QM2: Genesis of a Queen

2013-12-03 13:59
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The Queen Mary 2 in monochrome

If ever there was a time travelling machine, the Queen Mary 2 would be it. Days spent on her decks allow you to lose all sense of time, while the evenings take you back to the golden age of cruising. She heads into Cape Town on 28 January 2014 as part of her 10th anniversary celebratory cruise.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

While the last line of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby might sound melancholy, it couldn’t have rung more true for me during a trip aboard the Queen Mary 2.

As you sail towards adventure on board the flagship of the Cunard line, steeped in nautical history, you can’t help being transported back in time.

I’ll admit from the start, a trip on the Queen Mary 2 is not for everybody.

Cruising as a holiday style has a universal appeal for the sheer relaxed pace of what is often an all-inclusive experience – hassle-free transport, accommodation, food and number of exotic locations. All this can easily be had on any number of cruise liners sailing the globe at present.

And while some boats are jam-packed party vessels, others are more luxurious or exclusive.

Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, the last true ocean liner of its kind, is for me in a class of its own.

You choose a cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2 more often than not for the legacy.

This one in particular was created by Samuel Cunard and dates back to the 1800s when ships like the Britannia, Mauritania and Lusitania came to dominate the North Atlantic as Blue Riband steamers.

While the Laconia, which set sail on the first world cruise in 1922, only increased the line’s prestige; Until Cunard launched the Queens: Victoria, Elizabeth I and II as well as the first Queen Mary, all its ships’ names had ended in –ia.

But ultimately, it seems, people sail on Cunard for a taste of the decadent - or to put it simply the pomp and ceremony – pretty much in line with Baz Lurhmann’s interpretation of the above mentioned Fitzgerald classic.

And so, you choose this line to get swept up in the sheer exuberance of that golden era of cruising.

Also see - Five of the best things on board a QM2 cruise (Cunard)

I’ve always had a nautical affinity, having listened to my grandfather’s stories about his many, many years at sea – he started out as a deckhand at the spritely age of 14 and retired well into his 70s as a venerated director of a successful fishing company. And having turned 90 this year, he’s a living testament to a life well lived – often joking that he never drinks water for fear of turning rusty.

Whiskey, well now that’s another story, he is after all a sailor through and through.

Affectionately known as Skipper Broadside Brophy, he earned the title of The Kingklip King in the late 70s when he was given a brand-spanking new, royal blue Jaguar by Atlantic Trawling for bringing in the largest hall of kingklip ever recorded in the Cape.  As far as I know, his record still stands but only due to environmentally-enforced quotas to preserve this precious resource off the Southern African Coast.

Before joining the final leg of the QM2's 2013 World Voyage, between Cape Town and Southampton, the longest time I’d spent at sea  was with him aboard a trawler for a 2-day trip down from Saldanha Bay to Cape Town. Sure it was the Captain’s quarters but it was a far cry from this, my first official cruise aboard the Cunard flagship.

Truth be told, I imagined myself as out of place as that Jaguar seemed in our Cape Flats drive-way back in the 80s. But soon the ideology that "age ain't nothing but a number" was reinforced considerably during my trip.

Strangely enough, of all the questions that could be asked about a trip such as this, the one I’ve encountered over and over is, “Did you get seasick?”
Despite the fame and fortune of this boat that often sees thousands of people heading out to ports to greet her, especially during her earlier voyages, queasiness seems to be the foremost concern.

Suffice to say the Queen Mary does rock – but in the good kind of way.

Naval Architect and designer of this Royal Mail Ship, Stephen Payne set our minds at ease during a fascinating talk about the Cunard legacy - some may say referring to her RMS title is an affectation or anachronism, but the fact remains it is an honorary title that she is custom-built to hold – with 40% more steel than normal cruise liners due to her distinct transatlantic ocean liner profile, in comparison to the boxier cruise liners designed to maximise passenger occupancy.

Naval Architect Stephen Payne. (Selene Brophy, News24 Travel)

While the QM2 is no longer the largest passenger liner at sea (that title now belongs to Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas) she certainly is the fastest at a maximum 30 knots per hour (about 56kmph) and the only Trans-Atlantic cruiser.

Payne’s was just one of many fascinating talks held during our trip -  for me these expert talks along with its Queen's ball room sets the golden-era experience apart – if you want to give yourself some everlasting holiday memories dance classes from the QM2's professional dancers and hostesses would be one way to do it. They also seriously don't care if you have two left feet.

According to Payne, during Storm Sandy the Queen Mary 2 continued on her transatlantic voyage unencumbered, while other ships lay anchored well offshore for safety.

At one point, another ship radioed her bridge asking, “Do you not know you’re heading into a massive storm, which ship are you?” 

The Captain’s response was, “Who are we? We are the Queen Mary 2.”

So getting seasick should be the last thing on your mind.

But my grandfather often was. Beyond just the fact that I was on a big boat – everything from the music, to the décor, to the dancing allowed me to think of him fondly.

Selene Brophy

As you walk towards the planetarium - that’s right the QM2 is home to the world’s first floating planetarium - the walls are awash with details about this golden age from replica models of famous ships, awards from various ports of call, maps of varying interest to the life-size images of celebrity guests such as Marilyn Monroe, Vera Lyn, Louis Armstrong and of course a number of significant Royals including her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II.

Our Cape Town departure set us adrift on a 16-day course for the home of British cruising, Southampton. We made a short stop in at Walvis Bay, before heading for the equator up the east coast of Africa for a full week at sea – undoubtedly a highlight of the journey for me. 

Not much can compare to the surreal experience of miles and miles of calm Blue Ocean as far as the eye can see, the odd flutter of fly fish and a crispness about the air that forces you to forget about the grid entirely. I could at last truly understand the siren call that kept my grandfather away for months on end.

I spent some time talking at length to Stephen Payne, Captain Kevin Oprey as well as other guests aboard the ship to find out what drew them to Cunard's flagship Queen.

A five-year-old Payne had no idea he’d take up the challenge set by one of his favourite British children’s programme, the Blue Peter, when during a feature about the Queen Elizabeth which went up in flames in Hong Kong 1972, it declared  “Nothing like her will ever be built again”. The Queen Elizabeth’s successor the Queen Elizabeth 2 was completed back in 1969 and it wasn’t until 2004 when Payne’s love of ships came full circle. 

While his university career almost took a turn towards physics and chemistry, with the help of a dedicated college professor he was able to fulfill his destiny to become the naval architect behind the QM2 - leading the team of designers of this regal boat which cost in excess of $300 million at the time to build.

Payne told of the painstaking effort taken to pay tribute to her predecessors The Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, which is now a floating hotel off Long Island Beach in Florida. He even has a special epitaph hidden somewhere within the panels in tribute to the college professor who helped him earn the bursary that set the course for his career in naval architecture.

He wouldn’t say were though.

Captain Kevin Oprey didn’t know either. Also hailing from a family of seafarers since his father was a tug master, as a young boy from the Isle of Wight, Oprey, spent his days as a young boy sailing the waters of the Solent.

Fascinated by the gracefulness of the great liners as they sailed into Southampton his fledgling career as a navigating cadet led him aboard ships ranging from cargo to  high-speed catamaran. He told me of his cruise ship career where he was Staff Captain of the Oriana and Captain of the Arcadia – both Carnival cruise ships – but there was an unmistakable twinkle in his eyes as he spoke about being in command of the QM2, which he calls one of the proudest moments of his career. Certainly not a bad way to eke out an existence but like my grandfather Oprey only gets to see his family every four months or so.

Queen Mary 2, 2013 World Voyage - Captain Kevin Oprey (Selene Brophy, News24 travel)

Ah, the life of a sailor.

There is a lot of alone-time on a ship this size, with its largest library at sea being a truly magical place. But with its ample social spaces it means you meet a lot of interesting people too. And while I remained acutely aware that our paths might never again cross there were pockets of heartfelt interactions amidst the sometimes awkward conversations.

Of the passengers that fascinated me the most during our trip, for obvious reasons, there was a grandmother and granddaughter coupling. 

The older woman had decided on a whim that it was time to make the most of her retirement and in testament to her youth decided the ideal ‘chaperone’ would be her granddaughter. The grandmother was surprisingly more care-free of the two. Manhandling awkward carved out penises in a curio shop in Madeira and making funny faces at us and in the evenings she made sure to maximise the use of the available dance hosts in the Queen’s room.

The granddaughter seemed to be lapping up all the memories from the sidelines of what will surely be one of her most epic holidays, especially if I think about the time my grandfather spoiled his granddaughters with an unforgettable trip to Spain and Paris a few years back. 

The Queen Mary II is set to arrive back in Cape Town on 28 January for her 10th anniversary cruise and with the multi-billion-rand upgrade to the Table Bay Harbour including a new cruise terminal for Duncan Dock's E Berth to be completed in 2015, she is sure to pass by quite regularly. Needless to say, I’ll have to make an epic date with my dear Broadside Brophy.

The past truly is a present for the future – and if you're wanting to make the most of it , a legacy trip aboard this boat comes highly recommended.

Selene Brophy was hosted by Imagine Cruising - for more details on the Queen Mary 2 10th anniversary 2014 itinerary check their website as well as the following links.

- Five of the best things on board a QM2 cruise
- QM2: Cruise ship safety
- The Queen Mary 2 in monochrome
- Staterooms of the Queen Mary



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