“Queen Elizabeth 2, Ship of Legend” by William H. Miller (published by Fonthill)

Smooth sailing in this look at last of the floating palaces

Younger readers may not recall the grand days when cruise ships were stately and nicely contoured, rather than the present-day monstrosities that look like floating office blocks and threaten to swamp vulnerable cities in their wake, such as suffering Venice. One vessel of the former type was the graceful Queen Elizabeth 2, the subject of this correspondingly attractive book.
7. July 2021 16:26

The ship, affectionately known as the QE2, made its maiden voyage on May 2, 1969, just two months after the first flight of the supersonic Concorde on March 2 that year, and did you know (no, of course we didn’t) that it is reputed that while Concorde dictated the worldwide price of smoked salmon, being its biggest buyer, the QE2 dictated the worldwide price of caviar, being the biggest consumer outside of the Soviet Union?

The year 2019 thus marked the fiftieth anniversary of these two British style and engineering icons, and the legacy of the QE2 is celebrated in this special commemorative publication by William H. Miller, a man acknowledged as a well-respected international authority on the subject of ocean liners, with more than 100 books to his credit.

The QE2 was sailed by Cunard Line, arguably one of the most venerable cruise line brands in the world with a long and illustrious history stretching back to 1840, making it the second-oldest such line, after P&O Cruises, and operating some of the most famous ships ever to sail the seas, including the RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Lusitania, RMS Mauretania, RMS Carpathia, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Elizabeth 2.

In 1840, Samuel Cunard, a war veteran and timber merchant from Halifax, Nova Scotia, established the Cunard Line. With three partners, he had obtained the prized contract from the British Admiralty to carry the Royal Mail from Britain to North America on a fleet of steamships that would maintain a weekly service.

The first Cunard transatlantic crossing took place when Britannia set sail in July 1840. It took 14 days and Cunard was in business. Over the next decades the company solidified its place in the world of international shipping, and in history. In the 1850s Cunard carried horses to the Crimean War, aiding in the charge of the Light Brigade.

The North Atlantic passenger trade boomed, and the company built some of the most significant and innovative ships of all time, including the beloved Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth in the 1930s. By the 1950s, Hollywood stars of the silver screen and other notables were among those to make the fabled crossing with Cunard. Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Vera Lynn, Sir Noel Coward and Walt Disney all travelled on board.

In the 1960s it was believed the glory days of the grand transatlantic liners were nearing their end. Graceful but ageing luxury ships were in their twilight years, being surpassed and outmoded by the advent of passenger jet aircraft. The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth plied weekly five-day crossings. The first jet passage between New York and London was in October 1958, and within six months the airlines had two-thirds of trans-Atlantic passengers. By 1963 this had increased to 95 per cent.

But the decade was to end on a high for Cunard, which believed that there was still room for one more, last Atlantic super ship. Under the stewardship of Cunard’s new chairman at the time, Sir Basil Smallpiece, the blueprint for what was known as project Q4 was rubber-stamped on the fifth floor of the famous Cunard Building headquarters alongside the River Mersey in Liverpool, UK, and work began on Hull Number 736.

She was built by the Scottish marine engineering and shipbuilding firm John Brown and Company at Clydebank, builders of RMS Lusitania, RMS Aquitania, HMS (His Majesty’s Ship) Hood, HMS Repulse and the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

Financial woes, industrial action by shipyard workers and technical issues during sea trials dogged the construction, but eventually Queen Elizabeth 2 was launched and named by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II on September 20, 1967. Her maiden Atlantic crossing was in May 1969, five days from Southampton to New York, and she went on to clock up 5.6 million miles (9 million kilometres) and cross the ocean 812 times during 39 years of service. She became the most famous liner in the world, a true ambassador for the UK around the globe.

Miller’s splendid book takes us on a literary voyage with QE2. Its pages are heavily illustrated and we see her under construction at Clydebank, the launching and naming by the Queen accompanied by Prince Philip and Princess Margaret, her red-carpet first arrival in New York, and inside the lavish staterooms, cabins, lounges and shops, plus pictures of schedules, brochures, menus and advertising,

As the transatlantic shipping diminished, the Queen Elizabeth 2 took to cruising and we see the route map of her first world cruise in 1975. Photos show the ship in the Caribbean, Melbourne, Sydney, the Panama Canal, Florida, Cape Town, Yokohama, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico and elsewhere.

In 1982 Britain went to war with Argentina over the sovereignty of the remote, tiny Falkland Islands, and the QE2 was requisitioned by Margaret Thatcher’s British Government for two months to carry more than 3500 troops to the war zone. A photo of author Miller shows him holding the Cunard house flag that was flown aboard during the Falklands expedition.

In 1983 a new fly-cruise package was introduced with British Airways’ Concorde: the ship one way across the Atlantic, three nights in the Waldorf Astoria with sightseeing, then return by air. Fares began at £4499 a person, less than half the price of a Concorde return ticket. Cunard became noted for booking the greatest number of seats on the supersonic aircraft and would also use Concorde for charter connections to the liner’s world cruises.

Nothing lasts forever (it is said). In June 2008 the QE2 was sold to interests in Dubai, where today one of the world’s most celebrated ocean liners is a permanently docked floating hotel and conference centre under new management in Port Rashid.

She still looks as sleek and modern as ever, and due homage is paid in Miller’s book.

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