A maritime heritage lives in Queen Mary 2


The original made waves in the heyday of luxury crossings

January 17, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The maiden voyage this week of the ocean liner Queen Mary 2 calls to mind the original Queen Mary, launched almost 70 years ago.

The first Queen Mary, built by John Brown & Co. Ltd. in Clydebank, Scotland, would define for the next three decades the meaning of stylish, grand luxe trans-Atlantic service.

As thousands cheered, the new ship, designated "Job 534" by the Brown company, was christened Queen Mary and launched on Sept. 26, 1934, by Her Majesty Queen Mary of Great Britain, while her husband, King George V, looked on.

The 81,000-ton ship slid gracefully down the ways into the cool waters of the Clyde River and was then towed to a fitting-out basin where its boilers, machinery, interiors, funnels and masts were installed.

After the work was finished and the ship had completed its speed trials, it was handed over to officials of Cunard-White Star Line on May 12, 1936.

Two weeks later, the Queen Mary departed Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage to New York with 2,650 passengers aboard.

Among them was James Bone, London editor of the Manchester Guardian. In an article published in The Evening Sun, he recalled the euphoria that attended the Queen Mary's entrance into New York Harbor while thousands looked on from the shore and from boats that clogged the harbor from Sandy Hook to the Battery.

"Fireboats made Versailles fountains of the foreground and paper snowstorms fell and glittered from the buildings. Everywhere you looked were crowds of people -- on roofs, terraces and windows. In the grand light, the New York skyline looked more overpowering than ever, but we foreigners of the Queen Mary thought that our ship anyway was in scale," Bone wrote.

Fog on the maiden crossing slowed the new vessel. A speed record was not set as the giant liner steamed passed Ambrose Light, which marks the end of the Atlantic course, which begins at Bishop Rock in England. It had reached New York in 4 days, 12 hours and 24 minutes.

The record established a year earlier by the French Line's Normandie stood.

Later that summer, the Queen's turbines propelled the liner in a 30.14-knot east-west crossing to a new record that wrested the Blue Riband, the symbol of trans-Atlantic supremacy, from the Normandie.

The ship arrived at its New York pier after crossing the Atlantic in 4 days, 7 hours and 12 minutes. It established another record on its eastbound crossing when it reached England after 3 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes.

The Queen Mary's captain, Sir Edgar Britten, was somewhat reticent when it came to discussing his ship's record-setting voyages. He even admitted that he failed to stock a Blue Riband pennant aboard with the signal flags and other pennants.

"I suppose the Cunard-White Star Line will have to buy one here," he told waiting reporters.

"I have no doubt the French will beat our record and then we'll beat theirs. A little friendly competition is all right, you know."

The next year, the Normandie regained the Blue Riband for both east and westbound voyages. In 1938, the Queen Mary brought the famed symbol back after making the crossing in 3 days, 21 hours and 48 minutes. Traveling eastbound, the ship steamed at 31.7 knots, arriving in 3 days, 20 hours and 42 minutes.

Its best record -- 3 days, 15 hours, 48 minutes -- was lost in 1952 to the United States, which charged across the Atlantic in 3 days, 10 hours, and 40 minutes.

The Queen Mary's speed was a critical factor in World War II, when it transported an average of 15,000 troops per voyage. So fast and elusive, it earned the nickname "the Gray Ghost."

The unescorted vessel, zigzagging between New York and English ports, proved such a frustration to Adolf Hitler that he placed a $250,000 bounty on the vessel. The money would be paid to the successful U-boat captain who sunk the ship.

The Queen Mary and its sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, transported about 1.6 millions soldiers during wartime, and had a strategic impact on the outcome of the war.

However, it was speed of another sort that conspired to bring an end of the golden era of luxury trans-Atlantic liners. It came with the arrival of the jet airliner.

In 1961, Cunard announced that it would not build replacement ships for the aging liners.

"Potential first-class passengers tend to use air travel," Cunard said then. "Operating costs continue to increase but cannot be offset by raising fares because of intense competition from the air."

Cunard had a change of heart in the mid-1960s and began building the "Q4" which was launched in 1969 as the Queen Elizabeth II.

The Queen Mary was withdrawn from service in 1967 and, after bidding farewell to New York, sailed around Cape Horn to Long Beach, Calif., where it is a major tourist attraction and prop for movies requiring a ship.

"The luxury era has been supplanted by the speed era. In addition to being pro-luxury, we are anti-speed," said The Sun in a 1967 editorial. "The American Supersonic Transport is going to fly the Atlantic in a couple of hours. Bah to the SST."

Ironically, the Concorde ended its trans-Atlantic service late last year on the eve of the maiden voyage of Queen Mary 2 to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

When the new ship, now the world's largest liner at 150,000-tons, "speaks," it will be with the voice of the old Queen Mary.

The ship's 7-foot-long, 2 1/2 -foot-wide whistle, which stands 3 feet high, was manufactured by Kockums of Sweden.

It was removed from the old vessel, inspected and found to be in excellent operating condition. The whistle, which is on long-term lease from the City of Long Beach, owner of the old Queen Mary, was installed on the new ship, Cunard officials said this week.

The great melodious whistle, whose blasts can be heard 10 miles, is tuned to two notes below middle C, so as not to disturb passengers on deck. The whistle was originally powered by steam but has since been converted to air power.

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