O n 13 January 2008, Cunard Line will debut the latest addition to its fleet in New York harbor.
Escorting the new ship will be maritime celebrities QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 and QUEEN
MARY 2. It will be the first time that three Cunard Queen-class ships will have ever appeared
together. The new ship is designed to build upon the company's traditions and complement
Cunard's existing vessels and, as such, seeks to answer the question of how to expand in a
coherent manner beyond the niche developed and maintained by QE2 and more recently by
QM2 - - a question that has vexed the company since the early 1970s. The Log spoke with
Carol Marlow, President and Managing Director of Cunard, about the new ship, QUEEN
VICTORIA, which is currently under construction at the Fincantieri shipyard outside of Venice,
Defining the Challenge
Cunard is a company with a long and distinguished history and, in order to understand what
Cunard is doing now one has to look at that history. In 1839, Canadian businessman Samuel
Cunard submitted the winning bid for a contract to carry the mail from Britain to America. He
then formed the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, which despite
its catchy name was known almost from the beginning as the "Cunard Line," reflecting its
founder's dominant position in the firm. Cunard then ordered four identical wooden steamships
and the next year, the 207-foot long BRITANNIA embarked on her maiden voyage, arriving in
Boston 12 days later.
BRITANNIA's feat was considered a marvel of the age and there were celebrations both when
she left Liverpool, England, and when she arrived in Boston. The primary cause for the
celebration was that this was the beginning of regularly-scheduled transatlantic mail service.
However, BRITANNIA also carried passengers (63 on the maiden voyage) and thus Cunard
became the first company to provide regularly-scheduled transatlantic passenger service.
Over the course of the next century, the company's focus shifted from the mails to providing
passenger service and Cunard developed a reputation for elegance and good taste. It became
the line for the upper strata of society. To illustrate, America's leading legal thinker and Boston
Brahmin, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., traveled almost exclusively on
Cunard ships ranging from the three-masted paddlewheel steamer PERSIA in 1866 to the first
superliner LUSITANIA in 1913 during his frequent trips to England to socialize with the British
At the same time its reputation for service was growing, Cunard had built a string of increasingly
larger ships that became household names, synonymous with seaworthiness, technological
sophistication, and elegance. This line reached its zenith with the 1,000-foot superliners QUEEN
MARY (1936) and QUEEN ELIZABETH (1940). In the post-war period, these ships
captured the public imagination as embodying the height of ocean liner travel.
While Cunard made its reputation ferrying passengers across the Atlantic, it was also a cruise
line, taking people on leisurely vacations around the world. These early cruises were done
primarily by ocean liners in between transatlantic voyages. Later, the line sought to get a few
more years of service out of liners such as the MAURETANIA that had become obsolete on the
Atlantic run by devoting them to cruises. However, in 1949, Cunard introduced the CARONIA,
which was designed primarily for luxury cruising. This service proved so popular that Cunard
soon converted and up-graded two of the smaller liners it had used in providing transatlantic
service between England and Canada into dedicated cruise ships, which were renamed
CARMANIA and FRANCONIA. Cunard was at the top of the hill in the passenger ship
Then came the passenger jet in the late 1950s and everything started to go downhill. Within a
decade, the transatlantic market had dried up to such an extent that the two giant Queens were
sailing nearly empty. Similarly, people no longer seemed interested in CARONIA's long leisurely
cruises. The only bright spot was the Bermuda and Caribbean cruises provided on
CARMANIA and FRANCONIA.
Cunard's first planned response was to replace the two aging and high cost Queens with a
modernized Queen-class liner referred to as "Q3". However, that plan was dropped in favor of
a dual purpose ship, capable of transatlantic crossings and cruising. "Q4" would incorporate the
latest technology and both inside and outside the ship would be a dazzling display of 1960s'
design. Cunard desperately wanted to get away from its "stuffy old" ocean liner image and
appeal to the swinging youth movement. The finished product was QUEEN ELIZABETH 2,
with unprecedented curving lines in her bow and superstructure, Naugahyde furniture and
space-age interior pillars. (Over the years, QE2 has been refitted many times, each time taking
on more of the ocean liner traditions and style so that little remains today of her 1960s
In order to finance the building of QE2, Cunard had to sell almost all of its existing fleet. As a
result, when QE2 came into service in 1969, the only other ship in the fleet was FRANCONIA.
While both ships were popular, a major problem with having such a small fleet is that all of the
costs of the shoreside operations (management, sales, tickets, logistics etc.) have to be borne by
a very small revenue-producing base. This puts upward pressure on prices and reduces the
ability to respond to competition.
While there was a clear need to expand the fleet, Cunard had no resources to do so. As a result,
it was purchased by the British engineering firm Trafalgar House Ltd. in 1971. Trafalgar House
was on the way to becoming a conglomerate with extensive holdings in the leisure industry.
Amongst other things, it planned to use the Cunard name, which is much better known in Britain
than in the U.S., in marketing a series of properties including golf resorts and conference centers
in Britain. It also provided the capital needed to expand the Cunard fleet.
Unfortunately, during the Trafalgar House years, no one developed a coherent strategy for
expanding the fleet. There was QE2 but the cost of building another such ship was prohibitive
and, in any event, there was always the question of whether there was enough of a market to
support one transatlantic liner much less two. In contrast, new companies such as Carnival
Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, were demonstrating that there was a
demand for mass market cruising. This indicated to Cunard management that, putting QE2 to
one side, the future for the company lay in mass market cruising.
At about this time, there was a revolution in passenger ship design that appeared to confirm the
direction management was embarking upon. Up until then, cruise ships looked like smaller
versions of ocean liners, with long narrow bows and a low superstructure. However, in the early
1970s, beginning with Royal Caribbean's NORDIC PRINCE, cruise ships began to look very
different. Since they were intended for sailing in relatively clam waters such as the Caribbean
they did not need the attributes of a ship intended for crossing grey water. The bows could be
much shorter and blunter and the superstructure could be much higher so as to maximize the
passenger space. Thus, there became a distinction between ocean liners like QE2 and cruise
ships. Although cruise ships have became more popular, ocean liners are still considered more
Cunard purchased two small cruise ships designed for the mass market in 1971. A fire in 1974
rendered one unfit for service and the other was sold in 1976. They were replaced by two
slightly larger mass-market ships, CUNARD COUNTESS and CUNARD PRINCESS, that
achieved some popularity in Britain during the 1980s doing Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises.
By the 1980s, Cunard realized that there was something fundamentally schizophrenic about a line
that is renown for luxury service offering mass market cruises. Therefore, the decision was
made to target the upscale cruise business. Cunard did this by acquiring Norwegian-American
Line in 1983, which gave Cunard the mid-sized cruise ships SAGAFJORD (1965) and
VISTAFJORD (1973). Three years later, Cunard acquired Sea Goddess Cruises, which
yielded the luxury yachts SEA GODDESS I and SEA GODDESS II. In 1994, Cunard acquired
Royal Viking Line and obtained the ROYAL VIKING SUN.
This string of acquisitions gave Cunard a sizeable fleet. However, it was an incoherent polyglot.
There was QE2, one of the largest ships in service at the time, and the small Sea Goddess
yachts. Cunard was the quintessential British line but three of its larger ships were commanded
by and run by Norwegians. And, there still were the two mass market cruise ships. Cunard was
a company in search of a direction.
At one point, the idea of building another ship like QE2 was mooted and some plans for Q5
reportedly were drawn. However, the cost and questions about the size of the market remained.
Little consideration seemingly was given to the fact that in addition to transatlantic service QE2
was providing popular occasional cruises, thus indicating that there might be a market for cruises
done in the style of QE2.
In 1995, management once again looked at the mass market and decided to increase its
presence in that market by entering into an arrangement to market and run three ships owned by
Crown Cruise Line. Again, the ships achieved some success with British tourists but never
caught on in America.
During the 1990s, Cunard's parent company, Trafalgar House, experienced some setbacks and
was taken over by the Norwegian Kvaerner Group in 1996. Although amongst its various
activities was building cruise ships, Kvaerner had no interest in operating them and Cunard was
put up for sale.
By Richard H. Wagner
(Originally published by the Navy League of the United
States, New York Council in The Log, Summer 2007).
An artist's impression of QUEEN VICTORIA leaving
Venice, Italy where she was constructed by
Fincantieri. (Courtesy of Cunard)
Cruise ship article - Cunard line - Building Upon Tradition