When Queen Elizabeth 2 thundered down the slipway on September 20, 1967, having just been named by HM Queen Elizabeth II, the age of the transatlantic liner appeared all but over. Jet aircraft were dominating international travel and Cunard, once the most respected cruise line serving the transatlantic passage, was close to bankruptcy.
At the time, critics said QE2 was destined for failure. Despite being radically different from her predecessors, sporting a 1960s-inspired interior of chrome fittings, red and green leather, modular furniture, and the use of modern materials such as Plexiglass and fibreglass, it was felt by ‘those in the know’ that Cunard Line had built a £29-million white elephant.
This legendary liner went on to become the longest-serving passenger ship in Cunard’s impressive 171-year history, travelling more than 5.3 million nautical miles and carrying more than 2.5 million passengers – that’s more than any other ship, ever.
Ironically, QE2’s long and successful career is thanks, in part, to the era in which she was born. By the early 1960s, passenger shipping was on the brink of collapse. Shipping lines such as United States Lines, Italia Line and Cunard Line had slashed services, retired their fleets en masse and, in Cunard’s case, even tried to enter the aviation market (in a joint venture with BOAC).
To compete against jet aircraft, QE2 was built as a dual-purpose liner. Smaller than her predecessors, she was able to transit the Panama Canal as well as enter exotic ports in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. This enabled QE2 to cruise during the leaner winter months.
Cunard Line ensured that her cruising itineraries were varied and exciting: no two cruises were identical. QE2’s schedule was deliberately erratic, ensuring that she catered to a wide range of travellers and visited a wide range of destinations.
To the surprise of the critics, she proved immensely popular; everyone from honeymooners to couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversaries wanted to sail aboard this luxury resort at sea.
As the years progressed, the few remaining liners disappeared. Their design didn’t allow them to offer cruising – and there simply wasn’t enough demand for them to operate on the North Atlantic year-round. The last liner operating scheduled crossings, QE2 became a specialised transport experience comparable to travelling on the Orient-Express or Concorde.
QE2 maintained this vigorous schedule until the introduction of Queen Mary 2 to Cunard’s fleet in December 2003. After passing the transatlantic baton to her newer fleet-mate, she was employed mainly in cruising until her retirement.
A long career allowed QE2 to visit more ports than any of her predecessors. She commanded a loyal following worldwide, thanks to her annual world cruises, and maintained the standards of a bygone era right up until her last day of service.
It was a sad day in the maritime world when the Cunard house flag was lowered from QE2’s mast for the final time. November 27, 2008 saw her officially handed over to Istithmar (Dubai) for £50.5 million. Her new owners planned to put the ship into a three-year, multi-million-dollar refurbishment, to convert her into a floating hotel.
In the months following her handover, rumours circulated, and concepts such as replacing the funnel with a glass penthouse and building a world-class theatre in the space vacated by removing her engines were proposed. Weeks turned into months, however, and QE2 remained idle at Port Rashid in Dubai. Her engines running, her rooms and decks illuminated, she appeared ready to sail on another cruise. It seemed as if she had fallen victim to the global financial crisis, and many feared she would be sold for scrap. Then, in July 2009, it was announced that the ship would sail to Cape Town for use as a floating hotel during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. In preparation for the voyage, she was crewed and her current master, Captain William Cooper, was given command of the ship. QE2 was moved to the nearby Dubai Dry Docks, where she was repainted and inspected in preparation for her new role. The ship was re-registered in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and the iconic homeport name ‘Southampton’ on her stern was painted out.
Sadly, the move to Cape Town did not go ahead and QE2 remains docked at Port Rashid, Dubai. Over the past year, rumours have circulated that the ship’s interior is in disrepair and that the great art collection housed aboard is being damaged by the heat.
It was therefore a welcome relief to QE2 fans around the world when, in April 2011, Robert Lightbody, QE2 enthusiast and founder of The QE2 Story Forum, was granted exclusive access to QE2. Not only was he able to go aboard QE2; he was allowed to photograph and film the interior of the ship.
Robert’s amazing footage can be viewed at www.youtube.com/theqe2story and shows the ship to be in excellent condition. Her live-aboard crew (of about 50 people) maintains her to the highest standard. Her public rooms, cabins and decks all appear ready for use, as if she is simply hibernating, awaiting her future. When speaking about his time aboard the grande dame of the cruise world, Robert said, “There was a lot of speculation out there that she was not in good condition inside and I wanted to correct that, because I knew it was untrue.
“It was a dream come true to step back aboard again, exactly 24 years to the day after I first did so. I never imagined I would see her again in such an intact state.”
When asked about QE2’s condition, Robert remarked, “I am glad to report that in general she is in a terrific condition. Her crew are doing a great job.” It is the hope of many that this iconic liner will be preserved and eventually turned into a floating hotel. The recent success of the SS Rotterdam hotel conversion [more to be revealed in a future Cruise Passenger] has given further hope to QE2 fans around the world that this beloved ship will find a place in our modern world.
Further details about QE2 can be found at www.chriscunard.com/qe2 or, to join the discussion and help save the ship, visit www.theqe2story.com/forum.
Words: Chris Frame
* About Chris Frame: His passion for transatlantic liners started when reading a book about the Titanic, entitled Exploring the Titanic, by Robert D. Ballard.
Having first sailed aboard QE2 at age 11, Chris’ passion for liners grew and today his maritime library numbers in the hundreds of titles. Chris has sailed extensively aboard passenger ships, having been aboard all four modern Queens, as well as other vessels such as Holland America’s Volendam and Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas, to name just a few.
In 2007 he collaborated with Rachelle Cross on their first book, which was published in 2008 by The History Press, allowing the authors to sail onboard QE2 on her farewell season where Chris was a guest lecturer. Since 2008, Chris has spoken regularly aboard all ships of the Cunard fleet, and co-authored a further seven books.
As a maritime historian, Chris has undertaken television, radio and newspaper interviews, and regularly writes as a guest contributor for the Cruise Passenger magazine, Worldwide Cruising News and Pictorial, Cunard’s Passages Magazine and the We Are Cunard Blog.
Chris is currently working on a number of books, including The Evolution of the Transatlantic Liner, P&O Cruises: A Photographic History and Cunard at 175.
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