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Transatlantic speed records

View QM2, Westbound Apr-May 2012 on Gelli's travel map.

Before Jet air travel suddenly became regular and affordable in the 1960's, journeys on ocean going liner were common and transatlantic voyages routine. And whilst some people were interested in price and others in opulence and luxury, for many the most important issues was speed of the crossing. It was so important that both shipyards and ship-lines actively sort to develop new technologies and refinements with the goal of making voyages as quick as possible.

The most prestigious, competitive and lucrative market was always the transatlantic one, and whilst certain ships (such as the Titanic) were designed with luxury in mind more than pure speed, a prize was introduced for the ship which held the fastest crossing. This was the Blue Riband, and in the halcyon days of transatlantic voyages, holding the title was of such prestige that the battle to win it was fierce; increasingly ships were built with attempting to win the Blue riband in mind. As port-pairs obviously differed along with distance, a set of rules were laid down and the award given to the average speed, not shortest number of hours, and only the harder Westbound voyages were counted.

Between 1885 and 1939, the title changed 34 times and a total of over knots average speed was gained, and was held by a number of ships included some famous names - The Lusitania, Normandie and the original Queen Mary amongst others - who held the title for between a few days and an astonishing 20 years for the Mauretania between 1909 and 1929 at just over 26 knots. By the outbreak of World War 2, the record stood at virtually 31knots. By the early 1950's the battle had become increasingly political, and advancing technologies and government backed ships such as the France and the United States (no prizes for guessing which country built and operated either liner!) brought sudden new increases in speed culminating in the United States reducing the record by over 10hours, a huge amount (with journey time of under 3.5days). But by then, the writing was already on the wall and days of sea travel being king were numbered. As the jet-age soared and the rich and famous took to the skies, the days of transatlantic crossings rapidly dwindled and the last tranche of great liners had life spans of as little as 5 years. Many were completely re-fitted as cruise ships and transatlantic sailings were drastically cut back or withdrawn completely. Many companies went bankrupt, whilst others re-focused on either pleasure Voyages (eg: Cruising) or carrying cargo. The market for fast transatlantic crossings collapsed, as the few remaining seagoing passengers increasingly wanted either more luxury or lower prices – liners originally designed and built for maximum speed were generally inefficient and had fuel-hungry engines and were doomed. The last “classic” blue riband owner was the United States, which took the title at 34.5knots in 1952 and finished on the route in 1969. By then, year round service by any liner was virtually extinct, and many had gone completely. A handful of operators continued transatlantic service into the 70's though at much reduced speed and lower service levels, and a Polish liner with muliple stops survived into the 1980's. At that point, scheduled transatlantic service was reduced solely to the one remaining luxury liner afloat, QM2's Cunard predecessor, the Queen Elizabeth 2, which maintained a hugely loss making, if regular transatlantic schedule in summer months into the early 21st century. By the end, there was no point or interest in obtaining the Blue riband, and the journey had generally been slowed down to 5 or 6 days. It was utilised almost exclusively by wealthy and more elderly leisure passengers, attracted by a combination of it's luxury, history and the experience of the journey it's self, as opposed to a means of transport: it was essentially a cruise. Many combined it with a flight on Concorde.

Times have definitely changed, and though the fast passenger liner at which it is aimed at has long since become obsolete, the prestige of the Blue riband lives on. From 1990 the glory, if not the official title was fought over by a different breed of craft, ships designed specifically to win the Blue Riband for either the challenge or prestige or both, without such inconveniences as passengers, cargo or commercial purpose. Richard Branson amongst others has made several attempts. The current record was achieved by a Catamaran in 1998 en route from it's construction in Tasmania to it's new owners in Europe (The Fjord Cat is now running between Denmark and Norway). Though in essence a publicity stunt, as well as taking the riband for fastest average speed at 41.3 knots (which is a huge 76.5km/h, though admittedly it was an Eastbound voyage) it's crossing was the first time a passenger vessel - albeit without passengers onboard - had crossed the Atlantic in less than 3 days.


The Queen Mary 2 (QM2) was launched as a replacement for the QE2 in 2004 and is the only Ocean liner built in the last 40 years. It differs from cruise ships in it's design; a different shape of hull and greater freeboard and onboard facilities designed more for faster, shorter point to point crossings in often miserable North Atlantic weather as opposed to cruise voyages which are for pure pleasure and in warmer climates, with slower speeds, increased numbers of balconies, maximised outside space and facilities and frequent calls in port. At full speed, she touches 35 knots, but despite that is scheduled to average a more leisurely 18-22knots making her markedly slower crossing the Atlantic than the fastest liners of 70, 80, even 100 years ago. If this voyage had been a Blue riband attempt, it's speed would have only been good enough to win in 1882, and would have lasted only a few months. These days, speed is not important, and oil prices mean it is expensive. The QM2s Transatlantic crossings are a cruise in all but name, and occur in summer months only. The rest of the year she does a World Cruise and more profitable traditional cruising, trading on her name and history. In transatlantic terms, most passengers are interested in the voyage, the glamour, the experience; few people use the ship solely for transport, and the cruise itself is an integral part of (or, for some people, the entire) holiday and not a means from A to B. After all, if you are in a hurry, any sane person would fly.

In transport terms, it is interesting how progress seems to go and be repeated. To begin with, we see what is physically possible. Then it becomes an usual if regular event. Then, it becomes normal and mainstream, at which point variants and refinements occur as it becomes accepted by the masses. Then there is a burst as we actively seek and develop any new technology to go faster – we strive to be as fast as possible, to be the jewel in the crown, the race for speed. Then, it appears, realism kicks in: yes we can go really fast, but is it worth it? The novelty value wears off, the markets flatten and pragmatism takes over as pure speed takes a back-seat to capacity, affordability, sustainability and market forces. Thus, it is almost an oddity that in terms of both air and sea services, transatlantic crossing times are now significantly longer than they have historically been: Both Concorde (by air, 30 years ago) and, for example, the Mauretania (by sea, 100 years ago), took little over half the time that the equivalent journey today takes. The realisation that the extra cost of building machines for such higher speeds, coupled with the extra fuel – whether jet fuel, diesel, or in the old days, wood and coal – required to meet those speeds is just not sustainable or economically viable.

As with most cruise schedules, instead of steaming as fast as possible and arriving sooner but at potentially more unfavourable times (eg: the middle of the night) journeys are generally timed to leave port late afternoon and to arrive early in the morning: Both are logical. It maximises daytime port time for passengers and also lend themselves to some wonderful views of arriving in the early morning light, and of land fading away around sunset on departures. In addition, same day turnarounds in ports cut down on expensive port fees, and allow more time for people to spend money at sea.

Today the Queen Mary 2 is scheduled to take a week for the transatlantic voyage.

At full speed, QM2 would be 2-3 days quicker (at least), but being so leisurely means passengers will spend more on-board and fuel efficiency rises (eg: profits go up). It also leads to some dubious claims. As we proceeded down Southampton Water in heavy traffic – a random cruise ship from the adjacent dock, a container ship, a pleasure cruiser and a sister Cunard ship, the Queen Elizabeth were all ahead of us - past the the Fawley oil depot, we turned to port for Hayling and not Starboard for Yarmouth as would be both logical and quicker. In layman’s terms, as we hit the Solent we turned left, not right, and took the long way around the Isle of Wight. Why? Well, apparently, so we would get a better of view of Portsmouth...

Posted by Gelli 14:05 Archived in USA Tagged boats history ships transatlantic

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