Indulgence: SS Imperator / RMS Berengaria

Liners are magnificent entities — isolated cloisters of human amenity wrapped within a metal skin. But what goes through the minds of those responsible for designing passenger vessels? Today, the cruise industry is producing vessels at an alarmingly increased rate, copying and pasting cookie-cutter hull designs that, while proven and tested, make it all feel incredibly plastic and hollow compared to the old days. The interiors on some cruise liners are awe-inspiring, gorgeous and lush, while others are akin to a neon-drenched mall with no heartbeat or personality.

So, what's a firm example of the magic and creative spark that used to exist in shipbuilding?

SS Imperator. 

The pride of the Hamburg America Line and the first liner to surpass the RMS Titanic in length, Imperator was an imposing and inspiring sight upon her completion in June 1913. Her three brilliant gold funnels, gleaming white superstructure and the way her beautifully arranged aft decks mingled harmoniously with her lower promenade openings made her a head-turner wherever she went.

And when passengers boarded, one can imagine their heads spinning in all directions as they marvelled at this exquisite German monster's interiors. Designed by architect Charles Mewès, the Imperator's interiors were specifically designed to shake the Cunard line's design team out of their seats and catch the attention on would-be passengers for their ships. Kaiser Wilhelm II was adamant about Germany dominating the ocean liner trade as, at the time, magnificent new passenger vessels were seen as a country showing their strength. Hamburg America Line president Albert Ballin agreed, though stopped short of supporting the eventual shift into naval warfare and insisted that it ought to be nothing more than a bit of competition. It was intended from the get-go that Imperator would impress and attract the travelling public's chequebooks like a magnet of gold, silver and marble. In fact, she was the first of three increasingly massive ships to be built for the Germans, later followed by fleet-mates Vaterland and Bismark. 

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Mewès' theme for the 50,000-ton German giant was 18th-century France and, if anything, the end result of his countless house of heartfelt devotion to the design of the Imperator made her a true floating palace. Huge, sprawling public spaces adorned with skylights and eloquent marble, wood panelling and plasterwork were all over the ship, some of which spanned multiple decks.

The Imperator's iconic Pompeiian-style swimming pool — festooned with vividly coloured tiles and a metric mountain of marble-work — is one such example of the overindulgence in extravagance present in the design of the liner. The first class dining room was absolutely transcendent, gleaming in creamy white marble and dome-topped. The ship's various lounges, fitness rooms and cabins were equally grand and imposing — much like boarding the Normandie over two decades later, surely. 

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Specific design elements were implemented to maximize the "wow" effect the vessel could produce via increased space in public rooms. The three massive funnels were separated more widely than on other ships, allowing for skylights and, thus, larger public rooms which would take advantage of them. Staircases were meticulously fashioned and sculpted from marble, African hardwoods and other fine materials to give the liner an added air of regality.

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Photo Credit: Atlantic Liners, Ultimate Imperator

Another decision made by Mewès was to make the social rooms onboard much more informal and comfortable than on Cunard's Lusitania, Mauretania, and presumably the soon-to-be-launched Aquitania. It was intended to invoke larger gatherings and also coerce husbands and wives to be together. When the time came for the men and women to have their own spaces, specially-created areas such as the men's smoking room or women's writing salon could easily accommodate for otherwise unregulated sexual segregation.

But Mewès didn't stop there. Not by far. Imperator had to be imposing and powerful-looking, both to instil a sense of security amongst passengers in a post-Titanic era and to flash German pride in strength in the face of the Cunard line. Take into account the length and sheer size of this monstrous vessel and, yes, you'd sense the imposition. However, there's one more element to Imperator's design that can't be ignored. In fact, it's what most people associate with the ship and, when seen, makes it recognizable amongst enthusiasts immediately.

Photo Credit: The Great War Blog

Photo Credit: The Great War Blog

A great, monstrous eagle, perched upon the tip of the bow with wings spread on either side. The crown-topped beast boasted a fierce, piercing stare and clutched a globe inscribed with the words "My field is the world", the Hamburg America Line's motto. This slightly off-putting beast had a real purpose other than to look terrifying to small children. In fact, the length of that great eagle made the Imperator longer than the RMS Aquitania, allowing the Germans to proclaim her as the largest ship in the world (which brought much publicity and business).

This didn't last, however, as the eagle had its wings clipped by a 1914 Atlantic storm. They're still at the bottom somewhere, and I wonder if they'll ever be found. At any rate, afterwards, the flightless beast was removed entirely, and the Germans simply shunted the upper bow forward to maintain that precious extra length. Golden scrollwork designs were applied to Imperator's bow where the wings of the eagle once were, similar to the brilliant design emblazoned upon the ship's stern. It made little to no difference to the ship's reputation, and no liners have been installed with such a gaudy publicity stunt on their bows since, so there's something to be thankful for, I suppose.

Imperator's impressive eagle figurehead, its wings shorn free by the North Atlantic. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Imperator's impressive eagle figurehead, its wings shorn free by the North Atlantic. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bad luck continued to follow Imperator for most of her life as a German liner. While she was incredibly well-received by the travelling public and met with much enthusiasm and adoration, it seems Imperator and her crew just couldn't catch a break.

For one thing, Charles Mewès had installed such an astronomical amount of marble all over the upper superstructure's illustrious interiors. This resulted in the ship developing a permanent list to port which could never be fully corrected by the Germans — even after performing $200,000 worth of work that entailed the removal of tons of marble, cutting the ship's funnels by 10-15 feet, and even pouring 2,000 tons of cement in her double bottom to function as ballast and lower her unstable centre of gravity. The ship had also been subjected to several scares with small fires, and thus a comprehensive fire sprinkler system was installed as a preventative measure.

What really ended the Imperator's career as a German vessel was the war — ironic, given the Kaiser and Ballin's divided opinions on war but shared passion for the ocean liner industry.

Ballin, utterly distraught at the thought of having to hand over Imperator, Vaterland and Bismark in repayment for Germany's role in the wartook an overdose of sleeping pills just days before the armistice. In his passing, the peace-loving director of Hamburg America Line left parting words in a note.

Better an end with dread than dread without end.

Ballin's fears were well and truly realized and, as he predicted, all three liners were surrendered as prizes of war. In repatriation for the tragic and unnecessary loss of Cunard's Lusitania, the Imperator was handed over to Albert Ballin's rivals and became the RMS Berengaria. Requiring extensive renovations and repairs after initially arriving in poor condition, the newly-named Berengaria became Cunard's flagship in a twisted form of irony. She served Cunard admirably for several years, even serving during prohibition and the depression at reduced rates, resulting in her being nicknamed "Bargain-era". However, as electrical issues and age began to make the ship less of a head-turner and more of a stale ride through a bygone era, she was eventually sold for scrap. She was completely erased down to the waterline, with final demolition taking place in 1946, two World Wars and two lives later.

Imperator, repurposed as Cunard's flagship, Berengaria. Notice the exquisite gold scrollwork adorning her stern. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Imperator, repurposed as Cunard's flagship, Berengaria. Notice the exquisite gold scrollwork adorning her stern. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One thing I can say about Imperator / Berengaria is that, compared to other liners lost far too soon, she had a long and fruitful — if eventful — life as a passenger liner. She was the envy of many an oceangoing traveller for some time, and her charm and majesty endures to this day amongst us ocean liner enthusiasts, however few of us remain. Her illustrious and exciting career deserves to be respected and acknowledged, and honestly I consider her one of the finest, most beautifully designed liners of her day. Germany had a special ingredient with Albert Ballin and Charles Mewès, and with their deaths in 1918 and 1914 respectively, that special era of majestic German oceangoing atmosphere died with them. We need to remember that these liners were built by hand. As hard as the shipyard workers pounded those rivets and fashioned steel, the architects and designers of these grand vessels forced their minds and hearts in equal measure to venture into uncharted and exhilarating territory. It was hard work, and hell for many. But those who worked away at creating the next great source of seagoing pride for their respective countries had the fire in their hearts, hotter than any of the red-hot rivets hammered into the skeletons of these magnificent floating palaces. 

I have nothing but absolute respect for each and every single one of them, politics aside.

Slumbering Testament: RMS Queen Elizabeth (1938)

More people around the world are more familiar with the RMS Queen Mary than any other liner except for a certain obvious one that I won't mention here. Yes, that same towering Cunarder is gently bobbing on glistening Californian coastal waters today, but her sister is just across the ocean.

The bustling metropolis of Hong Kong is known for being a shipping and trading hub. Proof of the coastal city's ever-growing influx and outflow of goods and services is the line of container vessel terminals built on Tsing Yi Island. One of them, Container Terminal 9, hides a secret. Buried within a tomb of concrete are the remains of a legend; a lasting testament to the golden age of ocean travel.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (unaltered)

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (unaltered)

The RMS Queen Elizabeth. 

Launched in 1938 amidst the outbreak of the Second World War, the Queen Elizabeth was the subject of fanfare and a widespread instillment of pride in the British people's hearts. While not quite a dramatic platform of resurrection like her older sister - RMS Queen Mary - when she helped reinvigorate British pride and economical balance during the Great Depression, the new younger sister was respected in a similar fashion. The Queen Elizabeth was a magnificent symbol of British supremacy on the high seas, her raked sharp prow appearing keen to slice through the clouds of war like a hot knife through butter. Her sheer scale, girth, and strength were a sight to behold, as was the genius of her graceful beauty lovingly mingled with stark imposition. 

The Germans themselves even felt challenged by the massive 83,000 tonne, two-funnelled superliner - and they didn't wait for her to be in active service to strike. As the Second World War began, many were concerned that German spies had infiltrated the Clydebank area where the Queen Elizabeth had been residing at the John Brown shipyard in preparation for her maiden voyage. A skeleton crew of 400 were employed, and a clever ruse was initiated in 1940 to make it appear as if the liner were to head for Southampton - right down to the booking of hotels in the city in John Brown workers' names and the prepping of a Southampton dry dock. Captain Townley, newly appointed as the first master of the Queen Elizabeth, was presented sealed orders, and the crew were told by a Cunard representative to be prepared to be away for up to six months. She had her striking Cunard red, black and white exterior painted battleship grey. Then on 3 March 1940, during a narrow window when the tide was favourable, the vessel slipped from her moorings and edged out onto the River Clyde.

As she moved along the coast, Captain Townley opened his sealed orders as instructed.

New York. Not Southampton.

Six days later, the lookout off the coast of Fire Island caught a glimpse of a "great, grey ghost" appearing before him out of the fog and heading towards New York harbour. With launch gear still affixed beneath the hull and no fluttering coloured pennants hanging from the masts, the massive liner edged into the harbour, nestling comfortably beside her fleet mate, RMS Queen Mary, as well as their peacetime competition, the ultra-luxe SS Normandie. Never has there been a more dramatic or surprising maiden voyage of a vessel since. 

The Queen Elizabeth proved herself a thoroughbred and valuable asset through her contributions towards the war effort. Together with her sister, she ferried thousands upon thousands of troops during the conflict. After the war ended, she was finally introduced to passenger service after a delay that surely must have tested the patience of many an admirer. 

Photo Credit: SSMaritime.com

Photo Credit: SSMaritime.com

The Queen Elizabeth isn't particularly known today for her interiors (especially when placed alongside her sister in comparison). However, passengers were certainly sheltered from the Atlantic waves in glimmering luxury. From the familiar walnut panelling and warm lighting to the lush carpeting and Art Deco decor, the Queen Elizabeth was a comfortable and inviting retreat at sea. 35 public rooms in the form of a host of shops, services and amenities were available to passengers, including a cinema that would often screen films with their stars in the audience. Children had a wide array of activities and spaces to themselves, and deck space was thoroughly uncluttered compared to that of the Queen Mary, thanks to the incorporation of venting in the funnel casings rather than large ventilation shafts lining the upper superstructure. In fact, thanks to the incorporation of major adjustments made to the boiler system, the liner needed only two funnels - a design feature that allowed for far more space for passengers in the form of more public spaces and cabins.

Unfortunately, it wasn't at all to last. The soundscape and atmosphere of passenger conviviality, clinking silverware and tickled piano ivories was soon replaced by that of a roaring inferno. Like all ocean liners, the Queen Elizabeth couldn't hold her own against the age of jet travel. In the 1960s, the two Cunard sisters were withdrawn from service and sold, the company betting everything and focusing all of their attention on a single ship - the sleek new RMS Queen Elizabeth 2. She was smaller, nimbler and far easier to fill, and boasted infinitely more features that would appeal to the public in the jet age. Obsolete and costly to run, the Queen Elizabeth was initially sent to Fort Lauderdale to be preserved as a floating hotel - much like her sister on the Californian coast to this day. However, the company behind it all ran into major financial trouble, leaving the legendary Cunarder to linger in hurricane-prone waters.

She was eventually given another chance at life at auction in 1970, when Hong Kong tycoon Tung Chao Yung purchased the liner for purpose of keeping the World Campus Afloat program alive. She was brought to Hong Kong, renamed Seawise University, and converted into a floating sanctuary of educational brilliance. in 1972, very close to the completion of the refit, an alleged saboteur (possibly one of Tung Chao Yung's sons, disgruntled that their inheritance was affected by the acquisition), set several fires throughout the giant vessel. Before long, plumes of dark grey smoke billowed from her hull from end to end, which had been freshly painted as white as virgin snowfall.

Above: This two-part documentary on the RMS Queen Elizabeth is a must-see for a deep and authentic look into the life of this regal Cunarder. Filled to the brim with original footage and interviews with figures involved with her career, it is a beautiful archive of information that deserves to be seen. (Credit: John Shepherd, Youtube)

Similar to the needless and selfish fate of the SS Normandie thanks to Adolfus Andrews, the Seawise University was brought to a heavy list due to the amount of water being poured into her by fireboats. The monstrous vessel rolled over onto her side in the middle of Victoria Harbour, charred to the colour of mud with her hull eventually collapsing in on itself. She was a complete write-off. It is said that Tung Chao Yung was so devastated by the loss of the ship that he cried and grieved for weeks on end, and allegedly he never fully recovered from the incident before his death in 1982. Perhaps the liner meant more to him than anyone will ever know.

The wreck was captured forever in the spotlight when filming for the 007 film The Man With The Golden Gun took place around and onboard the once-proud ex-Cunarder. The gigantic rusting, charred hulk was given several long moments alone in the film - perhaps the producers way for them and the audience to say goodbye. In fact, by the time the film premiered in 1974, much of the wreck had been gutted and scrapped. Below the waterline, however, a sizeable chunk of the illustrious ship's keel and hull remains to this day, flattened and completely entombed forever within Container Terminal 9. 

Photo Credit: Ian Taylor

Photo Credit: Ian Taylor

Indeed, the RMS Queen Elizabeth will always be a slumbering testament to the golden age of ocean travel, and what very little remains of her will live on with the rest of us. May she serve as a constant reminder of how we must remember to enjoy the beautiful things in life while they last. May the memories and captured film of her magical oceangoing career serve as a comfortable reminder of what once was an immaculate and welcoming liner. 

The very least we can do in this age is preserve the stories and legacies of these gentle giants of the seas, archiving their rich histories and captured beauty for future generations. I can only hope that Amidships serves as just one such example of this method of preservation. To me, the RMS Queen Elizabeth is one of the most beautiful liners to have existed - especially in terms of her genius exterior design that took an over-cluttered Queen Mary and gave her a hell of a thorough sanding down. The result was a gorgeously streamlined, majestic vessel with an uninterrupted, seamless long bow and rounded superstructure, the latter which boasted those incredibly beautifully arranged rows of windows looking over the forepeak. She is truly the essence of a great liner in every sense, and while widely ignored or forgotten, "Lizzie" will always live on thanks to the many admirers she does have, documenting and preserving her through media for all of eternity.

For more information on the RMS Queen Elizabeth or to learn of other liners, join Lovers of the Ocean Liners on Facebook.

Palatial: SS Duilio

Now, here's a stunningly beautiful ocean liner that I doubt any - if many - of you have even heard of. The SS Duilio was launched in 1923, and was constructed for the Navigazione Generale Italiana. Along with her sister ship SS Giulio Cesare, she sailed the seas to assist in filling the coffers of her owners. That being said, the shipping company certainly didn't skimp on luxurious fittings, decor and amenities for Duilio's 1,300 passengers. No expense was spared.

Getting right into the interiors of this extravagant vessel, you can't even tell that this is, indeed, a ship of less than 25,000 tonnes. The choice of interior detailing and architecture is utterly sublimeto say the least - it's something out of a palatial fairy tale. The soaring grand halls, lounges, dining rooms and other public spaces were simply extraordinary. Unfortunately, very little photographic evidence of the lush liner's interiors exists today - and most of it is safeguarded behind walls of copyright restrictions. I was lucky enough to come across even the photos you see now, thanks to those who are kind enough to share them online for the world. Otherwise, these images of Duilio's long-dead architecture would be lost to time. 

Duilio is largely forgotten and but a distant memory to many - if they've even heard of her before. There were simply so many other, more famous ocean liners during her time that the little Italian beauty faded into oblivion. The paltry few images I could provide offer little more than a tiny peek into the elegance and grandeur of this liner but when glancing at the plasterwork, wood panelling, soaring domes and gilded accents, it is clear that she was designed to impress. I have no doubts of such a feat being firmly accomplished. Duilio was the very first Italian super ocean liner, her size and carrying capacity establishing the NGI as a powerful contender in the passenger shipping business.

Some unique details about the design of this regal two-funnelled liner have seeped out and remained discoverable to this day. For one, Duilio was one of the safest and most meticulously designed liners of her day. Maritime regulations served as a bare minimum consideration in her design evidently, as she boasted one of the most flood-proofed hulls in the business. For a vessel her size, the required 12 watertight compartments were increased to a whopping 17 in Duilio's design. She also housed four anti-roll cases to maximize stability and minimize seasickness - an aspect of ocean travel never advertised that many considered the white elephant in the room. Initially, Duilio was utilized as intended - the Naples - New York route. However, in 1928 she was transferred to the Genoa - Buenos Aires route.

Like almost all liners, Duilio met a bitter end after being laid up in 1940 and being chartered to the International Red Cross in 1942. This was the final assignment she would have, being laid up afterwards in the port of Trieste. The saddest part of this story is that Duilio was left to languish alongside her sister, Giulio Cesare, who shared the same fate. With the Second World War in full violent swing, the two sisters were met with a bombardment by Allied aircraft. She rolled over and sank where she was anchored like a great wounded animal. Her wreckage sat in that very spot until 1948, when it was salvaged and scrapped.

The story of the SS Duilio is a short one. Few know of her, and even fewer will as time goes on, most likely. Still, the most prominent redeeming feature of this splendid liner is, in my opinion, that she performed admirably and did exactly what she was designed to do, surviving for decades before being destroyed in a manner any ship of her day would be unprotected from. Her passengers and crew enjoyed lavish crossings and an ever-so-elegant atmosphere, and they had the privilege of being a select few to experience her gracefulness in person.

All photo credits: Museum of the City of New York

Survivor: RMS Queen Mary

Ah, the RMS Queen Mary. 

So much could be said about this legendary vessel. Proclaimed by many to be the perfect ocean liner, this long-adored Cunarder and winner of the Blue Riband is a marvel in engineering. In this day and age when ocean liners are but a distant memory, the original Queen Mary is very special.

That's because she is still with us and accepting tickets to board to this day, albeit under a different pretence.

Now operating as a hotel, museum and tourist attraction, the Queen Mary is visited in her current home of Long Beach, California by millions of people each year. As indescribably transcendent as it is to actually visit the ship, in reality she is also permanently moored and serving as little more than a shrine. The fascinating thing is that this shrine is built inside the hallowed corpse of a long-ceased form of stately travel. Those who board to visit the liner today will never have the same experience as the passengers who sailed between the old and new worlds in her. That being said, there is a special, irreplaceable energy and atmosphere to "Mary". The craftsmanship, legacy and stories of those who sailed in her when she was operated as intended are too deeply engrained to scrub away and replace with corporate modernism.

And thank God for that. 

There is too much history to Mary to properly convey how important she was to the golden age of ocean travel, which she served through until its twilight years. Construction commenced in 1930, staggered and delayed due to the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the new Cunard superliner set sail on her maiden voyage on May 27, 1936. With the crew determined to wrest the Blue Riband of the Atlantic from their French rival Normandie (previously covered on Amidships), the Queen Mary powered onwards to New York. However, a thick fog enveloped the liner before reaching the coast, stunting her speed for the better part of a day. As soon as it cleared, the Queen Mary's engines were ordered to roar into full power. It is said that she reached a speed of well over thirty knots, but it still brought her into New York Harbour with a crossing slightly longer than Normandie's. An air of disappointment was felt throughout the ship, but it wasn't long before the Queen Mary swept Normandie's record under her own. The two ships would battle it out in style for years with a great deal of media attention and contention for the cream of the business. 

The Queen Mary sailed for the next three years in an endless parade of unbridled luxury and dignity. Notable passengers included Clark Gable, Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Bob Hope, just to name a select few. However, the dreadful cloud of Nazism soon shrouded even the grand, heady heydays of champagne and ballroom dancing at sea. The Queen Mary, as well as countless other vessels, was converted into a gigantic troopship, capable of ferrying 16,000 military personnel and soldiers around the world. She was painted in a stark shade of grey, and given her capability to easily outrun enemy vessels she was aptly nicknamed "The Grey Ghost" until re-entering service as a passenger liner on July 21, 1947.

During her wartime service, she became known for her accidental ramming and sinking of an accompanying destroyer, HMS Curacoa, in 1942. The destroyer was sailing in front of the Queen Mary in a zig-zag formation - a way of both defending the liner and avoiding enemy fire themselves - and proceeded to come too close to the massive grey hull of the 81,000-ton liner. With the Captain of the Queen Mary presuming that the Curacoa would adhere to his vessel's movements and maintain safe distance, the liner continued to power behind the destroyer. It proved a fatal encounter. The sharp, towering prow of the Queen Mary sliced through the six-inch hull of the Curacoa quite literally like a hot knife through butter. The destroyer never stood a chance, being cut clean in two with the Queen Mary sailing right through her mid-section. Under strict orders not to stop to pick up survivors in the sea lest she herself be attacked by U-Boats, those onboard the Queen Mary looked back in horror as the two sections of Curacoa's hull passed on either side of the hull in a most dramatic fashion, the stern section going under almost immediately whilst the bow remained afloat for a few minutes. The liner disappeared into the horizon, leaving 337 officers and crew dead and 101 survivors bobbing about in her wake, waiting for nearby radioed vessels to rescue them. The Queen Mary ended up surviving the perils of war, being restored into a floating palace in 1947. She retired from seagoing service in 1967. It's said that upon sailing into Long Beach and docking for the last time, the crew shut down the engines and looked at each other. Giving out a sigh and giving a look of mourning and great sadness, one of the crew said, "Well, lads... that's the end of the Mary."

But it wasn't. Not fully, at least. Certainly, her days as a true oceangoing liner were over, but she would live on as a floating monument to the "good old days". Several areas were encased in cement and her interiors were given a major overhaul. Much of the ship is inaccessible to the public, and below decks reside a forest of towering stacks of furniture, haphazardly and rather heartlessly piled to the ceilings. The original, iconic Cunard red funnels are long gone; they were removed and deemed total losses (countless reports state that men were walking on them to survey their integrity only to break through them, with some eyewitnesses stating that "only the paint" held them together). Most passenger decks and cabins are still accessible, as well as the iconic public areas such as the forward-facing bar and first-class dining room. Cabins boast the original furnishings save for new mattresses and additions such as televisions, and offer a one-of-a-kind experience for the competitive rental price. 

Fast forward to today, and the Queen Mary is still sitting proud in Long Beach. She certainly needs work after such a long time alive, though; the bridge wings are closed due to unstable and dangerous decking, deterioration and fatigue is evident throughout the ship, and even the funnels are in a desperate need of some love and care. That being said, organizations are allegedly working to restore the ship further and argue in support of keeping the vessel alive, repairing any damage or deterioration. Hopefully this comes to fruition, and that those controlling the ship's future understand the rare and vital link she serves to the past. 

In conclusion, that is the best part about the Queen Mary; she is still telling stories. Those who are lucky enough to stroll her promenade decks and browse her famous shopping arcade are in for an experience one can't find elsewhere. She is one-of-a-kind and no amount of words are sufficient enough to describe how legendary and endearing she is. Despite the Queen Mary 2 (also covered here on Amidships) being the current flagship of Cunard line, the original is where the true charm and grace really lies. Just look at how those behind the recent "Remastering" of Queen Mary 2 called back to the brilliant Art Deco designs of the original Queen Mary and depended on the class and elegance of that age of travel to influence their modern designs. That really says something about her enduring legacy. Those who once travelled on her still reminisce over their time onboard an icon of regal beauty and British pride.

Long live the Queen. Long live the survivor.

 


Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

To plan a visit to the RMS Queen Mary, consult the ship's official website for booking information and more.

Join Lovers of the Ocean Liners to learn a great deal more about this wondrous icon.

 

Majesty: RMS Oceanic (1899)

In the years before the great "superliners" such as the Mauretania, Imperator and Olympic were even dreamt up, smaller passenger liners with limited capacities plied the North Atlantic in a constant competition for profit and prestige. In fact, this constant game of one-upmanship even pre-dates the coveted Blue Riband of the Atlantic; once metal hulls replaced those of wood, shipping lines were able to utilize newly expanded design limitations to trump one another.

The RMS Oceanic entered service during this period, her title as the world's largest liner gaining a surge of popularity - and business - for two years. Despite losing the record to White Star Line fleet-mate RMS Celtic in 1901, Oceanic continued to be adored by the travelling public for her comfort, refined elegance and sleek lines. Her gorgeous twin funnels, being extremely tall and narrow, were a defining feature that evoked an air of dignity and majesty about the 700-foot vessel.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Oceanic's interiors were utterly spellbinding. Very little captured imagery remains, given the infancy of photography at the time. However, from the few lucky shots of her interiors made available, one can gain a sense of the sheer brilliance of her design. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II, White Star Line's rival in shipbuilding, is quoted to have called Oceanic "a marvel of perfection in building and fittings" upon seeing the recently completed liner. Not even the tiniest, most irrelevant details were left untreated with a meticulous eye for intricacy and craftsmanship. Even her smoking room, which would invite the residue of many a cigar, was subject to a near-insane amount of detailed woodworking and decoration.

Photo Credit: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Photo Credit: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Photo Credit: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Photo Credit: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Public spaces such as the library and dining rooms, with their domed ceilings and fine woodwork, were well-received by the public as well as the competition. Known affectionately as "The Queen of the Seas", Oceanic was a favourite of many - except for perhaps some of the crew. Despite her fine furnishings and elegant atmosphere, there was trouble below decks. She was the first White Star liner subject to a mutiny; in 1905, 35 stokers were upset with the liner's officers over the working conditions onboard, resulting in their conviction and imprisonment.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Oceanic encountered her fair share of mishaps and events, one of which was her accidental ramming and sinking of the Waterford Steamship Company vessel SS Kincora. She sliced into the vessel in thick fog, killing seven. near-involvement in the RMS Titanic's maiden voyage mishap with the liner New York. The sheer size of the famous luxury liner resulted in the New York being sucked in towards her stern, snapping free from her mooring lines. Oceanic was docked beside New York, and those onboard bore witness to what could have actually been an accident that might have saved Titanic from an even worse fate. Oceanic, ironically, recovered 3 bodies in Collapsable A from the doomed liner's sinking in May 1912.

Oceanic was commissioned as an armed merchant cruiser in 8 August 1914 under orders from the Admiralty. Fitted with 4.7 inch guns, she departed Southampton on naval service. She only lasted two weeks. Due to poor, ill-informed judgement pertaining to the charting of her course, the newly designated HMS Oceanic slammed into the notorious Shaalds of Foula on 8 September 1914, a reef known to rest just feet under the surface off the isle of Foula in the Shetlands that is nearly impossible to identify in calm seas. The ship ran directly onto the Shaalds and was a total loss - the first Allied passenger vessel casualty of the First World War. She was cut down to the water level in 1924 by salvagers, and the last remnants of her strong hull were removed in 1979. Yet even today, divers can visit the very little that remains of the Oceanic, though it isn't a recommended dive for novices.

One of the few surviving pieces of Oceanic's  hand-crafted woodwork. Photo Credit: Helen Hadley

One of the few surviving pieces of Oceanic's  hand-crafted woodwork. Photo Credit: Helen Hadley

The legacy of the Oceanic is in her lasting appeal. She, in my opinion, was one of the most innocently beautiful liners and was the mascot for the furious yet friendly competition between shipping lines until it turned ugly and became a tool of war. Indeed, innocence is a lost art. The second White Star Liner to bear this name, RMS Oceanic of 1899 will remain one of the most respected and majestic ocean liners of the age - an age which has long since passed.

Join Lovers of the Ocean Liners to learn more about the great transatlantic liners.

Photo Credit (unless stated otherwise): Wikimedia Commons

Vestige: RMS Queen Mary 2

Credit: Spaceaero2 (Wikimedia Commons)

Credit: Spaceaero2 (Wikimedia Commons)

Her sleek, graceful lines and imposing girth are something to behold. A maneuverable city of shimmering lights and elegant spaces capable of housing thousands, designed specifically to shelter passengers as they cross the notoriously powerful North Atlantic. Her sumptuous public spaces, fine dining and refined atmosphere are something out of a long-dead age of self-respect and professionalism. This may sound increasingly familiar to readers of past Amidships posts, but there's one thing that is very different about this ocean liner.

She is the last one in active service as intended, a vestige of a bygone era.

She is the RMS Queen Mary 2

Of course, not everyone is going to agree with my statement that she is the definitive ocean liner (aside from the Normandie), and I invite such disagreement. To me, however, there is something truly perfect about this particular liner - an atmosphere or act of seduction, for lack of a better definition - that is evident in even the tiniest of details. Having sailed for over a decade now, Queen Mary 2 has proved herself as a worthy addition to Cunard Line's heritage. Ironically, as the golden age of ocean travel and the Cunard name are but a shadow of their glorious former selves, the heartbeat still lingers. So long as a true ocean liner is in service, the legacy will remain - as will the prestige and enduring culture that the golden days brought about in some form or another. While things will never be the same as in the days of the original Queen Mary, Normandie and Andrea Doria, the Queen Mary 2 couldn't feel more like a beloved relative of those great ships. With tradition comes honour.

As for the vessel herself, she catches the eye and full attention of many a passerby wherever she sails - a similar response generated by the great liners of yesteryear. Regardless how one looks at it, the QM2, as she is lovingly nicknamed, respectfully takes us back to those days and couldn't be a more fitting torch-bearer. Her interiors (especially after a massive refit currently underway in Hamburg) are extraordinary - an observation that historian John Maxtone-Graham made regarding the Normandie that I believe is equally relevant here, decades later. A favourite space of mine - especially when refitted - is the impeccable Grand Lobby. Again a hallmark of liners past, this space was created under the guidance of architect Stephen Payne due to the fact that people expected it on a modern ocean liner worthy of the Cunard brand.

Credit: World Ship Society, NY

Credit: World Ship Society, NY

Unquestionably, it is, especially in the above renderings of the space's ongoing overhaul. One can picture Tallulah Bankhead, Fred Astaire or Marilyn Monroe descending the sweeping staircase and strolling past the grand piano. Other spaces on board are equally impressive - among them being the sweeping Commodore Club. An inviting bar built into the upper forward superstructure, it offers breathtaking views overlooking the vessel's sharp bow whilst encapsulating patrons within a half-moon shaped masterwork of panelling and nautical decor. A fantastic place for a cocktail and forward-facing views.

Credit: IWP Photography

Credit: IWP Photography

Then, there's the iconic Britannia Restaurant - the main dining venue on board. Featuring a classic domed, glass-panelled ceiling lighting fixture and a striking tapestry by Barbara Broekman, the restaurant is a favourite of many who have travelled on the QM2. Accompanied by a harpist, a string trio serenades diners amongst the champagne bubbles and tinkling of fine dinnerware. Other beautifully appointed spaces include the aft decks, offering the iconic sweeping view astern of the ship's massive wake and endless horizon, with each deck tiered increasingly forward to maximize scale and impact whilst being protected by windbreakers adapted from the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2. Peppered with loungers, pools, a live band and deck games, the aft of the Queen Mary 2 is a much-adored section of the ship.

Of course, when mentioning the currently ongoing refit or "Remastering" of Cunard's flagship, one would be ill-advised to not mention the Carinthia Lounge. This sleek, modern mingling space has taken the place of the Winter Garden - while lovingly executed, it rendered little to no foot traffic or utilization. Cunard was wise to redesign the large space and convert it into a glowing, comfortable lounge, complete with some of the most beautiful brass reliefs I've ever seen, right behind the bar counter. The shimmering, glitzy rendering offered by Cunard evokes a minimalistic but thoroughly "un-tacky" atmosphere, unlike that of the Winter Garden with its painted frescoes of foliage and neon wildlife. 

On top of new spaces such as the Carinthia Lounge and Verandah (the latter replacing the Todd English restaurant), Cunard have committed to re-carpeting the entire vessel, replacing and updating all staterooms and, from a casual observer's perspective, completely cleaning, repairing and modernizing every square inch of the ship. This was a dry-docking that was greatly overdue - the North Atlantic is anything but a timid force of nature. All exterior decking is being replaced, and the entire hull is getting a much-needed blasting and repainting after so many years of slicing through the sea. 

In conclusion, there is so very much one can say about the lasting legacy of the great liners. Cunard, through the Queen Mary 2, evidently aims to carry that legacy into the selfie-taking, aggressive and easily offended modern age. However, should the line keep her updated, reliable and worthy of the price of stepping onboard, then I have no doubts of the QM2 serving as a vestige and torch-bearer of a much-loved culture of travel for decades to come. Ever since first learning of the ship's existence as a child catching an Entertainment Tonight special about the ship, I felt drawn to her presence. To see Mary Hart perched upon the forepeak, exploring the luscious interiors of the then brand-new liner - I've never felt such an attraction to an atmosphere. Queen Mary 2 propelled me into a bygone era, and I am certain that the legacy of that era will be ever-stronger thanks to her. 

For more information on RMS Queen Mary 2 or her sister ships, visit Cunard's website.

For updates and notifications on new entries in Amidships or other projects, follow along with the official Facebook page.

Tony Strublic is a gifted, powerful artist whose work is both striking and full of essence. To see some of his sketch work or make an order, consult his personal website or Facebook page. QM2 and other liners covered by Amidships are featured.

Video Credits (in order): Cunard, CrossOceanic

Powerhouse in Purgatory: SS United States

She was once the pride of a nation. Now a floating behemoth of rusted, crusted metal, the once-grand vessel is moored at a forlorn Philadelphia port  beyond which rests a parking lot for the local IKEA. Many think of her as little more than a faded remnant of a long-dead era  that of the ocean liner. However, she is so much more than "just a ship".

She is the SS United States.

Once the fastest, grandest ocean liner afloat, the Big U, as she was affectionately known, was famous for carrying presidents, celebrities, and artists between continents. However, the age of jet travel spelled doom for her, like most other ocean liners. And so, for decades she has been placed in purgatory.

This ship is appealing and iconic in her stubborn determination to survive. She has been moored for decades at the same grimy Philadelphia dockside, the last remnants of a long-faded age clinging on for hope. Many are drawn to her shape, majesty, and grace that withstands the test of time  even right down to the chipped paint on her iconic funnels. Something about her remaining so visually impressive and imposing despite being coated in rust and grime bears testament to the age of ocean liners itself, and its determination to remain relevant in this digital, fast-paced, espresso-fuelled age. That is the most inspiring thing about her.

Above: Mark Strassmann of CBS News takes you on board the historic SS United States in this CBS Sunday Morning exclusive. Features interviews with Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship's designer, William Francis Gibbs. Filmed in 2013.

In early October 2015, the SS United States Conservancy had the hull examined for how much income it would take in as scrap. If the Conservancy didn't gain enough funding and public interest to save the ship, then she would have been scrapped. Donations poured in during a fierce donation campaign, and over $600,000 was raised to protect the vessel for the foreseeable future. Still, she wasn't out of danger yet. With docking expenses costing $60,000 a month, it wouldn't have been long before the United States was endangered again. On top of this, many felt irked to have to continue shelling out donations when no progress appeared to be made.

Suddenly, there was a ray of hope - albeit in the form of tremendous change that is dividing admirers of the "Big U".

On February 4, 2016, Crystal Cruises and the SS United States Conservancy held an announcement that many never thought would occur. Not only were there plans to save the ship, but intentions to convert the iconic vessel into a modern cruise liner that would pay homage to the golden days of ocean travel. The revealed concept images of the ship showed a completely alien superstructure in place of the original, with only the funnels and hull appearing to be from the original ship. Needless to say, one approaches such plans with excitement, optimism, skepticism and concern at once. With a feasibility study currently being conducted, Crystal is determined to secure the vessel so long as the study concludes it is a viable endeavour. 

Above: The announcement of Crystal Cruises and the SS United States Conservancy's planned restoration of the iconic vessel.

The United States' future will be revealed by the end of 2016 - for better or for worse. Personally, I support rescuing her via the only offered plan at the moment. With the loss of such splendid vessels as the France/NorwayMauretania, Kungsholm and Ile De France, would admirers of the SS United States be comfortable with sending her to the welder's blowtorch? For the record, I respect and fully agree with the fact that the vessel deserves to be wholly restored, but logic must be applied in this instance. Crystal requires a profit - operating the vessel will not cost peanuts. They also require adhering to modern safety regulations, among other things. Sometimes, drastic change is essential to further progress. All things considered, simply cleaning up the vessel and refurbishing it might not be as viable as we wish it were. In turn, this is a bitter pill to swallow, but if we don't, there likely won't be another major company rushing to the aid of the Conservancy. I believe Crystal would benefit from conducting a poll on which aspects of the original superstructure the public would like to preserve in the finalized design. If the company meets those who have fought to save the ship as she is currently halfway in the form of fielding e-mail questionnaires to donors and members, the voices of those who have kept her alive might be heard, their inputs possibly influencing the redesign should the go-ahead be given.

Of course, not everyone has to agree; it would be foolish to assume we all would. But if those who collectively wish to save the United States are given a vote in the planning/redesign process, it would only further preserve the legacy of this majestic vessel. It would be more harmful if no public input was considered.

After all, isn't preserving history the purpose of this entire plan? There's more to this than just profit-seeking; Crystal would build their own modern vessel otherwise, even if it costs a little less to purchase the hull. 

Otherwise, take this tortured lady out and give her a viking funeral. Make it a spectacle and a glorious, solidified goodbye.

Her torture is what tortures us.

Click here to visit the SS United States Conservancy website. Donate today and save a legend.

Click here to join Lovers of the Ocean Liners, the most active group of ocean liner enthusiasts.

Also, consider visiting the website of Crystal Cruises to learn more about their plans.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons. 

Trailblazer: SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse

Entering service in 1897, SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse captivated those seeking passage between the old and new worlds. The majestic liner was the first of four North German Lloyd vessels which shared the same base design - proof of popularity amongst the travelling public. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, essentially the prototype, proved herself a thoroughbred from the get-go. It wasn't long before she captured the coveted Blue Riband of the Atlantic from her British rivals; the award acted as a huge publicity magnet for any ship holding it, as it was custom to bestow it upon the fastest vessel in service, only to be transferred to a new ship when the current holder's record time was bested. Passenger shipping lines such as NDL, Cunard, White Star and countless others competed in an endless game of one-upmanship to build larger, faster and more imposing liners. When Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse claimed the record for fastest North Atlantic crossing, the eyes of the public were firmly fixed upon her.

On top of being the record-holding fastest transatlantic passenger vessel in service, she was also popular for another record of sorts; her unprecedented four funnels. Before long, passengers began to acquaint the number of funnels with how luxurious or well-regarded a vessel was. Other lines began to implement extra funnels, particularly during the Edwardian era and onwards in the form of such ships as Mauretania and her sister, Lusitania. Then, of course, came Titanic, Olympic and their sister, Britannic. Often, these ships only needed three funnels to serve their intended purpose sufficiently, with the fourth being a "dummy" funnel often acting as a storeroom. The elegant spacing of Kaiser Wilhem der Grosse's trendsetting funnels was unique to her and her sisters, however, and allowed for some clever interior design opportunities.

And goodness, those interiors. One must take a moment to consider the sheer brilliance of such public spaces onboard. Back then, there was a certain tendency to blow the competition out of the water with increasingly palatial architecture and decor to draw in more wealthy passengers. True, this trend continued throughout the age of ocean travel, but it was during the lifetime of Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse when such practices really took off, often forcing lines to visit the drawing board at shorter intervals. In fact, the competition between nations was heated when Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany had attended the British fleet review in 1889, in honour of the jubilee of Queen Victoria - his grandmother. Seeing the magnificent British liners such as Oceanic and newly launched Teutonic, the Emperor was flabbergasted by the sheer beauty of their interiors, and had praised the vessels' design and implementation of meticulous details.

And so, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the first "superliner", was born, as were her awe-inspiring interiors. 

Though she was the subject of several disastrous events (including a massive fire in New Jersey that killed 100 staff attempting to fight it), the vessel never ceased to inspire all who laid eyes on it. Even after her unfortunate loss as one of the first casualties of the First World War, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was but the much-needed kindling laid upon the roaring fires of passion forming the golden age of the ocean liner; a feat that was, unquestionably, iconic and legendary. This furious yet friendly competition between nations might not have been the same if she hadn't been built from passionate minds and hearts with an intention, simply, to create something splendidly beautiful.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (unaltered)

Transcendent: SS Normandie

When many picture an ocean liner, they see towering black-topped funnels, a sharp prow and a long dead age of gilded transcendent beauty. Carrying the rich and poor across the oceans of the world to new horizons, the great ocean liners of yesteryear are long gone. Still, their legacy remains. There are some true icons of this age that inspired popular culture more than we may ever know.

SS Normandie is, to quote author John Maxtone-Graham, "The ocean liner," and I wouldn't dare argue that fact. Her ethereal extravagance helped popularize everything Art Deco. With her dramatic clipper bow protruding like a well-trained nose in search of a venerable vintage, she sliced through the Atlantic Ocean for years, ferrying the crème de la crème of society in unparalleled luxury. Some would-be travellers were actually intimidated by the lush, nearly-suffocating interiors of the French giant and booked passage on more "welcoming" ships such as the RMS Queen Mary

The stunning design of Normandie was unrivalled in every way - so much so that any imagery shown here is deserving of respective spacing and breathing room. No other liner of the period came close whatsoever (other than the Ile De France, the French Line's vessel launched before Normandie). Everything from her crystal glassware to her monolithic grand dining saloon was spotless, awe-inspiring and likely evoked a "don't touch" sort of feeling among passengers. Her overall design became the symbolic "look" of passenger liners afterwards, even playing a role in the design and planning of modern vessels such as the RMS Queen Mary 2. Then, of course, there's the poster; the one which inspired generations and got me firmly hooked on ocean liners.

Yes, that poster, by advertising genius Cassandre. Its allure has stretched even into modern times, being featured in everything from Van Halen album covers to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In a way, Normandie herself is timeless. However, she's been physically absent for years now. Entering service in 1935, she only made 139 crossings, during which she competed with the RMS Queen Mary for the title of the fastest liner in service. On 3 September 1939, two days after Germany invaded Poland, the U.S government interned Normandie in New York where she sat mothballed until 1941. It was then decided to convert the massive vessel into a troopship, and her fine fittings were stripped down. Unfortunately, the conversion was hastily done due to the need of a troop transport, and Normandie, now renamed USS Layfayette, would suffer from the decisions made. During a cutting job in the first class lounge, a careless welder's flame found its way to a pile of life vests bundled with kapok and tar paper. Everything burned, and the ship's exquisite woodwork hadn't yet been removed. Within an hour, the fire roared through the top three decks of the ship's superstructure. Vladimir Yourkevitch, her designer, arrived at the docks but wasn't permitted entry. He pleaded with Rear Admiral Aldolphus Andrews to let him on board.

"I can find the seacocks blindfolded. The ship will sink three feet and be perfectly level. She will not capsize."

Andrews raised an egotistical hand.

"This is a Navy job."

And so she was utterly destroyed with those words, water from hoses pooling on her upper decks. She rolled onto her side like a wounded whale and was stuck for months in the mud and ice along the docks. She was eventually raised, but it came at the cost of her entire upper superstructure and funnels; she was shaved right down to the breakwater on her bow. Plans were drafted to convert her into an aircraft carrier but never materialized. Thus, the ship was towed out for scrap, her sleek clipper bow now shaving the faces of soldiers rather than the Atlantic waves. Very little of Normandie exists today other than a few paltry pieces of furniture (the larger pieces usually sell for tens of thousands of dollars). Her dining saloon doors are installed at Our Lady of Lebanon Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and a large statue currently resides onboard the cruise liner Celebrity Summit. It is but a mere sliver of what she once was, but better than nothing.

As enraged as I will remain over Andrews' decision, being bitter won't bring her back. Still, I remember reading about how the public reacted. It was like the loss of a superstar to many. People came down to the docks to see the once-proud vessel and cried, bewildered. The world was utterly shocked. In retrospective, the Normandie was something we as humanity truly didn't deserve. We're a foolish, selfish and simple-minded race, really. The ruins of Palmyra, the rainforests of the world, and the ice caps all share this sad position in our existences. 

Still, perhaps if we wake up, we can hold on to nice things. We just have to learn to respect them.

Photo Credit, World Ship Society, Wikimedia Commons

Bleeding Out Behind a Veil: SS Arctic

The Collins Line was, back in the 1850s, one of the most well-known and popular passenger shipping lines. Their fleet of paddle-wheeled steamers ferried travellers between the old and new worlds. Today, next to nobody even knows that they existed. 

Even fewer people know of the tragedy of the SS Arctic, which accelerated the line's financial issues and eventual closure in 1958. Just 80km off the coast of Newfoundland, the rotting hulk of the once-elegant steamer sits crumpled on the sea floor, never visited, never remembered. 

The single-funnelled, 284-foot Arctic was the most celebrated and largest of the four Collins Line vessels ever in service, earning the nickname "Clipper of the Seas" for her record-breaking 9-day winter 1851 transatlantic crossing. She was adored by passengers for her lavish interiors, as opposed to Cunard Line's Britannia, which Charles Dickens likened the latter's dining saloon to "a long narrow compartment, not unlike a gigantic hearse," while Arctic's main saloon was appreciated by many for a near-Oriental, elegant design with detailed touches. 

None of this admiration and popularity would spare the westbound paddle-wheeled, wooden-hulled steamer from a fog-shrouded collision with the eastbound SS Vesta. Ten feet of the bow of the iron-hulled Vesta was shorn clean off, but thanks to watertight compartments integrated into her design, she was spared. Arctic, wooden-hulled with no watertight compartments, received the polar opposite treatment, flooding extensively and sinking within four hours.

Arctic only had enough lifeboats for less than half of her roughly 400 passengers and crew.

Only 85 survived, including 61 crew and 24 male passengers. No women or children on board ever touched land again. Only 3 lifeboats were ever found.

The only casualties on the Vesta were the occupants of a lifeboat prematurely lowered over the side; its passengers were fearful of their ship sinking, but were met with the Arctic's jet-black prow knifing over them by accident. The sinking was allegedly rife with cowardice and a most pure demonstration of mankind's greed and selfishness when faced with calamity. Even the wife and two children of Edward Collins, owner of Collins Line, were killed. Many passengers relied on makeshift rafts to escape. Also lost, in a sick twist of irony, were several members of the Brown family, which financed the Collins Line. The captain of the Arctic, James F. Luce, went down with his ship while clinging to his son. Miraculously arriving at the surface to a sea of screaming, bewildered people, the two of them were struck by a section of one of the ship's paddlewheel boxes rising to the surface behind them. Luce survived, but his son was killed instantly when it barrelled into them.

Captain Luce then spent two days clinging to the very piece of wreckage that had killed his son.

Obviously the sinking was the "Titanic" of its time, so to speak, right down to bleeding out and foundering within the same timeframe with more or less the same lifeboat to passenger ratio. News of the disaster didn't reach New York for two weeks due to the infancy of wireless communications systems at the time. The SS Arctic has been lost in more ways than one, veiled behind a thick curtain of sand and murky seawater and lack of public knowledge which increased during the passage of time. Everything about this spectacularly horrid disaster, from the cowardice and bias to the heroism, deserves to be recognized. The crew overtaking lifeboats, makeshift rafts of screaming women and children being sucked out to sea, and the cannon at the prow of the sinking liner being fired continuously until her death rattle. It all happened. It's a major event in maritime history no matter how one looks at it.

This calamity at sea deserves to be known and recognized, as do those lost.  

Photos: Wikimedia Commons (unaltered)

 

Tragic Icon: RMS Titanic

Obviously this one was going to come up at one time or another. You all know about her. The legend. The story. The rumours, myths and Hollywood-fuelled public interest.

There is a perfectly legitimate reason behind it all: The RMS Titanic and everything about her story is a truly human tale. Therefore we relate. The equivalent of a Greek Tragedy. The 9/11 of 1912 - at least in terms of dramatic scale and lasting impact. Unless if you've lived in the wilderness and never entered modern civilization, you'll know about the story of this tragic icon of passenger shipping. It enters our lives at one point or another. Everything from the construction of this colossus to the bitter, frigid end of her one and only voyage fascinates each incoming generation. Many people simply can't quite believe that such a story unfolded, even in this age. 

I won't go on about what happened. Obviously we all know. And it was horrid. To me, this vessel is the one that "hooked" me into learning more about the golden age of ocean liner travel. Born in 1992, I grew up right in the middle of a sea of intrigue about the old girl. The James Cameron movie, discoveries during continued dives, and also the publications released on the subject were readily available to me. Good God, those books. Everything from Ghost Liners to Titanic: An Illustrated History found its way into my home, and there was never a single regret about it. In my youth I ate, slept and breathed RMS Titanic; it was an integral part of my life. Yet even to this day, I can't quite pinpoint what it is that fascinates me about her. It's almost like a chemistry of sorts. Perhaps the thought that a self-contained "city" at sea what was drew me in. Think about it - Turkish Baths, luxurious accommodations, shimmering chandeliers, gilded lounges and majestic public spaces all riveted tightly together in a skin of imposing black metal, slicing through the great oceans of the world. 

The abandoned drawing room of Harland & Wolff in Belfast, Ireland. The RMS Titanic was designed here, the room once serving as an airy, light-filled sanctuary for a team of talented draftsmen.

The abandoned drawing room of Harland & Wolff in Belfast, Ireland. The RMS Titanic was designed here, the room once serving as an airy, light-filled sanctuary for a team of talented draftsmen.

Then, of course, there is the overall design of the vessel's interiors. The grand staircase, its ornate woodworking and gilded accents sweeping in twin spiralled edges down several decks, never losing the ability to leave one dumbstruck. The majestic First-Class dining room, where anybody who was anybody ate amongst a sea of twinkling glasses and sumptuous delicacies. The many lounges and public spaces throughout the RMS Titanic were something to truly behold. To think, spaces such as these were able to travel around the world and provide all the amenities of home to those onboard. Having visited artifact exhibitions and been inches from the lingering souls of RMS Titanic and her passengers, I can safely say that part of this story will always live on. It can be difficult to describe, but once you see the remains of long-ceased existences and creations, you connect to them. You feel them. I'll never forget happening upon a pouch of perfume samples, tiny and delicate yet capable of surviving crushing pressure and years of resting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The glass display they were resting in at the exhibit I was visiting had several small holes drilled through it.

So what did I do?

I leaned against the glass and inhaled the potent aroma of a long-dead age.

I closed my eyes. The tears couldn't be helped; I was simply overcome by this vivid, fruity scent that had followed the dead to the bottom of the Atlantic and found a way back to the surface after a century. Those kinds of experiences do not come often. Through the shattered china and shoes that remained tightly tied where ankles used to be, a reminder of the life that existed pierced through the tragedy and death. This is what we should remember about RMS Titanic. People lived and died upon her, but their stories still deserve to be told. The essence of that great jet-black liner will always live on, and not just because of what has been salvaged from the deep (a sensitive subject for many). Our admiration and sheer love of this tragic icon will keep it alive. So do yourself a favour; discover the essence of this ship and those aboard. Watch the documentaries online, read books from the library, and view the stunning masterwork of artists such as Ken Marschall (who I am indebted to for being such a huge inspiration). Don't just think of it as "the big ship that sank." Think of it as a pivotal, powerful chapter of maritime history. Because it is.

Photo Credit (In order): kynd_draw (Flickr CC), craigfinlay (Flickr CC).

Witness: SS Andrea Doria

Sunk in July 1956 after being struck by the Swedish liner MS Stockholm, the elegant SS Andrea Doria was truly a marvel of shipbuilding - albeit mingled with that ever-so-famous Italian penchant for lavish extravagance. The tragic collision and sinking resulted in nearly fifty deaths and was witnessed by countless television viewers around the world - it was the first ever televised sinking of an ocean liner. The stunning aerial photography of Harry Trask for the Boston Traveler won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize and made the sinking world-famous.

It's difficult to describe what draws me to the SS Andrea Doria - it is almost an ethereal, otherworldly feeling, of a spectral hand dragging my mind under the Atlantic waves. The sheer beauty of this vessel is astonishing; her draft, beam and streamlined superstructure were a match made in heaven and a naval architect's wet dream. This is why the sight of her current condition after so many years of being prey to deep waters and shifting currents is horrifying to say the least. The superstructure is warped and collapsed, and her blackened hull is buckling inwards. It looks almost as if a meteor struck the ship from above, creating a crater where elegantly clad women once descended gilded staircases for sumptuous dinners with their dapper husbands. I suppose, in a way, knowing what once was there exists only in postcards or photos from that era haunts me. We lose too many beautiful things to tragedy and hardship, and that will never change. But with something as close to my heart as ocean liners are, it guts me to know their fates. So many lay crippled, broken and rotting like scattered corpses on a long-forgotten battlefield.

That is the problem – we forget.

Countless souls have been lost to the sea, yet the only tragedy people know of by heart is the RMS Titanic, which has really become a cliché and joke amongst us liner enthusiasts, considering that every ship is her to most people. There are so many other disasters at sea that are long forgotten – the SS ArcticWilhelm Gustloff, and Awa Maru for example – and they deserve to be remembered. I suppose this harkens back to my previous posts in the sense of the same underlying theme that resonates with them all – if we forget what we’ve lost, then forget the future. Be a witness to the past –  you’ll thank yourself for it.

To learn more about the SS Andrea Doria, click here.

For more on the MS Stockholm, which is still sailing (albeit under a different name), click here. 

Photo Credit: Harry A. Trask (Wikimedia Commons)                                                                                                 Video Credit: British Movietone

Reverence: RMS Empress of Ireland

There's a grave that few visit - and it rests at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River. 

In 1914, the ocean liner RMS Empress of Ireland was rammed by the coal carrier Storstad in thick fog off Point-Au-Père, Quebec. She plummeted beneath the frigid waves within 14 minutes, the immense hole in her hull aided by open portholes in capsizing the liner and pulling her under – along with much of her passengers and crew. With ordinary, common folk filling up the passenger list (heaven forbid) and the First World War arriving shortly afterwards, the RMS Empress of Ireland was largely forgotten.

What speaks most to me about this ship, as well as the tragedy surrounding it, is the fact that it has grown to become a Canadian legend, similar to the Edmund Fitzgerald. We seem to revere and respect events such as this with a little more dignity and awareness – which is rightly so, considering that the bones of many of the disaster’s victims still linger deep within the pitch-black confines of the ship’s mangled hull. The ship holds many secrets that continue to elude and excite us, mainly due to sediment on the riverbed tending to shift and flutter about. I remember reading one story of a diver who discovered a perfectly preserved bundle of newspapers – twine still bound around them and the paper white as virgin snow. He returned a few days later and found a pile of shifted sediment instead. That air of mystery has intrigued me for years, and the RMS Empress of Ireland was one of the first ships to catch my interest, as a result.

Another reason she appeals to me is because I have visited her in person – in a sense. Having seen her artifacts on display at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, I felt emotionally connected to the ship, her legacy and lasting appeal. Seeing shoes worn by a dead passenger, the ship’s bell and wheel, a horn belonging to one of the 167 Salvation Army Band members travelling during the voyage (159 of whom perished) as well as other remnants of lives long passed were a strong and emotional reminder of what happened. Many woke that night to ice-cold water filling their lungs. Let us wake with love in our hearts. This tragic innocence is what is so beautiful about the RMS Empress of Ireland - and so very haunting. Once you're face to face with a piece of history such as this, it never lets go of your heart. Such is the way of humanity. If only more would reflect on moments such as this to gain a better understanding on the value of human life.

For more information on the RMS Empress of Ireland, click here.

To learn more about the golden age of ocean travel, join Lovers of the Ocean Liners. 

Photo Credit: Corey Reed. Video Credit: Shaw TV.

Frigid Angel: RMS Lusitania

Welcome to Amidships. This is the first of a series of blog entries, all focused on the great floating palaces of yesteryear - the ocean liners. Step aboard and indulge yourself into the vivid annals of a long-dead age that deserves to be remembered. Experience pivotal moments in passenger shipping history, ranging from tragedy to feats of humanity and utmost selfless bravery. 

It was May 1915. Carrying thousands of passengers across the bone-chilling cold of the Atlantic Ocean – and towards the shadow of the First World War – was the RMS Lusitania, a luxurious greyhound of an ocean liner. Off the Irish coast, passing the Old Head of Kinsale, a torpedo fired from German submarine U-20 pierced the giant ship's hull below the waterline, causing a great explosion that shook the ship about. The coal dust in the air of her bunkers ignited, causing a second, more ferocious  explosion that blew her side out.

RMS Lusitania vanished below the Atlantic waves within twenty terrifying minutes. Out of 1,959 passengers and crew, only 761 ever set foot on shore again. 124 Americans perished, influencing America’s decision to join the First World War.

The legendary story of this majestic liner is something that I keep very close to my heart. It is difficult to explain in so few words, but to think that something so beautiful, elaborately furnished, and shamelessly elegant rests crumpled and rotten on the seabed like a great hand-riveted corpse is utterly astonishing to me. Every rotted deck plank, pitch-black hallway, and rusted rivet carries the story and legacy of a human being – many whom perished aboard one of the finest liners ever built. An owner of Lusitania artifacts myself, I feel a deep connection with that great ship as well as a heavy responsibility to respect and honour her legacy. Her everlasting story is one that, for the good of humanity, cannot be forgotten. It would be a travesty for such a thing to happen. Amid this world of processed food and selfies, history becomes more vital. 

This is why the final voyage of RMS Lusitania is heavily featured as a major plot point in the manuscript for my debut novel. It is a dramatic period thriller that, I feel, has the potential to leave readers shaking their heads in disbelief. It is really the telling of a fictional passenger’s crossing and struggle for survival. In a way, the disaster also has piqued my interest in my Irish heritage, and what that lovely little green island is like. I’m also inspired by the lifestyle, fashion, and even the etiquette of that era, thanks to what I know of the tragedy.

The history of this splendid ship is deserving of all your attention, admiration, and respect. She is truly a frigid angel – her final moments carrying men, women, and children from this life into another existence, via an icy burial at sea. 

To learn more, join Lovers of the Ocean Liners.

For more information on the RMS Lusitania, click here.

Photo Credit: DeGolyer Library of Southern Methodist University | Corey Reed