Yesterday, while writing about the doomed ship Titanic, I mentioned the White Star Line's early-20th-century competition with Cunard Line. Competition is usually good in business, although in this case it led to tragedy: In its zeal to build the fastest ships across the Atlantic Ocean, White Star scrimped on safety. Speed on the water seems quaint today -- 30 million passengers travel on some 272 cruise ships around the world each year and almost none of those people are in a hurry.
If they wanted to get somewhere quickly, they'd take a passenger jet, the technology that transfigured the cruise ship business from a transportation enterprise into a vacation industry. Although Cunard and White Star both pioneered the luxury liner, they were victims of that technological advance. And of other dangers, too. In 1915, Cunard's greatest ship, the RMS Lusitania, was sunk by a German submarine with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew. There were other casualties, too, including the Kaiser's regime. The Lusitania, which had departed from New York, carried 120 American passengers, and its torpedoing helped bring the United States into World War I.
I've been thinking about the Cunard shipping line lately because, although it hung in there for a long time, it was acquired in 1998 by Florida-based Carnival Corp. That huge firm has been in the news lately owing to the misfortunes of several of its ships, including the Diamond Princess, whose travails turned out to be a warning sign about the dangers of an exotic new virus -- and society's alarmed response to it.
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Will the cruise ship business be a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world? I certainly hope not even though -- except for enjoying a drink on the Queen Mary, safely moored in Long Beach, Calif. -- I've never been on one myself. It turns out that mankind's fascination with the sea is enduring. It transcends the exigencies of transportation or even feeding ourselves. This allure has withstood the advent of transcontinental flights that take hours instead of weeks, as well as the dangers of icebergs, torpedoes, hurricanes, and rogue waves. My guess is that our love of the oceans will outlive COVID-19.
Why do I think so? Here's why: Do you remember the movie "Sideways," starring Paul Giamatti as a semi-hapless wine snob schoolteacher named Miles? Midway through that delightful film, Miles and his love interest, Maya (Virginia Madsen), have this endearing back-and-forth about their love of vino. She tells him how she thinks of wine "as a living thing," and he muses eloquently about the virtues of pinot noir. The movie helped sales of pinot noir for years. But at another point, when things aren't going well for Miles, he lashes out for no good reason against merlot. Although it's a humorous scene, it wasn't so funny to merlot grape growers or vintners, whose sales went sideways -- actually, they went down -- after that 2004 movie came out.
"Poor merlot," lamented Los Olivos, Calif., winemaker Billy Dim. "Merlot is one of the best grapes on the planet and the movie did some damage to its reputation."
But here's an interesting contrast. Remember James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, "Titanic"? After that movie came out, interest in cruise ships actually spiked, even though this was a film in which poor Leonard DiCaprio and 1,500 other souls were plunged into an icy sea to endure a graphic and painful death. Nonetheless, all over the world, customers lined up to ride the waves aboard what we might call the daughter ships of Titanic, Lusitania, and the Queen Mary.
As I mentioned yesterday, Titanic had a sister ship -- actually two, the Britannic and the Olympic. The latter plied the Atlantic for 24 years, starting in 1911 and ending in 1935. She lived a charmed life: On her fifth voyage, Olympic collided with another ship, the HMS Hawke, in a way that might have been catastrophic: The Hawke's bow was designed to sink other ships by ramming them. But even though Olympic's hull was pierced, she made it to port without any loss of life. She was captained at that time by Edward John Smith, the skipper who would go down with the Titanic.
After World War I, broke out, Olympic was pressed into service as a troop transport, but emerged unscathed despite the fearsome toll German submarines exacted on the Royal Navy.
Her youngest sister, Britannic, was not so blessed. Pressed into service as a hospital ship almost as soon as she was commissioned, the vessel went under in just 55 minutes, done in by a mine off a Greek island on Nov. 21, 1916, with 1,065 souls aboard.
Conditions were much different than those the Titanic faced, however. For starters, the water in the Mediterranean was 42 degrees warmer than it was in the North Atlantic the night Titanic hit an iceberg. Owning to that disaster, the Britannic had many more lifeboats. Also, nearby ships and fishermen converged on the scene within hours. In the end, 1,035 survivors made it out of the sea. Many of them, especially the crewmen, would sail again and again and again.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.