Driving up to the Port of Southampton’s Mayflower Terminal and catching first glimpse of the white-and-black hulled Queen Mary 2, the largest, longest, tallest, heaviest, and most expensive ship ever built, evoked considerable excitement and awe. Docked to port at a 50-degree, 54.25′ north latitude and 001-degree, 25.70′ west longitude and facing a 116.4-degree compass heading, the 17-decked leviathan, with a 1,132-foot length and 148-foot width, featured a gross weight of 151,400 tons and towered above the buildings with its balcony-lined façade, eclipsing it with its 236.2-foot height. Its draft extended 33.10 feet beneath the water line. The floating metropolis, complete with its staterooms, restaurants, shopping arcades, libraries, theaters, and planetariums, would bridge, in six days, the European and North American continents, the equivalent in hours to the duration of the aerial crossing by 747-400, itself then the world’s largest commercial airliner. But the oceanic crossing would yield civility, refinement, rejuvenation, emotional repair, and return to the slower, but more elegant era of steam ship travel-a journey, I would soon find out, would lead to a search for the maritime history of the past which had created the technology of the present.
Unlike the proliferation of modern cruise ships with their comparatively lower speeds and greater-volume, square-geometry hulls, the Queen Mary 2 had been designed as a next-generation successor to the 35-year-old Queen Elizabeth 2 and, as such, would have to offer the same year-round, passenger-carrying capabilities, predominately in the rough North Atlantic, with a design which sacrificed revenue-producing volume and lower construction costs of the traditional cruise ship for the required safety, speed, and stability of the ocean liner. Resultantly, it featured the same v-shaped hull configuration characteristic of the long line of its Cunard predecessors, constructed of thicker steel which carried a 40-percent greater cost than those of conventional cruise ships. Designed by Stephen Payne, whose inspirations for the bow had come from the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the brake wall from the Normandie, it was the first quadruple-screw North Atlantic ocean liner since the France of 1962. Payne himself, a naval architect born and raised in London, had been involved with the Carnival Holiday, Carnival Fantasy, and Rotterdam VI projects. The latter, incorporating a modified Statendam hull, had featured a less “boxy” hull shape than the traditional cruise ship, but had still been considerably removed a full liner design.
Intended for the primary Southampton-New York route, it incorporated dimensional restrictions dictated by the United States port, including a funnel height which cleared the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by only ten feet and an overall length which exceeded the 1,100-foot pier of the Port of New York by 34 feet.
Constructed by Alstom Chantiers de l’Atlantique in St. Nazaire, France, which had also built the Normandie, and designated hull G32 by the shipyard, it had been the first Cunard liner ever constructed outside of the United Kingdom and, like Concorde, the world’s fastest and hitherto only supersonic airliner, became the second British-French collaborative transportation project intended for trans-Atlantic service, although via vastly different, if not opposite, modes.
Its interior offered unparalleled space and comfort. Of the 17 decks, the first four were for machinery, storage, and the 1,254-strong crew; 13 were for the 2,620 passengers; and eight contained balcony staterooms. Notable features included a Grand Lobby, the Royal Court Theatre, the Illuminations Theatre and Planetarium, the ConneXions Internet Center, the Queen’s Ballroom, a Winter Garden, nine major restaurants, 11 bars and lounges, an 8,000-volume library and bookstore, an Oxford University lecture program, performances by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, five swimming pools, sports venues, a Canyon Ranch Spa, a pavilion of shops, and a discotheque. These appointments would constitute my “home” for the next six days.
Symbolically reflected by its smaller QE2 predecessor berthed a considerable distance from its bow at the Queen Elizabeth 2 Terminal, the Queen Mary 2 represented a two-fold gross weight increase over its earlier-generation counterpart and, indeed, traced its lineage back to a long path of Cunard vessels which had spanned a 165-year period. I somehow sensed that the imminent crossing would not only be a journey of distance, but a return in time.
Gently vibrating at its spine, the behemoth laterally separated itself beneath from its berth below the metallic overcast at 1810, local time.
Unlike the conventional engine-propeller shaft technology of older-generation ships, the Queen Mary 2 was powered instead by four aft, hull underside-mounted Rolls Royce Mermaid electric-motor pods, each weighing 260 tons and containing four fixed-pitch, 9,900-pound, stainless steel blades, and collectively producing 115,328 horsepower. The forward, outboard pair was fixed and provided forward and astern propulsion, while the aft, inboard pair featured 360-degree azimuth capability and provided both propulsion and steering, obviating the need for the rudder. The advanced-technology system reduced both complexity and weight and increased internal hull volume by eliminating the traditional engine configuration’s associated equipment.
Three Rolls Royce variable-pitch, transverse-propeller bow thrusters, collectively producing 15,000 horsepower, provided port and starboard bow maneuvering capability at speeds of up to five knots. At eight knots, when their effectiveness had been exceeded, they were covered by 90-degree rotating, fluid-dynamic doors.
Led by dual water-sprout shooting tugboats, the behemoth oceanliner commenced its lumbering movement down the basin. Maintaining an 11.5-knot forward speed in the Solent, it commenced its starboard turn from 140 degrees at Calshots Reach at 1907, poised for the similar maneuver at Brambles.
Compressed into dark gray, the sun projected its glowing orange streaks outward through the thin, unobstructed strip on the western horizon. Assuming a 220-degree heading through the Thorn Channel, the Queen Mary 2 initiated its starboard turn to round the Isle of Wight.
The first dinner on board the elegant, maritime engineering triumph had been served in the 1,351-seat, three-story-high, dual-level Britannia Restaurant which had featured a grand, sweeping staircase, column supports, and a vaulted, back-lit, stained glass ceiling and was reminiscent of and inspired by the grand dining room salons of the 20th century French liners such as the Ile-de-France, the L’Atlantique, and the Normandie. The meal itself, served on Wedgwood bone china and in Waterford crystal, had included white zinfandel wine; cream of mixed mushroom soup with parmesan croutons; crusty rolls and butter; oak leaf and Boston salad with shaved carrots and sherry vinaigrette dressing; rack of pork with wild mushroom ragout, truffle mashed potatoes, morel sauce, and sauerkraut; warm apple strudel with brandy sauce; and coffee.
The thin line of orange lights outlining the coast traced itself behind the stern. Maintaining a 27-knot speed and a 250-degree heading, the rock-steady, 151,000-ton engineering mass plied the black channel and commenced its great circle course, from Bishop’s Rock in the Scilly Isles. Ahead lay the infinite Atlantic-and the path forged by every one of Cunard’s previous transatlantic liners. Tomorrow, I would begin tracing the historical one.
Dawn greeted the lengthy liner as a tunnel of indistinguishable, moist gray. Encased between the morose cloud dome above and the navy sea slate below, which spat periodic white caps, the black-and-red funneled vessel penetrated the moisture-saturated morning, the rain-emitting sky and the swirling, eddying sea merging into seamless, wind-blustery, ship-bombarded drench.
Any undesired movement, however, was quickly, and invisibly, dampened by the two pairs of 15.63-square-meter Brown Bros/Rolls Royce fin stabilizers which were controlled by gyroscopic vertical reference instruments and extended as far as 15 feet from the hull to counteract ship roll.
Plunging into 348-meter-deep waters 98 nautical miles off of Ireland at noon, the Queen Mary 2 had traversed 418 miles since its departure from Southampton yesterday.
Current weather entailed intermittent, light rain with a clockwise movement to the west, predicted to drop to force 4. The present force-5, fresh breeze out of the south, coupled with an 11.2-degree Celsius air temperature, carried a 994-millibar pressure. The sea, with a moderate 4 state, maintained a 10-degree Celsius temperature.
Afternoon tea, held in the Queen’s Room, had been a British tradition and a delightful intermittence between lunch and dinner served on every Cunard crossing, the last personal one of which had been the 2002 eastbound journey on the Queen Elizabeth 2. The Queen’s Room itself, the largest ballroom at sea, featured an arched ceiling, twin crystal chandeliers, a velvet blue and gold curtain over the orchestra stage, a 1,225-square-foot dance floor, a live harpist, and small, round tables seating up to 562. Today’s presentation included egg, ham and cheese, cucumber, tomato, beef, and seafood finger-sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and strawberry cream tarts.
Afternoon tea at sea could trace its lineage back some 165 years. Einstein’s theory of relativity somehow seemed to apply. Suspended between continent, landmass, and population, the ship seemed caught within a void, an arrested warp in which history seemed led high mast light captured and in which the vessel reconnected with its past, as it once again replayed it, a separation from the present on land and an approach to its past on the sea. It was to this suspension of time, distance, and place that the threads of Cunard’s past indeed led. One man, who had lived some 200 years ago, had made the journey of today possible.
The name of that man, of course, had been the same as that which had graced a long line of ever-advancing Atlantic ocean liners, Samuel Cunard. Born on November 21, 1787 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as the son of Abraham Cunard, himself a carpenter at Halifax’s Royal Naval Dockyard, he had forged a maritime link upon physical entry into the world. His initial venture had entailed a Royal Mail contract award to transport mail over the Boston-Halifax-St. John’s route after cessation of the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States, while he later became involved with the first steam-powered vessel project intended for Atlantic crossings. Named the Royal William, the 160-foot-long, 1,370-ton ship had been inaugurated into service in August of 1931 between Quebec and Halifax, requiring 6.5 days for the journey.
The venture which had sparked his ultimate fame, however, occurred at the end of the decade when the British government had announced its intention to subsidize steam-powered mail service between England and the United States. In a formal proposal to fulfill the requirement, submitted on February 11, 1839, Cunard outlined a bimonthly, steam-powered service between England and Halifax operated by 300-hp ships making 48 annual crossings. Awarded a contract by the Admiralty in June for four 206-foot-long, 400-hp, 1,120-ton vessels ultimately to be designated the Acadia, the Caledonia, the Columbia, and the Britannia, he finalized plans to serve the Liverpool-Halifax-Boston route.
The latter ship, the Britannia, had actually been the first to be completed. The 207-foot-long, 34-foot-wide hybrid power ship, constructed of African oak and yellow pine at Robert Duncan’s Shipyard on the River Clyde in Scotland, had featured a clipper bow, three masts with square yards, and two mid-ship-located, black-and-gold paddle boxes which extended almost 12 feet from either side and contained 9-foot-wide, 28-foot-diameter paddles turning at 16 revolutions per minute and operating off of a 403-hp, two-cylinder, side-lever steam engine which burned 40 tons of coal per day exhausted through a single, aft smoke stack. The engine, requiring 70 feet of hull for installation, drew coal from a 640-ton bunker.
Of the four decks, the upper, or main deck, featured the captain and chief officer cabins, the pantry, the galley, the officers’ mess, the crew cabins, the raised, exposed bridge, and the dining saloon, which, at 36 feet long and 14 feet wide, had been the largest enclosed room on the ship. Two aft, circular staircases linked the dining hall with the second deck, which housed the gentlemen’s and ladies’ cabins, each with two bunk beds, a wash basin, a mirror, a day sofa, and a port hole or an oil lamp, with shared toilet facilities, equaling a 124-person capacity, of which 24 had been female. The cargo holds, located on either side of the engine yet another deck lower and capable of accommodating 225 tons, accompanied the sail locker, the mail room, the stores, the steward quarters, and the wine cellar in the stern. Coal had been stored on the fourth, or lowest, deck.
The 1,154-ton Britannia, inaugurated into scheduled service on July 4, 1840 from Liverpool to Boston with an intermediate stop in Halifax, operated the world’s first transatlantic steam ship service, carrying 63 passengers and taking 12 days, ten hours for the 2,534-nautical-mile crossing at an 8.5-knot speed, one third of the journey undertaken by pure-sail. After an eight-hour port suspension in Halifax, it continued to Boston in another 46 hours.