Last year the news hit the headlines – RMS Queen Elizabeth, the flagship of the Cunard Line for over 30 years, had been sold by her owners Carnival, the American cruise giant.
In reply to the storm of protests that the QE2 could have gone on sailing for a while yet, Cunard said that it was impossible to refuse the £50 million deal from the investment arm of the Dubai government. On 11 November 2008 she will sail from her home port of Southampton for the last time, bound for New York and then on to Dubai where she will be berthed permanently at Palm Jumeirah, the world’s largest man-made Island, as a luxury floating hotel, conference centre and entertainment venue.
The QE2 has been sailing past the Isle of Wight for almost 40 years. She is the most famous ship in existence and still the fastest passenger liner in service with a top speed of over 32.5 knots (36.8 MPH). She has sailed over five million nautical miles since she was built by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in the John Brown Shipyard on Clydebank, Scotland, designed as a ‘Panamax’ ship to transit the Panama Canal. When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11 launched the 70,327-tonne ship in September 1967, the QE2 was named after her predecessor, the liner Queen Elizabeth that had sunk in Hong Kong harbour in 1972, but with the Arabic numeral ‘2’ to distinguish her from the monarch.
“She’s a wonderful ship,” says Danny Robson, a choice pilot for Cunard for 19 years besides working for P&O. Whenever the QE2 returned to Southampton, Danny went out in a pilot boat to meet the ship at the Nab Tower lighthouse, climbing aboard on the ladder at the ship’s refuelling point, a tricky operation in bad weather.
“Before the engines were converted from steam to diesel, it took 21 seconds before she responded,” he says, remembering the time the ship was caught in a 70 mile wind while leaving Southampton Dock. The QE2 has nine main engines named Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel and India and she can travel faster backwards than most cruise liners can travel forwards; at full speed the ship will continue to move six cables before it stops.
Danny, who started his sea career on the training ship ‘Worcester’ and later as a cadet with the Union Castle Line, retired in 1996 after 29 years on the pilot boats to enjoy life in Wootton with his wife, Shirley. Danny hails from Lancashire and Shirley from Yorkshire, “So it’s the War of the Roses,” Shirley laughs. Photos in his ‘time capsule’ show Princess Diana on board the QE2 in her role as patron of a children’s charity when the ship was anchored in Cowes for the small passengers to enjoy tea at sea.
If the tide was right for the QE2 to sail through the Needles Passage, Danny was often collected off Yarmouth by the rescue helicopter from HMS Daedalus and dropped on to the ship’s helipad at a rendezvous two miles outside the Needles. “During Cowes Week we had a pilot based at the Royal Yacht Squadron during the racing and when I got the word to go,” he says, “I brought the QE2 in full speed ahead.”
As the world’s last great ocean liner, Queen Elizabeth 2 has a long and illustrious history. In 1972 she was the subject of a bomb threat and a ransom demand while en- route to Southampton from New York and though a bomb disposal team was parachuted into the sea near the ship, the threat turned out to be a hoax.
Then in 1982 she was officially requisitioned as a STUFT (Ship Taken Up From Trade) to be a troop transport in the Falklands War and carry 3,000 troops and 650 volunteer crew to South Georgia. She sailed 6,000 nautical miles south, partially in an icefield in the dark without radar, returning home to a rapturous welcome at Southampton but it took nine weeks to put her back together for peacetime use. In 1995 she encountered Hurricane Luis in the Atlantic and a 95 foot rogue wave, an estimated 450 tons of water, hit the ship head-on.
Rosemary and Andrew Asher were on board the liner last September for the ship’s 40th-anniversary cruise round Britain billed as “a lap of honour” and fully booked months ahead. The ship edged out into Southampton Water to a fanfare by the Royal Marine Band and fire boats sending plumes of water into the air. Jimmy Saville, who is one of the QE2’s most faithful fans, was brought out to the ship off Scarborough in a Royal Marine ‘Rib’ (Captain Ian McNaught had promised to ‘fix it’ for Jimmy) before she made her first visit to Newcastle and the Captain named the new Cruise Liner Berth. Then it was on to South Queensferry on the Firth of Forth to visit Edinburgh.
When they docked at Greenock on the River Clyde on the QE2’s 40th birthday, she sounded her whistle for forty seconds, one second for each year to commemorate her launch. The Red Arrows roared out of the clouds in a salute and one hundred men who had originally worked on the ship were invited on board.
There was another emotional farewell in the Anglican Cathedral at Liverpool with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Choir and the Band of the Scots Guards joining in ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. But it was their “Will ye no’ come back again?” that brought a special sadness to the occasion. “It was a cruise to remember!” Rosemary and Andrew agree.
I shall remember her anchored off Dubrovnik in her distinctive Cunard line livery, the red funnel, white top and black hull and ‘RMS Queen Elizabeth 2’ in big red capital letters. Or her final farewell to the port of Trieste when we crowded on to the decks, clutching the Union flags handed out to passengers and the QE2 responded to the hundreds of people on the quay with deep, resonant blasts on her whistle.
She is the ship I drew as a child – a classic ship and her style is breathtaking. She is the last of the great traditional ocean liners, a thoroughbred. When Queen Elizabeth 2 reaches Dubai, Captain McNaught will say goodbye to each member of his crew as they leave. But a ship only comes alive at sea and for this elegant old lady, it is the end of an era.