An ocean liner is a ship designed to transport people from one seaport to another along regular long-distance maritime routes according to a schedule. Liners may also carry cargo or mail, and may sometimes be used for other purposes (e.g., for pleasure cruises or as hospital ships).
Cargo vessels running to a schedule are sometimes called liners. The category does not include ferries or other vessels engaged in short-sea trading, nor dedicated cruise ships where the voyage itself, and not transportation, is the prime purpose of the trip. Nor does it include tramp steamers, even those equipped to handle limited numbers of passengers. Some shipping companies refer to themselves as "lines" and their container ships, which often operate over set routes according to established schedules, as "liners".
Ocean liners are usually strongly built with a high freeboard to withstand rough seas and adverse conditions encountered in the open ocean. Additionally, they are often designed with thicker hull plating than is found on cruise ships, and have large capacities for fuel, food and other consumables on long voyages.
Once the dominant form of travel between continents, ocean liners were rendered largely obsolete by the emergence of long-distance aircraft after World War II. Advances in automobile and railway technology also played a role. As of 2015, RMS Queen Mary 2 was the only ship still in service as an ocean liner; the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 retired a few years ago.
Ocean liners were the primary mode of intercontinental travel for over a century, from the mid-19th century until they began to be supplanted by airliners in the 1950s. In addition to passengers, liners carried mail and cargo. Ships contracted to carry British Royal Mail used the designation RMS. Liners were also the preferred way to move gold and other high-value cargoes.
The busiest route for liners was on the North Atlantic with ships travelling between Europe and North America. It was on this route that the fastest, largest and most advanced liners travelled. But while in contemporary popular imagination the term "ocean liners" evokes these transatlantic superliners, most ocean liners historically were mid-sized vessels which served as the common carriers of passengers and freight between nations and among mother countries and their colonies and dependencies in the pre-jet age. Such routes included Europe to African and Asian colonies, Europe to South America, and migrant traffic from Europe to North America in the 19th and first two decades of the 20th centuries, and to Canada and Australia after the Second World War.
Shipping lines are companies engaged in shipping passengers and cargo, often on established routes and schedules. Regular scheduled voyages on a set route are called "line voyages" and vessels (passenger or cargo) trading on these routes to a timetable are called liners. The alternative to liner trade is "tramping" whereby vessels are notified on an ad-hoc basis as to the availability of a cargo to be transported. (In older usage, "liner" also referred to ships of the line, that is, line-of-battle ships, but that usage is now rare.) The term "ocean liner" has come to be used interchangeably with "passenger liner", although it can refer to a cargo liner or cargo-passenger liner.
Beginning at the advent of the Jet Age, where transoceanic ship service declined, a gradual transition from passenger ships as mean of transportation to nowadays cruise ships started. In order for ocean liners to remain profitable, cruise lines have modified some of them to operate on cruise routes, such as the Queen Elizabeth 2 and SS France. Certain characteristics of older ocean liners made them unsuitable for cruising, such as high fuel consumption, deep draught preventing them from entering shallow ports, and cabins (often windowless) designed to maximize passenger numbers rather than comfort. The Italian Line's SS Michelangelo and SS Raffaello, the last ocean liners to be built primarily for crossing the North Atlantic, could not be converted economically and had short careers.
The 19th century
In 1818, the Black Ball Line, with a fleet of sailing ships, offered the first regular passenger service with emphasis on passenger comfort, from England to the United States. From the early 19th century, steam engines began to appear in ships, but initially they were inefficient and offered little advantage over sailing ships.
The clipper domination was challenged when SS Great Western, designed by railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, began its first Atlantic service in 1837. She took 15 days to cross the Atlantic, as compared with two months by sail-powered ships. Unlike the clippers, steamers offered a consistent speed and the ability to keep to a schedule. The early steamships still had sails as well, though, as engines at this time had very inefficient consumption of fuel. Having sails enabled vessels like the Great Western to take advantage of favourable weather conditions and minimise fuel consumption.
In 1840, Cunard Line’s RMS Britannia began its first regular passenger and cargo service by a steamship, sailing from Liverpool to Boston. Despite some advantages offered by the steamships, clippers remained dominant. In 1847, the SS Great Britain became the first iron-hulled screw-driven ship to cross the Atlantic. More efficient propellers began to replace the paddle wheels used by earlier ocean liners. In 1870, the White Star Line’s RMS Oceanic set a new standard for ocean travel by having its first-class cabins amidships, with the added amenity of large portholes, electricity and running water. The size of ocean liners increased from 1880 to meet the needs of immigration to the United States and Australia.
RMS Umbria and her sister ship RMS Etruria were the last two Cunard liners of the period to be fitted with auxiliary sails. Both ships were built by John Elder & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1884. They were record breakers by the standards of the time, and were the largest liners then in service, plying the Liverpool to New York route.
SS Ophir was a 6814-ton steamship owned by the Orient Steamship Co., and was fitted with refrigeration equipment. She plied the Suez Canal route from England to Australia during the 1890s, up until the years leading to World War I, when she was converted to an armed merchant cruiser.
The 20th century
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The period between the end of the 19th century and World War II is considered the "golden age" of ocean liners. Driven by strong needs created by European emigration to the Americas, international competition between passenger lines and a new emphasis on comfort, shipping companies built increasingly larger and faster ships.
Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) became one of the largest transportation systems in the world, combining ships and railways operating from Canada. In 1891, the CPR shipping division began its first Pacific operation. In 1903, CPR began its first Atlantic service because of the rising migration of Europeans to western Canada, as the result of free land offered by the Canadian government.
Since the 1830s, passenger liners had unofficially been competing for the honour of making the fastest North Atlantic crossing. This honour came to be known as the Blue Riband; in 1897, Germany took the award with a series of new ocean liners, starting with SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. In 1905, the British Cunard Line fitted RMS Carmania, with steam turbines, which then outperformed her nearly-identical sister, RMS Caronia, which was powered by quadruple-expansion steam engines. At the time, these were the largest ships in the Cunard fleet, and the use of the different propulsion methods in otherwise similar ships allowed the company to evaluate the merits of both. The engines in Carmania were successful and, consequently, in 1907, Cunard introduced the much larger RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania, both powered by steam turbines. Mauretania won the Blue Riband and held it for an astonishing 20 years.
Cunard's dominance of the Blue Riband did not keep other lines from competing in terms of size and luxury. In 1910, White Star Line launched RMS Olympic, the first of a trio of 45,000 plus gross ton liners, along with RMS Titanic and HMHS Britannic. These ships were almost 15,000 tonnes larger and 100 feet (30 m) longer than Lusitania and Mauretania. Like most other White Star Liners, these three ships were born of a special effort by the line to attract more immigrants by treating them with respect and making their crossings pleasurable.
Hamburg-America Line also ordered three giant ships, SS Imperator, SS Vaterland and SS Bismarck, all over 51,500 gross tons. Imperator was launched in 1912, and Bismarck would be the largest ship in the world until 1935. These ships did little or no service with Hamburg-America before World War I. After the war, they were awarded as war reparations and given to British and American lines. Vaterland became the SS Leviathan of United States Lines; Imperator became RMS Berengaria and Bismarck (completed only five weeks before the beginning of World War I) became RMS Majestic, both of Cunard/White Star.
The surge in ocean liner size outpaced the shipping regulations. In 1912, the Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg, with more than 1,500 fatalities. A factor contributing to the high loss of life was that there were not enough lifeboats for everyone. After the Titanic disaster, regulations were revised to require all ocean liners to carry enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew. In addition, the International Ice Patrol was established to monitor the busy North Atlantic shipping lanes for icebergs, and the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, first signed in January 1914, required continuous radio watches.
The outbreak of World War I greatly disrupted commercial trans-Atlantic travel. While some companies continued to maintain a regular schedule of voyages, the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland by a German U-boat in May 1915 with the loss of nearly 1,200 passengers and crew highlighted the dangers involved. Britain requisitioned a number of large liners for use in the war effort; Olympic and Mauretania were pressed into service as troopships, while Britannic became a hospital ship, only to be sunk by a mine in the Aegean Sea in November 1916.
Until the 1920s, most shipping lines relied heavily on emigration for passengers; thus, they were hard hit when the United States Congress introduced a bill to limit immigration into the United States. As a result, many ships took on cruising, and the least expensive cabins were reconfigured from third-class to tourist-class. To make matters worse, the Great Depression put many shipping lines into bankruptcy.
Despite the harsh economic conditions, a number of companies continued to build larger and faster ships. In 1929, the German ships SS Bremen and SS Europa bested the speed record set by Mauretania 20 years earlier with an average speed of almost 28 knots (52 km/h; 32 mph). The ships used bulbous bows and steam turbines to reach these high speeds while maintaining economical operating costs. In 1933, the Italian Line's 51,100-ton ocean liner SS Rex, with a time of four days and thirteen hours, captured the westbound Blue Riband, which she held for two years. In 1935, French liner SS Normandie used a revolutionary new hull design and powerful turbo-electric transmission to take the Blue Riband from Rex. Due to poor economic conditions, the British government amalgamated the Cunard Line and White Star Lines. The newly merged company countered with liners RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth. Queen Mary held the Blue Riband in 1936-37 and from 1938-52.
In World War II many liners were used as troop ships. Notable ocean liners, such as Queen Mary, Aquitania, Cap Arcona, Laconia, Queen Elizabeth, and Orontes all helped transport troops. While some ocean liners survived the war, many others were lost.
The post-WWII era was a brief but busy period. Notable ships included the fastest transatlantic liner ever built, SS United States, which, in 1952, bested the records set by Queen Mary to become the holder of the Blue Riband, a designation she retains to this day. However, the industry was shaken by the highly publicized sinking of the Italian liner Andrea Doria in July 1956 after a collision with the Swedish liner Stockholm off Nantucket, Massachusetts, with 46 people aboard both ships killed.
Also significant was the 1961-built SS France (later renamed Norway) which held the record for the longest passenger ship from when she entered service in 1961, until the launch of RMS Queen Mary 2 in 2003. Australian government-sponsored immigration resulted in a busy trade between Europe and Australia, producing such notable ships as SS Oriana and SS Canberra. These two ships, operating on the P&O-Orient Lines service, were the largest, fastest and last liners built for the Australian route.
Decline of long-distance line voyages
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Before World War II, aircraft had not been a significant threat to ocean liners. Most pre-war aircraft were noisy, vulnerable to bad weather, few had the range needed for transoceanic flights, and all were expensive and had a small passenger capacity. However, World War II necessitated the accelerated development of large, long-ranged aircraft. Four-engined bombers, such as the Avro Lancaster and Boeing B-29 Superfortress, with their range and massive carrying capacity, were natural prototypes for post-war next-generation airliners. Jet engine technology also accelerated after the development of jet aircraft in World War II. In 1953, the De Havilland Comet became the first commercial jet airliner; the Sud Aviation Caravelle, Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 followed, and much long-distance travel was done by air. The Italian Line's SS Michelangelo and SS Raffaello, launched in 1962 and 1963, were two of the last ocean liners to be built primarily for liner service across the North Atlantic. Cunard's transatlantic liner, Queen Elizabeth 2, was also used as a cruise ship. By the early 1970s, many passenger ships continued their service in cruising.
The 21st century
By the first decade of the 21st century, only a few former ocean liners were still sailing, while others, like Queen Mary, were preserved as museums or floating hotels. After the retirement of Queen Elizabeth 2 in 2008, the only ocean liner in service was Queen Mary 2, built in 2003-04, used for both point-to-point line voyages and for cruises.
In 2012, Australian businessman, Clive Palmer, announced plans to construct a modern-day replica of the RMS Titanic, to be named Titanic II. However, the project was halted in 2014 and abandoned in 2015. The idea of a Titanic II was not new, with various proposals being made since at least 1989.
Ocean liners were often used in wartime as troopships; indeed, it was sometimes national policy to encourage the construction of liners in peacetime so that they could be used in the event of war to transport large numbers of troops at speeds outpacing warships and submarines.
In World War I ocean liners played a major role. Large ocean liners, such as Mauretania and Olympic, were used as troopships and hospital ships, while smaller ocean liners were converted to armed merchant cruisers. Britannic, sister ship to Titanic and Olympic, never served on the liner trade for which she was built. Instead, she entered war service as a hospital ship as soon as she was completed, and lasted a year before being sunk by a mine. Other liners were converted to innocent-looking armed Q-ships to entrap submarines. In 1915 Lusitania, still in service as a civilian passenger vessel, was torpedoed with many casualties by a German U-boat.
Ocean liners were also used as troopships in World War II. Many were sunk with huge loss of life; in World War II the three worst disasters were the loss of the Cunarder Lancastria in 1940 off Saint-Nazaire to German bombing while attempting to evacuate troops of the British Expeditionary Force from France, with the loss of more than 3,000 lives; the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff with more than 9,000 lives lost; and the sinking of Cap Arcona with more than 7,000 lives lost, both in the Baltic Sea, in 1945.
Normandie caught fire, capsized and sank in New York in 1942 while being converted for troop duty. Many of the superliners of the 'twenties and 'thirties were victims of U-boats, mines or enemy aircraft. Empress of Britain was attacked by German planes, then torpedoed by a U-boat when tugs tried to tow her to safety. She was the largest British ocean liner sunk during World War II. In 1941 Germany's speed queen, Bremen, fell victim to an arsonist, believed to be a disgruntled crew member, and became a total loss. SS Europa was confiscated by the U.S. in 1945 and later became the French Line's SS Liberté. Italy's giant Rex was destroyed by the Royal Air Force, and Conte di Savoia by retreating German forces. The United States lost the American President Lines vessel President Coolidge when she steamed into an Allied mine in the South Pacific. No shipping line was left untouched by World War II.
In 1982, during the Falklands War, three active or former liners were requisitioned for war service by the British Government. The liners Queen Elizabeth 2 and Canberra, were requisitioned from Cunard and P&O to serve as troopships, carrying British Army personnel to Ascension Island and the Falkland Islands to recover the Falklands from the invading Argentine forces. The P&O educational cruise ship and former British India Steam Navigation Company liner Uganda was requisitioned as a hospital ship, and served after the war as a troopship until the RAF Mount Pleasant station was built at Stanley, which could handle trooping flights.
Four ocean liners that were made before World War II survive today as they have been preserved as museums, and hotels. The Japanese ocean liner Hikawa Maru, has been preserved in Naka-ku, Yokohama, Japan, as a museum ship, since 1961. The RMS Queen Mary was preserved in 1967 after her retirement, and became a museum/hotel in Long Beach, California. In the 1970s, the Great Britain was also preserved, and now resides in Bristol, England as another museum. The latest ship to undergo preservation is the MV Doulos, which is to become a dry berthed hotel on Bintan Island, Indonesia.
Post-war ocean liners that are preserved are United States (1952), docked in Philadelphia since 1996; Rotterdam (1958), moored in Rotterdam as a museum and hotel since 2008; and Queen Elizabeth 2 (1967), laid up in Port Rashid, since 2009; her owners stated that they would not scrap her. MS Veronica (1966) (former MS Kungsholm ), was converted into a floating hotel in Duqm, Oman in 2012 but the hotel closed operations a year later. In October 2015 the ship was sold for scrap; she was towed to Alang, India where as of December 2015 she remained beached. It is not known if she has been scrapped or if talks to save her are underway.
Two former ocean liners remain in service as cruise ships operating under Cruise & Maritime Voyages: Marco Polo (1965) (former MS Alexandr Pushkin), and MV Astoria (1948), originally Stockholm which is famous for colliding with Andrea Doria in 1956.
RMS Queen Elizabeth (1940).
RMS Titanic at the docks of Southampton (1912).
Titanic sister Olympic arrives at New York on her maiden voyage, 1911.
SS Bremen maiden voyage, 1929.
First-class lounge on RMS Olympic, 1912.
SS Normandie - 79,000 tons.
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