Ocean liners

Ocean liners are a travel topic.

Before the widespread adoption of air travel, trans-oceanic crossings by necessity relied on ships which plied the high seas. While the first crossings were made by sailing vessels, steamships became common in the mid-19th century; by the early 20th century, ocean liners of various rival lines competed aggressively on both speed and luxury.

Unlike cruise ships (which are built as floating hotels for entertainment), ocean liners were constructed as practical transportation and built for speed, for longer routes than ferries. Thus they usually had a higher passenger capacity than a cruise ship of similar size and with very few exceptions also carried cargo and/or mail.


From Magellen's initial circumnavigation of the globe (1519-1521) to the mid-1800s, seafaring was powered by the winds and was a slow, arduous and sometimes risky means of travel. A trans-Atlantic crossing routinely took two months; arrival times were unpredictable and very much at the mercy of the wind and waves. The 1837 entry of the steamship SS Great Western in trans-Atlantic service cut this to 15 days. Cunard Line’s RMS Britannia provided scheduled passenger and cargo service from Liverpool to Boston in 1840; by 1847 iron-hulled vessels with propellers displaced paddlewheelers, improving the vessel's efficiency. White Star Line’s RMS Oceanic (1870) offered large portholes, electricity and running water in its first-class cabins; from 1880 ocean-growing liners increased in size to meet the needs of a growing number of immigrants. In 1872, Jules Verne predicted a trip Around the World in Eighty Days by steam to be within reach of passengers on that era's commercial vessels, with the overland portions completed mostly by rail; a pair of rival US journalists each completed a world tour in under eighty days in 1889. Marconi's wireless telegraph began to appear shipboard after the turn of the century.

In the early 20th century, rival lines competed aggressively on both luxury and speed of travel. The Blue Riband, an honour conferred on the passenger liner in regular service capable of making the fastest average speed on a westward North Atlantic crossing, was hotly contested. The designation "Royal Mail Ship" was highly valued by shipping lines; if a contract for postal mail delivery paid well but imposed onerous per-minute penalties for late arrival, the mail ship was presumed punctual and operated by necessity to a tight schedule.

In a few high-profile incidents, liners met with deadly misfortune at sea; the RMS Titanic sank in 1912 with 1514 souls lost after a collision with an iceberg, the RMS Empress of Ireland sank in 1914 with 1012 souls lost after collision with another ship, the civilian passenger liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk in 1915 by an enemy U-boat attack with 1,198 dead during the Great War, World War I. Many liners were converted to military service during the Great War, where (with aviation still in its infancy) they were essential to the war effort. By 1917, the conflict had descended to the level of unrestricted submarine warfare, with substantial losses to both civilian and military shipping.

The Great Depression were hard years for the passenger lines as few could afford to travel and fewer still could afford to travel in luxury. The post-World War 2 era brought further decline, as falling prices of air travel as well as technological advances brought trans-Atlantic jet flights within the reach of much of the middle class. Ocean liners still exist and still ply the seas, but they are a dying breed.

Vessels in active service

Liners operating as cruise ships

Floating hotels

A few former ocean liners are now in use as hotels or museum ships at one fixed location:

Museum ships

Royal mail ships

See also: Postal service#Postal history

While British Airways, as flag carrier of the United Kingdom, is the de-facto carrier of record for the now-privatised British Royal Mail company, a handful of ships retain some form of the Royal Mail designation for historic reasons.

The four ships in the world still carrying the status of Royal Mail Ship or Royal Mail Vessel are:

Museums and memorials ashore

Between 1912-1915, more than 3,700 perished at sea during the loss of RMS Titanic (which struck an iceberg), Empress of Ireland (which collided with another ship) and RMS Lusitania (torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Great War).

See also

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