QE2- AN OCEAN OF MEMORIES

ImageWhat is it about one ship that can inspire such a sense of deep, seemingly illogical devotion? In the case of QE2, trying to analyse that rationally makes about as much sense as trying to stuff a cloud into a suitcase. I have no copper bottomed, rational explanation for my continuing enchantment with what is, in the final essence, really only wood, wires, and steel.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it?

ImageShe is, and always was, far, far more than merely the sum of her material parts. Because if ever any ship had a soul, it was surely her. I sailed her often between 1982 and 2008 in several incarnations. Make no bones, whatever ‘it’ was, QE2 had it in spades.

ImageShe belonged to an age and time where maritime aesthetics counted for a lot. She was, and is, an epic, timeless beauty. The Audrey Hepburn of ocean liners. Cool, classy, utterly distinctive, and blessed with a poise that no other ship quite had. Only the Norway had a similar star quality, and she was a very different, though kindred, kind of soul.

ImageI noticed it when she was tied up at Pier 90 in Manhattan. Standing at waterfront level and looking at that great, soaring flank, it seemed to go on forever. The mid afternoon sun bathed her charcoal hull and gleaming white upper works in a light so bright that it almost hurt to look at it. Never mind the flotsam that spattered the river around her. QE2 looked like an enchanted castle, close and yet almost impossibly distant. She was deliciously unreal, afloat in her own time and space.

ImageThere were times when that enchanted castle felt as if it had been built over the San Andreas fault. On Atlantic crossings, she could rock and roll like a drunken dowager for hours on end. And you always knew when she was in a mood.

ImageBut these fits of regal temperament were part of what formed her character; that indefinable ‘something’ that elevated her way above many newer, so called more luxurious ships. I used to joke that she was built from melted down battlewagons. That hull was strong, sound and solid. I never felt safer on any ship than I did aboard QE2, period.

ImageCrossing the Atlantic on her was almost like being a member of some obscure, religious cult. We were few, but we had faith that our course, however rocky, was the true one. And those early morning arrivals in Manhattan had an almost biblical beauty about them; that sudden, stunning moment of revelation when the World Trade Centre and the Manhattan skyline magically peeped above the horizon at the first flush of dawn. Car horns, fussing Moran tugs. The rising sun, glinting on the forest of steel and glass on the west side.

ImageLeaving New York for Europe, the roar of her siren would boom down and along those same concrete canyons. It was a warm, rich, mellow sound that lingered in the soul, touching you on some deep, wonderfully intangible level.

ImageOn fall crossings, she would proceed in state, down past that floodlit skyline like some kind of goddess, gliding out of a magical castle. You felt it, too. Standing on deck, nursing a glass of Moet, you were oblivious to the bone shattering cold. There was more real magic within that sumptuous, nine hundred and sixty three feet of hull than in all of Walt Disney’s theme parks put together.

ImageThere were no rock climbing walls or boxing rings, no racing car simulators or ice rinks. But what she had was a warm, welcoming feeling of care and concern. It wrapped itself around you like cashmere, and stayed there until you left.

ImageThe food- I still get nostalgic thinking about it. In twenty-six years, I never ate anything on QE2 that you could even call mediocre. Time has a way of making things appear more rosy; but even back then, I knew that the experience was never less than superlative. Dining on the QE2 was a feast for the senses, as well as the palate.

ImageHer interiors and layout were warm, instantly familiar, and always a joy to just stroll around. My first few years sailing aboard her were spent shuttling back and forth, between Europe and New York.

ImageI somewhat naively saw myself as a ‘real’ sailor, a paid up for member of the ‘crossings’ club. Cruises? Pah. They were for tourists. Only later would I discover what a joy it was to cruise on this floating sea palace.

ImageI came to treasure warm, summer nights in the Mediterranean, with a hundred or more passengers sitting on the open decks outside the Yacht Club at one in the morning. The air was as warm as toast. And nobody ever made a better chocolate martini than those expert QE2 bartenders. They were all superstars in their own right.

ImageMoments drift in and out of my memories like patches of Atlantic fog. The stunning fire boat and siren welcome we received in New York on the first crossing with the new engines in May, 1987. The half a million people that blackened the banks of a spectacularly sunlit Clydebank as QE2 came back to her birthplace on her 25th anniversary cruise. A full pipe band that played on the quayside as she sailed that same evening…

ImageI remember her first, emotional arrival in the Tyne on her 40th anniversary cruise in 2007, a hundred years to the day after the brand new Mauretania sailed down that same stretch of steel grey river. And I’ll never forget the fireboat send off from Bilbao when she left there for the last time in October, 2008.

To use a somewhat unfortunate phrase, those are merely the tip of the iceberg.

ImageQE2 wan’t perfect. Only the brochures ever said that she was. But for anyone that understood what she was, QE2 gave back in spades. She was, indeed, a Queen, in the most regal sense of the word.

ImageOver the years, she acquired a kind of haughty, patrician disdain for the young pretenders that sought to usurp her crown. Right to the very end, she held her head high and remained aloof. Gimmickry was anathema to her very being.

CNV00003She was a ship that was utterly incapable of doing anything that was mundane; whether it was running aground off Canada, steaming off to war as a makeshift trooper, or bringing the traffic in Sydney to a complete standstill just by sailing into the harbour.

Other ships had flow riders, racing car simulators and ice rinks. QE2 had soul. She was mercurial, quirky, and quixotic.

She was a real diva. An individual, unimpressed by banal, glittery baubles.

I think that’s why I loved her so. I know it’s why I still do.

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18 comments

  1. Anthony, I have thoroughly enjoyed your presentation of the Q E 2. Your ocean of memories of the Q E 2 is beautifully written with such feeling and with some great photo’s. Well done!

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  2. Hi Barrie,

    Thanks so much for your kind words. I am really glad you enjoyed the piece. Such a pleasure to know that other people are enjoying this and- vicariously- experiencing the ship once again in this way.

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  3. Beautiful words so eloquently written with heartfelt meaning. You have said exactly what I would have written, Anthony, if I could have summoned the prose! Thank you very much for sharing your love of our darling QE2. I’m not ashamed to admit to shedding a few tears!

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  4. Sums up the QE2 perfectly. I had the great pleasure of working on the QE2 back in the 70’s and was on board for her maiden world cruise in 1975, and I recall that at every port of call, the local people flocked in their thousands to come and look at the Queen of all oceans. Despite the fact that they could not come on board, long queues would form at ocean terminals and the crowds would file slowly past, as if paying homage. It was without doubt, the best days of my life, and I would do it all again if it were possible. For a young guy to travel the world on such a magnificent ship and actually get paid for doing it (although I didn’t tell Cunard, I would have worked for free) was a truly amazing experience, not just a job, but a way of life. I sincerely hope that she can be saved from the scrapyard, and be given her rightful place in history with a permeant berth on the Thames. There will never be another QE2.

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  5. i agree with everything [stephen wooster] said i had the same fab times in 1983/85,,,,,would love to repeat it all again but with less buzz ???????????????????????????????????????? love that QUEEN, hope they bring her to london as i live near so would have many dinner/ drink’s on board, god bless her, P.J. XXXX

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  6. My comment is about your pictures–outstanding !!!! I thought mine were good of our world cruise in 2007 but you have a great eye. thanks,
    Ron Schaefer USA

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  7. Wonderful article on QE2, Anthony. Though I never sailed on her, I was privileged to see her QE2 a few times, each one memorable. The first was her arrival in Honolulu, where she was welcomed with a fireboat salute.
    The next time was a grey, overcast morning in 2001 in Manhattan, a few months before the World Trade Center crumbled into dust. I was working in a small conference room on the 8th floor of building overlooking Battery Park in Manhattan, Ellis Island on the right and the Statue of Liberty on the left. How did I get any work done at all? But I kept my nose to the grindstone, looking up in time to see the QE2 slowing steaming up the Hudson past the Statue of Liberty just as the clouds parted slightly and a ray of sunshine caught her gleaming white superstructure. My jaw dropped and I involuntarily mumbled “Oh my God.” My startled co-worker asked “What, what?” How to explain the scenes in my mind of Mauretania, Aquitania, Queen Mary, Normandie, Ile De France, and all the other great liners that had steamed by Lady Liberty in the last century?
    The last time I saw QE2 was at Halifax. We were aboard Regal Princess, tied up just behind the Queen on the occasion of her final call at that port. There had been a farewell luncheon at the maritime museum attended by QE2’s captain and a great great grandson of Samuel Cunard. Now as the sun set, all lines were let go, and she pulled away from the wharf for the last time as a lone piper stood on the quay playing “Amazing Grace,” and her whistle sounded a long, mournful blast… and the earth shook.

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