The QUEEN MARY is in the midst of a much needed makeover that once completed will see her wearing a fresh coat of paint for the first time in decades. The massive project to repaint the hull and superstructure officially got underway in mid-July although work on some sections of the upper decks had already started earlier in April 2017, following heavy winter rains that left portions of the 81-year old ship leaking and damaged. The painting of the ship is expected to cover 240,000 square feet and take eight months to complete. It is part of a three-year project to address issues deemed urgent and necessary. Both structurally and cosmetically the QUEEN MARY is now getting the treatment she deserves with the City Of Long Beach providing the initial $23 million needed for the first phase of repairs.
The iconic Cunard liner departed on her final voyage 50 years ago, leaving Southampton for the last time on October 31, 1967. The 39-day journey billed as “The Last Great Cruise” brought the ship around South America, crossing the Equator twice en route to Long Beach, California which would become her permanent home, serving in a new stationary role as a floating tourist attraction, hotel and with the intention of opening a world-class maritime museum aboard.
Before any of that could happen the QUEEN MARY would need to undergo an extensive conversion project that included the temporary removal of her three funnels to gain access to her interior engine and boiler room spaces. While that was taking place, a complete stripping and repainting of her exterior would be underway. At the time, no one envisioned that the project would drag on for three and a half years and exceed the initial purchase price of $3,450,000 USD by an estimated factor of 60.
The paint chipped off the QUEEN MARY during the conversion work had a weight of approximately 320 tons. More than 30 layers, and in places up to 115 layers, of accumulated paint revealed the ship’s history like the rings in a cross-section of an ancient tree. There were the years of peaceful passenger service separated by strips of gray documenting her service during World War II. Some of those paint chips were polished and made into cuff links or other souvenirs. The story about the original funnels being held together by nothing more than paint is largely true. During her 31-year seagoing career corrosion had taken its toll, so that when the three smokestacks were removed in sections, those rings simply collapsed when they were placed on the dockside. All new replacement funnels had to be fabricated to the same dimensions. For a time, the Queen sported a hull of gray primer, topped by her gleaming new stacks, closely approximating the red-orange colors of Cunard. Two of the original whistles were replaced on the forward funnel in time to welcome the new decade of the 1970’s with a blast at midnight.
The last time the QUEEN MARY had a full paint job completed was 1970. When the ship was towed for the final time to her permanent berth on Pier J, she was gleaming from stem to stern. A fresh and clean image greeted the first paying customers when the doors finally opened on May 8, 1971. Sherwin-Williams supplied all of the paints used aboard. They were guaranteed to last 25 years. They nearly doubled that longevity in some areas. The paint company was so proud of their product being used on the QUEEN MARY that they even published full-page magazine ads with photos touting “Paint Fit For A Queen.” In the early years tour guides told guests that the QUEEN MARY would be taken over to the nearby dry-dock in another 20 years or so, to have her bottom painted. In the intervening years both the 1,000 foot plus dry-dock and the Long Beach Naval Shipyard have disappeared; The shipyard closing permanently in 1997 and the dry-dock filled in and buried. The QUEEN MARY has remained in her rock-lined home ever since, her only movement being with the rise and fall of the tides.
Partial painting has of course been done over the years. At one point the ship was ballasted giving it up to a five degree list so that the boot-topping along the waterline could be scrapped of its fuzzy marine growth and repainted as each side of the vessel was raised slightly out of the water. There was also the ill-advised painting of the funnels during the Disney era to a brilliant shade of red, much more closely resembling the colors of the French Line. The added insult came as the paint faded in the California sun to a pinkish hue. For the last several years paint has been peeling from the superstructure while the hull and funnels continued to fade from neglect.
The current work taking place in 2017 is beginning to show spectacular results. Approaching the port bow from the shore side, the completed sections make the ship look practically brand new. At midship the contrast between the glossy black new paint and the fading-to-gray old flat finish is stark. The entire ship is actually being coated with a substance called Maxon CRS which bonds with corroded steel and protects it from further deterioration. According to the Hawthorne-based company’s website “CRS is more than just a coating, it penetrates the surface of the metal substrates up to 230 microns.” They go on to say Maxon “CRS contains oxygen scavenging properties, which prevents corrosion from recurring.” On close examination the finish seems to present a smoother surface than what was originally there. This is particularly evident in the white structure that has been completed on the aft Sun Deck. Still, it is a vast improvement over the rusted holes and peeling paint that was so widely distributed throughout large sections of the ship previously. Once again, the QUEEN MARY is gradually looking fresh and revitalized.
A recent marine survey conducted estimates the cost of repairs to the QUEEN MARY could reach between $235 million and $289 million. Representatives for Urban Commons, the real estate investment firm that holds the 66-year lease on the ship and surrounding property disagrees, saying “we believe we can do it in the range of $50 million.” The company had originally intended to invest $15 million on modernizing the interiors of the ship, a plan that was set aside when the urgency of immediate structural repairs became so evident. Friday the 13th (of October) the Ghosts and Legends attraction on the lower decks reopened with enhanced special effects. The structural supports below the First Class swimming pool and in the Exhibition Hall were among those areas of concern previously that resulted in closures of those areas. Seasonal events such as the Halloween scare-fest “Dark Harbor” and the holiday themed “Chill” ice-attraction continue to be successfully staged each year. Ongoing exhibitions include “Diana Legacy Of A Princess” located on the Sun Deck and the fascinating new “TITANIC In Photographs” showcasing extremely rare images and artifacts down on “D-Deck” which includes admission to the QUEEN MARY’s engine room.
The expression goes there is nothing duller than watching paint dry. But in the case of the QUEEN MARY it is an exciting time to see the ship emerging from some admittedly uncertain times in its recent history. As the scaffolding comes down and the plastic sheathing is removed from the funnels, a newly revitalized ship is slowly emerging from the cocoon of time, looking young again in its senior years.
Thanks to Frank V. Cleope, Jr., Martin Cox, Johanna Felix, and Gordon Ghareeb.
Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years. A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary. A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs. Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America. With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.