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RMS Olympic – The Overlooked Sister

She was the largest passenger liner in the world at the time of her debut and, for 22 consecutive years, held the title of the largest active British-built liner. She made 257 transatlantic crossings during her career as a passenger liner. She carried more than 200,000 troops during her service in the First World War, in which she rammed and sunk a German U-boat. And, on a lighter note, she even boasted the first squash court on a passenger ship, as well as one of the first few indoor swimming pools.


Despite her remarkable achievements, she is often referred to, simply, as Titanic’s sister. This description, while largely accurate, is also woefully inadequate.


This month marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the maiden voyage of RMS Olympic, the first and longest-lived of the three Olympic Class ships of the White Star Line. On June 14, 1911, she departed Southampton for New York, via Cherbourg and Queenstown. Her crossing of the Atlantic on this maiden voyage was recorded at 5 days, 16 hours, 36 minutes a notable feat for that period. Even so, June 14, 2011 was an anniversary that slipped by all but the most ardent liner fans. The centenary of Titanic’s launch date two weeks earlier was met with more fanfare.


While Olympic’s sister ships, Titanic (1912) and Britannic (1915) became famous due to their tragic endings within a short period of their maiden voyages, Olympic enjoyed a long life that spanned more than two decades, despite several mishaps of her own. Ironically, Olympic’s longevity may have been attributable to Titanic. During a six-month refit in 1912-1913, Olympic underwent a number of structural changes, including those to her watertight compartments, plumbing systems, and propellers. As the workhorse for White Star Line, Olympic would endure many additional refits and refurbishments over the years, including engine work, modernization of passenger spaces, and conversions to and from wartime configurations. Ultimately, it was the Great Depression that led to her demise. She remained in service until 1935—a year after the merger of Cunard and White Star—and was sold to scrappers within the year.


In many ways, RMS Olympic lives on. She is profiled in many books on passenger ship history, including the impressive service as a troopship that earned her the nickname, “Old Reliable.” Artifacts from the liner remain in demand by collectors. And, in a novel move, Olympic was the first liner to be honored by Celebrity Cruises in the development of the specialty restaurants on its Millennium-class ships. Several original walnut panels from Olympic’s first class dining room now adorn some of the walls in the RMS Olympic Restaurant onboard Celebrity Millennium, bringing part of the liner back to the seas.


Yet, RMS Olympic is still known primarily as a sister ship to a legendary liner rather than celebrated in her own right, May we mark the one hundredth anniversary of her first passenger crossing by bringing her out of her 99-year shadow—a footnote that reflects only part of who she was—and recalling the many achievements of this long-lived and innovative ocean liner.