What 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?
She 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.
She 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.
I 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.
There 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.
But 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.
Crossing 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.
Leaving 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.
On 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.
There 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.
The 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.
I 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.
I 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.
Moments 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…
I 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.
Over 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.
She 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.