June 30, 2007

Ships that pass in the night: of Queen Mary II and other passenger liners

This interesting and well written article appeared on thenews.com about QM2, QE2 and other ships

"By Kaleem OmarThe title of this article comes from the American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Tales of a Wayside Inn”, a collection of short stories told by a group of travelers, published in 1863. In 1867 Longfellow produced his translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, on which he had worked for many years. It was highly acclaimed at the time, but is now considered to be somewhat pedestrian. Although Longfellow’s poetry is still widely known and is still taught in schools across America and other parts of the English-speaking world, most critics today regard it with some mockery as more often manufactured than deeply felt.

All this notwithstanding, Longfellow’s felicitous phrase “ships that pass in the night” has passed into the language. And that, when you get right down to it, is about all most writers can hope for. W. H. Auden, one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, once remarked, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that if he could get a phrase from his poems into the Oxford English Dictionary, he would die content that his life had not been lived in vain. If Longfellow were alive today, he, too, might have been moved to say that his life had not been lived entirely in vain.

On the subject of ships that pass in the night, however, what I want to talk about here is the British Cunard Line’s new flagship cruise liner Queen Mary II – named after Queen Mary II of England (who reigned from 1689 to 1694, and died of smallpox) – which made its maiden voyage across the Atlantic in October 2003 from England to Florida and has made numerous cruises between England and America in the years since then, carrying well-heeled passengers in the kind of luxurious comfort most of us can only dream about.

The $ 800 million, 150,000-ton trans-Atlantic liner is the biggest and most expensive passenger ship ever built. It is 1,132 feet long, with a beam of 135 ft and a height (keel to funnel) of 236.2 feet. It is powered by a 157,000 horsepower gas turbine-cum-diesel electric plant and propelled by four pods of 21.5 megawatt each, giving it a top speed of approximately 30 knots (34.5 miles per hour).

The QM2, as it is popularly known, has a crew of 1,253 and can carry 2,650 passengers. Among other things, the luxury vessel features a planetarium, 22 elevators and the world’s largest floating library. Passengers can enjoy six restaurants, 14 bars and clubs, theatre, swimming pools, a disco and casino. The 1,310 cabins include duplexes with private gymnasiums and penthouses with butler service. Captain Ronald Warwick, surveying the interior of the ship in September 2003 before it set sail from St. Nazaire, France, where it was built, for its home port of Southampton on the southern coast of England, said it was a cut above Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II (QE2), on which he served 14 years as captain. “I always thought that was the best ship in the world, but now I think we have competition with this one,” Warwick said.

The QM2 has joined an illustrious list of massive passenger ships. The QE2 – whose trans-Atlantic route was taken over by the new ship in April 2004 – was built in 1967; the original Queen Mary was launched in 1934 and is now a hotel in Long Beach, California, where it is permanently anchored at the dock – a sad fate, it seems to me, for what was once the Queen of the Seas.

The original Queen Mary was built to take the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing by a passenger liner, and was to hold the record both ways – westbound from Southampton to New York and eastbound from New York to Southampton – until 1952. Though built during the depression years of the 1930s, she was by no means an austere ship. In fact, she was a fitting successor to the Aquitania, with which she operated prior to World War II.Wartime service as a troopship was marred by a collision in 1942 with the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Caracoa, which sank with the loss of most of her crew (there were only 26 survivors).

Because of danger from lurking German U-boats, the Queen Mary was forbidden to stop and render assistance. During her career in mercantile service, the Queen Mary completed 1,001 Atlantic crossings. In 1967, Cunard sold her to the City of Long Beach, California, as a museum and hotel. To reach her new home, she had to round Cape Horn, being too wide by just 30 inches to pass through the Panama Canal.

Though the Queen Mary was nearly the same length as the QM2 (1,019 ft vs 1,132 ft), she was only about half the tonnage (80,744 tons vs 150,000 tons). But with a service speed of 29 knots, she was nearly as fast as the QM2. The QE2, the last Cunard liner built for the regular trans-Atlantic passenger service, was an anachronism even before she was launched on November 20th, 1967, airline travel having surpassed the seaborne trade. Her maiden voyage was delayed by more than five months because of mechanical trouble, which continued to plague her at intervals throughout her career.

In 1974, she was left adrift off Bermuda after an engine failure; in 1975, she hit a coral reef off the Bahamas; and, in 1976, she was partially crippled by an engine-room fire while in the eastern Atlantic, forcing her return to Southampton. In 1982, she played a key role as a troopship in the Falklands war between Britain and Argentina. Later, after a refit, she had an active career as a cruise liner, including voyages around the world.

She still makes occasional voyages between Southampton and New York – a run on which she was replaced by the QM2 in February 2004.Long before there was a Queen Elizabeth II, however, (the ship, that is, not the British monarch), there was a Princesse Elisabeth (and, no, Princesse and Elisabeth are not, repeat not, misprints; that’s the way the names of those ships were spelt). In the service between Ostend and Dover, the changeover from nineteenth century paddle wheels to turbine-driven ships came in 1904 with the introduction of the Princesse Elisabeth. Although she had a design speed of 24 knots, during her trials off Greenstock, Scotland, she achieved 26.25 knots, making her the fastest ship afloat.

As a result of her success, two more ships of similar design were built. Entering service in 1910, with two more slightly smaller versions following on shortly afterwards. However, none of these vessels was as successful as the Princesse Elisabeth, and it was not until 1922 that a ship was added to the Ostend-Dover service that could match her performance.

In fact, Princesse Elizabeth set a trend for fast ferry service across the North Sea and could carry a sizeable payload of 900 passengers in reasonable comfort.During October 1907, the Cunard Line’s 31,500-ton Lusitania, the biggest ship in the world at the time and the most luxuriously appointed, held both eastbound and westbound Blue Ribands simultaneously; she eventually achieved an average speed of 25.65 knots over 5,352 km (2,890 nautical miles).

Her achievements, however, have tended to be overshadowed by the manner of her demise. On May 7th, 1915, she was sunk without warning by a torpedo from the German submarine U-20 off the Old Head of Kinsale on the south coast of Ireland, with the loss of 1,198 (some reports say 1,201) men, women and children. About 228 were US citizens, and it was long held that their deaths were a factor that eventually persuaded the United States to join the Allies in World War I. A factor in her loss was her master’s inexplicable failure to zig-zag at maximum speed.

And then, of course, there was the Titanic. Billed by its owners as “unsinkable,” the 46,328-ton White Star liner left Southampton on her maiden voyage bound for New York via the French port of Cherbourg and the Irish port of Queenstown on April 10th, 1912. By the afternoon of April 14th, the Titanic was some 1,100 km (600 nautical miles) east of Newfoundland. Her wireless operators received warnings of ice in her path, but her captain, Edward Smith, chose to ignore them and the ship continued at an undiminished 22 knots. At 23.40 hours, a lookout reported ice ahead. The first officer gave orders to leave it to starboard, but the ship grazed an underwater spur, buckling her port side hull plates along the riveted seams. She sank, with the loss of 1,503 of the 2,223 people aboard, in less than two-and-a-half hours.

Much of the resulting scandal centred on the disproportionate number of lives lost (75 per cent) among the third-class passengers. Lady Astor, who known for her sharp tongue and icy demeanour, was one of those who survived. She was a first class passenger, naturally. The story goes that she and some friends of hers were sitting in one of the ship’s lounges, having a drink, when the vessel hit the iceberg. As the walls of the iceberg came crashing through the sides of the ship, Lady Astor, with a hauteur born of centuries of aristocratic breeding, was said to have turned to her companions and remarked, “I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous!”

1 comment:

peter said...

Interesting article, but riddled with errors. The ship is Queen Mary 2, not Queen Mary II and she is not named after the monarch, but after the first Queen Mary ship (1936). QM2's maiden voyage was in January 2004, not October 2003 (when she had yet to start, let alone complete her trials). Ronald Warwick would not call the QE2 the 'Queen Elizabeth II'. The ship the QM sank in WWII was the HMS Curacoa, not Caracoa. The Queeen Mary was faster than the QM2. The QE2 was designed from the start as a liner/cruise ship - not something that happened after her 1980s refit as implied. The QM2 replaced the QE2 on the Trans Atlantic run in April 2004, not February. The comments on the Lusitania sinking also do not bear much scrutiny - Cunard passengers were explicitly warned by the German Embassy that the seas around Britain were a war zone and the practice of zig-zagging at maximum speed, far from being inexplicable was no where near standard practice on civilian transport at the time. The Titanic was not billed by her owners as 'unsinkable', but by the press as 'practically unsinkable'. The First Officer tried to avoid the ice, attempting a 'port about', and the damage was almost certainly to the starboard side of the ship, not the port, the opposite side from the berg. The highest loss of life, proportionately was among Second Class men, with Third Class women faring better than second class men. The Lady Astor story is pure myth.

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