A Mistress At Sea
Richard H. Wagner
(This article is reprinted with permission from the
December 2003 issue of the New York Law
Journal Magazine. © 2003 NLP IP Company.
Further duplication without permission is
prohibited. All rights reserved).
In April 2004, the Queen Elizabeth 2, or QE2 as she is better known, will
disappear as a regular part of the New York scene. For over 30 years, the
graceful lines of the world’s most famous passenger ship routinely could be
seen entering the harbor in the early morning light or heading down the
Hudson in the afternoon sun traveling to destinations around the globe.
She was here for the Statue of Liberty Centennial celebrations, the Columbus
Quintcentennial, the Millennium Fourth of July, and she was the first
passenger ship to enter New York harbor after Sept. 11, 2001.
Now, after five million miles, the ship is to be based in Southampton,
England, only visiting New York on her annual world cruise. In her place
will be the Queen Mary 2, currently nearing completion in France.
I was first captivated by the QE2 in 1969 when I was in high school. My
father, who was in the travel business, arranged for a tour of the new Cunard
ship, which was just finishing her maiden season. She seemed to embody
“Swinging England.” Indeed, hadn’t Ringo Starr just been onboard?
The curving geometric pillars, space-age furniture designs, modern art, and
the bold use of fabrics such as green naugahyde and black leather proclaimed
that this was not granny’s ocean liner. I vowed to travel on her one day but
with college, law school, and then starting to practice, there was no time.
Eventually I realized that if I waited for things to slow down, I would never
travel anywhere. Accordingly, one morning in 1986, I stopped in the Cunard
office on Fifth Avenue and glancing through a brochure I found that the only
sailing that could possibly fit into my schedule was that night. I bought a
ticket, made some arrangements at the office, threw a few things into a bag,
and headed over to the Passenger Ship Terminal.
That was some 70 voyages ago, encompassing nearly 500 days at sea.
At first, the ship was just an interesting way to get to England. However,
over time the QE2 became a destination in itself, with the unique advantage
that she also took me to fascinating places. I’ve been to 28 countries on four
continents plus 10 U.S. cities, all without visiting an airport.
Along the way, there have been TV and film crews, several rescues at sea,
whales and dolphins, tall ship processions, firework displays, two hurricanes,
and an awesome display by a U.S. Navy carrier battle group that we
There was Rod Stewart exercising in the gym, Carly Simon asking for
directions to a restaurant, George Kennedy and Tom Clancy discussing world
affairs at a cocktail party, Ben Kingsley in the lift, and David Bowie
apparently not heeding those passengers who kept saying how much he
looked like David Bowie.
Most memorable, however, are the many friends that I’ve made along the
way. People are very open at sea.
The QE2 is an ocean liner, not merely a cruise ship. An ocean liner is a
passenger ship that is designed to transport passengers rapidly from point A
to point B; a cruise ship is designed for leisurely round-trip voyages. Ocean
liners’ hulls had to be strong in order to meet the rigors of crossing the North
Atlantic - - their traditional function - - and they must have speed.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and the United
States competed for passengers by building a series of luxurious superliners
approximately 1000 feet in length, including the Queen Mary, the Queen
Elizabeth and the Normandie. The QE2 was the last of this series, 963 feet
long and capable of sailing at over 33 knots - - twice the speed of most cruise
For most of her days, QE2 was running for her life. She began service in
1969 just as the ocean liner age was drawing to a close. In 1958, the first
passenger jets crossed the Atlantic cutting the travel time from five days to
six hours. While the steamship companies hoped that air travel was a fad, the
airlines soon had the lion’s share of the market. When the jumbo jets
appeared in the early 1970s, ships slightly older than QE2 went into mothballs
or to the scrap yard.
Market forces required QE2 to adapt constantly in order to survive. By the
time I first traveled on her, little remained of the Swinging England interiors
that had so impressed me in high school.
Over the years, the ship has been redecorated, remodeled, re-engined and
refurbished to keep in step with contemporary notions of luxury and with
advances in technology. More cruises were added to her schedule.
After the success of the movie “Titanic,” the décor was made to echo the
classic ocean liners of the past. Although tastefully done, this was ironic as
one of the things that had saved the ship from following her contemporaries
to the scrap yard was that she was designed not to look like a classic ocean
From time to time, the demands of my law practice have intruded into the
serene world of QE2, but the ship always rose to the challenge. I have
drafted papers in the ship’s library, typed a brief in the Computer Learning
Centre, and practiced oral arguments in her boardroom. During one crisis,
there were so many faxes between my office and the QE2 that the ship’s
radio officer offered to open a private channel on the ship-to-shore satellite
just for my traffic.
QE2 has a very loyal following. There is a cocktail party on each voyage to
reunite past passengers, often with a third of the 1,800 travelers attending.
A regular can walk onboard and be sure to run into friends from previous
voyages. There are people who have made more than 100 voyages on the
QE2, as well as many who have sailed over 1000 days.
There is no one reason why so many people return. The QE2 experience is
different for each person.
Because the ship is so large and the onboard program so varied, she can
accommodate many different interests. No one is forced to do anything and
thus the experience is what you make of it. Moreover, ships have
personalities that are greater than the sum of their accommodations, their
itineraries, and their officers and crew. Thus, even after listing all her
attributes and accomplishments, there is still something indefinable that makes
the QE2 what she is.
The end of the QE2’s New York era will also mark a beginning. After the
QE2 leaves New York for the last time next spring, the new QM2 - - the
largest ocean liner ever built, with a long list of luxurious appointments - -
will make her maiden crossing to New York. As befits the occasion, I’ll be
sailing out on QE2 but returning home on QM2.