Survivor: RMS Queen Mary

Ah, the RMS Queen Mary. 

So much could be said about this legendary vessel. Proclaimed by many to be the perfect ocean liner, this long-adored Cunarder and winner of the Blue Riband is a marvel in engineering. In this day and age when ocean liners are but a distant memory, the original Queen Mary is very special.

That's because she is still with us and accepting tickets to board to this day, albeit under a different pretence.

Now operating as a hotel, museum and tourist attraction, the Queen Mary is visited in her current home of Long Beach, California by millions of people each year. As indescribably transcendent as it is to actually visit the ship, in reality she is also permanently moored and serving as little more than a shrine. The fascinating thing is that this shrine is built inside the hallowed corpse of a long-ceased form of stately travel. Those who board to visit the liner today will never have the same experience as the passengers who sailed between the old and new worlds in her. That being said, there is a special, irreplaceable energy and atmosphere to "Mary". The craftsmanship, legacy and stories of those who sailed in her when she was operated as intended are too deeply engrained to scrub away and replace with corporate modernism.

And thank God for that. 

There is too much history to Mary to properly convey how important she was to the golden age of ocean travel, which she served through until its twilight years. Construction commenced in 1930, staggered and delayed due to the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the new Cunard superliner set sail on her maiden voyage on May 27, 1936. With the crew determined to wrest the Blue Riband of the Atlantic from their French rival Normandie (previously covered on Amidships), the Queen Mary powered onwards to New York. However, a thick fog enveloped the liner before reaching the coast, stunting her speed for the better part of a day. As soon as it cleared, the Queen Mary's engines were ordered to roar into full power. It is said that she reached a speed of well over thirty knots, but it still brought her into New York Harbour with a crossing slightly longer than Normandie's. An air of disappointment was felt throughout the ship, but it wasn't long before the Queen Mary swept Normandie's record under her own. The two ships would battle it out in style for years with a great deal of media attention and contention for the cream of the business. 

The Queen Mary sailed for the next three years in an endless parade of unbridled luxury and dignity. Notable passengers included Clark Gable, Winston Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Bob Hope, just to name a select few. However, the dreadful cloud of Nazism soon shrouded even the grand, heady heydays of champagne and ballroom dancing at sea. The Queen Mary, as well as countless other vessels, was converted into a gigantic troopship, capable of ferrying 16,000 military personnel and soldiers around the world. She was painted in a stark shade of grey, and given her capability to easily outrun enemy vessels she was aptly nicknamed "The Grey Ghost" until re-entering service as a passenger liner on July 21, 1947.

During her wartime service, she became known for her accidental ramming and sinking of an accompanying destroyer, HMS Curacoa, in 1942. The destroyer was sailing in front of the Queen Mary in a zig-zag formation - a way of both defending the liner and avoiding enemy fire themselves - and proceeded to come too close to the massive grey hull of the 81,000-ton liner. With the Captain of the Queen Mary presuming that the Curacoa would adhere to his vessel's movements and maintain safe distance, the liner continued to power behind the destroyer. It proved a fatal encounter. The sharp, towering prow of the Queen Mary sliced through the six-inch hull of the Curacoa quite literally like a hot knife through butter. The destroyer never stood a chance, being cut clean in two with the Queen Mary sailing right through her mid-section. Under strict orders not to stop to pick up survivors in the sea lest she herself be attacked by U-Boats, those onboard the Queen Mary looked back in horror as the two sections of Curacoa's hull passed on either side of the hull in a most dramatic fashion, the stern section going under almost immediately whilst the bow remained afloat for a few minutes. The liner disappeared into the horizon, leaving 337 officers and crew dead and 101 survivors bobbing about in her wake, waiting for nearby radioed vessels to rescue them. The Queen Mary ended up surviving the perils of war, being restored into a floating palace in 1947. She retired from seagoing service in 1967. It's said that upon sailing into Long Beach and docking for the last time, the crew shut down the engines and looked at each other. Giving out a sigh and giving a look of mourning and great sadness, one of the crew said, "Well, lads... that's the end of the Mary."

But it wasn't. Not fully, at least. Certainly, her days as a true oceangoing liner were over, but she would live on as a floating monument to the "good old days". Several areas were encased in cement and her interiors were given a major overhaul. Much of the ship is inaccessible to the public, and below decks reside a forest of towering stacks of furniture, haphazardly and rather heartlessly piled to the ceilings. The original, iconic Cunard red funnels are long gone; they were removed and deemed total losses (countless reports state that men were walking on them to survey their integrity only to break through them, with some eyewitnesses stating that "only the paint" held them together). Most passenger decks and cabins are still accessible, as well as the iconic public areas such as the forward-facing bar and first-class dining room. Cabins boast the original furnishings save for new mattresses and additions such as televisions, and offer a one-of-a-kind experience for the competitive rental price. 

Fast forward to today, and the Queen Mary is still sitting proud in Long Beach. She certainly needs work after such a long time alive, though; the bridge wings are closed due to unstable and dangerous decking, deterioration and fatigue is evident throughout the ship, and even the funnels are in a desperate need of some love and care. That being said, organizations are allegedly working to restore the ship further and argue in support of keeping the vessel alive, repairing any damage or deterioration. Hopefully this comes to fruition, and that those controlling the ship's future understand the rare and vital link she serves to the past. 

In conclusion, that is the best part about the Queen Mary; she is still telling stories. Those who are lucky enough to stroll her promenade decks and browse her famous shopping arcade are in for an experience one can't find elsewhere. She is one-of-a-kind and no amount of words are sufficient enough to describe how legendary and endearing she is. Despite the Queen Mary 2 (also covered here on Amidships) being the current flagship of Cunard line, the original is where the true charm and grace really lies. Just look at how those behind the recent "Remastering" of Queen Mary 2 called back to the brilliant Art Deco designs of the original Queen Mary and depended on the class and elegance of that age of travel to influence their modern designs. That really says something about her enduring legacy. Those who once travelled on her still reminisce over their time onboard an icon of regal beauty and British pride.

Long live the Queen. Long live the survivor.


Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

To plan a visit to the RMS Queen Mary, consult the ship's official website for booking information and more.

Join Lovers of the Ocean Liners to learn a great deal more about this wondrous icon.