Who Invented Cruise Ships?

October 1, 2018  |  Share:

Who Invented Cruise Ships?

By Simon & Susan Veness

The provenance of the very first cruise ship is probably lost in the mists of time. It might have been a Phoenician trader who, fed up with the daily grind of dealing in Tyrian purple, set his sights beyond the Mediterranean for a little jaunt to the beaches of the Canaries. It could equally have been a Roman galley, originally headed for the invasion of Britain, that decided to take a side-trip to Ireland for a pint or two.

It could certainly have been those intrepid Vikings, the arch ship-builders of the 9th to the 11th centuries, who would have needed some vacation time after battling their way across the Atlantic before anyone realised there were often large chunks of ice in the way.

Yes, the more we think about it, it was probably those historic Norsemen, who were badly categorised as plundering pillagers when they may have just been misunderstood tourists, desperate to find the local chillout attractions after a month or two at sea with only their beards for company. You can see it now – a bunch of hairy, axe-wielding marauders come charging up the beach, eager to check out the local attractions and lop the heads off a foaming pint or two, and all the locals see is a bunch of hairy, AXE-wielding marauders eager to lop the heads off a villager or two. They just needed to axe the axes.

Cunard will probably tell you that they invented cruise ships, back in 1840, when the Royal Mail needed a reliable carrier across the Atlantic and Sir Samuel Cunard dug deep into his pockets to create the Britannia-class of steam-driven ships. His new ocean greyhounds could cover the distance from Liverpool to Halifax, Novia Scotia, in a scorching 12 days and 10 hours (knocking a full five days off the time it took the day’s sailing vessels).

Sir Samuel and his crew should get a lot of credit for creating the most dependable transatlantic service the world had seen, a service that would go on to become a watchword in reliability and expand to several dozen ships by the end of the 19th century. That great maritime author John Maxtone-Graham insisted Cunard captains were sent off on each voyage with a simple message: “Your ship is loaded, take her; speed is nothing, follow your own road, deliver her safe, bring her back safe – safety is all that is required.”

But, for all the fact Cunard became an ocean-going watchword for steadfast consistency, there wasn’t a lot that was actually cruise-like about them. Their cargo was their main mission and, while they certainly carried passengers, it wasn’t exactly with the intention of providing a relaxing sojourn on board. The era of indulgent journeying from port to port hadn’t yet arrived, even though the Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (Cunard’s great rivals and today’s P&O) was offering round-trips from Southampton to the Mediterranean by 1844.

The latter could certainly have been the fore-runner of true cruising, but the main reason for the ships’ journeys was still cargo and the Royal Mail, ensuring important letters got to places like Alexandria, Constantinople and Bombay.

Hamburg-America Line, established in Germany in 1847 (and today’s Hapag-Lloyd), can also lay at least partial claim to the title of Cruise Ship Inventor with their Prinzessin Victoria Luise in 1900, which declared itself the first ship purpose-designed for cruising and was as luxurious as its builders could make it, the maritime answer to the Orient-Express rail service. Needless to say, there were only a small handful of regular cruise-goers who could afford the fares, hence cruising as a genuine holiday idea remained in its infancy.

Indeed, it largely stayed there through the first 60 years of the 20th century, the haven of the rich and famous, the aristocracy and the well-to-do. Ships certainly got fancier – the classic Normandie of the mid-1930s was reputed to be the most ostentatiously chic vessel of her generation – and bigger, with ships pushing 70,000 tons with the 1960s builds of the venerable QE2 and the SS France. But the days of what we now know as cruising had still not arrived. True, the 1960s marked the end of an era, in that genuine cruise liners – ships that offered line voyages – were rapidly becoming a thing of the past, pushed into obsolescence by Mr Boeing and friends, who could send people around the world far quicker and more efficiently than anything travelling by sea. Therefore, the ship owners of the world had a problem. They still had berths to fill, but people were increasingly reluctant to hand over large amounts of cash for a journey that could now be taken in hours instead of days. Ocean voyages were also still seen as the preserve of the well-heeled, an image problem not helped by the Royal Family, who continued to be seen on the Royal Yacht Britannia, the ultimate bastion of status and prestige.

Perhaps almost inevitably, it took a Viking to point the cruise business back in the right direction. Norwegian shipping magnate Knut Utstein Kloster had been reading the tea leaves for several years and could see a potential market opening up, using existing tonnage and new routes. In 1966, Kloster and Israeli businessman Ted Arison formed Norwegian Caribbean Line using Kloster’s recently-built cruise-ferry as their debut vessel.

The 8,666-ton Sunward had been a colossal failure on the Southampton-Gibraltar ferry service but, transferred to Miami and with the Caribbean as her playground, a whole new holiday type was born.

Norwegian Caribbean became Norwegian Cruise Line, Arison left to start his own fledgeling company, a little thing called Carnival Cruise Lines, and they were joined in 1968 by another Norwegian concern, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, a joint venture between three Oslo-based shipping businesses.

To all intents and purposes, modern cruising was now up and running. The three companies – Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean – have been locked in a hardware ‘arms race’ ever since, each striving to get bigger, better, fancier. Norwegian effectively broke the mould of cruising, and the other players picked it up and ran with it.

And those Vikings, well, they were definitely involved. There was even a Royal Viking Line, another Norwegian collaboration and an upmarket alternative to Royal Caribbean, from 1972-94 that served to underline Norway’s role in the modern face of cruising.

So, the next time someone asks you why you insist on taking a cruise for your holiday, you can just tell them you’re off for a Viking good time…

What switched you on to cruising? Where was your first cruise experience? Give us your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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