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A World In The Middle Of The Ocean

June 2024
18min read

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.

In the days when the North Atlantic was a crowded route, to choose a ship was to start the crossing. The fastest, the biggest, the newest: Often a single liner reigned as all three, with panache to spare for anyone who booked passage. Travelers who grew beyond mere statistics, though, peered into brochures and found the most stylish or amiable ship, or the most reliable. The record for the most comfortable one ever must certainly have been set by the German liner that returned to port unsteadily and slowly after its maiden season: too much furniture.


In the days when the North Atlantic was a crowded route, to choose a ship was to start the crossing. The fastest, the biggest, the newest: Often a single liner reigned as all three, with panache to spare for anyone who booked passage. Travelers who grew beyond mere statistics, though, peered into brochures and found the most stylish or amiable ship, or the most reliable. The record for the most comfortable one ever must certainly have been set by the German liner that returned to port unsteadily and slowly after its maiden season: too much furniture.

I did not have any such decisions to make last year when I crossed the Atlantic Ocean, Southampton to New York. To choose a ship today is to take the Queen Elizabeth 2 .

Neither the QE2 nor I was around in the heyday of the transatlantic liner, yet we both were there at the port to perpetuate it, believing enough in the old ways to do so. Many passengers must feel that way: that if the QE2 is an anachronism, then so are they. Cruise ships, sailing circles in the sea, may look the same from afar, but the QE2 is set apart in two ways. I met with one on the very first afternoon aboard, standing in my stateroom and gazing out the porthole at Wight—more of a mud flat that day than an isle—and taking a good look, because we weren’t coming back, not on that sailing. A transatlantic liner is in the basic business of transportation, not amusement, and as the last of the breed, the QE2 is distinctly going somewhere when it leaves Wight behind. It has also been somewhere, in another sense, and that sets it apart too.

The world of the QE2 was created between 1840 and 1940, a century with a sense of order that brought civilization to the North Atlantic Ocean as inevitably as it brought churches to the jungle and fortresses to the desert. A transatlantic liner developed over the years into a special sort of colony, with its own standards. It assigned each person a proper place, in neighborhoods known as First, Second, or Steerage, and then gave them every chance to sort themselves out even further according to the petty snobberies that evolved within the classes. One couldn’t be expected to associate with just anybody on a floating speck in a million acres of water.

In 1921 and 1924, when new laws drastically restricted U.S. immigration, transatlantic lines felt robbed of their birthright. Then they upgraded “Steerage” to “Tourist-Third Class,” by way of a few overdue amenities, and managed to capture a new crowd of budget travelers. The average Steerage passenger had never fretted much over choosing the “right” ship, socially speaking, but Tourist-Third passengers were on holiday and could be keenly aware of such things. A new point of comparison opened for liners: not only speed, size, and luxury but also who else was on board. Third Class trippers followed the “right” people to a handful of the tightest liners of all time, beginning with the charming Île de France (French Line—1927), the potent Bremen (North German Lloyd—1929), the Normandie (French Line—1935), the Queen Mary (Cunard-White Star—1936), and the United States (United States Lines—1952). Their determined silhouettes —their very name— meant Europe to Americans and America to Europeans.

They upgraded “Steerage” to “Tourist-Third Class” with a few amenities and captured a new crowd of budget passengers.

At the peak of the competition, the same waters known to seafarers as being among the meanest and ugliest in the world provided something else: a lean runway for Schiaparelli dresses and Sulka dressing gowns, ship-to-shore gossip, bon mots, cocktail shakers, and dancing all night. Or all day. The violent North Atlantic could tear ships to pieces, but it never could shake loose of the most brittle glamour.

The Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth 2 (1969) has made the boldest statement of all about the long effort to civilize the North Atlantic. Planned and built after the advent of jet service, it competes with swarms of overseas planes by offering just one thing: a visit to that ephemeral world created over time in the middle of the ocean.

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.

The cabin classes carry over to the assigned dining rooms, which reflect different levels of detail in food and service—and in exclusivity, certainly. In the Queens Grill, where I took my meals, the cadre of waiters required about one day to learn specifically what I like and when (which no one has yet learned in my own household) and after that I barely had to speak to them at all if I didn’t want to, which is possibly the greatest luxury of all. Or it would have been, except that I learned, the second day, that at lunchtime a passenger can order anything in the world for dinner. On successive nights I asked the kitchen to re-create three of the best dishes I’d ever had in Europe: one Spanish, one Russian, one Swedish. And they did so, flawlessly.

Transatlantic liners are famous, above all else, for serving delicious dishes in vast quantities. They always served a lot of food, even in Steerage, but for years the overall quality didn’t vary enough from the fare that someone dismissed in 1908, only a little unfairly, as, “a shrine of Brussels sprouts and plain boiled potatoes.” Then, in the late 1920s, the French Line asserted itself with the Île de France , not a big ship or a fast one (the Normandie would be both, a few years later), but a “chichi” ship. For years liners had copied established styles in decoration. The Île de France was so crisply drawn in the Art Moderne style that on this side of the Atlantic, the Art Deco movement copied it . The ship featured an indoor promenade pretending to be a Parisian boulevard, and against that background it naturally had to serve gourmet cuisine. Other liners were obliged to keep up, proffering mountains of superb food. That’s still, on the QE2 , an incongruous enough idea to be enthralling: You can have practically all the caviar you want! In my case that happens to be none, but the thought is in the air.

I traveled to England on a jet plane, changing continents and having a nap, only to turn around and come back on an ocean liner.

The captain of the ship on the crossing, Keith Stanley, presided over a number of receptions, including one that I attended early in the crossing. He seemed a genial and alert man, with the direct manner of an executive rather than the bluff one would expect of a sea captain. I wondered who actually did get to sit at the captain’s table, and I found out the next day at lunch. Wearing a baseball hat and a sweatshirt, too disgraceful for the Queens Grill, I wandered down to a cafeteria known as the Lido and found I was inching along in the buffet line next to Captain and Mrs. Stanley. They were neither working the crowd nor actively inspecting the personnel; they seemed to be perusing the hot entrées. Without much suavité at all, I think I could have swept along with them to a table, leaving all the Lido to speculate who the (slovenly) dignitary was who got to sit at the captain’s table. But it was better by far to glimpse the city at sea as a village where a man can take some time off and have lunch with his wife. Later, at yet another reception, I spoke to Mrs. Stanley, who told me that her husband had been orphaned as a child and joined a merchant ship as a teenager. He became a captain before switching to a posting as a junior officer with the Cunard Line in the middle of his career, then worked his way up again to master the flagship, Queen Elizabeth 2 .


I was invited to visit the ship’s bridge at noon on the third day out. And I blame the spell of the vessel and the sublime selfishness that it instills for the fact that I was late, having opted to watch the end of an old movie before sauntering up, and up, to the bridge about eight minutes after the hour. “You could have blown the noon whistle,” one of the junior officers said. “It’s an honor.” From the philosophic point of view, the noon whistle, out in the middle of the ocean, could actually be at eight after. But the bridge was a serious place with plenty of other amusements. In the heyday of steamships British officers had the reputation of standing outside in the weather, rather than remaining behind windows, and the QE2 is designed for that proclivity, with “bridge wings” extending off the bridge on either side. The bridge itself is spacious, and the instrumentation surprisingly simple.

Because the date happened to be April 14, and because we were standing there scanning the North Atlantic Ocean, the conversation turned to icebergs.

Before the wars, at the height of transatlantic traffic—plump years like 1907, when more than a million Steerage passengers were desperate to come to America and almost a hundred thousand First and Second Class passengers were just as desperate to get out for a few months —American ships held almost no part of the business. Other nations, such as Holland and France, offered limited service; still, the impetus belonged to the British and the Germans. It would be as if, today, British Airways and Lufthansa flew all the jumbo jets to Europe, while perhaps one U.S. airline had a propeller flight a few times a week. The only real U.S. stake was indirect: In 1902 I. P. Morgan had pulled together a conglomerate of shipping lines that included White Star, a company nonetheless operated and regulated by the British. In 1911, flush with American capital, White Star launched its second new superliner in as many years, the RMS Titanic .

After that ship hit an iceberg and sank, over the night of April 14, 1912, Americans realized that by ceding control of the transatlantic trade, the country had also ceded responsibility for American lives to countries with lesser standards. As a result of legislation enacted after the tragedy, any boat using an American port had to adhere to U.S. laws regarding safety equipment and procedures. In particular, a ship had to carry enough lifeboats for everyone—not 1,178 out of 2,228; not 94 percent of the First Class women and children and only 47 percent of the Steerage ones; not for Bruce Ismay, president of White Star, and only a quarter of the people who worked for him on board, but for everyone.

The chief officer on duty on the bridge of the Queen Elizabeth 2 said that in his years on the transatlantic route he had never seen a single iceberg. Still chastened by the tragedy, ships to this day navigate a course far to the south of the one charted by the Titanic . Among other precautions, the United States and Canada jointly patrol for ice by air. Fog still stops ships on the route. One of the officers told of halting in fog one night, when he was serving on another ship, and the eerie sensation, as the air cleared the next morning, of looking around to see icebergs everywhere.

On my crossing, people dressed beautifully in the evening. Not some people, but all of them. It isn’t that there is a strict dress code; the Queen Elizabeth 2 just naturally commands a certain respect, as hardly anything else seems to anymore. I was probably the worst offender, throwing my pea coat over my evening clothes and dashing out whenever a dull spot in the evening gave me a chance to wonder how the sea was looking. The ship offers entertainment of course, most of it a cut above and some downright highbrow, but nothing could compete with the North Atlantic at night and in a good mood. The moon found its way through the clouds and made a perfect spotlight on the water, trying to show things, I thought. Seas so notorious and mean, actually being charming: It would have been surly not to keep company. Yet each night on a full crossing, I was the only person on deck. A $200-million superliner, and it was given over to one person. Sometimes the light made, to my mind, a city far out on the ocean, rising off the water in shafts like buildings and sparkles like windows. Each night, I returned to a comfortable crook in the railing, where it curves around toward the stern of the ship, and leaned back by the hour, watching cities go by. During the day the ocean didn’t play any such games. A freighter went by once, far to the south, and a school of big, porpoiselike fish played around another time, not too far to the north.

The chief officer on duty on the bridge said that in his years on the transatlantic route he had never seen a single iceberg.

Once I saw a passenger jet go by overhead, which gave me a thought. The Standard Steerage accommodation on an ocean liner was described in 1891 by a young Englishman. “Imagine,” he wrote, “a barn-like apartment, dimly lighted and badly ventilated.” Passengers slept in “pens,” measuring fifteen by twelve feet and sleeping sixteen; the food was fair, the sanitation woeful. Steerage was known to be at its best on such British ships, though, and on them it continued to improve through the first part of the century. On lesser lines conditions could be much worse. Sometimes Steerage passengers ate and slept (and were sick) in the same room, with the bunks closely surrounding the dining tables. I can’t imagine. Or I couldn’t until I saw the airplane go by overhead.

The weather on my mid-April crossing was consistently clear, giving each side of the ship a distinctive aura: The south side was sunny and the north side dank. The temperature wasn’t especially cold, but as the ship was making almost forty miles per hour, the constant wind could take on a bite. Personally I was hoping for a storm to test my mettle—Captain Stanley described one that had hit the QE2 two winters ago, when all the furniture in each room piled into the center and stayed there—but the only time the ship tossed, a bit, over the whole crossing, it just made a cocktail party I attended more lively.

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.

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.

By then the sunrise had turned into a morning so bright it scrubbed everything it touched. The morning of all mornings to come to America, the America sprung out of dreams, seeming to be energetic and even wild, sturdy, smart, and most of all, from the rail of the QE2 , generous. A place so generous it will never be finished was waiting for our ship, waiting for me. And the next ship, and the next person to come to America.

As one draws near after days at sea, the very buildings and the bridges give the first welcome, and that was the one they gave on a morning last April.



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