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SS.FRANCE-THE SECOND NORMANDIE?

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The fabulous France of 1962

The SS. France was launched at the Saint Nazaire shipyard on May 11th, 1960. As over a thousand feet of gleaming, pristine new ocean liner slid slowly down the ways, a human tidal wave of something like 100,000 people surged forward, cheering the looming bulk of the immense vessel as she gathered way.

As she kissed the water for the first time, French President Charles De Gaulle took the microphone out of the hand of his wife, Yvonne. Madame De Gaulle had served as godmother to the new ship, christening her with the traditional champagne bottle. From his lofty perch high above the hordes below, the President shouted exultantly to the crowd;

I have given you a new Normandie!”

That bit of fatuous, self serving bombast would become a millstone around the metaphorical neck of the last great French liner. Even invoking the hallowed memory of the illustrious Normandie- lost in a tragic fire at New York in February of 1942-was to offer a promise on such a spectacular scale that any ship would have struggled to even begin to meet it.

From Day One, the new SS. France would have to fulfil the nostalgic expectations of an emotional travelling public, and also somehow beat the rising tide of jet air travel. The latter had already secured more than seventy per cent of all Atlantic travellers by the time she made her debut in February of 1962. France would be expected to reach, and then maintain, an almost Olympian level of excellence and luxe, and do so in the face of the direst set of financial circumstances imaginable. Not only that, but she was expected to do it with all the style, elegance and grace for which the French Line had become an almost century old byword.

No pressure there, then…..

NORMANDIE
The Normandie at speed on the Atlantic in her late 1930’s heyday

So, how similar was the new challenger to the imperishable legend of her deceased forebear? The France was a few feet longer than the Normandie (in fact, she was the longest liner ever built until the 2004 debut of the Queen Mary 2) and she was faster by a few knots, too. Despite that, there would be no attempt to challenge the SS. United States for the Blue Ribband of The Atlantic. If the Normandie had been hell bent on achieving that singular honour back in 1935, then the France eschewed even the very idea with a typically Gallic shrug less than three decades later. With the jets flying overhead at more than five hundred miles an hour, the days of thirty knot record ocean crossings looked positively prehistoric by 1962.

Externally, the France was much more of a respectful nod to her predecessor. The great, flared bow and soaring, tapered flanks made her every bit as visually bewitching as the Normandie had ever been, though the cruiser stern was a direct contrast to the knuckled counter stern of the earlier ship. She looked longer, slightly leaner, too. And, partly because of the use of aluminium in constructing her superstructure, the France came in at a little over 66,000 tons, compared to just over 83,000 tons for the Normandie.

Where Normandie had been a three class ship, the France catered to just two; First and Tourist. And, even though she was the lighter ship by a not inconsiderable 17,000 tons, the France could still carry a similar passenger total to Normandie of about 1900 in all, and in very considerable, air conditioned comfort.

Of course, the decor of her public rooms was an epic swerve away from those of the earlier ship. If the Normandie had been a true temple of seagoing Art Deco, then the France was a modern, almost severe exemplar of Sixties styling that verged on the sterile in many places. Plush and luxurious as she was, her overall design aesthetic was strictly, almost glacially trendy. In terms of decor, she never, ever gained the rave reviews that were showered like confetti on the Normandie in her prime.

Where the France did gain wild acclaim-and right from the start at that-was for the sheer excellence and quality of the food and service on board across both classes. The French Line had always enjoyed a stellar reputation in both respects; in fact, the company was widely considered to offer the best hospitality of any of the Atlantic liner fleets. And, in that respect, the France was right up there with every single one of her predecessors, the Normandie included. From first to last, her standards of on board cosseting and catering were simply sublime, and easily the best to be found on any liner in those last, waning years of regular ocean crossings.

Like the Normandie, the France was a hideously expensive ship to operate. At full speed on the Atlantic, she guzzled the increasingly expensive Bunker C crude oil fuel like so much cheap table wine. By the time of the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 that ultimately doomed her, she was costing the French Line (and, by extension the French taxpayers who stumped up for her) around a million dollars a day just for fuel alone.

At the time, she was still sailing at around eighty per cent passenger occupancy, itself a remarkable achievement, and a telling testament to the sheer excellence and quality of the ship. Despite this, the revenue realised from each trip was still massively overshadowed by her stratospheric fuel bills. Faced with the double whammy of fast, cheap jet travel and soaring fuel prices, she never really ever stood a chance.

This was the backdrop to the twelve year career of the SS. France; it found an astonishing parallel in the pre-war career of the Normandie, when the increasingly bellicose, unhinged sabre rattling of both Hitler and Mussolini did so much to create an air of unease, one that hung over the age of 1930’s Atlantic travel like so much poisonous fog. For all of their glamour and finesse, both Normandie and France would sail on increasingly troubled waters. Fate itself always seemed to be against both of them.

But they did differ in one massive, hugely emotional respect. For, while Normandie would die violently (and needlessly) in the middle of New York harbour, the France would be resurrected after a long, lonely five year lay up in her home port of Le Havre. Brought back to life as the SS. Norway in an unparalleled $118 million dollar refit over the winter and spring of 1979-80, she became the world’s first true mega cruise ship. And against every set of odds in the book, she would become a legend for the second time in her career.

Ironically, one of the things that made the Norway-ex-France so successful was her dramatic interior transformation. All of the chrome, plastic, laminate and veneers that had once erupted across her public rooms was dumped unceremoniously into shore side skips. In their place came a glorious sweep of Art Deco luxe that, taken collectively, made her the most elegant, opulent ship anywhere afloat.

The result was what I often used to call ‘three martini syndrome’; passengers on board the reborn Norway, softened up with premium booze, suffused in Art Deco splendour, and usually serenaded by a fifteen piece orchestra playing Glenn Miller standouts, would often be heard to refer to Norway as ‘the Normandie’. It wasn’t hard to see why; people simply fell (or stumbled) through that Art Deco shaped looking glass, and thought themselves denizens of another ship, in another time. It was wistful, kind of endearing, and often downright funny. And, in that way, Norway- the revived former France- tipped her metaphorical hat to her doomed, divine predecessor one last, respectful time.

But, make no mistake; France was not the ‘second Normandie’. She didn’t need to be. The ship had breathtaking panache, and a dazzling, charismatic vibe that was truly all her own. As the Norway (and, indeed, as the France) she was a stunning, sensational statement of intent in her own right. Wrought large in steel, wood and matchless splendour, she was every bit as much of an awe inspiring seagoing cathedral as ever the Normandie was.

And, just like the Normandie, she, too has now become an adored, lost legend. A ship sometimes hyped to the heavens for sure, but one that still has, in her own way, no true equal, either real or imagined. While there is much symbiosis between those two sublime maritime creations, Normandie and France -and, indeed, the reborn Norway- each crafted their own, imperishable legends. And that, in the final analysis, is how they will be defined, both by time and tide.

Incidentally, that’s also exactly as it should be, too.

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TRAVEL AND ME, AND WHERE IT ALL STARTED….

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SS. France, New York maiden arrival, February 8th 1962

For the longest time, I didn’t realise exactly when this latent wanderlust that would dominate my life kicked in exactly. But recently I realised that I actually can put an exact date on it, after all. After all these years, it’s a bit like closing a circle.

Of course, I knew that it began with the SS.France, the ship I fell in love with as a nine year old kid. She was a ship that I never even dreamed that I’d set eyes on, let alone get to sail….

But life is a strange, quirky lady, and she often throws you a curve ball when you least expect it. For the SS.France, after a five year lay up in Le Havre, would return to service as the SS.Norway, the first true all singing, all dancing mega cruise ship.

At age 22, I made it my mission to sail on my dream ship. And yes, I did sail her. And she changed my life forever.

I found this couple of wonderful, almost sinfully evocative photos of the newly wrought SS.France arriving in New York on her maiden voyage on February 8th, 1962.

And that day, even though I was only two years old- and as clueless as any two year old should be- is the day that all of this began to take shape.

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I mean, look at her; she’s proud, beautiful, so perfectly poised. A last, defiant burst of swagger in the face of the all conquering jet age. Typically, the New York press tagged her as ‘an eighty million dollar gamble’ on that cold February afternoon in 1962. Her owners, more sanguine, called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

Me? I call her magnificent, awe inspiring and exhilarating. She took me on a dance, and I folded like so much wet cardboard. ‘Smitten’ does not begin to cover it….

Now, I’m lucky enough to have been on many other ships. Famous ships. Bigger ships. Arguably more luxurious ships.

But- and this is a remark considered through the prism of almost four decades of sea travel all over the world- I will never sail on anything as spellbinding, mesmerising and damned, downright, drop dead gorgeous ever again.

LEGACY; THE SS. NORWAY AND HER EFFECT ON THE CRUISE INDUSTRY

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The SS. Norway in her adopted homeland during her 1984 summer season in Europe. Photo courtesy of Rob O’Brien at http://www.classicliners.net

When Knut Kloster first announced his intention of converting the laid up transatlantic liner SS.France into the world’s first mega cruise ship, the sound of jaws dropping worldwide was almost deafening, It was not long before the ‘experts’ started to offer a whole raft of dissenting opinions.

She was simply too big for profitable, week round cruising. She would consume too much fuel to be viable. She was too large to dock at any of the islands in the Caribbean. She was a twin class ship, a relic of the 1960’s. The list went on and on.

One by one, Kloster deftly demolished all of these splutterances. In April 1980, the reborn SS. Norway emerged from her six month long winter hibernation in Bremerhaven to gasps of awed amazement. Dazzling, shiny and resplendent, the ‘Playground of The Caribbean’ sent the opposition reeling in every direction.

From the start, the Norway was a stunning, triumphant splash; a ship without a peer on the ocean. So radical an update was she that the Norway completely shaped the entire modern cruise industry. Every mega ship in service today owes it’s very existence to Kloster’s bold, brave resurrection of an already legendary ship. Kloster’s $118,000,000 investment in his dream ship would make her a legend for the second time.

How so?

Firstly, the sheer size and scale of the ship allowed him to envisage, and then assemble, an entertainment roster unparalleled in size, quality and scale. It was the Norway that first staged near full scale Broadway musicals on board. She was the first ship to stage full, Vegas style fur and feather boa revues in a vast, two story, eight hundred seat theatre.

Platinum chip headliners featured on every sailing, too. Jack Jones, Phyllis Diller, Petula Clark and Sacha Distel were just a few of the big names to perform for the Norway passengers during her week long circuits of the Caribbean. There were mime artists, portrait painters, and even a resident fifteen piece big band.

That band played out on deck every sailing day, as the Norway sashayed downstream from Miami past the opposition, leaving them figuratively and literally in her wake. After the stunning smorgasbord of entertainment served up aboard the Norway, every company had to look to their laurels.

Secondly, by introducing economy of scale. As the France, the ship’s four propellers, fed by two giant engines rooms, pushed her across the Atlantic at thirty knots. The fuel consumption was horrendous; the ship guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine.

All of that would change. Kloster shut down the forward engine room and removed two of the props. The remaining, aft engine room was modified to drive the two remaining ones. As a cruise ship, the reborn Norway would need to sail at around eighteen knots. In fact, she hit twenty five knots on trials that spring without even breaking sweat.

This drastic realignment had the immediate effect of cutting the fuel bill by a full two thirds. That torpedoed the economic argument completely, once and for all time.

And it was the little touches, too. The Norway boasted the first television station- WNCL- of any cruise ship afloat. And the Norway was also the first cruise ship to have colour television in every cabin on board.

Her two giant, twin tenders on the bow- Little Norway I and II- became almost as iconic as the great, winged smokestacks themselves over time. Capable of carrying a full four hundred passengers each, they waddled ashore from the ship each week at St. Thomas and Great Stirrup Cay, disgorging hordes of sunburnt dollar crusaders ashore with almost effortless ease. In one fell swoop, the need to dock alongside at every port was negated almost completely.

And there is no question that the ship felt incredibly lavish. Swathed from bow to stern in Art Deco, her vast interiors had a magical lustre all of their own; one that no other vessel on the ocean could truly match. The Norway looked and felt spectacular in every aspect of her public spaces. Looking along passenger corridors, the ship seemed endless at times.

In short, the Norway was innovative, inspired, almost impossibly dramatic and luxurious. Yet underneath all of that flourish and finery, she was a hard headed, well thought out, extremely workable cruise ship that predated the new generations that would follow her by a full decade.

The Norway quite simply set the gold standard. And even now, she remains an adored, enigmatic legend. Gone for a decade now, for many of her besotted fans she remains, quite simply, a ship apart.

Her immortal reputation deserves nothing less.

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.

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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.

LAUNCH OF THE FRANCE- 56 YEARS AGO TODAY

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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.