The Blue Riband
In the early days of steamships, many thought that crossing the Atlantic was impossible. Paddle steamers were operating on coastal journeys but could not carry the coal required to travel 3000 miles across the ocean. Sailors also had to contend with hazardous conditions and sudden storms.
In 1819 the American owners of paddle steamer Savannah decided to sell her in Europe. She left New York on 24 May with her hold full of 75 tons of coal. Little is known about her voyage, except that she ran out of fuel off the coast of Ireland and arrived in Liverpool 29 days later.
How did she complete the journey, despite not carrying enough fuel to power her all the way? Paddle steamers of the day were also equipped with sails. The strong winds of the Atlantic provided most of her power; engines were only used when her speed fell below 4 knots (7 kph).
The next major attempt was in 1833 when Canadian paddle steamer Royal William was also to be sold in England. She left Nova Scotia on 17 August with 330 tonnes of coal and over thirty passengers. She was soon caught in a storm, her starboard engine failed and she began to sink. Her master sailed on for ten days while repairs were made. She arrived in London on 12 September – a journey of 26 days. Her captain declared her to be “the first steamer that crossed the Atlantic by steam, having steamed the whole way across”. In fact, he had to stop the ship’s engines one day out of every four to clean out the sea salt that had built up in them.
The first steamship to cross the Atlantic non-stop was British & American Company paddle steamer Sirius. She left Ireland on 3 April 1838, encountering stormy weather, snow and an attempted mutiny during the voyage, but arriving safely in New York in 18 days. This would have made her a Blue Riband winner, but that term would not be used for another sixty years. Her triumph was eclipsed the next day when Brunel’s ship Great Western arrived in New York, breaking her record by three days. The same indignity would happen on the return journey: Sirius set an eastbound record of 18 days, broken by Great Western in 15 days.
In 1839, Great Western was back in America again with Sirius’ sister ship British Queen. They were both scheduled to depart New York together and crowds thronged the waterfront to cheer them off. Even then the idea of a speed race appealed - New York Courier and Enquirer said, “of the ... feasibility of the passage of the Atlantic by steam … the most sceptical must now cease to doubt”.
Progress of transatlantic travel was fast, thanks to a newly created company that would come to dominate the Atlantic Ocean for the next century. It was chaired by the son of a Canadian timber merchant, Samuel Cunard.