Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The S/S Norway and Us

Our first visit to St. Thomas, aboard the S/S Norway in May of 1992 was an exciting, romantic adventure, far more than than the second time we stopped by this popular Caribbean port of call in the U.S. Virgin Islands twelve years later. 

The S/S Norway at anchor, St Thomas, US VI, May, 1992

The tenders on board the S/S Norway

Charlotte Amalie, the bustling little island city capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands hadn't changed between our two visits, the difference was simply our perception of the popular tourist port-of-call because of the ship we first arrived on, the romantic S/S Norway, and how we went ashore. 

At over 1000 feet long, designed for trans-Atlantic crossings, the S/S Norway drew thirty-five feet of water. Many of her Caribbean ports of call couldn't handle her deep draft, including the harbor at Charlotte Amalie. The harbor was far too shallow for the ocean-going SS Norway. She anchored off-shore at St. Maarten as well as St. Thomas, and used self-contained tenders to ferry passengers ashore. The tenders were smaller motor vessels carried on the forecastle on the Viking deck that acted as water taxis to ferry passengers from the ship to the docks.

Our first visit there was far more exciting than twelve years later on the M/S Star Princess when we woke up one morning and found we had docked quietly and quite undramatically just a few feet from the Havensight Mall.

The memory of watching the Norway outside the harbor, waiting for our return is still vivid. The Norway's distinctive, beautiful line and the ocean-blue hull were her trademarks. She stood out in every port of call.

Ilse on the bow of the tender returning to the S/S Norway, St. Thomas

The S/S Norway wasn't designed for basin cruising, so when Norwegian Cruise Lines acquired her in 1979, they removed two of her four engines.  She no longer needed to maintain the 35 knots she displayed on her sea trials and on her trans-Atlantic crossings as the S/S France. Toodling around the Caribbean at 11 to 15 knots would be more in line with the new requirements. Besides, the newly mandated incinerators would fit nicely where the two, no longer needed engines were located. The Norway continually received upgrades and modifications to keep her abreast of the expanding cruising market. Time however, was her biggest enemy. As money squeezing became more of a science than an art form in the cruising industry, the Norway became an anachronism. The new ships carried more passengers and did so more cheaply.  Plus, they could visit ports the Norway couldn't without the expensive tenders.

S/S Norway at anchor, St Maarten, 1992, with a tender alongside.
The Norway docked at the Port of Miami's Dodge Island every Saturday. She came in with the first light of day, and sailed again by 4:30pm or so, on yet another seven day cruise of the Caribbean. She discharged and took on just under 2000 passengers in that short time. By today's standards, that is not even worthy of mention, but in those pioneering days, it was quite a feat. 

She was the biggest cruise ship in the world when we cruised on her, and one of the finest.  She didn't have the balconies of today's massive cruisers, but she had full width windows on the ocean-view staterooms that had been added by the early '90's.  The hall carpets had a subtle pattern that pointed toward the bow in case you got confused in the interior of the ship. The two dining rooms, the Windward and the Leeward, were exceptional, I have not seen any on the ships we have cruised on since to rival them.

The Promenade on the S/S Norway

We watched the Norway for many years before we finally sailed on her. We saw the beautiful, blue-hulled epitome of leisure cruising every Saturday during the 1980's as my daughter, Monica, sailed at the Miami Yacht Club, just the other side of the thin ribbon of asphalt known as MacArthur Causeway from Dodge Island terminal where the Norway was moored. We were there from 12:30pm to dusk every Saturday as Monica practiced sailing her Clearwater Optimist Pram, and eventually, her Laser Radial sailboat.

Monica practices in her COPCA pram at the Miami Yacht Club, 1984, with the S/S Norway at anchor at Dodge Island

Every Saturday evening we watched the magnificent SS Norway sail out Government Cut, headed for unknown exotic ports of call.  It was Monica's first major Laser regatta on a blustery, windy day in early December, 1985, that made an indelible impression with us about the Norway.

I was assigned to drive a chase boat for the Miami Yacht Club along with Joe Zibelli, whose son, Tony, was also sailing a Laser Radial in the annual Mid-Winter Youth Regatta.   Fourteen Laser Radials started the first race of the regatta, a special round-the-islands race that had become a tradition for the young Laser sailors at the MYC regattas.  The race was not only extraordinarily long, but included a long section down busy Government Cut, all the way from the Coast Guard Station at one end to the turning basin at the other end where the huge cruise ships turn around for their departures from Miami. Our young teen-aged sailors not only shared the Cut with commercial vessels of all sorts, but also Chalk's seaplanes and private powerboats.  Not to mention the cruise ships!   Because of its special length and conditions, the race counted as two races in the regatta schedule. Whoever scored highly here had an outstanding lead for the remaining four races.

Monica practices in her Laser Radial with her trademark “Flamingo” sail, MYC, 1986

The start of the race had one windward mark, then led off east past Hibiscus Island toward Monument Island, where the fleet headed right around Star Island toward the Coast Guard Station on Government Cut.  This leg is about two and a half miles by itself, and is a true test of sailing skills. Joe and I were assigned to trail the fleet and assist those in distress.

As the fleet took the starting gun, it became clear there were eight or nine sailors who had the situation under control and were racing their hearts out. Some of the younger sailors, those who not ventured beyond the realm of recreational Saturday sailing, soon needed encouragement.  One young girl gave up completely by Monument Island and needed a tow.  We counted the sails in front of us as they headed toward the first turn and the reach through Meloy Channel.  

Busy Government Cut, Miami, from the deck of the Norway on a typical Saturday morning.

Thirteen sails! We had one in tow so all was well.  As soon as they hit Government Cut, the Laser sails went full out as they had a dead run down the Cut, headed directly toward the huge cruise ships that lined the entire south bank of the cut.  As Joe and I slowly followed the two or three stragglers who had not yet made the downwind turn, we lost sight of the leaders streaming away from us.  As we slowly made the turn into choppy Government cut with our fledgling racers some five minutes later, dodging the ferries carrying cars and trucks to Fisher Island, Joe, who had the binoculars, said, "George, we have a problem! There are only twelve sails!”

A quick count verified that indeed, we were missing a boat! We immediately did a quick sail-number check and my heart stopped, it was up in my throat: The missing boat was my daughter.

We didn't have radios to ask for help, so the only recourse was to verify the tail-enders were in no trouble. We told them to stick together, hug the starboard side of the cut and head for the basin as planned, they would have to help each other, at least for the time being. Joe and I powered off in search of Monica who was nowhere to be seen. As we raced down Government Cut in the 18 foot Boston Whaler, frantically searching for any sign of an overturned boat, or at worst a life jacket in the water, Joe yelled, “Over there, by the Norway! There's a red suit on the water, waving!” 

By this time we were two thirds of the way down the cut and had already passed one or two cruise ships on the terminal side. There at the water line, just a few feet away from the massive blue hull of the Norway, was an overturned Laser with its red suited skipper standing on the bobbing hull, waving her arms overhead to get our attention.
The Norway at anchor, St. Thomas, USVI. A required ship lifeboat lowering drill is in progress.

My fourteen year old daughter was as mad as I have ever seen her! As we finally drew near the huge blue wall of steel, she yelled, “The stupid mast broke! 
I couldn't help it” 

I'm sure she couldn't see the relief in my eyes as we maneuvered the chase boat to pick her up and grab her painter, the line tied to the bow of her upside down, half submerged sailboat. 

Monica climbed aboard the chase boat and after a quick, wet hug, helped pull in the remaining lines trailing in the water.  We hauled the broken mast with the sail still attached into the boat. We struggled to right the overturned laser so we could tow it behind our chase boat. Three or four stories above us a door magically opened in the hull of the Norway and two white-uniformed ship's officers looked down at us in wonder. We were so close to the Norway we prepared to fend off to keep from bumping into her. 

Monica sat dejectedly in the back of the chase boat as we got under way, quietly looking back at the Norway and her disabled laser being towed behind us. I knew she was thinking she would not be able to overcome a double DNF, Did Not Finish.

Every time I saw the Norway after that, I thought of the broken mast and the tiny, red-suited sailor waving her arms over her head, standing on a half-submerged sailboat just a few yards away from the largest cruise ship in the world. An image I'll always remember. 

Monica at the pre-race Skipper's meeting,
 MYC, December 1985
Her competitors had sailed on, leaving her alone to rely on her wits and her training in the middle of the busy, turbulent Miami Government Cut. Not only was I relieved as we towed her boat slowly back around the island, I was also very proud of her. 

I was fortunate enough to work on the Norway upgrading on-board computer systems and communication wiring several years later.  Every time I boarded the Norway, I thought of my daughter standing on her upside-down laser sailboat up against the giant cruise ship.  I once walked to the lowest deck of the ship where I could look over the port side of the bow to look down at the water where she had been stranded.  It was a long, long way to the water!   

The Norway is history now, cut up in 2008 on the beaches in Alang, India, where the salvagers found all the magnificent original art work and even the grand piano from the ballroom still on board. Only a small section of the famous blue bow was returned to France to commemorate her original christening as the SS France in 1960.  Poor maintenance and upkeep were blamed for an explosion in the ship's boiler room that killed eight crewmen and finally forced the ship out of service in 2003.

The Norway was, and remains our very favorite cruise ship.   I still have one of the rolled-up blueprints of the Norway we used for re-wiring the ship.  I'll have it framed someday, if I can find a shop that can handle the length. 

[Author's note: 4/7/2018 - I added a recent VHS to digital transfer from a trip returning from Bimini to Miami via Chalks seaplane. We landed alongside the SS Norway as she was departing Government Cut. The video is mine, taken from a passenger seat in the seaplane. A departing view of our favorite cruise ship
https://youtu.be/m4QwNJVJ1jw ]

George Mindling  © 2012, 2016
All photos by George Mindling © 2012, 2017 All Rights Reserved 

Our latest, and quite possibly last, cruise, 

[Thanks to http://www.captainsvoyage.com/norwegian-cruise-line/ss-norway/ss-norway---little-norway.html hosted by Jan-Olav Storli, for the corrected location onboard the S/S Norway]


Paul R. said...

Hi George,

Great story. I am a friend of Monica's and saw her link to your article on FB. As a fellow Miamian, I used to also see the Norway often. While I never cruised on her, I did get the opportunity to tour the ship once or twice (along with several other cruise ships that docked in Miami). The Norway was always my favorite. At the time, her size was certainly impressive. I still remember standing on one end of the full-length indoor promenade, looking down the ship and seeing the gentle arch the ship had from front to back. It really emphasized the ships impressive length. I also thought the self-contained tenders were really cool. I no longer live in Miami and haven't seen the Norway since the late 80's or maybe early 90's. Looking at your pictures now though, it's funny to see that she doesn't look so big anymore. Kind of sad but she certainly had her shining moment in the sun!

Anyway, thanks for the fun stroll down memory lane!

Paul R.

Anonymous said...

Great story!
We sailed on the Norway twice and I loved that ship!
We cruise almost every year on the big ships Oasis, Allure etc. and my favorite ship is still the Norway.