In the 19th century, the Blue Riband became an unofficial accolade given to ocean liners that crossed the Atlantic in record-breaking speed. It was originally given to ships that made the westbound trip, against the Gulf Stream, at record speed. Any liner that won the Blue Riband flew a pennant to highlight it was the fastest transatlantic passenger ship.
As competition between the shipping companies increased, the Blue Riband became a considerable prize. Any company that had the Blue Riband could boast it had the fastest transatlantic ocean liner. As such, Cunard, White Star and other notable players in the industry invested substantial resources into developing engines that would increase the average speed of their liners.
The British firms Cunard and White Star Line did not have much competition for the Blue Riband until the German firm Norddeutscher Lloyd laid down the blueprints for the Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse. Norddeutscher Lloyd launched that ship in 1897. It was the first liner to have four funnels and among the largest ever built at the time with a 14,349 tonnage. It also had an extravagant interior décor based on Baroque Revival architecture.
Norddeutscher Lloyd added reciprocating engines to the Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse. That gave it an average speed of about 22 knots. With those engines the ocean liner could clinch the Blue Riband record.
On its maiden voyage the Kaiser Wilhem Der Grosse clinched the Blue Riband. It set new records for both westbound and eastbound transatlantic crossings. Germany's shipping industry celebrated a considerable triumph that effectively began a whole new race for the coveted Blue Riband. Norddeutscher Lloyd had shattered Britain's maritime supremacy. The Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse was just the first of a new breed of Kaiser-class ocean liners that provided considerable competition for Cunard and White Star.
Other German firms also entered the race. Hamburg Amerika Line built the Deutschland that had quadruple expansion engines. Those engines could propel the ocean liner to 23 knots. Consequently, it became the next German ocean liner to set new Blue Riband records for westbound and eastbound trips. Norddeutscher Lloyd's Kronprinz Wilhelm, the second Kaiser-class liner, briefly eclipsed it for westbound crossings. But the Deutschland regained the Blue Riband in 1903.
Now Germany possessed the supreme transatlantic ships. Cunard had little to match them until its chairman requested a 2.6 million loan from the government. Cunard promised to regain the Blue Riband for Britain with two new ships and design them so they could be converted to auxiliary cruisers or troop transports for the Royal Navy if required. The loan was granted, and Cunard set about constructing the Lusitania and Mauretania.
Cunard targeted an operating speed of about 24 knots for its new ocean liners. To reach those targets, the company added steam turbine engines to the ships. Such engines had not been used on any liner before. Cunard tried out the steam turbines on the Carmania, which outran its otherwise identical sister ship. The Lusitania also had a four funnel design, 25 boilers and 192 furnaces.
The Lusitania was the first ship launched in 1906. Then it was fitted out and underwent sea trials. The liner made its maiden voyage in 1907, without clinching the Blue Riband, but in further crossings it set a new transatlantic record. The Lusitania had become Cunard's new greyhound of the sea. Upon its launch the Times reported:
"Never did a ship sail with such mighty and inspiriting cheers as those from the vast multitudes which lined the Liverpool landing stage last night as the Lusitania slowly moved from her moorings and started on her maiden voyage. The Liverpool crowd ... sang with great spirit "Britons never, never shall say die"...It was an inspiring scene, and the Cunard Line must realise more than ever before how much their enterprise is appreciated, and how strongly both Liverpool and British sentiment is supporting their endeavors to recover for British ships the Atlantic fastest record speed now held by Germany."
Once the Mauretania was up and running, the Lusitania retained the Riband for westbound trips. The Mauretania underwent repairs in 1908 during which Cunard added an extra propeller. Thereafter, it clinched the record for both west and east crossings. Then it reached up to 26 knots on its transatlantic voyages, which further raised the benchmark for other liners to match. It would be a while before other ocean liners caught up.
White Star was not so interested in clinching the Riband. Instead, they placed greater emphasis on scale than speed with its Olympic-class ships. With a tonnage of 31,938 tons the Mauretania was also the largest ocean liner afloat when it first sailed. White Star first launched the RMS Olympic, which was the largest ship built then, that could reach up to 21 knots. It never clinched the Riband on any of its voyages.
Nevertheless, some have speculated that its sister-ship the Titanic was going for the Blue Riband on its maiden voyage. Cameroon's Titanic film includes a scene in which White Star director Mr Ismay urges the captain to make headlines with a speed record. However, the doomed liner never had any real chance of eclipsing the Mauretania's record before it sank.
The outbreak of war in 1914 halted regular transatlantic crossings. Britain declared war with the German Empire after the invasion of Belgium. Both Germany's and Britain's navies requisitioned prominent liners such as the Kaiser Der Grosse, Kronprinz Wilhelm, Britannic, Olympic and Mauretania as merchant cruisers and troop transport ships. Faster moving ships that could potentially outrun submarines and be more effective in commerce raiding roles had greater appeal to both the British and German navies. Consequently, no Blue Riband records could be set during the war period.
The Lusitania continued to make transatlantic crossings during the period. This despite German warnings that ships flying the U.K. flag would become a target for their U-boats. Germany suspected that liners could be transporting armaments and munitions. One U-boat intercepted the Lusitania in 1915 and fired a torpedo that sank it. The ship sank quickly, and one of the few liners that could feasibly eclipse the Mauretania's records in the postwar era was lost at sea.
In the postwar period no ships could eclipse the Mauretania's records. The war had a notable impact on Germany's shipping industry as the country lost most of its liners. French Line was still a relative newcomer to the industry and could not build any Blue Riband ships in the '20s. White Star entered a period of decline. Cunard relied more on what was left of its prewar fleet than launching new ships.
Consequently, not until Norddeutscher Lloyd launched the Bremen in 1929 did another ocean liner eclipse the Mauretania's Blue Riband record. That was among the first liners built with a bulbous bow for greater fuel efficiency, and had four turbines for its propellers. Up until then most Blue Riband ships had narrow beams, but with its new technology the Bremen's beam was somewhat wider than other liners. The ship clinched the record on its maiden voyage when it reached up to 27.9 knots. The Mauretania later eclipsed its previous records, but could not regain the Riband. The Bremen's sister ship, the Europa, also got in on the act with a record-breaking transatlantic crossing. The German shipping industry was very much back in business.
The Bremen's record began a new era in the race for the Blue Riband. This began a period in which German, French and Italian transatlantic operators had more impact in the industry. Italia Line launched the Rex in 1932, which was a 51,062 ton liner with steam turbine engines. That became the first Italian ocean liner to clinch the Riband.
The Rex held the record until the introduction of the Hales Trophy in 1935. K Hales, an MP, established a new trophy to give to Blue Riband ships. The rules for awarding the trophy were not entirely consistent with the Blue Riband's traditions. Any passenger liner could win the trophy for a record-breaking east or west transatlantic crossing. The Rex was the first ocean liner to receive the Hales Trophy.
French Line, otherwise Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, had some notable ocean liners. Among them was the Île de France that CGT designed with innovative Art Deco architecture. But that was not a Blue Riband ship. France had not held the transatlantic record with any ship before the '30s.
French Line laid down the designs for a new liner in the 1930s that would be a larger version of the Île de France. That was the Normandie, which was originally a 79,280 ton ocean liner when launched in 1935. As such, it was the largest built when launched and had a dazzling Art Deco design much the same as the Île de France.Credit: Public Domain
The Normandie had steam turboelectric generator engines. They were electric engines that could turn in both ways, which gave the ship an advantage compared to those with steam turbine engines that turned the propellers. In addition, the liner had a bulbous bow that reduced drag and enhanced fuel efficiency.
Now French Line had a ship that could clinch the Blue Riband, and the liner did exactly that on its maiden voyage. Thereafter, it flew a 30-foot Blue Riband pennant with one foot for each of the 30 knots, which was the approximate speed it reached. French Line gave Bronze "Blue Riband - Normandie" medallions to its crew once they had broken the record.
Increasing competition and an economic decline left both Cunard's and White Star's budgets limited. Cunard had begun construction of the Queen Mary ocean liner, otherwise hull #534, in 1930, but postponed the project. White Star cancelled the Oceanic's construction. With a projected 28-30 knots speed that might have been a potential Blue Riband ship.
A merger became an obvious way ahead for both companies. The maritime giants merged in 1934 to establish Cunard White Star Line. Cunard held the majority 62% stake in the newly merged firm. The Treasury granted further funds for Cunard White Star to complete the Queen Mary.
So construction of the Queen Mary resumed, and by 1936 the ship made her maiden voyage as Cunard White Star Line's first ocean liner. It won the Riband with the fastest North Atlantic crossing at 30 knots. Although the Normandie regained the record, it could not retain it. The Queen Mary clinched the Riband for a second time on her 48th round-trip voyage. Thus, the liner had more efficient engines than the Normandie. One of the Queen Mary's junior officers recalled:
"We never actually held the trophy as such though the Mauritania had held it for a number of years and then the Queen Mary held it for a number more 'til the United States came along. As I mentioned earlier, I was a junior officer on board the Queen Mary when we actually broke the record. To do this, we had to maintain a very high speed throughout the voyage. The difficulties of navigating in the ... ships in fog in those prewar days were absolutely tremendous because there was no radar or anything to detect the presence of other ships, so the only way you could tell there was another ship in the area when you actually heard the siren. Of course, with the tremendous amount of noise wind speed over the decks of the Queen's doing 30/32 knots, the whistle of the wind through the rigging and the noise and that sort, it was very, very hard to hear a ship's siren and if we were in waters where we were likely to encounter shipping, we always slowed down to 20 knots in order to reduce the wind speed, and then we posted lookouts, we had one on the focsle, one in the crow's nest, and one on each side of the wing of the bridge. The Captain took one side of the bridge and the senior officer watched the other and everybody listened intently for another ship's siren, and all you could do if you heard a siren, you decided which bow it was on. If it was on the starboard bow we turned 45 degrees to port, held that course for 12 minutes and then resumed your course again."
The record remained with the Queen Mary until the 1950s. Then a new generation of ocean liners entered the Atlantic as the shipping lines rebuilt their postwar fleets. United States Lines was one of the less established companies that joined the race for the Blue Riband. They did so with the United States ocean liner.
The Europeans had dominated the Atlantic, but times were changing in the postwar era. U.S. Lines launched the United States in 1952. This was an ocean liner designed to beat the Blue Riband record. It had massive steam turbines that could churn out 240,000 hp. The liner was easily convertible to a troop ship if ever required during the Cold War, but it never transported any soldiers.
On its sea trials the United States reached up to 38 knots. That would easily be enough to eclipse the more pedestrian 30 knot transatlantic record held by the Queen Mary. So it was no great surprise that it clinched the Blue Riband when it first sailed. A 40-foot Blue Riband pennant flew from its mast as it sailed up the Pier 86 North River. It became the United States' first superliner.
Thereafter, the Blue Riband declined in significance. As more jet airliners took off during the '60s, transatlantic ocean liners became increasingly obsolete. Most of the foremost ocean liners had a notable drop in passengers for their transatlantic crossings. Thus, transatlantic crossings became uneconomical for the established shipping companies. That ensured the withdrawal of more and more ocean liners from the Atlantic. Some converted their former liners to cruise ships, but many were scrapped. The United States remains intact, albeit rusting away in harbor.
No ocean liner has set new Blue Riband records since the United States. That ship remains the record holder for westbound crossings. However, more recently smaller passenger ships have set new transatlantic records. Fjord Cat set a record for eastbound crossings when it reached up to 41.3 knots. So with that it holds the Hales Trophy. But as the ship did not make a record westbound trip, and is not in regular transatlantic service, it cannot claim the Blue Riband.
It has been speculated that the United States might be restored and return to transatlantic service. Were it to do so, then it could revive the race for the Blue Riband and eclipse its own records. But for now, at least, there are no regular Atlantic passenger ships that could feasibly become the next Blue Riband holder.