Alone on a wide wide sea!

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

I’m just back from a rather splendid vacation, which started with a one week transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, followed by another week in Ireland.  Both are thoroughly blog-worthy.  

The Mayhem Consultant has long wanted to make a classic transatlantic cruise such as used to be required to get to or from Europe, and I agreed that it sounded like a fine idea.  The Queen Mary 2 is not a cruise ship, but the last and largest of the great ocean liners: ships designed to transport people from place to place.  They use more steel than cruise ships and have a higher freeboard (height above the water).  Crew members like to explain the differences. 

Queen Mary 2

Though the QM2 also takes people on cruises, including an annual round the world cruise that lasts about three months, she is the only liner that still offers scheduled transport between New York City and Southampton, England.  When I contacted our cruise agent about taking the QM2, she said, “You know it’s seven days at sea?”

Yes, I knew.  We liked the idea of seven days at sea.  And now that we’ve experienced it, we like the reality.  I saw no land and only one other ship in those seven days—a container ship, maybe.  The rest of the time, what did we see?  We saw the sea.

2012-08-07 12.42.47It’s incredibly restful, which I loved since I’d turned in a manuscript mere days before and I really needed rest!  The ship was filled with lounges and cozy corners full of people reading.  (It seemed to be roughly 50/50 between print books and e-readers.)  I did my part by reading through line edited pages of SOMETIMES A ROGUE and adding my own corrections, which I’m incorporating now.  It was a nice way to work.

Sir Samuel CunardThe QM2 is the flagship of the Cunard Line, which includes the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Queen Victoria.  Samuel Cunard, a Canadian from Halifax, founded the line after winning the contract for regular mail service between the United Kingdom and North American in 1840. 

The Cunard Line was known for quality and safety, and over the decades absorbed other lines, including the White Star Line which owned the Titanic.  These days Cunard is part of the Carnival cruise line empire, but it retains a firmly British tone and many of the passengers were British, which I enjoyed.

2012-08-05 12.56.07It’s also unabashedly classist, with the different classes using different dining rooms based on the cost of the staterooms.  The top of the tree nobility dine in the Queen’s Grill.  A notch down is the Princess Grill, which I think of as gentry.  The third class, the average folk, dine in the very large and beautiful Britannia restaurant.  (Above)

There are also masses of smaller eateries.  Our favorite was Sir Samuel’s, a quiet coffee shop and wine bar where one could get a pleasant lunch or dessert.  There’s also a huge buffet restaurant for people who don’t like to dress up.

But the real secret of modern day cruising, whether a liner like the QM2 or a regular Caribbean cruise vessel, is that they fulfill posh fantasies beautifully.  The staff, many of them from countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, are wonderfully warm, welcoming, and very hard working. 

2012-08-07 22.14.40Even a passenger staying in the cheapest inside windowless stateroom is treated like royalty with multi-course meals, wine stewards, and crisp napkins snapped open and laid across one’s lap.  It’s a way to experience a modern day version of the Regency.  <g> 

Since I’m a history buff, crossing the Atlantic on a classic ocean liner brought up thoughts of what travel was like in the old, pre-airline days.  As a girl, my mother sailed from California to China when her father took up a teaching position in the Peking medical school.  She was only ten. 

How long was her family at sea?  Weeks, surely.  Perhaps months.  Long enough for the ship to become a way of life.  What was it like to sail from England to Australia?  I think that could run six to eight months in the days of sail.

The QM2 is a very large ship with stabilizers that made for a very smooth voyage.  How different it would be in a small ship that was much more at the mercy of the elements! 

Some of my books have included sailors and long voyages, and I did my best to imagine myself in a seafaring world, but actually traveling to Europe by sea made the experience more visceral.  There was a leisurely feeling to the days since they didn’t vary much, though NYC at the beginning was warm and sunny, and each day thereafter was cooler as we headed north and east to Southampton.

The QM2 is so tall that as we left New York’s harbor, the ship captain went on the ship wide loudspeaker to say that there was indeed enough clearance to get under the Verrazano Bridge. <G> 

2012-08-02 21.42.08

Believe me, it’s quite an experience to sail by the Statue of Liberty as we steamed out of New York Harbor.  Seeing Lady Liberty brought images of immigrants arriving in America and seeing her as a hope for a better future:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

We had very good weather (the Mayhem Consultant has a sideline in weather magery <G>), but there was one day of pure white fog that was so featureless that it made me think of the Starship Enterprise moving through space.  There was no horizon, no sky, barely a sense of the sea through which we moved.  It was all a peaceful white cocoon pierced by the occasional muffled blast of the ship’s foghorn to warn other vessels that a Very Big Ship was in the vicinity.  (The QM2’s horn is deep and powerful and has a real sense of presence. <G>) 

2012-08-09 07.15.55We arrived at the bustling docks of Southampton very early in the morning, as Cunard ocean liners have done for going on two centuries.  Already we’re thinking that someday we’d like to make the return trip from Southampton to New York.  If that happens, we’ll be able to see Lady Liberty as she was designed to be seen: greeting foreign visitors to America. 

Cruising continues to grow in popularity, and this is not the first Word Wench blog on ocean liners: last year Nicola Cornick interviewed Michelle Willingham for a discussion of the research Michelle did on 19th century liners for her book The Accidental Countess.

Have you ever traveled on an ocean liner?  Taken a cruise?  Would you like to?  Some people totally love the idea of shipboard life where you get to visit interesting places while staying in a mobile hotel.  Others totally do not get it.  <G> 

If cruising appeals to you, where would you like to go?  Or where have you gone?

2012-08-04 09.51.55Mary Jo, who is very fond of being on or around water