rms olympic largest british liner

Above: Olympic, depicted by the White Star Line in an advertisement dating from the late 1920s or early 1930s. Although characterful, the illustration has several mistakes, including the liner’s lifeboat configuration. She cuts an impressive profile. (Author’s Collection.)

I thought that Olympic completed her maiden voyage in five days sixteen hours and forty-two minutes, averaging 21.17 knots. Why do you give different figures (after 2006)?

When Olympic completed her maiden voyage, the time was given as five days sixteen hours and forty-two minutes. This appeared in press reports and the log card issued to passengers. Given the distance of 2,894 nautical miles, the average speed came to 21.17 knots. However, unknown to anyone at the time, there was an error in the time calculation that went unnoticed. The departure time from Daunt’s Rock, and the arrival time at the Ambrose Lightship, could be confirmed, and they showed that the voyage had taken five days fifteen hours and two minutes. This meant that the average speed was actually 21.43 knots - more impressive than the incorrect speed.

The incorrect figures were included in the earlier print runs of The ‘Olympic’ Class Ships: Olympic, Titanic & Britannic and RMS Olympic: Titanic’s Sister, as the mistake was not known at that time. In fact, the error went unnoticed for over ninety years. However, after Mark Chirnside and Sam Halpern discovered the mistake in 2006, it was outlined in an article published in early 2007. This article appeared in the Titanic International Society’s Voyage journal, and subsequently online at Encyclopedia-Titanica: Olympic and Titanic: Maiden Voyage Mysteries. Hopefully, the books can be revised in the future and this mistake corrected.

Didn’t Olympic lose the title of the largest British liner to Aquitania, in 1914?

The generally accepted standard for measuring if one liner is larger than another is to use gross registered tonnage, which is essentially a measure of enclosed space (and not weight, as the term implies). On this measurement, Olympic was the largest liner in the world in 1911, at 45,324 gross tons; after the 1913 refit, her size increased to 46,358 gross tons. By this time, with the German HAPAG liner Imperator (later to become Berengaria) exceeding 52,000 tons, Olympic lost her right to the title of the largest liner in the world (which she had lost for a brief period when Titanic was in service) but remained the largest British liner.

Although Aquitania’s size was projected at 47,000 gross tons by Cunard publicity material in 1913, when she entered service in 1914 she measured 45,647 gross tons. This was higher than Olympic’s gross tonnage in 1911, but – given that Olympic’s size had increased to 46,358 gross tons in 1913 – Aquitania was smaller. While both liners’ gross tonnage figures varied throughout their careers, Aquitania’s never surpassed Olympic’s. (When Britannic was in service in 1915-16, she was the largest British liner at 48,158 gross tons. The honour subsequently reverted to Olympic.)

In terms of length, Aquitania was marginally longer than Olympic; and her width was several feet greater. By that standard, Aquitania would have appeared slightly larger to the keen observer if the two liners were ever side by side, and Cunard did claim on occasion that Aquitania was the largest British liner. However, on the more comprehensive measurement of gross tonnage then Olympic was always larger, and after the war White Star also pointed out that she was the largest triple-screw steamer in the world.

You state that Olympic’s fastest eastbound crossing was completed in 1924, and her fastest westbound crossing in 1928. Wasn’t Olympic’s fastest crossing completed in November 1921?

Yes and no. On October 31st 1921 Olympic arrived in New York, having completed 2,931 miles in 5 days 12 hours and 39 minutes, averaging 22.10 knots. However, the eastbound return crossing was even faster: she covered 2,999 miles in 5 days 12 hours and 38 minutes, averaging 22.61 knots. These appear to be her fastest westbound and eastbound crossings in terms of the time elapsed but, if her average speed is a better way to measure a ‘fastest’ crossing, then she subsequently did even better. She exceeded both average speeds on subsequent crossings.

It is important to note that Olympic’s fastest crossings were not a great deal faster than her usual schedule. Given that Olympic was not fast enough to gain the ‘Blue Riband,’ it does not seem that she was ever driven at full speed for an entire crossing. Rather, the fastest eastbound crossing she ever made, in 1924, seems to have been aided by favourable weather conditions. She often made a single day’s run at a much higher speed, exceeding regularly 23 knots. In 1915, Harold Sanderson confirmed that she had previousy maintained 24.2 knots for a 24 hour period - a speed more than a knot greater than that of her highest average speed on an entire crossing.

(Further information can be found in RMS Olympic: Titanics Sister.)

When were the new first class suites added to Olympic, forward on B-deck?

Although it is popularly believed that they were added in 1928, at the same time as changes were made to second and tourist class areas, in fact there was no one major refit in 1928. Instead, some changes were made over the winter of 1927-28, and some over 1928-29. The new suites were added over the winter of 1928-29. (See: RMS Olympic: The Mis-dated Refit.)


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