Wrestling the fierce currents of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland at 0800, the elongated titan thundered over the barreling gray surface, its peaks so high and frequent that they appeared white, snow-covered mountain crests. The pitch was tumultuous and unrelenting. Propelled at 24 knots, the vessel moved between troughs, pivoting on its center of gravity and pinnacling each crest with surmounting triumph, before exploding into its next valley with gravity-induced momentum, its axis of rotation sliding down the mountain of sea in partial aerial suspension at which time even the stabilizers failed to dampen its descending, momentarily sea-detached profile.
Speed perception was a function of distance: the lower one descended in the ship relative to the water line, the more rapidly did the gray surface seem to move by outside, its cascades of white froth and mist exploding directly on to the windows and portholes.
Death on the high seas, although at this writing still beyond conception, had briefly reduced my crossing to an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Before having retired to my cabin the previous evening, a passenger, whose name I have momentarily forgotten, had been continually paged, both in the theater and throughout the ship, with an increasing degree of urgency. During the early-morning hours, the liner, for a then unexplainable reason, had turned round, pursuing a heading which would have taken it back to the United Kingdom. It was later revealed that a man from Germany, who had been traveling with a group, had for some time been unlocatable, and his wife, who had not undertaken the journey with him, had been contacted in Germany where she ultimately discovered a suicide note. The man, who had been elderly and very ill, had apparently make the crossing for the purpose of taking his own life, and the ship had circled the area of suicide until a time beyond which he would have succumbed to hypothermia, even if he had survived the ocean plunge.
The incident, immediately transcending that initial hesitation between two strangers, had been the talk of the formal breakfast served in the Britannia Restaurant that morning.
The chosen area, along the Great Circle route in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, could not have been more hazardous and every predecessor Cunard liner had traced its path through it.
Glaciers descending the mountains on Greenland’s west coast calved with thunderous roars in to the Davis Strait, forming icebergs which are carried southward by the Labrador current, some 400 of which, rising 150 feet above the water line and weighing in excess of 100,000 tons, move as far south as the shipping lanes off of Newfoundland. During the April-to-July period, the area off of St. John’s is known as “iceberg alley.” Because of the size of the smaller bergs and their associated field ice, they are particularly difficult to spot, posing a significant hazard to any ship undertaking a transatlantic crossing during this time and justly earning the area the title of “North Atlantic graveyard.”
Further exacerbating the conditions had been substreams of differential-temperature waters which originate along the continental edge of South America, near the equator, where tradewinds propel them toward the channel between Cuba and the Florida Keys. Accelerating, they follow the 30- to 50-mile-wide eastern seaboard at 2- to 6-mph speeds toward the North Carolina coast where the actual substreams form, flowing toward Nova Scotia at a 150-million-cubic-meter-per-second rate.
It is on the Great Circle route, east of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, that the collision between the warm Gulf Stream and the cold Labrador current takes place, producing divergent temperatures which themselves create rain, gales, squalls, mist, tumultuous waves, winter hurricanes, and cyclones. Off of the southeastern tip of Newfoundland, at Cape Race, summer sea fog, sometimes lasting weeks, shrouds icebergs from visual perception.
Oblivious to these conditions, the 151,400-ton Queen Mary 2 negotiated its course by means of its pods and bow thrusters, whose electricity had been supplied by a common, high voltage main switchboard, which produced an 11,000-volt, 60-hertz, 3-phase current. The current itself had been supplied by four Wartsila W46 V1646C, 16.8-Mw diesel generators and two 25.0-Mw General Electric LM2500+ gas turbines.
The morning’s intrigue, once digested and discussed, enabled greater focus on the abundant breakfast served in the Britannia Restaurant, which had included grapefruit juice, poached eggs, crisp bacon, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, sautéed potatoes, white toast, croissants, French bread, butter, coffee, and peach pastries.
By late-morning, the long, majestic, red-and-black-funneled liner, of 165-year lineage to the vessel which had lent its name to the massive restaurant, carved its trench beneath bright, blue skies in the equally-reflected deep blue sea, leaving a snow-white wake behind its stern, which itself stretched back to the countless crossings of all the Cunard liners which had preceded it.
If the Berengaria had been “huge,” no adjective could describe the size of its replacement, which emanated from an original blueprint and not from an existing hull. The ship, which had been a pure and original Cunard design, had not only launched a new breed of liners, but an altogether new period known as the “era of the four queens.” The design, of course, had been the first to bear the name of the current ship, the Queen Mary.
Incorporating the technological advancements of 86 years of Cunard maritime design, the new flagship, whose origins can be traced to 1926 when a replacement for the Mauretania had first been envisaged, had been intended as the first of two 1,000-foot-long liners which would be fast enough to permit five-day crossing schedules and hence obviate the need for the Lusitania/Berengaria-Mauretania-Aquitania trio. Although the keel had first been laid on January 31, 1931 for a ship then designated hull 534 in the John Brown and Company Shipyard on the Clyde, the depression halted its construction a year later, on April 3, 1934, intermittently permitting the Normandie to take the title as both the first 1,000-footer and the first 60,000-ton+ liner which, as the current fastest to cross the Atlantic, earned it the Blue Ribband. During December of the previous year, it had been announced that Cunard would merge with the White Star Line, forming Cunard White Star Limited, the former having designated all of its ships with the “ia” ending and the latter having used the “ic” ending, such as in “Titanic.” The name “Queen Mary” would be the first to eliminate both.
Launched on September 26, 1934, the sleek, elongated, three-funneled ocean liner, with a 1,018-foot length and 118-foot width, had featured an 80,774-ton gross weight and had been powered by four quadruple-expansion steam turbines connected, via propeller shafts, to four external, 35-ton, manganese bronze, four-bladed propellers grouped in pairs.
The elegant interior appointments featured more than 50 varieties of wood, such as English yew, bird’s eye maple, ivory white sycamore, Pacific myrtle, African cherry, and pearwood. The ship’s Sun Deck, sporting an open promenade with access to all 24 lifeboats, ended at the small, intimate Verandah Grill, which offered an alternative, a-la-carte menu dining experience with views overlooking the stern. The enclosed Promenade Deck, located immediately below, featured the main public rooms, including a forward, 21 window paned Observation Lounge and Cocktail Bar directly under the bridge; a studio, lecture room, writing room, and library on the port side; and a drawing room, a second writing room, and the children’s playroom on the starboard side. The main entrance hall, located behind, spanned the width of the ship and was accessed by glass doors on either side from the promenade and configured with a shopping arcade.
The travel bureau and the suites were located one deck below, on Main Deck, while A through H Decks were set even lower in the hull, and accessed by Empire wood-paneled corridors.
The dining salon, measuring 160-feet-long and 118-feet-wide and seating 800, was located on C Deck and featured a high ceiling, colonnades, and a 24-by-13-foot mural of the Atlantic Ocean with a crystal glass, electronically-operated model of the Queen Mary to indicate its position during transatlantic crossings. The cabin class swimming pool, located on D Deck, had featured golden quartzite, and a walking alleyway led to the crew accommodations, workshops, and storerooms.
Inaugurated into service on May 27, 1936 on the Southampton-Cherbourg-New York route, the Queen Mary recaptured the Blue Ribband from the Normandie three months later on a westerly crossing, attaining a 30.63-knot speed between Bishop’s Rock and Ambrose Light, becoming the fastest, largest, and heaviest superclass liner until the title had been overtaken by its transatlantic counterpart, the Queen Elizabeth. Although it had carried 56,895 passengers during its first year of service, the storm clouds of World War II thwarted its continued civil operation, the last of which, from Southampton, had occurred on August 30, 1939.
Repainted, the now drab, military version, unofficially dubbed the “Gray Ghost,” sailed from New York to Australia in order to assume its role as a troop ship, maintaining transatlantic ferry service by 1943, in July of which it carried a record 16,683 troops on a single crossing.
Decommissioned from military service on September 27, 1946 and returned to Cunard, the ship had been reconfigured as a passenger liner with accommodation for 711 first, 707 cabin, and 577 tourist class guests, resuming weekly scheduled transatlantic service on July 31, 1947 between Southampton and New York, with the Queen Elizabeth.
Usurped not by a newer or more advanced nautical design, but by an aeronautical one instead, the Queen Mary, recording ever-decreasing passenger loads and plummeting revenues, operated its last scheduled service from New York on September 22, 1967, having made 1,001 crossings, during which time it had sailed 3.7 million miles, had carried 2.1 million passengers, and had earned $600 million in revenues.
Its last-ever operation occurred later that year, on October 31, when it embarked on a 39-day repositioning journey from Southampton with 1,040 passengers round the southern tip of South America to its new, permanent Long Beach, California, mooring where it assumed its role as a hotel and tourist attraction.
Sailing 140 nautical miles into the Grand Banks of Newfoundland by 1200 noon, the present Queen Mary 2, pursuing a 250-degree heading and a 24-knot steam speed, had been positioned 115 miles south/southeast of Cape Race, having covered a paltry 431 miles since yesterday’s position report because of the morning’s attempted rescue. Negotiating rough seas with moderate swells amid cold, 3-degree Celsius temperatures, the ship had traversed 2,046 miles since its departure, with 1,040 remaining to the New York Pilot’s Station.
The Queen Elizabeth, the second of the two designs intended for Cunard’s weekly, bi-directional transatlantic service, completed the world’s most famous pair of ocean liners, but, contrary to initial belief, had not been an identical sister to the Queen Mary, but an entirely separate design, sporting, for example, only two versus four funnels and 12 as opposed to 24 boilers. Its keel, first laid on December 4, 1936 in Clydebank, resulted in an almost two-year construction period, leading to initial launch and naming on September 27, 1938. Weighing only 40,000 tons at the time, the 1,031-foot-long, 118-foot-wide ship, with a 38-foot draft, had been moved to its fitting out pier. However, the Queen Elizabeth, like her sister, immediately fell victim to the war and, upon order by Winston Churchill, had been dispatched to New York, departing on February 6, 1940 and berthing, still unfitted and with only essential plumbing, next to the Queen Mary one month later.
After an eight-month mooring, during which time it had been converted into a military ship, the Queen Elizabeth had sailed to Singapore and ultimately operated weekly transatlantic troop transfers between New York and Gourack, Scotland, carrying as many as 15,000 servicemen who slept in tiered, canvas bunks during two daily shifts.
Returning to Southampton on June 16, 1946, the 83,673-ton troop ship had been reconverted into a luxury liner, accommodating 823 first, 662 cabin, and 798 tourist class passengers, and operated its first civilian scheduled service four months later, on October 16. Although the Queen Elizabeth had been almost as popular as its Queen Mary counterpart, with most passengers crossing on one in one direction and on the other in the other direction, the traffic pendulum had begun to swing toward the British and the US transatlantic jetliners, with the first monetary losses being recorded in the early-1960s until economic reality could no longer support their continued service. Operating its last crossing in October of 1968, the Queen Elizabeth had briefly served as a hotel and a museum in Port Everglades, Florida, but neglect and financial burden quickly terminated the venture, leading to its sale to C Y Tung, a Taiwanese shipping tycoon, who invested $6 million in its conversion into a floating university. Fires, whose origins could not be pinpointed, erupted on January 9 and 10, 1972, while the ship had been in Hong Kong Harbor and excessive water applications only resulted in its capsize and ultimate demise.
Nevertheless, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth would remain the most famous Cunard liners to have ever sailed.
Dinner had been served in the Queen Mary 2’s Todd English Restaurant, a small, 156-seat, reservations-only venue located in the stern which harked back to the days of the original Queen Mary’s Verandah Grill. The Mediterranean-inspired cuisine had included Riesling white wine; lobster and baby corn chowder with whipped parsnip, black truffles, and potatoes; asparagus tart with caramelized onions, Fontana cheese, brown butter, and morel vinaigrette; rack of lamb with confit of shank crepenette, assorted salads of roasted red pepper, chickpea, cucumber and yogurt, and rouille with black olive sauce; hot, molten chocolate cake surrounded by raspberry sauce and cold vanilla ice cream; and coffee.
Night ordinarily draped its veil over day, diminishing and ultimately eradicating all light. With the persistent, unrelenting cloud deck of the North Atlantic winter, however, no light or color marked the daily transition. Instead, like a flipped light switch, the transformation was little more than a protracted denouement from gray to black, the external horizontal environment providing no reference for hue change. Like a falling curtain, the day seemed symbolic of the curtain which had definitively fallen on the Golden Era of transatlantic liners…
As the calendar day eclipsed another, the Queen Mary 2 assumed a 249-degree heating and a 25.6-knot steam speed, now southeast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
Shrouded in fog throughout the night and continually piercing the engulfing darkness with its forlorn horn, the mighty liner, internally configured as a city at sea with its almost 4,000 inhabitants, penetrated the void of mist in which neither light nor external reference could be glimpsed. The 150,000-ton behemoth, swallowed by the elements, had paradoxically been reduced to but an infinitesimal speck as it inched closer to the North American continent.
Maintaining a 250-degree heading in a slight sea 210 nautical miles east of Cape Cod and a 26-knot steam speed at 1200 noon, the Queen Mary 2 had sailed 648 miles since its position report 24 hours ago, now 2,694 miles from Southampton with a 388-mile gap remaining to the New York Pilot’s Station.
Lunch, served in the Lotus Restaurant station of the King’s Court, had included chicken, scallion, and vegetables; basmati rice; soba noodles with scallions and light peanut satay; egg fried rice; and chocolate, graham cracker crust squares.
By 1500, the cold front had, in ernest, passed. The skies, unraveling into remarkably bright blue ones, left not a cloud vapor and 11-degree temperatures. The sea, a brilliant, deep blue, barreled at the apartment-lined ship from the starboard side, inducing a rhythmic roll which even the extended stabilizers could not fully dampen. Pursuing a 253-degree course and a 24-knot speed, the ship, now in the outer perimeter of the Gulf of Maine, had reached a 40-degree, 44.853’ north latitude and 068-degree, 11.27’ west longitude position, the latter having unwound, like a clock, from its 001-degree Southampton coordinate. Only a few degrees of longitude remained before the ship reached Ambrose Light.
With the vessel now due east of Connecticut, the transatlantic crossing, the suspension between continents, and the return to the opulent and elegant Golden Age of transatlantic liner lifestyle, was rapidly ending.
The speed and technological advancement of more modern ocean liners, such as the France, the United States, and the Rotterdam, coupled with changing travel patterns, ultimately usurped the most famous pair of Queens ever to ply the seas, prompting both a Cunard replacement and serious consideration over whether a replacement should be designed at all.
Their successor, a modernized version of the Queen Elizabeth designated the Q3, featured a 990-foot length, able to accommodate 2,270 passengers, and a 75,000-ton gross weight, as detailed by June 1, 1960 design plans. Its engines, largely based upon those of the original Queen Elizabeth and generating between 85,000 and 95,000 shaft horsepower to permit 28.5-knot speeds, had been configured with two six-bladed, 31.75-ton, 19-foot-diameter propellers, each driven by an independent set of turbines, while two sets of double reduction geared turbines were supplied with steam from three 278-ton high-pressure water tube boilers producing 850 pounds-per-square-inch of pressure with 1,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures.
An examination of trans Atlantic passenger load factors, however, seriously questioned the economic viability of such a design. During 1957, for instance, the ratio of set-to-air traffic had been 50:50, while eight years later, in 1965, only 14 out of every 100 passengers actually crossed by sea. Unable, therefore, to justify the size and expense of the original version, a scaled-down design, designated the Q4, had been announced on October 19, 1961. Featuring a reduced, 55,000-ton gross weight, the ship, small enough to negotiate all existing waterways, inclusive of the Panama and Suez Canals, and versatile enough to assume the dual role of Atlantic liner and cruise ship, had been intended as a floating resort, a destination in and of itself, thus introducing a new concept of sea travel. The contract, awarded to John Brown and Company of Clydebank because of low construction cost and early delivery date, had been signed on December 30, 1964.
Its keel had first been laid the following year, on July 2, in the same berth which had incubated the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth and the ship, named the Queen Elizabeth 2, or QE2, had been launched on September 20, 1967. Because of the fate which had befallen its predecessors—namely, the sublimation of the Queen Mary into a hotel and a museum and the purchase of the France and the United States by Norwegian Cruise Line for operation as cruise ships—it had been then considered the last great transatlantic ocean liner to have been built.
Producing 50,000 hp less than the Queen Elizabeth it replaced and operating off of two versus four propellers, the QE2 nevertheless reached 29.5-knot speeds on its initial trails off the Scottish coast.
The 12-decked, 70,327-ton ship, constructed of 1 1/8-inch-thick steel and sporting a single funnel, stretched 963 feet in length and had been delivered to Cunard on April 20, 1969 at a 29 million pound cost. Inaugurated into scheduled, passenger-carrying service the following month, on May 2, between Southampton and New York with an intermediate port-of-call in Le Havre, the third of the eventual quartet of Queens completed its crossing in four days, 16 hours, 35 minutes at a 28.02-knot average speed, carrying 1,400 passengers.
Although the type enjoyed 17 years of successful service, its steam turbine engines, which had essentially been the same type to have powered the original Britannia of 1840, had burned some 200 tons of fuel per day and had become increasingly cost- and maintenance-intensive. Operating its last transatlantic crossing from New York on October 20, 1986, it was withdrawn from service for conversion to diesel engine technology.
A 180 million pound contract, signed with Lloyd Werft of Bremerhaven, Germany, entailed conversion of all public rooms, passenger cabins, and crew accommodations, and installation of nine 9-cylinder, MAN-B&W medium-speed, 220-ton diesel engines producing 10,625 kW or 14,242 hp of power at 400 revolutions per minute, four of which were installed in the forward engine room and five of which were installed in the aft engine room on anti-vibration mountings. Propulsion motors, each weighing 295 tons and producing 44 mw of power at 144 rpms, were connected, by 250-foot-long shafts, to two 22-foot, variable-pitch, five-bladed, outward-turning, 19-foot-diameter, 42-ton propellers which were controllable either from the bridge or from the engine room. Two four-bladed, variable-pitch, 6.55-foot-diameter bow thrusters, installed 18 feet apart in self-contained tunnels which passed laterally through the hull 18 feet below the water line, were driven by a 1,000-hp electric motor and recessed behind hydraulically-operated, hydrodynamic doors at idle power. Four 12-foot-long, 70-square-foot in area, aft-extending, hydraulically-operated stabilizers were stored behind dual-side hull recesses, while steering was accomplished with a single, 75-ton, semi-balanced rudder.
The Queen Elizabeth 2, requiring 179 days for the conversion, had been re-delivered to Cunard on April 25, 1987 and continues to ply the world’s oceans 36 years after it had first entered service, replaced on the transatlantic route only by the ship in which I presently sailed.
Indeed, the present Queen Mary 2 had been the culmination of maritime technical development which had commenced with the wooden-hulled sailing packets of the 19th century. These had later incorporated wooden paddle-wheeled, reciprocating steam engines. Iron, replacing wood as the primary hull construction material, had permitted increased strengths of considerable proportions, thereby paving the way to larger designs with higher gross weights and an increasing number of decks. Higher length-to-width ratios, coupled with propeller propulsion, reduced water resistance and enhanced steam speeds, while compound steam engines, dual screws, and steel construction material pinnacled ocean steamship technology in 1895. Turbine engines, computer-aided design, global positioning systems, azipods, and gas turbines all combined into a single design which could be collectively classified ship, transportation means, machine, edifice, and floating metropolis with interior appointments so opulent and facility offerings so extensive that any connection with the sea had been completely severed in a pleasant disorientation the moment one boarded the vessel.
Technological advancement, however, had not been arrested with maritime design, but had perpetuated throughout all other transportation forms: the transatlantic crossing, for instance, had required six days by sea, but only six hours by subsonic air and three by supersonic air. Speed had been proportionally increased, time had been reduced, and the earth had, in the process, been artificially shrunk. But civility had also been lost…
Only hours remained in which to enjoy it before the Port of New York loomed ahead.
The last dinner at sea, served in the Britannia Restaurant, had included Pinot Grigio white wine; smoked trout mousse, waldorff salad, and chive crème fraiche; roasted tomato soup with basil cream; roasted Vermont turkey, whipped root vegetables, and Madeira cranberry reduction; hazelnut amaretto pudding with sauce anglaise; and coffee.
Angled toward the ship from the forward, starboard side lay the lighted path, like a cracked glass threshold, across the ocean surface from the unobstructed, cylindrical sun, which had commenced its dusk-preemptive descent toward the western horizon, a path, perhaps, to night, the Port of New York, and the crossing’s termination—a sunset symbolic to the end of transatlantic liner passage which could now only be singularly relived aboard the Queen Mary 2. Settling toward the horizon, it emitted a pronounced orange glow and rendered the sea a reflective, icy-blue mirror. A slowly lumbering cargo ship, aged with rust, lurked off the right side, its speed an appalling attempt at dominance over that of the balcony-lined leviathan. The sun itself, a burning orange ball, dripped behind the Atlantic’s perimeter, leaving only an orange and chartreuse aftermath of energy.
Except for the arcing white smoke plume emanating rrom the charcoal and red funnel, no cloud condensation marred the night sky, its intense, velvet black pierced by periodic star glitter.
At midnight, the Queen Mary 2 passed south of Montauk Point, Long Island.
Entering New York Harbor off of Ambrose Light at 0330, the still-slumbering giant sailed under the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge one hour, 15 minutes later, pursuing a 006-degree heading at a lumbering, 9.3-knot cruise speed. First light, tinged with orange, appeared behind the jewel-glittering superstructures of Manhattan off the starboard side. At 0540, now maintaining a 33-degree heading, the ship skated over the blue sheet of reflective Hudson River glass at 3.6 knots, passing the needle-thin point of the Empire State Building.
Commencing its laborious starboard turn by means of its rotating azipods, the behemoth moved into its Pier 88 berth facing a 118-degree heading, casting its post-dawn mooring lines at a 40-degree, 45.982’ north latitude and 073-degree, 59.917’ west longitude coordinate parallel to the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum and its satellite barge paradoxically sporting the Concorde, registered G-BOAD, in British Airways livery, which, as the ultimate transatlantic crossing means, had represented the pinnacle of commercial aeronautical development begun with the subsonic, pure-jet airliners which had preceded it. They had been the singular reason for transoceanic sea travel’s demise. The cost-to-speed ratio had proven too high for Concorde and it, like the original Queen Mary, had been withdrawn from service and reduced to a museum exhibit. But the Queen Mary’s next-generation successor, the Queen Mary 2, had been alive, in active transatlantic service, and in high demand, leaving one to wonder if the ship had somehow not replaced the aircraft in an ultimate historical cycle. The Queen Mary 2 would depart in the evening on its eastbound crossing with fare-paying passengers. The Concorde would remain stationary, as an exhibit.
My journey had been both a physical and historical one, encompassing distance and time, forward motion and backward values, a time warp entry in to the Golden Age of transatlantic ocean liner travel replete with opulence, sophistication, elegance, and civility, an historical recapture, and hence re-experience, of early-era values and an examination, perhaps in vain, of the reason for their demise.
Although speed had reduced crossing times, facilitating increased activity and accomplishment, its perceived value increase could only be equated with monetary value, resulting in gains of earthly possessions, but compromises of the soul, the intrinsic, unearthly entity behind every body. This compromise had been the pivot point between a human being and a human doing. Seemingly ratios of the two, the soul and the body have wrestled with each other since the first human walked on the planet, forgoing spiritual fulfillments for bodily pleasures, in an inherent conflict between the worlds to which they belong—Heaven and earth. The more one immersed himself in the latter, the more he lost the former. So completely had entire societies attempted to do so, such as the Holy Roman Empire, that they had completely fallen, losing the very source which had created them.
Walking down the gangplank, I turned and looked at the giant ocean liner which had carried me 3,082 nautical miles across the Atlantic. Perhaps I will cross again someday, I thought…