Saving a Great British Icon

     Nearly seven years after her last voyage as an operational ocean liner, the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 is still one of the most famous vessels in the world.

     Launched by Her Majesty the Queen in 1967, she sailed on her maiden voyage to New York in 1969 into an uncertain future as ships like her were no longer the primary means of traveling in the age of air travel. Indeed, the Cunard Line, her owner gambled almost everything on her to save it from extinction in the face of this new reality that had seen the transatlantic ocean liner market virtually collapse in less than a generation since the end of World War II.

     Despite the odds against it however, the QE2 – as she quickly and popularly became known – went on the sail the seas for nearly 40 years. With her revolutionary design, she was able to be flexible as a transatlantic ocean liner between Southampton and New York in the summer and as a cruise ship in warmer waters (including an annual world cruise) during the winter months – allowing her to make money virtually year-around for Cunard and remain commercially viable through much of her career.

QE2 in Trondheim, Norway - June 2008
(Credit: Trondheim Havn Wikipedia Commons cc)

     Throughout that illustrious career, she carried many over 2.5 million passengers – from the well-known (including royalty, presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and celebrities) to people of modest means who would only make one passage aboard QE2 in their lifetime. All were treated to unparalleled and sophisticated luxury aboard a ship that carried the legacy of the great Atlantic liners that had come before her, and she developed a solid reputation for reliability and comfort – setting a standard against which other ships were compared.

     Along the way, she made 806 transatlantic crossings and sailed 6 million miles. This included the period during which she served her country in the Falkland’s War as a troop transport (just as her predecessors had done in the previous world wars). In addition, she was the longest-serving liner in Cunard’s history, as well as its longest-serving flagship. On top of that, the QE2 was the fastest operating passenger vessel until her retirement.

     That retirement came when the QE2 was sold to Dubai World for $100 million and sailed there in November 2008, where she was supposed to be converted into a floating hotel like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. However, at the time when QE2 was purchased in 2007, the property boom was at its height, and by the time of her arrival over a year later, the global economy was on a downward trend, and this seriously affected the QE2’s prospects in Dubai. Since then, no conversion work has been done on her, and all long-term plans for use of the ship have fallen through.

RMS Queen Mary as a floating hotel, convention center, and maritime museum in Long Beach, California (Credit: Christopher Finot via Wikimedia Commons cc)

     Up until two years ago, she was very visible and well-kept at a berth in Dubai with her engines and internal power systems still running as if ready to head back out to sea again. In 2009, she was drydocked and her hull was cleaned and given a fresh coat of paint, which raised prospects of sunny days ahead. However, the engines have been since turned off, and without them, the ship has been left to bake in the desert sun of the Middle East – with mold and mildew now making themselves present. Worse, she has been placed into a rather nondescript area with tankers and cargo ships, and the latest photos show her looking derelict and forlorn – as if she is being deliberately left to rot. Other photos, including those with workers roasting pigs near the swimming pools, have only confirmed the languishing state in which the former flagship of the British merchant fleet finds herself.

     Rob Lightbody, the founder The QE2 Story – a website dedicated to preserving the memory of the great vessel and to raising awareness to save it – told The Scotsman: “Nothing has happened to it in the last two and a half years. There’s no power. There’s no air. She’s filthy.”

     Dubai meanwhile have been frustratingly silent on the fate of this much-beloved ship. Having promised to be faithful stewards of the QE2 from the outset – with an ambitious plan for her going forward – they have all but signaled that they are no longer interested in what was once supposed to be the crown jewel of their Palm Jumeriah development. This lack of interest is only ripe for them to want to be rid of what has now become a liability, and by any means if necessary, which obviously means the scrapyard.

     However, there are those who are adamant on not allowing this to happen, and have been working to get the QE2 returned home to the United Kingdom, where she undoubtedly belongs. But then, where should she go?

     With regard to suitable locations in the UK for QE2 to enjoy her retirement, I believe Greencock, Southampton, Liverpool, and London should be considered in that order.

     Why Greenock at the top? Well, the QE2 was built on the River Clyde – specifically at the John Brown shipyard in Clydebank (just to the west of Glasgow), where many other Cunarders were also built, and the wharf where those great liners were fitted out is still there. This would make it a suitable location, were it not for the Erskine Bridge that was built downriver from Clydebank in 1971 after the QE2 had been constructed. It has a clearance of 148 feet, which is not high enough for the QE2 – 171 feet tall from the water line – to sail under, unless her iconic funnel and mast where removed and replaced upon her arrival at the old Brown’s yard.

Hull 736 on the stocks at John Brown's in Clydebank before her launch as Queen Elizabeth 2.
(© Copyright James Allan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

     Barring that unlikely scenario, Greenock at the mouth of the Clyde would be the next best option. It was where the QE2 was drydocked for the final stages of her construction and fitting out, and she visited the area in 2007 for the 40th anniversary of her launch and in 2008 during her farewell tour of the UK before sailing off to Dubai.

     In addition, Stephen McCabe, the council leader of Inverclyde (which contains Greencock) pointed out the reception received by the RMS Queen Mary 2 – Cunard’s current flagship and now the only operating ocean liner in the world – when she visited the area along the lower Clyde a few weeks ago to celebrate Cunard’s 175th anniversary. Even though she was not Clyde-built like her predecessors – starting with the first Cunarder Britannia – in many ways, there was a spiritual connection because of the generations of Cunarders that have been built there.

     Many other vessels have been built along the Clyde as well, and the area has also been a major port of entry for maritime trade – so much so, that at one point, Glasgow was considered the second city of the British Empire. During World War II, the Clyde also played host as a strategic landing point for hundreds of thousands of American and Canadian servicemen who were to take part in the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied continental Europe. Many of those people sailed across the Atlantic courtesy of the Clyde-built steamers Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, each of whom were converted to carry over 15,000 people at a time, and for their extraordinary contribution to the war effort, they were commended by Prime Minister Winston Churchill for shortening the war by a year or more.

Queen Mary arriving in New York carrying thousands of serviceman home following the
end of World War II. To this day, she retains the record for the most souls ever carried aboard a
single vessel: 16,683 (including crew) on a crossing from New York to Greenock in July 1943.

(Credit: Public Domain)

     With this heritage in mind, Councillor McCabe said to The Telegraph that “it is clear that the QE2 could be a major draw for visitors to Inverclyde and Scotland. It could also boost the promotion of the Clyde and Inverclyde’s proud maritime history to a national and, potentially, international audience.”

     The next logical location for the great liner would be Southampton, her home port for 40 years. This city was proud of having the ship carry its name around the world to various locations – providing it with an exposure that it otherwise might not have had. The people living there treated the QE2 as a semi-permanent landmark – a point of local pride that had a global reach, and they gave the vessel a fitting send-off in 2008 when she departed for the last time. For them, the loss of the QE2 was more than a loss of a ship; it was like the loss of a long-time neighbor and friend – a void left unfilled.

     Southampton is still a major working port, with ships – including modern cruise liners, ferries, and cargo vessels – arriving and departing every day. It is also ancient, having hosted many ships throughout its history, including greatest ocean liners in the world – such as the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Aquitania, and Olympic. The city is particularly known for its connection to the Titanic, since it was the port from which the doomed White Star liner sailed on its maiden and only voyage in 1912.

RMS Titanic casting off from Southampton on April 10, 1912.

     With this rich maritime heritage, Southampton is a suitable location for a vessel that will do more than its bit to celebrate that heritage and to further enhance it.

     Liverpool meanwhile, does not have the substantial links to the QE2 as the River Clyde or Southampton. Liverpool was not its home port, and nor was it the place of its birth. However, Liverpool is in many ways, the QE2’s spiritual home – being the long-time base of operations for the Cunard Line, and it was in Liverpool where the QE2 was conceived and designed. Today, the Cunard Building still stands alongside the Liver Building and Port of Liverpool Building at Pier Head along the River Mersey. These buildings – collectively known as the Three Graces – dominate the Liverpool skyline and stand as a testimate to Liverpool’s own heritage as a significant maritime and trading port.

     Like Southampton, Liverpool was also connected to maritime tragedy – being the port where the Cunarder Lusitania was destined to arrive just over a century ago on May 7, 1915, but was torpedoed by a German U-boat that morning and sank off the coast of Ireland during World War I.

The Three Graces of Liverpool, with the Cunard Building in the middle.
(Credit: Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons cc)

     In addition to its association with the Cunard Line, Liverpool also hosted the headquarters of other shipping companies, most notably Cunard’s arch-rival, the White Star Line, whose old offices still stand at 30 James Street. As such, Liverpool was also the port of registry (the official home port) of the Titanic, as well as that of many other ships from Cunard and White Star – although both companies had moved their main terminus to Southampton by the 1920’s.

     By the time QE2 was built, the city was not even included as the official home port with “Liverpool” written across the stern (rear) of the ship, for Southampton had taken precedence when Cunard moved its headquarters there. Nevertheless, Cunard did recognize their shared heritage with the city by sending her there nine times over the course of her 40 year career. Most recently, the company’s latest edition of its fleet – the Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth were all in Liverpool to celebrate its 175th anniversary from the time when Canadian-born entrepreneur Samuel Cunard founded it.

     With these facts in mind, it is clear to see why the first three cities I have mentioned should have a clear shot at being the new home of the QE2. In contrast, London has virtually no connection to the QE2 – not even a one-off visit from the ship. There is nothing against London in my bones, but it simply does not have the same status with regard to the QE2 as Greenock, Southampton, and Liverpool – not even close to it, but it is included in the conversation in part because of its status as Britain’s capital city, as well as a world city that is a prime tourist destination.

     In addition QE2 London – an organization that is working to get the QE2 permanently berthed along the Thames – have been promoting their proposals since 2012, which are already well-developed and involve placing the vessel near the O2 Arena on the east side of the city. Its project manager is John Chillingworth, a former chief engineer with Cunard who worked aboard QE2 for 20 years. He was also the general manager tasked with overseeing the conversion of the ship in Dubai before those plans were shelved, and has estimated that £100million would be needed to purchase the ship, return it home, and transform her into a 530-room hotel and entertainment center.

A mock-up of the QE2 berthed across from the O2 Arena along the Thames in London.
(Credit: QE2 London)

     Chillingworth is also open to the idea of bringing the ship to Liverpool or Clydeside – stating that feasibility studies have shown that all of them could house the vessel with a potential return on investment towards the end of 10 years.

     Given the dire circumstances however, it may be unproductive to be too picky on where the Queen Elizabeth 2 ought to be located. Any of the places mentioned, including London, are infinitely better than where she is right now – in a location for which she was not designed for long periods of time, where her needs and maintenance are neglected by people who were looking to make a quick buck, and are now probably all too happy to get rid of her by any means necessary.

     In contrast, at any location within the United Kingdom, she will be welcomed back into the country where she was built, where was home-ported, and whose flag she flew. She will be treasured and cherished by people who care about her and will care for her, and I’m sure there may even be some people who will gladly volunteer to help bring back the ship to her prime condition.

     Some people will say that as unfortunate as it may be, it is probably time to let the great liner go and be scrapped. After all they say – with justification – that we cannot expect to save all the ocean liners that have ever been built, and the brute reality is that when a ship reaches the end of its intended use of sailing on the high seas, its only realistic destination is the scrap yard. As the last captain of the Queen Mary said upon the great liner departing New York for the last time in 1967: “Ships, like [human beings], have a time limit, and they day must come when we go.”

     However, the Queen Elizabeth 2 is different, and ought to be an exception to the rule. For 40 years, she sailed across the waves representing the best of Britain to the world with a standard of luxury, comfort, style, and class that made her stand out amongst her contemporaries. Many a passenger has said that upon boarding the QE2, they knew what to expect from such an illustrious vessel and were always impressed, especially by the service rendered aboard – whether it was on a transatlantic crossing or a cruise in tropical areas. When people saw the QE2 – as I did in New York several times – they did not have to ask name of the ship, for she was that distinctive from the rest of the pack.

RMS Queen Mary 2 in Southampton. She is a fabulous liner in her own right and carries on the traditions of her predecessors, but unlike them, does not carry the distinction of being British-built.
(Credit: Barry Skeates via Flickr cc)

     The result is that she one of Britain’s best-known exports to the world.  More fundamentally, as John Chillingworth has pointed out, not only is she the “best known ship in the world and an important part of British maritime history”, but she is also the last British-built passenger liner, and that alone makes her special and worth saving. It is why a location along the Clyde is preferable, for while she is a British national treasure, she was built in Scotland, and is also the Pride of the Clyde – the last of a long line of ocean liners built on the river, and the embodiment of generations of shipbuilding heritage.

     Chillingworth has said that if Scots can but pressure on Dubai and raise funding for an organization similar to his in London, he “would welcome the opportunity to assist them as our ultimate aim is to save the ship and provide a viable future for her.”

     Whichever way it goes for the QE2 in the UK, it is likely that help from the government – financially and otherwise – will be needed.

     Council leader Stephen McCabe of Inverclyde has said: “Bringing the QE2 home is a herculean task, one that requires national support in Scotland and perhaps across the UK, if it has any chance of happening.” Meanwhile, Stuart McMillan, an MSP for the West of Scotland region, said that several agencies and governing institutions would have to work together, including the “Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise, Inverclyde Council, and Clydeport”, and like McCabe, he is looking to the potential for a boost in tourism and economic development that would “generate more jobs for the area and restore a key part of Scotland’s maritime heritage to Inverclyde.”

RMS Queen Elizabeth - the largest passenger liner built in the United Kingdom.
(Credit: Public Domain)

     In addition to writing to appropriate people and public bodies in Britain, Councillor McCabe has also said that Inverclyde intends to ask Dubai for an assessment on the situation, where the government, according to Chillingworth, have “advised that they are considering their options.”

     As a person who has a passion for the great ocean liners, it is enormously heartbreaking to see what is happening to the QE2, and it would be even more depressing to see her taken away to a beach in Asia to be ignominiously scrapped as the last of her kind.

     In America, we have our own iconic vessel, the SS United States, which like the QE2 was the national flagship and a source of national pride. The “Big U” – as she became known – became the fastest passenger ship ever built when she crossed the Atlantic in just over three days on her maiden voyage in 1952 and beat the Queen Mary’s best time by 10 hours. However like many other vessels, the Big U fell victim to the advent of even faster air travel, and she was withdrawn from service in November 1969. Since then, she has passed through several owners – all of them with plans to resuscitate the ship which have fallen though, and now she is tied up along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and like the QE2, is facing uncertain future.

SS United States
(Credit: The Hartford Guy via Flickr cc)

     Both Britain and America have rich seafaring traditions which ought to be celebrated and cherished. This is true for Britain in particular because of it being an island nation dependent on overseas trade throughout the world.

     For this reason, it ought to be imperative that both ships be saved. In the QE2’s case, there needs to be cooperation between the UK Government, private entities, individuals, and the governing institutions and agencies of the areas that are willing to berth the ship – whether it be in Greenock, Southampton, Liverpool, or London. Indeed, if it is possible, perhaps all of the places that had a connection to the QE2 ought to have a stake in the ship, regardless of where she ends up in the UK. Going further, she can be a great national project for the UK in terms of restoring her to her former glory and making her both a symbol of what Britain was able to go at one time, and a symbol of what it can do going forward.

RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 on her last visit to the Clyde in 2008.
Dave Souza via Wikimedia Commons cc)

     Time is running out for the QE2, and there is the real possibility that she will be scrapped, and if that were to happen, I cannot help but to believe that the UK will have lost a part of itself in the process. Bringing her back will not be easy, and will require the cooperation and good faith of many people and organizations. But with help from all stakeholders and the wider public, she – a great British icon, the pride of the Clyde built in Scotland – can be returned home to a more happy and glorious future.


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