- Historic Sites
A World In The Middle Of The Ocean
At their zenith the great transatlantic liners were lean runways for Schiaparelli dresses and Sulka dressing gowns, gorgeous stage sets for ship-to-shore gossip, bon mots, cocktail shakers, and dancing all night. It still can happen.
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
The last passenger liner to fly the Blue Riband was the United States , which clipped ten hours off the record on its maiden voyage in 1952, crossing in three days, ten hours, and forty minutes, slower but more comfortable than the commercial prop planes of the day. Even aside from that performance, the United States was America’s greatest transatlantic liner, vanquishing well over a century of previous disappointments and disasters. (The ship has spent many years in dry dock, but according to its new owner is currently awaiting funding for a complete restoration.) All ocean liners can be converted to wartime use, but the United States was, in truth, a troop carrier that had been beautifully fitted out as an ocean liner. The U.S. Navy footed most of the bill for the ship, had a strong hand in designing it, and fully intended to take possession in time of war, although that never transpired. The Navy did cooperate in making the United States a lightweight superliner (all metal, even down to the orchestra leader’s baton), but it wisely stayed out of the kitchens and the salons, where the United States Lines made its big ship the match of anything else on the transatlantic run.
Ever since 1959 six-hour jet flights have made a mockery of such “greyhounds of the sea!” as the United States and the Queen Elizabeth 2 , with crossings measured in days. Perhaps other modern trends have made as much of a mockery of taking tea and dressing for dinner, of morning constitutionals, afternoon lectures, and horse races in the grand lounge. Those are only the diversions, though. The indulgence of crossing the ocean by ship lies in one’s having all the time in the world, and most of the space.
Even more than on speed or style, the reputation created by the transatlantic liners rested on an exaggerated sense of security: of plenty and of order, and traditions that fit everything else in, around them. For the first 120 years, this was a necessary subterfuge, in order to make the brooding, dangerous North Atlantic seem attractive and safe: now, after so much time, the world of the transatlantic is polished to such a gleam that it surpasses most places on land, in the sheer quality known as civilization. The transatlantic, as carved out by the great liners, is a world, truly; no less so because it only exists a few days at a time.
On entering service in 1969, the QE2 replaced the Queen Mary , the most beautiful of all ocean liners, as the flagship of the Cunard Line. The Queen Mary was launched in 1936 and sailed in the thick of exciting times, evoked now by the legends that surround it.
Perhaps a Cunard flagship is something of a dowager, a dignified survivor. Originally designed for an expired working life of about thirty years, the QE2 received new engines and a mechanical rebuild in 1987 and a complete interior refurbishment in 1994. Cunard has thereby extended the ship’s future well into the next century. The QE2 made news in December of 1994 because of that complete refurbishment, or rather because of its incompleteness. Cunard sent the ship out to sea anyway, a bewildering decision, taking a thousand passengers across the Atlantic and giving some of them geysers instead of toilets and garbage heaps instead of hallways. Worst of all, the debacle subjected the stately ship itself to mutinous acrimony from the passengers and a brief impoundment in New York for safety violations cited by the U.S. Coast Guard. Repairs were made in a day, and bookings, according to Cunard, have been normal ever since.
Very early on the morning of my last day aboard the QE2 , I was lying abed, sweetly marveling at how accustomed I’d become to the motion of the vessel, when I realized that we were stopped. 1 bolted up. It was unnatural for that faint creaking, like the ship’s breathing, to have ceased completely. Out on the deck, though, I saw that we were taking on a harbor pilot for the final hours of the crossing, and we soon continued on.
What the QE2 then gave, as a going-away present, was the chance to see America as if it were brand-new that very morning, built of light like my cities out at sea. Following Long Island into New York, the ship passed small towns, apartment blocks, and factory districts, all of them waking up and getting busy as the streetlights thinned out in the dawn and went off. At about seven o’clock the QE2 slid under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and into New York Harbor. People in cars on the bridge waved us on; a small plane overhead tipped its wings; a man on a barge tipped his hat. Lower Manhattan loomed on the right, a shiny mountain of buildings streaked with deep shadows. A murmur went through the crowd on deck as the Statue of Liberty came into view on the left, silvery green and delicate. But at that moment she was a mere symbol. Her universe was arising all around her.