Sunday, February 17, 2019

RMS Queen Mary

Three years ago I married the love of my life and together we took our honeymoon in the United States, the first week would be in San Francisco and the second on board the liner Queen Mary. Now this liner has always been at the top of my list of places to visit and for some very good reasons - for this liner is not only historic but a legend in the history of ocean-going travel.

In the days when the luxury liners were the only way to travel for the upper class and the only way to emigrate to a foreign land for those who had saved up all their earnings, the ships of the early part of the 20th Century were becoming floating palaces and record breakers. After the Cunard Line launched the Lusitania and Mauritania followed by White Star Line introducing Olympic and Titanic it became a race against the clock to cross the Atlantic and win the coveted Blue Riband, an award given for the fastest crossing. But following the sinking of both Titanic and Lusitania within a few years of each other led to both companies being hit hard and safety recommendations changing life at sea permanently.

Fast forward to the 1930s and we have ship number 534 at John Brown & Co shipyard at Clydebank, a huge hull that was kept under wraps until she was named Queen Mary and launched on 26 September 1934. She made her maiden voyage on 27 May 1936 from Southampton bound for New York, although she did not win the trophy she did wow the crowds, the newspapers following her every move. It would only be a matter of months before she held this record though and celebrated the fastest crossing in August 1936. This was a time of great difficulty around the world in the Great Depression, both White Star Line and Cunard becoming one company and therefore Queen Mary was a "Cunard White Star Liner" vessel. (Later White Star Line would be completely dropped and the company remaining just Cunard.) She made her headlines for the right reasons and quickly became a favourite with the film stars, royalty and celebrities alike.

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939 she was put into service as a transport vessel and carried thousands of troops in every crossing - her record being over 15,000 troops as well as her crew, which is still held to this day for the amount of people carried on one vessel. With her hull painted grey she earned the nickname "Grey Ghost" which must have been quite a sight seeing this huge ship coming out of a foggy patch!

It was during this time of her career that a very unfortunate and deadly accident occurred. During a voyage east towards the UK carrying thousands of troops she was in close proximity to the cruiser HMS Curacoa. The date was 2nd October 1942 and it was one that would not be spoken about for many years. At some point the Queen Mary slammed into the midships of the smaller warship and sliced her in half, as the crew fought for their lives in the water the liner had no choice but to proceed towards her destination - there was a a reward for any U-boat captain who could sink this ship especially if it took out this many soldiers in one go! Thankfully the escorting warships picked up around 100 survivors, but 337 others lost their lives. This disaster was covered up until after the war due to the effect on morale and never letting the enemy have such valuable information as the loss of a ship by accident. A later investigation blamed the cruiser for the collision.

After the war the Queen Mary continued her life as a transatlantic liner but as the years ticked by it became apparent that less people were making the transatlantic journey when aircraft could take them to their destination in just a few hours. With her sister ship Queen Elizabeth they became holiday cruise ships, but as the 1960s saw an increase in the jet airliners the passengers for these great ships became fewer and fewer. Operating at a loss Cunard realised that the only sensible business thing to do was to sell the ships. Queen Elizabeth was purchased by CY Tung to be used as a floating university, unfortunately this was never to be as she caught fire in Hong Kong in 1972 and sank.

But for Queen Mary her life would continue but not as ships usually are. She was sold to the town of Long Beach in California and she made her 1000th crossing to her final destination where she was refitted as a hotel and museum, opening in 1971. Over the years the ship has featured exhibitions, festivals, parties, weddings to name just a few. She is loved still the world over and remains the only example of a liner from this period - the rest being scrapped or sunk.

In February 2016 with excitement brewing my wife and I arrived at this magnificent ship and was immediately in awe at the size of the hull. Seeing modern day cruise liners leaving Southampton I was actually expecting Queen Mary to be smaller to look at but I was surprised to find that she looked huge. The next week was spent exploring the ships and taking every tour possible (yes including the ghost ones - it had to be done to see some of the closed off areas). The entire ship is oozing with history, with original fans in the cabins, plaques and information boards, photographs of her heyday, swing music quietly playing out of speakers around the decks. Being run as a hotel the service was fantastic, the main ship tour was not only historically accurate and full of detail but the guide, James (pictured here), was a funny guy who somehow kept a serious face when telling his wisecracks! He made the tour memorable with the things he said and how he said them, I recommend checking out some of the YouTube videos with him in, if you are reading this James - thank you and keep up the good work!

I have always had a love for this ship, photos and souvenirs adorning my house of a time that we both wont forget. I'd love to return back to Queen Mary and see what new things have been added - the Diana exhibition has now closed and will most likely be replaced with something just as fascinating and hopefully they will continue to open parts of the ship up to tourists that have previously been off limits.

What did surprise me though was there was NO mention whatsoever of the Curacoa disaster. Perhaps using one of the disused spaces as a memorial chapel to the hundreds who died may be a good idea but they certainly shouldn't be forgotten. Like it or not this incident is now a piece of this ship's history and is already well known about now. Over the years since the ship was built 50 people have died and a list appears on the walls of one of the exhibits at the stern.

Over the years the ship has corroded and there is currently a plan in place to bring the ship back up to standard but as with any preservation of a historic relic - especially one of this size - it will take time. But while there are still fans of this amazing ship still ready and willing to care for her she will have a long life and continue to amaze her modern day passengers, long after she had sailed her last voyage.

1 comment:

  1. SS United States is still around, though in poor condition and with no interior, though she does have her machinery still, which unfortunately Mary doesn't.
    Rotterdam - berthed as a hotel in Rotterdam - is also a steam ship from the era. Hikawa Maru in Japan is a museum ship.