The Greatest Ocean Race

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Imagine, if you will, a competition for speed among all the world’s major powers. Imagine a race that required the latest of technology, the best navigational know-how, and men who were willing to risk it all in the name of glory.  Imagine, now, that that this race involved the lives of thousands of people who were simply trying to get from point A to point B, and who may or may not have been aware of their part in the drama that was called The Blue Riband.

The Blue Riband was an ongoing race that lasted throughout the age of the great ocean liners. It unofficially began in 1838, when the era of steam-powered ships began, and became more formalized throughout the decades, ending more than a hundred years later when the age of air transit began.  The goal: to cross the Atlantic the fastest.  The winner would fly  a blue pennant whose length was determined by the average speed in knots maintained during the crossing, but more importantly, the bragging rights would bestow a key marketing advantage in the competition for passengers.  Bookings would soar until another ocean liner took the title, which could happen at any moment.

To win the Blue Riband, captains would take risks in what could be an incredibly dangerous journey — icebergs, ocean storms, trecherous coast lines and crowded waters led to many tragedies.  In 1854,  the American ship the Arctic collided with another boat off the coast of Newfoundland and sunk, killing 300 —  including the wife and two children of the owner of the shipping company, which subsquently went bankrupt. In 1873, the French Ville du Havre struck another ship and sunk, killing over 200.  The British White Star line’s Atlantic struck submerged rocks and sunk, killing half of the thousand aboard.

It was only then that safety rules were contemplated, and proposed —  although they were frequently ignored. Not even the worst peacetime ocean disaster, the sinking of the Titanic in 1914, changed the behavior of those in pursuit of this prize.  In 1933, the Italian liner Rex was making record-setting time, but hit pea soup fog approaching the American coast. Rather than lose the prize, the captain was said to have shouted “Avanti a tutta forza!”  (Full speed ahead) and ploughed on at top speed.  It kept the record until 1935.  The last Blue Riband holder was the American ship the United States, which set the still unbroken record of three days, ten hours and forty minutes for a Le Havre-Southampton crossing.

I read about the Blue Riband in  First Class: Legendary Ocean Liner Voyages Around the World, Gérard Piouffre’s fascinating new book, which is packed with historic photos, drawings and ephemera from the age when great boats were synonymous with international travel. (Nota bene: fabulous holiday gift idea.)  It’s hard to believe that passengers would simply be along for a potentially deadly ride on this contest, which was at times quite literally sickening.  And since Piouffre writes that it was steerage passengers that made up the bulk of a crossing’s profits, I’m sure many were not fully aware of the risk they were taking for the sake of someone else’s profit and glory.

[Photo courtesy of Vendome Press]

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