Tuesday, 27 May 2008

SS NORMANDIE and the Atlantic Blue Riband Prize.

Between the wars, a magnificent contest developed between those most intractable of adversaries, Great Britain and France, for the coveted Blue Riband, the prize awarded to the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic by steamship. An invention of the 1860's, the Blue Riband was a pennant awarded to the fastest ship crossing the Atlantic and was flown from the highest mast to signify the honour. In 1935, the pennant was replaced by the Hale Trophy, but the title 'Blue Riband' remained. There were prizes for both directions of Atlantic crossing and the greatest contest was observed between the wars, as business between Europe and America became increasingly interdependent and time was, more and more, of the essence.

One of the two great combatants in this battle Royal was the SS Normandie, a gorgeous ship by any measure. Launched in 1932, she was a wonder to behold. There were many tremendous developments in the 1930's in the world of trans-Atlantic shipping, chief among them being the merger between the ailing White Star Line with Cunard Line, to become, briefly, Cunard-White Star and finally, Cunard as the line is known to this day. The chief designer of the Normandie, Vladimir Yourkevitch had initially approached the Cunard-White Star with proposed designs for their hull number 534, soon to be the renowned 'Queen Mary', much, much more about which later, but was rejected as the plans represented too radical a break from tradition for the British shipping company.

The French Line Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, or CGT, adopted Yourkevitch's designs and commissioned the new hull to be built at France's premier shipyard, the Penhoët shipbuilders at St. Nazair. The new ship would draw talent from the finest designers, architects, and artisans of France. Yourkevitch's designs would allow the ship to match the great speed of Britain's 'Queen Mary' with one-fifth less horsepower and substantial fuel savings, and allow the Normandie to be the first French Liner ever to be in competition for the cherished 'Blue Riband'. When she won it in 1935, the Normandie wore an enormous blue pennant, over thirty feet long from her foremast. Officers still insist she ran faster whilst wearing her pennant!

The NORMANDIE won the Blue Riband in 1935 and would lose it each subsequent year to Queen Mary until the outbreak of World War Two. The competition between these two leviathans of the deep was legendary and the awarding of the Blue Riband in the second half of the 1930's was only ever a mater of one or two knots.

In February 1942, though, after the Normandie had been seized by the US military and was being converted into a troop ship under the new name of USS LaFayette, a dreadful fire broke out from welding sparks and the huge liner capsized at her dock after uneven flooding caused by water used to fight the fire. Old sailors will tell you that you should never, EVER, change the keel name of a ship, or the one she is named with at construction. To do so is to temp the Fates, and so it was to be with the beautiful, glorious, wonderful, magnificent SS NORMANDIE.

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