SS France - The Last Liner

Story by Anthony Nicholas

Part 1:†

After the Second World War, sea travel between Europe and America boomed for over twelve years. At its height in 1958, more than one million passengers routinely sailed across the Atlantic on either business or pleasure. It was the busiest period ever on that ancient ocean route.

That same October, a Pan Am Boeing 707 called Clipper America made the first jet powered flight from New York to Paris in eight hours, and the entire Atlantic liner fleet at once became as outmoded as a pack of gilded dinosaurs. Why spend five days sailing across an often stormy ocean when you can fly over it? To the business trade in particular, the lure was irresistible.

For the liners, the writing was not so much on the wall as in the sky, carried in the vapor trails of the fleets of jets now winging across the ocean. By 1960, the jets had over seventy per cent of the trade.

As numbers sagged, veterans like Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and the United States soldiered on, often carrying three hundred passengers or less. On winter crossings, the great ships resembled poorly lit ghost towns. The last thing anyone expected was a new liner....

Yet that is exactly what happened when, at Saint Nazaire on May 11th 1960, Madame Yvonne De Gaulle launched the SS. France from the same slipway as the legendary Normandie, back in 1932. As over a thousand feet of beautifully sculpted steel cathedral kissed the sea for the first time, a hundred thousand spectators held their breath, awed by the beauty of the giant new vision.

"I have given you a new Normandie!", boasted the aging General De Gaulle. At a time when French national prestige was at an all time low following the ongoing civil war in Algiers, it was felt that the arrival of a new, show stopping national showcase of French style and pride would galvanize the nation, much in the same way as the Normandie had stirred the French imagination during the great depression. From the start, she was intended to be a floating national exhibition of French elegance, architecture and, above all, haute cuisine and matchless service. In these respects the huge, beautiful France was an unqualified success.

She had been laid down in 1958, at the very height of the liner era, but by the time she was delivered in January of 1962, that age was already over. She arrived in New York for the first time on February 8th 1962 and tied up at Pier 88, exactly twenty years minus one day after her legendary predecessor, Normandie, had burned and sank at exactly the same spot.

That was a cloudy winter's afternoon in New York. Helicopters buzzed the great ship like so many dragonflies. Fireboats hurled plumes of stinging spray skywards in great arcs, and banners snapped in greeting in the icy breeze as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her pier. When she docked, her owners said that she was 'the last refuge of the good life'. The American press described her, more succinctly, as 'an eighty million dollar gamble'.

France was certainly an astonishing creation. Subsidized by the French government, no expense had been spared in building or outfitting her. She was, quite simply, the most lavishly crafted ship in the world, built to last for at least fifty years. Designed solely as an Atlantic liner, she had very few outdoor deck areas for sunbathing, and was too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. France was intended to make thirty-four round trips a year between Le Havre, Southampton and New York, all year round.

With over 1200 crew for less than 2000 passengers in two classes, the France was staffed- and ran- like the Paris Ritz. Table wine was always free with dinner; no less than ninety three different kinds of champagne were carried, and camembert cheese, while always available, would only be offered on the menu four days out from France, when it was considered to be at its absolute best.

Passenger's pet dogs could choose between a New York fire hydrant and a Parisian lamp post to relieve themselves. There was a vast theatre, and every cabin on the ship came with shower and toilet. Most of her public rooms were were two stories high. These included the stunning, circular first class Chambord Dining Room. Food and service here was so exquisite that the famed American food critic, Craig Claiborne, declared it to be 'the finest French restaurant in the world'.

That first crossing was rough, resulting in two smashed windows on the promenade deck and six broken whiskey bottles. But the France was an unqualified, improbable success from day one, at least on the face of it. As the Cunard Queens limped across with a few hundred passengers on each trip, the SS. France averaged an eighty per cent occupancy rate throughout the sixties, an astonishing achievement on the Atlantic. With more and more jets flying overhead she sailed stubbornly on, as graceful and unyielding as any French aristocrat facing the guillotine. In her, the cherished standards of the French Line- arguably the most luxurious travel operator of all time- lived again to the full.

The trouble was that all this highly styled bravado cost, and cost horrendously. Even when she was full to the last upper berth, the France was unable to make a profit. However, she was generously subsidized by the French government, who saw profits as being more in the prestige and sense of elegance that the beautiful ship carried within that flaring, graceful hull with the two famous, winged stacks. In that respect, the France succeeded beautifully.

She sailed stubbornly on through the sixties; through the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The horror of Vietnam and the triumph of the first Moon landing were left behind in her glittering wake. Fueled by a subtle mixture of champagne, dollars and nostalgia, the glorious France seemed immune from such minor trifles as economic reality.

But in the words of Bob Dylan, the times they were-a-changing, and not even the celebrated 'last refuge of the good life' could remain immunized from the cold wind of reality for ever.....


Part 2:†


Quite a claim, to be sure. But I'll back it up... bear with me.

When she came back into service in 1979 after a five year lay up, the Norway ex-France was twice as large as her nearest rival out of Miami. At a time when the average cruise ship displaced 20,000 tons and carried 800 passengers, the Norway came in at a whopping 70,000, with a capacity for more than 2000.

The so called industry experts sneered at NCL chairman, Knut Kloster, when he bought the legendary French diva and awakened her with a $100 million kiss of life. She was far too big to be successful, they all said- she would fail spectacularly.

Kloster had a simpler, more beautiful way of putting it- 'I looked at her, and she smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for another twenty years'...

Smile? Within a year, the reborn 'Playground of the Caribbean' would be laughing all the way to the bank.

Following the purchase, she was towed from her five year lay up berth to Bremerhaven, Germany, for a massive eight month rebuild that ranked as the biggest in maritime history. In the spring of 1980, the butterfly emerged from her steel and concrete cocoon, blinked herself awake, and sent the opposition reeling from the start.

To cut fuel consumption- as the France, she had cost a million dollars a day for fuel alone in her last season on the Atlantic in 1974- the forward of two engine rooms was closed down, the propellers removed, and the other engine room was modified to drive the two remaining props.

This reduced her speed from 34 knots down to 25; perfectly adequate for the week long Eastern Caribbean runs Kloster had planned for her. More importantly, it slashed her fuel bills by two-thirds at a single stroke.

Two massive, 400 seater double deck landing craft called Little Norway I and II were placed in davits on the bow for getting passengers ashore quickly and safely in the Caribbean. The former Atlantic liner was too huge to dock almost anywhere.

NCL also originally planned to replace her two famous, winged funnels with something of a more 'modern' design. But after a tidal wave of protests, those funnels- arguably the most famous, iconic and easily recognizable of any ship ever- were left alone. In this, her second life, they would once again become her trademark.

At the stern, a series of vast, overhanging lido decks were built on, featuring two pools, an outdoor restaurant, and a huge basketball court. Inside, the interior promenade was completely rebuilt as a boulevard style 'main-street' featuring bars, a French style sidewalk cafe, show lounges, and no less than eleven shops.

On this amazing thoroughfare, strolling musicians would play, flower sellers plied their trade, and acrobats emerged from lifts on a unicycle while balancing a goldfish. There were mime artists and street theatre on a scale unseen at sea before.

It didn't stop there; the 800 seat theatre was extensively remodeled. For the first time, a ship provided Vegas style fur and feather boa revues and almost full scale Broadway musicals for her passengers. Every week, big name entertainment like Petula Clark, Sacha Distel and Phyllis Diller would provide the Norway passengers with a standard of nightlife unseen east of Vegas. This head turning ship could do nothing unspectacular.

While most ships offered fitness classes, the Norway routinely staged a mini- Olympics. And where else would you find a full scale, fifteen piece dixieland jazz band but on board the Norway? They played out on deck every departure day, ensuring that the Queen of the Caribbean started every cruise with a swing.

There was also Dazzles, an amazing disco that would not have been out of place in Manhattan at the peak of the disco era, and more than a dozen bars. The two main dining rooms, each two stories high, were remodeled for the more causal eighties era, although the Windward- the original first class Chambord restaurant from the France days- retained its ornate panelling and grand staircase to the very end.

In May of 1980, the reborn Norway sailed across the Atlantic and made a triumphal return to New York. Even some of the most hard bitten New York tug boat crews wept with joy that day, as she emerged through a fountain of fireboat spray and returned to her old berth for the first time in six years.

After three days of celebration, the giant Norway made her first landfall in Miami, and soon settled into the seven day circuit she had been so painstakingly revived for. Passengers flocked aboard her in droves; both those starry eyed romantics who remembered her as the France, and an entire new generation that succumbed to the considerable charms of the Caribbean's greatest floating resort.

She was a smash from the start, stunning her competitors and silencing the critics with almost effortless ease. For the first time, a cruise ship boasted not only television in every cabin, but even its own TV station, WNCL. For years on end, the Norway would dominate the Caribbean.

The extent of that domination was shown when, in the fall of 1983, the Miami based cruise trade hit a brief recession. For weeks on end, ships built for 800 passengers went out less than half full. Over the same period, the Norway- with berths for more than 2000- averaged an occupancy rate of something like 93%.

And, of course, she was a breathtaking beauty; sleek, suave and assured, conscious of her exalted past and yet alive again, vibrant and compelling. She really did look the part of a Queen. Until her last days the Norway- like her great friend and rival, QE2 (see earlier notes) could turn heads and make jaws drop wherever she sailed.

To sail her was an electrifying experience; she simply oozed charisma, beauty and sheer individuality at every turn. She flaunted her style and flair with a nonchalance that was typically French- and didn't care who knew. Nothing in those days was as addictive as being on the Noway at sunset in the Caribbean. In the eighties, she really was the 'ship of dreams'...

Her singular success triggered the tidal wave of new builds that followed right up to the present. Each and every modern cruise ship, from the Voyager class to the Queen Mary 2 and the coming Oasis- all owe their very existence to Kloster's massive gamble in reviving this legendary diva.

It was almost as if magic was somehow invisibly sprinkled through every nook and cranny of her, each and every day. Looking up at those giant winged stacks, the heart filled with pride. Looking back at her wake as she cut through the sea made the soul soar. The Norway would flirt with you, dance with you, tease you and, inevitably captivate you. For decades, she held thousands under her spell, and she still does to this day.

She is gone now, at least physically. But in the minds and hearts of those of us who knew, loved and cherished her, she remains a wondrous, unsinkable vision- seventeen stories of beauty, light and music gliding serenely into a flaming, scarlet and gold Caribbean sunset.

The greatest? For those of us fortunate enough to have known her, it isn't even a question. Just a simple statement of fact.


Part 3:†


March, 1980 at Bremerhaven. Work is well advanced as Norway blinks off the long cold winter, and emerges into the spring, and her second life.

It had been intended to replace her famous funnels with something of a more 'modern' design but, after a tidal wave of protest, that plan was quietly scuttled.

It was a wise move. Just as in her France days, the Norway funnels immediately became her calling card, making her instantly recognizable from miles away.

In truth, the forward stack seen here no longer worked, but several of her crew climbed up into the wing and used it as a viewing gallery on the ship's first return to New York two months later...

Kloster's miraculous revival of the former France was simply the biggest maritime regeneration project ever undertaken. It would take a full eight months and cost well over a hundred million dollars. But the results would be truly spectacular.

The France was built as an express liner, able to cross the ocean at up to 34 knots if need be and, in the process, guzzling fuel oil like cheap table wine. As a cruise ship, she would no longer need anything like that pace and power. A maximum of 18 knots alone would be needed to keep her on schedule for her 2,000 mile, week long jaunts around the Caribbean.

So the forward engine room of two was closed down, the two outer propellers were removed, and the aft engine room was modified to drive the two, remaining, inboard propellers. This reduced her speed to a maximum of 25 knots- more than adequate for her new schedule.

Much more importantly, it slashed her fuel bills by more than two thirds overnight.

At the same time, several bow and stern thrusters were added, enabling the 1035 foot long Norway to pirouette easily in and out of her Miami berth as gracefully as a ballet dancer.

The ship's deep draft of more than thirty feet made her amazingly stable on the Atlantic, but was a huge cruising handicap. It meant that she was too vast to dock anywhere in the Caribbean.

Kloster got round this by adding two huge, 400 seater double decker landing craft on her bows. Named Little Norway I and II, these were small ships in their own right, and provided quick and easy transportation ashore for the 2,000 passengers that boarded the Norway each week.

Another massive hurdle was her lack of open outdoor deck space. NCL arranged for a series of huge, overhanging lido decks to be built out over her stern, containing an outdoor restaurant, a basketball court, acres of sunbathing space and a large outdoor pool. A second, smaller pool was added to the upper astro turfed deck, between the huge funnels. In all, the Norway acquired some 65,000 sq. ft of open sun deck- more than adequate for her new role.

It had been intended to replace her famous funnels with something of a new, more 'modern' design but, after a tidal wave of protests from purists, that scheme was quietly scuttled. Those distinctive winged stacks- arguably the most famous ever- would once again become her trademark in this, her second career. They made her unmistakable anywhere.

Between those funnels, huge electric letters spelling out her name- NORWAY- blazed forth at night. They could be seen from miles away.

In her last year, France was costing a million dollars a day for fuel alone, guzzling the stuff like so much cheap table wine, and right at the height of the OPEC oil crisis.

The forward of the two engine rooms was shut down and the two forward, outboard propellers were removed. The aft engine room was modified to drive the two remaining, inboard props.

This cut the ship's speed from 35 down to 25 knots- more than sufficient for cruising the Caribbean.

More importantly, it slashed her fuel bills by more than two thirds overnight.....

But cosmetic surgery alone was nowhere near enough. Kloster wanted to make his reborn ship a complete floating resort, one so spectacular in scale and choice that the opposition would be sent reeling. The Norway had to have more of everything. And more there would be....

Inside, the promenade deck was rebuilt as a complete 'main-street' with tiled floors, plants and street lamps. Eleven shops were added, as well as bars, a French sidewalk cafe, and even an ice cream parlor. One side was named Fifth Avenue, the other Champs Elysees. On this vast floating boulevard, portrait painters competed with mime artists, flower sellers and strolling musicians. On occasions, a unicycle rider would emerge from a lift and set off down the street...

The theatre was remodeled as a vast, two level high showroom that staged full scale Broadway musicals and Las Vegas style revues- the first ever seen at sea. Weekly big name entertainment included the likes of Phyllis Diller, Jack Jones, Petula Clark and Rita Moreno. In scope and scale, the Norway offered the most diversity ever seen at sea and, indeed, well in excess of most land resorts.

Naturally, there was a fifteen piece big band. Big ship- big band. Brilliant and obvious, but only available on the Norway. There was a new disco that would not have been out of place in Manhattan, and a total of a dozen new bars.

The celebrated Chambord Restaurant was renamed the Windward, but otherwise the elegant French ambience was left completely intact. The other two level dining room was renamed the Leeward, and vastly improved in terms of decor.

Throughout every nook and cranny, the severe sixties modernity of France was replaced by a total Art Deco look as Norway went 'back to the future'. It fitted her profile as great ocean liner/reborn cruise ship to absolute perfection. Internally, the Norway was simply exquisite.

Cabins were refurbished with every mod con including, for the first time, color TV. The ship even had its own television station- WNCL.

In the spring of 1980, canvas wrappings were removed as the North German winter faded away. Spring was in the air and, to gasps of awed amazement, Knut Kloster's butterfly emerged from her steel and concrete cocoon, blinked herself awake, and set off on her first sea trials…..


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