"Floating out" is the maritime term for the process by which a dry dock is slowly filled with water; this happens after the ship's exterior is complete. Once the ship is floating, it is moved to a wet dock, where interior work commences. It's a major milestone because it's generally the first time a vessel takes to the water and when it truly becomes a ship.
Hundreds of shipyard workers, members of the media and assorted dignitaries gathered under dark skies, braving a biting wind for the event, preceded by a traditional coin ceremony in which a set of coins is welded beneath the ship's mast to bring the vessel good luck.
Three coins were specially chosen for this occasion: a half crown from 1938, the year the first Queen Elizabeth was launched; a sovereign from 1967, the year of the launch of QE2; and a sovereign dated 2010 to commemorate the year of the new ship's launch. The coins were acquired from a specialist shop in London.
"Of our 170 years of history there has been an 'Elizabeth' in the fleet for over 70," Peter Shanks, Cunard's president and managing director, told the assembled throng, "and this ship -- the second largest Cunarder ever built -- will take the name far into the 21st century."
Which raises the question: Will Queen Elizabeth II herself be asked to name the ship in Southampton when it launches this October? Not surprisingly, Shanks is keeping quiet, although the honour will almost definitely be performed by a royal; the Queen named Queen Mary 2 and the Duchess of Cornwall named Queen Victoria.
Meanwhile, in Italian shipyard tradition, a "madrina" (the Italian version of a godmother) has already been named for Queen Elizabeth. She is 79-year-old Florence (Dennie) Farmer, a loyal Cunard passenger for many years and widow of the late Willie Farmer, who joined Cunard in 1938 and served as chief engineer on both Queen Elizabeth and QE2.
"I was stunned when Peter Shanks asked me to be the madrina," Farmer told Cruise Critic. "I said, 'Why me?', but was told it was because of my loyalty to Cunard and Bill's connection with both Queen Elizabeths."
Just before the valves were opened, Farmer smashed a bottle of Prosecco, Italian sparkling wine, against the ship's hull -- already partly painted in Cunard's trademark black.
Indeed, Queen Elizabeth is already taking shape to look like a proper Cunarder, with its black and red livery, and the scarlet funnel in place. At 90,400 tons, the ship is slightly larger than its sister, Queen Victoria, and carries 70 more passengers, with a total capacity of 2,092. The stern of the vessel is squarer than Queen Victoria's to make space for the extra cabins and the vessel is 11 metres longer.
Other differences include the return of the popular Yacht Club on Deck 10, a recreation of a favourite space on QE2. Guests in the top Britannia grade cabins, meanwhile, will eat in the Britannia Club, their own restaurant, with single seating dining. This entirely separate space is a first for Cunard; on Queen Victoria, it's where the Chart Room is located. To make up for the lack of a Chart Room, Queen Elizabeth will have a Midships Bar, like the two original Queen Elizabeths.
Also modified from Queen Victoria's design is the Garden Lounge, the domed ceiling of which is already taking shape. The Lounge has been inspired by the conservatories at London's Kew Gardens (the ceiling of the equivalent space on Queen Victoria is a flat, retractable panel), while the Games Deck above will host garden parties, bowls, croquet and paddle tennis, all traditional activities from the 1930s. The interior throughout the ship will be art deco-inspired.
Another significant difference will be the spa, which will be managed by Steiner. Queen Mary 2's spa is run by Canyon Ranch and Queen Victoria's by Harding Brothers. "We put the spa management out to tender and Steiner came up with an attracting offering," Shanks told Cruise Critic. "We worked with Steiner on QE2 for 41 years and have an extremely strong relationship. But it will be a uniquely 'Cunard' spa."
Queen Elizabeth will set sail on its maiden voyage on October 12, 2010. That cruise sold out in 28 minutes flat, although there is space on other maiden season voyages, Mediterranean and Caribbean runs from its homeport in Southampton. The ship departs on its first world cruise on January 5, 2011, and will rendezvous on January 13 in New York with its sisters, Queen Victoria and Queen Mary 2.
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor