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.”