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The eccentric engineer: the life and death of a 1930s luxury travel icon

Vladimir Yourkevitch was an ambitious Russian naval engineer whose most radical design, the ‘Normandie’, broke speed records – until its triumph turned into tragedy.

It’s not the kind of phone call an engineer likes to get: “Vladimir Ivanovich, your Normandie is on fire.” For Vladimir Ivanovich Yourkevitch, the birth of his great ocean liner Normandie had given him enough headaches.

After training as a naval engineer in St. Petersburg during the last days of the Tsars, he was tasked with helping keep the Russian navy informed after their disastrous defeat by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima.

Tasked with creating the fastest and largest cruisers in the new navy, he developed a unique streamlined hull shape, which would be used on Russia’s ‘superdreadnoughts’.

The October Revolution of 1917, however, favored 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, then in Paris as a turner for Renault.

Still, Yourkevitch was no man to give up, and he enthusiastically pitched his new hull shapes to the major Atlantic liners who, in the 1920s, were modernizing their transatlantic fleets with the fastest, most luxurious ships ever built (an example of which is pictured above, the Queen Mary).

But it would be six years before he found work with the French shipbuilder Penhoët. The company had been commissioned to design a massive new transatlantic liner, the Normandie, and Yourkevitch was asked to produce an independent hull design and body plan for consideration.

He started working in 1929, not in a modern drafting office, but in his cramped quarters, where he would spend five years working on the project. Still, not everyone had faith in the Russian engineer. Its design seemed so radical that it was only put forward as one of 25 test possibilities.

In the model tank, however, his paraffin model proved an instant hit, easily the fastest of all tested specimens. In 1931, Compagnie Générale Transatlantique ordered the laying down of the hull and construction began.

Because her equipment was held up by the Depression, she did not make her maiden voyage until May 1935 and with significantly 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 nearly 30 knots, breaking the previous record by more than a knot and earning her the coveted Blue Riband. .

After building his reputation, Yourkevitch moved to New York and founded his own design firm. Here, on February 9, 1942, he received a phone call that 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 be extinguished quickly, but when extinguishing the fire boats pumped too much water on board, causing the ship to capsize. While this was happening, Yourkevitch could only watch.

The Navy and NYC Fire Departments declined his offer to assist, ignoring his expert knowledge of the ballast systems and innovative fire suppression system, which had been disabled. Still, Yourkevitch remained undeterred.

By the time of the accident investigation, he had already devised a plan to get the huge ship afloat again. As he told the panel, “American tech companies have accomplished even more colossal tasks.

Here in America you can do anything.” Ultimately, raising the Normandie would be the largest salvage operation in history to that date, costing $5 million, and it would take a Russian to prove it was possible.

Yourkevitch’s blueprint required that all 2,000 underwater openings in the hull be sealed along with the top of the hull. The underwater decks were then reinforced to withstand the water pressure and the water was pumped out of the hull, leaving her lying on her side on the surface.

At this point, Yourkevitch’s intimate knowledge of the ship’s design could come into play and a precise amount of water was pumped back into various compartments in the ship’s double bottom, causing it to slowly swing upright. His triumphant comment as she turned around was, “She’s fat with black mud, but she’s alive!”

Unfortunately, it would turn out to be an all too short resurrection. Towed into dry dock, she was reclassified as an aircraft and transport ferry, but the manpower and resources could not be found to complete her conversion.

Instead, her hull remained in the dock in New York, where she corroded until October 11, 1945, when she was delisted from the Navy ship register, having never sailed an American flag.

A year later she was up for sale and the intrepid Yourkevitch devised plans to revive her, in scaled-down form, as a medium sized liner, but in a post-war world the era of liners was over.

In October 1946, the Normandie began to be cut up for scrap, which broke the heart of Vladimir Ivanovich Yourkevitch.