Some Great Ships Of Yesteryear


I have been fascinated by passenger ships since leaving the Navy several decades ago. The greatness, design and functionality of a mass of steel moving through the water at speeds of 23 to 35 miles per hour are still fascinating to me. Inside is a grand hotel and/or resort atmosphere with great service, good entertainment, fine dining and public rooms. There are tennis courts, swimming pools, spas, theaters, bistros, bars, casinos, libraries to name a few of the room types. The hotel rooms are known as cabins or staterooms or suites.

The ships I am going to remember go back to being in service after World War II. I may miss some of your favorites, so forgive me, but I can’t mention them all in this column.

After WWII civilization was getting back to some form of normality and the public began to travel again in the late 1940s into the early ’50s. Airlines were becoming popular as a form of travel, but not so much in the trans-Atlantic trade. The passenger ships continued to be the most popular form of international travel. Ships of this period were the French Lines Liberte which had been given to the French as reparations from Germany after the war. Originally the Europa, the French made it into a product of France at sea and it was popular for its cuisine, high style, luxury and service. They continued later with the grand SS France which later became the Norway for NCL.

The British ruled the Atlantic trade as they had before the war with their popular Queens Mary, Elizabeth and the Mauritania These were fast vessels that transported travelers between Europe and New York in five days sailing time.

The Italians were also very popular with their beautiful and modern ships they called Andrea Doria, Christoforo Colombo, Leonard da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rafaello.

The Dutch ran their luxurious Nieuw Amsterdam and Rotterdam which also did cruises in the winters. As the trans-Atlantic trade continued to grow, more and more ships came on line. The Cunard Line commissioned a 900-passenger luxury ship called Caronia which doubled at first as a trans-Atlantic ship and cruise liner. Soon, it became the almost private club of the rich and powerful and spent most of its time as a world cruise ship. This was the snob ship of its time. It accommodated first and second class passengers at first, then as it gained popularity with the very rich, Cunard Line closed down the second class section and ran the ship as first class only, allowing for only 500 passengers on each sailing. Here was a 33,000-ton ship, painted in three shades of green that became known as “the green goddess.”

The ship would sail around the world beginning in January, that would take 130 days plus, followed by a Mediterranean and Africa cruise lasting perhaps 45 days, then perhaps a South America voyage, and possibly a South Pacific adventure moving on to Asia and returning to England in November at which time the ship would go into dry dock for a month’s repairs and hull cleaning. The passengers demanded the best and got it. They would come onboard with trunks of clothing, so much so that some clients had to book a separate stateroom to accommodate their clothes. Most of the evenings were formal when at sea. One nice feature of those days was that Cunard scheduled two, three and more days in the more interesting ports of call to allow passengers to take detailed inland excursions. The Caronia really began the cruise style that we know today. It’s not so formal now and most of our cruises are of shorter duration than they were then.

Other ships of note in the ’50s and ’60s were the Kungsholm, Gripsholm and Stockholm of the wonderful Swedish America Line. These comfortable mid-size vessels were extremely popular with travelers who desired a more leisurely experience at sea while still enjoying luxury, Scandinavian style. The ships also gained popularity as cruise ships in the winter season.

Another brand was Norwegian America Line with their very popular mid-size Bergensfjord, Sagafjord and Vistafjord. These club-like luxury liners did some trans-Atlantic work, but also became known the world over as long distance cruise ships that set new standards in style and comfort.

The Americans never did rule the seas, but did contribute with the America, United States, Independence and Constitution. The last two remained in service into the 1990s with service in the Hawaiian Islands. The Americans always built sturdy, safe ships and when they were retired from American companies, the Greeks usually purchased them for additional world service.

The passenger jet changed trans-Atlantic service beginning in 1959 and passenger shipping declined after this time. Travelers could cross the ocean in a few hours versus days.

In the 1970s some of the great liners were fading and the companies decided to sell off their products to other companies or send them to the scrap yards. The jet planes ruled the world. Some lines converted their liners to cruise ships, but these never did really make the transition as they had hoped.

The Cunard Line decided not to give up and commissioned the now famous Queen Elizabeth 2. This 70,000-ton vessel did mostly trans-Atlantic duty along with some cruising in the winter months. It lasted until late last year for a period of more than 40 years and was probably the most famous ship of its time. The QE 2 is now in Dubai to become a hotel/resort permanently docked.

The revolution came actually in 1965 with a 39,000-ton, 782-foot cruise ship called the Oceanic of the Home Lines. It accommodated 1,200 first class passengers in high style with an Italian crew, great food and luxurious, modern appointments. It also came with a new magradome cover over the large double swimming pool on the top deck. If the weather was inclement, the glass dome was moved over the entire pool area to permit a beach resort atmosphere any time of the year. There were large deck areas for sunning and relaxing and the Italian crew spoiled every passenger on board. The Oceanic was home ported in New York and cruised year-round mostly to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Canada and once in a while to South America. This is the ship that set new standards and trends in ship design and luxury of the period.

In the late 1960s into the ’70s, Caribbean cruising began to swell with Norwegian Cruise Lines and their Starward, Skyward and Sunward. Royal Caribbean Cruises got into the act with the Song of Norway, Nordic Prince and Sun Viking. All of these ships cruised out of Miami. A little later Carnival came into the picture with the secondhand Mardi Gras that was not really in good shape when placed in service out of Miami, so they advertised it as the FunShip. In those days I wondered if Carnival would ever make it with this old trans-Atlantic liner that continued to need work inside even as it sailed on its first cruises. A fleet of workmen would be pounding noise in passenger areas as the “fun” would be happening around them. It wasn’t luxury, but FUN. Well, look what Carnival did. They changed the industry again with their informal vacation concept, popular pricing and fantastic marketing. The Carnival Corporation today owns about 80 percent of the ships departing from the United States with their brands of Carnival, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Costa, and several others.


I also want to mention the great American ships in the Pacific. Just after the war, the Matson Line continued with their Mariposa, Monterey and service to Hawaii from Los Angeles and San Francisco with their very popular Lurline. The American President Line offered scheduled service to the Orient with the President Cleveland and Wilson. These ended service in the early 1970s and the lines let the airlines do the trans-Pacific work from then on.

Princess Cruises caused another major change with their Pacific Princess and Island Princess. These very modern early ’70s built 20,000-ton twin ships carrying 550 passengers in luxury up and down the Pacific Coast from Los Angeles to Alaska, Mexico, Panama Canal and into the South and North Pacific on extended cruises. They also had the popular magradome glass covers over the top swimming pool so they could be enjoyed in all types of weather.

What made them so famous was the TV hit “The Love Boat” that lasted on network television for 11 years. The show was placed on the Pacific Princess, but most of the program was actually filmed in a Hollywood studio. Six times each year, the production would go on board either the Pacific or Island Princess for location filming. Either ship could be used since they were identical.

Today, the Pacific Princess has recently been sold to Brazilian interests and the Island Princess continues to serve as the Discovery for Voyages of Discovery out of England. The “Love Boat” series made cruising popular with the general public.

Another company that was opened in the early 1970s was the Royal Viking Line. They took over the long distance cruise market with modern 22,000-ton luxurious ships which were identical. They were the 500-passenger Royal Viking Star, Royal Viking Sea and Royal Viking Sky. These were so popular that some clients moved on board for a year at time as the ships sailed the world. One movie star that did so was Merle Oberon.

All three were later cut in two and extended in size to allow for 250 additional passengers.

I could go on and on with this, but space is a premium and I must close. As stated in the beginning, I have left out many great ships you may remember, but it’s a big subject and there is much to tell. We can still enjoy great ships of the present. So, let’s go to sea soon!


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