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.

Who could forget his one-line characterizations of vanished ships: Île de France , “early Ginger Rogers”; Nieuw Amsterdam , “late Hedy Lamarr”; and Conte di Savoia ’s dining room, “Villa Borghese meets El Morocco,”and its lounge, “Sistine Chapel gone to sea.” And, in a twist of image, the Crystal Symphony , “the Normandie of now.”

Crystal is indeed aiming to provide the quality we either remember or simply dream of from the older ships. At more than fifty-one thousand tons, the Crystal Symphony lies midway between smaller “boutique” vessels like the Sea Goddess or Silver Cloud and the two-thousand-passenger behemoths that are becoming the norm. It’s extremely spacious, especially in its many public rooms and along its cascades of deck.

I got lucky when I was upgraded to a penthouse with a veranda and—as an added attraction—a butler. Erich, splendid in cutaway and white gloves, seemed disappointed that I couldn’t generate enough chores to challenge his ingenuity. But he carried out all missions with aplomb and an air of complicit amusement.

Verandas are a relatively new accessory aboard ship. First found only on top-of-the-line vessels, they are now percolating down to the middle range. Viewed from shore, rows of balconies tend to turn a vessel into a floating apartment block. But if you’re fortunate enough to occupy one, you can get used to it pretty quickly. Lingering on a private deck, drink in hand, watching an electric storm arc across the sea confers a wonderful, if temporary, sense of privilege.

Other Crystal attributes include its low-key but luxurious furnishings and the ship’s silence, with good insulation between cabins and few public announcements. Everywhere the service was gracious without being stuffy or obtrusive. But there are elements that might keep the Crystal Symphony , or indeed any present-day vessel, from truly becoming “the Normandie of now.” Writing about the Crystal Harmony in Crossing and Cruising , Maxtone-Graham finds the “balcony’s most insidious spinoff” to be the way they force passengers into isolation, particularly at the traditionally festive moments of arrival and departure: “I fear that cruise-ship balconies diminish the shipboard experience, fragmenting and segregating the passenger corpus irrevocably.”

Some passengers complain about Crystal’s two dinner sittings, which don’t afford the flexibility customary on the most luxurious ships. Maxtone-Graham concurs, explaining that this flaw—he calls it a “sociomaritime stigma"—was built in during the preliminary design stages, when decisions made about the number and size of dining spaces become virtually irrevocable. Another Crystal innovation partly makes up for this: Two smaller specialty restaurants serving excellent Chinese and Italian cuisine are open for dinner at no extra cost.

A characteristic shared by all of today’s vessels no matter how glamorous came clear to me as I chatted with various ship buffs. Rarely do you find a distinct national identity. Crystal, for example, is owned by NYK, Japan’s largest shipping company. When it came to matters of decor, they opted out of any reference to Asian origins, preferring to strike a note of soothing, nonspecific opulence such as one might find in a top hotel chain. In the days my parents sailed to Europe, it was the very Dutchness, Frenchness, or Englishness of a ship that guided their choice. These days a whiff of national character does linger on the QE2 and the Holland America vessels, while one ship buff has referred to the Stella Solaris as “a Greek colony afloat.”

Still, since the history of the great ships lies within living memory, the Crystal Symphony ’s passengers did provide Bill Miller with fresh material. First he learned about a movie set designer and a film editor, both now retired, who had worked on An Affair to Remember , which was partly filmed on the Constitution , and then he ran into a woman who as a child had sailed on the Constitution ’s: maiden voyage in 1951 and kept a diary. All this testimony would enrich Miller’s next book, a history of that very ship.

Miller first fell in love with ships as a boy, while watching their stately progress into New York Harbor from his hometown of Hoboken. In 1965 he noticed an ad in The New York Times that urged anyone interested in ships to gather in the ballroom of the Sagafjord during its next stop in New York. In those days, before security prevented it, visitors could board ships even if they weren’t seeing anyone off. All it took was a fifty-cent contribution to a fund for the widows and orphans of seamen. On board the Sagafjord Miller was astounded to find that fifty people had answered the ad. Until then, he told me, as if confessing some secret vice, “I thought I was the only one who liked ships. I asked myself, Who are these people?” Thus was born the Port of New York branch of the World Ship Society, which grew quickly and now numbers about 350 members, mostly in the New York area.

Miller’s story of his early days as a ship buff is echoed by other members of the society. Tom Cassidy claims his interest started by age seven when he and his family saw a relative off on the United States . By the time Cassidy was nine and making crossings with his parents on such ships as the Îie de France and the Liberté , he was hooked. He would check the newspapers to see what ships were in port and, list in hand, go visit as many as four in a day.

Brad Hatry was aboard the Crystal Symphony with his wife, Marilyn, whom he had met in 1981 on the Rotterdam . They were accompanied by their five-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who proudly told me she was on her thirteenth cruise. Hatry, too, remembers believing as a boy “that no one else could have these interests.” Since such passions were born in the last era of the great liners, most of the society’s members are now in their fifties or older. But, Hatry tells me, “we’re starting gradually to get a younger crowd, and I can’t think why.” He cites “young Tom Rinaldi,” who, for his high school graduation present, begged his parents to take him on the final westbound voyage of the Rotterdam , which is generally considered the last of the grandes dames of the Atlantic run as well as one of the first ships built for both two-class transatlantic crossings and one-class cruising. Now all the Rinaldis are avid members of the World Ship Society. “In this case Tom got his parents involved, rather than the other way around,” says Hatry.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP