80 YEARS AGO TODAY- QUEEN MARY HANDED OVER TO CUNARD

 

QUEEN MARY 1936
The Queen Mary arriving in New York on her maiden voyage, June 1st, 1936

It was a relatively simple ceremony, as such things go. On May 12th, 1936, the Cunard White Star flag was raised for the first time on the brand new RMS Queen Mary at her berth in Southampton. It was final acknowledgement that the ship was no longer the property of the shipyard that had struggled to bring her to life over almost six tumultuous years. She now belonged to the steamship line and, to a larger extent, the nation itself.

Just getting her to this stage had represented the besting of one awesome hurdle after another. The Great Depression had caused the closure of the John Brown yard on Clydebank, where work on the enormous hull had come screeching to a halt in December of 1931. For over two and a half full years, the biggest British ocean liner yet to be conceived sat gathering rust on the Clyde, while flocks of birds made themselves at home in her vast, skeletal interiors.

The stilled, silent hulk was not merely a boon for Scottish wildlife; it was a national humiliation of the first order. While a series of fast, new German and Italian liners played ping pong with the Blue Ribband- the speed record on the North Atlantic- France, of all countries, was continuing to steam full speed ahead with the construction of a new liner, one every bit as vast, fast and symbolic as the Queen Mary. Depression or no, the Normandie loomed ponderously towards completion, just across the channel.

The Normandie took to the water at Saint Nazaire on October 29th, 1932, amid much pomp and a genuinely huge outpouring of emotion and national pride. The world’s first ever 1,000 foot long, 80,000 ton liner had been born. There could have been no bigger slap across Britannia’s imperial face than the reality of the new French ship, and everybody knew it.

Ironically, it also proved to be the salvation of the moribund Queen Mary. For, depression or not, there simply had to be a British rival to the Normandie.

Thus, Her Majesty’s government forced through a brutal, yet necessary ‘shotgun marriage’ of Britain’s two premier ocean liner companies- Cunard and White Star. They then proceeded to loan the new Cunard-White Star Line some seven million pounds; money enough to complete the Queen Mary, and also to build a similar sized sibling, the eventual Queen Elizabeth.

In May, 1934, thousands of Clydebank shipyard workers swarmed back through the dockyard gates as they creaked open, a full twenty nine months after they had been slammed shut. Some one hundred and four tons of accumulated rust was scraped from the dormant hull of the Queen Mary as, against all the odds, she struggled back slowly to life.

Finally, on the rainy afternoon of September 26th, 1934, the vast hull slid into her natural element. A crowd estimated at over 200,000 cheered themselves hoarse as the giant liner slid with ponderous grace and majesty into the steel grey waters of the Clyde. Known up until that moment solely by her builder’s number of 534, she now had a name that the world would never forget- Queen Mary.

It is no exaggeration to say that the hopes and expectations of an entire nation went down the ways with her. The Queen Mary was the largest ship ever to be built by the greatest seafaring nation on the planet. With her, Britannia would truly rule the waves again.

But the Normandie got away first.

On May 29th, 1935, the new French liner steamed proudly out of Le Havre on her maiden crossing to New York. And, in what still ranks to this day as the single most auspicious maiden voyage in ocean liner history, the Normandie simply swept the board.

NORMANDIE MAIDEN ARRIVAL
The Normandie, inbound past the Statue of Liberty at the end of her record breaking maiden crossing on June 3rd, 1935

She entered New York harbour on the afternoon of June 3rd, 1935, having taken the Blue Ribbon at the first attempt. Normandie was now the largest, fastest and most luxurious ship that the world had ever seen; she had accomplished a stunning triple coup, the likes of which would never be seen again.

Something like 200,000 people blackened the banks of the Hudson to see her come in. Factories and offices emptied, and an armada of over a hundred small boats formed a guard of honour for her as the Normandie swept proudly towards her pier.

Overflown by aircraft and a blimp that filmed the historic occasion from the air, and wreathed in torrents of fire boat spray, that maiden arrival of Normandie garnered headlines so staggering in scale and coverage that they would only be equalled when an American named Neil Armstrong first set foot on the surface of the Moon, some thirty four years later in 1969.

Back in Britain, as work on completing the Queen Mary went ahead, Cunard conceded that the Normandie ‘seemed to have done pretty well’….

By early 1936, with the Queen Mary finally complete and running very successful sea trials,  Cunard-White Star were quietly confident that their new ship would soon do ‘pretty well’ herself. But, of course, no one in the company was making any extravagant claims. That was not the British way. Let the Normandie fly her thirty metre long champions’ pennant.

But it was the reality of the challenge ahead that dominated all minds in Southampton on that sunny May 12th, 1936. Quiet determination was leavened with sober appreciation. The French ship had taken every major honour that the Queen Mary aspired to, and with seemingly nonchalant ease. Beating her was by no means a certainty.

What was certain was that a speed race without parallel was in the offing. In fact, the greatest single speed race of all time.

It would be a race fought out between two peerless ships, each one a technological triumph of the first order. Each one represented the pride, hopes and aspirations of the respective nations that had so improbably wrought them to life in the depths of the greatest depression ever known. Each was aimed squarely at capturing the creme de la creme of the slowly recovering transatlantic passenger trade.

This was no Trafalgar, Quiberon Bay, or even Waterloo. But, as these two incredible creations jockeyed for position in May of 1936, the smell of gunpowder was easily discernible to the more fanciful people out there.

It was a battle between two giants of unparalleled scale and style.

 

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LAUNCH OF THE FRANCE- 56 YEARS AGO TODAY

CNV00056
The France at speed on her trails. Only the SS United States proved to be faster

“I have given you a new Normandie!”

General-turned-President Charles De Gaulle’s expansive, extravagant claim was lapped up by the more than one hundred thousand strong crowd that had just witnessed the launch of the new SS. France at the Penhoet shipyard at Saint Nazaire. But even such a suave, bombastic claim came second place to the leviathan that had just been baptised in front of them.

Minutes before, at 4.15 pm on the afternoon of May 11th, 1960, Madame Yvonne De Gaulle had swung a bottle of champagne at the soaring mass of black steel that loomed above her head in the late afternoon spring sunshine. There was a moment’s silence, and then an awesome steel cathedral, some one thousand and thirty five feet long, began her slow, stately procession down to the steel grey waters of the River Loire. A huge cheer floated up from the crowd that blackened the slipways on either side of the great new liner as her stern kissed water for the first time, with literally thousands of tons of hissing, shrieking and clanking steel chains taking up the strain in a desperate attempt to stop the huge liner from careering straight across the river. From the loudspeakers above, the proud, defiant swagger of La Marseiiliaise filled the air.

Naturally, the France had first been blessed by Monsieur Villepelet, the Bishop of Nantes, just prior to her launch. And the new liner would need all the divine intervention she could get.

Since she had been laid down just two years earlier in 1958, the Atlantic liners had already lost something like seventy per cent of the travelling trade to the speedy new jet airliners. The France was already playing against a stacked deck from day one.

She had been built as a single ship replacement for the veteran, post war duo of Ile De France and Liberte. Originally, the idea was to replace those fabled liners with a pair of modern vessels, each of a more modest 35,000 tons, that would not have been dissimilar in scale and intent to the more recent vessels built by the Italian Line.

But De Gaulle personally decided that French international prestige- dramatically on the wane since the military loss of Vietnam and the blood bath of Algeria- was in desperate need of a new, national icon. A second Normandie, as De Gaulle himself said. So the eminently sensible idea for two smaller, modern sisters was torpedoed in favour of one stunning exclamation mark of a vessel; a true show stopper that would be one final, magnificent burst of bravado in the face of the Jet Age.

And what a show stopper she was. The France was the longest ocean liner ever built up to that time. In fact, she would retain that honour until the advent Of the Queen Mary 2 from the self same shipyard in 2003. At her ultimate 66,348 tons, she was eclipsed only by the ageing Cunard Queens in terms of size.

Speed wise, she was-and is- second only to the SS United States. On trials, the France managed over thirty-five knots with relative ease. But there was no thought of running for the speed record; with the jets thundering overhead at five hundred miles an hour and more, it was seen as an empty gesture.

What she remains is the last true express liner built for the age old route between Northern Europe and America. The France was meant to make some thirty-four round trips a year between Le Havre and New York, with no concession whatsoever to a regular cruise schedule. Indeed, her beam of 110 feet made her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal.

This last, potentially disastrous flaw was shrugged off by De Gaulle with his usual Machiavellian flair. The problem was not that the France was too big, he said; it was that the canal was too small.

Her show stopping maiden voyage would not occur until February of 1962, some twenty one months in the future. When the marvellous, majestic bulk of the France slipped gracefully into the Loire on May 11th, 1960, a lot was riding on her, both figuratively and actually. It is safe to say that every major shipping line followed her progress with a mixture of vague hope and more than a little unease.

SHOTGUN WEDDING- CUNARD AND WHITE STAR

OLYMPIC
The great Olympic was one of the first casualties of the Cunard-White Star merger of 1934

On this day in 1934, the British government forced through the merger of the Cunard and White Star lines to create Cunard White Star.

Both lines had been leaving broad trails of red accountant’s ink in their respective wakes since the Great Depression of October, 1929. Within a year, overall passenger numbers on the Atlantic crossing had fallen by some fifty per cent.

Both lines were faced with the same problem; running a fleet of increasingly ageing and expensive vessels, in the face of opposition from far more modern ships, run by state subsidised lines from Italy, Germany and, most ominously, France.

Work on the new Queen Mary on the Clyde had been brought shuddering to a halt by the depression, effectively ending Cunard’s attempt at challenging the opposition. For White Star, the promise held manifest by their bruited Oceanic had effectively ended when the company simply ran out of money.

However, the British government was adamant that British supremacy on the Atlantic crossing should be restored. To that end, it offered Cunard a deal.

Her Majesty’s government would advance the sum of £7,000,000 to Cunard, money enough to resume construction on Queen Mary and to build a sibling vessel- the eventual Queen Elizabeth of 1938- from scratch.

Of course, there was a catch….

That being that Cunard would be frog marched into a shotgun wedding with it’s old, avowed rival- the White Star Line. The two most famous names in British shipping history would become one.

In a seriously weakened state, Cunard was in no position to turn down this deal. White Star, flirting even closer with oblivion, had absolutely no choice but to comply.

The newly registered Cunard White Star Line was announced on May 10th, 1934, as a single entity. Cunard held sixty two per cent of the shares; White Star was lucky to get the remaining thirty eight.

The end result was inevitable, painful restructuring and consolidation. Within two years, a whole host of famous, now superannuated names made a sad procession to the block.

They included all three of the prime White Star flag bearers on the Atlantic- the Olympic, Homeric, and even the Majestic, the fabled ‘Queen of the Western Ocean’ were either scrapped or, in the case of the later, sold for use as a static accommodation ship.

On the Cunard side, the beloved, legendary Mauretania went for scrap. Berengaria and Aquitania would soldier on until 1938 and 1950, respectively. The latter ship had been due to retire in 1940, but the advent of World War Two meant that even her worn out, weary carcass found final breath as a troop ship.

The surviving ships would fly the house flags of both lines. In the case of the Cunarders, the company flag flew above that of White Star. On the few White Star survivors, the famous old burgee flag flew above the Cunard one.

It was a situation that lasted until 1950, when Cunard finally bought out the balance of the White Star shares, and the company simply reverted to being the Cunard Line once more. But, in a fittingly apt touch, the last surviving White Star Liner- the Britannic of 1930- retained her White Star colours and flew the company house flag to the end of her service life in 1960.

By then another unbeatable foe- the jet airliner- was already truly in the ascendant. No merger of any kind could have stemmed that airborne tide.

A GREAT EIGHT FOR CRYSTAL CRUISES

CRYSTAL MOZART
The tastefully re-imagined Crystal Mozart will spearhead the company’s river borne invasion of Europe in 2016

In a deal announced just minutes ago, Crystal Cruises confirmed plans for no less than eight new builds, to be delivered via the German shipyards it has acquired over the last few months.

The announcement was made by Crystal CEO, Edie Rodriguez, to a select media group during a visit to Wismar-one of the German yards in question.

Highlight of the announcement was an enhanced order for six new river cruisers- two more than the quartet envisaged previously.

Germany will also deliver the expansive, 25,000 ton Crystal Endeavour mega yacht, as well as the first of a bruited trio of 100,000 ton, polar ice strengthened cruise ships. Thus far designated simply as Exclusive class ships, no formal name for this first new, ocean going ship has yet been formally announced.

All of this comes against the backdrop of the line preparing to launch it’s inaugural river sailings with the radically enhanced and refurbished Crystal Mozart, a vessel known for its sybaritic standards of luxury, and also the upcoming survey of the long moribund SS United States in Philadelphia. The aim is to return the legendary liner to service as an 800 guest, all suite cruise ship, subject to a truck to keel series of inspections.

Meanwhile, the long standing flag bearer, Crystal Symphony is beginning her European cruise season, while her sibling Crystal Serenity is embarking on her first dedicated Alaska season for several years; a role she will repeat again in 2017.

Add to this the recently created Crystal Air luxury air fleet, and you have an operation that has triggered the most expansive and exciting expansion that I can ever recall in the field of luxury travel. And, while all of these developments are dramatic enough in themselves, I’m particularly excited to see the new class of ocean going cruise ships as they come to fruition.

Obviously, so much more is to follow. As ever, stay tuned.

FUNCHAL- THE FROZEN QUEEN

MS FUNCHAL
The Funchal, in Portuscale colours

Just a little under three years after she resumed service for the now moribund Portuscale Cruises, there still seems no light at the end of the tunnel for the feisty little Funchal.

It is one of the most tragic ironies of modern cruising that this vintage, 1961 built vessel- one of the most perfectly proportioned ships ever to sail the seas- was almost fully refurbished and restored from bow to stern, only to become a casualty of the inevitable collapse of the parent company.

Together with the even smaller (6,000 tons) Porto, the Funchal is still laid up in Lisbon;she has become a petrified time capsule whose future prospects now, ironically, look far less brighter than the much larger, far more dilapidated SS United States.

At a little under 10,000 tons, the Funchal is an almost perfectly preserved example of true, ocean liner artistry; the purest example of what a 1960’s mini liner was like. There is no shortage of beautiful wooden decks and immaculately burnished brass. In short, she is every real ship lover’s dream.

While her future seems to grow dimmer with each new day, the Funchal is not yet beyond all hope. She offers a smart, economical prospect as a chartered cruise ship, even if only during the summer months. The problem is, someone with some marketing savvy and expertise will first have to purchase, advertise and, of course, crew her.

How much longer she can remain shackled to a quay in Lisbon is anyone’s guess. Her docking fees must be astronomical, if indeed they are being paid at all.

No one can safely say that this is the last chapter for this dignified, doughty little survivor. But time is marching on, and the market for ships of this size is not huge, to say the least.

There needs to be more awareness of both her current plight, and her future potential, if there is to be any hope of seeing her back in her natural element- at sea.

Is there another George Potamiaonos out there? Who knows.

But the hope of everyone that cherishes these extraordinary little floating time capsules must surely be that someone, somewhere, does step up to the plate. Not someone who regards the Funchal as a pretty little toy to be flaunted like a new diamond, but someone with real intellect, integrity and, above all, someone with some kind of sound, cohesive marketing strategy for the ship.

But stranger things have happened at sea. Let’s not start sharpening those razor blades just yet, people.

CARNIVAL SHUFFLES THE DECK DOWN UNDER

CARNIVALMIRACLE
The Carnival Miracle is remaining in the American cruise market after all

In something of an about face, Carnival has announced that the Carnival Miracle will not now go to China in 2018 after all.

Instead, the ship- currently cruises from Long Beach to the Mexican Riviera (see my recent blog for a look at the Carnival Miracle) will remain in the North American market after all.

She will be replaced, after a fashion. Her current, Sydney based sister ship- Carnival Spirit- will leave Australia for a seasonal deployment to China over the winter of 2017-18, marking the first actual deployment of a Carnival ship from that country. She will return to Australia in the spring of 2018.

Meanwhile, plans for the permanent deployment of Carnival Splendor from Chinese ports in 2019 are unaffected.

This is something of an astute move on the part of Carnival. It will obviously take far less time to redeploy a vessel from Australia to China, rather than sailing another from the west coast of the USA. And, with the Mexican Riviera run slowly reviving in popularity, the Carnival Miracle is starting to carve herself out a bit of a popular reputation on the west coast as well.

No, the new moves make sense all round. It also leaves Carnival Pride on the east coast USA as the only other Spirit class vessel sailing in American waters.

CELESTYAL OFFERS WINTER MEDITERRANEAN CRUISES FOR 2016

Celestyal cruises has announced a two month, winter deployment for the Celestyal Olympia through November and December 2016.

Instead of going into her annual winter lay up at Piraeus, the 37, 584 ton ship- built in 1982 as the original Song of America – will offer a series of four night cruises to Egypt and Israel. Based out of the Turkish port of Antalya, the 724 cabin ship will make a series of four night cruises over the two month period.

Each of these will offer a brace of two day stays in both Ashdod, Israel, and Egypt’s Port Said. Passengers embarking on the ship will thus have plenty of time to get up close and personal to the great pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, as well as the numerous religious sites associated with the Holy Land.

The unprecedented move means that, for the first time, both of the Celestyal stalwarts will find gainful employment during the off season, with fleet mate, Celestyal Crystal, deploying out of Havana and Montego Bay on her seven night Cuba sailings. Overall, it marks a subtle change in emphasis for the specialist Greek operator.

Interesting times seem to be in the offing here. This short, two month deployment of Celestyal Olympia should be the obvious

CELESTYAL OLYMPIA
The Celestyal Olympia

precursor to a possibly longer and more extensive series of winter sailings next year,

As ever, stay tuned for further development.