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By John Maxtone-Graham
Queen Elizabeth 2 first appeared in New York on the afternoon of 7 May, 1969 when John Lindsay was mayor. The last vessel launched from John Brown’s historic Clydeside yard, second Queen Elizabeth had survived worrisome birthing pangs, her trio of steam turbines in need of drastic re-work before Cunard would accept the vessel.
Now she had departed Manhattan and Southampton forever. But four decades ago, for New Yorkers who watched pluming fire-boats escort her upriver for the first time, this new Cunarder aroused almost more curiosity than admiration. This third Queen was a bold remove from predecessor Queens Mary and Elizabeth; port regulars throughout the war and postwar, they were traditional liners from the thirties, profiled with giant, orange/black funnels.
But this new upstart looked very different, a maritime hybrid that was half ocean liner and half cruise ship. Heralding unconventionality across the water, her single funnel was a minimalist black-and-white pipe that bore not a trace of Cunard’s pumpkin-colored livery.
Cunard described her proudly as a product of “swinging London.” A new breed of young company Turks had wrought a jarring makeover. The vessel’s name had been abbreviated to QE2, a catchy logo and a new slogan concocted to match: “Ships have been boring long enough.” With one gratuitous stroke of the pen, Cunard abrogated 129 years of apparently perishable transatlantic history.
To be fair, some admired the vessel’s look. Wrote designer/photographer Lord Snowdon, husband of Princess Margaret Rose, sixties’ arbiter and swinging Londoner himself: "What you have achieved with QE2 makes one proud to be British...the mood is breathtaking." All of piece with that radical funnel, “swinging London” pervaded the vessel’s interiors as well. Stewards sported turtlenecks rather than collars-and-ties and, curiously, First Class’s major thoroughfare was identified by a Royal Naval term, Quarter Deck. Staircase railings were wrought in bright fiber-glass colors, main staircase walls were clad with black leather and aluminum was rampant: cabin doorknobs were aluminum cylinders, cantilevered aluminum chairs surrounded every dining table and all superstructure walls were made of the lightweight stuff. Loaded with enough energetic dancers, Tourist Class’s aluminum dance floor flexed alarmingly as the ceiling of First Class’s Main Lounge directly below.
Both lounges were devoid of flanking promenade decks; instead, walkers circumnavigated the open Boat Deck above, juxtaposed against beige deck house walls and khaki-colored davits. Naval architect James Gardner confessed that the look he sought was the functional elegance of a Bentley It took about a decade for New Yorkers and Cunard’s dedicated clientele to become accustomed to QE2.
Somehow, the passage of time and thousands of sea miles transformed that initially alien duckling into the serene swan she would later become. First conceived as a three-class vessel, she had been sensibly reduced to two, First and Tourist. But only two years after her debut, in the early seventies, three classes re-emerged—First, Tourist and Grill. There are now 3 Grills aboard QE2 : Princess Grill—the vessel’s original extra-tariff restaurant—and Britannia Grill, both superseded by grander Queens Grill. No longer optional venues, all three permanently accommodate occupants of the vessel’s most expensive cabins.
The vessel’s Otis elevators or “lifts” still shudder up and down and those bright fiberglass banisters have long been buttressed by higher steel supplements, ever since a passenger toppled over the edge of the too-low originals. Outside the number 2 elevator on the Upper Deck level of E Staircase, a somehow endearing convex steel dimple beneath the carpet still pops up and down underfoot.
In the spring of 1981, QE2 was dragooned for Falkland duty by Prime Minister Thatcher. Plucked abruptly from North Atlantic service, the vessel raced 3,000 troops to South Georgia. After delivering them safely, she returned triumphantly to the UK with severely burned Royal Naval survivors, greeted in Southampton Water by the Queen Mother aboard royal yacht Britannia.
Resumption of peacetime service saw her hull painted light gray, a publicity subterfuge happily obliterated shortly thereafter by restoration to its original charcoal gray. Six years later, a massive maritime heart transplant was performed at Bremerhaven’s HAPG/Werft yard, replacing her aging turbines with a diesel/electric power plant. That ruthless removal of all steam components seems a chilling preview of the daunting renovations that will follow QE2’s Dubai landfall later this month.
I saw all those boilers and condensers torn from the engine room and dumped unceremoniously onto Bremerhaven’s pier. It seemed unbelievable that those rusted, blackened components had, just days earlier, propelled us successfully from New York; off-loaded, they exhibited the decrepitude of an arcane, industrial museum. The original funnel was also detached and a more substantial replacement—made wider and chunkier to accommodate uptakes from 9 nine diesel engines—more closely approximated a Queen’s profile from the old days.
Her 40-year career constitutes Cunard’s longest. Largely because of annual world cruises, the vessel’s enviable statistics can be reckoned in the millions: 2½ million passengers carried 5½ million nautical miles. Whatever their 1969 novelty, many of the vessel’s surviving perks now betray her age. To the very end, one still locked one’s cabin door with a key rather than a digitalized electronic card. Although color-coded call buttons—red for steward, green for stewardess—connected to pantry enunciators have long been disconnected, their reset buttons and telltale lights are still in place outside many cabin doors. Those aluminum doorknobs are there too but much of her daring décor has been vitiated by alien renovations. Two layers of prefabricated, balconied penthouses were attached to the top deck and the original Theatre Bar became the Golden Lion, a pub named after the company’s leonine, heraldic mascot.
Once her final passenger-load has disembarked in Dubai, the vessel will undergo years of even more draconian surgery. Dubai has emerged as the Middle East’s epicenter of excess where a dizzying surfeit of petro-dollars has fomented a money-is-no-object mentality. Having paid an extravagant $100-millon for a 40-year-old vessel, Sheikh Mohammed has allocated $400-million more to morph QE2 into a maritime travesty from top to bottom: the funnel will become an elevated bar with glass walls and the engine room an 800-seat show-lounge.
Although from a distance, her profile may be reminiscent of the original, inside she will become quite alien. Former passengers visiting the ship for a nostalgic walkabout will recognize only four spaces: the Queens Room, Princess Grill, the bridge and the officers’ wardroom. Everything else will have been reworked and inflated into a prototypical luxury hotel. Queens Grill, Caronia and Mauretania Restaurants will be sub-divided into 800-square foot suites and, in order to meet Dubai hotel guests’ expectations, many ceilings and hence deck levels will be arbitrarily raised.
Beloved QE2 will share the fate of another retired Cunarder, first Queen Mary, which still soldiers on in Long Beach, California. After 40 years alongside, though showing her age and starting to sag, at least her funnel trio is still gloriously in place so that she resembles the great express liner she once was.
But Queen Elizabeth 2, with unlimited cash squandered on a preposterous overhaul, will surrender all sea-going glory. Instead, she will be just another over-the-top Dubai hotel that happens to be afloat.
As the vessel was entering the Mediterranean on her final voyage, an article in The New York Times suggested that the world’s current financial crisis had extended even to—gasp!—Dubai. Might they have to lower their sights? Only time will tell but there is talk that some of the conversion work may have to be completed in Singapore. Will she be towed there or might there be yet another farewell voyage?