Trans-At­lantic cross­ings and their balmier ports

GREAT MEDITER­RANEAN PAS­SEN­GER SHIPS By Wil­liam H. Miller The His­tory Press/IPG, $36.95, 96 pages, il­lus­trated

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Ru­bin Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Most of the at­ten­tion paid to transat­lantic ocean lin­ers cen­tered on the North At­lantic route, dom­i­nated by Bri­tish, French, Dutch and Ger­man ves­sels, with the oc­ca­sional Amer­i­can su­per­stars like the in­ter­war SS Le­viathan and the post­war SS United States. Then, of course, there is the RMS Ti­tanic, hubris­ti­cally dubbed un­sink­able, which nonethe­less rapidly went to the bot­tom af­ter strik­ing an ice­berg on its maiden voy­age to New York in April, 1912. That tragic ship has prob­a­bly spawned more books by it­self than all the oth­ers that criss­crossed the At­lantic.

But if it was un­de­ni­ably over­shad­owed by its coun­ter­part to the north, the balmier cross­ing be­tween the Mediter­ranean ports through the Straits of Gi­bral­tar to New York had its share of su­per­star lin­ers, as is ap­par­ent in this lav­ishly il­lus­trated book by the mar­itime ex­pert and pro­lific au­thor Wil­liam H. Miller. Not to forget a host of pas­sen­gers who ap­pre­ci­ated its sun­nier route and pic­turesque ports of call on the Ibe­rian Penin­sula, the French Riviera, Italy, Greece and its Aegean Is­lands, Turkey and Is­rael.

The south­ern route even had its own dra­matic sink­ing, even if for­tu­nately it did not match the Ti­tanic’s spec­tac­u­lar death toll of 1500 plus. On a foggy late July night in 1956 off Nan­tucket, only hours be­fore the Ital­ian liner SS An­drea Do­ria was due to dock in New York, she was struck by the out­ward bound SS Stock­holm. Un­for­tu­nately, icy Scan­di­na­vian con­di­tions ne­ces­si­tated a re­in­forced bow which in­flicted such dam­age on the Ital­ian ves­sel that she cap­sized and sank. For­tu­nately, this didn’t hap­pen un­til the next day, al­low­ing most of the pas­sen­gers to be res­cued, al­though some were killed in their cab­ins by the col­li­sion, nearly four dozen dy­ing. The An­drea Do­ria founder­ing was cap­tured by news­reel cam­eras.

There is no doubt that Ital­ian ves­sels were the su­per­stars of the Mediter­ranean transat­lantic route. This started with Ben­ito Mus­solini, whose mega­lo­ma­nia ex­tended to his na­tion’s mer­chant ma­rine. In the early 1930s, he com­mis­sioned two of the largest and most glam­orous lin­ers to fly its en­sign, the SS Rex and the SS Conte di Savoia. The many ex­te­rior shots of both in this book show their lines to be un­com­monly el­e­gant. If there was a more lav­ishly dec­o­rated room afloat than the Rex’s 1st Class ball­room, which Mr. Miller aptly cap­tions “Lux­ury at Sea,” I can’t think of one. The Rex even held the cov­eted Blue Riband for the fastest transat­lantic cross­ing be­tween 1933 un­til 1935, un­til it was wrested away by France’s SS Nor­mandie. By a happy co­in­ci­dence, the dis­tance of north­ern and south­ern cross­ings, as mea­sured for the tro­phy, are sim­i­lar.

Mus­solini’s mar­itime mega­lo­ma­nia ex­tended far be­yond the At­lantic: the SS Di­ulio and SS Gi­ulio Ce­sare chal­lenged the long­stand­ing Bri­tish mo­nop­oly on ship­ping be­tween Europe and South Africa; and an ex­ten­sive fleet sailed be­tween Italy and the Mid­dle East, Asia, and Aus­tralia. But post­war Italy was no slouch ei­ther, as we have seen from the An­drea Do­ria, along with its sister ship the Cristo­foro Colombo and the more dra­mat­i­cally stream­lined 1960s pair the Raf­faello and Michelan­gelo. A unique fea­ture of the home port of these ves­sels Genoa, shown in count­less il­lus­tra­tions here, is that all ships, even the enor­mous Rex and Conte di Savoia, tied up by their stern rather than along­side pier or wharf as in other har­bors.

But if Italy dom­i­nated the area’s ship­ping, it does not do so in this book. Who re­mem­bers that Is­raeli ships once car­ried pas­sen­gers from New York through those pic­turesque Mediter­ranean ports of call to Haifa; or Greek ones? The United States had its own pair of cel­e­brated lin­ers, the Amer­i­can Ex­port Lines’ SS In­de­pen­dence and SS Con­sti­tu­tion, the later hav­ing its day in the metaphor­i­cal as well as lit­eral sun when it took Grace Kelly and her fam­ily to her wed­ding in Monaco. The next year it was seen in the movie “An Af­fair to Re­mem­ber” and in 1955 had been the ship “I Love Lucy”’s epony­mous hero­ine had to board in in typ­i­cally un­ortho­dox fash­ion af­ter miss­ing its de­par­ture from New York.

Of course, the chief bonus of a South­ern Cross­ing was that it gave pas­sen­gers a Mediter­ranean cruise thrown in. I doubt, though, that there were many who ex­pe­ri­enced such a voy­age in the tan­ta­liz­ing fash­ion of a hap­less class­mate of mine at Yale. I no­ticed his ab­sence for about six weeks in the fall of 1968 and when he re­turned, he had a dis­tinctly sheep­ish look. Turned out he had gone to see a friend off on a Greek liner, only to im­bibe overly en­thu­si­as­ti­cally at the Bon Voy­age party and pass out in a se­cluded cor­ner of the ship. Dis­cov­ered the next day by its crew, he had to work his pas­sage un­til it re­turned to New York. With no pass­port, he could only gaze long­ingly at the ports he glimpsed but could not visit. I have never seen this story in the myr­iad vol­umes I have read on ships, but I think it is truly one for the books in every sense of the term.

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