History Aboard

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I wonder how long it generally takes to turn a ship’s passenger into a passionate fan of ocean liners past. For me it happened in the five days of a crossing from New York to Southampton on the QE2 . That was twenty years ago. Back on land I found myself haunting antiques shops in search of one of the posters that would express all the glamour of the liners in their great days. Then I needed to read about them. Starting with the 1972 volume The Only Way to Cross , the books of John Maxtone-Graham have accompanied me on all my sailings. In Liners to the Sun he offers a reassurance to those of us who are sadly certain they missed the boat in its best decades: “My intent here is to document the shipboard that never really changes. . . . Years as a passenger have convinced me that what we enjoy about sailing, our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents enjoyed, too.

The cruise lines know this as they attempt to replicate the days of ease we associate with the golden age of shipboard life. Crystal Cruises, whose two vessels, the Crystal Harmony and the Crystal Symphony (launched in 1990 and 1995 respectively), have shot to the top of any authoritative list of today’s best large ships, is making a great effort to inherit the mantle of the transatlantic liners.

Last August I sailed the Crystal Symphony on a weeklong cruise that started in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and ended in New York. Ship personnel, for some reason, didn’t like to call this a “repositioning cruise,” but that’s what it really was, as the Crystal Symphony made its way from a summer in Alaska to Acapulco, then on to New York, where a series of New England and Canadian cruises would commence. The trip I took was billed as an “East Coast Adventure,” but it seemed the stops were held together so loosely as to be almost accidental. Far from being a draw-back, that randomness is the particular charm of a repositioning cruise.

From Old San Juan, a wonderful place to embark, with its Spanish-colonial riches that mostly lie within a short walk of the harbor, we headed to Eleuthera in the Bahamas to spend time at a beach reserved for Princess Cruises but leased this day to Crystal. Also on the itinerary were the port cities of Charleston, Philadelphia, and finally New York. Because Crystal has determined that passengers find its vessels as appealing a destination as any port, half the days were spent at sea, a felicitous apportioning of time.

It wasn’t the stops or even the days at sea that drew me to this particular sailing. It was the line’s sterling reputation, combined with the fact that last spring I had discovered the World Ship Society. I first met the group’s chairman, David Powers, at a lunch aboard Holland America’s Veendam , and he quickly signed me up as a member. As World Ship literature started arriving in the mail, I saw that for my twenty-five-dollar membership fee I was on to a good thing.

Its lively monthly newsletter, The Porthole , lists members’ latest cruises (and a peripatetic group they are) and includes snippets of ship gossip (“Strong undertow drove the Regal Empress into a concrete pier at St. Andrews, New Brunswick, late in June” and “Cunard has reopened those closed inside cabins and reinstated two sittings in the Mauretania Dining Room”). No detail is too small for a true ship buff. The newsletter also spreads word of meetings and lunches aboard ships in port, and it heralds one or two annual cruises, with discounts for members.

The mailing announcing the Crystal Symphony ’s cruise offered special rates and activities for members of the World Ship Society, the Steamship Historical Society of America, and the Ocean Liner Museum. Tom Cassidy, a transportation engineer and chairman of the Steamship Historical Society’s Long Island chapter, told me his group numbers about thirty-five hundred worldwide, and it focuses most strongly on the history of steam-driven vessels, from ocean liners to a ferry in Michigan. Brad Hatry, marketing director for an investment management firm and a past chairman of the World Ship Society, says they are “more into liners.” The Ocean Liner Museum, a consortium of high-end collectors, has no building but often sends exhibits of its posters, memorabilia, ship models, and the like around the country.

Of the approximately 660 passengers (out of a possible 940), about 40 belonged to the various ship-buff societies. Even with a small group the cruise took on an interesting dimension, with parties and talks on ship history, a private visit to the bridge, and, best of all, a chance to chat with the experts. Bill Miller, an authority on ship history, was one of two enthralling shipboard lecturers. A social studies teacher in Hoboken, New Jersey, Miller had to depart the Crystal Symphony in Philadelphia on Labor Day to make opening day at school. At the same time, he has managed to write forty-five books on the great liners and has sailed the seas of the world on more than 175 vessels. “I am a very lucky sixth-grade teacher,” he says. His boundless enthusiasm for his subject and his quick wit make me think his students get a very good deal.