Friday, November 18, 2011

"The Only Way to Cross" A book review and a photo from my summer cruise

Sage on the deck of the deck of the Eurodam
As I indicated in an earlier post, in late August at the end of my round-the-world trip, I boarded the Eurodam in Dover, on the Southeast English Coast, heading for the North Atlantic and eventually on to New York.  The 17 day trip took me to several European ports, Ireland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland (see photo), Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  I had just two printed books with me (I had some audible books on ipod which I listened to while in the ship’s gym and occasionally on the crow’s nest while scanning the waters through which we sailed).  My bound books were The Atlantic (which I’ve already reviewed) and this one.  They were both a treat to read at sea.   For those interested, I'll be back to my canoeing adventures soon.

John Maxtone-Graham, The Only Way to Cross: The Golden Era of the Great Atlantic Express Liners—from the Mauretania to the France and the Queen Elizabeth II (New  York: MacMillian, 1972), 434 pages, black and white photos, bibliography and index.

Maxtone-Graham wrote this book nearly forty years ago, at the end of an era.  When it was published, the age of the great steamships crossing the Atlantic had just about come to an end.   There were only a handful of ships making regularly scheduled runs from Europe to the United States.  The book ends with the launch of the Queen Elizabeth II, which the author suggests might be the last of the great ships.  He failed to foresee the growth of the cruise business. (Today, the QE2 has been replaced with a newer ship, the Queen Mary II, which makes the Atlantic run from the Spring through Fall).  Most ships today that cross the Atlantic are on repositioning voyages, moving from summer cruises on the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas to the Caribbean Sea or to the Pacific through the Panama Canal.   Although the cruise business continues to thrive, the airplane has replaced the ship on the trans-Atlantic passage.  Furthermore, the ships that remain are not truly steam ships as they are powered with diesel engines. 

The Only Way to Cross covers the development of the great ships of the twentieth century.  These ships served duel purposes, transporting the rich and famous in elegant staterooms to the poor immigrants in the less favorable parts of the ships, such in the stern above the turbines.   He discusses technological development such as the shift from piston driven propeller shafts to turbines, which allowed ships to increase their speed and efficiency.  Also explored is hull and prop designs.  As the century began, coal was a major source for fuel, which required longer docking in the port to replenish one’s supply.  For this reason, the great shipping companies early in the century desired to keep three major liners in service, which allowed them to have a ship leaving Europe and New York the same day each week.  A regular schedule like this allowed them to secure mail service contracts.  As companies sought to update their fleets early in the century, the White Star line built three “four-stacker” ships for this service: the Olympic, Titanic and Britannic.  The Olympic was a success; the other two met their demise early in their career.  The Titanic sank on her maiden voyage and the Britannic, which never carried a passage as it was launched as Europe entered the Great War and used as a troop hospital ship, struck a mine and sunk. Interestingly, the author tells the story of Violet Jessop, who was a stewardess on the Titanic and a nurse on the Britannic.  She survived both.   Later, as oil replaced coal, and the turbines became more efficient, the speed and the turnaround time for each ship allowed the companies to meet the same schedule with just two ships (As an example, Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth).

Maxtone-Graham has a love for ships.  Throughout this book, he constantly adds tidbits of knowledge.  One was the need for “four-stacks” on ships.  Early on, there was a belief among immigrants that the four-stack ships were superior which is why the White Star Line put four stacks on ships even though they were only using three stacks for exhaust.  We also learn about the naming of ships.  In the 19th and early 20th Century, the White Star Line ended the names of their ships with “ic” (such as Titanic), while the Cunard Line main ships ended in “’-ia” (such as a Berengaria, a ship built by Germans but received and renamed by the British company after they obtained the ship at the end of the World War I).  Although much of the Atlantic business was handled by British firms, they had strong competition from German, French, Dutch, Italian and American shipping interest.   The post war “United States” was one of the fastest liners ever built.  It was built through cooperation from the Navy and commercial interest.  The thought was that the ship could easily be converted to haul troops in the event of war.   Another area explored is on board dining and the author notes the advantage chefs on the trans-Atlantic trade had (in comparison to restaurants) as they could purchase the best (and cheaper) food from two continents.  Another interesting tidbit is the rise of the cruise business during Prohibition, as some of the great ships from earlier in the century were converted and used to take Americans out into waters were they could legally drink.

The author spends much time discussing ship disasters.  He examines the Titanic sinking (and some of the myths such as it had not been said that the ship was “unsinkable” but “practically unsinkable.”  The Titanic demise brought many safety improvements to the industry, but then there was the Great War and torpedoes were another danger.  Also a problem was fire as seen in the demise of the French ship, “Normandie,” that was in New York at the outbreak of World War II and being converted to serve as a troop ship.   She caught fire and rolled over on her side in port.  As the author points out, ships are most vulnerable to fire in port, where civilian firefighters with seemingly unlimited pumping capacity, can easily capsize a ship by dumping too much water into the hull.  

For anyone who loves ships, this book is a must read! 


  1. nice...i bet it was a treat to read these while at sea....had to be a pretty cool voyage to cross the ocean via ship...

  2. You may need to re-post this for it's not displaying in the inbox.

  3. Sage: This was a particularly fascinating read, as I have spent a lot of time walking throughout the QE II. It is rather haunting even in the daytime!

  4. Brian, I like to plan my reading to inform my travels and this was an ideal book for that.

    Roaring40s, I'm not sure why this one is not being picked up in people's blogs--I did try to "update it' and it didn't change things. I could take it down completely, but not as many people respond to my book post so I'll just not worry about it.

    Michael, I haven't been on the QE2, but have spent time on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. What a ship!

  5. I bet that round the world trip was awesome...that's a great picture of Greenland

  6. Another Wishlist item. I've never like the idea of a "cruise," but a shipboard journey to actually get somewhere appeals to me. BTW, I'd love to see photos of the Faroes. I've always wanted to visit those islands.


  7. Great post! I learn a lot from keeping up to date with your reading and posting.

  8. Being on a ship crossing the ocean must be a wonderful thing - I can just imagine it. A perfect book for your journey.

    I noticed this post in my reader, but it didn't update on my blog roll.

  9. I get a kick out of- " the great ships from earlier in the century were converted and used to take Americans out into waters were they could legally drink"...
    Nice review. My oldest son would enjoy this read...he's my "sailor".
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

  10. A little off topic...I just finished Grapes of Wrath...any other books by him you would recommend? I notice you have him listed under "books".