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Monday, January 20, 2020

In September 2018, the Fred. Olsen family of Oslo celebrated 170 years of shipowning. The schedules of the members of the present Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ fleet were co-ordinated so that all four coincided in Cadiz on the 10th September. A spectacular celebration ensued.

Today, of course, the family holdings consist of much more than the familiar cruise ships: there are real estate and ferries in the Canary Islands, oil rigs and service vessels, the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, wind farms, a tidal power experiment, fish farms, publications, and a travel business.

Olsen’s first became known in Britain when, in the midnineteenth century, during the days before mechanical refrigeration, their tiny wooden sailing vessels braved the treacherous waves and weather of the North Sea to bring blocks of Norwegian ice to British ports. It was a dangerous trade. Whatever the conditions, they had to get through. If the ice melted and the vessel became flooded with water, the consequences were disastrous. In any case, shipping was a risky business and the first Fred. (an abbreviation of Fredrik and always spelled with a dot after the final ‘d’) lost ten of the twenty-two ships he owned during his lifetime. Nevertheless, he and his two brothers became successful shipowners.

Early on, the tradition was established that whenever an Olsen ship sailed up the Kristianiafjord (now Oslofjord) past the family’s home village of Hvitsten, she would dip her ensign and a flag would be lowered onshore in response. That still happens today.

For many years, the best known Olsen connection with Britain was their Royal Mail passenger ferry service from Oslo to the Tyne. This began in 1906 when the highly entrepreneurial second Fred. took over the business of the failing Østlandske Lloyd company which had been running regular services from Kristiania (the present-day Oslo) to Newcastle and to Antwerp.

_auto_generated_thumb_ By the late ’twenties and the ’thirties, competition on the North Sea was intense. Ellerman’s Wilson Line’s green-hulled ships were sailing to Hull from ports around Scandinavia and the Baltic; Olsen’s great rival, the Bergen Line, ran a joint service with the Nordenfjeldske company from Bergen to the Tyne; and Svenska Lloyd (the Swedish Lloyd) had two outstanding Swan Hunter-built turbine steamers on their route from Gothenburg to Tilbury.

The Olsen ships were handicapped by having to make the long, slow passage down the Oslofjord before reaching the sea. Train connections between Southern Norway and both Bergen and Gothenburg were sufficiently good to make the Bergen Line and Swedish Lloyd services strong competitors to Olsen’s for the traffic from the region. On the other hand, Olsen’s could make the comforting claim that their service provided the shortest open sea passage of the rough North Sea.

In 1931, the Bergen Line introduced their spectacular new Venus which could briefly claim to be the fastest motorship in the world. As has already been said, the North Sea can be very rough, and it is no surprise that many of the ships on the routes which crossed it acquired the reputation of giving their passengers an uncomfortable ride, so much so that Venus was quite generally referred to as ‘the vomiting Venus’. Olsen’s reply finally came in 1938. That was, in fact, a golden year for Norwegian passenger shipping. The Norwegian America Line introduced their 18,000-ton German-built transatlantic liner Oslofjord; the Bergen Line commissioned the very stylish Italian-built Vega to run in double harness with Venus; and Olsen’s brought out a pair of beautiful 5,000- ton motorliners, the first Black Prince and the first Black Watch, which provided their first class passengers with facilities unprecedented on the North Sea.

But this was to be a shortlived glory. Of these four outstanding ships, only Black Prince survived the Second World War, but was so badly damaged she never re-entered service. In 1941, having been seized by German forces, she was devastated by fire. At the time, Lloyd’s List wrote: “Her destruction recalls that she, with her sister ship, was one of the most ingeniously designed vessels ever built for North Sea passenger and mail service….. The pair will go down in history as an example of the almost perfect motorships of their class.”

During the straitened years, after the end of the Second World War, Olsen’s resumed their service to the Tyne with older ships transferred from other routes. However, in their technical department in Oslo, led by Leif Steineger, plans were being drawn up for worthy successors to the lost Black Prince and Black Watch.

The orders were placed with Olsen’s own shipyard, the Akers Mekaniske Verksted in Oslo. So busy was that yard, however, that the construction of the hulls and the superstructures was subcontracted to the Woolston yard of John I Thornycroft & Co, Ltd in Southampton.

Blenheim and Braemar
With memories of the War still so vivid, relations between Britain and Norway were particularly cordial at that time. It is worth remembering that at one period of the War, more than one-third of the vital supplies of oil being brought to Britain, at huge risk, was coming in on Norwegian tankers. In tune with the times, the first of the new pair was named Blenheim in honour of Sir Winston Churchill – Blenheim Palace was the Churchill family seat where the great man had been born; and a signed photograph of him was hung in the ship’s first class lounge. The second ship was called Braemar in an oblique tribute to the British Royal family – Braemar, the home of the Royal Highland Games, is a village just a few miles from Balmoral and has strong Royal connections.

Blenheim was launched on the 16th August, 1950, followed by Braemar (Thornycroft yard no 4123) on the 20th November, 1952. It has to be said that it was not the yard’s finest hour. The third Fred., now usually referred to as Fred. Olsen, senior, remembers:

“The sponsor of the ship, or as I like to say the godmother, was Mrs Frances Farquharson, then chatelaine of Braemar Castle. The Farquharson piper played as the chocks were knocked away to lower the ship onto the ways. When the ship was ready, the godmother smashed the bottle of champagne against the bow with gusto – but all was quiet except for the chug of a small hydraulic piston to start the ship sliding down the ways, but the piston slowed down and then stopped. The ship stood still.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - March 2019 Issue
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