Meeting a Queen

We saw the looming hulk on a Long Beach pier long before the cabbie dropped us off across the parking lot from a recreated English village. The scene, we decided, is meant to recall the waterfront in England when Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary plied the world’s seas. The hour was early, and the village was quiet, and there were few visitors.

A last-minute decision about how best to occupy a slice of time between disembarking from a short cruise and our flight home brought us to the pier to explore this iconic ocean liner now permanently berthed in Southern California. She had a long run on the waters of the North Atlantic, from 1935 through 1967. 

But the ship’s renown extends far beyond that of a luxury liner.

From luxury liner to war service

Converted to serve as a troop carrier during World War II, the ship known as “the grey ghost” transported Allied forces for the duration of the war, along with her sister ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. Launched in 1936, and “drafted” for the war effort in February 1944, the Queen Mary received her makeover to Navy Grey in Australia. The Queen Elizabeth first wore the grey coat, and was not repainted with the distinctive Cunard black and red livery until after the war.

100_2001100_1934

My father, as a member of the 364th Fighter Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force, arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, in February 1944, aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The seven-day unescorted journey from New York Harbor was a perilous one, but the ship arrived safely. My father always spoke of her affectionately as “the Lizzie.” After approximately 18 months of service, he returned to the United States aboard the Queen Mary, expecting to be reassigned to the Far East. Thankfully, the war was over before his new orders arrived, and he returned to his home in Montana for the winter of 1945. 

The Queen Mary, however, proceeded on to the Pacific and was reported, mistakenly, to be sunk by Japanese forces on three separate occasions. Following the Japanese surrender, the ship continued to ferry servicemen and war brides for nearly a year after the cessation of battle. She was returned to passenger service in July 1947, following an extensive retrofit that included numerous upgrades. The two Cunard Queens dominated Transatlantic sea crossings for the next 20 years, joined between 1952 and 1969 by the SS United States, of United States Lines.

The age of sea voyages

Other great passenger liners of the time included the France, a French line vessel that sailed the route from 1962 through 1974; Holland America Lines Rotterdam, Nieuw Amsterdam and Statendam; Cristoforo Colombo, an Italian Line ship, carrying passengers on the northern route between 1954 and 1973 when she was reassigned to a more southerly route, and several others that beckoned the adventurous prior to the days of regular intercontinental flights.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and accepted as a “historic hotel” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Queen Mary’s existence as a tourist attraction has been in jeopardy several times.

The ship currently is, once again, in need of some serious repairs and restoration. Today, her interior looks slightly shabby, not nearly as glamorous as a modern cruise ship. But there is an aura of elegance and grit about her that draws crowds.

The Queen Elizabeth, sadly, caught fire and sank in Hong Kong harbor in 1972, after a brief and unsuccessful stint as a hotel and tourist attraction in Florida.

The SS United States is moored at a pier in Philadelphia, awaiting her ultimate fate. Efforts continue to refurbish the ship and preserve it as a combination living history museum and learning center. It would be a fitting testament to the engineering prowess and the vision of naval architect William Francis Gibbs. Built through collaborative effort between private enterprise and the U.S. Navy, the “Big U” also had the ability to serve as troop carrier if the need every arose. It was not necessary. 

The great liners of the past no longer sail the world’s oceans, replaced instead by massive cruising “destination resorts” and fast airliners. Another Cunard ship, the QE2, was launched as a combination liner and cruise ship in 1967; it is now a floating hotel in Dubai, opened just over a year ago in 2018, a decade after being pulled off active service. 

Echoes of long ago

It was both exciting and nostalgic to stand at the pier next to this historic liner. As we boarded, I could almost hear the sounds of laughter that drifted from her decks during her heyday as an ocean-going vessel. I also sensed how confining her below-deck bunks must have been for the thousands of troops she carried to and from war.

The visit was all too short, but it was memorable. The Queen dwarfed the Russian submarine Scorpion, berthed alongside. She lacks the imposing massive girth of today’s cruise “cities,” with their rows of balconied staterooms, upper-deck pools and entertainment regalia. Instead, the vessel appears sleek, elegant and purposeful, designed to plow through the waves with grace.

The interior seems a little dark and somber, but modern shops beckon visitors with ship memorabilia. Polished metal elevator doors are slightly incongruous in tandem with gleaming paneling and muted floral carpet. Numerous wall sconces provide bright spots of light for the subdued interiors. Public spaces are comfortable, but far from dramatic.

The ship has been altered somewhat to serve as a hotel, but many original salons and lounges are intact, along with an iconic writing room that boasts multiple desks. I can clearly envision travelers writing postcards to friends back home!

Wood-floored decks prompt visions of well-dressed passengers enjoying the ultimate “good life on long promenades,” taking advantage of the opportunity to see and be seen while crossing the Atlantic.

Running on raw power

It was standing in the belly of the ship, in the cavernous original engine room, however, that the massive ship became real. It captured our attention, our imagination, and our hearts.

Today’s cruise ships generate more power, to be sure, but they move no faster and do not require the same kind of focused teamwork, the constant human energy that carried the Queen on her journeys. Old steamships are something to behold, even when at rest.

I have no idea how many crew members labored in the multi-story depths of the ship. I do know that the staircases and catwalks, the controls and gauges, the gleaming equipment, the bells and whistles (yes, really) were enough to confound us. It must also have been deafening down below, requiring hot, tedious and exacting work.

The ship was originally fitted with four turbines in two separate engine rooms, and 24 boilers in four boiler rooms, all designed to turn four propellers.  During sea trials in 1936, the ship recorded a speed of 32.84 knots, or nearly 37.8 mph.

The ship captured the Blue Riband speed trophy for Atlantic crossings in August of 1936 from the French ship Normandie, but briefly lost it the following year, only to regain it once again in 1938 with an eastbound speed of 30.99 knots, and a time of 3 days, 21 hours, 48 minutes.

That record held for 14 years, until the SS United States broke the record with a time of 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, at a speed of 35.59 knots eastbound, and 34.51 knots on the westbound leg. The return trip, which also set a record, took only about 2 1/2 hours longer, due to prevailing currents.

That record-breaking event began, incidentally, on July 3, 1952, when the ship left New York Harbor on her maiden voyage. 

Past glories live on . . .

Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to take the guided tour, nor could we see the full video presentation that was offered. We did not have time for lunch aboard ship, and we did not make the trip up to the bridge. But our brief visit to the Queen Mary was well worth the itinerary detour. It was educational and emotional, reminiscent of bygone times that now are recounted only in the history books. 

We spent more time in the model room than we had intended, comparing features of many of the well-known liners, including the ill-fated Titanic, Lusitania, and Andrea Doria. We were entranced by the detail.

Today we cross the Atlantic in modern aircraft in mere hours. We cross it in floating entertainment palaces with more amenities, attractions and activities than many land-based resorts. We have options. But the refined elegance of travel on these iconic ocean liners, when options were limited and it was all about the journey, has been forever lost.

It’s good to step into the past, if only for the brief reminder of what once was.

All those ships; and all those seas

Note: At about 6:30 a.m., British time, on July 7, 66 years ago, a brand new ocean liner set a speed record by steaming across the North Atlantic in just three days, 10 hours and about 40 minutes. It was the maiden voyage of the SS United States. The return voyage to New York Harbor set another record. It was a feat never to be duplicated. 

My love affair with ships and with the sea began a long time ago. It continues. 100_9713 (2)

Ships old and new, large and small; sailing ships and historic steamers; lobster boats and shrimp trawlers; pirate ships and submarines, military ships and cruise ships; private yachts and fast powerboats all find treasured places in my mind and memory. And, by extension, so do airships and spaceships, classic automobiles, muscle cars, locomotives, freight trains, and the Orient Express.

If you note the recurring theme in this blog, it’s not by chance.

On May 8, my husband and I had a unique and wonderful experience. We joined a group of ship enthusiasts on a cruise to Bermuda. This group, however, was not just any old band of ship-lovers. Termed the SS United States Legacy Cruise, it was conceived and planned by the SS United States Conservancy in cooperation with the Pollin Group (travel planners) of Chevy Chase, MD. The 70 or so individuals who participated all have a connection — in one way or another — to the last of America’s flagships, the former ocean liner that now sits forlornly at a Philadelphia pier awaiting an unknown fate.

The ship that set the Atlantic speed record sailed the seas for only 17 years. The record-setting Atlantic crossing commenced in New York City on July 3, 1952. The SS United States arrived in England only three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes later, breaking the Eastbound speed record formerly held by Cunard’s Queen Mary and capturing the Blue Riband Trophy. It was an achievement never thought possible by a ship of that size, and it is still unsurpassed today.

Read about that crossing, and watch a video about that historic voyage.

What became her last Atlantic crossing, in November 1969, was an unexpected event.  Indeed, a 16-day cruise of more than 8,000 miles was on the schedule for the 1969-70 holiday season. Passengers would have enjoyed an exotic itinerary including Madeira, Tenerife and Dakar, as well as a New Year’s visit to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands on the Atlantic round trip.  Since then, a series of owners has alternately explored plans to put the ship back in service or threatened the scrap heap.

The Conservancy, led by Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer, is the current owner, with a mission to see her restored and rejuvenated — not to carry passengers — but rather to assure that succeeding  generations of ship-lovers will be able to explore her cavernous interior and learn her unique story.

It is quite a story

For six days on board the Celebrity Summit, a modern cruise ship, our group heard stories of the SS United States. The ship was built in Norfolk, Va., as a luxury liner in the heady days of mid-Century Modern style. She was aluminum, fast, sleek and lightweight, powered by state-of-the-art propulsion, and said to be unsinkable.

She was, however, a heavyweight in terms of performance, function and appearance. The ship was fully capable of serving as a troop carrier, built during the height of the Cold War era. The illustrious British-flagged “Queens,” Cunard’s luxury ocean liners, ferried troops admirably during World War II. Had the need arisen, the vessel could also have been converted to a hospital ship.

The SS United States was built in Newport News, Va., funded by both the U.S. Navy and the privately-owned United States Lines. She sailed under the American flag and performed exceedingly well as a passenger ship, carrying presidents and dignitaries, film stars and “common folk.” She brought immigrants to the United States and also  carried her share of military families, along with their household goods and vehicles, to and from European duty stations. She had speed and agility, numerous luxury features, a fully-equipped operating room and a modern pet kennel with a resident veterinarian.

20160611_162401 (2)

Today she sits with peeling paint at a pier in Philadelphia, her interiors stripped and her props missing, awaiting her fate. One of her caretakers, Mike Wolfe, who says he is familiar with “every inch” of the old ship, notes that she still has a grandeur and mystique about her. He is protective of her because, as he says, she is still beautiful. “This ship has a soul,” he insists.

Heading to Bermuda

We watched the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline recede from view as we made our way out of Port Liberty in Bayonne, N.J., finding it impossible not to think of those long-ago embarkations and arrivals. It is said that William Francis Gibbs never missed the chance to see the SS United States as she departed and returned to pier, watching silently from shore. With two massive stacks and a distinctive color scheme, she must have dominated the view.

The ship was in many ways the designer’s obsession, although he only sailed on her once, on that record-setting maiden voyage. It had been Gibbs’ long-standing dream to design a ship that was 1,000 feet long. The SS United States measured 990 feet in length; from keel to the top of the forward funnel, she rose to a height of 175 feet.

By the end of the week, those of us on this first Legacy cruise had become “old friends.” Steeped in the lore of the ship, we shared our individual reasons for wanting to save her, and those who had sailed on the ship enthralled us all with their memories. Among our group were former passengers and crew members, friends and family, movie-makers and ship designers, scuba divers and armchair travelers, young and old.

In addition to the formal presentations that kept us all busy, we dined together and met informally, bound by joint commitment to this iconic ship. We spoke as well of other ships and other seas, and found we shared other common interests. Once we arrived in Bermuda, our group enjoyed a special tour of the National Museum of Bermuda and its park-like grounds. We enjoyed a lunch at the well-known Frog and Onion Pub at Royal Naval Dockyard. We had ample time for private exploration and time to enjoy welcome sun and warmth after rainy days at sea. Bermuda’s beaches are stunningly beautiful, its island ambience delightful, and its people welcoming!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Serious Efforts to Save a Ship

Current work to assure a bright future for the SS United States continues in earnest. According to Susan Gibbs, it is bearing fruit. Even though she declined to discuss specifics, she noted that solid opportunities exist.

One of the highlights of this Legacy cruise was the presentation of a sizable check to the Conservancy. Dockage at the current pier in Philadelphia is expensive and there are ongoing preservation efforts. If you’re interested in learning more about the SS United States, or about ways to help assure the ship’s preservation and redevelopment, visit the Conservancy website or follow SSUSC on Facebook and get involved.

There are many ways to help: I would love to hear from anyone who has any sort of personal connection or recollection to share. In future posts, I’ll write more about the  people I met during this cruise to Bermuda and tell more stories about the SS United States, interspersed with more stories about the faraway places that the ships, planes, trains and automobiles that so spark my imagination can tell us all.

Meanwhile, if you’re traveling to New York between now and August 3, don’t miss the exhibit currently at the National Lighthouse Museum, Staten Island.

 

Gold earring and the Cape

David Stanley/Flickr

There are times when armchair travel is almost as rewarding as in-the-flesh excursions.

Even firsthand accounts of adventurous trips may not quite compare with the real thing, but sometimes words and pictures convey the spirit of a place in a way that is stunning and satisfying. Researching nautical lore became a stay-at-home voyage of discovery, an exciting experience that needed no packed bag and no advance planning.

A Virtual Voyage

In December, I took a month-long journey from Los Angeles, following the Pacific coastline of the Americas to the “bottom of the world” and back north once again on the Atlantic side of South America to Rio. It was a virtual voyage via modern cruise ship.

By frequently checking the vessel’s bridge cam, I was able to experience smooth seas and rolling waves, raindrops and marshmallow clouds, bright sun and midnights, the distant horizon and the nearby shore. I also got a feel for some of the ports and watched, mesmerized, as the fog cleared over the craggy mountainous backdrop of Ushuaia, the southernmost outpost in the world.

It was not the same as actually being there. But it was good; reading filled in some of the blanks. I’m planning for the future, and because of my virtual voyage and my research, I know better what to expect. Yesterday, on the solstice, I thought about Ushuaia again. It’s winter now at the bottom of the world, and I’m sure the air is frigid.

Planning Ahead

I’ll be reading more books and poring over more pictures of all the cities along the route prior to booking the trip. I’ll read more geography and history, more about past civilizations and current governments. I’ll learn more about local food and drink and culture. You can bet I’ll read more about the HMS Beagle before cruising through Beagle Channel on the way from Argentina to Peru!

I’ll also study up a bit more on nautical lore. That’s one of the reasons this particular voyage was so appealing: The itinerary included crossing the equator as well as rounding Cape Horn.

There was a time when sailing superstitions were honored, when nautical traditions held sway in everyday life, when seagoing ritual was honored on land as well as on the seven seas, in every corner of the globe.

Now, not so much.

Nautical Superstitions

But some customs are still practiced by modern navies; cruise ships indulge in time-honored ceremonies when crossing the equator or the international date line. Even “airships” mark those occasions with a nod to tradition — an announcement from the captain or, sometimes, a certificate. Today, it’s all strictly for fun. Or is it?

Old salts might tell you otherwise. More superstitious sailors wouldn’t think of eating a banana on board, never whistle while they work, dread sharks but welcome dolphins, and are careful to speak first to any redhead within earshot. There are also plenty of pleasure boaters who are wary of changing a vessel’s name and, curiously, never wish fellow travelers “good luck” before a planned journey.

We still live close to our mythology in other ways — throwing salt over a left shoulder, for instance; acknowledging a sneeze with “gesundheit,” not having a 13th floor in buildings.

But nowhere is the mythology closer than at sea.

Sailing Tradition

Just as I am still searching for a tattered nautical chart with the notation “BHBD,” I also have a sort of “bucket list” that has more to do with half-forgotten habits than with destinations:

  • I want to wear a gold earring in my left ear as testament to my voyage around Cape Horn. There are many versions of this tradition, and while I have no illusions about being able to qualify for the Amicale des Capitaines au Long Cours Cap Horniers (AICH),  I do intend to stand at the bottom of the world and look towards Antarctica.
  • I want to sail across the International Dateline, gaining (or losing) an entire day in an instant. I want a certificate to hang on my wall in commemoration of the feat.
  • For old salts, a sparrow tattoo marked a milestone of 5,000 nautical miles traveled.I have already earned the right to at least a couple of sparrows, and I still have more miles to travel. However, I’m a coward when it comes to ink on my skin. Maybe, when I qualify for a host of sparrows. . .

In 2017, I will be traveling in other directions, but I still have my eye on a spectacular gold hoop earring, and I’m already deep into research for 2018!

Photo of Harbor at Ushuaia, Terra del Fuego, Argentina, 2014, by David Stanley/Flickr