- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

Daniel Butler is a steamship nut, and a lucky one at that. The author of this readable, exhaustive history of what by all accounts is the world’s most famous shipping line is seeing his book come out just as the first voyage of the latest Cunard liner — the im

mense transatlantic cruise ship Queen Mary 2 — gets full treatment in the travel sections of major newspapers, including a big color spread in the New York Times on February 1.

The timing couldn’t be better for the self-described “professional beach bum” from Los Angeles. “I can assure you,” he told this reviewer ealier this month, “It’s completely fortuitous. There was a glitch in production.”

Glitches are many in the world of the book as well as the world of which Mr. Butler writes, the mostly unseen world of ships and their old antagonist, the North Atlantic Ocean. Mr. Butler has taken one slice of that world as his focus: the drama of a single company, which for 165 years has stuck to the same business of sending ships, mostly with human cargo, across that dreadful expanse of blue and white and green.

Cunard ships — the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, the Aquitania, the Mauritania and the Lusitania, to name only a few — have become part of the language. Cunard, too, has come to represent something quintessentially British, reassuring proof that Britannia, somehow, still rules the waves in the age of the container ship, the submarine and the airliner.

So it is not the least of the surprises that Mr. Butler has in store for readers of this long and richly illustrated book, that the original Cunard was not British, but a Canadian born of American parents from New York.

The parents of founder Samuel Cunard were among those loyal colonists forced to emigrate to Canada in 1783 when the American Revolution ended and they were no longer welcome in the American colonies.

Young Cunard grew up with an entrepreneurial father, who went from master carpenter to shipowner; the boy loved the business side of managing ships and cargoes and eventually would move back to the mother country — well, you might say that the rest is history.

But what a history. In a sense this book is an expanded, glamorized, historically-referenced company history, but it goes far beyond that pedestrian article. Mr. Butler has fastidiously recorded the life story of nearly every vessel in the Cunard fleet — 128 ships in all, including the new Queen Mary 2, but he has made the ships themselves, rather than the men who drew, built and drove them, the central characters.

This gives the book a definite list (in seagoing terms) to the side of the technical detail — the statistics of performance, passengers carried, storms overcome and incidents endured, including active participation in two world wars.

And as counterbalance, the author creates the image of the Cunard tradition, based on British upper-class customs and manners: that peculiar combination of snobbery, good taste, caution, and workmanship that characterized so many of the great ships in the transatlantic trade.

It was a formula that conquered all rivals, for Cunard ships were known to be measurably safer than those of their great rivals — the Collins Line, White Star, Norddeutscher Lloyd, Inman and others. It was Samuel Cunard’s one great idea in the early sail days to provide scheduled service with multiple similar ships, in place of the haphazard but practical method of setting sail when the ship was full of cargo and passengers. Of such ideas dynasties are made.

Then Cunard combined that idea with the concept of national mail service to be subsidized by the government as a way of making regular schedules pay. He had only to prove his reliability to succeed.

Cunard and his descendants in command were also imbued with the true conservatism of the sea. It’s not the hidebound refusal to accept what is new, but a reluctance to abandon what has worked in the past — until it has been proved outdated on the ultimate testing ground of the Atlantic.

We live in an age that worships safety, to its own great detriment, because we have forgotten almost completely about skill and expertise. We now expect to be whisked across the Atlantic on silver wings, griping about airline food and leg room.

But the ship and the ocean are another matter. One comes away from this book — which uncovers the secret life of ships — with a renewed fear of that great saltwater immensity.

Take the rogue wave that hit the Queen Mary on Dec. 13, 1942, when, carrying over 10,000 American soldiers and a crew of 1,000, the luxury liner (then stripped down as a troop ship) was hit broadside by an unimaginable wave.

“The wave was so huge,” Mr. Butler writes, “that it stove in boats on the boat deck and smashed windows on the bridge — ninety feet above the waterline. As the weight of the wave bore down on the ship she heeled over to starboard, beginning a roll from which many on board thought she would never recover.

“Over she went, past thirty degrees, past forty, past forty-five, past fifty, until she reached an angle of fifty-two degrees … it was later calculated that Queen Mary had come within three degrees of capsizing.” This, he reminds us, was one of the largest and most reliable passenger ships ever built.

The wealth and power of Cunard grew, crested and spent itself like a wave, several times. Mr. Butler records the feats of the great ships of the pre-World War I era and the decimation of submarine warfare in World War I (10 other Cunard ships were sunk besides the Lusitania).

He also discusses the profitable immigration business; the shipping collapse of the Great Depression; the rise of middle-class travel from the “tipping point” of 1959, when for the first time aircraft passengers were more numerous than ship passengers; and finally, the transformation of the moribund passenger-ship industry into the cruise industry.

Using a ship to cross the Atlantic is now considered not a luxury, but a sacrifice of that ever-diminishing item called time. How odd it is that thousands flock to board cruise ships which spend time going nowhere.

The ending of the story is ambiguous. The new Queen Mary 2 is in the business of what the old Cunarders dismissed as “the booze cruise,” a leisurely sojourn through pleasant waters with time on shore for shopping.

It is what people want, no doubt. And a new entrepreneur has taken the Cunard name into a new field with new risks — particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks shook the world transport markets. No one knows whether the huge new Cunarder will pay her way.

Yet there is some magic that has enabled the old line to morph and survive, come near collapse and rise again, Mr. Butler believes. As he writes, “the age of Cunard is far from over.”

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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