Famous Four Stackers: SS France

Of the 14 four-stackers ever built, France was the only one which was neither British nor German. Built by Chantiers et Ateliers de St. Nazaire, she was laid down as La Picardie, but was renamed during construction, after the first France was scrapped. Launched in 1910, she made her maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York on 20 April 1912, less than a week after the Titanic disaster. CGT emphasized that there were sufficient life-saving vessels aboard for all, but over half of the spaces were on life rafts, not boats.

After World War I began, France was first called into duty as an armed merchant cruiser. However, the French (like the British) soon realized that large ships were ill-suited to that duty, so France was used as a hospital ship and troopship for most of the War.

France returned to the Le Havre-New York service in 1919. In 1924, she was converted from coal to oil and her third class accommodations were reduced by about a third, due to U.S. immigration restrictions. She returned to service on the Le Havre-New York route in 1925, and remained on that service for the balance of her career, except for some wintertime cruising. She left Le Havre on what turned out to be her final voyage on 9 September 1932. CGT announced her retirement while she was at sea. Laid up on her return, she was scrapped at Dunkirk in 1935.

What is the Difference Between an Ocean Liner and a Cruise Ship?

If anyone really wants to get under my skin, confuse the terms ocean liner and cruise ship. They are not the same. Let me explain.

An ocean liner is purpose built to cross the ocean over and over again. They have a schedule to keep and a destination. The journey end after traveling from point A to point B. The people on board have a place they must reach because it is their transportation. These ships are built strong to withstand the worst the ocean can put in its way. They have beautiful profiles and balanced designs.

A cruise ship is built for recreation. The come back to the same port it left after visiting a few ports. A cruise line wants people to forget they are at sea. They are floating casino resorts. They do not purposefully sail into a storm. They do not handle raging seas well. Their designs are clunky and boxy, without balance. Basically a floating building. I don’t even consider them ships, nor would I wish to step aboard one.


RMS Britannia

Samuel Cunard

The line formed by Samuel Cunard in 1837 is possibly the most famous line today. They operated some of the most magnificent ships ever to play the Atlantic.

Cunard’s very first ship, Britannia, made her maiden voyage in 1840. Starting on 4 July 1840, she made Halifax, Nova Scotia, from Liverpool, England, in 12 days and 10 hours, continuing on to Boston, Massachusetts

Britannia was a large ship for the period, 207 feet (63 m) long and 34 feet (10.3 m) across the beam, with three masts and a wooden hull. She was a side paddle steamer and also carried sails, as steam power in ships was still in its experimental stage. Cunard requested that his ship be commissioned to carry mail, thus becoming the first Royal Mail Steamer (RMS).

In January 1842 Charles Dickens and his wife travelled to the United States on Britannia. The weather was bad, he was seasick for most of the voyage and returned home on a sailing ship. He wrote that his stateroom was a coffin with a window and he truly believed the ship wouldn’t survive the crossing.

In 1849, Britannia was sold to Germany and renamed Barbarossa and was fitted with guns. She was later transferred to Prussia where she served as a barracks ship. Her end came when used for target practice in 1880.

With Britannia, Cunard proved that regular transatlantic service was possible using steam power.

Tragedy on Lake Superior

Even though she was not a liner, as the anniversary approaches, I am compelled to include an entry about the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ship was 729 feet in length, 13,600 tonnes, and built by Great Lakes Engineering Works.

Launched in June of 1958, she was the largest ship of her kind built to that point.The Fitzgerald broke her own records for most cargo carried in one year several times in the short 17 year lifespan of the ship.

On afternoon of November 9, 1975, Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin with a typical load of 26,000 tons of iron taconite ore pellets and was bound for Zug Island, near Detroit, Michigan. Fitzgerald carried a crew of 29, including Captain McSorley. At about the same time, the freighter Arthur M. Anderson left Two Harbors, Minnesota, bound for Gary, Indiana. The two were in radio contact for the majority of their voyage, and the followed each other on radar.

Aware of a building November storm entering the Great Lakes from the great plains, Captain McSorley and Captain Cooper agreed to take the northerly course across Lake Superior, where they would be protected by highlands on the Canadian shore. This took them between Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula. They would later make a turn to the southeast to eventually reach the shelter of Whitefish Point.

The National Weather Service issued a storm warning for the lake, stating the storm would hit the area the morning of November 10. Storms on Lake Superior are common in the fall season, and they earned the nickname “the witch of November.”

About 1am on the tenth, the NWS issued a Gale warning for all of Lake Superior. Winds were forecasted at 35–50 knots (65–93 km/h; 40–58 mph). Hurricane force. The waves were over 25 feet in height. This storm had turned deadly.

Shortly after 3:30 p.m., Captain McSorley radioed Anderson to report that Fitzgerald was taking on water and had lost two vent covers and a fence railing. The vessel had also developed a list. This meant Fitzgerald was taking on water, and it’s possible the iron taconite cargo had shifted.

With pumps going and visibility near zero, Edmund Fitzgerald forged ahead. Arthur M. Anderson checked in one more time with Fitzgerald at 7:10pm. “We’re holding our own,” was the reply.

A few minutes later, Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from radar. No distress call. No rockets fired. Radio silence was the reply.

Captain Cooper of Arthur M. Anderson contacted the Coast Guard on an emergency channel. The Coast Guard was having difficulty with their communications equipment due to the ferocity of the storm. By 9:00pm, Cooper declared Edmund Fitzgerald missing.

The Coast Guard finally got through and ordered Cooper to turn around and search for the missing ship. Cooper found no trace. No following search parties found any indication of what happened to the massive ore freighter.

29 men were declared lost. Four days later, the wreck was found. Edmund Fitzgerald had broken in half. There are many theories about what actually happened, but without survivors to provide witness, the actual events of that day are largely unknown.

Public Tragedy: SS Andrea Doria

The tale of the Italian liner SS Andrea Doria is unique. She sank on live global television.

Andrea Doria was a beautiful liner, and the flagship of Società di navigazione Italia or Italian Line. She was built in Genoa, Italy, by the Ansaldo Shipyards and launched in 1951. She endured an enormous storm on her maiden voyage and immediately became a very popular passenger liner.

Due to the second World War, Italy had lost about half of its fleet due to attacks or reparations to the Allies. In an effort to show that the nation was recovering and restore national pride, the government commissioned two new ocean liners. These would be the SS Andrea Doria and SS Cristoforo Columbo.


Known as an Italian art showcase at sea, Andrea Doria was exceptionally luxurious. Adorned with paintings, sculptures, bronze statues, painted vases and other various priceless artifacts.


First Class lounge


In addition to having absolutely lovely interior design, Doria was praised for having perfectly proportioned exterior lines as well. She was indeed beautiful both inside and out.


The story of the sinking of Andrea Doria is a tale of two ships. The other being the Swedish-American SS Stockholm.


Stockholm was smaller and slower than the Italian ship. Andrea Doria had left Italy for New York. Stockholm was leaving New York for Göteborg. Andrea Doria was close to completing her voyage and was approaching Nantucket. Between the two, there was dense fog.

Both ships were equipped with radar, Andrea Doria’s more advanced than the one installed aboard Stockholm. The two ships did see one another on radar. Both ships slightly altered course to avoid the other. Unfortunately, they both altered course to head in the same direction.


Stockholm collided with Andrea Doria amidships Stockholm’s bow cutting some 40 feet into Doria. The Italian liner was fatally wounded, while the Swedish liner, which had hit head on, was not in any serious danger. At the moment of collision, Andrea Doria took on a severe list to starboard. So severe, that the lifeboats on the port side of the ship were at such an angle to be unusable. Captain Piero Calamai of the Andrea Doria immediately knew his ship was doomed. He ordered a radio call for assistance (strangely enough, there was no radio communication between the two ships before collision). The usable lifeboats were uncovered and an evacuation was ordered. Knowing that half of the lifeboats could not be used, Captain Calamai prayed that the radio call would be heard. The lifeboats that could be used swung out from the side of the ship and couldn’t be boarded in regular fashion. As a result, the boats were required to be set into the water empty, and passengers were made to climb down rope ladders.


Indeed, the radio mayday call was heard. Not only did the Stockholm send some of its own boats to assist, but a much larger ship heeded the call and changed course. The French liner Ile de France turned around and rushed full speed to the site of the stricken Italian ship. Other ships also responded, including the Cape Ann, Pvt. William H. Thomas, Edward H. Allen, and the tanker Robert E. Hopkins.

By now, word had gotten to shore. The US Coast Guard prepared to offer assistance. Other ships also answered the call for help. The first to arrive was the French liner.


The passengers were relieved as the fog began to lift and they could see the glorious red and black funnels of their rescuers.

In all, the number of casualties was 56, most died at the site of collision. 51 from Andrea Doria, and five from Stockholm. ( ABC Radio Network news commentator Edward P. Morgan, based in New York City, broadcast a professional account of the collision, not telling listeners that his 14-year-old daughter had been aboard Andrea Doria and feared dead. He did not know that Linda Morgan, who was soon labeled the “miracle girl”, was alive and aboard Stockholm. She had been lifted from her bed aboard the Italian ship, onto the bow of Stockholm.)

Eleven hours after the collision, Andrea Doria rolled onto her side and plunged to the bottom. Andrea-Doria-sinking

The aftermath of this disaster saw changes to the operation of ships in fog. This next segment is taken directly from Wikipedia:

“Litigation and determination of fault: 1956–57

Several months of hearings were held in New York City in the aftermath of the collision. Prominent maritime attorneys represented both the ships’ owners. Dozens of attorneys represented victims and families of victims. Officers of both ship lines had testified, including the officers in charge of each ship at the time of the collision, with more scheduled to appear later until an out-of-court settlement was reached, and the hearings ended abruptly.

Both shipping lines contributed to a settlement fund for the victims. Each line absorbed its own damages. For the Swedish-American Line, damages were estimated at $2 million, half for repairs to Stockholms bow, and half for lost business during repairs. The Italian Line sustained the loss of Andrea Dorias full value, estimated to be $30 million.

A U.S. Congressional hearing was also held, and provided some determinations, notably about the lack of ballasting specified by the builders during the fatal voyage and the resulting lack of seaworthiness of Andrea Doria after the collision.

While heavy fog was given as the primary cause of the accident, and it is not disputed that intermittent and heavy fog are both frequent and challenging conditions for mariners in that part of the ocean, these other factors have been cited:

  1. Andrea Dorias officers had not followed proper radar procedures or used the plotting equipment available in the chart room adjacent to the bridge of their ship to plot and then calculate the course, position and speed of the other (approaching) ship. Thus, they failed to realize Stockholms speed and course.
  2. Andrea Doria had not followed the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, in which a ship should turn to right (to starboard) in case of a possible head-on crossing at sea. As Stockholm turned right, Andrea Doria turned left, closing the circle instead of opening it. Beyond a certain point, it became impossible to avoid a collision.
  3. Captain Calamai of Andrea Doria was deliberately speeding in heavy fog, an admittedly common practice on passenger liners. The navigation rules required speed to be reduced during periods of limited visibility to a stopping distance within half the distance of visibility. As a practical matter, this would have meant reducing the speed of the ship to virtually zero in the dense fog.
  4. Stockholm and Andrea Doria were experiencing different weather conditions immediately prior to the collision. The collision occurred in an area of the northern Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Massachusetts, where heavy and intermittent fog is common. Although Andrea Doria had been engulfed in the fog for several hours, Stockholm had only recently entered the bank and was still acclimating to atmospheric conditions. The officer in charge of Stockholm incorrectly assumed that his inability to see the other vessel was due to conditions other than fog, such as the other ship being a very small fishing vessel or a ‘blacked-out’ warship on maneuvers. He testified that he had no idea it was another passenger liner speeding through fog.
  5. Andrea Dorias fuel tanks were half empty and not pumped with seawater ballast to stabilize the ship, in accordance with the Italian Line’s procedures. This contributed to the pronounced list following the collision, the inability of the crew to pump water into the port fuel tanks to right the ship, and the inability to use the port lifeboats for the evacuation.
  6. Also, a watertight door may have been “missing” between bulkheads near the engine room, which was thought to have contributed to Andrea Dorias problems.
  7. Stockholms navigating officer misread his radar thinking he was on a 15-mile setting when in reality the radar was set for 5 miles. Thus, he thought he was farther from Andrea Doria than he actually was. He also failed to consult his captain as was required by regulation.”

The wreck of the Andrea Doria is disintegrating rapidly. She is tangled in fishing nets. She lays on her side at 40°29.408′N 69°51.046′W.


Cunard: Innovation on the Atlantic

Samuel Cunard was the child of immigrants born in 1787 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was a master carpenter and timber merchant and did well for himself. He served as a captain in the Halifax Regiment during the war of 1812.

Being an entrepreneur, Cunard saw interest in more than timber. He expanded to whaling, tea imports and coal mining, as well as the Halifax Banking Company and the Shubenacadie Canal.
From 1830 he saw a need to establish a mail service between England and North America, running steamers from Liverpool to Halifax, and then on to Boston. He approached the British government about this plan and it was approved. Samuel partnered with Robert Napier to form The British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Cunard then built the Britannia, while his sailing packet Unicorn began mail charter service. The long tradition of mail service to and from the United Kingdom turned into some of the fastest and most beautiful ships in the world.

Famous Four-Stackers: Honorable Mention…SS Great Eastern

There has only been one five funneled ocean liner built in all of history, and rightfully so. Even before this monster of a ship was completed in 1858, she was already a legend thanks to her designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Her enormous size was left unchallenged for over forty years, and her cost bankrupted more than one company. The biggest ship in the world would become the biggest financial flop of her time.

On March 25, 1852, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of Britain’s foremost mechanical engineers, had an idea for a ship that could run from England to Australia without stopping to refuel. It would need to be large. Six times larger than any other ship afloat. The idea was to have enough space to carry enough coal to make very long voyages without stopping. Using steam and sail, the ship would need fewer crew members than the average clipper, and could carry passengers as well as cargo. Once a suitable place to build the ship had been selected, they approached the Eastern Steam Navigation Company to assist. Brunel, already known for his other two successful ships, Great Western and Great Britain, was appointed chief engineer. The keel was laid on May 1, 1854.

Great Eastern was the first ship to utilize a double hull, which would become required for safety eventually. She used three different types of propulsion. Screw, paddlewheel, and sail. Sails could not be used at the same time as sail, as the exhaust from the steam engines would set the sails afire.

Several attempts were made to launch the ship (sideways due to the fact that she was many times larger than any existing ship at the time), the first being November 3, 1857. Despite an attempt to launch without much public attention, the huge ship under construction couldn’t be ignored. Also, the Eastern Steam Navigation Company sold tickets for the launch. The first launch failed, as the equipment used couldn’t handle the load of such a massive ship. A second attempt was made and also failed. The ship finally entered the water on January 31, 1858.


The Great Eastern began her maiden voyage on September 6, 1859, several months after it was planned. She had just entered the English Channel and there was a massive explosion that ripped through her forward decks and launched one of the funnels into the air. The hot steam killed five, and five others jumped overboard. Now Great Eastern had four funnels.

Despite being constructed for an easterly route, it was determined there was not enough of a need for the ship to head to India and Australia. Instead, she was assigned the transatlantic trade. Her first voyage to North America was scheduled for June 14, 1860. However, once she was boarded by passengers and crew, the trip was postponed until the 17th. The crew was drunk. Great Eastern crossed the Atlantic in 10 days 19 hours.

In 1863 Great Eastern made three voyages to New York, with 2,700 passengers being carried out and 970 back to Britain along with a large tonnage of cargo. One of her paddle wheels was damaged on the last outward trip and she completed it using her screw, while on the return journey she ran down and damaged Jane, a small sailing ship. The company lost nearly £20,000 on the voyages due to a price war between the Cunard and Inman shipping lines, and ended up with debts of more than £142,000, which forced them to lay up Great Eastern.

The Great Eastern Steamship Company was formed, and Great Eastern was chartered to the newly formed Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company for £50,000 of shares, and would be responsible for carrying out the necessary conversion work for the ship’s new role, laying the Atlantic Cable.

So it would come to be that the Great Eastern’s real claim to fame would be laying the telegraph cable running from Europe to North America. After the cable voyage was completed, she was put up for sale. She became a floating billboard. Brunel’s folly Great Eastern may not have been a successful passenger ship, but she did leave her mark on history.

SS Great Eastern 1