12 January 2023 — How Do They Get That Ship into the Water?

On 29 October 1932, the ocean liner Normandie was launched in Saint-Nazaire, France. Built for the French Line Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT), the hull had an estimated weight of 27,657 tons. Tens of thousands had gathered to witness the historic event, including French president Albert Lebrun, whose wife, Marguerite, had the honor of wielding the six-quart champagne bottle (said to be the largest in the world) to christen the new wonder. The wave of displaced water created by Normandie’s launch swept about 100 spectators off of their feet, but luckily no one was seriously hurt. The day was a success. There was so much interest in the event that Popular Science magazine ran a two-page article discussing the complexity of transferring the new largest ocean liner from terra firma to the water:

A double track of wood, leading to the water’s edge and extending a short distance beneath the surface—called the “standing ways”—serves as a runway for a pair of cradles known with their platforms as “sliding ways.” These support the vessel’s bow and stern during launching. 

During construction, the ship has rested on temporary cribs. On the day of the launching, workmen transfer it to the ways. Oak wedges are first driven into the sliding platforms… [which] takes up all slack between sliding ways and hull. When temporary cribs and shoring are now removed, the vessel’s entire weight settles downward upon the ways, which have been lubricated copiously with tallow and grease. 

Somewhat amusingly, accounts differ significantly on just how much “tallow and grease” it took to smooth Normandie’s path. Popular Science’s caption writer asserts that they used “forty tons of tallow.” The folks at thegreatoceanliners.com, on the other hand, report that it was “43 tons of soap and 2 ½ tons of lard,” and the Chicago Tribune Press Service pegged it at “fifty tons of tallow, two tons of lard, and one ton of soap.”

Ship SS Normandie underway

The ocean liner Normandie underway. The Great Depression having diminished demand for international travel, her entry into regular service was delayed from 1934 to 1935. Her maiden voyage was a spectacular success; she averaged a speed of 29.98 knots in her transAtlantic crossing, earning the Blue Riband. During WWII she was in New York being converted for use as an American troop transport, but stray sparks from a welder's torch started a fire, and as she took on water from the firefighting efforts, she capsized, and was eventually sold for scrap. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Normandie was launched longitudinally, sliding stern-first into the water. Allowing gravity to pull a ship along greased ways in this fashion is one of the oldest ways to launch a ship. The lubricant on the ways washing into the water can be an environmental concern; alternative forms of longitudinal launches include the use of steel rollers underneath the hull, or even a form of airbags—long rubber tubes that are placed underneath the hull and then inflated, rolling underneath the ship like a row of sausages supporting the hull as it slides down into the water. 

Vintage footage of HMS Albion launch

There is, naturally, an element of risk in launching ships. The launch of the warship HMS Albion on 21 June 1898 was attended by over 30,000 spectators, and superstitious readers would note that the bottle of champagne intended to christen the ship simply bounced off the hull, despite three attempts to break it by the ship’s sponsor, the Duchess of York. When the ship entered the water, the resulting wave swept spectators into the river and thirty-eight people drowned. The event was captured on film by E. P. Prestwich (his footage is shown here) and R. W. Paul.

What if your shipyard is located on a canal, and there isn’t enough room for a ship to slide stern-first into the water without wedging into the opposing banks? Launch sideways, of course! This type of launch typically involves a bit of undignified rolling; it’s either unnerving, or quite fun, to watch a massive ship bobbing merrily in the water like a rubber duck. 

Series of clips of US Naval ships being launched sideways

Naval vessels seem to have a merry time rolling once they first hit the water.

Sometimes smaller vessels can be lifted down into the water mechanically, using cranes. You just want to make sure you’ve done all of the prerequisite math and check your figures twice to avoid unbalancing the crane and possibly tipping it. Another mechanical option is a boatlift—either a suspended cradle, or a wet/dry elevator that supports a craft as it either lowers into the water or lifts up out of it. 

Fast motion video of the construction and launch of cruise ship

Modern cruise ships are typically constructed of pieces that are added on, then they are floated out.

Finally, there is the drydock option—a space that can fill with water for a ship to float out on its own. It’s a major investment in infrastructure, but the floating out is perhaps less of a nail-biter than some of the other methods.

No matter how a newly built ship enters the water, it is nearly always an exciting event, and one to be celebrated. 

Extra Credit

"How Biggest Ship Was Safely Launched"

Launch of the Normandie (video)


Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

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