Late on the afternoon of Oct. 10, Cunard's venerable Queen Elizabeth 2 slipped its lines at Southampton, England, to make one final transatlantic crossing to New York, sailing in tandem with the Queen Mary 2.
Aboard was a full load of 1,697 passengers, more British than Americans, plus Germans, French, Canadians, Australians and a smattering of two dozen other nationalities.
All had come to make one last voyage as, after 39 years of service, the QE2 was being withdrawn and sold for $100 million to Dubai to become a waterfront attraction and hotel. It had sailed longer than any other Cunarder in history, leaving 5.8 million nautical miles astern and carrying almost 2.5 million passengers. Both are records for any ship.
Walking its Boat Deck, I could find no traces of rust on the lifeboats, davits or superstructure, and its teak decks were soft and smooth. Yes, it was patched here and there as its aluminum superstructure had cracked under stress during numerous Atlantic storms, including several times when the forward part of the ship was buried in seas up to the bridge some 95 feet above the waterline.
Life for the liner had not been easy. It entered service in 1969, 11 years into the jet age, for a financially faltering Cunard Line. By 1974, it was the sole survivor on the North Atlantic sea route to and from New York.
The QE2 went to war during Britain's 1982 Falklands War with Argentina, carrying 3,000 troops into the ice-choked South Atlantic and bringing home survivors from several British ships that were lost.
In peacetime, its troublesome steam turbines failed now and again, and once its passengers had to disembark off Bermuda. By the mid-1980s, a decision had to be made to scrap the ship or re-engine.
After a six-month refit, powerful diesel electric engines were installed, and the QE2 re-emerged in April 1987 as a virtually new ship with a new top speed of 32.5 knots, or roughly 37 mph, by far the fastest major passenger vessel afloat.
When the Queen Mary 2 entered service in 2004, it took over the North Atlantic run, and the QE2 became based at Southampton, mostly for the British market. The pair was joined in late 2007 by the Queen Victoria, and a new Queen Elizabeth is on order for 2010.
When the QE2 finishes its revenue days for Cunard on Nov. 27, the ship's crew gets scattered to the other two Cunard ships or to Princess and P&O.
David Chambers, maitre d' in the QE2's top Queens Grill restaurant, started work in 1969 as a restaurant waiter in the Columbia Restaurant. His daughter is currently a waitress in the same location, now called Caronia.
At the time of writing, he had not received his new assignment but is hoping for a spot on the Queen Victoria.
The ship's master, Capt. Ian McNaught, recently learned that he will also transfer to the Queen Victoria.
McNaught said that he had achieved his goal when, as a young merchant marine officer, he set his sights on becoming captain of the most famous ship in the world. But the end of his current command has not yet hit him. He figures it will when he takes the QE2 out of Southampton on Nov. 11 for the final voyage to Dubai.
Many crew I spoke with did not yet know their fate. My Filipino cabin steward, who wanted to remain anonymous, said he had been offered an immediate transfer to P&O but turned it down. He has now been promised a spot with Cunard, but it might not happen until next spring.
My own association with the ship began on June 19, 1969, when I sailed to England for my summer holidays, and this voyage was my 34th. Over the years, I have met many of the regular passengers.
Paul Klee from New Hampshire has been sailing transatlantic since he was a very young child, and we first met aboard a French Line ship 50 years ago. QE2 has long since become his favorite ship as it's the Atlantic crossing he craves, where the rhythm of daily shipboard life is uninterrupted by port calls.
Myles Devin, a postman from rural Scotland, made his first crossing in 1986, and he fell in love with the ship. A visit to his tiny inside single cabin on Four Deck revealed a dozen bon voyage cards taped to the walls, postcards of the ship in numerous ports stuck in the edges of the mirror, and personal photos with friends arranged on the desk.
The Waltons, a retired couple from Southampton, had seen the ship coming and going for decades. Talking to them in the midships lobby, Mrs. Walton said, "I had to pinch myself that I am here." Her husband added that this trip would mark the couple's first time in New York. "It's all a bit of a dream come true," he said.
Life aboard this final westbound crossing pretty much continued as usual: socializing and sharing many memories; enjoying the ritual of afternoon tea in the Queens Room; attending lectures on maritime history, the royal family and New York; taking circular constitutional walks on the open deck; reading in the library and buying QE2 books next door; having a beer or two in the pub while playing trivia; dressing up for dinner four nights out of six; attending a show afterward; and ending with a stroll on deck before calling it a day.
One afternoon, during a gathering of more than 100 ship enthusiasts in the Chart Room Bar, some grumbled that the British government should have bought the ship and preserved it, and many expressed dismay at the proposed plans to gut the ship and turn it into something that never was.
A few felt it should simply be allowed to sink intact, but most agreed that the ship had been a huge success against all odds, and a permanent berth in Dubai was better than the scrap yard.
On the last afternoon off the Nantucket Shoals, the QE2 and the QM2 closed to within shouting distance. QM2 passengers lined the rails, and in unison under the direction of Commodore Bernard Warner, they sent up a triple "hip, hip hooray."
Then McNaught gave three blasts of the QE2's deep-throated whistle that resonated across the sea, and when the QM2 replied with almost an adolescent sound, there was no question who won that contest.
At 5 a.m., under a near full moon on the morning of Oct. 16, both ships entered New York Harbor. The QM2 peeled off to dock in Brooklyn, and the QE2 sailed proudly up the Hudson to the newly renovated Pier 90, which was built back in the mid-1930s for the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.
Passengers disembarked laden with QE2 souvenirs, commemorative dinner menus, farewell pins and voyage certificates signed personally by the captain.
Some, like myself, were leaving the ship for the last time, while others were returning immediately that afternoon on the final departure from New York.
That evening, I joined thousands of others to watch the ship sail with lights ablaze until it passed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and out of sight.
The Queen Mary 2, sailing in the older sister's shadow, will now be able to come into its own.