“As the world’s only transatlantic liner celebrates her 10th birthday, we investigate the enduring appeal of Cunard’s majestic QM2.”
Wherever she goes, she attracts crowds of loyal fans. She is a media darling. Fashions and fads come and go, but for 10 years Queen Mary 2 has regularly topped the world’s popularity polls and, as she celebrates her 10th anniversary, the grande dame of cruising shows every sign of reigning supreme for at least another 10 years.
What is it about this ship that captures the imagination of so many passengers? (That would be more than 1.3 million of them since her launch in 2004.) For a start, there’s her impressive size: she is 345 metres long, which means that, if stood on her stern, she would be about 40 metres taller than the tip of Sydney Tower. She is the only transatlantic liner in operation today, and the first to be built since Queen Elizabeth 2. She was the biggest passenger ship when she launched in 2004 and, although that title has been taken by Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas, QM2 remains the fastest: her maximum speed is just over 30 knots (56 km/h) and her cruising speed is 26 knots (48 km/h).
Perhaps the key to QM2’s appeal is her sense of tradition and historic one-offs. She boasts the largest ballroom and library at sea; the first planetarium on a ship; the grand, two-tier Britannia dining room; she has travelled 1.5 million nautical miles since 2004; and has transported more than 2,000 dogs across the Atlantic.
QM2’s Captain Kevin Oprey has been at the helm for three years – a boyhood dream that he still can’t quite believe has come true. He says the ship was built to uphold the Cunard tradition, which goes back 175 years, and agrees that there is an incredible number of people who have “enormous passion for, and in-depth knowledge of, our ship”.
“She is the only liner in service – there are many great cruise and resort ships at sea, for example Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class – but this ship is iconic in what she does,” he says. “She was built as an ocean liner and follows the great tradition of all the great liners before her.”
During a generous hour or so of conversation with Captain Oprey on the huge bridge, he says: “You really see the best of her on transatlantic crossings, how she handles the weather.”
He goes on to describe the pretty stiff weather conditions he experienced on his first voyage as captain.
“We were coming out of Quebec and the pilot said the weather was getting ‘a bit bad out there’. It is a long pilotage, about 12 hours, and halfway through, conditions got worse – to the extent that three other ships sailing with us turned back.
“We had to make a decision about whether to go back or carry on and, being fairly new to the ship, I thought this was what she was built for. We had a transatlantic schedule to keep and had to get to New York, so we decided to continue.
“The next morning the sea was completely white. We were doing 23 knots when winds of 110 miles per hour hit us, yet the ship heeled just two degrees to starboard.”
In true understated British style, Captain Oprey tells how he then reduced the ship’s speed to 21 knots and he and the officers on the bridge “sat back and enjoyed the ride”.
As well as the day-to-day running of the ship, Captain Oprey carries out a considerable number of ceremonial duties. On this voyage, QM2’s second circumnavigation of Australia, he has met with passengers such as the Thornleys from South Australia, who have clocked up 800 sea days with Cunard. Transatlantic crossings usually involve attending three formal dinners, five cocktail parties, and conducting two or three weddings.
“I love meeting people from all walks of life and hearing their stories,” he says. “You never know who is going to be at your table on any given night.”
One special person Captain Oprey is looking forward to meeting is the Duke of Edinburgh, who will be on board QM2 on May 9 for the royal rendezvous of all three Cunard Queens in Southampton. Of course, the Duke accompanied his wife when she named the ship 10 years ago and many crew members who still work on the ship today remember the occasion with pride.
Butler Roger Leonon was actually on board the ship while she was still in the shipyard in France, helping to put furniture in place. “There were no lifts in operation so we were moving everything by hand,” he says. “We wondered if the ship would ever be ready on time.”
Since QM2 set sail in 2004, Roger has looked after hundreds of mostly American and British passengers, including stars such as Lenny Kravitz, Carly Simon, James Taylor and Rod Stewart. His “biggest honour” was meeting the Queen in 2004.
What’s changed over 10 years? “My guests bring less luggage now,” says Roger. “They enjoy the more relaxed dressing during the day and getting dressed up for formal nights. There used to be three dress codes – elegant-casual, semi-formal and formal – and now there are two, informal and formal.”
Ah yes, the dress code. Last year Cunard decided to drop one of the formal nights and loyal fans, some of whom have sailed with the line for 40 years, are not amused. One passenger tells me she enjoys the more relaxed daytime rules, which to a casual observer look very casual indeed. I had not expected to see so much ageing flesh exposed on the pool deck but as there had been eight days of wind and rain crossing from Africa to Australia, many passengers are starved for sunshine and sunbathing in underwear seems to go unnoticed.
In the evenings, however – even as early as five o’clock – everyone in the bars and Britannia restaurant is correctly dressed, whether it is for the formal or informal nights. People who really don’t want to don tuxedos and dresses are welcome to dine in the sprawling buffet area on Deck 7 – but why cruise on a Cunard ship if you don’t enjoy all the traditions and formalities?
While there is a wealth of diversions on board QM2, complaining seems to be something of a pastime for some veteran round-the-world cruisers. I saw an elderly couple at the Purser’s desk reading out a long, handwritten list of complaints to the officer in charge. Unfortunately I couldn’t linger long enough to hear what compensation, if any, was offered.
One crew member who doesn’t have to deal with that sort of problem is the incredibly popular kennel master, Joselito “JoJo” Bulabon. For four years, JoJo has looked after hundreds of dogs and cats who make the seven-day transatlantic crossing in 12 bespoke kennels.
“I really love my job – there’s no stress, politics or complaints and it’s like having a vacation with a bunch of friends,” says JoJo. “My most loyal passenger is a cat called Electra, who has made 12 crossings and enjoys being with the dogs.”
The pets’ owners can visit the kennels at scheduled times of the day and JoJo lets the dogs off the leash to run around a dedicated area at the aft of Deck 12. By day three the dogs have usually settled in to the shipboard routine and JoJo says it’s always a big moment when they have their first “poo poo” on the fake grass patch.
JoJo’s role is another Cunard one-off and he suggests that animal and history lovers check out the photos displayed on Deck 3 by Stairway D. Among the fascinating facts quoted is the following:
“The Duke and Duchess of Windsor regularly travelled with their dog. On one visit to the Queen Mary the Duke mentioned that it was a shame there was no lamppost for dogs handy for their kennels beside the ship’s second funnel. Cunard immediately obeyed the royal command and also installed a lamppost convenience on QE2.”
The Cunard tradition: It says it all.
Pick up the Winter 2014 issue of Cruise Passenger magazine for your local newsagent for reviews on:
National Geographic Orion
Assam Bengal Navigation
Avalon Poetry II
Queen Mary 2
Click here to find an issue at your local newsagent. You can also request a copy for your agent or click here to subscribe and have Cruise Passenger magazine delivered to your doorstep.