A World In The Middle Of The Ocean

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Twelve times a year the QE2 retraces an old path from South-ampton, England, to New York City and back, a voyage each way of six days. I sailed westward last April, a five-night crossing that I christened, in the jollity of my trying to pack enough formal clothes for it, “Four Weddings and a Funnel.” (A bon mot and we had yet to sail!) I also packed a stiff old pea coat, so that I could haunt the deck no matter what the conditions; even the route, the same route taken by immigrants and soldiers, my relatives among them, would be something to see across the rail. I traveled to England in a jet plane, changing continents and having a nap, only to turn around and come back on an ocean liner. Not just to come back, but to cross.

As the last passenger line operating on the Atlantic route, Cunard is only finishing what it started in 1840, when it was the first. That year Great Britain boldly awarded its Royal Mail contract for the North Atlantic to a new company that was itself banking on a fairly new invention. The company was the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, headed by Samuel Cunard. With a guaranteed annual payment for carrying mail on schedule between Liverpool, Halifax, and Boston, Mr. Cunard forsook sailing ships, commissioned four brand-new steamships, and started the transatlantic service that bears his name to this day. His fleet cut the ocean passage from four weeks to two, and ever since, time has been the conceit of the Atlantic: People have shown their self-worth by having none to spare and their superiority by having so much less to spare than their grandfathers. On that the ocean liners feasted, and finally starved.

Samuel Cunard was among the passengers aboard the first of his ships to leave England, in July 1840. The moment when it docked in America was historic: It was not only the first Cunarder to cross but also the first oceangoing steamship ever seen in Boston. Even more impressive in the annals of social history, Mr. Cunard received eighteen hundred dinner invitations on his first day in Boston.

Within a few years the Americans became actively envious of the Cunard Line, as did the Germans and the French (and anyone else who found enormous profits to his liking). All of them muttered that the British “thought they owned the North Atlantic,” but throughout the rest of the nineteenth century it was true. What’s more, it was deserved. Before radio was installed on ships in 1903, an ocean liner was liable to go out and never be heard from again. It might hit ice or a derelict, suffer an explosion, burn down to the water, founder in a storm, or something else entirely; odd things happen on the North Atlantic. Yet the Cunard Line was able to boast that it “never lost a life at sea” from 1840 until its ship Lusitania was torpedoed during World War I. Nor has it lost one since.

 
 
 
 

It ought to be hard to hide a ship like the QE2 , I suppose, but in Southampton last April there was no open gangway, with throngs below and a brass band. There was a massive gray terminal, behind which there had to be a ship. I boarded through the terminal, walking along carpeted hallways and waving papers at people until I seemed to be on board, and then I walked along and showed other papers until I arrived at my stateroom.

But I never saw the ship. (I believe it is dark blue and white with a red funnel.) The QE2 is 963 feet long, about 60 feet shorter than the longest liners of all time. Each level on board has two long hallways, like rifle barrels, running practically the length of the ship; the 974 cabins lining them can accommodate up to 1,810 passengers. The staterooms on the QE2 certainly vary in price and generally indicate First, Second, and Third classes, but except for a few reserved lounges, nearly the entire ship is open to all passengers. Nothing on board harkens back to the days when crew members were posted and ropes were strung throughout such a ship to keep First in First and, more important, Third in Third. On the outside the stern of the QE2 is something of an open play area, with a pool and facilities for golf, miniature golf, deck tennis, and basketball. But then inside, the QE2 is also something of a play area, with another pool, a health club, a casino, an impressive library, a handsome theater that doubles as the church, and swank shops such as Harrod’s, in addition to the pub, the nightclub, the piano bar, the disco, and a cabaret.