Starting from when I was 5 years old, I have been interested (and some might even say obsessed) with Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2. I have never been able to explain what sparked my interest, whether it was seeing a few cruise brochures lying around or traveling on the ferry between Cape May, New Jersey, and Lewes, Delaware, in the summer, but for whatever reason it took hold and has stayed with me all of my life. QE2 was always the focus, since she represented a true link to the age of ocean liners and struck me as so much more interesting, meaningful and inspired than other ships.
Eventually, my growing interest in ships included navigation and ship operations, and years later, after many visits and crossings onboard, it would lead to a job as a deck officer onboard Queen Mary 2.
I saw QE2 for the first time in 1985, when she made her maiden entrance into Baltimore's harbor. While neither parent initially shared my fascination, my mother recalled with great pleasure her younger days traveling extensively across the Pacific and Atlantic on ocean liners. Her interest has been reborn by mine, and today she enjoys a long sea passage as much as I do. I was only 6 at the time, but I clearly remember the ship's black hull and red funnel passing underneath the Key Bridge. Thousands of others apparently felt the same way as they lined the shores and took to the water in the hundreds of boats that accompanied her that day. Of course, she was front-page news on the Baltimore Sun the next day. After all, everyone knew of QE2.
In 1989, I wrote a letter to Cunard's Ralph Bahna, then its chief executive, explaining my interest in his company, and was subsequently invited to tour the QE2 when she was again in Baltimore. Captain Robin Woodall, who was tall and imposing, especially to a 10-year-old, spent more than an hour with me -- and this extremely charming and personable man showed us around the bridge. The best part? Standing outside on the bridge wing, enjoying the wonderful unobstructed view down the hull. Afterward, he presented me with a signed book in his cabin. Ironically, years later I would be back in his gracious onboard home when, as a passenger, I was invited to QE2's exclusive cocktail parties.
The next year I would take my first cruise -- on QE2, naturally. My father and I sailed on a two-night party cruise from New York. The ship sailed in the evening, backing out of Manhattan's West Side piers, and slowly proceeded past the towering skyline. The lights of QE2 competed with the city's for beauty. Despite the chilly October weather, we stayed on, perched on the forward facing observation deck beneath the bridge. Thrilled to be onboard, I stayed up late, trying to see as much as possible. I distinctly remember going for a late-night swim; eating at the midnight buffet; walking the classic, evocative Boat Deck promenade; and simply exploring every staircase and every deck.
Over the years, time after time, QE2 seemed coincidentally to be wherever I was. On a family vacation to the British Virgin Islands, we flew over St. Thomas, and my mother pointed out the ship's profile at anchor below. After my graduation ceremony at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, when other classmates were packing to go home, I'd slipped off to Manhattan to watch QE2 depart New York. In those pre-September 11 times, you could still walk on the pier and wave goodbye to passengers as they headed off on another crossing to the U.K.
Of course, there were many times I sought out QE2, not leaving sightings to chance. Several times I'd shiver while watching her leave from New York in January on her world cruise. One year, while watching from New Jersey, she disappeared from sight into a snowstorm just off the World Trade Center. Almost four months later, a pal from the academy and I decided it would be fun to get up at 4 a.m. to take a fireboat out to welcome her back. My friend faithfully manned the fire hose while getting drenched from the spray and his only reward was hearing that wonderful whistle that is so powerful and deep that it feels more like a low rumble going through you rather than an audible sound you hear with your ears.
Part of QE2's fame and instant recognition around the world comes from her longevity. She has done 25 world cruises, traveled over 5.5 million miles (believed to be more than any other ship, ever) and seen service in five decades. She is the longest serving Cunarder. She has crossed the Atlantic more than 800 times. She became far more than a ship made up of steel and fabrics; she became an institution. But for all the times I watched her sail away -- I knew that to really experience the ship I needed to sail on her.
I've managed to do that 10 times, a number which hardly puts me in any sort of competition with hundreds of her fans, but enough to have learned to appreciate many aspects about her. To this day, no passenger ship can match her speed, and I remember a 1999 sailing when more than 600 ocean liner aficionados were onboard. We sailed from Newport News in the late afternoon, and the ship quickly reached over 30 knots. Standing at the stern, I watched the frothy wake in the middle of the night, and less than 10 hours after leaving the pilot off in Virginia, we started on the approach to New York. It was a tremendous display of speed and power.
Of course, many felt the ship was best suited for Atlantic crossings, and I've crossed both in the summer and in the middle of winter. I've been in inside cabins on her lowest deck to her incredibly evocative original suites on 2 Deck. (The lovely, atmospheric creak of the wood in those cabins is enough reason alone to book them.) Every time, the ship had a diverse, cultured and interesting group of passengers onboard. Sometimes the Brits outnumbered the Yanks by a wide margin, at other times it was the reverse. There were usually 20 or more nationalities of passengers onboard, and in the summer months, you'd find numerous families and children.
Like most things in life, what you take away in memories are the people, and I associate so many good times on QE2 with family and friends, both old and new, that accompanied me on my sailings. In 2003, I formed enduring friendships with a group of other younger passengers, including a teacher from New York who taught in Italy but returned home for summer break from Europe by taking QE2 in order to avoid flying and imposing baggage restrictions. I loved that even then, QE2 remained a source of transportation for which she was built and carried on one of the original purposes of Cunard Line's 1840 founding.
Her career has been nothing short of remarkable and varied, and over the years, like the rest of us, she has changed considerably. She struggled in the 1970's to keep Atlantic crossings alive through declining passenger numbers, escalating oil costs for her steam turbines, and numerous mechanical problems. RAF paratroopers parachuted in the Atlantic in 1972 to investigate a bomb threat. In the Falklands War, the ship was used to carry troops to South Georgia, and in 1987 was given a new lease on life with a $162 million conversion from steam to diesel-electric propulsion.
She was famously hit by a 95-ft. rogue wave in 1995, which Captain Ron Warwick described as like having the Cliffs of Dover coming toward you. She partook in the State of Liberty's centennial, carried veterans over to Europe to participate in the 50th anniversary of D-Day, and was there for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005.
While other ships placidly cruised the seas and lollygagged around the Caribbean, QE2 was racing across the Atlantic. Originally crossing in only five days, she would average 28.5 knots and endure conditions that would make cruise ships -- as opposed to the ocean liner that QE2 is -- slow down or become uncomfortable. QE2 managed to merely brush them off, evidence of a ship perfectly built to take the elements.
Despite saying when I was a child that I wanted to work on the QE2, I never expected that I would one day work for Cunard. But in 2003, while working on a cable ship installing fiber optic systems on the ocean floor, I received an email from Captain Paul Wright, one of QE2's two captains. We'd met several times before, when I was a passenger onboard, and he knew of my career path as a maritime officer. He offered a spot as third officer on Queen Mary 2, and I jumped at the chance. Cunard represented the pinnacle of ships to me. It valued its heritage and traditions, their ships still looked like proper ships, and the company managed to capture the general public's attention in a way no other cruise line could.
Only when I would come to work for Cunard on Queen Mary 2 would I begin to see QE2 as her crew sees her. While I have never served on her, and can only begin to have the smallest understanding of life onboard for those that do, her officers have told me numerous tales about the strong tradition and culture unique to that ship.
They all speak of the intense loyalty felt by her long serving, dedicated crew, some of whom have been with the ship since the early 70's. Cunard was even a family tradition for many. Longtime captain Ron Warwick's father was QE2's first captain; third officer Jonny Ward's family history with Cunard stretches back almost 80 years.
They say that while not every ship has a soul, QE2 does, with many feeling an affection for the ship in part due to the spirit of the crew and the particular quirks of the ship.
Many forget that when QE2 was built, she was seen by some as brash and too modern. Her interiors reflected the swinging sixties and modern British design. Only over the years, as the ship somehow managed to get better with age, did some begin to warm up to her, although many decried the numerous refits that stripped her original, daring decor. It is unlikely that many, if any, future ships will generate such loyalties and feeling; I like to think QM2, carrying on her own Atlantic tradition, will be one of them.
Amazingly, as ships surpassed her in size and amenities in the 1990's, QE2 soldiered on popular as ever. When many thought her replacement on the Atlantic run in 2004 by the newer QM2 would spell the end of her, at 35 years of age, she found a new career in full-time cruising from the U.K. No doubt other cruise line executives watched in a bit of bewilderment, and certainly some jealousy, as their newer, fancier ships with atriums and balconies could never match the popularity or recognition that the older ship possessed. It is a remarkable testament to her design and certainly to her crew that she remains incredibly relevant and popular.
Around the world, QE2 continues to draw heads. Her arrival with the QM2 in Sydney this year was a show stopper; streets came to a standstill, thousands upon thousands watched her arrival and the fireworks that night were said to be the biggest event in Sydney harbor since the Olympics. No other ship can possibly match QE2's commanding presence and beautiful profile, with that dominating funnel, tiered decks and long, slender prow.
That QE2's life was coming to an end was inevitable. New regulations coming into effect in 2010 would have meant substantial rebuilding if she were to remain in service. Still, some hoped it might happen, and Cunard has done an admirable job in pouring millions of dollars into her over the years -- a sum that has far exceeded her original cost many times over -- to keep her in good shape.
It was not to be, though.
QE2 will be going to Dubai, a country that will be able to spend the millions needed to convert her into a hotel and keep her for years to come. She will be docked in the middle of a major tourist center, and a steady stream of visitors seems assured. While her fans shed a tear at her impending retirement, Cunard wisely realized that when offered a chance to sell the ship to a company with the means and desire to take care of her, they had little sensible choice but to take it.
So, simultaneously looking ahead to the next 16 months and looking back over the past 38 years, I am left with two thoughts. The first is to book her soon; while she remained popular before the announcement, her remaining cabins will sell out quickly. Enjoy QE2 while you can, for when she is gone, there won't be anything quite like her ever again.
And the other sentiment is that this is indeed a time to be sad, but not a time to dwell on the sadness. Ultimately, she leaves us with dignity. We won't see her being torn apart, bulkhead by bulkhead, run up on the beaches of India. (For many, that would simply be too painful to watch.) We also won't see her operating for a third-tier cruise line, struggling painfully to fill cheap Mediterranean junkets for $299 for a week, with unappreciative passengers.
Instead, she ends with her life very much intact. Indeed, she leaves us as a true Cunard Queen, which is the only appropriate ending possible for this magnificent, storied ship.
--by Ben Lyons, a New York City-based writer whose contributions to Cruise Critic typically revolve around small ships that travel to offbeat locales.