Friday, March 12, 2010

A History of Cruising

By Jean Henry Mead

Cruising has become a $27 billion industry, with more than 18 million passengers embarking worldwide annually. At least nine new ships have been built since 2001, which cater to the North American trade.

The first primitive oceanic passenger service was offered by the Black Ball Line in 1818. Although a few ships with steam engines were in operation during the early 1800s, they were considered inefficient and sailing ships were favored. It wasn’t until 1837 that British railway engineer Isambard Brunel designed a steam engine that could reduce trans-Atlantic travel from two months to 15 days. However, early steamships had auxiliary sails so that they could take advantage of favorable weather conditions as well as conserve on fuel.

In 1840, travelers booked passage on mail ships. The Cunard line was under contract to deliver mail across the Atlantic on four paddle steamers for its Liverpool-Halifax-Boston route, and for the next thirty years held the record for the fastest Atlantic voyages. When passengers demanded better accommodations, Cunard upgraded its cabins and installed a cow on board to provide fresh milk.

In 1847, the Great Britain, the first iron-hulled, screw-driven ship to cross the Atlantic had more efficient propellers which replaced the paddle wheels. And in 1870, White Star’s ship Oceanic set the standard for first-class travel with large portholes, electricity and running water. The size of ocean liners increased in size to handle the multitude of immigrants to the U.S., Canada and Australia. And immigration was the reason for the period known as the golden age of ocean liners, between the end of the 19th century and World War II.

It wasn’t until 1900 that the first dedicated passenger cruise ship was placed in service. The Prinzessin Victoria Luise, named for Kaiser Wilhelm II’s daughter, set sail from Germany for the Mediterranean and West Indies. The 407 foot ship ran aground six years later, ending its service.

The largest and most lavish ships were the Oceanic and its sister ship, the Titanic, which sank after hitting an iceberg in 1912, killing 1,500 passengers. Also in 1912, the first luxury ocean liner set sail on its maiden voyage with its own onboard swimming pool, Turkish bath and Parisian café. By then, fierce competition existed, and the fastest ships of record were the Mauritania and the Lusitania. The latter was torpedoed by the Germans in 1915 as it approached Britain because it was loaded with munitions as well as passengers. The Lusitania's demise helped to catapult the United States into World War I.

The First and Second World Wars seriously damaged the industry, but in 1958, Caribbean cruises gave ocean travel new life. By then passenger jets from London to New York had caused a sharp decline in trans-Atlantic ship travel. But by the 1960s, more affordable trips were made available through renewed competition between the various cruise lines. The Princess Line, for example, was founded in 1965, and offered short, affordable trips from southern California along the Mexican coast.

The Norwegian Cruise Line was established in 1966 and offered reasonably priced cruises, which included airfare to the ports. Ships were again getting larger. In 1970 The Royal Caribbean Line launched the Song of Norway with a 724 passenger capacity. Two years later, the Carnival line was started and soon absorbed nearly a dozen other cruise lines, including Holland America, Cunard and Seabourn.

Cruising became more popular in 1977 after the hit TV show, “The Love Boat” appeared on the small screen. Ocean travel, previously thought to be a pastime of the rich, was shown to be available to nearly everyone. Shipboard vacations became even more popular when Carnaval’s ads featured singer Kathy Lee Gifford having fun aboard one of its cruise ships.

The first super ship was launched by Norwegian Cruise Lines in 1980 and NCL bought and refurbished the former S.S. France. The $80 million renovation dramatically increased the ship’s size. Capable of carrying 2,181 passengers, it’s entertainment was comparable to that of Las Vegas. By 1988 Royal Caribbean’s Sovereign of the Seas set a new record with 2,350 passengers and a multi-storied atrium with glass elevators. Since that time, competition has produced even larger ships with more luxurious amenities.

The Disney Cruise Line bought a small island in the Bahamian Gorda Cay, where the company continues to update its land resort. The ship from “Pirates of the Caribbean” is moored nearby. Royal Caribbean also owns a resort island off the coast of Hispaniola.

The amenities war has continued since 1999 when Royal Caribbean installed its first onboard ice skating rink on the Voyage of the Seas. Bowling alleys, water slides, surf stimulators and rock climbing walls were eventually overshadowed by last year’s launch of the largest ship ever built with a 5,400 passenger capacity. Royal Caribbean’s The Oasis of the Seas offers a zip line, park with outdoor cafes, Coney Island style carousel and productions of the Broadway show, “Hair Spray.”

As if the amenities war hasn’t gone far enough, plans for the future include more new cruise ships with singles-matchmaking accommodations, a bar made of ice, four-hour bon voyage parties before the ship leaves the dock, and Cunard’s plans to bring back art deco décor from the luxury ships of the past, among others.

What should be on the amenities horizon? A health food store on every ship to combat onboard epidemics.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Things have certainly changed in cruise ships. In the late 1950's, my grandfather, Maynard Owen Williams, was a speaker on the SS Independence, telling his tales of traveling the Otoman Empire and other adventures. As a National Geographic photo jounralist, he was a true Indiana Jones, and the cruise ship guests were interested in what he had to say. Nowadays, no one would care. Instead, they would ask him, "Hey, Old Timer, where's the buffet and Broadway show?"

Jean Henry Mead said...

Your grandfather must have been a fascinating man, Mark. I'd love to hear what he had to say.

Bill Kirton said...

Fascinating blog (as usual) Jean. As you know, my main interest at the moment is in the 1840s and I love the idea of Cunard putting a cow on board to provide fresh milk. My only 'cruise' was a four day trip from Oslo to Edinburgh as part of the crew of a beautiful square-rigger. It combined research, comfort and romance (the romance of sail, I hasten to add, not the Noel Coward leaning on the deck rail looking at the moon type).

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, Bill. What a great way to do research. I'm looking forward to reading your novel, The Figurehead, as well as your WIP, because I've always been fascinated with the sea and historical ships.

Anonymous said...

The big new floating cities just don't tempt me. In my cruising days I had the best experience on small ships, where you get to know everybody and chat with the captain and crew anytime you please. The most unusual cruise I took was aboard the Russian ship Odessa from Los Angeles to Puerto Vallarta. I didn't give a hoot for Mexico and that ship was so fascinating I never even went ashore. Not long after the cruise ended President Reagan kicked the ship out of the U.S. as a spy ship. Just like that -- the ship docked in New Orleans and Reagan closed it up. I could tell you a story or two ... (:

Pat Browning

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'd love to read that story, Pat. Why don't you blog about it?