Most of us who live in Hawaii today were not here the last time Matson Navigation Co.`s white ships were, but one of the surprises in Duncan O'Brien's coffee table memoir is that they had long careers after Matson left the passenger shipping business in 1970.
SS Monterey (renamed Lurline in 1963 and thus the ship that older Hawaii residents remember) entered service in 1931, was still in use in the late 1990s and finally sank on the way to the shipbreaker's in 2000. The later Monterey, built in 1952 and rebuilt as a liner in 1956, was scrapped only two years ago.
The white ships were not originally white, either. The first, SS Malolo in 1927, was painted in dark colors like a North Atlantic liner.
Only much smaller. Although Malolo (later Matsonia) was a leap forward among Pacific (and, for that matter, American-built) liners in size, speed and comfort, she was half the size and several knots slower than the Atlantic greyhounds.
The first Boat Day for Malolo in Honolulu still stands as one of the islands' biggest, most excited civic events.
O'Brien, who traveled via Matson as a child, emphasizes the grand manner of Matson and its high levels of service. But he never offers a very exact comparison with what went before. Malolo carried 389 passengers in first class, 163 in second. The ships that crossed the North Pacific in the emigrant trade were much smaller but carried a thousand or more travelers.
No wonder the well-off loved the white ships.
There were six in all. The Pacific is so big that although a Matson liner could race from San Francisco or Los Angeles to Honolulu in five days, it took three weeks to reach Sydney.
There is a little bit here about the ships that preceded the white ships, including pictures of the liners Harvard and Yale, looking very Edwardian and suitable for a lake excursion and not a trip across the ocean.
The advertising copy that O'Brien reproduces sounds quaint (or worse), and a few of the candid passenger shots he has collected at flea markets and estate sales are a hoot. It truly was a more sedate era. The (partial) diary of two L.A. girls looking for action, while suggestive, would be too tame for TV nowadays.
"The White Ships" is mostly a picture book, but there is a business story here. With the help of subsidies, Matson did well even during the Depression, but the finest period for the white ships lasted just 14 years.
Gutted for use as troopships, conditions had changed so much by 1946 that Matson could afford to refit only one ship, the first Lurline liner (but third of that name). It took more than 10 years to bring more ships into service.
The last of the original white ships, the Monterey-Matsonia-Lurline, was sold in 1970, but the newer, smaller Mariposa and Monterey kept sailing their accustomed routes, though no longer for Matson, until 1978.
Unlike the Atlantic companies (except Cunard), Matson had an excellent safety record, so "The White Ships" does not have exciting stories to tell. The story of the white ships is like a voyage on one of them -- long and languid.