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An ocean liner is a ship designed to transport people from one seaport to another along regular long-distance maritime routes according to a schedule. Liners may also carry cargo or mail, and may sometimes be used for other purposes (e.g., for pleasure cruises or as troopships).

Cargo vessels running to a schedule are sometimes referred to as liners. The category does not include ferries or other vessels engaged in short-sea trading, nor dedicated cruise ships where the voyage itself, and not transportation, is the prime purpose of the trip. Nor does it include tramp steamers, even those equipped to handle limited numbers of passengers. Some shipping companies refer to themselves as "lines" and their container ships, which often operate over set routes according to established schedules, as "liners".

Ocean liners are usually strongly built with a high freeboard to withstand rough seas and adverse conditions encountered in the open ocean, having large capacities for fuel, victuals, and other stores for consumption on long voyages.


Ocean liners were the primary mode of intercontinental travel for over a century, from the mid-19th century until they began to be supplanted by airliners in the 1960s. In addition to passengers, liners carried mail and cargo. Ships contracted to carry Britishmarker Royal Mail used the designation RMS. Liners were also the preferred way to move gold and other high-value cargoes.

The busiest route for liners was on the North Atlanticmarker with ships travelling between Europe and North America. It was on this route that the fastest, largest and most advanced liners travelled. But while in contemporary popular imagination the term "ocean liners" evokes these transatlantic superliner, most ocean liners historically were mid-sized vessels which served as the common carriers of passengers and freight between nations and among mother countries and their colonies and dependencies in the pre-jet age. Such routes included Europe to African and Asian colonies, Europe to South America, and migrant traffic from Europe to North America in the nineteenth and first two decades of the twentieth centuries, and to Canada and Australia after the Second World War.


Shipping lines are companies engaged in shipping passengers and cargo, often on established routes and schedules. Regular scheduled voyages on a set route are called "line voyages" and vessels (passenger or cargo) trading on these routes to a timetable are called liners. The alternative to liner trade is "tramping" whereby vessels are notified on an ad-hoc basis as to the availability of a cargo to be transported. (In older usage, "liner" also referred to ships of the line, that is, line-of-battle ships, but that usage is now rare.) The term "ocean liner" has come to be used interchangeably with "passenger liner", although it can refer to a cargo liner or cargo-passenger liner.

Today, the term is usually used to refer to a ship that is constructed to a higher standard than a normal cruise ship, enabling it to cross oceans such as the Atlantic and Pacific with passengers embarked in inclement weather conditions. Characteristics of true ocean liners include heavier plating, robust scantlings, powerful engines, and high freeboards, making them more seaworthy than vessels designed for short sea routes or cruises in protected waters. The only ocean liner remaining in service in 2009 was Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2, following the retirement of her running mate the Queen Elizabeth 2 in November 2008.


The 19th century

In 1818, the Black Ball Line, with a fleet of sailing ships, offered the first regular passenger service with emphasis on passenger comfort, from Englandmarker to the United Statesmarker. From the early 1800s, steam engine began to appear in ships, but initially they were inefficient and offered little advantage over sailing ships.

The clipper domination was challenged when the Great Western, designed by railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, began its first Atlantic service in 1837. It took 15 days to cross the Atlantic, as compared with two months by sail-powered ships. Unlike the clippers, steamers offered a consistent speed and the ability to keep to a schedule. The early steamships still had sails as well, though, as engines at this time had very inefficient consumption of fuel. Having sails enabled vessels like the Great Western to take advantage of favourable weather conditions and minimise fuel consumption.

In 1840 Cunard Line’s Britannia began its first regular passenger and cargo service by a steamship, sailing from Liverpool to Boston. Despite some advantages offered by the steamships, clippers remained dominant. In 1847, the Great Britainmarker became the first iron-hulled screw-driven ship to cross the Atlantic. More efficient propeller began to replace the paddle wheels used by earlier ocean liners.

In 1870, the White Star Line’s Oceanic set a new standard for ocean travel by having its first-class cabins amidships, with the added amenity of large portholes, electricity and running water. The size of ocean liners increased from 1880 to meet the needs of immigration to the United States and Australia.

The Umbria and her sister ship the Etruria were the last two liners of the period to be fitted with auxiliary sails. Umbria was built by John Elder & Co of Glasgow, Scotland in 1884. Umbria and Etruria were record breakers by the standards of the time. They were the largest liners then in service and they plied the Liverpool to New York route.
The Ophir was a 6814-ton steamship owned by the Orient Steamship Co, fitted with refrigeration equipment, which plied the Suez Canal route from England to Australia during the 1890s and the years leading to World War I, when she was converted to an armed merchant cruiser.

The 20th century

The period between the end of the 19th century and World War II is considered the "golden age" of ocean liners. Driven by strong demand created by European emigration to the United States and Canada, international competition between passenger lines and a new emphasis on comfort, shipping companies built increasingly larger and faster ships.

Canadian Pacific Railway became one of the largest transportation system in the world combining with ships and railways operating from Canadamarker. In 1891 CPR shipping division began its first Pacific operation. In 1903, CPR began its first Atlantic service because of rising migration of Europeans to western Canada as the result of free land offered by the Canadian government.

Since the 1830s, ships had unofficially been competing for the honour of making the fastest North Atlantic crossing. This honour came to be known as the Blue Riband; in 1897 Germany took the award with a series of new ocean liners, starting with the Kaiser Wilhelm der Großemarker. In 1905, the British Cunard Line fitted its liner Carmania with steam turbines with which it outperformed its near-identical sister Caronia, powered by triple-expansion steam engines. At the time, these were the largest ships in the Cunard fleet, and the use of the different propulsion methods in otherwise similar ships allowed the company to evaluate the merits of both. The engines in Carmania were successful and, consequently, in 1907 Cunard introduced the much larger Lusitaniamarker and Mauretania, both powered by steam turbines. The Mauretania won the Blue Riband and held it for an astonishing 20 years.

Cunard's dominance of the Blue Riband did not keep other lines from competing in terms of size and luxury. In 1910 White Star launched the Olympic, the first of a trio of 45,000 plus gross ton liners with the Titanicmarker and Britannic. These ships were almost 15,000 tonnes larger and longer than the Lusitania and Mauretania. Like most other White Star Liners, these three ships were born of a special effort by the White Star Line to attract more immigrants by treating them with respect and making their crossings pleasurable.

Hamburg-America Line also ordered three giant ships, the Imperator, Vaterland and Bismarck, all over 51,500 gross tons. Imperator was launched in 1912. Bismarck would be the largest ship in the world until 1935. These ships did little or no service with Hamburg-America before World War I. After the war, they were awarded as war reparations and given to British and American lines.

The surge in ocean liner size outpaced the shipping regulations. In 1912, the Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg, with over 1,500 fatalities. A factor contributing to the high loss of life was that there were not enough lifeboat for everyone. After the Titanic disaster, the regulation was revised to require all ocean liners to carry enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew. In addition, the International Ice Patrol was established to monitor the busy north-Atlantic shipping lanes for icebergs.

Until the 1920s most shipping lines relied heavily on emigration for passengers and they were hard hit when the US Congress introduced a bill to limit immigration into the United Statesmarker. As a result, many ships took on cruising and the least expensive cabins were reconfigured from third-class to tourist-class. To make matters worse, the Great Depression put many shipping lines into bankruptcy.

Despite the harsh economic conditions, a number of companies continued to build larger and faster ships. In 1929 the German ships Bremen and Europa beat the crossing record set by the Mauretania 20 years earlier with an average speed of almost . The ships used bulbous bows and steam turbines to reach these high speeds while maintaining economical operating costs. In 1933 the Italianmarker 51,100-ton ocean liner Rexmarker, with a time of four days and thirteen hours, captured the westbound Blue Riband, which she held for two years. In 1935 the French liner Normandie used a revolutionary new hull design and powerful turbo-electric propulsion to take the Blue Riband from the Rex. Due to the poor economic conditions, the British government amalgamated Cunard Line and White Star Lines. The newly merged company countered with its liners Queen Marymarker and Queen Elizabeth. The Queen Mary was to hold the Blue Riband in 1936-37 and from 1938-52.

The post-WWII era was a brief but busy period. Notable transatlantic liners included the United Statesmarker, which was the last ocean liner to hold the Blue Riband, and the 1961-built France (later renamed Norway) which held the record for the longest passenger ship from when she entered service in 1961 until the launch of Queen Mary 2 in 2003. Australian government-sponsored immigration resulted in a busy trade between Europe and Australia, producing such notable ships as the Oriana and Canberra. These two, operating on the P&O-Orient Line service, were the largest, fastest and last liners built for the Australian route.

Decline of long-distance line voyages

Before World War II, aircraft had not been a huge threat to ocean liners. Most pre-war aircraft were noisy, cramped and vulnerable to bad weather, few had the range needed for transoceanic flights, and all were expensive and had a small passenger capacity. However, World War II accelerated the development of aircraft. Four-engined bombers such as the Avro Lancaster and Boeing B-29, with their long range and massive carrying capacity, were a natural prototype for a next-generation airliner. Jet aircraft technology also accelerated after the development of jet aircraft for military use in World War II. In 1953, the De Havilland Comet became the first commercial jet airliner; the Sud Aviation Caravelle, Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 followed. The Michelangelo and Raffaello, built in 1962 and 1963 for the Italian Line, were two of the last ocean liners to be built primarily for liner service across the North Atlanticmarker as, in the 1960s, airlines gradually took over the business formerly done by ships. By the early 1970s, passenger ships were being used almost exclusively for cruising.

After the end of the large-scale passenger-liner business, many ships continued in use as cruise ships; as of 2003 a small number of former liners were still in service. A few more, such as the Queen Mary, are still afloat but permanently docked and used for other purposes—in the case of the Queen Mary, as a museum ship. One of the few passenger ships occasionally used on scheduled line voyages is Cunard's Queen Mary 2 which replaced the line's Queen Elizabeth 2 on the transatlantic route in 2004.

At war

Ocean liners played a major role in World War I. Large ocean liners such as the and were used as troopships and hospital ships while smaller ocean liners were converted to armed merchant cruisers. The , sister to the and , never served on the liner trade for which she was built, instead entering war service as a hospital ship as soon as she was completed—she lasted a year before being sunk by a mine. Some other liners were converted to innocent-looking armed Q-ships to entrap submarines. In 1915 the , still in service as a civilian passenger vessel, was torpedoed by a German U-boat with many casualties.

Ocean liners such as the and were used in World War II as troopships. The caught fire, capsized and sank in New York in 1942 while being converted for troop duty. The majority of the superliners of the 'twenties and 'thirties were victims of U-boats, mines or enemy aircraft. The was attacked by German planes, then torpedoed by a U-boat when tugs tried to tow her to safety. She was the largest British ocean liner to sink during World War II. Germany's speed queen the in 1941 fell victim to an arsonist, believed to be a disgruntled crew member, and became a total loss. Italy's giants, the and the were respectively destroyed by the British RAF and the retreating German forces. The United Statesmarker lost the American President Lines vessel the when she steamed into an Allied mine in the South Pacific. No shipping line was untouched by World War II.

More recently, during the Falklands War, three ships that were either active or former liners were requisitioned for war service by the British Government. The liners QE2 and were requisitioned from Cunard and P&O to serve as troopships, carrying British Army personnel to Ascension Islandmarker and the Falkland Islandsmarker to recover the Falklands from the invading Argentinemarker forces. The P&O educational cruise ship and former British India Steam Navigation Company liner was requisitioned as a hospital ship and, after the war, served as a troopship until an airport was built at Stanleymarker that could handle trooping flights.

Famous and infamous

The Titanic in Belfast
Many ocean liners have been lost through the decades in various circumstances. The "unsinkable" Titanicmarker sank on her maiden voyage from Britain to the United States in 1912 with the loss of 1,523 lives; her name has entered the language as an archetypical catastrophe. Her larger & more luxurious sister ship Britannic sank in the Aegean in 1916 after hitting a mine and remains the largest ocean liner on the sea bed.

In 1914 the Empress of Irelandmarker sank in the Saint Lawrence Rivermarker with 1,012 lives lost. The Lusitaniamarker was lost in 1915 to a German U-Boat during World War I while on passage from the United States to Britain. The Morro Castle burned off of New Jersey in 1934. The worst disasters were the loss of the Cunarder Lancastria in 1940 off Saint-Nazaire to German bombing while attempting to evacuate troops of the British Expeditionary Force from France, with the loss of over 3,000 lives; the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloffmarker with over 9,000 lives lost, and the sinking of the Cap Arcona with over 7,000 lives lost in the Baltic Seamarker in 1945. The Italian liner Andrea Doria sank after colliding with the Stockholm in heavy fog in 1956, although equipped with radar.

The Cunard Line's Mauretania and Aquitania were widely considered the finest liners of their generation. In the following decade many people had a similar affection for the Normandie and RMS Queen Marymarker.Of the great Pre-war Ocean Liners, only the RMS Queen Marymarker survives to this day, Preserved as a Hotel and Museum in Long Beach, California, after being extensively gutted and converted after her retirement in 1967.

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