Qe2 mid-ocean and from the bridge

(The following account was written by Roland Hauser, a young German newspaperman who sailed on the vessel's last westbound crossing before the millennium. It appears here with the Editor's thanks.)

Six days, six nights. That's how long the relation lasts between the Queen Elizabeth 2 and those who can afford to travel on this British Lady between the Old and the New World.

When we first met in April 1980, she was just 11 years old and a few gross tons slimmer. At our reunion in 1983, she had just survived her Falkland deployment and applied new makeup: Her hull and superstructure had been freshly painted and the prominent funnel, once black and white, gleamed now in traditional Cunard colors.

Both times, we met in Southampton, the vessel's home port and both times, I missed a glance at the "inner values" of this 293 meters long and 32 meters wide ocean giant because I did not have a ticket. Yet her outward appearance was impressive enough to nourish the dream to some time cross the North Atlantic in such a liner.

And thus it may seem appropriate that finally it was-at least in Cunard's reckoning-"the last crossing of the 20th century" that brought us together for almost six days. The first full day at sea-Monday, December 13th-was "a typical day on the North Atlantic," James Villas reports after more than 80 crossings; he is an American gourmet and cook book author. The sea is rough and the giant liner creaks and moans like the Titanic replica in James Cameron's successful movie. The QE2, as insiders call the pride of Britain's merchant marine, shakes so considerably that repeater Villas, who gives a lecture about his favorite ship in the theater, several times has to prevent the microphone from tipping over. Despite that, Villas-who is traveling with his mother in one of the penthouse suites, is "strictly a crosser, not a cruiser." The QE2 qualities he cherishes so much are just that she is the only passenger ship to maintain transatlantic service between England and the United States from April to December, and that she is able to do so even in rough seas at a speed "of 26 to 28 knots." The nine German diesel engines in her engine room can develop 130,000 horsepower; but due to economical reasons, most of the time only seven are running.

The transformation from steam to diesel electric motor ship was completed in Bremerhaven in 1986/87. And right there, in the same port, QE2 had just been refurbished and overhauled for $33 million just before she began this very crossing.

"She looks better than ever," was the verdict of many repeaters on board. Even if the British designers did not always match what could be called the Middle European sense of taste. The new carpet in the Mauretania restaurant, for instance, has a green/light blue/pink flower pattern that needs some time to get used to.

Yet the service is-as everywhere on the ship-first class. The staff is friendly and unobtrusively professional. Marcin, our Polish waiter, and Louise, his Irish commis, do everything to make the daily dinner a memorable experience for my traveling companions and me. Dinners are among the social highlights of each transatlantic passage. Gentlemen have to wear at least a jacket and tie but four out of six nights are formal, with a tuxedo or dark business suit a must. The respective dress code is printed in the daily program that is delivered by the cabin steward each night.

About 1050 crew members from more than 30 nations take care of 1650 passengers on this almost sold-out crossing. Almost 200 are of German tongue and are thus entitled to a special service: Alexander von Korff, the International Hostess, does not only translate the daily program for them but also the captain's nautical announcement from the bridge every noontime. In the afternoon, when the English have their traditional teatime, the hostess offers a German kaffeeklatsch in the Lido, the vessel's informal, self-service restaurant. Should complaints or problems arise, she tries to help resolve them. The rough sea, however, is something she cannot stop; for herself, she finds it thrilling. "Otherwise, I would work in a hotel." For the 26-year-old German, this job is a plus.Normally, she works in the purser's office, the main information desk for all passengers.

They sell stamps, connect phone calls and administer the passengers' onboard accounts. Especially at night, some passengers will just walk by for a talk, says Alex, as Captain Warwick calls his interpreter.

Ronald W. Warwick is more than a captain. "Master of Queen Elizabeth 2" reads his official title which means that, apart from his maritime jurisdiction over the vessel and the people on board, he also has a wide range of social responsibilities. The navigation is left mainly to the officers of the watch. "We call the captain only in critical situations," admits one of them during an informal tour of the bridge.

And there have been several critical situations in the 30-year-long history of QE2. In September 1995, for example, a hurricane made a 30-meter wave roll over the vessel at 2:30 a.m.

"I was on the bridge," remembers Captain Warwick, "and it was pitch dark. The wave came out of the darkness, directly toward us." Even the white-bearded master of the QE2 was helpless. "You can only look to the side and hope that the bridge windows don't break.

But the North Atlantic is not always rough. When we pass the Azores, the sun is shining, the temperature reaches 19 degrees Celsius and sun-loving passengers start to unwrap the brand new teak deck chairs stored on Boat Deck. For the only time on this passage, the walkway across the bridgescreen is open to the public, which allows an exceptional view ahead, right over the bow.

For the rest of the journey, strong winds and wet, slippery decks prevent longer strolls on the promenade (Boat Deck-Editor). Yet nobody aboard the QE2 needs to get bored. Whether step aerobics in the fitness center, dancing lessons in the Queen's Room or a piano concert in the Grand Lounge,there's always something offered for every taste from morning 'til late at night, not to mention all those cocktail parties.

At one of these functions, naval architect Stephen Payne does away with the fears of some QE2 buffs that the Grand Old Lady might soon be withdrawn from service since Cunard is planning to introduce a new super liner in 2003. Payne, manager of the so-called Project Queen Mary declares: The Queen is meant to sail for another 15 years to make sure that after the arrival of the new ship, there once again will be two Cunard liners crossing the North Atlantic, one in each direction, just as their predecessors, the first Mary and Elizabeth did for the last time in 1967.

Time passes quickly aboard. For the last time, Marcin wishes the "gentlemens" a good night and for the last time, Louise flutes her charming "Excuse me" when she removes the crumbs from the cloth. Those who don't want to miss the arrival in New York have to get up early the next morning.

Saturday, 18 December. The alarm rings at five but there is no need of it. The vibrations caused by the braking process have already woken me up.Three quarters of an hour later, I'm standing on the open deck, muffled up because the wind is icy. We're approaching the sea of light that is New York in slow motion, sliding beneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, passing the illuminated Statue of Liberty and a little later the World Trade Center towers. As we go up the Hudson toward the Passenger Ship Terminal, the morning sun appear behind a skyscraper and a fireboat joins us. It is the "emotional highlight of a historic voyage," as Captain Warwick puts it.The fireboat crew welcomes us with open hoses and cascades of water, a gesture that is normally reserved for ships on their maiden voyages.

Finally, after six days I'm back on solid ground that still seems to be moving. I rush to my hotel to get rid of my baggage and then take a cab to the Empire State Building where the spectacular view from the 86th floor is even more spectacular today. There, in the distance, gleaming in the sunlight, I can see the white superstructure and red and black funnel of "her majesty." And I can hardly resist the temptation to let everybody sharing that wonderful sight know: "She brought me here from the Old World to the New, stress-free, safely and without any jet lag; a five-star hotel that's just a better swimmer than all its counterparts ashore."

(Our editorial thanks to Roland Hauser for his first crossing memoir and to fellow passenger Tim Yoder for passing it along.)

Author Roland Hauser


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