A perfect 360-degree horizon, occluded in the nearer distance by cloud shadow and smears and smudges of squall, is something sensed, not seen. All around lies a mottled expanse of turquoise, wine-blue, cobalt, and purple patches streaked with brilliant sunshine alternating with gray shadow and scuffed into variously textured sheets ruffled and smoothed by the winds. The entire panorama seems to heave gently, almost to breathe—the Wyoming plains on a brisk fall day of scudding cloud patterns. An almost imperceptible displacement seems to register a mental rather than a physical occurrence, as if the eye had transferred the ground’s slightest movement to the right foot. But the motion is real, and it belongs neither to the mind nor to the earth but to the North Atlantic Ocean. From the starboard docking bridge astern, one looks forward along the hull of the 1,132-foot vessel to the bridge wing, dipping almost to the horizon and lifting slowly again. We have a moderate sea running this first morning out from New York, and RMS Queen Mary 2 feels stable as the globe itself, which is said to wobble on its axis. Too stable, in fact—what this ship needs is to have her double set of stabilizers withdrawn and be turned free to show the moves of which she’s capable in a spot of weather.
People have told me they dislike being at sea. I can scarcely fathom this unless they are speaking of “cruising”—the nautical equivalent of a rubber duck describing an erratic course in a bathtub. A real ship like QM2 demands a voyage—a crossing from one port to another, a travel segment with a set and serious purpose. Civilization ended when an ocean liner ceased to be the only mode of human locomotion between continents. On this point, the regulars drinking with me in the Golden Lion Pub on 3 Deck are agreed. For one of them, an artist from Ireland, the Mary’s 147th transatlantic crossing is his and his wife’s 12th. Commodore Bernard Warner promises fair weather from Ambrose Light to Bishop Rock, but all of us are hoping for a real sea of at least a day’s duration or so. The tables in the Britannia Restaurant lack the side rails common to ships’ dining salons. This seems like hubris to me. You could balance a shilling on the turbine casings in the old Queen Mary—the most beautiful ship ever built—but even she could pitch and roll in a gale, like the great lady she was.
Several years ago Cunard moved from the shabby old green piers lapped by the filthy North River tides in mid-Manhattan to Brooklyn, where QM2’s 151,400-ton bulk (Queen Mary, at 1,018 feet, was 81,237 gross tons) is accommodated beside a modern docking shed that partially obscures her vast size from the view of arriving passengers. Sailing time was put back one hour and a quarter by a slow bunkering barge before the moment when the last line was cast off at 6:15 p.m. and the great ship drew slowly away from the pier, nudged by Moran tugs and propelled by the two azimuthing propeller pods that complement the double fixed pods into the waters between Brooklyn and Governor’s Island. Since September 11, 2001, guests are no longer allowed aboard, and so there was no crowd to wave us off with confetti and paper streamers. And a Brooklyn sailing eliminates the grand processional down the Hudson River, past the spires of Manhattan and into the Upper Bay. From the pier, the Queen set her prow at Staten Island as she brushed past the ferries and the pleasure boats that veered in for a closer look. The ship had been under close surveillance by helicopters for two hours before sailing time, and we had an escort of two police boats past the Statue of Liberty and the dredging barges anchored beside the main shipping channel, as far as the Verrazano Bridge. The autumn darkness fell, and most of the passengers wandered below after we had cleared the bridge by 13 feet and left the Lower Harbor astern. I remained on the port boat deck to watch the pilot being taken off at Sandy Hook in a swift little boat whose curling wake, illuminated by the lights of the ship, gleamed on the black water as she nudged against the sheer black hull running with a white foam, and he descended to the boat by ladder while we continued to build toward cruising speed into the open sea. A wind got up, cold and hard from the southwest, and now there was nothing to see but the lights of Coney Island strung horizontally on an invisible string in the darkness abeam of portside. The ship’s bridge shut off the display lights, and I left the deck and went down to the cabin to meet my wife and dress for dinner.
Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, describes in uncomplimentary terms the decor of a vessel that seems (save for the steward’s having only iced soda to offer Charles Ryder) from the description to have been a Cunarder. True, there has always been something stagey about the interior architecture of the great liners. This something is probably intrinsic to the attempt to recreate at sea a terrestrial architectural grandeur within a framework of skeletal steel and a skin of steel plating. Even so, Waugh’s description is unfair. Cunard has labored conscientiously with this ship to maintain continuity of decor with her predecessors, including the three earlier Queens, that extends to an updated version of the “flat, drab colours” of which Waugh complained (to my eye, harmonious beige, moss greens, soft reds, deep blues); the “yards and yards of biscuit-colored wood which no carpenter’s tool had ever touched, wood that had been bent round corners, invisibly joined strip to strip, steamed, squeezed, and polished.” No one, of course, would expect Evelyn Waugh to appreciate art deco, even aboard ship. To me, ships are where art deco belongs, even if modern fire codes and the endangered-species laws ensure that the rare South American woods have been replaced by synthetic materials. And ships’ interiors do alter their aspect at night, settling into sterling elegance in the soft glow of the indirect lighting and finding favor there, like an aging beauty after dusk. The Britannia Restaurant is three decks high, with two tiered balconies set back above the central space and a handsome Gobelin tapestry depicting Queen Mary 2 departing New York with the Battery astern.
It used to be that those wished to eat well at sea booked passage with the French Line. Today Cunard’s cuisine is superb, simply but exquisitely prepared from first-rate ingredients. Our table companions at dinner were a couple of about our age from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and with a gentle English charm, on the last leg of a trip that had taken them by uncertain Amtrak service across the United States from San Francisco to New York. Afterward Maureen and I went for drinks in the Chart Room, a handsome lounge (more biscuit paneling) immediately aft of the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar, and sat by one of the wide brass-bound windows looking out at the gently foaming sea beyond the heavy glass. I took a last turn on the lit decks beneath the hanging lifeboats before turning in. The hum of the engines and ventilators merged with the wash of the sea along the hull, and I fell slowly asleep, just aware of the slightest vibration in my cheek on the flat British pillow.
At five the next morning the predawn sky was pale, with a low bank of cloud on the southern horizon and a ship’s light ahead and starboard as we steamed toward the golden burn of sky above the horizon. The steel deck was cold beneath my feet, and I dressed quickly and went on deck before Maureen was awake, to explore the ship. There was a moderate sea running, cobalt swells rising and subsiding, moving steadily astern at 23 knots. The joggers were already out pounding the boat deck–called on this ship the promenade deck, though only the aft part is glassed. It is necessary for ship enthusiasts of a certain age to make their peace with modern naval architecture, and to learn to forgive the new ships themselves for being what they are. It is not the ladies’ fault that they are not Mauritania (the first one), Olympic, Berengaria, Île de France, Queen Mary, or even Queen Elizabeth 2. Ships, like people, are products of their time, and should not be expected to be anything else. For over a century, the once pencil-thin superstructures have been rising steadily higher, and thickening; the funnels growing shorter and fewer (from four to one); the old familiar deck clutter of tall masts and rigging, cargo booms, intake vents, and winches being cleared away. Modern liners are designed primarily as pleasure boats. Queen Mary 2 carries no cargo, and steamer trunks labeled NOT WANTED ON VOYAGE are a thing of the past, together with passenger lists (perhaps considered an invasion of privacy in these sensitive times) and cabin parties before sailing. Passengers are called “guests,” and the guests are expected to prefer balconies to portholes, on cruises especially. So naval architects have been bulking superstructures higher and extending them fore and aft into beach-hotel-like masses proceeded by shortened bows and followed by abridged sterns. No one but a naval architect can explain why the resulting monsters don’t turn turtle (especially given a draft of, say, 32 feet, like this Queen’s, as compared with the old Mary’s 39), yet it takes a strong sea up to induce even a slight roll. Queen Mary 2 lacks the Grecian perfection of line and distributed mass of her three-funneled namesake in Long Beach, but she is a real ship nonetheless: the sole remaining ocean liner in the world, defined as a vessel capable of mastering the North Atlantic seas. I had had my eye on this lady since the New York Times carried a striking page-one photograph of her arrival in Manhattan on her maiden voyage six years ago. Now, on this first day out, I was falling in love with her.
Beneath the rail aft of the Queen’s Grille forward of the ship’s stern, a New York pigeon who had failed to disembark at sailing time strutted pink-footed with rapidly jerking head in search of bagel and pretzel bits. I crumbled two crackers from the hot bouillon table on deck and spread them in the drain gutter beneath the rail as an enticement to remain with us as far as Southampton.
The classless society extends to ocean liners, where the decks are open to all passengers and only the dining salons are segregated, according to the price of one’s cabin. I spent the morning exploring the ship from stem to stern, climbing down and up the narrow stairways between the upper decks. At noon the ship’s horn blew four descending blasts, and at 12:20 the ship’s alert system sounded and the Commodore’s voice came on the intercom for his daily address. One hundred-sixty miles south of Cape Sable; ocean depth one mile; air temperature 63 degrees F, ocean temperature 72 degrees (we were into the Gulf Stream already); 2,770 miles to go to Southampton. His remarks were followed by translations into German and French in that order. Then it was 12:30 and time to eat again.
The transatlantic liner was the apex of bourgeois civilization and is perishing with it—a fact of which I was reminded next day, when the Commodore announced that we should have Titanic’s grave 40 miles abeam at 2000 that evening. But how does one spend the day at sea following the Great Circle from New York to Southampton, while the days anneal themselves like the toppling waves parting around the bow and rolling aft at a steady 23 knots? (Queen Mary 2 has a top speed of 32 knots, but the company can afford to feed 2,500 people for two extra days and still make a profit by saving on fuel.) The ship has a social director to create and direct a ceaseless round of activities. I attended one of these—a memorial gathering for those who had sailed in the old Mary. I hadn’t, but my father had, and both of us had been aboard her many times in New York; in 1967 we bade her farewell from the end of the pier when she made her last transatlantic voyage. On this trip I wore his wristwatch, which had been to sea first in Berengaria in the 30’s. So I discreetly crashed the meeting, which was attended by, among other people, several war brides who had sailed in her after the war and a former switchboard operator who maintained that not even the ship beneath our feet could match her. For the rest I walked the decks, watching the northern gannet that followed the ship for two days and the small birds that appeared miraculously on deck one morning when we were hundreds of miles from land and vanished overnight. And there were the seabirds (the Commodore gave us their name, but I forgot to write it down) that dive 40 feet below the surface of the sea to take fish. (I never saw the pigeon again and assumed he had attempted a return flight to New York and perished like Icarus in the sea, about which I felt badly.) Some passengers saw dolphins alongside the ship, perhaps while I was having an afternoon drink in the Chart Room reading Some People, by Harold Nicolson. (Describing a voyage in the Mediterranean, he calls the encroaching night shipboard something menacing; I find it a comforting darkness shrouding a moving cathedral in steel.) On days when the wind is blowing spume from the waves, the windward decks are wet with spray, and the varnished handrails whited by sea salt. From the observation deck directly beneath the bridge, one has a view of 634 square miles of ocean. I spent much time there, glassing the horizon for other ships and watching the bows proceed, motionlessly it seemed, into the heaving blue sea. The last day out, I soaked in a heated pool on an aft deck, chatting with a female passenger from Toronto. Together we watched the Bishop Rock lighthouse rise like a gray pencil at the verge of the hazy ocean, and after it the hilly contours of the Isles of Scilly slipping past portside. We were surrounded now by trawlers taking fish from the edge of the continental shelf, and the ship was buzzed twice by a low-flying plane.
Dinner that evening was informal, but my wife and I dressed anyhow, in tribute to the great ship and her gracious staff. I smoked a cigar in Churchill’s cigar bar beforehand, and after dinner we placed our luggage in the corridor and went up to the Chart Room for brandy and Cointreau and to tell Adrianna, our server during the voyage, goodbye. Queen Mary 2 docked quietly at Mayflower Berth in Southampton next morning at six, and breakfast was served in the dining salons at eight. I was feeling mildly nauseous and unable to eat, though the ship lay moored to the quay with her engines shut down. Psychiatrically minded people call it separation anxiety.
We had a final view of her from the motorcoach on the quay while the driver loaded the luggage beneath: a towering mass of such proportions that she appeared a work of nature rather than of man, a piece of one of the northerly continents broken off into the ocean. Black hull, white superstructure, red-and-black Cunard funnel, rising up and stretching away beyond the shed. Whoever cannot love a real ship probably cannot love a woman, either.