- Historic Sites
A World In The Middle Of The Ocean
At their zenith the great transatlantic liners were lean runways for Schiaparelli dresses and Sulka dressing gowns, gorgeous stage sets for ship-to-shore gossip, bon mots, cocktail shakers, and dancing all night. It still can happen.
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
Before the wars, at the height of transatlantic traffic—plump years like 1907, when more than a million Steerage passengers were desperate to come to America and almost a hundred thousand First and Second Class passengers were just as desperate to get out for a few months —American ships held almost no part of the business. Other nations, such as Holland and France, offered limited service; still, the impetus belonged to the British and the Germans. It would be as if, today, British Airways and Lufthansa flew all the jumbo jets to Europe, while perhaps one U.S. airline had a propeller flight a few times a week. The only real U.S. stake was indirect: In 1902 I. P. Morgan had pulled together a conglomerate of shipping lines that included White Star, a company nonetheless operated and regulated by the British. In 1911, flush with American capital, White Star launched its second new superliner in as many years, the RMS Titanic .
After that ship hit an iceberg and sank, over the night of April 14, 1912, Americans realized that by ceding control of the transatlantic trade, the country had also ceded responsibility for American lives to countries with lesser standards. As a result of legislation enacted after the tragedy, any boat using an American port had to adhere to U.S. laws regarding safety equipment and procedures. In particular, a ship had to carry enough lifeboats for everyone—not 1,178 out of 2,228; not 94 percent of the First Class women and children and only 47 percent of the Steerage ones; not for Bruce Ismay, president of White Star, and only a quarter of the people who worked for him on board, but for everyone.
The chief officer on duty on the bridge of the Queen Elizabeth 2 said that in his years on the transatlantic route he had never seen a single iceberg. Still chastened by the tragedy, ships to this day navigate a course far to the south of the one charted by the Titanic . Among other precautions, the United States and Canada jointly patrol for ice by air. Fog still stops ships on the route. One of the officers told of halting in fog one night, when he was serving on another ship, and the eerie sensation, as the air cleared the next morning, of looking around to see icebergs everywhere.
On my crossing, people dressed beautifully in the evening. Not some people, but all of them. It isn’t that there is a strict dress code; the Queen Elizabeth 2 just naturally commands a certain respect, as hardly anything else seems to anymore. I was probably the worst offender, throwing my pea coat over my evening clothes and dashing out whenever a dull spot in the evening gave me a chance to wonder how the sea was looking. The ship offers entertainment of course, most of it a cut above and some downright highbrow, but nothing could compete with the North Atlantic at night and in a good mood. The moon found its way through the clouds and made a perfect spotlight on the water, trying to show things, I thought. Seas so notorious and mean, actually being charming: It would have been surly not to keep company. Yet each night on a full crossing, I was the only person on deck. A $200-million superliner, and it was given over to one person. Sometimes the light made, to my mind, a city far out on the ocean, rising off the water in shafts like buildings and sparkles like windows. Each night, I returned to a comfortable crook in the railing, where it curves around toward the stern of the ship, and leaned back by the hour, watching cities go by. During the day the ocean didn’t play any such games. A freighter went by once, far to the south, and a school of big, porpoiselike fish played around another time, not too far to the north.
The chief officer on duty on the bridge said that in his years on the transatlantic route he had never seen a single iceberg.
Once I saw a passenger jet go by overhead, which gave me a thought. The Standard Steerage accommodation on an ocean liner was described in 1891 by a young Englishman. “Imagine,” he wrote, “a barn-like apartment, dimly lighted and badly ventilated.” Passengers slept in “pens,” measuring fifteen by twelve feet and sleeping sixteen; the food was fair, the sanitation woeful. Steerage was known to be at its best on such British ships, though, and on them it continued to improve through the first part of the century. On lesser lines conditions could be much worse. Sometimes Steerage passengers ate and slept (and were sick) in the same room, with the bunks closely surrounding the dining tables. I can’t imagine. Or I couldn’t until I saw the airplane go by overhead.
The weather on my mid-April crossing was consistently clear, giving each side of the ship a distinctive aura: The south side was sunny and the north side dank. The temperature wasn’t especially cold, but as the ship was making almost forty miles per hour, the constant wind could take on a bite. Personally I was hoping for a storm to test my mettle—Captain Stanley described one that had hit the QE2 two winters ago, when all the furniture in each room piled into the center and stayed there—but the only time the ship tossed, a bit, over the whole crossing, it just made a cocktail party I attended more lively.