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Sailing the ocean blue

Across the great divide

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two,

Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

He had three ships and left from Spain;

He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain.”


Christopher Columbus was not the first from Western Europe to cross the Atlantic Ocean: Vikings may have settled in Canada many centuries earlier, travelling from Scandinavia via Iceland.

[25074] Crest of a wave

magnify Aquitania in rough seas

Any sailor wanting to cross the Atlantic had to face many difficulties, including the distance. A voyage between southern England and the east coast of America is around 3000 nautical miles (5500 km) – about the same length as four return journeys between London and Edinburgh. Strong winds blow across the Atlantic from the west, caused by a flow of warm water from Mexico, and there is no land in the way to slow them down. This causes very rough seas and high waves – up to 60 ft (18 m) high at times.

Aside from battling the elements, sailors had to contend with technology. In the early 1800s, vessels venturing across the ocean were powered only by the wind and taking weeks to reach land. Their sails were inefficient when sailing westwards from Europe to America because they had to battle against the oncoming wind.

Faced with these difficulties, it is no surprise that many sailors saw the Atlantic as an impassable barrier –ships that departed did not always arrive at their destinations. The coming of steam-power in the early 1800s made crossings possible. Coupled later with the screw propeller, regular transatlantic service was seen as a great victory over the forces of nature and a symbol of national power. Atlantic pioneers Cunard quickly developed a high profile on the route with their comfortable and reliable vessels. The only way other companies could compete was by being faster across the ocean.


So the Blue Riband [link] was born. An unofficial competition between the great shipping lines, a blue pennant could be flown from the mast of the ship making the fastest crossing of the north Atlantic. In the 1930s a trophy was awarded. Great liners like Berengaria, NormandieQueen Mary and United States held the title.


After World War Two (1939 – 45), quicker and more economic air flights caused the decline of regular liner services across the Atlantic.


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