NEW YORK CITY, APRIL 22–It’s 6:30 A.M. in Battery Park, and everything seems as usual. The yawns of a waking city can be heard faintly over the thudding footsteps of early birds jogging along the Hudson River.
But there’s something different about this particular morning: Jersey City is not so beautiful that it routinely fills the park’s railings with eager onlookers.
What they await is the inaugural visit of the Queen Mary 2. The ocean liner–the first since the 1969 launch of the Queen Elizabeth 2–is to wrap up her maiden transatlantic voyage any minute by sailing past the Statue of Liberty into the tender embraces of the West Side Passenger Ship Terminal.
That the QM2 should have many curious admirers is only natural. At 1,132 feet, she is the longest ship ever built. She carries 2,600 passengers and 1,200 crew; each day, they call up 1,000 bottles of champagne from the world’s largest water-borne wine cellar.
In other words, she’s the largest, grandest, most elegant ship afloat. And, judging by the crowd in Battery Park, the most anticipated.
Christian Weber and his family have traveled from Colorado Springs to see her. For Christian, a new ocean liner has personal resonance: “I’m an immigrant to this country [from Germany]. Fifty years ago–and before–this was how everyone came to America. A new ocean liner is something that hasn’t happened in almost 40 years, and it’s special, a historical spectacle.”
So history drew some; for others, it was a mechanical fascination. Staten Island construction worker Chris Ermenti trades QM2 stats with a colleague, and marvels at them. “Almost 20 stories high? That’s amazing. Barely fits under the Verrazano [Bridge]? That’s amazing.”
As 7A.M. draws near, everyone is amazed. For out of the mist, a low horn sounds; a stately silhouette creeps on the horizon. The Queen is here.
When the QM2 finally draws alongside the shore, she looms huge. Early daylight reflects bright off the brilliant new white of her upper decks. Fire boats, in a traditional New York nautical greeting, spurt jets of water high into the air; the glinting sun dances amid the vapor from their arcing streams. The QM2 hovers for a delightful moment–and then, in what seems like a flash, she is gone, charging determinedly upriver.
For all of this morning’s excitement, the main event is to come three days later. Then, the two Cunard liners–the QE2 and the QM2–will set sail to cross the Atlantic side by side. It is to be the QE2’s last regular crossing, and the QM2’s first back to Southampton–a symbolic passing of the torch.
On Sunday, the weather is far less sympathetic. It has been raining most of the afternoon, with promises of more rain later in the evening; on a 110-foot media boat at Chelsea Piers, the air is chilly and damp.
Just before 7 P.M., the Queens are still moored on the West Side. Next to the QM2, the QE2–at 70,000 tons, not exactly a rowboat herself–is absolutely dwarfed. But for all her elegance, the QM2’s size precludes some of the narrow, tapered sophistication of the sleeker QE2, definitely a testament to the style of a bygone era.
By 8 P.M. we have progressed downriver, and are stationed right off the World Trade Center site. The gaping hole of Ground Zero is a somber reminder of an ever-present terrorist threat: The QM2 would make a plum target, and, indeed, just weeks before the QM2’s maiden voyage, she reportedly appeared on a list of al Qaeda targets.
After major, and impressive, security precautions, the Queens are ready to leave. First out is the QM2, gliding unrestrained down the river. For all her heft, she is vastly more maneuverable than the QE2–owing to her state-of-the-art Mermaid podded propulsion system–and does not require tugboat assistance. As she makes her way toward the Atlantic, she is glittery and sexy. She pauses just beyond the Statue of Liberty, waiting for her companion and guide.
The rest of us wait, too, and make small talk. Aboard our boat is Douglas Ward, author of Berlitz Ocean Cruising & Cruise Ships, who has just been on this first QM2 crossing (which, having endured 30-foot seas and 63-mile-per-hour gales, was no breeze). His verdict? “The ship rode extremely well. She’s a real ocean liner, not a cruise ship, and she’s built to withstand the rigors of the North Atlantic. This crossing was a great test of a proper liner.”
And what of QM2’s amenities? “You have an incredible feeling of grandeur and space. She evokes a sense of a golden age of sailing.” Ward would know: He was aboard the QE2 for her maiden crossing back in 1969.
As if on cue, the QE2 suddenly appears beside us. She relies on tugs to help her down the river, yet here they are not so much pulling her forward as keeping her back. Like a Great Dane straining at the leash, she is eager and excited to be off, but both Queens must pose for a photo-op before the illuminated contours of Lady Liberty. Suddenly, there is a crack and a shower of sparks: The fireworks–literally–have begun, and the hordes lining the river cheer, their shrill whistles piercing the drone of helicopters and boat engines.
For anyone who has seen Titanic or A Night to Remember, the sight of two ocean liners bathed in the glow of exploding skyrockets is understandably eerie. But it is eerily beautiful, and beautifully celebratory: It is a perfect New York sendoff.
As the Queens disappear on the horizon, our boat hustles back up the Hudson. Perfectly timed, the rain–absent for the entire spectacle–returns. As we watch the city speed by, the passengers on the Queens are settling in for an evening of luxury and indulgence. And why shouldn’t they? They’re aboard two world marvels, witnessing–and making–history. A little celebration is more than appropriate; those 1,000 champagne bottles could be put to no better use.
Meghan Clyne is an NR associate editor.