THIS NOBLE SHIP – the ELIZABETH in Florida by Gordon R. Ghareeb
It was over. The sterling 28-year career of the biggest ship the world had yet seen was grinding its way to a forlorn and ignoble end. She had steamed more than 3,500,000 miles, carried over 2,300,000 passengers and had made 879 peace-time crossings of the tumultuous North Atlantic. The QUEEN ELIZABETH – final bastion of the postwar seagoing British Empire and all that it once stood for – was being warped into her moorings at berth 24 and 25 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Lifeless, without passengers and manned by a skeleton crew of only 194 members, her arrival was not unlike a well-attended circus parade. The curious turned out to see the majesty of what had once been, the hopeful to envision what might become, and the enterprising to turn a reckless profit as quickly as possible.
The death knell had been sounded for the giant Cunard Line flagship on January 31, 1968 when the announcement was made public that retirement of the QUEEN ELIZABETH was scheduled for that November. Even though $3,750,000 had just been spent by her owners for her modernization in 1966 with the intention of keeping her in passenger service at least until 1975, the ship was sold on April 5th for $7,752,000 to a Philadelphia triumvirate of Professor Harold Hill wannabe businessmen with the dubious reputation of laundering retirement and pension funds from the Teamster’s Union to refurbish the famous Drake Hotel near Independence Hall.
The initial conceptualization for the QUEEN ELIZABETH was to be a new 150-acre tourist complex on the Delaware River adjacent to Philadelphia’s Hog Island consisting of a marina, a museum, shops and hotels as well as convention and recreational facilities. The theme of the park was the be the “Modern Wonders of the World” having recreations of the first seven dotted about the $25,000,000 compound with the QUEEN ELIZABETH herself being spotlighted as the Eighth. It should be remembered that in Hollywood’s epic production of King Kong in 1933 the giant simian was also billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” with potently disastrous results not only for its star but for the hosting borough of Manhattan as well. In any event Philadelphia was spared the ordeal when somebody finally figured out that the Delaware River was not deep enough to accommodate the 39-foot draft ocean liner in the first place.
The incipient owners of Cunard’s flagship then began making overtures to the elected ruling officials of Port Everglades. Florida Governor Claude Kirk was very receptive to the idea of having the ship permanently displayed in his constituency. Although not without some degree of controversy surrounding the proposal the thought of the QUEEN ELIZABETH doing for Port Evergaldes what the QUEEN MARY had done for Long Beach, California the year before was too irresistible to allow her to sail away.
The consortium threatened to take the ship elsewhere if agreements could not be finalized in south Florida and even the ever unsentimental Cunard Line began to force legislative hands in Broward County by announcing that the vessel was to be sold for scrap in November if terms were not promptly signed as to her resolution in the Sunshine State.
The deal was inked on August 16, 1968 between the businessmen trio – who liked to refer to themselves as the “Three Musketeers” – and Port Everglades. Port Authority Chairman Larry Corcoran was certainly optimistic, “I think this is a historic event for Port Everglades and the benefit to Broward County will be stupendous.” Conventions Vice President of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce Sydney Banks echoed those sentiments as well, “It’s good for the community – I’m happy it’s going to be down here rather than somewhere else.”
Regardless of the hopeful prognosis for the QUEEN ELIZABETH and her planned posthumous career, problems were already beginning to surface. The purchasing consortium was quickly running out of cash and appealed to Cunard for intervention. Rather than winding up the creditor of a bad – not to mention enormous – debt and liability, Cunard Chairman Sir Basil Smallpiece agreed to allocating $1,000,000 of the steamship company’s funds to the project in return for retaining 85% ownership of their flagship for ten years. With all the hullabaloo over the QUEEN MARY out in Long Beach it appeared that Cunard now stood to make a killing in the tourist attraction market on the East Coast. The new company, the Elizabeth (Cunard) Corporation of Florida, would be under the full control of the Cunard Line while the Elizabeth Corporation was obligated to pay Cunard $2,000,000 annually for ten years at which time the three businessmen from Philadelphia were to regain complete ownership and authority of the QUEEN ELIZABETH.
Terms of the sale also called for the ship to be referred to and advertised as simply the ELIZABETH. Although not requiring a formal renaming of the Cunard giant, Sir Basil explained that in deference to the Queen Mother who had christened the ship in 1938 as well as avoiding confusion with their new QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 poised to take up station after the demise of the current flagship, it was best for all parties involved to shorten the working name of the largest liner in the world. One cannot discount the probability that Sir Basil was also hedging bets to save the reputation of his parent company in the all too possible event that the venture into tourist attraction operations ran afoul of smooth sailing.
Under the command of Cunard Commodore Geoffrey Thrippleton Marr, the QUEEN ELIZABETH bid Southampton her final adieu on November 28 and headed off to her new career in Florida. The quiet departure was completely overshadowed by the QUEEN MARY’s final sailing the year before. Whereas over 10,000 well-wishers had turned out to send the elder QUEEN MARY off in 1967, less than 500 braved the pre-dawn fog and cold to see the QUEEN ELIZABETH away. This coupled with the fact that the QUEEN MARY had cast off with a full passenger compliment on a historic 39-day trek around Cape Horn to her new home in California while the QUEEN ELIZABETH carried no passengers and retained only a skeleton crew onboard caused the Commodore to later remark that, “the QUEEN ELIZABETH almost folded her tents like the Arabs and silently stole away.”
The crossing was uneventful except for the fact that ship’s stores ran out of beer. The Chief Pantryman explained that the crew “drank so much because we didn’t have much to do.” His assistant noted that they also consumed all the milk onboard but “the beer was the crisis.”
The reception the QUEEN ELIZABETH received at her new home-port made up for the lack of homage shown in the old one. On Saturday, December 7, the royal leviathan arrived off of Boca Raton and soon found herself to be entrained by nearly 300 pleasure craft and four helicopters. An American Air Force jet fighter wiggled its wings in salute to the new Floridian monarch while a pair of bi-planes towed banners proclaiming, “Welcome QUEEN ELIZABETH to Florida – Diner’s QUEEN MARY Long Beach Calif.” Unable to enter Port Everglades until the dredging operation necessary to increase the channel’s depth for the ELIZABETH’s deep draft was complete, Commodore Marr took his vessel on a final grand procession. Steaming only a mile offshore the QUEEN ELIZABETH paraded south to Key Biscayne, doubled back to Palm Beach and then made a big circle out to sea in order to arrive at the Port entrance with the morning sun.
By Sunday morning the dredging was sufficient to allow the 82,997-ton craft to proceed into the ship channel. Assisted by six tugs, the liner’s 160,000 horsepower steam turbines maneuvered the vessel into her berth backwards in an arduous three-hour operation. Lines were made all fast and at 11:54 am Commodore Marr rang off “finished with engines” for the last time. Although the passenger-carrying career of the QUEEN ELIZABETH was officially over, the new world of the ELIZABETH was expected to “endure for decades to come.”
Imaginations once again began rending their magic as drawings of the proposed final home of the ELIZABETH were made public. The ship was to be moored on a 209-acre site constructed on the Intercoastal Waterway one mile south of Port Everglades containing an international village, a beach club, tennis courts, a golf course and six terminal buildings. Coursing its way through this hive of humanity would be a monorail that also was to travel along the dock for the entire 1,031 foot length of the ELIZABETH. Utilizing existing features of the ship herself – not to mention cashing in on the then current nostalgia craze and “British Invasion” mania – the liner was to maintain a 700 room hotel, two theaters, seven restaurants and bars, and a 5,000 person convention facility comprised of her first, cabin and tourist class dining rooms. Estimates portrayed a rosy fiduciary picture indicating that the former QUEEN of the seas could be expected to attract 3,000,000 visitors a year and generate $50,000,000 in annual revenue.
The whole operation sounded like a close copy of what Long Beach was actively preparing for the QUEEN MARY with two exceptions. One was the fact that the QUEEN MARY was being vastly rebuilt to also house a magnificent 100,000 square foot oceanographic Museum of the Sea that was intended to be the largest and finest of its kind anywhere in the world. This fact made possible the second main difference between the afterlives of the two QUEENs. Whereas the ELIZABETH was being financed by private enterprise, Long Beach had been able to tap into a virtual limitless source of oil revenue money to convert and maintain the QUEEN MARY.
Retired United States Navy Admiral John J. Fee, director of the QUEEN MARY Project, had ominous words of portent for the Elizabeth Corporation. “You people in Florida will need a lot of planning. It isn’t enough just to buy a big ship and put a snack bar and calypso band onboard. You have to think in terms of a whole cultural and recreational complex. You are almost creating an entire city when you get involved in something like this.” Prophetic words to be sure. The QUEEN MARY expenses skyrocketed from a projected $9,000,000 to over $68,000,000 in less than four years. By 1971 the project was desperately behind schedule, grossly over budget and coming under the scrutiny of a California State Congressional investigation. The Admiral, distraught and stressed to the breaking point, committed suicide two days after the ship was moved to her present location, the planned “Museum of the Sea” was never finished, and the grand old Cunarder has suffered from bad press and a poor reputation ever since.
The pier at which the ELIZABETH had been secured was more or less a gift to the Corporation – something completely unheard of in the history of Port Everglades – to express gratitude in bringing her to South Florida and no dockage fees were incurred. It was expected that the liner was to be at piers 24 and 25 for six months while a pathway was dredged in the Intercoastal Waterway to allow the ELIZABETH to be towed – stern first – the mile south to her permanent location. Since the ship was burning up 40 tons of bunker-C every day just to remain self-sufficient while waiting its reberth, there was the ever present potential that this might become a costly hiatus indeed.
The first red flag went up in January 1969 as to the integrity of the ship’s operation. The General Manager of the Port Authority of Port Everglades was indicted by the Federal Grand Jury for soliciting bribes in connection with the ELIZABETH project as well as a masterly crafted and convoluted 50-year parking lot contract for the ship allowing himself full control over the lucrative concession. Said General Manager quickly resigned from the Port and shortly thereafter became the victim of a homicide that has never been solved.
The ELIZABETH opened her gangways for guided tours on Valentine’s Day, 1969. The tour was well attended and easily maintained visitor levels of over 2,000 per day. Operated free-flow style – participants moving along a prescribed route and pausing at various exhibits and presentations – the tour encompassed every major public room of the ship (except the indoor pools on C and E decks) as well as a section of the big suites on Main deck. Newsreels and films were shown along the way and uniformed guides dotted the tour route to deliver spiels, answer questions and maintain order. The final stop of the tour was the cabin class restaurant which had been transformed into a giant souvenir shop where the newly initiated could leave behind some of their cash in return for a memento of their visit to “the largest ocean liner the world has ever seen.”
But despite the fact that tourists were visiting the vessel on a regular basis the financial situation was worsening. The wages due Commodore Marr and the 118 Cunard crewmen kept onboard to supply power and insure the safety of the ELIZABETH coupled with the ship’s never ending thirst for bunker-C far outweighed the revenue brought in from the tour and concessions onboard. Yet to make matters tougher, the technical and mechanical teething problems being encountered by the new QUEEN ELIZABETH 2 on her sea trials and the subsequent cancellation of her first six voyages left Cunard perilously short of working capital, let alone providing the auxiliary funds necessary to keep the ELIZABETH project afloat. Sir Basil had no choice but to get rid, once and for all, of the white elephant that he had allowed himself and his company to be saddled with.
It was made known in May that Cunard was offering up the ship to the highest bidder. The most serious customers were a legitimate group of British investors eager to operate the giant ship on a scheduled service from England to Australia, but once studies proved the crew to passenger ratio of the vessel was such that she could never again be a viable proposition under British registry the vision went stagnate. Cunard once again began rattling their sabers and announced that if no offers were forthcoming then they would sail the ship back to Southampton to await final disposition.
Never far from the center of attention and of amazement with regard to the old ship and their belief that she could still turn a lucrative profit, the “Three Musketeers” from Philadelphia reconnoitered and, empowered with new financial backing from the Utilities Leasing Corporation of Haverford, Pennsylvania, stepped up to the plate once again for another turn at bat. This time calling themselves The Queen, Limited, they offered $8,640,000 for the ELIZABETH with a ready down payment of $2,000,000. Cunard took the opportunity to unload the responsibility of the hibernating giant and signed the instruments of sale without hesitation on July 19, 1969. After a career of over 29 years, the QUEEN ELIZABETH was finally severed from the parent company that had brought her into being. Quite literally, she was on her own.
Plans began to spin once again for the ELIZABETH. Under the aegis of the current regime the ship was to house a 1,000-room hotel, seven restaurants, eleven bars, an outdoor concert arena, diner theater, maritime museum, international bazaar, cinema, shops, and a disco in the two forward cargo holds. Landlocked on the port side as well as around the bow and stern the ship was intended to be the center of a yacht club, condo complex, and a 500-slip marina all situated in a cruise ship turning basin to be built just south of the ship’s then current Ft. Lauderdale dock. The ELIZABETH was expected to be in her new home by June of the following year with a grand opening celebration taking place shortly thereafter.
No longer on the company payroll, Commodore Marr and the 118 former Cunard employees under his command were loaded onto a chartered jet on August 4, 1969 and taken home to the United Kingdom. The Queen, Ltd., was now running the show, including the production of enough steam in the ship’s boilers to generate electricity to keep the ship illuminated – which was now being accomplished with a small American steam engineering staff.
Four fires were discovered aboard the docked vessel during the month of August. Even though they were set by a security guard who wanted the attention and notoriety of finding them, serious concerns about a thousand foot ocean liner without her own properly trained crew in attendance were expressed. It was just such a scenario twenty-seven years before that had put the NORMANDIE on the bottom of the Hudson River in 1942 when she had caught fire during conversion to a troopship and, with her own crew no longer to be found onboard, had the conflagration extinguished by city fire fighting forces. But in the process of suppressing the flames so much water had been pumped aboard the ship that she had capsized and settled onto her port side. Given the amount of wood onboard the elderly Cunard speedster, it did not take an extremely vivid imagination to envision a similar situation overtaking the ELIZABETH.
A bomb threat was called in to the Queen, Ltd., that same month by Cuban exiles unhappy with the American treatment of their homeland. No bomb was found and none went off other than heightening local awareness to the complete vulnerability of the old ship. Rumors were also running rampant that the owners had connections with Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamster’s Union, and that the ship would become a casino under the watchful eye of mafia and teamster bosses.
A fifth fire was found on October 31, 1969 and was fortunately eradicated without the help of outside agencies. Eleven days later Port Everglades Fire Chief John Gerkin was onboard and found over 1,800 tourists milling about the cavernous ship’s labyrinthian interior. When he asked one of the security guards about emergency procedures and evacuation routes, the startled guard retorted, “I don’t even know where the exits are.” Chief Gerkin promptly served papers to The Queen, Ltd., closing the ELIZABETH to the public as an extreme fire hazard. She was not to be reopened until stricter safety standards had been met and then visitors would only be allowed onboard in controlled numbers for guided tours. It was a decision that Gerkin later believed cost him his job as Fire Chief.
Edward Moldt, Project Superintendent of Queen, Ltd., said that he understood that the ELIZABETH was fully in compliance with the latest fire and safety regulations for Broward County. The closure of the ship cost Queen, Ltd., $10,000 in lost revenue and a 5,000-person gala Thanksgiving Day dinner party also had to be canceled on short notice as well as other scheduled banquet activities. The ship eventually met the new requirements but financially never recovered.
In January 1970, Queen, Ltd., had planned on becoming a public corporation by offering $13,750,000 in stock offers. Given the terrible condition of the national economy at the at the time and an impending full investigation into the Queen, Ltd., by the New York Stock Exchange Commission the intended sales were forestalled and the company never went public.
Amid rumors that the ELIZABETH was to become a floating arena for the upcoming Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight, Queen, Ltd., filed for Chapter XI bankruptcy in the Philadelphia Federal District Court in May although the ship remained open for business as usual. Assets were listed as $11,400,000 and debts shown to be over $12,000,000. Although the ship was still bringing in $25,000 a month she quite simply could not make ends meet. As Edward Moldt put it, “When the stock market went to hell so did our plans for the QUEEN ELIZABETH.”
Worse was in the offing for the deposed monarch of the Atlantic when she snapped her mooring lines during a 70-mph hurricane on May 25, 1970. The ship bent dock pilings and dropped gangways as she broke free and drifted a hundred feet out into the Intercoastal Waterway. Navy crews of nearby vessels managed to shoot lines aboard the creeping giant until she was able to be warped back into her berth. The liners’s empty fuel tanks and forward cargo hold were then flooded to land the 118-foot beam of the ELIZABETH evenly on the harbor bottom and keep her from further wanderings.
The “For Sale” sign was hung out again on September 9, 1970 when it was slated that the ELIZABETH and all her contents were to be sold either “as is” or piecemeal at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel in Fort Lauderdale to satisfy the 204 creditors holding liens against Queen, Ltd., (Cunard themselves being the number one claimant). It appeared that this time the old ship would finally submit to the breaker’s hammer and be given a fallen warrior’s due respect. In fact an Italian scrap yard in Genoa made an offer of $2,400,000 for the grand dame but was outbid by Isidore Ostroff from Hong Kong who put out a $3,200,000 tender for the ship as an agent from an undisclosed shipping firm. This proved to be the highest amount offered for the liner and it was finally announced that the ELIZABETH had become the property of C.Y. Tung and his huge Hong Kong shipping conglomerate, the Orient Overseas Line.
The ELIZABETH was closed to the public on September 17th and Commodore William Husan accompanied by a crew of 200 Chinese hands were flown in from the British Crown Colony to make the rusting and stationary giant ready for sea. Once the magnitude of the task was realized another 100 Chinese crewmen were flown in that December to get the ship back in shape. Commodore Husan summed it all up by stating, “This ship’s been laid up for two years, neglected and rotting.”
C.Y. Tung had ambitious plans for the ELIZABETH to be sure. He intended to make the ship ready to sail for Hong Kong (no small task either one of them) where she would receive a complete $5,000,000 refitting that would enable her to continue life as a global cruise ship and floating university. Her first class accommodation was to be refurbished and reconditioned to its elegant best for the carriage of 1,428 paying cruise passengers while the cabin and tourist accommodation would be rebuilt into accommodations for 1,800 college students and 80 faculty members as a floating college under the operation of Chapman World Campus Afloat. She was to be manned by a crew of 800 from Hong Kong and Taiwan giving her a passenger-to-crew ratio of 4.13 as compared to the same ratio of 1.75 during her Cunard days.
With the promise of economic soundness in the Orient Overseas Line plan a distinctly real possibility, the ELIZABETH needed a new name worthy of the role she was intended to carry out. The old liner was already being referred to by her new owners as “C Y’s University” and it was this acronym that gave the liner her official new name of SEAWISE UNIVERSITY.
Commodore Marr, Chief Engineer R.E. Phillp and 16 British former Cunard crewmembers were hired by Orient Overseas Lines as advisors and flew back to their flagship on January 1, 1971. Over $800,000 in engine parts were also brought in from United Kingdom manufacturers to be installed on the reviving giant. After five months of labor and expenditures the former mistress of the seas was substantially ready to venture forth once again into the element for which she had been created.
Five planned departure dates for the SEAWISE UNIVERSITY were postponed due to boiler problems. Intended to run up to 32 knots on the steam generated from 12 boilers, the ship’s inactivity for 26 months had taken its toll. Only five boilers were able to be made operational in order to deliver the minimum power necessary to drive the vessel along at 8.5 knots, barely above her minimum steerage-way. Finally, on February 10, 1971 the one time pride of the British mercantile fleet slipped her moorings and – blowing out a boiler in the process – slowly plowed through the sandbar leading back out into the Atlantic Ocean. The SEAWISE UNIVESITY, formerly the QUEEN ELIZABETH, was once again alive and under way heading for a new career on the high seas.
Commodore Marr commented that, “There’s a feeling one gets when one walks this ship these days, that she’s trying to get born again.” If it is true that ships possess a soul then that of the old Cunarder was experiencing a rejuvenation and vitality that was to abruptly end in flames at Hong Kong harbor on the very eve of her entry into a new life at sea. But that was yet eleven months away.
As the SEAWISE UNIVERSITY slowly logged miles between her ensign staff and the Florida coast there was hope among the shipping community that the launching day invocation of the Queen Mother would have the chance to still ring true for the liner that once bore her name: “We cannot foretell the future, but, in preparing for it, we show our trust in a Divine Providence and in ourselves. We proclaim our belief that by the Grace of God, and by man’s patience and good will, order may yet be brought out of confusion and peace out of turmoil. With that hope and prayer in our hearts we send forth upon her mission this noble ship.” It was, however, not to be…