In 2003, my parents decided to celebrate my sister’s graduation from high school by booking a seven-day Caribbean cruise out of Miami. I was ecstatic when it turned out that the cruise ship was an old ocean liner. I was going to get the chance to sail on the SS-freaking-France!
I know now that my excitement wasn’t the natural impulse for a twelve-year-old. Story of my life! But I’ve been fascinated by ocean liners ever since I was around five. My mom got my brother and me a K’nex set that featured a variety of simple things to build with the plastic rods and shapes. Among them was the outline of an ocean liner. After I completed it, Mom walked by the dining room table and remarked, “Wow, that looks like the Titanic!”
That was a couple of years before the movie came out, and I had no idea what she was talking about. Mom told me how the largest ship ever built -practically guaranteed to be unsinkable- did just that on its maiden voyage. Get out! From that moment on, I spent huge swaths of my childhood learning everything I could about famous ships and drawing them compulsively. They weren’t great art, but it’s fun to run across one every now and then, like these examples I received from my Aunt Jan a couple of years ago.
Ocean liners provided the best way of traveling between continents from about 1890 to the 1960s. Most crossed from Europe to America, and they were designed to be fast, powerful, and strong enough to withstand the challenging conditions that the rough North Atlantic waters brought. Compared to modern cruise ships, ocean liners had thicker hulls and a higher freeboard- the distance from the water line to the upper deck. Today, Cunard Line, now a division of Carnival, operates the only remaining ocean liner that makes scheduled transatlantic runs, Queen Mary 2.
Historically, Cunard’s speedy ships, with red and black funnels and names that ended in “-ia,” were some of the most famous afloat, only rivaled by the luxurious vessels of the White Star Line, which featured buff and black funnels and names that ended in “-ic”. Another prominent transatlantic operator was the French Line, known in its native country as the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. As you might imagine, the ship I was so excited about sailing on when I was twelve, France, was a CGT ship.
Established in 1855, the company struggled in its early years but became famous after the turn of the century for its large, highly-esteemed ocean liners like the first France, completed in 1912, Paris, finished in 1921, and Ile de France built in 1927. In 1935, CGT made a big splash with Normandie, which was faster and more lavishly-appointed than anything Cunard or White Star, which merged the year before, had ever launched.
Normandie was docked at New York Harbor when World War II started. The government seized it and renamed it the USS Lafayette, intending to convert it to a troopship. As it was being remodeled, sparks from a welding torch ignited a pile of life vests and the ship caught on fire. Attempts to put it out pooled water on one side of the liner and it capsized into the Hudson River. Normandie never sailed again and was scrapped in 1946. The loss of its flagship was a disaster for CGT, but the company was awarded Norddeutsche Lloyd’s enormous liner Europa after the war as a consolation prize.
The twenty-two-year-old Europa, renamed Liberté, was tired and outdated by the 1950s. To counter rumors of an enormous new Cunard liner and hedge against the recent launch of the United States Line’s record-breaking ship United States, officials at CGT realized they needed to replace it. The company ordered the new liner, France, in 1956 and the ship was launched four years later. “I have given you a new Normandie!” French President Charles De Gaulle boldly proclaimed at the ceremony.
In many ways, he had: although France featured an aluminum superstructure and was intentionally lighter than Normandie, it was also slightly longer at 1,037 feet. In fact, France was the largest passenger ship until Cunard built Queen Mary 2 in 2003! Boasting 160,000 HP of installed power, France could travel as fast as 30 knots (about 35 miles an hour) via geared CEM-Parsons turbines and a quadruple propeller arrangement. France was modern in every way. Just look at its funnels, designed with wings to draw exhaust away from the ship’s decks and into the slipstream.
France accommodated 617 first-class passengers along with 1637 more in tourist class, and took its maiden voyage on February 3, 1962. On a trial run to the Canary Islands, the ship passed its aging counterpart Liberté on its way to the scrapyard. The moment was symbolic, as France represented a huge step for CGT- it was sleek, modern, and, most importantly, competitive with rival liners like United States and Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. Movie stars, celebrities, and heads of state flocked to the ship, and traveling on it in luxury became enormously popular.
Unfortunately, the 1960s was a pretty terrible time to launch a new ocean liner. The ship always relied on government subsidies in order to operate, but by the 1970s, France was nearing the end of its Trente Glorieuses period of prosperity1. Once the price of oil increased by 300% during the 1973 Oil Crisis2, the French government decided stop prioritizing CGT ships and focus on the Concorde jet instead. France was withdrawn from service on October 25, 1974, having completed 377 Atlantic crossings and ninety-three world cruises during winters3, sailing nearly two million nautical miles.
France sat, forgotten, in a port at Le Havre for five years until Norwegian Caribbean Lines bought it for $18 million. At the time, NCL (later Norwegian Cruise Lines) was a minor player in the market and operated four secondhand cruise ships about half the size of France. Buying the old liner was a major statement.
Marine architect Tage Wandborg and designer Angelo Donghia were responsible for the year-long, $65 million4 process of converting the liner to a cruise ship5. After it was revamped, the ship -rechristened Norway by King Olav V- boasted a capacity of 2,000 passengers, 65,000 square feet of open deck space, three swimming pools, and two eighty-foot dinghies. Norway featured everything you’d expect of a modern cruise ship, like nightclubs, a theater, cinema, discos, a gaming area, library, meeting rooms, saunas, game courts, and two restaurants6.
As a cruise ship, there was no reason for Norway to travel as quickly as France had, so two of its propellers were removed and their engines disengaged. In addition, the ship was given a new set of bow and stern thrusters to enable it to maneuver on its y-axis and dock without needing a tugboat.
Norway set out on its maiden voyage, a transatlantic trip from Oslo to Miami, on May 3, 1980. The world took note: since the ship was the first transatlantic ocean liner to be repurposed for cruising, it was far bigger than any of its competitors. NCL’s first two newly-built ships, Starward and Skyward, for example, were constructed in 1969 and measured about 528 feet long and weighed around 16,000 tons. Norway, on the other hand, was nearly twice as long and weighed four times as much!
The ship’s size and opulence ended up redefining the entire cruising experience, which traditionally emphasized the destination over the journey itself. In Norway’s case, the ship was the destination, and competing cruise lines gradually began building larger and larger vessels to catch up. After about a decade, they did: In 1987, Royal Caribbean unveiled their Sovereign class of ships, which weighed 73,000 tons, measured 880 feet long, and accommodated 2,850 passengers. Carnival deployed its similarly-sized Fantasy class of ships with room for 2,675 passengers in 1990.
The tables had turned. That year, two decks containing 135 new suites were added to Norway to keep up with the times. Although the new decks dramatically altered the ship’s silhouette by giving it a forehead reminiscent of Boris Karloff’s in Son of Frankenstein, the new veranda cabins and increased deck space ensured that Norway remained economically viable in a new era of cruising. After the expansion, the ship weighed 76,000 tons and accommodated 2,565 passengers.
In 1992 and 1993, NCL introduced Dreamward and Windward, sister ships that weighed about 40,000 tons and measured 623 feet long. Unfortunately, it appears that NCL’s focus on newer vessels resulted in the company paying less attention to maintaining Norway sufficiently. In 1999, one of the ship’s turbochargers caught on fire en route to Barcelona7.
In May 2001 a cruise from Miami was canceled after crews were unable to repair the ship’s sprinkler system to the Coast Guard’s standards8. Days later, NCL announced that Norway would be permanently transferred to duty in Asia the following September9. That didn’t happen: instead, the old ocean liner began what was intended to be a final, sixteen-day transatlantic crossing from Miami to its home port in Le Havre via New York, Halifax, Greenock, and Dun Laoghaire10 on September 5th.
The terrorist attacks of September 11 occurred while the ship was at sea and were cataclysmic for the cruise industry. Reeling, NCL decided to postpone Norway’s retirement and continued to operate it for discounted cruises to St. Maarten, St. Thomas, St. John, and the Bahamas. In 2002, a seven-day Eastern Caribbean cruise with a free upgrade to a suite was advertised at $499 per person, more than 75% lower than the usual pricing11 and equal to $819 today. I’m sure that those were the prices that my middle-class parents paid when they booked our trip on Norway. For comparison, a 7-day Caribbean cruise with a club balcony suite on Norwegian Escape costs $1,399 per person in 2023.
Unfortunately, disaster struck the ship an hour after it arrived in Miami on May 25, 2003. One of the ship’s aging boilers ruptured, causing twenty tons of pressurized water to expand into steam and sweep through the ship’s boiler room and up Norway’s aft funnel. The resultant explosion killed eight crew members and injured seventeen more. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation later determined that the carnage resulted from NCL’s improper operation, maintenance, and inspection of the elderly ship12.
I was heartbroken over the tragedy, mainly selfishly, because it meant that my one chance to sail on an ocean liner was canceled. Ultimately, we went to Cancun instead on a phenomenal trip where I got to climb a Mayan pyramid and see a rat the size of a football run scamper through a Mexican Walmart. I’m grateful for that once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I’d have traded it for a trip on an honest-to-goodness ocean liner like the old France or Norway any day.
The rest of the ship’s history is convoluted: a year after it was towed to Germany to be repaired, NCL announced that the Norway would never sail again. Despite proposals to transform the vessel into a museum or hotel13, the company began making arrangements to scrap it. Unfortunately, that plan came with a problem: Norway’s engine rooms were full of asbestos, which made it impossible for the ship to leave Germany per the Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to prevent hazardous waste from being sent from developed to developing countries.
The ship was sold several times as it sat in Germany, and new owners promised the German government that they intended for Norway to be repaired in Asia before operating it as a cruise ship in Australia. The ship was towed to Malaysia in August 2005.
In 2006, Norway was sold to a mysterious Liberian company that renamed it Blue Lady as it prepared the vessel for scrapping14. A month later, Blue Lady was sold again to a company that announced that it would be repaired in the UAE in order to take on a new crew and resume sailing15. Instead, the ship was taken to the breaking yards at Alang in Gujarat, India. By 2008, the fifty-six-year-old ocean liner known as France, Norway, and Blue Lady was no more15.
I eventually got to go on a couple of cruises. The year Blue Lady was scrapped, my family went to the Caribbean aboard the Princess Cruises’ gargantuan Caribbean Princess. In 2011, we took a Christmas cruise to Belize and Honduras aboard Carnival Conquest, a ship that’s interesting only because it shared its layout from the lido deck down with the doomed Costa Concordia.
The brand-new Norwegian Epic puttered past Puerto Rico while we were touring Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan on a day excursion from Caribbean Princess. Good God, was that ship ugly- if Norway’s 1990 additions made it look like Karloff, the Epic looks like Glenn Strange’s take as the monster in House of Frankenstein. Clearly, NCL didn’t take any design notes from the legacy of it’s elegant long-time flagship, and that sort of upset me.
I guess Carnival Conquest’s funnel sort of looks like an exaggerated caricature of Norway’s, though, which was at least a consolation prize. I can’t complain about cruises of course, but unfortunately for this fan of classic liners, neither ship was one! I could visit two of France’s competitors, Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth 2, which still exist as museum ships in Long Beach and Dubai if I wanted to, and a third, the United States Line’s United States sits moldering in Philadelphia. For the full experience, I’d have to shell out $2,200 to experience the real deal, a fourteen-day, round-trip crossing from New York to Southampton on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2.
The Queen Mary 2 is only about twenty years old, but a crossing on it would be a dream come true after spending a lifetime infatuated with its progenitors. Until I do, I’ll remember how close I got to sailing on Norway, once the world’s most luxurious cruise ship and a reminder of the golden age of transatlantic travel from its days as the world’s most luxurious ocean liner, France. I’ll also continue to occasionally write about this passion of mine.
1 Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Belknap Press [Cambridge]. book.
2 Oil Embargo, 1973-1974 (n.d.). Office of the Historian. United States Department of State. Web. Retrieved February 5, 2023.
3 Macey, J. (2002, April ). Cruising comforts. The Munster Times. p. 19.
4 Reinus, T. (1980, May 25). Norway Cruises Into Port. The Palm Beach Post. p. 165.
5 Bronner, E. (1980, August 4). SS Norway brings Miami more than tourist trade. The Miami Herald. p. 59.
6 Return of the France (1979, July 15). The San Francisco Examiner. p. 126.
7 Goossens, R. (n.d.) ss Norway. ssMaritime.com. Web. Retrieved February 5, 2023.
8 SS Norway stays in Miami over safety concerns; cruise canceled (2001, May 30). The Naples Daily News. p. 40.
9 SS Norway bound for Southeast Asia (2001, June 5). The Stuart News. p. 28.
10 Clarke, J. (2001, September 2). Swan song: A cruise legend leaves port today. The Miami Herald. p. 221.
11 Travel Agent Bulletin Board (2002, December 15). Newsday (Suffolk Edition). p. 161.
12 Marine Accident Brief (2003). The National Transportation Safety Board [Washington, D.C.).
13 ‘Toxic ship’ cleared for breaking (2006, August 2). BBC [London]. Web. Retrieved February 5, 2023.
14 Did mystery ship owners lie over fate of SS Norway? (2006, June 30). The Khaleej Times. Web. Retrieved February 5, 2023.
15 Letter of Peninsular Malaysia Marine Department (2006, May 19). ssMaritime. Web. Retrieved February 5, 2023.
16 (See footnote 13).
One thought on “Legendary Liners: SS France / SS Norway”
I will join you in a love of classic ocean liners. They had a beauty and grace that modern cruise ships cannot begin to approach.