The art and ability involved in preserving the surviving handful of great, seagoing ocean liners is an often thankless task. Tethered to shores sometimes far from their familiar, beaten paths, these ships can often become bottomless money pits. Sometimes, their management ends up at the mercy of corporations with as much understanding of these ships as a maggot would have of the first moon landing. Seldom are the long term omens truly good; many a fine vessel has fallen by the wayside of ill informed investment opportunities and a short sighted, fast buck mentality.
Yet, against this backdrop, a stellar trio of vessels of the first rank have somehow contrived to survive as combination hotel and restaurant venues. First, and still largest is the venerable old Queen Mary, which has now spent more years tethered to her Long Beach, California pier than ever she did at sea, in both war and peace alike.
Still not yet truly out of the woods, the Queen Mary has endured far more of a roller coaster ride in retirement than ever she did in the worst Atlantic gale. Bankruptcy and morally bankrupt cabals of eminently dubious businessmen have been more of an active hazard to the great lady than any of Hitler’s U Boats ever were. The greatest and most stellar achievement of her long, illustrious career may very well be the fact that she is still there at all; the Queen Mary today remains an Art Deco sheathed Grande Dame whose very poise and presence still has the power to draw awed gasps from even the most blithe passer by.
Her successor as Cunard flagship, the Queen Elizabeth 2 has herself now gone into retirement in Dubai. After almost a decade of tortuous vacillation and seeming indifference on the part of her new owners, the longest serving of all the great Cunard liners re-opened her doors to the public last year. The sighs of relief could almost be heard as far away as Long Beach.
QE2 was originally slated for a drastic ‘re-imagining’ by her new owners-itself a disastrously bad turn of phrase-that thankfully never came to pass. Those given initial custody of her had as much understanding of her history, heritage and future potential as a race horse would have of a rumba. The result was years of vacillation, vague half starts, and downright disingenuous statements. Having bought her, these people simply could not decide what best to do with her. QE2 was like a glittering bauble with no Christmas tree to decorate, lost in an unforgiving, arid environment.
Despite all of this, after a near decade of uncertainty, the great ship is now once more open to the public, offering some three hundred former first class cabins as bespoke hotel rooms. The interior upgrades have been surprisingly sympathetic; the greatness and sheer, breathtaking beauty of the most illustrious Cunarder of them all has been largely preserved intact, a great grand memorial to an age that is now largely itself a historical footnote.
But, perhaps the most successful of these restored, re-purposed ships of state has been the legendary SS. Rotterdam. For, while that brace of charismatic Cunarders cited above have both found exotic exile in remote, sunny lands far from home, the beloved former Dutch flagship really has come home. Rescued from under the very blade of the scrapper’s knives at almost the last moment, the Rotterdam came back to her namesake port, achieving far colder waters and a much warmer, welcome return than her exiled counterparts.
Restored to her original colour scheme from October of 1959, the perfectly primped Rotterdam boasts the most authentic, unchanged series of interiors of any of these three surviving scions. At around half the size of the other two ships, her maintenance costs come in at considerably less. Since her re-opening in the middle of Rotterdam harbour, the ship has been a considerable success.
The one thing that all three of these ships need to ensure their continued, profitable survival is the self same thing that they needed during their seagoing days-constant on board footfall, and free flowing revenue. It is no good expecting the hardened cabal of die hard ocean liner fans to be able to do this on their own; imaginative ways have to be found to create revenue streams, such as conference incentives, the creation of novel and compelling banqueting experiences, and nostalgic, themed events. In those respects, these ships are, in themselves, a series of unique selling points.
Even in a static role, each ship allows for a kind of virtual time travel, without the need to ever again brave the open, combative waters of the Atlantic. Each one is like a portal into another age and era, when things were done differently, and ships were more about transportation than tortuous, on deck party games and sinuous, winding water slides.
I can only hope that this storied trio can at some stage be joined by a fourth vessel. Of course, I mean the SS. United States, still sitting in rust streaked, mouldering splendour at her berth under the Walt Whitman bridge in Philadelphia.
Stripped internally bare and just barely alive, the ship that still remains the fastest ocean liner ever built today exists in the maritime equivalent of a coma. Her interiors have long been ripped out and, while she looks quite dilapidated, the ship herself is still structurally quite sound; a beautiful blank canvas, ripe for re-purposing into the fourth member of a great, timeless quartet of monumental, former cathedrals of the sea.
Her loss would be an act of cultural vandalism akin to levelling Penn Street Station, or even the Empire State Building. The United States typified the post war, ‘can do’ spirit of 1950’s America like nothing else, either before or since. Long before the first Saturn Five rocket ever clawed at the sky, the United States was already out there; America’s foremost, instantly recognisable global flag bearer in those last, halcyon days before the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam war burst that optimistic, overly inflated bubble forever.
In America, the mothballed hulks of countless warships still survive in preserved splendour, from the USS Constitution of 1812 right through to the solid, brooding bulk of the mighty USS Missouri out at Pearl Harbour. Quite right, too.
But I would argue that the SS. United States is at least worthy of preservation as any of these. And, in some cases, even more so. Surely, with a profitable potential future in front of her and a storied past that still staggers the mind behind her, she is worth saving. Her salvation would have a value that would transcend any simple, financial consideration by light years.
Think about it; a quartet of powerfully preserved, almost miraculously intact ocean liners. Four distinctly individual, undeniably dramatic, emotional lightning rods that link us to a rich, resplendent past; a time when these ships were not merely the pride of the shipyards and the men that built and sailed them, but indeed the prides of their respective nations. History, heritage, wartime heroism, afternoon tea on the promenade decks at the height of a wicked, winter crossing…..
Queen Mary. Queen Elizabeth 2. Rotterdam. United States. Ships of dreams in their own right. The last survivors of a fleet of fabulous, long gone ocean liners that still cut an elegant swathe through the very salt water of our dreams. And yet, they still exist in reality. And, for that, and for posterity, too, those in a position of power to preserve, burnish and embellish these unique, glorious testaments to human ingenuity and maritime excellence, have an unwavering, unshakeable responsibility to do exactly that.