July 5, 2006

Queen Victoria finally makes it into Cunard fleet

I DON’T know how things are managed in the hereafter, should such an ethereal region exist. But I like to think that in the past few weeks, the spirits of the gentlemen who managed the board of Cunard Steamship Company back in 1934 were chuckling and back-slapping. They may even have chortled, "And about time, too!" as they looked down on the keel of the new Cunard liner Queen Victoria being laid down at Fincantieri shipyard, near Venice, Italy.
They had tried to get an earlier Cunarder named Victoria. Work on Hull 534 stopped at John Brown’s shipyard at Clydebank, Scotland, in December 1931 because of the Great Depression. Three years later, work on the massive ship was restarted with financial aid from the British government. The story goes that the Cunard chairman asked King George V for permission to name the new vessel after "England’s most illustrious Queen," meaning Queen Victoria. The bluff, bearded sailor king replied, "My wife will be delighted!"
Thus, Hull 534 became RMS Queen Mary, arguably the 20th century’s most famous ocean liner. She was Atlantic Blue Riband speed record holder, wartime troop carrier par excellence, and a post-war war-bride transporter. Then, before the jet age killed regular transatlantic surface travel, with her 80,000-ton sister Queen Elizabeth, she plied the North Atlantic route profitably for two decades.
Our spectral pre-war Cunard executives may have been puzzled, of course, as to why a new Cunarder was being built in Italy, just as they may have expressed frustration that the Queen Mary 2 – at 150,000 tons, the world’s largest liner when built and now second largest – was the product of a French shipyard. Then again, these shadowy characters could be aware that the Cunard line, founded in the 1840s by Halifax-born Sir Samuel Cunard, has ceased to be a British mercantile entity.
The QE2 and the QM2 still fly the Red Duster and are registered at Southampton. Presumably the same will apply to the Queen Victoria, whose maiden voyage, from that port, is scheduled for December 2007. However, Cunard is now American owned, part of Carnival Cruise Lines. So is another great, historic, formerly British shipping line, P&O.
At least the old Queen Mary avoided the scrapyard or the dreadful fate of the Queen Elizabeth, which sank as a blazing hulk in Hong Kong harbour as she was being converted into a floating academy. George V’s consort’s maritime namesake has been a floating hotel and museum at Long Beach, Calif., since 1971. I recall visiting her there in 1980 and feeling a little sad that such an ocean monarch, although physically well-preserved, should spend her retirement regarded as an antique curiosity.
It’s interesting to note that both the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the QM2 – which has already visited Halifax and is scheduled to arrive on a "Labour Day getaway" from New York at the end of August 2007 – are classed as ocean liners, despite their cruising activities. Not so the Queen Victoria.
If keen ship-spotters note a similarity in the design and shape of the Queen Victoria to the large new Vista-class cruise ships of Holland America (yet another corporate structure within the Carnival behemoth), they will have hit the spot. Indeed, according to the Wikipedia website, the existing Victoria hull, now a-building, was at one time intended for a new P&O Vista-type ship, Arcadia.
Since, unlike both the QE2 and QM2, the Victoria will not be used for scheduled transatlantic crossings between Southampton and New York, her top speed will be 24 knots, still quite high for a cruise liner. In contrast, the QM2’s top speed exceeds 30 knots, as does that of the QE2.
Top speed of the old Queen Mary was 29 knots. It’s interesting to note that one of the conditions laid down in 1934 for British government financial backing of Cunard – another was merging with White Star, then also in dire financial straits – was that the Mary and her sister Elizabeth should be available as fast troop transports in the event of war. In that they excelled, their speed the guarantor of survival in a U-boat infested sea. Decades later, the Queen Elizabeth 2 did her war service when, in 1982, she (along with the then P&O flagship Canberra) was requisitioned by Margaret Thatcher’s government to take troops south 8,000 miles to the Falklands to dislodge invading Argentine forces from those South Atlantic islands.
Now, neither the QE2 nor the QM2 is British-owned, or requisitionable. And with quicker modes of strategic military travel available, the troop ship must be a thing of the past. As a former reluctant participant in this mode of transportation, I can’t say I’m sorry.

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