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Stormy QE2 Voyage Says Farewell to Steam Era

November 09, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

ABOARD QE2, NORTH ATLANTIC — This is a voyage that writes a new chapter in the history of ocean waters that have been crossed by countless millions of travelers since the earliest Viking explorers.

It is the end of the age of transatlantic passenger travel by steam and the signaling of a new era that will begin April 29 and carry into the 21st Century.

The Queen Elizabeth 2 is the world's only transatlantic liner offering a regular schedule of crossings as distinguished from cruises.

During 1986 it has logged 25 scheduled crossings, with bookings substantially up over 1985 despite world conditions that have drastically reduced tourism from the United States to Europe.

We sailed from New York last month and after our five-day crossing to Southampton, England, the QE2 was to be taken out of service for six months while its steam power is replaced by diesel electric propulsion in the shipyards of Bremerhaven, West Germany.

Rebirth as a Superliner

A gala celebration will then launch a schedule of 26 transatlantic crossings in 1987 and each year thereafter for a passenger ship that will be reintroduced to the world as the 67,139-ton "Superliner of the 21st Century." The British Royal Family is expected to participate in the launching, just as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip did at the original launching in 1969.

The $130-million re-engineering and refurbishment will include such innovations as an international Food Bazaar with food and beverages from around the world, a Country Club at Sea with an electronic golf course simulator, a Golden Door health spa greatly expanded.

Also a shopping arcade of exclusive international boutiques, an IBM Computer Training Center looking ahead to the next century, special deck areas for teen-agers and children, air-conditioned kennels for pets.

Transatlantic fares for the five-day crossing will start at about $1,400 per person, double occupancy, (depending on date of departure and advance booking) and will include a British Airways return ticket from London to 57 U.S. gateway cities, including Los Angeles.

Signing Up for '87

Bookings are already being made for the coming year, some from passengers who have been aboard for the QE2's final crossing under steam. Every cabin has long been booked for this last-of-an-era cruise, with a capacity passenger list of 1,800 and many standbys who were hoping for cancellations that would let them become part of the historic voyage. Among the fortunate passengers who did get a cabin were dedicated veterans of half a dozen or more transatlantic crossings on the QE2.

What is it like to make a transatlantic crossing in late October, or at any season of the year? My wife Elfriede felt we knew something about the range of possibilities before the QE2 pulled out of its Hudson River pier in the sunshine and shadows of late afternoon. But as always on the North Atlantic, there have been surprises.

We knew in advance that this would be a voyage of poignant memories, because as a young merchant seaman I made 26 crossings of the North Atlantic on troop ships, tankers and freighters, with accommodations not exactly up to QE2 standards. Elfriede had crossed as a 12-year-old immigrant, and at her age had been one of the few immigrants aboard who didn't miss a meal.

Water-Borne Whims

The North Atlantic can be totally unpredictable in springtime, summer, autumn or winter, and that is part of the sense of adventure that brings repeat passengers to all of the QE2's transatlantic crossings.

The setting sun was golden on the crown of the Statue of Liberty as the QE2 moved down New York Harbor and out to sea. Ferry passengers snapped cameras at us. Small boats tried to stay abeam as long as possible.

As the world's largest and fastest passenger liner, longer than three football fields and 13 stories high, the QE2 "City at Sea" always generates tremendous spectator interest. A visit to Japan drew 2 million spectators in 1973. Hundreds of thousands turned out to see the liner in Philadelphia in 1982 and Baltimore in 1983.

The heavens were aglow with stars our first October night at sea. The next day the sun was warm enough to fill chairs with sunbathers on sheltered decks. We walked together for a couple of miles along the open decks and the rear deck was calm enough for me to jog.

And then the North Atlantic turned loose its gales.

By Wednesday morning the Atlantic was lashing at us with a turbulence of mounting waves, their crests whipped white by the gale-force winds from a southerly direction.

Lady's Not for Churning

But the motion of the QE2 wasn't the bow-to-stern, beam-to-beam tossing in every direction that I remembered from the Liberty ships or that Elfriede recalled from her North Atlantic crossing on a small passenger vessel.

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