A World In The Middle Of The Ocean

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In the days when the North Atlantic was a crowded route, to choose a ship was to start the crossing. The fastest, the biggest, the newest: Often a single liner reigned as all three, with panache to spare for anyone who booked passage. Travelers who grew beyond mere statistics, though, peered into brochures and found the most stylish or amiable ship, or the most reliable. The record for the most comfortable one ever must certainly have been set by the German liner that returned to port unsteadily and slowly after its maiden season: too much furniture.

 
 

In the days when the North Atlantic was a crowded route, to choose a ship was to start the crossing. The fastest, the biggest, the newest: Often a single liner reigned as all three, with panache to spare for anyone who booked passage. Travelers who grew beyond mere statistics, though, peered into brochures and found the most stylish or amiable ship, or the most reliable. The record for the most comfortable one ever must certainly have been set by the German liner that returned to port unsteadily and slowly after its maiden season: too much furniture.

I did not have any such decisions to make last year when I crossed the Atlantic Ocean, Southampton to New York. To choose a ship today is to take the Queen Elizabeth 2 .

Neither the QE2 nor I was around in the heyday of the transatlantic liner, yet we both were there at the port to perpetuate it, believing enough in the old ways to do so. Many passengers must feel that way: that if the QE2 is an anachronism, then so are they. Cruise ships, sailing circles in the sea, may look the same from afar, but the QE2 is set apart in two ways. I met with one on the very first afternoon aboard, standing in my stateroom and gazing out the porthole at Wight—more of a mud flat that day than an isle—and taking a good look, because we weren’t coming back, not on that sailing. A transatlantic liner is in the basic business of transportation, not amusement, and as the last of the breed, the QE2 is distinctly going somewhere when it leaves Wight behind. It has also been somewhere, in another sense, and that sets it apart too.

The world of the QE2 was created between 1840 and 1940, a century with a sense of order that brought civilization to the North Atlantic Ocean as inevitably as it brought churches to the jungle and fortresses to the desert. A transatlantic liner developed over the years into a special sort of colony, with its own standards. It assigned each person a proper place, in neighborhoods known as First, Second, or Steerage, and then gave them every chance to sort themselves out even further according to the petty snobberies that evolved within the classes. One couldn’t be expected to associate with just anybody on a floating speck in a million acres of water.

In 1921 and 1924, when new laws drastically restricted U.S. immigration, transatlantic lines felt robbed of their birthright. Then they upgraded “Steerage” to “Tourist-Third Class,” by way of a few overdue amenities, and managed to capture a new crowd of budget travelers. The average Steerage passenger had never fretted much over choosing the “right” ship, socially speaking, but Tourist-Third passengers were on holiday and could be keenly aware of such things. A new point of comparison opened for liners: not only speed, size, and luxury but also who else was on board. Third Class trippers followed the “right” people to a handful of the tightest liners of all time, beginning with the charming Île de France (French Line—1927), the potent Bremen (North German Lloyd—1929), the Normandie (French Line—1935), the Queen Mary (Cunard-White Star—1936), and the United States (United States Lines—1952). Their determined silhouettes —their very name— meant Europe to Americans and America to Europeans.

They upgraded “Steerage” to “Tourist-Third Class” with a few amenities and captured a new crowd of budget passengers.
 

At the peak of the competition, the same waters known to seafarers as being among the meanest and ugliest in the world provided something else: a lean runway for Schiaparelli dresses and Sulka dressing gowns, ship-to-shore gossip, bon mots, cocktail shakers, and dancing all night. Or all day. The violent North Atlantic could tear ships to pieces, but it never could shake loose of the most brittle glamour.

The Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth 2 (1969) has made the boldest statement of all about the long effort to civilize the North Atlantic. Planned and built after the advent of jet service, it competes with swarms of overseas planes by offering just one thing: a visit to that ephemeral world created over time in the middle of the ocean.