A Hundred Passenger Years

Cunard's QE2Have we overdosed on millennial recapitulations? Every mind-numbing aspect of this past century, from fashions to films, from diseases to dictators, from crusaders to criminals, from wars to women’s rights, seems to have passed beneath the reportorial microscope, scrutinized, analyzed and – a seemingly irresistible American preoccupation -organized by rank.

That said, I think it mandatory that those of us involved with the cruise industry should glance back, at not only the antecedent vessels that shaped today’s shipboard but, just as important, the service in which they were employed as well. Sea voyages undertaken 100 years ago contrasted substantially from today’s. The great difference, of course, was the impetus for embarking: whereas earlier passengers sailed on voyages of purpose, we sail on voyages of pleasure. Shipboard’s bruising hegira has metamorphosed into indolent holiday.

Ocean liners at the start of the 20th century served as multi-class passenger carriers, steaming across the vast Pacific, out to the Middle and Far East, down to South Africa and, most numerously, across the forbidding North Atlantic. There were occasional pioneering cruises to the Caribbean, North Cape or Holy Land but ocean transportation predominated.

Transatlantic companies benefited from a splendid economic advantage, an apparently inexhaustible demand for westbound immigrant berths. Responding to that need, huge newbuildings were launched, their size dwarfing rival tonnage. For example, in the same year, 1911, that Harland & Wolf delivered P&O’s 12,000-ton Medina, they also handed over White Star Line’s Olympic, displacing 45,000. (Huge ships for huge numbers; that epic maritime demand and supply would have its contemporary parallel, as we shall see.)

North Atlantic liners boasted more than suites of luxurious staterooms and glittering public rooms. Their capricious hulls were laid out with extensive shipboard barracks – for which read steerage – designed for the carriage of emigrants. Indeed, the liner immortals that ushered in our century – Mauretania, Olympic, France, or Imperator, to name a choice few – owe their record-breaking dimensions to the necessity for accommodating thousands of immigrants. Though cabin passengers might reign in comparative splendor atop the hull, it was the teeming steerage underpinnings be low that made it all pay.

Canvas sails that worked in tandem with newfangled steam in the 19th century had disappeared by the advent of the 20th. Now vessels were powered in one of two ways, either by reciprocating steam engines – giant amplification of Fulton’s originals – or, debuting triumphantly in 1907, by the remarkable efficiency of Sir Charles Parson’s marine steam turbines. Implemented in full aboard Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauretania, turbines established a new, high-speed engineering epoch; they would remain shipbuilders’ preferred motive choice until the 1960’s.

And that entire volume of high-pressure steam, whether impelling the ponderous ups-and-downs of reciprocating engines or spinning the turbines’ vaned wheels, was produced within boilers sited atop coal-fired furnaces. Battalions of stokers, the infamous “black gang,” hurled Welsh anthracite into furnaces within boiler room infernos, maintaining steam pressure and hence speed at required levels.

Indeed, rate of passage across that most dangerous ocean preoccupied builders, naval architects and passengers alike. The company that can offer a crossing even only hours shorter than a rival’s invariably attracted the cream of the traffic. And it would be safe to say this preoccupation with speed would dominate ocean liner crossings until aircraft rendered the whole matter academic.

During the first of two world wars, ocean liners served in three capacities, briefly as armed merchant cruisers, then as capacious troopships and benevolent hospital ships. Their lack of armor plating and vulnerability to shell fire rendered them totally inadequate as warships but their redeeming speed and capacity were tailor-made for transporting soldiers, fit and wounded alike.

After the Treaty of Versailles, the resumption of peacetime service across the North Atlantic was predicated on two far-reaching changes. Oil supplanted coal and the stoker and his shovel passed into historical limbo. A far more significant change was Congress’s abrupt cut-off of unrestricted European immigration in 1920. Deprived of their profitable westbound clientele, the companies courted a whole new breed of mass passenger instead, American tourists. Academics, undergraduates and a burgeoning middle class were pleased to sail cheaply in spruced-up immigrant quarters hastily renamed Tourist Third Cabin.

A continuing obsession with size and speed spurred construction of yet larger and faster liners. Edwardian Mauretania, having held the Blue Ribband since 1907, was bested in 1929 by Bremen. She, in turn, would be eclipsed by the Italians’ Rex before the fabled Normandie took the Blue Ribband in the summer of 1935. But Queen Mary, the first of Cunard White Star’s vaunted two-ship express service, bettered Normandie’s record in 1938, holding the title of the world’s fastest liner until the United States swept the seas forever in 1952.

The outbreak of a second world war in mid-century dragooned fleets of gray-painted liners into carrying millions of involuntary passengers worldwide; on the eve of that war a Pan American flying boat had lofted the first adventurous passengers across the Atlantic, vanguard of a postwar airborne armada that would grow relentlessly. In 1956, an ominous logistical milestone was passed as more passengers elected to fly transatlantic than sail. Jet aircraft, reckoning their crossing time in hours rather than days, were to render the ancient honorific “express liner” hopelessly oxymoronic. Regretfully but irreparably, throughout the sixties and early seventies, ocean liners were withdrawn from service.

And there our saga of 20th century passenger ships could well have ended. But paradoxically, denied ocean liner crossings, Americans embraced ancillary voyages instead, succumbing to the seductive delights of cruising. At first, it was a pastime pursued aboard superannuated ocean liners. But quite naturally, the sheltered profiles and deckscapes of those North Atlantic prototypes proved incompatible with the needs of a new, sun-worshipping clientele.

Radically different passenger vessels began crowding the turquoise Caribbean. These were sleek, white, diesel-driven ships with single funnels at the stern and topmost decks given over to swimming pools and lidos. Booked in one light-hearted class, thousands flocked onboard. They no longer tramped in tweeds around promenade decks throughout blustery crossings; they lolled in bathing suits while their ship drifted languidly among the islands. Mid-morning bouillon was supplanted by pina coladas, string trios by the lilting cacophony of the steel drum and pursers’ games by the clattering jangle of one-armed bandits.

Innovation characterized the new cruising itineraries as multiple intermediate calls were added. Circular itineraries became the norm, with passengers embarking and disembarking in Miami. No real geographical objective capped their voyage; cruising was merely shipboard for the fun of it. Fleets of vessels began transiting Panama’s canal, less to achieve the west coast than to introduce capacity shiploads of goggle-eyed passengers to that engineering marvel.

It was mostly the Norwegians who led the way with Sunward and Song of Norway, although an Israeli engineer called Arison entered an ex-Canadian Pacific liner into service as the Mardi Gras, the first of Carnival’s substantial flotilla to follow. Over the century’s final three decades, a remarkable proliferation of tonnage has been launched, all of it in response to a seemingly insatiable demand for yet more cruising berths as well as a more sophisticated onboard lifestyle. In that regard, sunny shipping conditions from the early years of the century have recurred, as larger numbers of larger hulls have been built to accommodate larger numbers of passengers.

No one could have guessed, when giant Norway – wrought from withdrawn ocean liner France – conquered the Caribbean in 1980, that she was merely the first of a daunting parade of mega ships that would sail in her wake. The extraordinary thing about the world’s contemporary cruising fleet is not only its numbers but also their average, incredible displacements. The old record-breakers have been overshadowed, Queen Mary and Normandie surpassed by Carnival Destiny, Grand Princess and Voyager of the Seas. And there seems no end in sight; the pace and intensity of new building continues unabated, infused with an optimistic vigor that defies belief. Before the final vessel of a new class of cruise ship has been completed, owners are already hatching plans for yet another. Engineering innovations abound. Most of the newest ships favor electric propulsion although the current is produced by familiar diesel power. And Celebrity’s new cutting edge Millennium, due this summer, boasts gas turbine engines as well as propellers attached to rotating azipods suspended beneath the hull, negating the need for both stern-thrusters and rudders.

So these memorable ships steam on into our 3rd millennium although, in point of fact, very few, save old-timers Norway and Rembrandt, actually “steam” at all. How sad we are denied that evocative word yet, by the same token, however anachronistic, modern-day vessels regularly “sail ” with impunity.

(Marine historian John Maxtone-Graham is the author of this article and will deliver a new three-part, illustrated lecture, A Hundred Passenger Years, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) on three consecutive Wednesday evenings at 6 p.m., February 2, 9 and 16, 2000.)

This article ran as part of a special Millennium section of the of Cruise Industry News Quarterly MagazineWinter 1999-2000

Related articles:

Art Rodney: Industry Evolution

John Maxtone-Graham: A 100 Passenger Years

Knut Kloster: Industry Creator

Ted Arison: The Century’s Shipping Giant

Arne Wilhelmsen: The Bigger, The Better

Nicola Costa: Developing Europe

Ed Stephen: Market Was Always There

Kirk Lanterman: Crew is Key

Bruce Nierenberg: More Homeports

Warren Titus: Proactive Industry

Stanley McDonald: Full Ships from Day One

Barney Ebsworth: It’s All About Marketing

Lord Sterling: Worldwide OutlookLord Sterling: Worldwide Outlook

Joe Watters: Passengers Want Stimulation

Rod McLeod: Diversified & International 

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