Doctor Science Knows

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Down to the sea in ships

I just realized that I have had an experience that is probably quite rare for people under 60, and almost unknown to anyone born after 1970.

I have crossed the Atlantic in a ship. Three times, in fact.

In the fall of 1964, when I was 8, my family travelled to France to live for a year in Aix-en-Provence (Fulbright scholarship). We travelled on the SS United States. I remember it as being quite excitingly rocky -- there was at least one meal where my father and I were just about the only passengers in the madly-tilting dining room, which had all kinds of fascinating fittings to keep the food & place settings from flying off the table.

In the late spring of 1965, we returned to the US on the maiden voyage of the liner Michelangelo.
I don't remember all that much about the trip, though the ship was extremely stylish, especially compared to the metallic United States. Not that style is everything -- my mother remembers the crew sweaping the carpets in the hallways with brooms instead of vacuum cleaners, which was rather ineffective.

In the late summer of 1968, when I was 12, we returned to France for a year in Dijon as part of a faculty-exchange program. We travelled over on SS France. This was a much more leisurely trip than the one on the United States, but frankly all I remember is running along the stairs and gangways with the children we made friends with on the trip.

As I think about it, there's a distinctive smell of these ocean liners: cold, salty, oily, and metallic. It's not a smell we get on the ferry boats I've ridden many times since, it's both brinier and more engine-like, with none of the fish or seaweed smells you get on the ocean nearer shore.

When we returned to the US in June 1969 my father, whose leg was in a cast, travelled on the France and my mother took my brother & me home by air, via Finland (where we shopped for furniture) and Iceland (because Icelandic was the cheapest way to fly across the Atlantic at the time, and our plane was delayed in Reykjavik for an extra day).

And that was pretty much the end of the transatlantic liner era: the United States is anchored immovably in Philadelphia, the Michelangelo was scrapped in 1991, and the France is being scrapped as I write. Plenty of ships cross the Atlantic still, of course, but there are almost no passengers: long sea voyages are for work or for play, but not for *travel*.

I'm curious, for those of you who've been on cruises and other forms of ocean transport: is the movement of those ships enough that when you get to land, the land seems to go up-and-down until you get used to it again? It was very noticeable and amusing for me as a child after the transatlantic crossings -- the United States took about 4 days, the others I guess about 6 days each.

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  • I think we were on the same SS United States crossing ... We were moving to Europe (my dad worked for an engineering company, and my mother HATED to fly) and we did a September crossing. It was pretty rocky. I loved it. I did a few other crossings on ships - Constitution, Independence, and in '68 on the France. It was a wonderful way to travel. As the old Cunard ads used to say: Getting there is half the fun.

    By Anonymous John Garison, at 12:33 PM  

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