two magnificent ships were the new Italian standard bearers on the Atlantic crossing, and they were sailed with great style and pride.

Last of all there came the oft delayed, problem plagued Queen Elizabeth 2, forever more to be immortalised as the QE2. Months overdue, she finally made her debut on the Southampton to New York run in May of 1969.

The QE2 was intended not so much to replace the illustrious Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, as she was to completely reinvent the Cunard brand. More than anyone, that pioneer of transatlantic steamship travel had seen the writing on the wall. And, from this most cautious, inherently conservative of steamship companies, there emerged the boldest, most strikingly different modern ship of them all.

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

For the QE2 was to be a dual purpose ship from the start, spending summer seasons crossing the Atlantic between Europe and America, and whiling away her winters in warmer cruising climes. She had broad, stepped lido terraces with outdoor pools at the stern, air conditioning right throughout the ship, and every cabin on board came with shower and toilet.

Her interiors were totally modern, like a very smart Hilton hotel afloat. Originally intended to be a three class ship, wiser heads prevailed, and she was- in theory, at least- a two class vessel on crossings.

Her exterior was strikingly beautiful. A graceful, tapered bow opened onto a gloriously proportioned charcoal hull, topped with a gleaming white superstructure. There was a single staunch, graceful funnel two thirds of the way aft, painted at the time in black and white. Not until 1982, after her legendary Falklands adventure, would the famous, ‘traditional’ Cunard colours be added.

Traditional, die hard Cunard passengers reviled her for the lack of a traditional, interior ‘liner’ promenade. Instead, her public rooms were built right out to the sides of the hull, with huge, floor to ceiling windows on both sides. Posterity would vindicate this design over some four decades of unparalleled success.

By the time she emerged in the spring of 1969, the QE2 shared what was left of the Atlantic passenger trade with the France and the United States, as well as with the two Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello. But by this time, the United States was also suffering badly.

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

The big American liner, still the holder of the Blue Riband, had been sold on her speed. With the jets thundering overhead at ten times her best pace, that advantage had gone. Lacking a reliable running mate, the United States was approaching mid age by the end of the sixties, and her once cutting edge interiors looked pale and antiseptic in the new era. And, with the France still winning all the plaudits for food and service, it became hard filling her at all.

This was partially alleviated by sending the big liner on cruises. The United States appeared in such unlikely places as Cape Town, and even Tenerife but, like the old Cunard Queens before her, the deep draft necessary for a fast ocean liner acted as a drag on her cruising viability. She usually had to anchor far offshore, and transfer her passengers in by tender.

Labour disputes with her all American crew became increasingly common- a foreshadow of the fate that would also befall her French and Italian competitors. In November of 1969, the fabled ocean greyhound entered dry dock in Newport News, Virginia, for her annual overhaul.

She never sailed again.

By the end of 1969, the decline in passenger numbers was catastrophic. Only four in every hundred people making the journey between Europe and America still did so by sea.

The collapse had been massive, and it shattered whatever ostrich mentality might still have existed in the boardrooms of the ocean liner companies. Even as late as 1964, the Queen Elizabeth, the France and the United States had still often been booked pretty much to capacity on summertime crossings. Now, even that certainty had sunk.

By the dawn of the seventies, the end was plainly in sight for the transatlantic liner. Even for such celebrated stalwarts as the still hugely lauded France, the only real question was not so much if, as when.



SS United States

If ever there was a determined band of people fighting to preserve something truly legendary against seemingly insuperable odds, then the good people of the SS. United States Conservancy must surely qualify for top marks. For years now, they have been struggling valiantly to rescue and restore one of the most totemic and important vessels ever built, in the face of a tsunami of apathy and ignorance in the land of her birth.

Firstly, a statement of fact. I am English, not American. But- that point made- a truly beautiful ship has an allure that transcends all national boundaries. And, make no bones, the SS. United States is still a beauty even now.

Ah, you might say; many beautiful ships have come and gone. Why should this one be any different?

And I would reply; yes, many beautiful ships have gone. Far too many, as it happens. The ocean liner was the supreme achievement of the twentieth century, until the arrival of the jet aircraft. Ships such as Queen Mary, Normandie and United States were nothing less than seagoing cathedrals; vast, swaggering statements of intent, built to awe, amaze and impress both rivals and the travelling public alike. They were front page news the world over in their day. Superstars whose reputations were built on style far more than hype.

Jets and cathedrals, eh? Look around, and you’ll find the petrified, preserved husks of practically every Concorde that ever flew. As for cathedrals, how many of the world’s great cities still showcase these vast, monolithic constructions from the middle ages- many of them built with wealth plundered from a string of ethnically cleansed civilisations? Yet there they stand, petrified and preserved at enormous expense, for future generations to gaze on in awe.

In the UK, we have a pitiful record of preserving our maritime heritage. In fact, a downright disgraceful one. But in America, so many of the famous battleships, carriers and cruisers of previous conflicts have been lovingly preserved. And how glad I am that they have been, too.

Yet if one ship stands head and shoulder above all of them in the pantheon of great twentieth century American icons, it is surely the United States. No other vessel ever exemplified speed, grace and style as much as the fabled Yankee Flyer. She had panache; in terms of technical and aesthetic excellence, she was-indeed, still is- a perfect ten.

The United States is every bit as iconic and instantly recognisable as the Empire State Building, or the Statue of Liberty. She is no less precious or disposable than either. And it is not as if she cannot be usefully repurposed.

The SS-US Conservancy has battled valiantly to put forward viable schemes for the restoration of this uniquely enduring piece of fifties Americana. And, knowing the ingenuity and love of history of the American people, I cannot conceive that they will just sit by and watch this gigantic, golden statement of past national glory slip quietly away to be butchered in some far off, foreign scrapyard.

The real problems seem to be lack of awareness, mixed with a kind of national apathy; a problem not confined solely to the USA by any means.

Surely she is worth saving? If people can still gaze in amazement at the petrified timbers of the proud old USS Constitution, the mighty, sixteen inch gun batteries of the Missouri, or even the gaunt, gallant remains of the Hunley, then why not also treasure and burnish that magnificent liner, with her twin, towering smokestacks that were the very apogee of American dash and style during the Fifties and Sixties?

The United States is like an emotional lightning rod; living history that reminds us of our past great achievements, and binds us to them. Such things amaze, inform and enthrall. They inspire respect, admiration and reverence; enviable qualities that any forward looking nation would surely wish to instill in the future generations to come.

The price of saving her is relatively small. The cost of losing her is incalculable. Her destruction would be an act of cultural vandalism right up there with the barely aborted demolition of the Art Deco region of South Beach back in the late eighties.

Food for thought, I hope. My sincere admiration for all concerned with this valiant effort. May the wind be at your back, and may your efforts not be in vain.