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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Channel Crossings

Everybody has heard horror stories of how bad it can be crossing the English Channel in the winter or during a storm. I have two sources of winter crossings that are interesting, one for its historic perspective, and the second for its amusing culture clash.

The first set of crossings belong to my great-uncle Roger and his wife Flavia. Uncle Roger was a business executive who was sent from New York to London, then to Paris, to Germany, to Russia, and to Italy to open two European offices and to establish ties to subcontractors—in the winter and spring of 1930. He took Flavia with him on the 1930 trip, and the next year they returned to live in Europe for a few years with their young children. Here is a piece of Flavia’s letter after their crossing from London to Paris.

“Hotel Roblin
“Paris,
“February 9, 1930

“Dear Folks:

“And here we are in Paris - a beautiful city! We flew over from London Wednesday, making what might have been a long twelve hour trip in just two hours and ten minutes. And less expensive than by boat! The plane, a ‘Silver Wing’ was a huge tri-motored one, with a very comfortable cabin, seating eighteen people in addition to two pilots and a steward. Luncheon was served to us in the air - sandwiches and hot coffee. It seemed so strange to eat high above everything. The air seemed very smooth, visibility tho’ was poor. When crossing the channel we were in or above the clouds most of the time. It was a very beautiful sight - great soft billows of white and grey tinged with gold from the sun. Occasionally we caught a glimpse of white-capped waters below us, and were glad to be going by air instead of by boat. We crossed at the narrowest place and flew for many miles over northwestern France. It was wonderfully interesting - quaint villages - farms with their white walls - a few beautiful chateau[x] with towers and terraces and gardens and lakes. We flew low most of the time - about 1500 feet - except over the Channel where we went up to 2500. And traveled at about 90 miles an hour most of the time.”

This an excerpt from Roger’s letter when they returned to London, February 24, 1930:

“When we went to Paris we flew over in an English plane - ‘Imperial Airways’. So when we came back here today we decided to come on a French line, the ‘Air Union’. It certainly is worth while flying between Paris and London. The cost is the same as by train and boat, and in addition the time from hotel to hotel is less than half. And no rough channel crossings, and no seasickness, and no changing from train to boat and boat to train.

“We left Paris at half-past one this afternoon in a very dense fog. Five hundred feet off the ground, we were completely lost in fog, and in a minute or two we were in such dense clouds we were simply enveloped in an impenetrable blanket of white. But within ten minutes we had climbed above and were in the beautiful sunlight with billowy oceans of white clouds below us. After half an hour or so the clouds disappeared and we had clear vision. Over the Channel - 32 miles of water - it was very hazy again, but that cleared when England’s cliffs came into view and we landed at London Airdrome in a driving sleet rain just two hours and ten minutes after leaving the ground at Paris. And a nice luncheon served on board while we were speeding at over 100 miles an hour 3000 feet above the earth.”

Then on March 12, 1930, Roger wrote again about their crossing from London to Dusseldorf, Germany.

“I think Flavia wrote you of our flying from London to Dusseldorf. It was not a very pleasant trip as it was very foggy and also a very rough trip. We flew nearly all the way not over 600 feet from the ground, and over the Channel, which it took 25 minutes to cross. We were at times not over 100 feet above the waves, and at no time more than 400 feet. Both Flavia and I were airsick - an uncomfortable experience.”

In 1930 air passenger travel was in its early years. The first airplane crossing the English Channel was in July 1909. (An air crossing by balloon was successful in 1785.) Imperial Airways had formed in London in 1924 and that same spring began its service between London and Paris, its English base being at Croydon Airport, south of London. Flying that low to the ground was supposed to be one of the charms of early air travel. Since mostly only those with some wealth could fly, sightseeing was emphasized to draw in passengers. Still, I think my relatives were either brave or inveterate thrill seekers. I can’t imagine flying that low over the Channel, especially that March crossing to Dusseldorf when it was stormy and they had to fly so close to the waves.

But that brings me to my own memories. Like Roger and Flavia, most of my flights to Europe have been relatively smooth, but a couple of times we have had to fly through storms, once quite dramatically.

One Christmas my mother and I flew to Spain to pick up my sister, who was in the United States military stationed near Madrid, and we drove to Calais, France, where we crossed the channel on New Year’s Eve, enroute to visit an aunt and uncle in England. During our trans-Atlantic crossing from New York to Madrid, we ran into a turbulent storm while the cabin staff were serving dinner.

Just as the captain announced that there might be turbulence and that the staff were to return to their seats, our plane hit a pocket and dropped about 50 feet. Trays and food and everything loose hit the ceiling of the plane, people screamed at the tops of their lungs, and all the staff had hit the floor immediately, spread-eagled and grasping the bolted legs of the seats nearest them. My mother and I stayed outwardly calm, but I’m sure our faces were several shades paler than normal. Thankfully, that was the only bad part. It was bumpy after that, but not bad. The captain came on the intercom again and explained the air pressure and the physics of the incident, in a bit of an effort to help people regain confidence in how the airplane handled such things (and in his own competence).

That week a storm hit the English Channel, just a couple months after an incredibly powerful storm created damage across the entire south coast of the country. When we arrived the next week in Calais, we were told that gale force 9 conditions had meant terrible crossing conditions in the Channel (force 12 is hurricane force). People were understandably nervous.

But when we arrived in Calais the evening of December 31st, conditions were quiet. Not just quiet, the sea was glassy smooth, reflecting perfectly the nearly-full moon’s orb and its long track across the sea to the base of our ferry boat. We drove my sister’s car on board and parked it on the parking deck, then moved upstairs to the passenger deck. There were few passengers, and indoors a mother and a small group of children sat around a small television set that was showing American cartoons. The three of us strolled about the deck outside, but there was little to see except the moon and its track on the sea, so we went back inside and sat on some chairs a distance away from the group around the television.

My sister and I noticed that the cartoons were some of our childhood favorites; Looney Tunes’ Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote were up to their old tricks. We giggled at the expected outcome of one of the Coyote’s elaborate, ludicrous invention-based plans to capture the Roadrunner. Invariably the Coyote met with a violent end, but no matter how violent the end, he popped up ready to keep chasing his dinner in the next scene. This is a staple of American humor, the disconnect between the realistic expectation and the cartoon outcome using extreme slapstick-style comedy. I think nobody but Americans really “gets” this type of humor, and the people on that ferry certainly didn’t. The mothers were frankly horrified at us callously chuckling at this terrible show that was supposed to be for children.
We tried to stifle ourselves, realizing that we were the only ones finding the cartoon funny. But we simply couldn’t. We kept giggling, trying to be silent. Stifling our giggling got to be its own humor, making us teary-eyed with our efforts to be quiet. We had to get up and go outside to the deck rail where we could laugh—and watch the lights of Dover drawing close as we glided into port.

So the only rough sea crossing I’ve experienced is that of cultural misunderstanding—and I just had to laugh. Having flown in small planes a few times, once with a roommate who was practicing for a test to renew her pilot’s license, I learned how precarious it could be to stay in the air under certain conditions. My friend was practicing mid-air stalls, and we flew down to the lake near our home so as to practice over the water. I asked her what would happen to us if we crashed. She said it might be bad, but she said, “If we were over land, it might be worse. We could be over a school, or a busy intersection. I’d rather be over something empty than risk more than just our two lives. But of course nothing bad is going to happen.”

And it didn’t, but her words resonated with me. She talked me through the kinds of problems an aircraft could develop where landing could be very difficult if the pilot couldn’t keep the craft in the air. It was enlightening and I realized that so as not to develop real fear of flying I had to adopt a certain level of calm fatalism—if this must be my time to go, so be it. That sort of thing helped with that Christmas flight over the Atlantic, but I don’t know if I could have been as calm flying close to the waves in a small aircraft through a storm.


Next time I cross the English Channel, I want to try the Chunnel. I don’t have any sense of claustrophobia, so a train all the way from London to Paris sounds like my best plan for an easy crossing.

1 comment:

  1. Looking into today's prices of airfares vs. Eurostar (taking the Chunnel), I found that a trip using the dates of Roger and Flavia's journey (for 2018) would cost about $104 using British Airways and $104 on the lowest class of Eurostar. The train time varies from 2 hours 16 minutes to 2 hours 37 minutes. I suppose that accounts for rush hour? I don't know. The flights were 1 hour 5 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes. We have definitely speeded up over the last 87 years. But have we gotten less expensive? Yes and no. Flying was definitely for the relatively wealthy in 1930. But although it got a lot cheaper over the decades, it is now getting back to being expensive and without the luxury there used to be. Travel is increasingly uncomfortable, irritating, and full of problems. I guess all that they used to worry about in 1930 was crashing . . .

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