When giants roamed the oceans

SUN JOURNAL

Passages: The recent discovery of the Carpathia's wreck serves as a reminder of the golden age of trans-Atlantic travel.

October 05, 1999|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

An entire generation of travelers between the United States and Europe knows only the airplane. They never made a crossing by sea, never saw the Atlantic darken their porthole in rough seas, never sipped bouillon on a sunny deck while daydreaming of Europe.

Regular steamship passages of a week or two were once commonplace and affordable. Today's remaining liners range from Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 and Holland America Line's Rotterdam to island hoppers and passenger-carrying freighters. They tend to be either expensive or specialized.

The lost steamship age comes to mind with the report last month that the Cunard passenger ship Carpathia, which rescued 705 survivors of the 1912 Titanic sinking, has been found upright and in one piece under 600 feet of Atlantic water. For decades, scores of such ships crisscrossed what Europeans call the Western Ocean and Americans know as the North Atlantic.

"I prefer crossings at sea," says John Maxtone-Graham. "But most Americans sadly are put off by eight days at sea. They are conditioned to cruising and being in port every two or three days. They are in a hurry and scared if they haven't crossed before."

Maxtone-Graham, of New York, is a lecturer and author on trans-Atlantic travel. He spends four to five months a year on steamships. His two books, "The Only Way to Cross" (1972), about the old superliners, and "Liners to the Sun" (1985), about cruise ships, are being reissued. He looks forward to a planned Cunard liner, which hopes to introduce a new generation to "the creaking majesty" of six-day crossings.

Cunard once made weekly passages with beauties such as the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary. Atlantic sea travel reached its height in 1957 when more than 1 million people crossed the ocean on 70 steamers. That was also the crossover year, Maxtone-Graham reports, the first time as many people flew as sailed between North America and Europe.

The first commercial jet to Europe was the next year, and in a decade the age of ocean travel had ended. "The Atlantic liner was taken from us like a good friend hit by a truck: swiftly, mercilessly," wrote Walter Lord of New York, who chronicled the Titanic.

As late as 1964, Holland America Line, called "The Spotless Fleet" for the quality of its trans-Atlantic travel, ran 50 voyages between Europe and New York; by 1969 there were only 13, and most of them were to reposition ships for regional cruises.

Besides those that became cruise ships, the lives of the steamships ended in varied ways. Many were pressed into service during the two world wars and were sunk. The newly found Carpathia was also a war casualty.

Six years after the Titanic rescue, the Carpathia was still in Atlantic passenger service -- even after a German submarine sank another Cunard line ship, the Lusitania, off Ireland's coast in 1915.

On July 17, 1918, it was traveling with 57 passengers and a crew of 220 from Liverpool to New York. About 170 miles off southwestern England, a German U-boat sent three torpedoes into its engine room, killing five engineers and sinking the ship. The British sloop Snowdrop rescued all passengers and the remaining crew.

The Carpathia's 16-year career was not much briefer than those of some other famous 20th-century passenger liners. Their obituaries list wear and tear, groundings, collisions, fire, floods and airplane competition among causes of death. The natural life of many expensive vessels was about a generation, 30 years or so.

If the White Star Line's Titanic had missed the iceberg and other catastrophes, it might have equaled the life span of its sister ship -- 24 years. The almost identical Olympic served until 1935, when it was scrapped because of age, a bad economy and the merger of the White Star and Cunard lines.

Different fates awaited the two major Cunard liners of midcentury. The Queen Mary served 33 years as a passenger carrier and wartime troopship until its last voyage in 1967. It was beached as a hotel in Long Beach, Calif., and has welcomed thousands.

The Queen Elizabeth, which began life in World War II, retired in 1968. A plan to turn it into a Florida hotel collapsed. The Orient Overseas Lines took it over, renamed it Seawise University (a play on owner C. Y. Tung's name) and sent it to Hong Kong to become a school ship. But during the 1972 conversion it caught fire and sank.

Two famous ships that made big news in the 1950s are afloat -- barely, in one case.

So swift was the liner United States that on its eastbound maiden voyage in 1952, it gained the Blue Riband, a long blue ribbon floating from the aft mast, emblematic of the Atlantic speed record. It crossed in three days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes, at an average speed of 35.5 knots.

Jet travel stopped its propellers just 17 years later in 1969. Tied up at a Philadelphia pier, the United States is a rusting hulk waiting to be revived or scrapped -- most likely the latter.

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