The history of a transatlantic cruise

The transatlantic crossing is one of the world’s most iconic journeys. It’s a passage that has led explorers from the Old World to the New World. It’s a route that millions of immigrants have taken to pursue their “American Dream”.

Timeline of the Transatlantic Crossing

When was the first transatlantic crossing?

Historians across the world continue to dispute who made the first transatlantic crossing and when it happened. The main contenders for the title are famed explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492, Vikings in the 10th century, or Europeans of the Stone Age, perhaps as far back as 18,000 years ago.

Stone Age: European Settlers

Smithsonian archeologists believed that fishermen and hunters of the Neolithic period were sailing across the Atlantic in small boats made of animal skins around 18,000 years ago. While such a journey may seem improbable in such a vessel, during this period it’s likely that the seas would have been lower, and the gap between the continents closer, giving the theory some credibility.

10th Century: Viking

Many historians believe that the first transatlantic voyage was undertaken by Vikings in the 10th century. Leif Erikson is credited as the lead explorer, and it’s thought he and his crew arrived in North America by mistake. Upon arriving, Erikson is believed to have named the land “Vinland,” owing to the grapevines he found, and he soon returned to Europe. After his arrival, more Vikings made the crossing and built a small settlement. This was eventually abandoned after tensions with Native Americans.

15th Century: Christopher Columbus

Commissioned by Spanish monarchs, Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus made four voyages across the Atlantic during his lifetime. When he first arrived on the soil of the Americas (the Bahamas) in 1492, Columbus was in fact aiming for India, which is why he coined the term “Indians” when actually referring to Native Americans. His discovery of the land led to the recognition of Spain as the first global superpower and went on to spark mass colonialism.

How long did a transatlantic cruise take?

It’s thought it took Columbus and his crew about two months to cross the Atlantic back in 1492, and with cruder vessels, any preceding explorers are likely to have taken many weeks or possibly months more.

The world’s first ocean liner custom-built for transatlantic voyages was the SS Great Western, built in Bristol and launched in 1837. It took around 15 days for this ship to make the crossing. Just three years later, the first Cunard ship (Britannia) made the voyage in 14 days, and with that, Cunard was able to begin a fortnightly mail service between Liverpool (England), Halifax (Canada), and Boston (USA).

As the years passed and ocean liners became increasingly sophisticated, the journey was shortened. Companies began to compete over speed, and transatlantic crossings during the first half of the 20th century would usually take around five days. With the idea that such a voyage is one to enjoy, today the Cunard Transatlantic Crossing is usually seven days.

Development of Cunard cruise liners

The first Cunard liner to make the transatlantic crossing was Britannia, in 1840. With this, Cunard won a British government contract to deliver mail across the Atlantic every two weeks.

Since Britannia, there have been hundreds of liners in the Cunard fleet, many of which have been called into service for various important posts. Between 1860 and 1900, during multiple journeys, 2.5 million immigrants were transported to the New World on a Cunard ship. In 1912, RMS Carpathia was deployed to rescue Titanic survivors. Many Cunard ships were called up to serve in World Wars I and II, and also in the Falklands Conflict.

In the 1950s, Cunard cruise liners flourished. Offering an exquisite vacation to guests, celebrities and royalty alike frequented our ships. In 1967, Queen Elizabeth 2 was launched, and she went on to sail more than 5 million miles over 39 wonderful years of service.

Today, Queen Mary 2 is considered the world’s only true remaining ocean liner. This is because of the way she was built with a strengthened hull, journeying across even the roughest Atlantic waves.

When did transatlantic cruises start?

The transatlantic crossing is a historic and renowned voyage that continues to be revered today. Synonymous with a sense of adventure and exploration, this journey, which has made trade and migration possible for so many, turned into something more akin to a vacation in the early 1900s: the pleasure cruise.

The pleasure cruise

While the first Cunard Transatlantic Crossing took place in 1840, our first transatlantic crossing for pleasure wasn’t until much later. The first custom-built pleasure cruise ship arrived in 1900, courtesy of the Hamburg America Line. Cunard, P&O cruises, and the White Star Line soon started to compete, with ships being built solely to provide a luxury vacation at sea.

The golden age of cruising

Transatlantic crossings and other voyages on cruise ships became increasingly popular in the 1950s, a time now nostalgically referred to as the golden age of cruising. During this period, such voyages became prestigious social events complete with dancing, drinking, and plenty of famous faces. In 1950, Cunard even hosted an all-American star voyage, with celebrities like Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Elizabeth Taylor on board.

Queen Mary 2 makes transatlantic crossings throughout the year, providing our guests with plenty of opportunities to be a part of one of the most magical and iconic voyages. Join us and escape, even just for a week, relishing life on board spent any way you wish.

Experience the Transatlantic Crossing