- Historic Sites
The Sway Of The Grand Saloon
In the sumptuous history of transatlantic passenger travel it wasn’t all mahogany panelling and ten-course meals. Consider, for instance, war and seasickness
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
Watched day and night by the cutter Mohawk and a torpedo boat, caught in the custodial web of the United States marshal for Maine, the great ship lay swinging at anchor late into the fall. With the approach of winter and the possible threat of ice damage, not only Captain Polack but his legal guardians were concerned to have the ship moved to a less hazardous anchorage. When a rumor was spread about that the Kronprinzessin might be taken to Portland, Bar Harbor was both angry and sad. The “ice charge” made its citizens furious; the possible loss of the ship made them prematurely nostalgic. Said the Record : The streets of the town have been made interesting by the presence of the officers and the crew of the big liner, and Captain Polack has been the recipient of many social courtesies and has proven to be a most delightful gentleman as well as the notable and exceedingly efficient navigator he is known to be. Bar Harbor citizens have hoped that the big liner would stay here until the conclusion of the big European war, for business and social reasons.
But the rumors of removal were well founded. “The complication of moving the Kronprinzessin Cecilie is less military than legal,” said the Boston Transcript . “The navigation problem is not insuperable. The course suggested by local pilots would be outside of the Cranberry Isles and Isle au Haut off Penobscot Bay, to Matinicus, passing either inside or outside of that rockpile; thence to Monhegan keeping preferably to eastward of it … and from Monhegan to Portland Head.” When Captain Polack heard of this devious coastal voyage so gratuitously planned for him, he was appalled. The Kronprinzessin , he said, “is not a canoe.”
The problem was not resolved until the captain himself went to Washington to confer with the Acting Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. There it was decided that the ship should be guided to Boston by destroyers. Dogged by British cruisers still patrolling offshore, the ship was towed to Boston for safe-keeping in mid-November. There she was interned afloat in President Roads, just off Shirley Point and Deer Island, between the German ships Köln and Ockenfels . “Now that the Bar Harbor season is over,” said a pundit, “perhaps the Cecilie would enjoy Palm Beach.” But Boston would have to do. “You know,” said Captain Polack to a group of local reporters as he pointed to his heart, “down here I am glad that I am in Boston. It was getting to be cold and lonesome at Bar Harbor.”
Members of the Cecilie ’s crew were allowed to go off now and then on fishing expeditions, and before long some of them were attending Boston night schools, taking books out of the Boston Public Library, and being otherwise swept up into the cultural climate of the Hub of the Universe. But when the United States entered the war, their ship was overhauled and converted into a troop transport. With most of her Teutonic features obliterated, the long, lean Kronprinzessin Cecilie became the good old S.S. Mount Vernon . Soon newspaper photographs would show her decks packed with doughboys grinning under the Stars and Stripes as they set off for the mud of France and the task of making the world safe for democracy. As for the urbane Captain Polack and his adaptable crew, who had so neatly fitted into American society, they were unceremoniously interned for the duration.
Of all the scourges visited upon the traveller by sea—piracy, boredom, satyriasis, nymphomania, mildew, impressment into a foreign navy, scurvy, gluttony, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, hijacking, shanghaiing, sunstroke, malaria, paranoia, diarrhea, shipwreck, fire, ice, and fog—the one claiming the greatest number of victims and responsible for the deepest suffering was, by all odds, seasickness. “Gods! What a retrospect!” said one just back from its living grave. “It seems like an eternity of spasmodic suffering—talk of amputation! mental anxiety—chronic disease—why what is the whole catalogue of human ills compared to this attic salt!—this bilious dissolution—this sea-emetic?”
In spite of the witches’ brews of preventives and curatives they carried on board with them, travellers escaped neither its green orchidaceous fever nor the warm soupiness of its embrace. In spite of prayers they offered day and night toward that end, very few travellers died of it. When seasickness overtook people who had survived amputation without anesthesia, suppuration without analgesia, asthmatic suffocation, gastric convulsions, and torture by the exquisite devices of imaginative aborigines, they recalled such miseries with the nostalgia and longing of old men remembering their youth. Anyone who has ever been seasick—classically seasick, as opposed to those mild forms of the malaise in which one is said to be “peaky,” “squeamish” or “off his feed”—knows it is the only and ultimate sickness: the one living death of faculty and will that involves the whole man, individually and ontologically.