Ocean Liners: Titanic to Today

On April 15th, 2012, the passengers of the Balmoral, a cruise ship on the North Atlantic, will pause shortly after midnight to commemorate the loss of a vessel that sailed the same waters exactly 100 years before. The entire cruise, which departs Southampton on the 8th of April and is scheduled to arrive in New York 12 days later, is a memorial to a ship that never completed this particular journey: the RMS Titanic.

Passengers will be paying $3,900 or more to experience the historical flavor of what is easily the most notorious maritime tragedy in history. The cruise ship’s itinerary will not perfectly mirror that of the Titanic—which, after all, was not technically a cruise ship but a mail-carrying vessel—but certain elements will hew to the reality of the 1912 passage. Dinner will be served in a century-old fashion. Music and dance numbers will be from a century ago. And ship’s historians will lecture on everything you might expect. Tickets have effectively sold out.

The promoters of the Titanic Memorial Cruise 2012 ask you to “reserve your place in history,” and while some might consider this particular enterprise to be a bit gimmicky or even in bad taste, the cruise itself is one of a plethora of such voyages undertaken each year. Luxury cruises are big business, all over the world. And they’ve evolved in the past century.

From about 1900 to 1960, ocean liners ferried passengers in style, in one direction, to a destination. If you wanted to get over the pond, there was the Queen Mary. But once air travel began to dominate transatlantic crossing, things changed. Speed, direction, even destination, became less important. Cruise ships—the kind The Love Boat popularized—were no longer primarily used to get someplace. Instead, they became a destination in and of themselves, like an all-inclusive resort. And especially in recent years, each new ship seems to raise the bar, promising passengers what seems like an almost unlimited luxury.

On the Titanic in 1912, “unlimited” meant a reading room, a gymnasium, a verandah cafe, a saloon, multiple restaurants, Turkish baths, an electric bath, squash courts, libraries, barber shops, and smoking lounge after smoking lounge after smoking lounge. Everything you might remember from James Cameron’s Oscar-sweeping movie (which, in this respect, was very accurate) helped make the then-largest passenger ship in the world the apex of luxury: fine china, silk, chandeliers, promenade decks, and the famous Grand Staircase.

Today, however, “unlimited” has been raised to a whole new order of magnitude. Consider the world’s largest cruise ship: the MS Oasis of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean luxury liner. Twice as heavy, twice as wide, and half-again as long as Titanic, the Oasis offers to its 6,300 passengers:

Spas, cafes, countless restaurants and lounges, exercise classes of all types (yoga, Pilates, kickboxing, spinning), 10 whirlpools, four pools (two with wave machines in them), a surf machine, a zip-line, a rock wall, basketball courts, tennis courts, volleyball courts, nightclubs and bars (one of which can be raised to multiple levels on the ship), karaoke, a comedy club, an aquatic amphitheater for water shows, nurseries, a science lab, a video game area, putt-putt golf, and obviously, much, much more. Since it’s a quarter of a mile long, the Oasis is divided into seven “neighborhoods,” each with a different theme: Spas, Sports, Entertainment, Youth, Royalty, etc. The ship is so large it even contains a full, tree-lined park in its center called—what else—Central Park.

Of Americans 25 or older who make at least $40,000 a year, 1 in 2.24 has been on a cruise. That’s 45%. So many kinds of travel seem right for a cruise—international travel, family vacations, romantic getaways, beach-hopping, and plain-old sightseeing. Even honeymoons: the odds a newlywed couple will take a cruise for their honeymoon are 1 in 5.81. And for many stressed-out Americans, cruises do double duty, giving them a chance to see other countries and cultures while forcing them to relax at all costs.

And there are costs, beyond the fare.

There’s the issue of pollution: imagine laying the Empire State Building on its side and then powering it forward with diesel. There is also concern that an abundance of ships in fragile ecosystems, such as Antarctica, can alter the natural environment. There’s the infamous norovirus to worry about, the occasional man overboard, and the rare accident. In February of 2010, three crew members were killed on an Italian cruise ship that crashed while docking in bad weather in Egypt, and the next month two passengers died when several 30-foot waves broadsided a luxury liner off the coast of Spain. And it’s uncommon, but some passengers—surrounded by high balconies, bottomless alcohol glasses, shotguns, rock climbing walls, wave machines, and floors that pitch and roll—get hurt just trying to have fun.

And, of course, no ship is unsinkable.

For more on the Titanic, click here.

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