Great Looking Ships

Warning! Reading this Column May Result in EDS Infection.

My father was on the new construction team of the 1958 SS Rotterdam V, a visually iconic passenger liner that is presently a static hotel and event space in Rotterdam Harbor.

When she entered service, her looks were much discussed, and generally compared to her very graceful older running partner the 1936 SS Nieuw Amsterdam II.


I have pictures of both vessels in my office and I think the older vessel is the prettier vessel. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but, regardless, the SS Rotterdam is a beautifully proportioned and almost timeless vessel.

When SS Rotterdam was completed, my father received a commemorative book about her construction and at some stage I got my hands on it. I remember reading that after the foremast had been installed the designers and owners felt the rake was not correct.

They went into boats and studied the vessel from afar and at various angles and decided to change the rake by just a few degrees. Not an inexpensive proposition, but the leadership felt it should be right, rather than good enough. I must have been 12 or so when I read this and remember thinking how does one know it is right?

Boat prettiness was a continuous family discussion whether related to traditional Dutch sailing vessels (bulky but with massive amounts of presence and balance), S&S yachts (sleek), or being struck by the incredible sexiness of West Coast tuna seiners such as built by Campbell and Martinac in the 70’s and, remarkably, as late as the early 90’s.

However, our family also discussed the almost overnight disappearance of commercial ship prettiness best expressed by the uncomely 1984 Nieuw Amsterdam III as the harbinger of cruise ship ugliness.

Still these ugly vessels made money, and what is pretty anyway? Lester Rosenblatt, who loved pretty ships, once told me it is all in the eye beholder. He observed that a monstrously ugly passenger vessel with all cabins filled with paying passengers has got to be the most beautiful thing in the world to the vessel owner, and in that regard he was right.

But I had a hard time looking past all that disproportionate ugliness and for that I specifically blame two gentlemen I never met.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, I was interning for a defense contractor with a nice technical library and during lunch I would poke around and take out stuff to read later. I ended up skimming through quite a number of years of USNI Proceedings and Naval Engineers Journal.

In skimming through the December 1979 Naval Engineers Journal my eye caught this illustration.

I paged back to the beginning of the paper and saw it was called “Visual Effectiveness in Modern Warship Design” by Lt. John Charles Roach and Herbert Meier. The paper goes into much greater detail, but this single page illustration struck me, because it very succinctly laid out what I had been feeling since I read about the SS Rotterdam foremast rake adjustments.

It also explained why I thought those West Coast tuna seiners were so sexy. Those boats ticked all the boxes as outlined in the illustration. And it is so simple; just a few things to keep in mind. With just a little additional energy, a designer can improve a concept from blah to quite nice with just a few strokes of the pen or the mouse.

I returned the journal to the library without making a copy (I paid an internet publisher to retrieve a copy for this article), but the illustration never left my mind. That also meant that, thanks to Roach and Meier, I became Esthetic Design Sensitized. I became infected with EDS and would look at a vessel and think: “What is the matter with these people? With just a few minor adjustments this design could have gone from blah to beautiful.”

So having drawn attention to this illustration, and Roach and Meier’s work, I now hope that those who see it will also be infected with EDS and join me in the “let’s make things a little prettier” movement.

It is not an easy task and to be Esthetic Design Sensitized can be frustrating at times.

A few years ago, I partnered in the purchase of a 1986 Transworld 50 trawler. She is no blushing virgin, but wherever she shows up, she is always the belle of the ball. People love her and despite her faded gelcoat and far from pristine teak, we get nothing but compliments about her looks.

But based on my Roach and Meier infection I can’t look past her flaws. One is particularly troublesome, since I could potentially fix it. Her mast rake is wrong; it should have been much more upright. If only the designer had been sensitized by Roach and Meier back in 1986, I would not have to suffer so in 2022.

Is it actually too late? Has the world simply given up on pretty ships?

Until very recently I despaired, but then I saw a Marinelink posting on two new fishing vessel orders at Karstensen Shipyard in Denmark. There was a thumbnail of a what appeared to be a rather anachronistic looking fishing vessel. I clicked on it, and, discovered that Karstensen was building two fishing vessels that, while not quite as sexy and EDS perfect as 1970’s West Coast tuna seiners, certainly were designed to be sexy.  And from their appearance it was clear somebody was willing to spend some effort and money on it too! Moreover, these two vessels were not outliers. Karstensen started building nice looking vessels in 1917 and actually never stopped building nice looking vessels.

Attractive large fishing boats? Really? Maybe not all is lost. Keep it up Karstensen!

Picture credits MREN, NE Journal, Wikipedia and M&O