The eccentric engineer: the life and death of a 1930s luxury travel icon
Image credit: Bradley Pisney | Unsplash
Vladimir Yourkevitch was an ambitious Russian naval engineer, whose most radical design, the ‘Normandie’, smashed speed records – until triumph turned to tragedy.
It’s not the sort of call any engineer likes to get: “Vladimir Ivanovich, your Normandie is on fire.”
For Vladimir Ivanovich Yourkevitch, the birth of his great ocean liner Normandie had already caused him enough headaches. Having trained in St Petersburg as a naval engineer under the last days of the tsars, he had been charged with helping to update the Russian navy after their disastrous defeat by the Japanese at the battle of Tsushima. Given the task of creating the fastest and largest cruisers in the new navy, he developed a unique streamlined hull form, which was due to be used on the Russian ‘super dreadnoughts’.
However, the 1917 October Revolution put paid to those plans, and as a member of the White Movement he soon found himself in exile – first in Turkey, where he was forced to take a job as a stevedore, and then in Paris as a turner at Renault.
Yet Yourkevitch was not a man to give up and he enthusiastically pitched his new hull shapes to the great Atlantic liner companies who were, in the 1920s, in the process of updating their transatlantic fleets with the fastest, most luxurious vessels ever built (one example of which is pictured above, the Queen Mary). But it would be six years before he found work with French shipbuilder Penhoët. The firm had been commissioned to design a huge new transatlantic liner, the Normandie, and Yourkevitch was asked to produce an independent hull design and body plan for consideration. He began work in 1929, not in a state-of-the-art draughting office, but in his cramped lodgings, where he would work on the project for five years.
Still, not everyone had faith in the Russian engineer. His design seemed so radical that it was only put forward as one of 25 possibilities for testing. In the model tank, however, his paraffin model proved an instant hit, easily the fastest of all those tested. In 1931, Compagnie Générale Transatlantique ordered the hull laid down and building began.
Having her fitting-out held up by the depression, she only took her maiden voyage in May 1935 and with considerable smaller engines than her competitors (160,000 hp as opposed to the Queen Mary’s 212,000 hp). Yet she crossed the Atlantic from the Bishop Rock to Ambrose light in four days, three hours and five minutes at an average speed of almost 30 knots, smashing the previous record by over a knot, and earning her the coveted Blue Riband.
With his reputation made, Yourkevitch moved to New York and set up his own design bureau and it was here that, on 9 February 1942, he got the call telling him his beloved Normandie was on fire. The ship had been requisitioned by the US Navy as the USS Lafayette and was being fitted out when a spark from a welding torch started the fire. Yourkevitch assumed it would quickly be put out, but in extinguishing it the fire barges pumped too much water on board, capsizing the vessel.
While this happened Yourkevitch could only look on. The Navy and NYC fire department refused his offers to help and ignored his expert knowledge of the ballast systems and innovative fire suppression system, which had been disabled.
Yet Yourkevitch remained undaunted. By the time of the accident investigation, he had already come up with a plan for refloating the vast liner. As he told the panel: “American engineering enterprises have accomplished still more colossal tasks. You can do everything here in America.”
In the event, raising the Normandie would be the biggest salvage operation in history to that date, costing $5m, and it would take a Russian to prove it was possible. Yourkevitch’s blueprint required all 2,000 underwater openings in the hull to be sealed along with the top of the hull. The underwater decks were then reinforced to resist water pressure and water was pumped out of the hull, leaving her resting on her side on the surface.
At this point, Yourkevitch’s intimate knowledge of the design of the ship could come into play and a precise amount of water was pumped back into various compartments in the double bottom of the vessel, slowly swinging her upright. His triumphant comment as she turned was: “She is thick with black mud, but she is alive!”
Sadly, it would prove an all too brief resurrection. Towed into dry dock, she was reclassified as an aircraft and transport ferry, but the manpower and resources could not be found to finish her conversion. Instead her hulk remained in dock at New York, corroding until 11 October 1945, when she was struck off the Naval Vessel register, having never sailed under US colours.
A year later she was up for sale and the undaunted Yourkevitch drew up plans to revive her, in cut down form, as a mid-sized liner, but in a post-war world, the age of the liners was over. In October 1946, the Normandie started to be cut up for scrap, breaking Vladimir Ivanovich Yourkevitch’s heart.
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