A World In The Middle Of The Ocean

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In retaining the Royal Mail contract for forty-six years, from 1840 to 1886, the Cunard Line was a high-Victorian no-nonsense company, widely admired for its reliability but resented for tolerating passengers rather than obliging them. There was no entertainment whatsoever, and few amenities. An 1891 article in Scribner’s Monthly looked back twenty or so years when a bath could be had only through “the kind offices of the boatswain or his mate, who vigorously applied the hose on such passengers as came dressed for the occasion when the decks were being washed in the early morning.” In the 1870s the competing British line, White Star, advanced the trade by actually accommodating passengers. Then, at the turn of the century, the German lines changed it forever by pampering them. “On a modern German liner you are treated as a welcome guest,” F. N. Doubleday reported after crossing on a British ship in 1907, “and finally set ashore after a cheerful captain’s dinner and possibly a general illumination and a dance on deck. A Cunard captain would die first.”

The line has changed.

In one of the brochures sent in advance of my crossing, mention was made of something called the QE2 Gentleman Host Program: “distinguished companions aboard for dancing, dining and shore excursions.” It sounded suspiciously like the basic premise (and most of the plot) of a George Raft movie. And so the first night at sea, all in the spirit of investigation, two friends and I made our way to the Queens Room, a nightclub presided over by the QE2 Orchestra. “There’s one,” someone murmured, indicating a well-dressed middle-aged man with a very good haircut. We all got a good look.

In its early days the Cunard Line was admired for its reliability— and resented for merely tolerating its passengers.

However, our investigation showed that the Gentleman Hosts are actually highly principled and, moreover, that their very presence reflects a quiet dilemma. Since the ship typically has more women of an age than men, the six or eight Gentleman Hosts—all of them good dancers—are charged with making sure that no one is ignored. Our harshly cynical panel of three concluded that this isn’t a bad calling and perhaps is even a very good one. Among the younger passengers, conversely, men seemed to outnumber women. There were more than a few families in the mix as well, with gaggles of children to brighten the ship.

The indulgence of crossing the ocean by ship lies in having all the time in the world, and most of the space.

Day after day, at the very popular afternoon tea served in the Queens Room, each settee and every side chair was occupied by a person who was thinking about having one more scone with cream. And jam. And then did. Waiters and waitresses swirled around with trays, making sure of it. One day on entering alone, I was seated at a table with a Florida woman who’d been on the QE2 for three straight months, circumnavigating the earth; the transatlantic crossing was the final leg. Casual conversation is at its best on boats and trains. She said she had taken 132 rolls of pictures, that New Zealand’s scenery was the highlight, and that some people get aboard knowing that they haven’t even got three months to live. Six people, she told me, had died en route over the three months.

The next day I took my tea with a former priest who had inherited a very minor sum of money and, quickly, easily, amazingly, had turned it into a major fortune on Wall Street before leaving his order. If Cunard ever offers a superbargain fare for the QE2 , with only one meal a day, I would choose afternoon tea, where cakes come neatly on a platter and so do plots for novels.

The QE2 averages about 32.5 knots (38 miles per hour). Newer ships are built to cruise, not to make that speed, and they wouldn’t be fit for the transatlantic run. However, not even the QE2 was built with enough speed to make a new record for an Atlantic crossing and take the honor known as the Blue Riband, so hotly contested for more than a century. It would probably be moot to win it now anyway, with only one contestant left standing.