Crossing the Ocean in a Palace

SAMUEL MERWIN IN SUCCESS MAGAZINE April 1 1906

Crossing the Ocean in a Palace

SAMUEL MERWIN IN SUCCESS MAGAZINE April 1 1906

EVERY six months or so a big new liner steams up the North River, to the west of New York City, and displays a great many flags; and the ferryboats and lighters whistle the conventional three-toot salutation, and the steward’s band blares its brassiest as the leviathan —it is always a “leviathan,”—works laboriously into her dock. Before noon, we may be sure, certain newspapers will come out with imaginative pen-drawings of the “monster of the deep” supposedly reposing in Broadway at City Hall Park or standing upright on her twin screws beside the Park Row Building. Then, for a morning or two, those of us who are so fortunate as to sleep in New Jersey will make it a point to step outside of our ferryboat cabin and stand among the baggage trucks and the coal wagons and try to pick out the new liner by the markings on her funnels—for your true sleeper in New Jersey, though he may not understand what David Belasco is so excited about, or who wrote “Promotheus Unbound,” or why Arthur James Balfour resigned, is pretty sure to know that the Cunarders have red funnels with black tops, that the White Star funnels are buff with black tops, and that the American and the Red Star funnels are black and white.

Then, when we have made out the two buff funnels of the “Amerika,” which identify the latest new ship as the property of the Hamburg American Line, we of New Jersey are likely to remain, of a morning, in the ferryboat cabin, and to bury our noses in the very respectable “New Jersey edition” of a very respectable New York newspaper. But the “Amerika” demands, and deserves, a closer look. She marks the goal of a shipbuilding contest in which close to half a dozen great lines have been long engaged. She is a movable hotel in which four thousand persons can live in greater or less comfort (and some of it very great, indeed), during the seven-or-eight-day voyage from New York to Plymouth and Hamburg. Every known device which contributes to the comfort, the safety, the health and the recreation of ocean travelers may be found aboard this wonderful ship, and some devices which were never known before. The system of water-tight bulkheads has been brought to a point where it insures nearly absolute safety. The organization of the ship and the coordination of the different departments center so completely on the bridge that the captain has the control of it all at his fingers’ ends. She runs almost as closely on a track as does the “Twentieth Century Limited.” The navigating officer, by merely holding a receiver to his ear, can hear the under-water signals of the coast lightships. The lookout communicates with the bridge, from his crow’s-nest on the foremast, through a “loud-speaking” telephone. Below decks there is a very humorous Swedish gymnasium where you may lie on comfortable sofas and be vibrated and twisted and jolted by canning electrical machinery, and where you may ride horses and camels whose varied motions closely approach verisimilitude. There are electric light bath's and a florist’s shop and a ladies’ hairdressing parlor and a children’s room, with charming colored panels from “Mother Goose” and Grimm’s “Fairy Tales”—and so on and on.

When I first saw the “Amerika” steaming up the North River I thought about these things, for I had been reading about them in my newspaper. But, on a later day, when I had boarded her and had stowed away my luggage and had stretched out in a steamer chair and settled down to looking back across a strip of ocean toward the dim Highlands of the Navesink, which were fading slowly out in the twilight—back to where the Sandy Hook light was flashing bravely against the dying splendor of the afterglow—I found that my thoughts were running deeper.

It is a little difficult for a casual reader of newspapers to picture to himself how really big these new liners are. When you see the “Amerika” in her dock you can not estimate her size unless you know the dimensions of the dock structure and of the lighters that flock about her and of the longshore buildings. Even when I went down from London to Dover, for the return voyage, stood on the Prince of Wales Pier, and watched this biggest of ships in that small artificial harbor, where she stood out boldly against the channel sky, I could not take in the facts. That is why I am not going to bother the reader with many facts and figures—mere facts and figures, that is, such as that she is six hundred and ninety feet long and that she displaces forty-two thousand tons of water. It is much more important to know that six turns around the “kaiser deck” make a mile, although this deck extends but little more than half the vessel’s length, and that you might hunt about the ship, as I have, for an hour or two, in a vain hope of finding some one whom you might wish to see. There are six decks which are used by the cabin passengers, with an electric elevator connecting five of them ; and, when Captain Sauermann, to satisfy his curiosity and mine, laid a ruler on a blueprint diagram of the ship, he found that she ninety-one feet deep from the ceiling of the wheelhouse to the keel.

It had been arranged that we should visit the engine room at five o’clock. When the hour arrived I was reading in a corner of the smoking room balcony. I descended one flight of stairs to the main floor of the smoking room, which is on the “kaiser deck;” another flight to the “Washington deck,” where the gymnasium is, and where, also, are the “imperial suites;” a third flight to the “Roosevelt deck,” which brought me to the bookseller’s shop; a fourth flight to the “Cleveland deck,” and around to the sitting room of the chief engineer. This officer opened a door and led the way along a narrow steel gallery. I found myself in what appeared to be a vast machine shop. To eyes which had grown accustomed to the ship as the passengers see it, it seemed incredible that so immense a space could have been reserved for the engines. After descending four full flights of stairs I seemed to stand almost at the top of this great room, which extends, at the bottom, all of two hundred feet by seventy-five, and which gradually narrows ‘upward for eighty or ninety feet. Imagine, if you can, the block in Fifth avenue between Twenty-second and Twenty-third streets lifted out and placed within the hull of a ship, and you will have some notion of the size of this engine room. As for height it will be necessary to imagine that some seven or eight stories of the Flatiron Building have been lifted out with it. Then we began descending long steel stairways. The men below looked small, to my eyes, as we started downward. Finally we stood on the floor and looked up through the steel gratings, and wondered again. There was so much noise that talking was all but impossible. The smooth steel shafts which turn the twin screws were spinning around, one on each side of us. The great piston rods were thrashing around and around with a force which, to inexperienced eyes, threatened to tear out the heart of the ship. Ranged along the side walls were the dynamos which supply the light.

We walked a long way, stepping carefully between the engines, and passed through a steel doorway into the boiler room. There, as in the engine room, the most surprising thing was the purity of the atmosphere. Instead of the conventional stokers, stripped to the skin, shining with sweat and half dead with thirst and heat-exhaustion, there stood before me a row of fully clad laboring men who appeared to be about as comfortable as laboring men ever appear to be. Even with the furnace doors open the heat was not intolerable. This condition may be explained, perhaps, by the fact that the season was late October; but I am inclined to think that the remarkably effective ventilating system of the ship had a good deal to do with it. The “Amerika” does not rely at all on the old-fashioned above-decks ventilator, which scoops in plenty of air when the wind is ahead, but next to none when it is astern, but on a set of fans or wheels which force fresh air into every part of the ship, all day and all night.

Perhaps I have succeeded in giving some notion of the size of the engine room. It is necessary to remember, also, that the greater part of each of five decks, running nearly the full length of the ship, is given over to the comfort and the recreation of her more than three thousand passengers and to the accommodations for the six hundred men who make up the ship’s company. Now, with a realization in mind of the vast space required for these purposes, we have left one of the most important considerations of all, that of the space required for the freight.

The full cargo of the “Amerika” is sixteen thousand tons. These figures convey little to the reader. But if it is recalled that a fair average load for a freight car is, say, twenty-five tons, it will be seen that the “Amerika’s” cargo, if put on trains for land shipment, would require six hundred and forty cars, or sixteen trains of forty cars each. Allowing forty feet to a car, inclusive of the space between two cars, and one hundred feet to each locomotive and to the necessary space between trains, the 16 trains would extend, end to end, more than five miles. After considering all these great departments, it should be kept in mind that we have made no mention of the space required for the thousands of tons of coal (the furnaces consume three hundred and fifty tons a day) or for the ship’s stores, a very considerable item. The largest anchors of the “Amerika” weigh sixteen tons. The systems of pipes and of telephone and electric light wires are as intricate as those of a small city. There are five completely appointed kitchens. A passenger can purchase on board tickets from the port where he is to be landed to any point in the world which can be reached by railway, his daily newspaper, which is handed and to some which can not, and, in to him as he lies in his steamer chair, he will find, not scanty wireless bulletins, but a pretty complete survey of the news of the world.

I sat in the balcony of the smoking room, by the railing, where I could look down at the great brick fireplace. The pillars of carved oak, the cozy alcoves, the padded leather wall seats, and the gayly-flowered curtains at the windows made up a very pleasing picture; but there was really nothing of the sea about it all. The dark woodwork and the bubbly panes of glass were those of a baronial hall of long ago. Around the walls of the balcony was a carved wooden frieze illustrating, very quaintly and vigorously, the life and works of St. Hubert.

It was late afternoon, and dark as night, outside. I walked slowly down the wide oak stairway, buttoned up my coat, pulled down my cap, and threw my weight against the outer door. It gave slowly against the wind, and banged after me with terrific force, when I had finally managed to slip out, with a report like that of a six-po'under.

A southwest gale was screaming through the rigging, threatening, every moment, to bring down the Marconi wires. It was a boisterous wind, and I leaned on the rail and let it dash into my face the spindrift which it had snatched up from the white tips of the waves. There could be no doubt that, in the matter of steadiness, the new sort of ship is a success. The “Amerika” is so large, and her engines work so quietly, that she runs, even in moderately stormy weather, with less than the swaying and jolting of a railway train. I had to lean far out to see where the steel side plates entered the water, fifty feet below. Then I walked a hundred yards along the promenade and stepped into a warm hall which was all plate glass and white enamel, left my coat and cap on the very comfortable window seat in the corner, and passed through the writing room into the drawing room. I was thinking of the fat man and his sentimental anger. “Is it true,” I asked myself, “that they have destroyed the charm of the sea?” Is the fine old salty romance dead and buried?”

It almost seemed as if he was right as I looked about the great room with its white woodwork, its Wedgwood plaques, its fireplace and broad mantel, its grand piano, and its rosecolored satin upholstery. In a corner, fifty feet away, some women were busy with gossip and fancy work. One of them had laid her library book, face down, on a table. At another table four young women were playing bridge. Two children were cuddled up in a corner seat, listening, big-eyed, to their nurse’s story about the little boy who didn’t want to grow up and be president, but to live away off in the Never, Never, Never Land, with Indians to guard him in his underground home. I involuntarily raised my hand to my stinging cheek, which was still wet with the spindrift, to convince myself that we were really in mid-Atlantic.

I retreated down the passage, and, on opening a door which is all plate glass and white enamel, found myself in the Carlton Restaurant, and paused again to look around. The walls are of polished mahogany and chestnut, inlaid with rarer woods and ornamented with bronze work. The outer portholes are concealed by inside windows and curtains, so that there is nothing whatever about the room to suggest the sea. I should say that the ceiling is of plaster, were it not that, on a ship so large, aj ceiling cannot conceivably be of plaster. The carpet is rich and soft. Most of the tables are small, and they are lighted by shaded lamps. The knives and forks and spoons and matchholders are of gold plate, and the china is really dainty and pretty, and not at all the stout ware of ship tradition. While I slowly ate my dinner, and looked about at the jolly little parties of two and four and six, at the daintily clad women and the severely clad men, and at the freshlycut flowers and the sparkling cut glass, and while I listened to the lowpitched laughter and talk and to the music of the gay little red-coated orchestra —it seemed very much as if I had strolled over from Piccadilly Circus to Pall Mall, of a cold, foggy evening, and had turned in at the Carlton Hotel. I grew sober as I thought about it. We did these things very differently a little while back. Even a very little while back—as the history of human-kind runs—life at sea meant more, for it seemed to bring a man nearer to his God than we of to-day very often get.

It was with misgivings that, later in the evening, I mounted the stairs to the bridge deck—with misgivings which were hardly allayed by the reception which our little party met with in the captain’s parlor. The room is larger than some I have seen in city apartments, and is as luxurious as anything below decks. Off to the right there were glimpses to be had of a very comfortable bedroom and of a bathroom (in snow-white tiling. And, when Captain Sauermann greeted us pleasantly, quite as if we had been sitting in his own home library, wherever that may be, the situation seemed to have passed all legitimate bounds. The last time I had been entertained in a captain’s cabin there was a big mast which came up through the floor and went on through the ceiling; and around this mast there was a rack of rifles, and above the rifles was a ,rack of cutlasses. Even this display, I recall, was not enough for us on that occasion, and we had expressed regret that our host did not wear bucket-top boots and earrings and a sword. I recall that he added, with good humor, “And a knife between my teeth!” “Perhaps,” I thought, as we took our seats in the “Amerika’s” cabin, “the fat man is right. Perhaps the charm has departed, and sailing has become that sort of business which may very well be conducted by a trust.”

But, after a moment, Captain Sauermann opened a door, and, as we filed into a plain, narrow room, with a long table and with what I prefer to think were nautical instruments about the walls, my heart gave a bound. Here was the brain—here was the soul of the “Amerika!" Now we should see something in the romance way ! Sure enough, the captain opened a wide drawer, drew out his charts in long rolls, and spread them out on the table with iron weights to hold the corners down.

When man is thrown back on maps and charts, he can not, whether he knows it or not, be very far from that subtle thing which we call romance. Your most familiar and commonplace map, printed in Chicago on businesslike presses, by members of the pressmen’s union, is just as surely made of dead explorers as the Islands of Bermuda, with their winter tourists and their very matter-of-fact shopkeepers, are made of dead coral polyps. “Treasure Island” sprang from a map. On this wild evening, the first glance at Captain Sauermann’s North Sea chart, which lay before us, brought to every pair of eyes the glow and thrill of the sea. It was speckled gray with sounding marks. It was dotted with red-and-yellow indications of lighthouses, each supplemented with cryptic elucidation, such as: “Lt. FI. 4 quick fi. ev. 30 sec. 36 ft. vis. 11 m.—Fog Siren, 4 blasts ev 2 min.” All along the Dutch coast were black crosses and the letters, “L. B. S.,” which I knew to mean “Life Boat Stations.” Here and there, in the open seaway, masts of ships were represented as projecting above the water, each followed by the ominous word, “Wreck.” The shoals, too, which were indicated by dotted lines, bore picturesque, sailorman names—“Outer Gabbard,” and “Sand Head” and “Galloper.”

“You see,” said Captain Sauermann, in his quiet voice and quaint accent, “the passage here, between Sandettie Bank and South Falls Shoal—just before you reach Dover Strait—is only five miles wide.” We bent over the chart. “And two weeks ago, when I brought the ship over to Southampton for some refitting, we ran a hundred and eighty miles down through the North Sea in a thick fog. We could see nothing and hear nothing, and if I had missed this passage the ship would have been wrecked. But we came very close to the Sandettie Lightship, so that I know that we were all right. But after we had got through I could not tell where we were, and I tried to find the lightship at South Sand Head.”

“Don’t the English lightships carry the underwater signaling apparatus, Captain?” was asked.

“No; the American and the German lightships do, but not the English—yet. So I headed north, running very slowly, *until I could hear the bell. It sounded louder and louder, and then suddenly the fog opened a little and we could see her right in front of us, only a few lengths off. I backed away, but I had my bearings and headed off to clear Dungeness. ”

He spoke so quietly that it was not until we had passed out through the navigating room and into the wheelhouse that I realized what it was that he had been telling as. The “Amerika” was built at a cost of four and one-half million dollars. With cargo and passengers aboard she would represent a value of, perhaps, six millions. From the Lizard to Cuxhaven the English Channel and North Sea are strewn with shoals and reefs and sunken wrecks. It is not many years since the “Paris” struck on the Needles and brought the career of Captain Watkins to an end. And twice a month, all around the calendar, Captain Sauermann must take his ship through, and must stand responsible for six million dollars in property and for four thousand human lives.

It was dark in the wheelhouse, except for a faint glow from the binnacle lamp. A seaman stood at the wheel; but, somewhat to my surprise, he was looking, not out toward the sea ahead, which, indeed, could hardly be made out through the high, narrow windows, but down into the binnacle where the compass was swinging continually this way or that as the ship yawed in the sea. He was occupied in keeping a certain black mark on the compass card against a black line on the encircling frame. That was all he had to do. He was not responsible for the ship’s course or for her safety ; it was his whole duty to keep two marks in line on a card. Outside, on the bridge and forecastle and in the crow’s-nest on the foremast, stood the second and the fourth officers and the two lookouts, who were the eyes of the ship ; a great many feet below us, where the two sets of quadruple expansion engines were pounding and crashing and driving her along, was the heart of her ; under the cap of this blackbearded captain was the brain ; in far-away Hamburg were the financial springs that nourished her: and all this that Americans and Englishmen and continental Europeans might come to understand one another better, and that this world of ours might go careering on where no world has ever traveled before.

The wind was blowing very hard when, at length, we stood on the open bridge. I was glad that the structure was walled in, five feet high, with canvas; and I was glad, too, to button my overcoat up to the chin and to turn up the collar. When I turned back and looked over the ship I was surprised to see that she was dark with mystery. Somewhere or other aboard her thirty-five hundred electric lamps were burning, but their light was shut out at every point from the watchers on the bridge. The funnels stood out dimly against the clouds, almost as dimly as the smoke which was trailing off down the wind. The line of canvas-covered boats extended aft for hundreds of feet and finally blurred off into the night. Up forward the black bows were rising and falling with slow, majestic dignity; and, sixty feet below us, the foamwaves were rolling away from the ship at each slow plunge and slipping off astern in swirling, bubbling patches of white.

Standing there looking out over the waves toward a handful of low-lying stars, I knew that the romance of the sea is an ‘undying thing. What we have lost is no more than our old notion of it. The Spanish galleon has gone out with the rapier and the dagger. We no longer, the boys among us, haunt the wharves for glimpses of Spanish sailors with bearded lips. The six-shooter is not what it was, and the tall clipper ship has followed the stagecoach into the junk yard of the things that were. But the new romance runs deeper. It is more complex. It is the wonderful story of the awakening, the rousing, and the stirring to action of a drowsy old world which has only begun to find itself and to feel its magnificent strength.