Today being September 11th, there seems no better day to recall one of the most perennially magical and awe inspiring experiences that any traveller by sea can ever experience.
The approach to Manhattan.
Long before the completion of the World Trade Centre in 1973, New York was a city as uniquely wedded to the sea as, say, Venice. Manhattan was, and still is, a cluster of stupendous, dreaming spires, rising from the Hudson River. A shimmering, symmetrical confection of glass, steel and concrete that clawed at the sky, but one whose feet were, inevitably, always wet.
It was this unique communion with the sea that gives Manhattan its dramatic, almost mystical stance. And the only way to approach it- to truly get it- was by ocean liner.
Let’s first put this into context; we all know that air travel is mass transportation in this day and age. The jets won on speed, as they were always going to do.
Every few seconds of the day, a commercial jet airliner comes in to land at one of the city’s three principal airports- JFK, Newark and La Guardia- from all over the globe. Except for the pilot and the flight controller on the ground, nobody bats an eyelid at the sight.
Inside, the passengers see nothing but the back of the seat in front of them. The only thing they feel is that uniquely unsettling sensation in their ears as the plane descends, and then that sudden, abrupt thump as screaming rubber connects with cold concrete.
But arriving by ship? Oh lord, how very, very different…..
How often I stood on the little bit of waist below the bridge of the QE2, shivering in the pale light of dawn as the great ship edged into the sudden stillness of the Hudson at the end of a five day, often storm tossed crossing from Europe. Stood there, with the adrenaline running like tap water. For this was the moment of theatre that nobody wanted to miss; the ceremonial procession into Manhattan.
First came the tips of the World Trade Centre; splintering the horizon like twin, skeletal fingers as the first rays of dawn ghosted across the blackened canvas of the sky. A few lights twinkled, shimmering on the ink black river; a river so still and silent that it could have been made of glass.
That first contact was like a sucker punch; hugely emotional, a deep intake of breath. Here was the culmination of an epic adventure; the arrival in the New World, as generations of our forebears experienced it.
And now, as if pushed from below the sea by some gigantic, unseen hand, the whole of Manhattan rose from the river to starboard, a ragged forest of gleaming spires, squat, hulking office buildings and, looming above it all, the unmistakable twin spires of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings. A twin pair of global icons, their facades dusted a shade of blush red as the rising sun sluggishly heaved its way towards a sky so still and silent that it might have been some painted canvas.
To port, the Statue Of Liberty was now in view; a deceptive, diminutive waif clad in copper, torch held aloft. Patient, pale and perennial.
History is etched into every fold of her gown. On a warm , spring morning in April of 1912, the same great lady waited patiently for the Titanic to sweep proudly past her, making the same, age old procession as we now undertook. She is still waiting to this day.
Meanwhile, the magnificent vision of Manhattan is now so close as to be almost overwhelming. And we are no longer alone, either.
A trio of Moran tug boats are now riding shotgun on the QE2, like three respectful ladies in waiting. They are there to swing us into Pier 90 when the moment is right.
Now we can see cars, looking like madly animated beetles as they scurry along Twelfth Avenue, their headlights making them resemble tiny glow worms. And we can see lines of them, coming down the canyons that have opened up between the ranks of serried skyscrapers that now loom almost above us.
What strikes you most is the silence; though the deck is crowded, there is almost a sense of reverential awe, one not dissimilar to the feeling of entering some huge, impassive cathedral. And, in a sense, that is exactly what we have just done.
The sudden, exultant boom of the QE2 siren shatters that mood as completely as a brick thrown though a window. It’s a thrilling, spine tingling sound that touches something deep and intangible in the soul. It echoes like fading fog down those same, long canyons. They seem almost close enough to touch now.
Then comes that sudden, abrupt stop. A sharp intake of breath, and then the slow, ponderously elegant swing into Pier 90. After what seems like a lifetime, the matchless, elegant beauty of QE2 kisses the pier in Manhattan. Gangways are down, and we are once again physically tethered to what someone once aptly called ‘the hard, clear vigour of New York’. It was never better put.
Journey done. But we have not merely entered a city. We have arrived. And how.
With thanks to both QE2 and the great city of New York for such a series of priceless, immortal memories. And also with deep respect and remembering the victims in New York and elsewhere of the appalling events of September 11th, 2001.