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World's Most Famous Ocean Liner Sets Sails for the 21st Century

July 12, 1987|SHIRLEY SLATER and HARRY BASCH | Slater and Basch are Los Angeles free-lance writers.

Nobody said it was going to be easy, even for the world's most famous ship. But Cunard's beleaguered Queen Elizabeth 2, hit in fewer than four weeks with a couple of tough blows that would have sent a lesser vessel reeling, has survived nicely. All she needs to sail smoothly into the 21st Century is to straighten her tiara and rearrange her robes.

The dowager ocean liner, launched in 1969 by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, recently underwent a six-month, $160-million renovation in the Lloyd Werft Shipyards in Bremerhaven, West Germany.

Although some cosmetic work was scheduled, the primary purpose was to change from steam turbines to less-costly diesel electric engines, adding speed as well as efficiency and making the irreplaceable 67,000-ton ship capable of service well into the first quarter of the next century.

The re-engine procedure has already proved successful, according to Capt. Lawrence Portet, with the ship showing "greatly increased maneuverability; she's much easier to handle." Oil consumption is reduced dramatically, he says, and "normal cruising speed now is the previous top, 29.5 knots."

Union Contract Ended

Less publicized when the ship went into dry dock last November was the termination of its British maritime union contract, allowing Cunard to reduce operating costs by hiring non-union staff and crew, which ruffled some feathers among British labor.

Then came a wash of negative publicity in early May from the ship's first sailing after its refit, where some passengers complained of unfinished staterooms, erratic air conditioning and leaking water pipes.

The grumbling aboard the charismatic vessel made newspaper headlines and TV and radio newscasts around the world, despite the fact that such problems are commonplace on shakedown voyages.

Hindsight suggests that Cunard may have been overly optimistic in setting out with a shipload of full-fare passengers, a not-quite-finished refit and a goodly sprinkling of brand-new waiters and stewards.

Perhaps if those first passengers had been given a modest discount up front and told that work would continue on board en route to New York, it might have alleviated some of the complaints, along with the costly 40% rebate that was ultimately awarded.

No sooner were all the physical problems settled in late May, on a New York-to-Southampton crossing, than a storm that seemed to spring full-blown out of nowhere buffeted the ship for 16 hours with gale winds of up to 50 m.p.h. The winds registered Force 10 on the Beaufort scale and left in their wake smashed dishes and glassware, spilled vases and planters, broken lounge tables and even upturned grand pianos.

Worst Storm Ever

For those of us on board, the storm, with its 37-foot seas, was the most severe we could remember--longtime crew members termed it the worst they had experienced since 1971--and yet the QE2 rode it out impressively with Portet, a 41-year Cunard veteran who has spent a large part of his working life on the North Atlantic, in command.

The ship's officers, staff and entertainers did their utmost to keep passengers safe and comfortable. Pianist Leonard Pennario went on in concert as scheduled in the waning hours of the storm, playing a Steinway grand that had been lashed to the side of the stage in the 500-seat theater, and Broadway composer Charles Strouse ("Annie," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Applause") stood in for French composer Michel Legrand in an evening lounge show.

The stiff-upper-lip attitude was especially noticeable at the height of the storm in the Queens Grill, where unflappable British waiters served breakfasts of fresh-squeezed orange juice and hot bacon and eggs. And between bouts of vacuuming up spilled sugar and wetting down tablecloths to keep dishes from sliding, apologized that the full menu selection was not available that morning.

Now that both storm and shakedown have passed into history, passengers making crossings later this summer or fall--or booking Caribbean or world cruise segments this winter--will find the ship looking better than it has in a long time.

Dining Rooms Refurbished

All four dining rooms have been refurbished, with the most dramatic transformation in the transatlantic class dining room--formerly known as Tables of the World, now the Mauretania--where a soft pink-and-rose color scheme and mirror-trimmed Art Deco design have been installed, along with a huge oil painting and scale model of Cunard's gracious pre-World War I ship, the Mauretania.

Harkening back to the elegance of that earlier day, both the Mauretania and the pretty, rose-colored Columbia restaurant have added dinner-dancing on certain evenings. The first-class Queens Grill sparkles with chic, its original black-and-white decor restored, its walls adorned with silver-framed Erte prints.

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