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Icons & Innovators: Cunard: Passing Fancy

The Hon. Carol Thatcher

Passing Fancy
The romance and mystique of the Cunard liners—one of the most enduring British institutions—captured me at a young age. As a child, my family enjoyed annual beach holidays on the Isle of Wight, an island off of England’s southern coast, and I recall the excitement I felt when the Queen Elizabeth or the Queen Mary would sail into view. The ocean liners would literally fill the horizon whenever one turned toward Southampton, England, for the final leg of a transatlantic voyage. Though I was a small girl watching from far away, I could easily identify each ship by the number of its funnels: Queen Elizabeth had two, and Queen Mary, her older sister, had three. The passing vessels always would send huge waves rolling toward the beach, and I would whoop with joy and frolic in the surf that they raised.

Known to their fans as the “Lizzie” and the “Mary,” the sisters would survive long enough to be overtaken by the jet age: The year 1957 was the last in which more travelers crossed the Atlantic Ocean by boat than by plane. But soon after Cunard retired the queens from service within one year of each other in the late 1960s, the company unveiled the Queen Elizabeth 2, which would become the world’s most famous ship and remain as such for decades. I recall my first sight of the majestic, charismatic QE2 when I was a television reporter in Sydney, Australia. I was filming the ocean liner from a helicopter as she slipped into the beautiful harbor and glided toward her berth, which was located next to the Sydney Opera House. Commuters stopped and gazed in awe upon the ocean liner, just as they did in every port around the world that she visited, giving a rapturous welcome that only she could merit.

I first boarded the QE2 in February 1999, embarking in Hong Kong halfway through that year’s 104-day world cruise. About a quarter of the passengers had signed on for the entire voyage. The luggage, or rather, the quantity of it, surprised me when I saw it amassed on the dock prior to loading. It appeared as if some people were planning on moving in instead of going on holiday. After the last few stragglers had hurried up the gangway and through the entrance, passing beneath a Welcome Home sign as they did so, our journey began with a memorable dusk departure against the enchanting backdrop of the twinkling lights of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers. On that evening, the first of an eight-day voyage to Yokohama, Japan, passengers dined at the Queen’s Grill, enjoyed drinks in the Crystal Bar, and partied in the favorite after-midnight watering hole on board, the Yacht Club. The night owls entering and leaving the club passed before an austere bust and a regal oil painting of Sir Samuel Cunard placed near the Yacht Club’s entrance.

Cunard is right to capitalize on its rich and noble history. Passengers love the displays of memorabilia aboard the ships, such as the model of the original Britannia that decorates the Britannia Grill. That 230-foot steamship, whose paddle wheels and 430 hp engines could push her to a speed of 10.3 mph, sailed from Liverpool, England, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and continued on to Boston in 1840, affirming Samuel Cunard’s belief that regular transatlantic passenger and cargo service could be accomplished, and thus could be a profitable business. The Cunard legend continued into this millennium with the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary 2 in January 2004. Truly a ship of superlatives, she illustrates how far Cunard has come during the past 165 years: At 1,132 feet, the QM2 is five times longer than the Britannia, and her engines generate a staggering 157,000 hp that allows a top speed of almost 35 mph. Cunard is never a hostage to its past, but that past, glamorous and storied, remains a much-treasured source of its magic.

 

The Hon. Carol Thatcher is a journalist and the author of a 1996 biography of her late father, Sir Denis Thatcher, and a 1983 book on the reelection campaign of her mother, Margaret Thatcher, who was then prime minister of Great Britain.

Ghost Ships
it is nearly impossible to gaze upon the QE2 or the QM2 without thinking of the ocean liners that preceded them. In looking back at these magnificent ships, we also look forward to Cunard’s next planned addition to its fleet.

The Queen Mary (debuted in 1936 and retired in 1967): According to the 1999 book QE2, which was written by the ship’s captain, Ronald Warwick, the Queen Mary’s name solved the awkward problem posed when the Cunard and White Star companies merged and prepared to launch their first new vessel. (Cunard would buy out White Star in 1948.) Each had its own ship-naming traditions, with White Star favoring monikers ending in ic, such as Olympic and Titanic, and Cunard preferring those ending in ia, such as Mauritania and Lusitania. The reigning British queen settled the issue when she agreed to lend her name to the vessel. The Queen Mary had a memorable service life, several times earning the Blue Riband, an honor granted to the ocean liner posting the swiftest recorded crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and serving as a troop transport ship during World War II. But the advent of jet travel made it increasingly difficult for the Queen Mary and her sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, to remain profitable. After Cunard withdrew Queen Mary from service in 1967, the city of Long Beach, Calif., purchased it for $3.45 million and transformed it into a floating tourist attraction and hotel. Although it has struggled periodically, having closed in 1992 and reopened the following year, the Queen Mary remains in Long Beach and draws 1.5 million visitors annually. Key scenes of the 1972 disaster film The Poseidon Adventure were filmed on board.

The Queen Elizabeth (debuted in 1940 and retired in 1968): Named for Queen Elizabeth, consort of King George VI, its March 1940 maiden transatlantic voyage lacked the normal fanfare, which was just how Cunard wanted it. The company announced that the still-incomplete ocean liner would sail from its Scotland shipyard to Southampton, England, for finishing, but the captain was directed to head for New York instead, where it docked, safe from the bombs of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, alongside its sister ship. Queen Elizabeth served as a troop ship in World War II, and after the ship was retired in 1968, it appeared as though it might follow the same path as the Queen Mary when a group of Philadelphia businessmen purchased it and moved it to Port Everglades, hoping it would become a tourist attraction. But the venture failed, and in 1970, Chinese shipping titan Tung Chao Yung bought Queen Elizabeth and planned to transform it into a floating university, Seawise. In January 1972, before the refitting was complete, the vessel caught fire (some believe it was arson) and was deemed a total loss. The charred hull sat in Hong Kong harbor until it was scrapped in 1975, but it appeared on film before its demise. The ruined queen served as an outpost of MI6 in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun.

The Queen Victoria (scheduled for launch in December 2007): At a January 2004 media event in Florida to celebrate the unveiling of the Queen Mary 2, Cunard executives mentioned plans for another ship, the Queen Victoria. Since then, Cunard has undergone management changes, and the plans for the vessel might have shifted as well. The company currently is unwilling to discuss Queen Victoria, nor will it confirm whether information on the ship that was publicized in 2003 is still valid, but a recent Cunard press release on a different topic described the Queen Victoria as a “liner” and stated that it would debut in December 2007.
 
—Sheila Gibson Stoodley

A Queen At War
cunard’s ships embody British tradition, and one of those traditions involves serving the country during wartime. The Queen Elizabeth 2 played its part in the Falklands War, which was fought in 1982 over a British-owned archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean. A group of 50 Argentines initiated the conflict when they landed on South Georgia island on March 19 and raised their country’s flag. Within a month, Argentina launched a full-scale invasion of the Falklands; and within another two months, the war ended with Britain the victor.

Commodore Ronald Warwick was chief officer aboard the QE2 when the British government requisitioned the ship for troop transport in May of 1982. “We had to get the ship ready to go down to the south in eight days. It was extremely busy, probably one of the busiest times of my life, because there was so much to do,” Warwick recalls. In a chapter of his book, QE2, Warwick details the preparations: The crew removed and stored the ship’s paintings, furnishings, china, glassware, and other fine fittings; parts of the ship’s stern were cut away to make a helicopter landing area; and the vessel was loaded with rations, Land Rovers, and ammunition.

While the transformation was in progress, an Argentine missile sank the British destroyer HMS Sheffield, killing 20 and wounding many more. (The 74-day war claimed 255 Britons and 655 Argentines.) This incident did not dampen the response Cunard received when it asked employees to volunteer to man the ship. “We were turning volunteers away. Everyone was so motivated,” Warwick says, noting that more than 1,000 workers applied for the 650 positions.

Approximately 3,000 soldiers boarded the QE2 on May 12. “I remember distinctly that I was woken the next morning at 4 or 5 am by this incredible racket near my cabin,” Warwick says. The heavy footfalls of jogging troops had disturbed the chief officer’s sleep, and because their numbers prevented them from exercising all at once, they exercised in shifts. “There were men on deck all the time,” Warwick says. “Sometimes they were in shorts and T-shirts, sometimes they were fully kitted out [in uniform] with their rifles, and sometimes you’d see them running around with another soldier on their back. You’d also see blindfolded soldiers working their way out of the bottom of the ship, helicopters running, firing practice—it was a continuous training exercise all the way down to the South Atlantic.”

The QE2 also served as a hospital ship before receiving orders to return home on June 3. Warwick claims in his book that the Argentines had sent a reconnaissance plane to search the South Atlantic specifically for the QE2, but the ship never came under fire.

Refitting the QE2 for peacetime consumed almost nine weeks, but Cunard used the opportunity to make improvements such as enlarging the casino and adding a new Golden Door spa. The ship’s Heritage Trail, a display of historic artifacts that Cunard installed in 1994, includes a plaque that commemorates the QE2’s Falklands service.

—Sheila Gibson Stoodley

 

Cunard, 800.728.6273, www.cunard.com

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