Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Shipping News

For many years The New York Times ran a daily page carrying news of the shipping industry. Located toward the back of the main section of the paper, this page contained news articles concerning merchant shipping and notices of the arrivals and departures of ships in New York Harbor. The news articles were fairly prosaic, involving freight rates, schedule changes, service adjustments, weather reports, and so on. The arrivals and departures were presented in tabular form. These tables listed every commercial ship and military transport vessel, its time and date of arrival or departure, its pier, and its voyage’s destination or port of origin. Sometimes entire itineraries would be listed if a ship was scheduled to make several port calls on the same voyage. In addition, it listed arrivals and departures for selected foreign and American West Coast ports.

There was nothing artistic or literary about this writing. It was strictly business. Today, however, it’s history. The names of the world famous passenger liners as well as the names of comparatively unknown freighters and tankers filled these pages as if they were a social register. In an era when the vast majority of the passengers, mail, and cargo crossed the oceans by ship instead of by airplane, the names of the ships and their times and piers of arrival and departure were important news items.

Here’s an example. Going back 56 years, we read that the passenger ship Nieuw Amsterdam of the Holland-America Line sailed at 12:00 noon on Friday, June 21, 1957, from Hoboken. She was scheduled to arrive at Southampton, England, on the following Friday, June 28, and then call at Le Havre, France, later that same day. Continuing her voyage, the ship would arrive at her home port of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on Saturday, June 29.1

This routine transatlantic voyage interests me because my grandparents, Robert Burns and Julia Murphy, made this sailing in order for my grandfather to attend an engineering conference in Switzerland. They disembarked from the Nieuw Amsterdam in Le Havre, took a train to Paris, and after a few days there resumed their journey. When his business was completed, they travelled by train to Genova, Italy, where on Sunday, July 14, they embarked on the Italian Line’s Cristoforo Colombo. This vessel subsequently delivered them to the passenger piers on the West Side of Manhattan at 9:00am on Tuesday, July 23, 1957.

Day after day and voyage after voyage, this tabular data of arrivals and departures indicate that merchant shipping was a big business. The movement of passengers, merchandise, and mail across the world’s oceans commanded the attention of millions of people who had a personal or financial interest in the shipping. For my grandparents’ travels, this news was important to the family twice a year—the voyage out and the voyage back—for about thirteen years. For many others, it was a livelihood. Hence the importance of devoting daily an entire page of a major metropolitan newspaper to this information. But now, it’s history.

For me, it’s a very interesting history. The shipping news combines my family’s history and my affinity for the things of the sea. Big ships, long voyages, exciting destinations—these are some of the finest things in life! Sailing to Europe is always so much more enjoyable and adventurous, even if it takes longer, than strapping oneself into an airplane seat and getting there overnight. I have flown to Europe once and flown back from Europe once. I’ve sailed there and back many more times. Sailing is definitely better. My grandparents agreed. They certainly had the option of flying, and they did cross the Atlantic a few times by air in the mid 1960s, but they strongly preferred to travel by sea.

Here’s another example. In 1956 they sailed aboard the American Export Lines’ Constitution for the first time. Departing from Pier 84 at the foot of West 44th Street in Manhattan on Saturday, September 1, she called at Algeceras, Spain, on Friday, September 7, and at Cannes, France, and Genova, Italy, on Sunday, September 9. My grandparents disembarked in Genova.

They liked American Export and the Constitution so much that beginning in 1959 they sailed almost exclusively with this company. That year they returned to New York from Genova aboard the Independence, the Constitution’s twin sister. These are the ships that I remember from the 1960s. I was a small child then, but old enough to find everything about these great liners fascinating. On sailing day I spent hours wandering around these vessels with my family, examining everything and asking many questions before the ritual call of “All ashore that’s going ashore” was sounded.

But this is digression.2 The shipping news pages in The New York Times call to mind a bygone era, when travel by sea was the norm, not the adventurous exception. It was a time when a person would speak literally of “when my ship comes in.” Shipping was a far-reaching business, a way of life, not just a vacation cruise or a novelty. From the humblest ferry crossing the Hudson River to the grand Queen Mary, vessels of all sizes, shapes, and purposes dominated the waterways. This changed as bridges and tunnels increasingly replaced ferries and the airlines became the mainstay for overseas travel. Ships do remain, of course, and they carry the freight and the petroleum the world uses, but so much of this is so far from public view that it is largely unknown. I’ve met people who honestly had no idea how all the Japanese automobiles arrived in the United States!

To read the shipping news, then, is to step back in time. Scrolling through reels of microfilm researching the ships and the voyages of my grandparents’ travels, I become absorbed by the lists of vessels arriving and departing from New York. The data, while tabular, is not impersonal. Merchant ships with names and personalities stand out on the pages. The American flagship United States; the two Queens of the Cunard Line; the –dam ships of Holland-America, including the Statendam, Noordam, Westerdam, and Nieuw Amsterdam, aboard all of which my grandparents sailed; the pragmatic Swedish Gripsholm and her fleet mates; the diminutive Atlantic; the several Export freighters; the numerous Esso tankers; the military troop transports including the good old Upshur3—these and dozens more connected New York with the rest of the world, and their comings and goings were important news to many, many people.

For some of us, the comings and goings of merchant ships remain very important. Something that was once a chosen career and a way of life for me does not lose its significance. Despite the passage of time, the yearning for the sea remains with me. While my seafaring days are regretfully long past, I can in some sense go to sea again by reading the old newspapers.

1 Rather than cite every last detail, I will simply note that all the voyage information comes from three sources: the shipping news pages on the appropriate dates in The New York Times, which are supplemental to my grandmother’s travel journals and my grandparents’ letters. They wrote frequently when they were away, and I consider this body of scripture a family heirloom.

2 To continue the digression, see Leonard A. Stevens, The Elizabeth: Passage of a Queen, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968, for a fascinating and in-depth description of the workings of a passenger liner in commercial service between New York and Europe.

3 The Upshur later became the State of Maine, on which I sailed in 1976 and 1978 while studying for the license as third mate.

1 comment:

  1. "Big ships, long voyages, exciting destinations—these are some of the finest things in life!"

    Exactly. But now we want it all and we want it all. No time to wait for a ship, right?

    So cool that you have your grandparents' old letters. Another lost thing in the world.