North Atlantic

"Savannah", the first vessel with a steam engine crossing the Atlantic (Deutsches Museum Munich)

Blue Riband winner "Mauretania" (painting by Heribert Schroepfer)

Atlantic - the name is connected to Atlantis, a mystic island of antiquity once situated somewhere beyond the horizon in the endless seeming sea. Plato has reported about, but reality has been disputed. However it may be, the mystery of Atlantis has lived on with the ocean she has given her name. Around 900 A.D., Northmen set out with their open but exceptionally well-sailing dragon-ships from their Scandinavian fjords. Going westward they reached Iceland, settled down and got from there to Greenland, its coast then covered with plentiful vegetation. About a century later, the Vikings (standing for corsairs) landed under the command of Leif Erikson on the east coast of North America where they settled down in a fertile land giving it the name Vinland (wine land). It remained a secret, when, how and why this early colony has disappeared. The final retreat from Greenland probably was caused by the climate getting colder, blocking the sea with ice.

Half a millennium later a new spirit was born, open to science, research and new ideas. Again bold seamen felt encouraged in pioneering. In 1492 Christopher Columbus set out in quest of a westward route to India and believed having found it on the other end of the big waters. He undertook three other voyages and was appointed Viceroy of Hispaniola. In 1506 the discoverer of Central America died, impoverished and disappointed in not having found the way to India. Soon after him, other pioneers of discovery followed: John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto with his Italian native name) rediscovered Newfoundland in 1497. The Frenchman Jacques Cartier got in quest of a northern passage to Kathey (China) via Labrador in 1534. Tragically ended the life of Henry Hudson. He started four voyages, also in search for a northern passage to Asia. He sailed up the river which was later named after him. On his last voyage, which he made on his own account, he explored in 1610 the vast bay described as a "labyrinth without borders". Running out of supplies during the winter, his crew started a mutiny. He and his son were set out in a small boat and were never seen again. Only four members of the expedition sailed back to England, the others have been killed by native hunters.

The foundation of colonies in the New World made the Atlantic Ocean the most frequented operation field of the Europeans, but to their fighting zone, too. In course of time their American territories became independent states of which the United States arose to the mightiest naval power and the North Atlantic became the most important ocean for passenger traffic in the 20th century. In 1908 the North Atlantic Passenger Conference became an institution for the companies involved in transatlantic shipping. The renowned historian Noel Reginald P. Bonsor listed no less than 182 shipping companies which ever provided regular passenger or passenger-cargo services on the North Atlantic. For all the small companies which had entered the market with auxiliary sailing vessels and for the operators of passenger-cargo ships, which are not listed here, see the literature.

The North Atlantic always was the ocean of the largest and the fastest liners. During only three decades since 1880 the size of ships has grown by nearly tenfold: 1880: "Arizona" (Guion) 5,150ts. 1900: "Deutschland" (Hapag) 12,950 ts. 1907: "Mauretania" (Cunard) 31,938 ts. 1912: "Titanic" (White Star) 46,300ts.

Speed became a matter as important as size, symbolized by the imaginary trophy of the 'Blue Riband' for the fastest North Altantic crossing in east-western direction. Without doubt the "Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse" (14,349 ts) of NDL, the "Mauretania" (31,938 ts) of Cunard, "Bremen" (51,656 ts) of Norddeutscher Lloyd, "Rex" (51,062 ts) of Italia, "Queen Mary" (80,774 ts) of Cunard, "Normandie" (83,423 ts) of French Line CGT and "United States" (53,329 ts) of United States Lines were the most prominent Blue Riband winners between the end of the 19th century and the decades of decline.

"Conte di Savoia" of Italia Flotte Riunite (old card, coll. WS); "Ile de France" and "Paris" of CGT, Le Havre 1930 (Albert Sebille, coll. Juergen Klein)

"Bremen" of NDL (old card, coll. WS)

"Queen Mary" (I), Grand Salon (via Wikimedia)

"Queen Mary" at New York, 20 June 1945 (via Wikimedia)

Merchant Seafarers' Memorial, St. Paul's Cathedral, Malta (WS)

North Atlantic traffic was also a matter of naval warfare like no other transoceanic maritime trade. The First World War of 1914-19 was the result of the politics of German emperor Wilhelm II, who aborted the good relationship with England by ordering construction of a powerful naval force in 1898, whereupon England concluded in 1904 the Entente Cordiale with France, which had already a mutual assistance with Russia since 1893. The ex-Kaiser admired Hitler, who started World War II in 1939, invading Poland and then France, Britain's allies. Not enough, in 1941 Hitler opened war on Russia. Both World Wars were decided by entering of the USA at the side of the allies. Thus the North Atlantic seaway, which had never been fully interrupted, became an essential contribution to victory. Being a matter of its own, its history would go beyond that survey.

After WWII the merchant fleets were reconstructed and in 1960 still more than 30 companies operated North Atlantic passenger services of any sort, according to Douglas Ward. However, in 1958 already air traffic had caught up with North Atlantic passenger sea traffic. Then, in the jetliner era, most ocean liner services ended within one decade.

See also the extensive literature, e.g. Noel R. P. Bonsor: North Atlantic Seaway. Charles R.Vernon Gibbs: British Passenger Liners of the Five Oceans. Arnold Kludas: Die Geschichte der Deutschen Passagierschiffahrt. Frederic Ollivier: Les grands siecles des paquebots. Leonce Peillard: Sur les chemins de l' Ocean. Howard Robinson: Carrying British Mails Overseas. Claus Rothe: Deutsche Ozean-Passagierschiffe 1919-1985.

New York (WS)

"Queen Mary 2",Panama Bay 2006 (WS)

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