Category Archives: ocean liner history

COLUMBUS CRUISE; HAMBURG, AND THE BIRTH OF THE BISMARCK

BISMARCK LAUNCH
The Bismarck takes to the water at Hamburg on February 14th, 1939

Hamburg as a port is synonymous with two very different legends; The Beatles and the Bismarck. And, while the first became a worldwide legend for all the right reasons, Hamburg’s other great claim to fame was birthed and nurtured for a much darker purpose. None the less, her story is every bit as much endemic to the great city’s past as the musical masterpieces that immortalised the ‘Fab Four’. It’s another facet of a uniquely fascinating city, and I’ll recount some of that connection here, in this blog.

February 14th, 1939, dawned grey and miserable in Hamburg. A biting cold wind roared in off the River Elbe, surging through the rows of red brick warehouses like some invisible tidal wave. At the Blohm and Voss shipyard, preparations were well in hand for an epic launch event; one that would unite both past and turbulent present in a moment of pure, theatrical bombast.

With Nazi Germany just one month away from devouring the sundered rump of Czechoslovakia, Adolf Hitler had arrived in Hamburg on February 13th, staying overnight with his retinue at the Hotel Atlantic. He laid a symbolic wreath at the tomb of Otto von Bismarck, the ‘Iron Chancellor’ who had first united Germany back in 1871. It was a carefully choreographed prelude to the events of February 14th, 1939.

Later on that Valentine’s Day afternoon, Hitler climbed a podium erected in front of a vast steel edifice, more than eight hundred feet long, and some one hundred and twenty feet across at its widest point. This squat, cathedral like colossus was actually Germany’s newest and most powerful battleship.

The Bismarck.

Below the podium and the poised hull, a sea of blood red banners snapped and whipped in the glacial breeze. Thousands of spectators milled around the great bulk of the ship like hordes of worker ants, waiting for the moment of release. It was not long in coming.

On the podium, a small, well wrapped woman walked forward. She stepped past Hitler to address the crowd. In front of her hung a bottle of champagne, poised to be smashed against the prow of the beast. She was Frau Dorothea von Loewenfeld-Bismarck, the grand daughter of the first chancellor. Her job was to honour this new monster with the ancient family name.

On the order of the Fuhrer, I baptise you with the name Bismarck……”

The bottle swung deftly to connect with its unmissable target, but then everything seemed frozen in time. For a  moment, the battleship refused to move. Someone in the crowd called out for the portly Hermann Goering to give her a push.

In the end, no push was needed.

A shore side band thumped away at the national anthem as the vast bulk of the ship began a slow, stately procession down the Hamburg slipways. As she gathered way, huge placards that bore her name, spelt out in Gothic letters, were draped over both sides of her bow. With a symphony orchestra of clanking, squealing and hissing drag chains just barely holding her in check, the biggest warship ever built in Europe hit the water with one almighty splash. Adolf Hitler smiled darkly.

The irony of the ship’s chosen name was not lost on many. Chancellor Bismarck had never seen the need for Germany to have a navy at all, and had always set his face firmly against any war with Great Britain. On the day after the launch, the London Times commented favourably on the choice of name for that very reason; incredibly, it chose to interpret this as a peaceful gesture on behalf of the Nazi regime.

To this day, the Bismarck and the town that gave birth to her remain inextricably linked, both by time and tide. Despite the grim nature of her purpose, local people today still retain a sense of pride in the achievement that she represented, and in the epic fight that she put up just two years later.

Her first shots in anger were not fired at sea, but rather right there in Hamburg harbour. Churchill quite rightly made delaying her completion an absolute priority once war broke out, and the RAF visited the Hamburg yards almost nightly in a series of attempts to hobble her before she ever got to sea in the first place. As construction on her progressed, the battleship’s own anti-aircraft guns joined in the defensive fire from the Hamburg AA batteries.

BISMARCK AT SEA
The Bismarck firing her main armament during the Denmark Strait action. The photo was taken from on board her escorting cruiser, the Prinz Eugen. It remains one of the single most famous images of the entire Second World War

Hitler himself did not understand either battleships or sea power, though he retained an almost childish fascination for the former. When first shown the plans for Bismarck and her twin sister ship, Tirpitz, Hitler opined that they were ‘insufficiently gunned, and too slow’. Subsequent events would prove him wrong on both fronts.

His ignorance of naval strategy was self confessed. He once said; ‘On land, I am a hero. At sea, I am a coward.’ It was a rare, honest admission, but one that was have to have baleful future effects on the German side.

Technically, the Bismarck came in at around 35,000 tons, in order to conform with the Anglo-German naval treaty of 1936. In reality, she was a full six thousand tons bigger than that.

Today, Bismarck remains a ship of contradictions. Though she was ultimately destroyed, an air of faux invincibility still clings to her very name to this day. To many people, she remains, quite simply, ‘the’ battleship, and for sure the most famous example of that doomed breed of beasts ever to be built.

This is all the more strange when you consider that both the Americans and the Japanese built bigger, more powerful battleships than her. And the Italian Littorio class can claim to be at least technically as good as Bismarck and Tirpitz in many respects, too.

She has always been portrayed as a ship of quite remarkable, aggressive striking power, but the truth is that her main strength was actually defensive. Around forty per cent of her total weight was made up of foot thick, high tensile armour plating. Subsequent events would prove that she would be a very tough nut indeed to crack.

As a ship, the Bismarck has two principal claims to fame. The first was her lightning victory over HMS Hood  and HMS Prince of Wales in the Battle of Denmark Strait. Here, she served up the most devastating display of single ship gunnery seen over the entire twentieth century.

The second was, of course, her final, hopeless stand against overwhelming odds, just three days later. More than anything, this was to make her truly the stuff of legend.

The hunt for the Bismarck was the biggest single ship sea chase of all time. Over nine days and almost three thousand miles, this one battleship was hunted by every Royal Navy warship located north of the Equator. Ships were even taken out of the Mediterranean, and from absolutely vital convoy escort duties. Every card was thrown into the fray and, even at the end, it was a very close run thing. Despite everything, she still almost slipped through the net.

Decades later, finding her wreck became almost an obsession. In 1989, she was relocated by Robert Ballard, the Woods Hole oceanographer who, four years earlier, had found the wreck of the Titanic. At that time, the find was considered so potentially controversial that Ballard would only reveal the precise location of the lost ship to the (then) West German government.

Another Titanic devotee to become hooked on the Bismarck saga is James Cameron, the Hollywood film producer. Cameron has made several dives to the wreck of the Bismarck, and has documented her current condition quite extensively on film.

For the cameras, James Cameron would refer to Bismarck as ‘the 1941 equivalent of the Death Star’, a bit of theatrical sledging that is not actually too far wide of the mark. For sure, the Bismarck was the equivalent of some truly voracious Tiger Shark at the very least.

That both Ballard and Cameron should be jointly taken in by Titanic and Bismarck is hardly surprising. There are so many parallels between the story of those two lost ships-each one built, as it was, for vastly different purposes- so as to make those connections almost borderline spooky. But that is a story for another time and, indeed, another place.

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MARCO POLO TO SAIL SPECIAL D-DAY ANNIVERSARY CRUISE IN JUNE 2019

MP

The Marco Polo will sail a special, one off six day cruise next year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings of June 1944. Leaving Portsmouth, the 1965 built, 800 passenger ship will provide a comfortable platform from which to take in a whole raft of evocative commemorations and ceremonies during the cruise.

The Portsmouth departure is so appropriate, as many of the first wave of some 165,000 British, American and Canadian troops embarked for the Normandy beaches from the Hampshire port. Many would not get the opportunity to return of their own volition; the subsequent three months of fighting that ensued in and around Normandy is some of the bitterest in the history of civilisation. The breaching of Hitler’s Festung Europa here marked the formal beginning of the end of the Third Reich.

The cruise first makes an overnight stay in Antwerp, located some sixty miles inland from the mouth of the River Scheldt estuary. Montgomery took the port intact in September of 1944, but failed to clear the river banks on both sides of the estuary. This allowed some 70,000 German troops vital time to dig in, and they subsequently made the port unusable for almost three full months. That delay allowed Hitler’s armies time to regroup, rebuild and, ultimately, to launch the Ardennes counter-offensive- the infamous ‘Battle of The Bulge’- in December 1944. Luckily, the German plan of presenting the port as a ‘Christmas present for the Fuhrer’ never came to pass.

The next port of call is Honfleur, inland on the River Seine. As well as it’s World War Two history, the pastel pretty fishing port was a great favourite of Claude Monet, who painted it many times. There is a stint of cruising literally just off the famous Normandy landing beaches themselves, with the added advantage of being able to enjoy that historic panorama from a hot tub, rather than some storm tossed, shrapnel splattered landing craft.

There then follows some scenic, sublime up close and personal cruising along the River Seine itself, before an overnight stay in historic Rouen, with it’s links to the ill fated Joan of Arc. A large swathe of the city was carpet bombed during the Normandy campaign, but much of the old, medieval centre-including the vast, Romanesque cathedral-survives to this day. From Rouen, the Marco Polo then charts a course back to Portsmouth.

During the course of the cruise, a whole raft of events will take place both on board and ashore to commemorate one of the most defining moments of twentieth century history. Among the highlights; a chance to visit the replica of the famous Pegasus Bridge, whose capture by British airborne troops on the first day was so vital to the whole campaign, plus the chance to visit Arromanches harbour, where the famous, jury rigged ‘Mulberry Bridges’ allowed a torrent of men and material to be poured into the slowly growing Allied bridgeheads.

On June 6th, a poignant service will be held on board the Marco Polo to commemorate all of those lost on that epic day, and there will also be a military historian on board, there to retell the saga of the ‘Longest Day’ and it’s aftermath.

If you’re looking for something truly different in terms of a summer break, or maybe just yearning for a chance to glean the true nature of the terrible, momentous events of June 1944, then your ship many very well have just come in.

THE WORLD CRUISE, AND THE LOGISTICS THAT GO INTO PLANNING IT

QE2
Cunard’s QE2 was for many years the doyen of the World Cruise circuit

As voyages go, the World Cruise is still the Mount Everest of ocean travel; a kind of Holy Grail that towers head and shoulder above every other voyage, both in terms of aspiration and expectation. Many people will only ever get a crack at it once and, quite naturally, their expectations are as stratospheric as if they were about to embark upon an actual moon landing. Thus, each year, the cruise lines are expected to deliver on a truly global scale.

The actual hurdles involved in planning and then executing, a full circuit of the globe are mind blowing. Think of it as a chess game, where one protagonist intends to deliver a match winning epic in terms of style, experiences and service. On the other side of the same board, a whole amalgam of opponents, from changing weather patterns to political upheaval, via logistical snafus and resupply issues, combines to perform a potentially very formidable opponent, one whose whimsical nature can impose potentially drastic changes in what everyone fondly anticipates will be the adventure of a lifetime.

There are so many kinds of ship embarking on the full world cruise these days, from deluxe boutique ships carrying around three hundred guests, to some truly spectacular floating resorts that carry more than ten times that number. As always, passenger choice comes down to personal taste, affordability and, of course, the itinerary. But-whatever kind of ship people choose-their expectations are huge.

No one should be surprised at the latter, given the way that cruise lines of all types and shades ramp up the ante of expectation. Just the idea of a three-maybe even four month-grand odyssey around the entire globe is enough to fuel the adrenaline for sure, but adding further fuel to those same flames by promising the earth (quite literally) is all par for the course. The problem then is that you have to deliver, all potential obstacles be damned.

Some people save for literally all of their working lives to make a once only, life defining voyage such as this. It’s the crowning peak of their time on earth in so many cases. Others, blessed with a a glut of disposable income, might do a different world cruise every second year or so.  In both instances they expect the best and, to be fair, why shouldn’t they?

Accessibility to the main banner ports around the globe is key, and getting people to and from the main sites on shore excursions is huge, not least in terms of on board revenue spend. The typical full world cruise passenger is of a demographic not usually given to late night drinks parties or on board gambling. So a huge amount of the on board revenue take has to come from the sale-and en masse at that- of often expensive shore excursions.

It’s a fact that smaller ships usually get berths far closer to the city centre in places like, say, Saigon, but all ships coming into Laem Chebang-the main port for Bangkok-have to transfer their passengers into the city via a coach journey that takes anything up to two hours in each direction. That’s a full, near on four hour journey before people even begin to see the sights and, obviously, it’s easier to provide a few coaches for, say, three hundred passengers as opposed to a flotilla of them for three thousand plus potential explorers. In those respects, the smaller ships really do get the best of all worlds.

In between the excitement of seeing far flung foreign ports from Colombo to Curacao, there will inevitably be times when every ship has to spend several days in a row at sea. And it’s then that a curious transition takes place with every shipload of passengers, and on every kind of ship.

For the first time in many days, their collective attention terns totally inward. Deprived of shore side diversion, they begin to analyse every single aspect of how their ship runs, and the people that make her run. From lounge singers to salon crimpers, speciality chefs to the quality of the free coffee on board, no-one and nothing is exempt, and no amount of piston rings on a uniform renders any on board department head as sacrosanct. Passengers become naturally more observant and, as days pass by, sometimes they become more inherently critical of the smallest things. And oh, boy, do the crew ever know it as well. These people are not at all shy in voicing their opinions, and often at quite some volume.

It’s a process that is as natural as daylight. Typically, full world cruise passengers are of an older generation; after all, you need both the free time and the free flowing collateral to invest in such an epic adventure. And, as we get older, many people (including this writer) become naturally more grumpy, and somewhat less forgiving. Factor into that the surreal, ever expectant environment that the world cruise creates, and it is really scant surprise that the slightest hiccup causes the most mild mannered person to mutate into a kind of maritime version of Hyacinth Bucket.

Which is why it is absolutely vital for the morale of the crew on board to be kept up in as many ways as possible. Deck parties once a week, free time ashore when practical, and just general thoughtfulness on the part of the key heads of department on board, are all absolutely essential in helping to ensure that the crew stays keen. After all, without great service and the genuine sense of welcome that only a well motivated crew can offer to expectant passengers, then even the finest ship is simply an empty vessel. Often, quite literally.

After a few weeks on board, the sheer richness and lustre of the on board catering could become passe for many passengers, and executive chefs need to be constantly on their toes when it comes to creating new, imaginative dishes. Being able to pick up fresh, local produce at ports en route is key to any chef wanting to relight the taste buds of his shipload of pampered passengers. Obviously again, this is easier to do for a small complement of passengers than with one of the larger ships. It’s always a question of scale and economics, as well as quality and diversity.

The same goes for the on board entertainment. Like food, this is very much subjective for each individual. One man’s James Brown might be another’s Joe Dolce (Google him, if you must); keeping up a constant roster of newly arriving acts to entertain potentially jaded passengers- not to mention the provision of intriguing, high quality guest speakers- is an important part of ensuring that people stay engaged with the ship’s social side at night, as well as during sea days.

Weather is not something that anybody can make, and most-but not all-people will take it well when adverse weather conditions mean that things do not always go to plan. However, should a major storm make it necessary to avoid one, or even maybe two really popular, much anticipated ports of call, then that is where the captain and the logistic department ashore really need to pull out all the stops to lay on one, and possibly more, options that will at least attempt to appease an obviously disappointed passenger load.

And this is easier said than done, as any given ship has an over reaching route and course to maintain. Any resultant diversion means figuring how to get from the substituted port to the next scheduled one. What speeds need to be made, and what about allowances for tides? Will there even be a local pilot available for a possibly revised arrival time? At the substitute port (s), new and interesting shore excursions have to be conjured up quickly, and from nothing, and then suitable transport (plus guides) found to cater for those people taking up the revised options. As a logistical exercise, this can be an absolute nightmare for the staff of any ship, from the smallest to the largest.

So yes, the world cruise is awesome, both in scope and for the potential for things to go wrong. Weather and world events are no respecters of even the grandest, most long cherished dreams and, of course, we all travel in a fickle, whimsical environment in any event. And, while this is also true of even the shortest cruise, think how much more so it applies on a full, flung, multi-week round the world roustabout.

Mind you, I’d still do it. But then, I mean, who wouldn’t?

 

 

 

TITANIC AND POMPEII; A TALE OF TWO DOOMED TOWNS

TITANIC

It was the late, great Walter Lord who famously described the sinking of the Titanic as being akin to the last night in the life of a small town. As with so many of Lord’s beautifully wrought descriptions and quotes, it was a phrase that has stayed with me over the decades since I first read it in A Night to Remember.

And, lately, I have come to understand that the phrase is even truer than was at first apparent to me. For the Titanic disaster was, indeed, very akin to the last night of a small town.

The town in question being Pompeii…..

Pray consider a set of coincidences and circumstances, a series of threads that bind the two events so tightly together, that it almost seems as if they have been stitched into one ageless parable.

Both Titanic and Pompeii catered to a relative few in surroundings of extreme, pampered luxury. The Roman coastal city was nothing less than a kind of first century precursor to Las Vegas;  a resort built to cater to-and for- the pleasure, ease and indulgence of the ruling classes. Awash with wine, wallowing in orgies, and with a surfeit of fine dining, entertainment and indulgence, they relied for their subsistence upon both a compliant middle class, and a functioning underclass of slaves, serfs and servants to maintain their sense of gilded ease and prosperity.

The Titanic was exactly the same, at least in first class. Not for nothing was she nicknamed the ‘Floating Ritz’ by the author, Joseph Conrad. That term, intended by it’s creator to be derisory, actually came to sum up all of that doomed, gilded magnificence over the course of time.

Far down below decks, hordes of toiling stokers worked back breaking, four hour shifts at a time, ingesting vast amounts of blinding, choking coal dust, even as the likes of the Astors, the Duff Gordons and the Wideners feasted on caviar and quaffed perfectly chilled champagne just a few decks above them.

Both Pompeii and Titanic went about their respective ways in blithe disregard of scarily adjacent natural hazards. The inhabitants of Pompeii literally played, whored and partied in the very shadow of the looming, smouldering bulk of Mount Vesuvius. On board the westbound Titanic, one ice warning after another was shrugged off and put aside with breathtaking indifference, as first class passengers struggled with the daily grind of swimming, taking the air, and enduring nightly, marathon ten course dinners that were the equal of any ancient Imperial feast.

Town and ocean liner alike exuded an air of huge, almost gilded permanence that seemed to overpower the normal, sensible faculties of even the most savvy of souls. An air of faux invincibility permeated both the streets of Pompeii and the plush, first class passageways aboard Titanic like some kind of awful sleeping sickness. And, when disaster duly befell both, there was some surprisingly similar reactions from those caught up in both dramas.

Nature took out these twin monuments to human vanity with almost effortless ease.  With fire in the case of Pompeii, and ice in that of Titanic. The steel grey, slowly reddening slops of Mount Vesuvius found an awful counterpoint centuries later, in the shape of the black, waterlogged iceberg. the implacable salt water assassin that punched, gouged and ripped open about a third of the hull plating of the Titanic.

Reaction to imminent doom ran the gamut in both situations, from disbelief to total, abject denial. Viewed from the crowded streets of Pompeii, the clouds of noxious, slowly rising ash and creeping molten lava seemed to be miles and miles away, as indeed they were at first. Aboard Titanic, few passengers could at first be coaxed into the lifeboats. That seventy foot drop, down from floodlit ship and onto a pitch black freezing ocean, was for the most part the catalyst behind that initial reluctance to leave the apparent warmth and safety of those brilliantly lit upper decks.

Yet both ash cloud and icy ocean encroached on their respective prey with an awful, unstoppable certainty. In city streets and on promenade decks in mid ocean alike, fear and uncertainty rose like a tidal wave of numb, barely checked disbelief and terror.

For the terrified citizens flooding the darkening streets of Pompeii, the sea offered the only realistic avenue of escape. Just as it did to the huddled throngs milling about on the boat deck of the Titanic all those centuries later. And, ultimately, it was the sea that would deny salvation to the great majority of people in both cases.

In the case of Pompeii, a tsunami triggered at the same time as the eruption of Vesuvius negated any hopes of a safe evacuation, even for a few. And, as it happened, there were pitifully few rescue boats available in any event.

Aboard the Titanic, a damning lack of lifeboats meant that most of her terrified human cargo would ultimately be upended into a darkened, freezing ocean several hundred miles away from the nearest land. And, while the Titanic carried more than enough life jackets for everybody on board her, it was that same, freezing water temperature that killed most within minutes. Some of those lost that night died without even getting their heads wet.

The destruction of both Pompeii and Titanic echoed down through the ages as twin, salutary lessons against placing too much faith in the limits of human ingenuity. And, eventually, the rediscovery of each would generate a tidal wave of awed, retrospective musings. Indeed, this piece is just such the latest example.

Today, the stunted Doric columns of excavated, exhumed Pompeii glint eerily in the mid day, Neopolitan sunshine. The entire place looks- and, indeed, feels-like a sixty-six hectare theme park that died screaming.  Two and a half miles down in the fast, frozen darkness of the Atlantic, the shattered corpse of Titanic sprawls across the ocean floor like some gigantic, wrecked skyscraper.

The booms of her cargo cranes lay folded across her forecastle like the limbs of some long dead pharaoh, frozen in both time and space. They find an echo in the ruts left in Pompeii streets to this day. by the passage of hundreds of chariot wheels as they clattered through the humid, hectic splay of the summertime resort city. On Titanic, the giant, eight ton port and starboard side anchors still hulk in their recesses, looking like huge, moss covered tombstones in a vast, underwater cemetery. The ship is a torn, jumbled, completely humbled cathedral of the dead.

Pompeii. Titanic. Separated by centuries, but wedded eternally in a state of violent death. Deaths so overwhelming and implausible, ruin so epic and complete that it hid each from view for years while, at the same time, already embalming and preserving their respective legends.

For the denizens of both, everything imaginable was done for their pleasure, ease and luxury, and almost nothing whatsoever for their safety. And that is their true, mutually appalling legacy. It’s also why we continue to be so horribly obsessed with both of them as well.

Today, we know full well what both looked like at the height of their brief lived pomp and glory. And today, their obvious, total ruin is there for all those who wish to see as well, etched in stark, singular clarity at the bottom of volcano and ocean respectively.

If progress really is measured by the passing of the years, then what are we to make today of these twin, epic follies of gilded grandeur?

THE MARINA; A DAY IN COBH

COBH WATERFRONT
Cobh Harbour, with St. Colman’s at centre

It was a bright, sunny morning when the Marina arrived in the small Irish port of Ringaskiddy, just a few miles away from Cobh. Seabirds soared and dived into a sparkling blue sea crowned by sporadically rolling whitecaps. A warm wind whipped across the aft terrace, a gentle reminder that, while this was still high summer, autumn’s chill was not too far off over the horizon, either.

None of which was going to deter me from making the relatively short journey to Cobh. In fact, we could see the place from the edge of the shore. The tall, slender spire of St. Colman’s cathedral resembled some celestial finger, pointing straight up at the heavens. At the main town dock there sat the unmistakable shape of Princess Cruises’ gargantuan Royal Princess. Ironically, that same ship had sat docked ahead of us in Mykonos back in April. A small world, indeed.

Cobh itself is a pretty little town, with pastel coloured houses in shades of red, ochre and blue, crouching along a waterfront packed with small, idly bobbing fishing boats and small tourist craft. Set against a backdrop of gently rolling hills and vast, sun splashed meadows, Cobh has charm and intimacy in spades.

And it has history, too.

Beginning in the late 1800’s, hundreds of thousands of desperate, impoverished Irish people poured through the town-known back then as Queenstown- in a human tidal wave, bound for the promise of a hopefully better life in the New World. For many, the port was the last ever sight of their old lives, and marked for most of them a final, poignant parting from parents, siblings and lifelong friends. Back then, the town had a patina of overwhelming pathos, one kept barely in check by a rising tide of hope for a better life, somewhere just over the horizon. If ever one place was a bittersweet symphony wrought in stone, steam, tears and tide, this was surely it.

During the 20th century, it became customary for those departing hordes to leave from the pier at the back of the local post office. Two tenders- the Ireland and the America- would then take them out to where some huge liner lay waiting for them out in the bay, usually off Roches’ Point. Symbolically and actually, the casting off of their lines to the shore meant, for many, the severing of the last links to their old lives. In so many ways, Queenstown back then was the open wound from which Ireland was bled dry of her best, her brightest and her bravest. It was a blood letting that would take literally decades to staunch.

Queenstown in those days ran to a regular schedule; the great Cunard liners would leave Liverpool on a Saturday each week, embarking at Queenstown on the Sunday. Each Wednesday, one of the crack ships of the rival White Star Line would leave Southampton, and embark from Queenstown on the Thursday. It was a well oiled machine, but it ran in one direction only for the most part. Neither Cunard or White Star were in the habit of calling at Queenstown on the return crossing from New York.

Just after noon on Thursday, April 11th 1912, some 123 Irish migrants huddled together aboard the two tenders, boarding at the quay as usual. They gazed in awe at the shape of the vast, new leviathan waiting for them out in the bay. This was her first ever call into Queenstown and, as events were to prove, it would also be her last.

As the tenders bumbled out across the grey chop of a cold but sunny day, the new ship grew ever more massive and imposing. Seagulls wheeled and dived around her, foraging for scraps of garbage as they were spat out of the waste pipes near the waterline. Aboard the huge liner, idly promenading passengers stopped to study the tenders as they bucked the briny, gazing for a moment at the huddled masses clad in shawls and heavy suits. Those same people in the tenders could by now read the name of their ship, etched in three foot high golden letters on her bow.

TITANIC.

The rest, of course, is history. The brief, two hour stop at Queenstown would be the last land that most of those embarked on maritime history’s most infamous maiden voyage would ever see.

Like everywhere else that she touched during her brief but spectacular career, the Titanic left her mark on Queenstown. Today, Cobh’s Museum of Immigration (the town was renamed in 1922, after Southern Ireland gained it’s independence from the British Empire) tells the baleful story of the town’s past, with an obvious emphasis on the vast torrent of humanity that flooded out of it during those turbulent years.

Quite a sobering little stop, Cobh. Pretty for sure, but with undercurrents as deep as the Atlantic rollers that still flail at it’s shores to this day.

 

 

BELFAST BIDS FOR TITANIC ARTEFACTS

TITANIC

A consortium of four different interests has made a joint bid to bring some 5,500 individual items salvaged from the wreck and wreck site of RMS Titanic back to the liner’s birthplace in Belfast.

Titanic Belfast, together with the Titanic Foundation and National Maritime Museum, and also National Museums Northern Ireland, have collectively tendered a bid of some £14.5 million in an attempt to bring the entire collection back to Northern Ireland.

The bid has the backing of both Robert Ballard, the man who originally found the wreck of the Titanic back in 1985, and James Cameron, whose 1997 film Titanic did so much to revive interest in the lost liner. Cameron himself made no less than thirty-three dives to the wreck of the Titanic over a ten year period, and says that he feels a ‘deep responsibility’ towards preserving and curating the artefacts brought up from the wreck as a single, unified, collection.

The vast array of relics was salvaged from the sea bed between 1987 and 2004 by RMS Titanic Inc, the company that first secured salvage rights to the wreck itself, and the immediate area surrounding it. In all, some seven expeditions scooped up a massive range of items, from shoes and unopened champagne bottles, to a large section of the liner’s actual hull plating.

The return of the Titanic relics became possible because the company currently in possession of them- Premier Exhibitions- was obliged to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the USA back in June of 2016.

All of the concerned parties emphasise the importance of keeping the entire collection together as a single, unified entity, rather than allowing it to be sold off piecemeal to private collectors. And, with renowned heavyweights like Bob Ballard and James Cameron leading the charge, hopes are high that the enduring legacy of Titanic will be properly enshrined in the place of her birth.

None of this precludes the possible loan of certain parts of the collection to ports that have a real, living collection to the lost liner. Southampton, Liverpool, Cherbourg and Cobh come first to mind. And, while most would almost certainly go to Belfast’s award winning Titanic museum, there’s arguably a case for displaying some of them aboard the Nomadic, the preserved, Belfast based tender that served both the Olympic and the Titanic during her one and only call into France.

There’s an unassailable case for bringing this vast, potentially priceless collection back to Belfast. I, for one, back it one hundred per cent.

 

MARINA CRUISE OVERVIEW

MARINA
Oceania Cruises’ sleek, sophisticated Marina

It’s going to be a relatively short trip on the plush, upscale Marina next week. Just five nights in total, and the first of those spent in Dublin to boot. But there is still a tremendous wealth of wonderful sights and sounds on this Celtic accented jaunt, and now seems as good a time as any to look over some of them.

As mentioned, I’ll be staying overnight in Dublin on the day before the cruise, and I’m really looking forward to getting back under the skin of a city I last visited more than two decades ago. The ‘Legend on The Liffey’ (I’m copyrighting that, by the way) is a series of gorgeous, Georgian pieces of architecture, dotted around one of the most truly eclectic cities anywhere in Europe.

Think Trinity College, and the mad, bohemian ballyhoo of the Temple Bar district. The famous thoroughfares of O’Connell and Grafton Streets. There’s the serenity of Phoenix Park and the series of stunning, wrought iron bridges vaulting over the steel grey span of the Liffey itself. On a more sombre note, Dublin’s century old, troubled past is thrown into sharp perspective in the stark, cobbled courtyard of Kilmainham jail, where the ringleaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed by a firing squad.

Crossing the Irish Sea after a late evening departure from Dublin, the Marina comes breezing into the wildly rugged, pristine beauty of Holyhead, on Wales’ stunning Anglesey coastline. Famed for it’s fabulous blond beaches and wealth of hiking trails, it’s also an ideal starting point for tours to the great, brooding bulk of thirteenth century Caernafon Castle, a vast, weather beaten pile that dates back to the reign of Edward I. Used for many years as the site for royal investitures, the castle remains one of the most completely intact specimens of its kind anywhere in the world. I’ll be getting up close and personal to the stately old beast, and you’ll be able to read about that encounter right here.

We’re then off back to Southern Ireland, to make landfall at Cobh. Once known as Queenstown, it was the point of departure for hundreds of thousands of desperate young migrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In many ways, Cobh was the place from where Ireland was once bled dry of it’s youth and vigour.

As a result, Cobh has always felt suffused by an undercurrent of lingering, residual sadness. The coastline itself is magnificent in it’s range and sheer, stunning beauty. And, of course, those who feel the need to visit Cork Castle and kiss the legendary ‘Blarney Stone’ can certainly do so.

But it is Cobh’s unbreakable associations with two of maritime history’s most enduring dramas that mark it out as a place apart. On April 11th, 1912, Cobh was the last port of call for RMS Titanic. The ill-fated White Star liner anchored for a few hours off Roche’s Point to embark some one hundred and twenty three passengers, before she disappeared over the horizon forever. Only forty-four of those huddled aboard the two tenders that took them out to the Titanic would survive the sinking of the liner, just four nights later.

Three years later, on May 7th, 1915, the Cunard liner Lusitania was torpedoed off Queenstown while en route from New York to Liverpool. Some 1,201 passengers and crew were killed when the legendary liner foundered in just eighteen minutes. At the epicentre of the rescue mission, Queenstown coddled the 764 survivors and served as a burial site for most of the victims. Bodies were still being washed ashore a full three weeks later; the entire town was plunged into mourning on what remains the blackest day in it’s history. The wreck of the Lusitania lies just ten miles off the coast of Cobh to this day.

So there’s no shortage of maritime lore on display in Cobh these days, and I’ll be getting around as much of it as possible. And there will also be time for a beer or two in such evocatively named pubs as the Lusitania and, of course, the Mauretania, too.

Next day, the good ship Marina forsakes the Celtic culture in exchange for Thomas Hardy country in the shape of Portland, on Dorset’s channel coast. Famed for it’s prehistoric coastline and fine, flawless beaches, Portland is the gateway to the historic old market town of Dorchester, where I’ll be spending a couple of hours or so.

I’ll also be making for the famous tank museum at Bovington, with its matchless display of tracked military muscle spanning over a century of mechanised warfare. The museum features everything from the first, putative British Mark One tank of 1916, right through to the legendary Chieftain of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

In between, we’ll be getting up close and personal to a whole plethora of fearsome, petrifying brutes; from the ubiquitous American M4 Sherman to the massive, bristling King Tiger, a seventy ton beast that still remains the largest battle tank ever to go into mass production.

Next day will see me disembarking from the Marina in Southampton, at the end of a trip that will be long on memorable encounters and experiences, In between, there’s time for me to get re-acquainted with a ship that is a byword for style, elegance, and finely honed cuisine. A ship where calm comfort and casual, spectacular luxury complements all those fantastic sights and finery ashore to absolute perfection.

Tanks. Titanic. Swaggering, freewheeling Dublin, and the ancient, brooding battlements of a castle straight out of the pages of Macbeth, The stark, rustic beauty of Thomas Hardy country, and a beer or two in pretty, breezy Cobh. It’s all there.

Phew. I’m exhausted just thinking about it all….