January 29, 2007

When beauty, majesty and tradition come to call

I recently tried to re-create a historic and literary moment. I went to Port Everglades. The Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Queen Mary 2 were in town, about to set off on their respective world cruises. It was not the first time they had been here together, though, I was told, it was the first time they had berths that allowed their bows to practically touch.The 17th Street Causeway was up -- I was on my way to board a charter boat at Pier 66 -- and a few people had gotten out of their cars to take in the vision: two black hulls, in a normally whited-out space, capped by red-and-black funnels.The QE2 (we've had more time to become familiar) faced east, parallel to the bridge, in a long, low-slung, classic liner silhouette.

Though I'm partial. In 1975 she carried me to France -- where I spent a crucial year -- and gave me an everlasting love of ships. Among the countless charms of ships (as opposed to planes) is the fact that 30 years later you can visit the one that changed your life.The Queen Mary 2 (we're still on more formal terms of address) faced south, sitting higher than Elizabeth and looking, from this perspective, quite a bit tubbier. Predictably, they brought to mind one of the most glorious passages in travel literature.On Sept. 25, 1967, the poet and biographer John Malcolm Brinnin stood on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth, "largest ship in the world, twenty-seven years old" as she headed west in the North Atlantic. At a little after midnight she passed, for the last time, the Queen Mary, "the next-largest ship in the world, thirty-one years old," headed east."Cutting the water deeply, pushing it aside in great crested arrowheads, they veer toward one another almost as if to embrace, and all the lights blaze out, scattering the dark. The huge funnels glow in their Cunard red, the basso-profundo horns belt out a sound that has the quality less of a salute than of one long mortal cry. Standing at attention on the starboard wing of his flying bridge, the Elizabeth's captain doffs his hat; on the starboard wing of the Mary, her captain does the same."

Then, slowly, "ten or twelve of the faithful ... like people dispersing downhill after a burial ... find their way to their cabins and close their doors."The Queen Mary was turned into a hotel, and sits today in Long Beach, Calif. The Queen Elizabeth underwent the same transformation and was put in Port Everglades -- the United States of America bookended by two of history's great liners -- but the venture failed. In 1972, after serving for a time as a floating university, she was torched by an arsonist in Hong Kong harbor.I stood on the stern of the Anticipation V and gazed across the water at their two descendants.

At a little past 4, the SeaEscape entered the harbor, looking slightly underdressed. It seemed to hurry to its berth, as if mumbling, "Nobody told me THOSE TWO were gonna be here." Off port side a few minutes later, in a modest homage to Brinnin, the Carrie B passed the Jungle Queen.We pushed away from the dock. Departure was scheduled for 5 p.m., but word had come that the QE2 would be seriously delayed, and the Queen Mary 2 would leave at 5:30. We motored to a spot about 50 yards from each. Strobe lights danced from an upper deck; music from the party reached us across the water.

The sky darkened. The tugs shot arcs of colored water. Lights came on along the elongated stacks of decks. The Queen Mary 2 sign blazed overhead. But no lines were loosened. At 6:15 we headed back to the dock.I wasn't surprised. I had stood on Point of the Americas' beach, waiting for the departure of the Queen Mary 2 before. She had always managed to prolong the suspense.And I wasn't all that disappointed.

There was still the rapturous sight of them together, all aglow, like two sisters dressed up for a night on the town and neither one wanting to leave the house.Thomas Swick can be reached at tswick@sun-sentinel.com


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