The familiar sight of those three great funnels welcomed me back to the port of Long Beach. Proud, perfectly spaced and gleaming in the fresh spring sunshine, the towering trio of red and black smokestacks that still crown the Queen Mary provided the perfect welcome aperitif to a fun, seven day cruise down to the hot spots of Mexico and back.
Sadly, of course, it would not be aboard her.
Looming across the pier, and looking equally as resplendent in her own way, the Carnival Miracle was waiting for me. Even larger than the venerable, petrified Cunarder that she was docked adjacent to, the 2004 built Carnival Miracle would prove to be a fun fuelled travelling companion for the week.
But, in those first minutes, my eyes were drawn inevitably back to her. Queen Mary, a legend the world over. A Blue Riband holder, war heroine, and a genuine, larger than life celebrity that still exists today as a hotel and convention centre, her wooden decks bleached by decades of static exposure to the year round California sun. Still, it is impossible to remain unmoved by that still majestic presence.
I gazed at the raised wedding gazebo tacked on to her stern, and could not help but smile as I imagined the shade of Commodore Edgar Britten scowling with disapproval at the thing; a necessary concession to keeping this great institution afloat financially these days. The good commodore, more interested in prudent seamanship than pretty settings, would probably have had it thrown overboard at once.
Seeing the great lady had special poignancy for me this year. It is eighty years since her famous maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, when the hopes and expectations of an entire empire trailed along in her wake as she thundered to the west.
The Queen Mary had first set sail on a sunny May day in 1936, almost four hundred years to the day after another famous English queen- Anne Boleyn- lost her head on Tower Green.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the feisty, free spirited Anne would have made of this doughty new British monarch of the seas. With her continental upbringing and lifelong taste for all things French, perhaps she would have been more naturally drawn to the Normandie.
Of course, the Normandie lived fast and died young. Much like Anne herself. And- like Anne- that same brief, spectacular reign guaranteed her a kind of immortality. A kind of exquisite coincidence.
But the Queen Mary, even at the age of eighty, is still very real indeed. And very much alive. Her stance is every bit as majestic and commanding as it was back in 1936. Her sheer stage presence and charisma pulled me in as if to some incredible black hole. Stage struck was no understatement for how I felt. My adrenaline was flowing like tap water right then..
Even once aboard the Carnival Miracle, I found my eyes drawn almost helplessly back to her. The hull is in desperate need of painting, and a glimpse of her starboard (seaward) side indicated that it is in even worse shape, if anything.
Eighty years on, I wonder what Queen Mary feels as she sits shackled to her berth, while a conga line of vast, sassy cruise ships come and go, loaded with passengers looking for a sunny, fun vacation. Does she instinctively, almost imperceptibly heel at her ropes, as if impatient to follow them, back out into her natural element? The thought simply would not leave me alone.
I kind of hope not, in a sense. For, if any ship has done more than her duty, both in peace and war, it is surely the Queen Mary. Today, people still thrill at the sight of that massive, majestic presence, just as they did back in 1936.
She shortened the course of the most destructive conflict in human history by at least six months. And, with the Queen Elizabeth, she formed the most successful two ship transatlantic service in ocean liner history.
Ordinarily, even the grandest liners wither and die. But this is no ordinary liner. She is a piece of world history, an emotional lightning rod every bit as potent as the Pyramids, the Parthenon, or the Great Wall of China. She connects us instantly to a past that, for most, is vicarious at best.
But step back aboard those decks- the same ones trodden by Churchill, Noel Coward, Walt Disney and a whole, gilded cast of glittering extras- and you arrive in actual, living history. Tethered as she is, the Queen Mary still takes passengers back on a voyage in time and space. She is a portal to another era, and a damned fine, grand one at that.
It was nice to see you, old girl. And, come the end of May, as I set foot aboard another glittering new cruise ship, I will happily lift a glass to toast your memory.
I am pretty sure that I won’t be on my own in doing this. Thank you for everything.