A ship. An ocean. A state of mind. Queen Elizabeth 2 on the North Atlantic. Nothing else mattered…..
The sea is a rolling grey mess, flecked with viciously flailing whitecaps. Looking down from the windows of the Golden Lion (or the Theatre Bar if your memory goes that far back) there is a broad swathe of boiling white, foam streaked ocean stretching back as far as the eye can see. Venture outside, and the cold slaps you with an icy swipe as you stand out by the pool, watching the wake stretching back to infinity.
There’s the gentle shudder of the decks under your feet, and the subtle pitch and roll of a real ship on a purposeful voyage; a true crossing. In other words, pure magic.
In the post war era, Cunard maintained a two ship service on the New York express run with the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. The advent of jet aircraft from the late fifties onwards effectively put that service to the sword. The result was that Cunard decided that one ship in future would service the Atlantic crossing, as well as working as a hopefully lucrative cruise ship in the off season.
That ship, of course, was QE2. She was built partly as a floating resort, capable of offering worldwide luxury cruises through the autumn and winter. But, every year from April through December, she would eschew that, and return to the five day shuttle runs between Europe and America that were her true heritage. For many, the Atlantic was where the Queen really came into her own.
Her hull was very strongly built; a necessity when coping with the most notorious and unpredictable stretch of water in the world. And she had to be fast- far faster than on languid Caribbean cruises. On crossings, QE2 could- and frequently did- hit thirty-two knots without killing herself.
That might not sound like much, but let’s put it in context. Nobody would blink twice at the sight of a cab passing the Empire State Building at thirty miles an hour. But imagine the Empire State Building itself, somehow uprooted from its base and barrelling along at the same speed, and you get some idea of the scope and power of the QE2. She was built to be fast and strong, and she needed both of those attributes in dealing with the Atlantic.
She was an extraordinary lady, and she certainly knew it. A diva, draped in epic moods and capable of equally epic mood swings. For so many years she was out there alone, maintaining the famous Cunard standards on that ancient route as, one by one, her competitors fell by the wayside, or were diverted to full time cruise service.
Time always seemed to be against her. ‘How long can she last?’ was an almost constant refrain, even in the early eighties. And yet, twenty six years later, the Yacht Club on QE2 was still serving up the best chocolate martinis afloat. The old girl was a real fighter; a true daughter of the Clyde. There was real steel beneath that subtle, sophisticated exterior.
And if ever a ship had heart and soul, it was surely the QE2. You sensed it when you walked into the Midships Lobby as you boarded her. There was something that hung in the air like static electricity; a sensation as intangible as it was undeniable. Only the Norway- her soul mate in so many ways- had anything remotely like it.
The old girl seemed to truly relish being out on the Atlantic, where she could pitch, shudder and roll to her heart’s content. And boy, did she ever.
Don’t get me wrong; the QE2 was wonderful as a cruise ship, pretty much regardless of where she went to. But out on the Atlantic, it was as if her true essence was totally unleashed. That was where those great engines really got into their stride. No one who ever crossed on her will forget the sensation of sitting by a window and watching the grey, foam flecked Atlantic boling along, while the gentle vibration made the ice in your drink tinkle subtly in the glass. Of such memories are legends made.
In the eighties, there would always be a full band on the Southampton quayside to serenade her and her passengers away. To my dying day, I will always remember the band of the Royal Marines, playing christmas carols on the pier as we swung loose, bound for New York on a bitterly cold December night. The sounds floating across that widening gap between ship and shore were so poignant, echoing in that sharp, clear air, that most of the huddled masses on deck that night simply forgot the cold. Our collective breath hung like Channel fog in the freezing night air.
Swinging out into the channel, speed increased. First and last nights were always classed as ‘informal’ dress nights which, for men, meant jackets and ties, with smart trouser suits or skirts for the ladies. The first night of any crossing always crackled with anticipation of the adventure ahead.
For the rest of the voyage, it was invariably black tie for the men, and cocktail dresses for the ladies. And in no other setting was the dress code so rigorously adhered to, or just so absolutely damned right. Seeing everyone in their evening finery set a tone that everything that followed merely enhanced, from the subtle lighting to the pre dinner cocktail music. The tinkling baby grand and, of course, the fabulous, formal dining experience itself.
And that food was sublime, from first to last. It was delivered silver service, as it should be, and it fed both the man and his sense of inner contentment at the same time. While no two people ever have the same take on food- and there were always at least a handful of professional, platinum chip moaners on every crossing- I remember the QE2 dining experience as one of the greatest celebrations of food and, indeed, life, that I am ever likely to experience. It made for a longer, more languid and involved experience but, being out on the Atlantic, it wasn’t as if we had to be in a hurry to get off and go somewhere the next day.
It was an epic adventure. You had time to get to know people. The library was vast, and many comfy hours were spent there, sprawled out on a sofa. Lost both in a book, and on an ocean. There was time to enjoy afternoon tea, and a pre dinner cocktail. There were enrichment lectures, dance classes, and a vast, expansive spa complex, located on the lower decks of the ship. And, like millions of Atlantic passengers before us, we amused ourselves with each others’ company, and had enormous fun in doing so.
You could effectively forget about time outdoors, unless you hit a lucky summertime crossing. Atlantic storms tend to travel in four day cycles, and you were almost guaranteed to hit one. In spring and early summer, icebergs still loom across the waters of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Fortunately, radar and ample lifeboats make these potential ship killers- the true ‘Great Whites’ of the ocean- that much less of an occupational hazard.
The Atlantic is no respecter of egos; the Titanic found that out. It can make a ship perform that kind of gymnastics that Olga Korbut could only have dreamed of. It took a particular form of psychopath to enjoy the crossing, and yet we came back, year after year. It was like being a member of a secretive, elusive kind of sect.
For this was our ocean, and our ship. 99.999 per cent of the travelling public flew across the Atlantic. Pah. We few, in turn, remained in helpless, eternal thrall to our great lady and she, in turn, returned the compliment. When you boarded the old girl in either Southampton or New York, it always felt as if she smiled at you. It was a totally symbiotic relationship, that’s for sure. She knew her own, and you felt it everywhere on board.
The nights passed by in a whirl. We had after dinner floorshows, piano players, and live bands. There was a popular, full scale casino, and a disco that could, with the right crowd, rock through until the early morning hours, and very often did. With everyone still in evening wear, those nights had a sense of fine style and fun that I still cherish even now. I miss them so much.
You could have breakfast in bed, while you read the news digest that was delivered with it. You could drag out lunch over two hours, or enjoy live jazz with your fish and chips. On westbound crossings, days were always twenty five hours long, to compensate for the time difference between Europe and America. It meant that you arrived in New York without jet lag, but with your baggage.
Those were languid, lazy days, and yet paradoxically, they passed at a truly blistering pace. And at journey’s end, as the fabulous Manhattan skyline splintered the early morning dawn, you knew beyond a shred of doubt that you had completed a truly epic journey.
Regret hung in the air at the end of every crossing like lingering Atlantic fog. The carnival was over. But all that did was to fire you up all over again, and make you more determined to get back on that giddy, rock and rolling fairground ride that we called ‘the crossing’. Once QE2 got her silken claws into you, she never let you go.
But, let’s face it. It’s not as if you really wanted to, anyway….