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SAILING 105 YEARS AGO TODAY; STEAMSHIP TITANIC, DESTINATION NEW YORK…..

titanic-beken
The Titanic begins her stately progress down Southampton Water on April 10th, 1912, in this famous photo by Frank Beken. The incident with the New York was behind her, and the big liner was now Cherbourg bound

Soon after noon on Wednesday, April 10th 1912, the ropes that had shackled the awesome bulk of RMS Titanic to her Southampton berth for a week were shrugged off like so many sodden strands, her trio of giant propellers kicked up the mud and sand of the River Itchen and, under the careful husbandry of six local tugs, the biggest moving object on the face of the planet began to inch gingerly forward to the cheers of a large crowd, gathered on the quayside.

Not everyone was glad to see her go. A contingent of six firemen had signed on to the ship, only to linger ashore over a last pint at The Grapes, a famous local dockside pub. By the time that they showed up to report for duty, the Titanic was already clear of the quay and, with the gangways down, the duty officer on board wasn’t taking their lateness as an excuse. That sudden excess thirst almost certainly saved their lives, but no one knew that then.

Those men watched in sullen silence as 46,000 plus tons of ocean liner, eleven decks high and almost nine hundred feet long, began her stately procession downstream. A wan springtime sun glinted against her quartet of towering, black and buff smokestacks as schools of whooping, shrieking sea birds wheeled and dived in her churning wake. The great siren on board boomed out an exultant, triple chimed salute to her home port, and Titanic began to pick up speed, her escorting tugs resembling so many panting puppies trying to rein back an agitated dinosaur.

Though the departure was intended to be low key, it would be full of high drama. Standing downstream, the wake from the Titanic snapped mooring ropes on the nearby steamer New York like so many cotton strands. The old American liner came loose, her stern looming out into the river until it came within mere feet of the startled, briefly stalled Titanic. As the crowds on shore gasped and strained their necks to see what looked like an imminent collision, one of the tugs got a rope on the New York. She was dragged back to her berth like some reluctant steer. With a sigh of relief almost audible from across the water, the Titanic resumed her stately progress downstream.

On board, the passengers had viewed the incident with a mixture of everything from amusement to outright horror. The ensuing delay while the New York was corralled and returned to the quay had cost the Titanic almost a full hour. Even as his ship skirted the Isle of Wight and dropped down past Ryde, Captain Smith was well aware that he would be late arriving in Cherbourg to pick up his passengers embarking on the continent. It couldn’t be helped; they would simply have to cool their heels until the Titanic made her delayed grand entrance into Cherbourg’s historic harbour.

Those were some very well heeled feet waiting for him, too. Among them was a substantial batch of platinum chip American corporate royalty; Astors, Guggenheims, Strausses, plus a whole supporting cast of railroad owners, property magnates, movie stars and professional sportsmen. There were art collectors, newspaper editors, and the simply rich. It was quite an illustrious roster in all; many of them had been regular passengers on the Olympic since her debut the previous summer. That giant ship- the first of the three great sister ships-had proved to be a marvellous advertisement for the newer, even more opulent Titanic. Bookings for both ships were very healthy right throughout that 1912 season.

This must have been a source of pride to both Captain Smith and White Star Chairman, Bruce Ismay, as the Titanic romped steadily across the sunlit English Channel. The sun shone; smoke from the first three smokestacks (the fourth one was a dummy fitted for aesthetic harmony) trailed back behind the ship towards home. On the aft mast, the White Star Line’s pennant fluttered gamely in the afternoon breeze.

Already, passengers were beginning to explore and exult in the ship that they were travelling on. In first class, afternoon tea was being served in the Verandah Cafe. Passengers in deck chairs took soup and sandwiches on the long promenade decks, bundled up in warm steamer blankets wrapped round them by solicitous stewards. People began making dinner reservations for the extra tariff, a la carte restaurant.

In the indoor squash court, the steady ‘thwack’ of ball against wall assumed a tempo that would be silenced only by the sudden inrush of surging, icy seawater some five nights later. The first passengers plunged boldly into the waters of the indoor pool nearby. Even braver souls surrendered themselves to the ministrations of trained masseuses in the garish menagerie of the Turkish Baths.

Others, more cerebral, lost themselves in a brand new book from the library, or wrote last, hasty letters home that could be sent ashore from Cherbourg and, later, Queenstown in Southern Ireland.

Late that afternoon, the coast of France emerged from the haze; a shimmering, low lying sliver that seemed to have a mirage like quality. But before almost anyone knew it, the Titanic arched a graceful turn, and came looming into the slowly darkening bay of Cherbourg. The anchor rattled down with a deafening crash right forward, and the huge liner swung skittishly at rest.

It was a brief break; that hours’ delay had helped nobody, and Captain Smith was anxious to begin his triumphant procession to the west, and the gala fire boat reception that awaited his glittering new command in New York. Two tenders- the Nomadic and the Traffic- came chugging out of the harbour towards the Titanic, like a pair of nervous courtiers paying homage to a new queen.

Aboard Nomadic were the first class passengers, and the mountain of luggage that always accompanied such people. As the Nomadic bumbled out into the bay, her irate passengers gasped in amazement at their first glimpse of the grand, stately Titanic, floodlit from bow to stern as the night took hold. They were ushered with apologies and assurances into the warm womb of the giant liner. A battalion of lift operators and bellboys stood ready at the adjacent trio of elevators to whisk these prized patrons off to their plush quarters, where the beds were freshly made and fresh flowers spilled out across almost every surface.

The second and third class passengers aboard the more plebian Traffic did not receive this kind of effusive, low key welcome. Instead, they and their much less substantial belongings were ushered through the steel shell doors of the hull, and into the belly of the brute. None the less, the same sense of barely disguised haste dominated the proceedings for all those embarking that evening.

As the two empty tenders backed away, the anchor was hauled up from the darkened briny. There was the clang and slamming of the shell doors along the liner’s hull. Once more, the great triple propellers- a full hundred tons of bronze in all- began to thresh up the waters around them.

The tender crews watched in awed silence as the floodlit Titanic swung through a graceful quarter circle, her quartet of great funnels standing like ramparts against the starlit sky. The deep, warm boom of the liner’s whistle echoed across the empty water like peals of slow, rolling thunder. And then, almost before they knew it, she had swept past them and disappeared beyond the horizon.

Disappeared, standing out for a noon arrival in Queenstown the following day, there to embark her last passengers. From there, it would be a stately romp across an agreeable, implausibly calm ocean for five days, before that first, glorious American landfall. Manhattan, and the promise of a freshly minted New York spring.

Several thousand miles to the west, a squat, glacial, salt water assassin waited patiently. Shrouded in darkness and black against the dark, still water, this potential killer- one of the truly deadly ‘great whites’ of the ocean- awaited it’s curtain call……

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MICHELANGELO AND RAFFAELLO; THE LAST ITALIAN LINERS

MICHELANGELO MAIDEN ARRIVAL
The Michelangelo arrives in New York on her maiden voyage, May 1965

By the turn of the 1960’s, it was abundantly clear that commercial jets had decisively defeated the transatlantic liner as the most popular way to cross between Europe and America. In just four short years from 1958 onward, the big jets had seized more than seventy per cent of the travelling trade.

For the great ocean liners, the writing was not so much on the wall as in the sky, carried in the vapour trails of the Boeing 707’s and DC-8’s that could cross the Atlantic in mere hours, as opposed to days. The Atlantic liner seemed as outmoded as the dinosaur, and every bit as doomed to extinction.

All of which made the decision in 1958 of the Italian Line to build not one, but two huge new ocean liners for the trade between Italy and New York seem nothing short of incredible. Not only that, but the two vessels would be siblings, and the largest liners built in Italy since before the war.

At 45,000 and 46,000 tons respectively, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello would be floating showcases for Italian art, style and culture; ships of state in every sense of the word. In their design, they would embody a mixture of the strikingly modern and the truly backward.

For a start, they would remain strictly three class ships, an anachronism in an age where civil rights was steamrollering all in its path. And, amazingly, none of the cabins in third class had portholes of any kind.

Technically, each ship was crowned by a brace of stout funnels, wrapped in a kind of birdcage, and topped by a racy, aft facing wind deflector that resembled a widow’s peak. The purpose of this was to deflect funnel smoke away from the ship, through the sides of the caging. It is a design adapted often on modern ships these days, but it featured first on those two Italian show ponies from 1965.

Sailing against the odds from Day One, the Michelangelo and Raffaello were built primarily to give work to the Italian shipyards, as well as harbour workers and the crews that would sail them. And the Italians also managed to convince themselves that, for them at least, there was a chance that these twin superstars could defy the airborne threat completely. Why?

In the peak summer months of 1964, even older liners like the Queen Elizabeth were still sailing full between Europe and New York. Never mind that the numbers for the off season were disastrous. The Italians also noted that the 1962 built SS France- the longest liner ever built- was still sailing at an average occupancy rate of something like eighty per cent, year round. To these crumbs of comfort, Italian Line directors in Genoa added a few of their own.

Like the Greeks, the Italian people have always been particularly sea minded as a race. The jets took much, much longer to gain a foothold on the routes from Italy to America than they did in the northern hemisphere. Throughout the early sixties, their people continued to patronise liners sailing from Italy and Greece in large numbers.

RAFFAELLO LIDO
First Class lido on the Raffaello

And those voyages from Italy to America and back had a far more languid, indolent quality than did those crossing on the often stormy run between England, France and America. The Italian liners started from sunny Genoa, calling at Naples, Cannes and sometimes Barcelona, before passing through the Straits of Gibraltar and heading north west for New York. Basking for much of the way in sunny climes, these voyages had more of an outdoor, Riviera style emphasis and vibe.

Each class had it’s own, open lido deck with a pool, surrounded by sun loungers and umbrella shaded tables and chairs. Smartly turned out Italian waiters delivered drinks and snacks, creating a dolce vita lifestyle out on the ocean. It was all very appealing and, with the Michelangelo and Raffaello, this Fellini-esque sense of style and indulgence would be taken to new heights.

Both of these graceful giants were built in Italy; the Michelangelo at the Ansaldo shipyard in Genoa, and the Raffaello just across the country, in Trieste. Like all their forebears, the two sisters were strikingly beautiful creations; bold and yet, at the same time, instantly familiar to generations of seafaring men.

Each ship had the gorgeous, raked clipper bow and elegant counter stern that was virtually an Italian line trademark. Crowned by those graceful lattice funnels and painted in bridal white from stem to stern, Michelangelo and Raffaello were suave, striking ripostes to the all conquering airborne armada. Follies they may have been, but that did not detract one bit from the sheer dazzle, finery and sense of panache that both ships exuded. By any standards, they were a quite extraordinary pair.

Of the two, it was the Michelangelo that got away first. She left on her maiden voyage to New York that May of 1965, and arrived in Manhattan to a gala welcome of buzzing helicopters, spraying fire boats, and an escort of tugs that conveyed her all the way to her Manhattan pier. The new Italian flagship seemed to have made an auspicious debut.

But the Michelangelo encountered serious vibration issues at full speed, a problem that would initially also dog the Raffaello. It was cured that same December, by a dry docking that  replaced the propellers. Following this, the ship re-entered commercial service.

LUXURY LINER ROW
‘Luxury Liner Row’ along the west side piers of Manhattan, with the Queen Mary (at top), Michelangelo, Raffaello, and the SS. France. The presence of the QM, plus the two Italian sisters, dates this photo as between July 1965 and September, 1967

Meanwhile, the Raffaello had by now joined her sister ship in service, crossing to New York on her maiden voyage in July of 1965. Her Art Deco interiors received a lot more critical acclaim than the more  modern, sixties interior styling of the Michelangelo. At 46,000 tons, Raffaello was a full thousand tons larger than her sister. Each of these twin liners cost some $45 million to build.

Yet it was always the Michelangelo that seemed to command the bulk of the media attention. And not always for the right reasons.

MICHELANGELO DAMAGED BRIDGE
The wrecked forward superstructure of the Michelangelo after she encountered a freak Atlantic tidal wave

In April of 1966, the Michelangelo was bound from Genoa for New York, when a huge freak wave crashed over her bow in mid ocean. The force of impact caused the forward superstructure just below the bridge to crumple like so much wet cardboard. A large part of the aluminium bulkhead was simply slammed backwards. Two passengers were swept out to sea, and another crewman died later. More than fifty passengers were injured to varying degrees during the accident.

The Michelangelo eventually limped into New York two days later. Once home, urgent repairs were carried out. All the aluminium in the forward bulkhead was replaced by steel;  the same precaution was subsequently carried out not only on the Raffaello, but also on the France and the SS United States. Following repairs, the ship resumed service on the Genoa to New York run.

For a while, the two Italian liners did, indeed, hold their own against the jets. Passenger numbers were encouraging right through 1968. Both ships became a byword for style and flair. In summer, they were often completely sold out.

When either ship arrived in or departed from New York, tug boat captains had to drape white canvas sheets over their bows, so that the grimy tugs’ pushing and shoving would affect their brilliant white paintwork as little as possible. On board, all was Italian flair and finesse.Between them, the two sisters represented the only truly stylish way to sail from Bella Italia to America.

RAFFA
The Michelangelo alongside her Manhattan pier, apparently just about to set sail

But reality was ready to intervene, stage left. As the sixties ended, more and more passengers began taking to the faster, more economical jets. Both sisters were sent on cruises, mainly down to the Caribbean in winter, with increasing frequency. Here, their true major weakness became fatally apparent.

Simply put, Michelangelo and Raffaello had far too many small, inside cabins to work as successful cruise ships. And it was a shortcoming that could only be put right at astronomical expense. A cost that, as things turned out, the Italian Line had neither time nor means to carry through.

As things got worse, strikes among both the on board crews and the Italian dockers broke out like a series of random forest fires. It became nothing unusual for the two ships to sail in and out of New York days off their advertised schedule. With that, they lost their two most vital playing cards- punctuality and reliability.

The final nail in the coffin was the massive increase in oil prices that resulted from the machinations of the OPEC oil cartel in the early seventies. Both the Michelangelo and the Raffaello had a massive operating subsidy from the Italian government. It was the only thing that kept them afloat, both financially and actually.

By 1975, this figure had ballooned to around a hundred million lire-around $150,000 a day- for each ship. The fast, powerful sister ships guzzled crude oil as if it were so much cheap table wine. The Italian government folded, and threw in its hand.

The proud Raffaello sailed from New York for the last time in April, 1975. Among the passengers on that final crossing was the ailing Duchess of Windsor, the wife of Edward VIII. That same July, the Michelangelo sailed eastbound for the last time, too.

FIRST CLASS MICHELANGELO
The first class lounge board the Michelangelo

Following their withdrawal, both ships were laid up together at the naval base of La Spezia, and put up for sale. Their future did not look good; they were far too expensive to convert into cruise ships and, by the standards of the mid seventies, both ships were far too big for such a role anyway.

Even so, the Italian Line turned down a genuine bid from the rival Home Lines, who were seriously intent both on buying both sisters, and investing the sums required to make them into modern, contemporary cruise ships.They would have been based primarily in the Caribbean. For reasons that have never been adequately clarified, the Italian Line threw this lifeline to the winds with a dismissive shrug.

Knut Kloster, the CEO of then Norwegian Caribbean Lines, also looked at the two ships. He intended to convert at least one of the four massive, laid up transatlantic liners into an all singing, razzle dazzle cruise ship for the new generation of nascent cruisers then emerging. Though impressed by both Italian ships, Kloster ultimately plumped for the larger SS France, reincarnating her as the Norway, and thus making her a legend for the second time in her career.

Eventually, both ships were bought by the Shah of Iran, to use as accommodation barracks for his armed forces. In 1976, the two sisters sailed round to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Having cost something like $90 million to build between them, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello were offloaded for a total cost of $4 million.

Soon, plans began in Iran itself to reactivate the two vessels as full time cruise ships. But the Shah’s three decade old, repressive regime was itself on borrowed time. With the accession to power in Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, any realistic attempt at revival sank on the spot.

The Iranians made a bad job of maintaining the ships to any level of decency.They simply did not have the necessary experience.  Both began going downhill quite quickly. And Iran’s pariah status post 1979 made the possibility of foreign experts being brought in a complete non starter.

The end was long, and drawn out, with both sister ships slowly degrading at their Bandar Abbas anchorage. In 1983, the Raffaello was hit by a torpedo during the Iran-Iraq war. She sank in shallow water and, over the next few years, divers and looters scavenged the ship. Parts of her hull still exist, just under water, to this day.

Another abortive attempt to resurrect the surviving Michelangelo as a cruise ship was made that same year of 1983. But a specially assembled Italian survey team concluded that the ship had already endured such overall neglect that reviving her was simply not feasible.

She lingered there at Bandar Abbas, gathering rust and rotting, until 1991, when her once graceful hulk was quietly towed around to Pakistan. Here, at Gadani Beach, the ship that had once carried the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Wallis Simpson was hauled ashore and butchered. It took months to dismantle her carcass.

Michelangelo and Raffaello were bold, beautiful, and totally unrealistic. Many of their features were space age, but the thinking that charted their construction and subsequent operation was often backward and stubborn to the point of madness. Caught between the rock of the OPEC oil crisis and the hard place of the Iran-Iraq conflict, they never really had a chance.

THE CONTE DI SAVOIA- AN ITALIAN CLASSIC

Conte-di-Savoia
The peerless Conte Di Savoia casts off on her maiden voyage to New York. Like the Rex, she was a symbol of enormous pride for the Italian people

Of all those great glorious ‘Ships of State’ that came into being in the thirties, I have always had a especially soft spot for the sublime Conte Di Savoia.

Part of that feeling stems from my impression that she never, ever really got the acclaim that she deserved. Beaten in the speed stakes by her near sister, Rex, and then overshadowed just two years later by the genesis of, first, Normandie and then the Queen Mary, the  graceful Italian giant seemed to somehow fall between two stools.

She lasted in commercial service for less than a decade, before the increasingly erratic sabre rattling of both Hitler and Mussolini catapulted the world into the most destructive conflict in living memory. In the course of this, the great, glorious Conte Di Savoia would suffer an ultimately fiery demise in the last months of 1944.

Of course, both she and the Rex were built to be the most fabulous, flamboyant expressions of Italian art, science and style anywhere. When rival lines steered full speed ahead into the age of Art Deco, the two Italian beauties remained almost magnificently aloof; a pair of great, gilded confections that combined over the top public spaces with the sheer joy and sassy dolce vita lifestyle of the mother country. By any modern standard of accounting, both ships were superb.

Like the Rex, Conte Di Savoia was advertised as ‘The Riviera Afloat’, a happy coincidence of the route they were obliged to sail, between the usually sunny Mediterranean to New York and back.

While the ships on the colder, busier northern route were largely enclosed creations, the Conte Di Savoia boasted open air swimming pools in specially constructed lido decks, surrounded by real sand. They sat in the middle of sun splashed open decks, sprinkled with umbrella shaded tables, chairs and sun loungers.On both ships, the Italian Line created a kind of raffish, indolent, carefree vibe that made them true standouts. For a few carefree years, it would endear them to many who preferred the pleasures of the ‘Sunny Southern’ route to the northern alternative from Southampton, Bremerhaven and Le Havre.

Despite their pace and panache, both ships began to suffer in the economic back draft that resulted from Benito Mussolini’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. As slightly- and it was only slightly- the slower of the two ships, I have often wondered if this impacted more on the Conte Di Savoia than on the faster, slightly more flashy Rex. In either event, both ships were on borrowed time by June of 1940, when Mussolini’s poorly equipped legions loomed into the south of France in ‘support’ of an ally who had already swept the board.

Truth be told, neither ship was ever really a massive financial success. But, like the French, the Italians measured profits more in terms of the style, flair and prestige these two great liners brought to Italy as a country. And for sure, the Conte Di Savoia had style in spades.

I have always felt that she was marginally the prettier of the two ships. Her twin stacks were staunch, graceful affairs. She always seemed to me to be somehow more fuller, matronly and rounded out than the Rex. Finely styled, immaculately served and, of course, beautifully fed, the Conte Di Savoia was, for me, the finest ship ever to make the fabled run from Genoa to New York. In so many ways, she was the apogee of the great Italian steamships.

I will always feel a sense of palpable regret that I never got to sail on her. In my mind, I rarely envision her tragic, fiery death, or the passing of her capsized carcass as it was towed away to be butchered in some scrap starved, post war Jugoslav shipbreakers.

What I see instead is a ship filled with light and music, a magnificent, majestic vision, casting off from her berth in Genoa on a warm summer night. There is laughter, applause, the muted popping of champagne corks, and a tangled, twisted technicolor torrent of streamers flailing against her soaring, immaculate flank as she stands out into the early evening hue of the Mediterranean.

This bold, beautiful ship had bravado in spades, but luck never quite seemed to be with her. And, for the classy, sassy Conte Di Savoia to be seen as somehow always trailing in the wake of her sister ship-glorious as the Rex most certainly was- has always seemed to be more than a little unfair to me.

The great lady deserves better than that.