By David R. Leverton, Executive Director, Maritime Museum of British Columbia
Victoria has a long and close-knit relationship with the sea since up until the late 1940s the vast majority of visitors always arrived by ship. The first vessels to arrive in Victoria were often designed to carry both passengers and freight while later ships were specifically designed for ocean voyages that were one-way trips for travellers from a departure point to an arrival point. Ocean liners and cruise ships are therefore quite different in that cruise ships are built for the express purpose of taking passengers on a journey that begins and ends in the same sea port.
By the early 1900s ocean liners had become very popular because jet aircraft had not yet been invented. The first ocean liners were built by the United States and were referred to as ‘packet ships.’ These vessels were roughly 30 metres (100 feet) in length and typically had three sails. This all changed with the construction of the SS Great Western in Bristol, England, that was the largest ship in the world for a brief period of time. Designed by marine architect, I.K. Brunel (1838), the ocean liner was an oak-hulled paddle-wheel steamship over 76 metres (250 feet) in length and purpose-built to cross the Atlantic.
The invention of the propeller in 1839 was a revolutionary breakthrough and it was not long before the use of propellers on commercial vessels was transformed for use on ocean passenger liners. SS Great Eastern (1858) was a 211-metre (692 feet) iron sailing steamship designed by I.K. Brunel on the River Thames in London and was capable of carrying 4,000 passengers from England to Australia without refueling. The ship had a double iron hull and the propeller was driven by a steam turbine. I.K. Brunel also designed the SS Great Britain which was the first propeller-driven ship to cross the Atlantic. The advantage of steam was that these iron ships could travel faster than their wooden counterparts and did not need to rely on wind and ocean currents, however they were still equipped with sails in case of a breakdown at sea. These early ocean liners were followed by the SS Mauretania in 1905 that was 240 metres (790 feet) long; in the 1930s by the RMS Queen Mary that was 310 metres (1,019 feet); the SS Normandie from France which was over 313 metres (1,029 feet) and the most powerful steam turbo-electric propelled passenger ship ever built; and RMS Queen Elizabeth from England that was 314 metres (1,031 feet) in overall length.
At the same time on the West Coast of North America, the passenger liner business was also flourishing. In the early 1880s, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) established the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (CPSC). In 1903, the CPSC took over the Beaver Line and began operating ships between Halifax and the United Kingdom. By the early 1900s, the CPSC had become Canada’s largest operator of Atlantic and Pacific ‘Empress’ passenger steamships. Many of Canada’s immigrants arriving on the east and west coasts of Canada were onboard a CPSC ship. By the early 19th century, CPSC was providing ocean passenger and freight services between Canada’s West Coast and port-of-calls in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama, Manila and Honolulu. In 1915, the CPSC was renamed the Canadian Pacific Steamships Ocean Services Ltd. and continued to operate passenger and freight services until 1961. It was eventually no longer profitable to transport passengers by ocean liner due to increasing airline competition so the company shifted their focus to container ships and bulk carriers.
The emergence of the cruise ship industry as we know it today can carry thousands of passengers in a single trip and some are larger than many cargo liners and bulk carriers currently in service.
By 1960, Britain’s Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) was the world’s largest shipping company with over 300 ocean-going vessels. Princess Cruise Lines acquired P&O in 1974 and their vessel, the Spirit of London, was transferred to the Princess fleet and renamed the Sun Princess. At the same time, P&O also acquired two other vessels (owned by Flagship Cruises) which were renamed the Island Princess and Pacific Princess that featured prominently in the television series The Love Boat that was based on the non-fiction memoir entitled: Love Boats by Jeraldine Saunders, who was a real-life cruise director on a passenger cruise ship line.
The Love Boat made-for-TV movie was followed by two more made-for-TV movies before starting its first season as a highly successful comedy/drama series that ran for nine seasons followed by four more TV specials. The creation of this iconic television series brought the allure of cruise ship travelling into the living rooms of people all over North America and helped to catapult the cruise ship industry into a major global tourism and economic phenomenon.
In 1978, there were apparently 30 cruise ships visits to Victoria with over 20,000 passengers. By 2002, the number had increased to 100 cruise ship visits carrying over 160,000 passengers. A decade later there were 220 cruise ships visits and passenger numbers topped 500,000 visitors. In 2018, Victoria welcomed nearly 640,000 passengers and 260,000 crew members on 250 ship visits with an estimated economic impact of $130 million for the region.
The estimate for 2019 is for 264 ship arrivals with over 700,000 cruise ship passengers, creating an even greater economic impact. The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA) has started work on lengthening the Pier B mooring dolphin to accommodate the Royal Caribbean International Ovation of the Sea that is 348 metres long (1,141 feet). Last year, terminal improvements were made at Ogden Point to install new bollards at Pier A in order to accommodate the 168,000-tonne Norwegian Bliss which was launched in April 2018 and is 333 metres long (1,094 feet).
It is hard to imagine what Francis Rattenbury, the architect who was commissioned to design the British Columbia Legislative Buildings (1898); the elegant Empress Hotel (1908); the CPR Steamship Terminal (1924); and the Crystal Gardens amusement centre (1925) would have thought of the transition from passenger liners and the arrival of immigrants to the advent of the cruise ship industry and the arrival of tourists to marvel at the lure of his grand architecture in the heart of historic Victoria.
In case you’re wondering, the total number of cruise ships plying the world’s oceans at the end of 2018 amongst all of the different cruise line companies was 314 ships with a worldwide cruise line passenger daily capacity of 537,000 and an annualized total number of 26.0 million passengers — a three per cent increase over 2017 according to Cruise Market Watch.
David R. Leverton is the Executive Director of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia and recently co-authored Those Who Perished: The Unknown Story of the Largest Shipwreck Disaster along the Pacific Northwest Coast. David can be reached at email@example.com.