Ocean Liners: The Grandest Boats Afloat

IT was the assignment of the year, a research paper. The Mt. Everest of English composition. Looming, daunting, and seemingly impossible!

Thankfully, we had a wise English teacher and she helped us whittle the assignment into doable pieces. First you choose your topic, then you get your research materials from the library, then read them, inscribing pithy quotations on 3×5 index cards alongside bibliographical reference information. And so on.

Image: Amanda Stiver

Still daunted, I thankfully chose a topic that intrigued me, and continues to even today: ocean liners and their history.

This curiosity for things nautical started the year before with a book report choice, The Commodore, featuring dashing naval hero Horatio Hornblower, written by C. S. Forester. The Hornblower series is a wonderful gateway into history for those with a curiosity about seafaring life during the Napoleonic wars.

But upon reflection, I find that I had developed my interest for ships and sailing and ocean navigation long before that. First a children’s book, still haunting my shelves, about a tug boat on the Hudson River, called The Carol Moran and featuring a cameo by the beautiful mid-century ocean liner the Queen Mary. That illustrious silhouette is hard to forget once seen, and the illustrations from that book were beautifully executed by Peter Burchard.

Next came a favorite childhood movie, “Royal Wedding,” starring Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. The plot featured the story of an American brother-sister dance act who find themselves booked for the season of the royal wedding of then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947. They find adventure and romance in the process, but in order to get from New York to London they travel on, you guessed it, an ocean liner. In this case, the very stylish S.S. Liberte of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, a.k.a. the French Line.

In that film Astaire and Powell perform a lovely, graceful exhibition dance all the while contending with a blustery sea that leaps and plunges the deck of the smoking room into something akin to one of those topsy-turvy fun house walks at a carnival midway. The finale finds a wayward sofa slide down and topple them over just at the concluding dip of the performance.

So there I was, writing a research paper on ocean liners. My English teacher, who as a little girl with family in both the U.S. and Australia made a voyage there and back on the Queen Mary, was encouraging to her student who chose so unusual a topic. But, sadly, those beautiful floating fortresses of transatlantic travel were few and far between by the late 1990s.

There were, however, many cruise ships and so it was to that topic I looked for my research materials. I came across a wonderful book: Crossing & Cruising: From the Golden Era of Ocean Liners to the Luxury Cruise Ships of Today by John Maxtone-Graham.

Though my research paper is now buried in a moving box somewhere, an enduring curiosity for this topic was launched and I recently bit the bullet and bought copies of Maxtone-Graham’s The Only Way to Cross, Liners to the Sun, and Crossing and Cruising. And I’ve enjoyed every moment of these vicarious historical journeys and travelogues!

If you have a hankering for ocean travel but can’t carve out the time for a week-long cruise on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 or Queen Victoria, or the recently revived Titanic, then I highly recommend these very intelligent and amusing books by an author who lovingly recites his prodigious knowledge of the history of ocean travel and its industries.

Set sail on a wave of nautical history. There is much to learn from the prime mode of mass transport preceding the jet age.

Keep thinking history!

~ Amanda Stiver