by Lee Foster
The modern cruise passenger, who sees the ship as a major destination in itself, seldom thinks of speed as an interesting criteria for rating ships.
However, this was not always so. For over a century and a half there was a prize–called the Blue Riband–for speed in the North Atlantic crossing.
After steam conquered that dangerous ocean, the fastest steamer was awarded a mythical “blue ribbon.”
The start may have been Liverpool or Queenstown, but the end was always New York’s Sandy Hook, or later, Ambrose Lightship, a distance of 2,800 nautical miles.
Competition was fierce and the rewards were considerable. Although imaginary in itself, the Blue Riband offered immense tangible rewards. Many passengers wished to travel on the fastest ship. Contracts for mail carriage and special freight were considerable. National pride also entered the picture.
During the 19th century, the size and speed of Atlantic liners grew steadily. Wooden hulls gave way to iron and steel, propellers replaced paddlewheels, and auxiliary sails disappeared.
Crossing time diminished. In 1838 the little Sirius steamed across at 8 knots in 18 days. However, by 1894, the Lucania speeded across at 22 knots in 6 days. Both ships and most of the early winners flew the British Union Jack. Apart from some American Collins liners, who surpassed the competition briefly in the 1850s, England’s Cunard, White Star, and Guion lines dominated.
At the turn of the century the Germans triumphed. Ships named Kaiser Wilhem der Grosse and Deutschland shattered the British monopoly.
In 1907 Cunard’s revolutionary new superliners, Lusitania and Mauretania, powered by steam turbines, recaptured the prize for Britain.
Mauretania held the Blue Riband for nearly two decades until the German ships Bremen and Europa took it back in 1929.
Competition intensified in the 1930s. The Italian ship Rex made the crossing at 29 knots. The French Normandie took the prize in 1935 at a fraction under 30 knots.
Then, in 1938, the Cunard White Star line’s fabled ship, Queen Mary, claimed the record with a speed over 30 knots.
On one more occasion the Blue Riband changed hands. The American ship United States, of United States Line, won the honor with a phenomenal 34-1/2 knot pace in 1952.
By then, however, the era of jet air traffic had begun. The speed of Atlantic crossing by ship was no longer of compelling interest.
The Blue Riband was retired forever, and the era of modern cruising began, in which ambiance of the ship itself, exotic ports, exquisite cuisine, and shipboard activity, rather than speed, became the purpose of the cruise.