On July 26th, 1984, the UK was in the middle of the second term of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The miners’ strike was front page news almost everywhere. In the charts, Frankie Goes To Hollywood were in the midst of a nine week run at number one with their second big single, Two Tribes.
In a sunny, beautifully warm Southampton, Thursday, July 26th was also the scene of a very special reunion. On that day, the two biggest passenger ships in the world would meet again in the famous Hampshire port for the first time in decades. And, naturally, such an event brought out both the cameras and the crowds.
In fact, there were three ‘ladies of the sea’ in Southampton that day. Bringing up the rear of the line- quite literally- was the exquisite Royal Viking Sky. Still sailing today as Fred Olsen’s Boudicca, RV Sky was by far the smallest of the trio in terms of size. But in terms of style and elegance, she was a finely sculpted, gigantic presence.
At her regular berth at the terminal that bore the name of her Godmother was the Queen Elizabeth 2. For the first time, that legendary ship now wore the full, traditional Cunard colours; charcoal hull, white upper works, and black and red smokestack. When I first saw her from the land, she was a tantalising vision; one just out of reach. But I was not too worried. I knew I’d get a very close look at her in a few hours.
A few hours before that, a third, unmistakable presence had come looming out of the darkness. For the first time since her rebirth in 1980, the SS. Norway had made a transatlantic crossing back to Europe. After four years’ of hugely profitable employment in the Caribbean, the world’s largest cruise ship was making her cruising debut in Europe. Based in Hamburg, the Norway would be making a string of seven night Baltic cruises, with an alternating, seven night run up to the fjords of western Norway.
Naturally, she had first to cross the Atlantic. It had been planned to sail her from New York, but the Hudson river had silted up to a dangerous level. The Port Authority was unwilling to pay for massive dredging for what they knew would be a one off visit. So, instead, the Norway embarked a thousand passengers in Philadelphia.
Even then, problems persisted. Some eight feet had to be lopped from the top of her mainmast, so that the Norway could pass safely under the Walt Whitman bridge. But, once that was done, things went very smoothly.
Quite literally, as it turns out. For eight days, the Norway surged gamely eastwards on a glass clam, sunlit Atlantic. She embarked Petula Clark, Sacha Distel, and her own, resident fifteen piece big band for a leisurely voyage, back on her old run, to Southampton.
By the time she swept into Southampton on that gorgeous Thursday morning, the Norway was immaculate; resplendent in her royal blue and white paint scheme. Rumours persisted later that Captain Aage Hoddevik had paint crews over the side in the small hours, touching up any unsightly blemishes, as she stooged just off the Isle of Wight. Heaven forbid that madame should not have her make up just perfect for her reunion with her royal cousin.
The SS. Norway docked at Berth 106, regular home of the rival P&O consorts, Canberra and Oriana. I boarded her there that afternoon, awed as always by those graceful, winged stacks and the beautiful sheer of her lines. Settled in, and with lifeboat drill over, I made it up on deck just in time to see the Royal Viking Sky begin her stately progress downriver. Swinging loose behind us, the languid, Scandinavian beauty was quite a sight.
Early evening sunlight turned the water into what looked like a sea of blazing straw as she came on. The long, flared bow loomed black and massive in it’s light, cutting the swell as smoothly as a hot knife through butter. As she drew level with the far larger Norway, passengers on both ships waved back and forth, though mostly on the Norway. With her single, elegant funnel framed perfectly against a vivid, petrol blue sky, this beautiful ship- graceful and poised as a swan- swept proudly past us, on her way to yet another epic adventure.
And then, it was our turn.
With an absolute minimum of fuss or ceremony, the magnificent Norway warped slowly clear of Berth 106. There was no band, streamers or crowds; the sight of that enormous, thousand foot long hull looming slowly into the stream was ceremony enough in its own right. Our only clue that we were underway at all was the slowly widening strip of sun dappled water that yawned open like some spectacular theatre curtain as she stood out into the stream. And, as that fabulous bow nudged slowly forward, all eyes were locked like lasers on the other principal actress in this performance.
Bathed in mid summer sunshine, the QE2 seemed to shimmer like some ethereal, other worldly presence. Her trim, back and red smokestack loomed ramrod straight, pointing at the vapour trail of some jet, ghosting across the sky high above her. And, as the two ships drew closer, what looked like an army of ants could be seen on board her, scurrying across to line the rails on her starboard side boat deck.
At the same time, a human tidal wave flooded every single vantage point on the port side of the Norway. And, as the two biggest and most legendary ships of the post war era drew level with each other, the air erupted with the sound of four thousand voices as they offered up one huge, single cheer.
Seconds later, and a pair of sirens boomed out across the water, as Norway and QE2 saluted each other. Time seemed to stand still as the crowds on both ships whooped, shrieked and waved across to each other. It was a stunning moment; a unique little bit of history. The adrenaline on both ships was flowing like Niagara Falls.
Mellow evening sunlight filled the slowly widening gap between the two divas, as the Norway stood slowly out into mid stream. And, looking back at the elegant, slowly receding enigma that was QE2, I knew beyond doubt that I would soon have to return to her, too.