Thursday, May 26, 2011

The dear old Queen....

The three funnels of the 'Queen Mary'
No, not that one. The ‘Queen Mary’, steamship extraordinaire, currently resting in stately splendour at a dock in Long Beach, California. Today she’s a hotel and a tourist attraction, but her amazing past is a great story.

A magnificent lady
Launched 27th May 1936 – about a third as big again as the ‘Titanic’ and carrying around 2,500 well-heeled passengers back and forth across the Atlantic – within a few years she was dragooned into the War Effort as a troop ship. All her fabulous fittings, furniture, chandeliers and drapes were stripped out and put into storage at the Hudson River docks in New York, her Cunard Line colours were painted out with a dull grey, and she became ‘The Grey Ghost’, plying the five day Atlantic trip back and forth for the next seven years. 

Packed to the gunwales with troops
Her decks and staterooms and promenades were massed with squashed-in troops, 5,000, 8,000 – up to a maximum of over 16,000 on one voyage, which is still a maritime record. She was tailed by submarines and air force fighters, Hitler offered a reward for sinking her, but she was never hit, she could actually out-run the submarines, her life boats were never used, and the only damage she ever suffered was to her hull when one of her own escorts got too close (it was cut in two and The Queen powered is a VERY bit vessel). With the war over and troop movements no longer needed, she continued to sail back and forth, bringing home war wounded and war brides.

The Promenade Deck
The only way to travel.
Then it was back into the role for which she was intended: a floating palace for the great and good to travel back and forth between New York and Europe. In the old days, the First Class fare was the equivalent of $75,000 today; Hollywood elite, industrialists and philanthropists, statesmen (Churchill was on her three times) and minor royalty (think Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson) considered the ‘Queen Mary’ the only way to travel. Her saloons and ballrooms are lined with wood from all the colonies of England (there are fewer colonies now, and some of the woods are extinct); her fixtures are brass and etched glass, Art Deco splendour. Bing could be at the piano as we speak (he gets around – you may recall that we met him back at Hearst Castle a few days ago). Her last crossing as a passenger liner was in 1967.

On my visit to the ‘Queen Mary’ I joined a tour led by a great raconteur (possibly a ‘resting’ actor) named Greg, who wore a maritime uniform, stood on the staircases, and declaimed various speeches in the persona of the Captain or Winston Churchill. I love LA. The ‘Queen Mary’ had a sister ship, the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ which is with us no longer – Cunard ran a two-ship weekly service across the Atlantic; and we can only be grateful to the City of Long Beach for purchasing the old Queen and keeping her in repair and accessible. But I must confess to a tiny disappointment that she needs to have so many of her salons turned into souvenir outlets and fast-food restaurants; and that he elegant promenade deck needs quite so many ATMs and smoothie bars. Then there is the tacky ‘ghost tour’...which I took anyway, because excitingly you get to go down into the First Class swimming pool area (inside the bowels of the ship), and into the boiler rooms (the boilers – she was a steam ship, remember) have been removed), and right into the bow where she hit that unfortunate escort ship, all of which is very exciting. You just have to ignore the silly commentary, loud noises and unnecessary darkness.

I couldn’t help but feel that it would be a delight to see the old Queen restored to the splendid days, with all her spaces having their original functions. That ‘wedding chapel’ could be turned back into the First Class smoking room; that place selling t-shirts could be the Ballroom lounge again.

The Verandah Grill on the sundeck.
All you need is the G&T

I wasn’t able to check out the experience of staying on the ship in her hotel accommodations – perhaps that’s an adventure for another day. And there’s the restaurant on the sundeck, the Verandah Grill, which was so popular in its heyday that even the First Class passengers had to book a table two months before they sailed and pay an extra $3.60 (presumably a lot in 1935)...I hope the cuisine there today lives up to the glory days. According to Wikipedia it has been a struggle to keep the ship open at Long Beach, with bankruptcy looming at times. I can only recommend that you go see her while she’s still with us, because she is a wonderful and amazing ship.

The ‘Queen Mary’ s stats:
Ocean liner
81,961 tonnes
1,019.4 ft (310.7 m) oa
965 ft (294.1 m) B.P.
118 ft (36.0 m)
181 ft (55.2 m)
39 ft (11.9 m)
24 Yarrow boilers , 4 sets of Parsons single-reduction geared steam turbines on 4 shafts, 160.000 shp
approximately 28.5 kn (52.8 km/h; 32.8 mph) service speed.
2139 passengers: 776 first (cabin) class, 784 tourist class, 579 third class
1101 crew

She’s impressive. A modern day cruise liner was moored nearby when I visited. Our guide Greg looked over at it and remarked. “and they call that a ship...”

But she came through unscathed.....

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