It doesn’t seem that long ago that the idea of a transatlantic liner built in the 21st century was considered an impossible dream. Ocean liner enthusiasts and shipping fans alike often discussed the likelihood of a replacement for QE2, generally considered to be the ‘last of the great transatlantic liners.’ However most considered such talk as mere ‘wishful thinking.’
However, when the giant Carnival Corporation purchased the ailing Cunard Line in April 1998, there was renewed speculation as to the future of the transatlantic liner. As Carnival set about revitalizing the Cunard fleet, the rumour mill erupted with new talk of a successor to QE2.
Then, on June 8, 1999, the rumors became reality. At a press conference, Cunard Line’s then CEO, Larry Pimentel announced ‘Project Queen Mary’, a project that morphed into QM2.
Pimentel said, “The project will lead to development of the heaviest liner ever built – the epitome of elegance, style and grace…It is our objective to build a new generation of ocean liner that will be the very pinnacle of the shipbuilder’s art; the realization of a dream of another time… Our goal is nothing less than to create a new Golden Age of sea travel for those who missed the first,”
Chantiers de l’Atlantique, the French shipyard that gave the world the opulent Normandie, was contracted to build the new ship. Carnival Corporation’s Vice President Chief Naval Architect, Stephen Payne, lead the design team. They created a vessel that was, at the time of her maiden voyage, the longest, largest, tallest, widest and most expensive passenger ship ever built.
In the lead up to QM2’s debut, a brilliant marketing campaign (brainchild of Cunard’s CEO Pamela Conover and her Miami based team) ensured the public were aware of the rich heritage of Cunard, and the importance of QM2. It built excitement around the soon to be crowned monarch under the guise of “Can You Wait” – which saw elegantly dressed passengers in everyday surroundings, dreaming and yearning for their upcoming voyage aboard QM2.
This, along with the natural PR value the ship’s dimensions generated, (not to mention the fact she was the first transatlantic liner built in 30 years), led to a booked out inaugural season for the ship.
Having been formally handed over to Cunard Line’s Commodore Ronald W. Warwick on 22 December 2003, QM2 was officially named in Southampton by HM Queen Elizabeth II on 8 January 2004. The ship’s maiden voyage departed four days later, which saw her sail to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
So what makes QM2 so special?
During her decade of service she has achieved many great feats that, in the 1990’s, would have sounded far-fetched at best.
Firstly, she was the world’s largest passenger ship when she entered service. At 151,400grt and 1,135ft in length, she remains one of the largest ships afloat to this day, and by far the largest ocean liner built.
QM2 offers passengers the world’s first seagoing planetarium, she has the largest dance floor at sea and the world’s first seagoing version of Canyon Ranch Spaclub.
The ship has offered education lectures by Oxford University, she has hosted celebrities including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former President George H. Bush, and her biggest and best stateroom (the Balmoral Suite) spans two decks – it even has it’s own gym equipment!
Her career, so far, has been peppered with unique events and activities, which add to the sense of awe and wonder that surrounds the ship.
In July 2004 she made an historic call to Hamburg where over 1 million people lined the banks of the River Elbe to witness her arrival. A spontaneous party broke out in the parkland near to where the ship was docked, which lasted all night until her departure, the following day.
The following month, she was in Piraeus, Greece for a stint as a hotel ship for the Athens Olympic Games. QM2 hosted then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, then French President Jacques Chirac, former US. President George H. Bush and the US. Men’s Olympic Basketball Team.
In 2007, QM2 rendezvoused with QE2 in Sydney Harbour during her inaugural world cruise. The event marked the first time two Cunard Queens had met in Sydney since the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were in the port during World War II.
While the event was well marketed by Cunard’s Sydney office, no one could have imagined the turnout. Millions (yes, millions) of people flocked to the harbor to witness the two Queens meeting. Sydney was left in a standstill, with stunned commuters unable to get home for hours; roads were jammed and traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge was at a standstill while train and ferry services struggled to keep up with the demand.
In 2008, QM2’s elder fleet mate, QE2, retired. This occasion saw a number of meetings of these great ships, which culminated in the tandem transatlantic crossings in October. After QE2 was decommissioned, QM2 became the last transatlantic liner in regular service.
This service became very valuable in 2010 when the Icelandic Volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, had a series of eruptions. With aircraft grounded across Europe, a significant waiting list developed for QM2, which offered a rare alternative to the suspended transatlantic air services.
In 2012, QM2 joined Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The three ships were berthed in Southampton to mark the occasion, with QM2 carrying a large “Congratulations Ma’am” banner.
This past year QM2 made headlines a number of times. In July she sailed on her 200th transatlantic crossing, which drew media attention on both sides of the Atlantic, while in September she offered assistance to Canadian rower Mylène Paquette (during her solo transatlantic attempt).
In 2014 the ship will sail on her annual world cruise. She will spend an extended season in Australian waters, completing a circumnavigation of the island continent. This is a repeat of a voyage that she completed in 2012, which was sold out within minutes of going on sale; such is QM2’s appeal ‘down under’.
And with 2015 being Cunard Line’s 175th anniversary, the future looks good for QM2. Already, Cunard have announced a circumnavigation of Great Britain aboard the famed liner, which will see her rendezvous with Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth in Liverpool, Cunard’s traditional homeport.
As we celebrate a decade of QM2, she stands as a testament that anything is possible. The transatlantic liner is alive and well thanks to this unique ship. Happy Birthday QM2! And many happy returns!
MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland. Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.