Sirius – and the Blue Ribband of the Atlantic – Extra Info

Sirius - and the Blue Ribband of the AtlanticAt the Cobh (Queenstown) Museum, Ireland there is an excellent model of Sirius upon which this painting is based. The artist visited the museum when voyaging onboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 as a celebrity guest of Cunard line. The painting was produced as a demonstration for the passengers. There is also a fine model of Sirius at the Science Museum, London.

The Gallant Sirius

New York bid welcome on 18th April 1838, to a battered little paddle-steamer named The Sirius. She had beaten all the odds and completed the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic under continuous steam power.

This painting is an appreciation of the diminutive, gallant Sirius labouring under engine upon the Great North Atlantic Ocean, three cheers for her crew, her 40 passengers and investors! Who were the 40 brave souls?

The first crossing under steam power alone was made in 1838, when two British steamship companies sent rival ships to New York within a few days of each other; the Great Western made the trip in 15 days, arriving four hours after the much smaller Sirius, which had left England 4 days before her.


What is in a name? Sirius, the “dog” star. Sirius is the brightest star in the Northern night sky. It is situated in the eye of the greater dog Canis Major, therefore it is known as the ‘Dog Star’. Sirius can be seen from every inhabited region of the Earth’s surface. Sirius is also one of the nearest stars to Earth. The best time of year to view it is around January 1, when it reaches the meridian at midnight. Visit for more on Sirius.


The first ship to cross the Atlantic entirely under steam power

The SS ‘Sirius’, British and American Steam Navigation Company, left London and called at Queenstown, (Cobh) near Cork where she re-coaled for the start of her journey into history. She sailed on April 4, 1838 from the Irish port, with forty passengers. She ran out of coal before reaching New York. The crew stripped down doors, furniture and allegedly one of the masts to feed the furnace and keep her going. This incident may have inspired Jules Verne when he wrote Around the World in 80 Days.

Sirius arrived in New York harbour on April 22, her average speed to plough her way across the North Atlantic, despite atrocious weather conditions was 8.03 knots over 19 days. Sirius returned to Europe at an average speed of 7.31 knots.

The Sirius was built as a coastal ship of 700 tons and 380 horsepower. Sirius was designed only for short sea crossings, normally running between London and Cork. The British and American Steam Navigation Company wanted to open the first steam service with their new British Queen, still at the builders’ yard when it became clear that the Great Western would beat them to it. They chartered the Sirius.

On the 16th of July 1838 Sirius anchored in the Cattewater, Plymouth to land American mail, about 3000 letters and newspapers, at the Barbican steps.

Within days of Sirius’ success, the British Admiralty decided to construct four new ships, to transport mail across the Atlantic Ocean. A Canadian, Samuel Cunard, won the contract. His first ship was Cunard’s Britannia. His name and line lives today with their giant flagship Queen Mary 2.

Great Western

Meanwhile the Great Western left Bristol on April 8. She was a larger ship – at the time the largest in the world – designed by the very extra ordinary Isambard Kingdom Brunel specifically for the purpose and was able to steam faster and carry more fuel, coal. Great Western just failed to catch the Sirius, arriving with 200 tons of coal to spare four hours later, average speed 9.52 knots.

After renowned engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed the unique and very expensive Great Western Railroad (London – Bristol – Penzance), including everything, its broad gauge track, engines, rolling stock, tunnels bridges stations etc, The GWR, was often jokingly referred to as “G-d’s Wonderful Railway”. … It is said, at a meeting of the Directors of the Great Western Railway Company, in England, in October of 1835, it was jokingly suggested that the Paddington, Bristol Railroad be extended to New York by means of a bridge or a steamship, to be named the Great Western. Although many at this time believed it impossible to build a steamship with enough coal capacity for that distance.
Brunel, one of the greatest engineers of all time, liked the idea.

Her keel was laid in June of 1836 at the Patterson and Mercer Yard in Wapping Bristol, England. The Great Western was built with great care an innovation. Particular attention was paid to her longitudinal strength. Innovations included the coal bunker which held 800 tons, and was arranged to carry water ballast when the coal was consumed. The Great Western’s paddle wheels were four separate blades arranged in cylindrical curves so that they entered the water more quietly than others. She was launched a year later, on Wednesday, July 9, 1837.

THE P.S. GREAT WESTERN was Brunel’s very first ship. She was built specifically to connect the rail head at Bristol with America, New York in particular.
The Great Western was 236ft long and displaced 2300 tons of water. Because of the exceptional size for the time, of this new transatlantic ship, Brunel had to take into account the stresses put upon it by the Atlantic. She was of conventional structural design with oak frames forming the bottom and sides, and for extra strength to stiffen the large hull, he added four staggered rows of iron bolts running the entire length of the ship. The hull was copper bottomed, that is sheathed in copper below the waterline.

The size of the engine and the amount of fuel required was questioned by many who said there would not be enough room to carry the amount of coal needed for a transatlantic crossing. Thus the first steamship designed specifically for Trans Atlantic crossing was built.

The earlier steamers Savannah, Royal William, Curacao and Sirius had originally had been built for other purposes.

On the 8th of April, 1838, the Great Western set out for New York from Bristol.

The Great Western actually made the faster passage, taking 15¼ days to cover 2200 miles. She covered 354 more miles than the Sirius who took 19 days for the trip.

The Great Western went on to open the first regular steamship Trans Atlantic steam service and made 74 crossings between Bristol and New York from 1838 to 1846.

The first steamship designed specifically for Trans Atlantic crossing was thus built. Savannah, Royal William, Curacao and Sirius had originally had been built for other purposes.

The Great Western became the Queen of the Atlantic.

The record for the fastest transatlantic journey – 14 days 12 hours – was held by the ‘Great Western’ until 1840, when it was bettered by Sam Cunard’s Britannia.

Brunel’s next ship is still with us today.
The SS Great Britain set the standard for ocean travel. She too was a design advance including using a screw propeller. In the early 1970s the old ship was rescued from the Falkland Isles, and can now be seen under restoration in Bristol, England.

Brunel’s last and biggest ship, Great Eastern on July 27th 1866 successfully completed the first Trans Atlantic cable lay. With this connection a hundred and fifty years of transatlantic communication by cable began which continues today (see Cable Ship Sovereign and The Cable Ship “Nexus” on the Mersey ).

Early Atlantic Steam ships

In the early 19th century, paddle-steamers were regarded as a novelty and were restricted to river and canal use. The earliest were American.
The first in Britain operated on the Clyde about 1803. As they were improved, so they became more adventurous. They began to trade along the coastlines and, even, dare to make short sea crossings such as the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the Straits of Dover.

Early paddle-boats were wooden craft and closely resembled the sailing ships they replaced. Their low-pressure inefficient machinery was incapable of producing much speed, very fuel hungry and inclined to explode.
However, they were independent of the wind so enterprising owners were optimistic about their ultimate potential.
Like crossing the Atlantic? Is it Internet today?

In 1819 only four years after the end of the Napoleanic Wars the U.S. ship Savannah, fitted with an auxiliary steam engine made the Atlantic crossing but mostly under sail. Originally Savannah had been laid down as a sailing vessel. The Savannah was outfitted with a steam engine. Her engine was used sparingly however, for out of six hundred forty eight hours on passage, she sailed for five hundred and sixty hours. The advantage of Savannah’s engine on the ocean in calm weather proved insufficient to compensate for the cost of her fuel.

Curacao was the first to cross mostly under steam. The “Curacao” of the Royal Netherlands Navy, is said to have crossed the Atlantic several times about 1826. Outside of the Netherlands, she has received practically no attention in works on steam navigation or on the Internet.

Sirius and Great Western held their race 12 years after Curacao started the first Trans Atlantic mail and passenger steam service between Holland and Curacao.

The Blue Ribband and the Hales trophy

This was awarded to the ship that made the fastest commercial transatlantic crossing. The award is based on average speed rather than shortest elapsed time because the transatlantic routes vary in length.

The Cunard line “Mauretania” (you can buy a limited edition print of her maiden departure at held the award for longer than any other ship until the final ship, SS Unites States. The award consisted of two prizes – one for eastbound crossings and one for westbound. In the year 1933, Geoffrey Hales commissioned and donated a trophy. This trophy was denied to Richard Branson and his Virgin Atlantic Challenge 2 team (See Richard Branson, Chay Blyth and the Blue Ribband ).

More recently new records have been set, but not by ships operating a regular service. In 1990 Hoverspeed Great Britain set a transatlantic crossing record for the fastest average speed and flew the coveted “Blue Ribband” for eight years.

The record of the Buquebus fast ferry, the CATALONIA lasted barely six weeks.

We believe the Australian built Danish ferry Scandlines Cat-Link fast ferry the CAT-LINK V is the current holder.

Congratulations to Captain Claus Kristensen and his crew.

“CAT-LINK V” is a 91.3 meter (300 feet) car and passenger double-hulled catamaran ferry.
She crossed the Atlantic from New York to Bishop Rock off the Scilly Islands off Cornwall, England in two days, 20 hours and nine minutes — the first voyage made in less than three days.

The 500 deadweight ton vessel’s average speed was 41.284 knots. In her way, this descendant of Sirius and Great Western is just as innovative a design.


You can be part of this story buying this painting or a limited edition print of it on this web site.


Further reading

See the following web sites and books:


Last Updated on