Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rest In Peace, Captain Harrison

Leslie Nielsen passed away on November 28, 2010 at the age of 84. But before his defining roles in "Airplane!" and the "Naked Gun" movies, he commanded the Queen Mary. Twice.

"Surely you can't be serious!"

I am serious...and don't call me Shirley.

Really, though. Leslie Nielsen appeared as Captain Harrison in "The Poseidon Adventure" back in 1972. Although he gets very little real screen time, his character did strike me as being quite the capable seaman. And is it just me, but does Leslie Nielsen bear a slight resemblance to Captain John Treasure Jones? Captain Harrison, anyway, is presumably killed when the Poseidon capsizes.

Mr. Nielsen would again take "command" in 1985. An episode of "Murder, She Wrote" found Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) aboard a ship bound for the Caribbean and under the command of a Captain Daniels. No doubt the producers thought it would funny to have him reprise his role. Thankfully the ship fared better.

In all seriousness, though, it's sad to hear that Leslie Nielsen is gone. He brought so much laughter and joy to audiences everywhere with his uncanny ability to be silly and hold a straight face. May he rest in peace.

And to conclude this post on something somewhat related to ocean liners:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

QE2: A Lady in Waiting

The famed Queen Elizabeth 2 - or more affectionately known as QE2 - arrived in Dubai on November 26, 2008 after serving the Cunard Line for a total of 40 years. She became one of the most beloved ships that the world has ever known, and her legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those who sailed and worked aboard her. Sold to interests in Dubai, the QE2 was to be converted from an ocean liner to a floating hotel and tourist attraction (just as her predecessor Queen Mary was when she arrived in Long Beach, California). Several plans were made, including one to remove her famous funnel and replace it with a glass replica that would house several luxury suites. Another would replace her engine room with a dance club. These and more are outlined below:

Since the QE2's arrival two years ago, however, she has remained virtually untouched. The Cunard Queen sits empty in port with much of her furniture and fittings still aboard: as if she's waiting for the chance to set sail once again. Worsening economic conditions forced her owners to abandon their initial plans, and so she sits "like a modern-day Mary Celeste, abandoned and untouched" at her berth in Port Rashid.

No one knows for sure what the future of the Queen Elizabeth 2 may be, but one can only hope that this old ship will be saved from the breakers who would gladly dismantle the happy memories of so many people from across the globe.

References: Mail Foreign Service, "QE2 abandoned at Port Rashid in Dubai," Mail Online, March 16, 2010, under "Travel," http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-1258298/QE2-abandoned-Port-Rashid-Dubai.html (accessed November 28, 2010).

Saturday, November 27, 2010


The great rivalry between the White Star Line and Cunard is legendary among maritime enthusiasts. Each company was famous for trying to outdo the other by building bigger, faster, and more luxurious ships than the world had ever seen before (i.e., Cunard's Mauretania and Lusitania versus White Star's Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic). It should be no surprise to learn that this rivalry extended all the way down to those who actually worked aboard these liners. This was undoubtedly an underlying cause to an event that future-Commodore Harry Grattidge described while serving as Fourth Officer aboard the RMS Carpathia. But the main reason seems to have concerned a far deeper sense of rivalry:
At 6:30 P.M., a bugler sounded the dress call, which gave us just time to take our seats in the dining saloon as another bugle sounded at seven. At Genoa, where we lay alongside the White Star liner Canopic, the dinner bugle had provoked a long-standing feud. At the appointed hour the bugler from each ship would march solemnly on deck. To hail each other was beneath their dignity, nor did they even glance at each other, for, while our bugler had belonged to the Household Cavalry, the Canopic’s bugler had served with the Irish Guards. (Only a Guardsmen could appreciate the deep significance of this.)

Instead they let the music signify their rivalry and the harbor rang with the shrill notes of “The Roast Beef of Old England,” each man contesting for the extra note until one felt that their lungs must burst under the strain. They were implacable, they would not give up, and more often than not the contest ended in a dead heat.
As stated, sometimes this rivalry extended far beyond what company the crew individual member worked for. It nevertheless contributed to the somewhat tense relations between the White Star Line and Cunard.

References: Captain Harry Grattidge, Captain of the Queens: The Autobiography of Captain Harry Grattidge, Former Commodore of the Cunard Line as told to Richard Collier (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1956), 65-66.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Chef's Lot

The chefs found on the Cunard Queens were masters of their craft. They were the ones responsible for creating the exciting dishes and desserts that passengers would crave for again and again on a regular transatlantic crossing. Their lives, as such, revolved around creating these culinary masterpieces. Arthur Townshend, former Head Chef on the Queen Mary, explains a regular day's routine:

Well as far as working hours were concerned we used, well all kitchen staff, started work at 6.30 in the morning and you more or less got a break of an hour during the forenoon. This was your morning break which was arranged by your leading cook according to work. The idea was to get below, have a wash and a shave and clean apron, straighten yourself up. You could call at the linen locker and get a clean apron, even in those days before the war the linen was available to us. You’d have a break, have a smoke if you so desired, then you’d go back to work again. You worked to half past two, quarter to three, having gone through the traumatic system of lunch. After having overcome lunch we, the kitchen staff, departed for our afternoon break which was sacrosanct. It was the witching hour to go and rest your weary head if you so desired, which most of us did. Not a sound would be heard in the cooks’ quarters, wasn’t allowed to be heard in the cooks’ quarters during the time between 3 and 4.30pm. 4.30 you came back to work again. Of course, the kitchens were left with an afternoon staff on, not a full staff, but those that were doing the afternoon work stayed there until the rest of the cooks came back at 4.30pm. Then you continued work, preparing for dinner, which was served at 7 o’clock, and you worked on until you got out of the kitchens, round half past ten in the evening. A long day and when you’d done the day you knew you’d done it. But it was a day that was occupied. You didn’t have a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself.

Such was their lot aboard the Mary, but one can bet that they felt a tremendous sense of pride in their work.

References: Chris Howard Bailey, comp., Down the Burma Road: Work and Leisure for the Below-Deck Crew of the Queen Mary (Southampton: Oral History Team Southampton Local Studies Section) 47-48.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"...to deliver the passengers fattened and lethargic."

Food, as has been discussed in posts throughout the week, has always held a privileged place on an ocean liner. Just as Commodore Robert G. Thelwell discussed his weight problem, it should be no surprise that passengers faced that very same "Battle of the Bulge." The following comes from Mrs. Velma Krauch, who traveled aboard the Queen Mary on her final crossing from Southampton to Long Beach in the latter part of 1967:

Along about now Hannah and I were beginning to feel the sins and corruption of a cruise diet. While dressing for dinner one night I walked into her cabin fumbling with the zipper on my skirt, gasping, "Good Lord, look at this. What will I wear for dinner if the waistband on my one and only long skirt gets any tighter?"

Before she could answer, Bill popped in with his perennial cheer, and offered, "There's not a thing wrong with the waistband...why don't you try doing something about the f-a-t underneath it?"

He did have a point, miserable as it was.

Of course the lazy days laying in the sun, leisurely swimming in the pool, and sitting around the Smoke Room before dinner with drinks and appetizers, did little to stem the flow of obesity. Whenever I attempted a good brisk, athletic walk around the deck, my inborn magnetic compass automatically pulled in the direction of a steward serving either boullion and crackers or tea and pastries. Cunard, I know, had to fulfill her side of the contract with Long Beach, but I have a sneaking suspicion that somewhere in the fine print was a line that read, "and to deliver the passengers fattened and lethargic."

I imagine that many of Mrs. Krauch's fellow travelers would have heartily agreed with her.

References: Velma Krauch, Three Stacks and You're Out: A light hearted account of the Last Voyage of the R.M.S. Queen Mary around Cape Horn (Los Angeles: VanLee Enterprise, 1971), 90-94

A Gala Dinner on the Normandie

The Compagnie Générale Transatlantique - more commonly known as the French Line - celebrated the Normandie's debut with a gala dinner aboard the new liner. Everyone in France's high society was there, along with President Albert Lebrun and his wife. Even Sir Percy Bates, the head of the rival Cunard Line, was among the attendees. As the presidential couple entered the ship's magnificent dining room, all one thousand people waiting for them stood up and feverishly applauded. As everyone rose, it is said that the sound of chairs scraping agaist tile was deafening.

The dinner was to represent the very best of French cuisine. Only the finest would do. The chefs prepared a grand meal that included courses of turtle soup, turbotin aux poireaux, canard rouennaise braisé, and finally finished with a brand-new dish called Bombe Normandie. It was "a sinfully rich chocolate-covered finale that, appearing for the first time that night, would reappear repeatedly at numerous banquets to follow." To complete the evening, coffee and candy was distributed to the diners in good order.

It was a highly successful and elegant beginning for the Normandie's painfully short career.

References: John Maxtone-Graham, Normandie: France's Legendary Art Deco Ocean Liner (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 118-119.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sir James's Table

Of all the masters who commanded the RMS Aquitania during her lengthy career, it can be argued that Commodore Sir James Charles was by far the most popular. Commodore Robert G. Thelwell described him as "the most remarkable man I served in my life at sea." His seamanship was superb and he radiated a sort of serene confidence to all who encountered him. He commanded "The Ship Beautiful" for most of the 1920s, and according to historian Daniel Allen Butler:

He was quite possibly the most debonair captain ever to stand on the bridge of any liner: square-jawed, handsome, and dignified in his double-breasted jacket with its four bands of gold braid on the cuffs and two rows of decorations on the left breast, Charles looked and acted every inch the part of a master of the most popular ship on the Atlantic.

He was a charming, affable and humorous host who always kept his passengers entertained and absolutely delighted with stories of his early days at sea. If the man himself was impressive, however, his table was even more so.

Sir James was a known trencherman, or hearty eater. His table was scene to tremendous culinary undertakings, as Elspeth Wills explains:

Whole roast oxen or small herds of gazelles, surmounted by hillocks of foie grass decorated with peacock feathers, were wheeled to [Sir James's] table where champagne was served in jeroboams and soufflés were size of chef’s hats. Confectioners spent hours creating centre pieces in carved ice or spun sugar: on one occasion an electrically illuminated Battle of Waterloo was carried in to the ship’s orchestra playing Elgar.

Is it any wonder that Commodore Sir James Charles was so popular among the passengers?

References: Commodore Robert G. Thelwell, I Captained the Big Ships, comp. Robert Jackson (London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1961), 36.

Daniel Allen Butler, The Age of Cunard: A Transatlantic History 1839-2003 (Annapolis: Lighthouse Publishing, 2003), 241.

Elspeth Wills, Cunardia: A steamer trunk of titbits, trivia and trifles. (London: The Open Agency, 2005), 24.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"That little potato is worth two hundred calories to you, Captain."

Luxury liners have been famous for the excellent food prepared in their kitchens by master chefs. Their passengers marveled at the wondrous dishes set before them and craved for more. Staff officers - most notably the captain - dined with them as well and acted as hosts and ambassadors for their ship and company.

The Cunard Line's Commodore Robert G. Thelwell explains a typical meal:

Lunch brought me face to face with the splendid menus provided in the big Atlantic ships, and as the years went by I had to live with the concomitant, my increasing weight.

I suppose it is inevitable for diet to become an obsession with most captains of the big liners after a year or two. It did with me. I like my food. In my time as an officer of the Merchant Navy, the food at sea has often been indifferent, sometimes scanty. We learnt to take it as it came and not fuss too much about it. But to captains of luxury liners, the best food in the world, cooked by the best chefs, is available at the push of a button and my idea of a satisfying meal became a few blue-point oysters, a little turtle soup followed by fillet of sole
meuniere, breast of Rouen duckling and a savoury of fried Camambert. No wine, of course. Except on special occasions, I never drank wine at my table.

The Commodore then points out the ill-effects of such extravagance (even without wine):

Such a diet, repeated twice daily, with snacks in between, soon added inches to my waist-line and I quickly realized that the best of menus must be varied with a far more simple regimen. A captain's work keeps him agile and I never failed to perform a 'daily dozen' in my cabin. I substituted a plate of lean bacon and tomatoes for the chef's splendid five-course lunch, but it was no good. I was becoming a roly-poly of a man and mentioned casually at my table that a diet seemed the only answer to my weight problem.

In no time word went round the ship that I was to go on a diet and at once I was overwhelmed with advice. No nation in the world is more diet-conscious than the Americans and diet sheets quickly began to rain on me. I could not believe what I had started. People stopped me as I walked around the ship and took me aside at parties to give me advice. I remember a voyage when all but one of the passengers were Americans and the women watched me with friendly censoriousness as I ate. "That little potato is worth two hundred calories to you, Captain," said a woman reproachfully.

Commodore Thelwell's weight problem was soon remedied, however, when he picked up a leaflet in London that gave menus guaranteed to shed pounds. After about two voyages he found himself boasting about his weight loss and had the pamphlets reprinted on his ship to be distributed to health conscious passengers. Commodore Thelwell, however, always made sure to point out that it was put together by British know-how.

References: Commodore Robert G. Thelwell, I Captained the Big Ships, comp. Robert Jackson (London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1961), 123-125.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Medic & Bob Hope

Bob Hope and his wife Dolores returned to America aboard the RMS Queen Mary just as World War II was breaking out in September 1939. When the news officially came, the ship was put on full alert as her crew took every precaution necessary to avoid contact with one of Hitler's dreaded U-Boats. It was a bleak time to be sure, but with Captain R.B. Irving's permission, Mr. Hope performed in the First Class Main Lounge that night to try and raise his fellow passengers' spirits.

As World War II progressed, Mr. Hope became heavily (and quite famously) involved with the USO by putting on many comedy shows and helping to raise the troops' morale. The Queen Mary would transport him several more times during the course of the conflict, and the following passage tells of how one American medic was able to meet Old Ski Nose by accident. It comes from an autobiography entitled Warrior Without Weapons: An Army medic's life aboard the Queen Mary during World War II by Robert R. Copeland:

The Bob Hope Show traveled to England twice aboard the Queen Mary while I was doing my tour of duty. As usual, I was too busy in the hospital and missed all the shows. But I did meet both Jerry Colonna and Bob Hope personally, and while the incidents don't prove much of anything, they are occasions I remember vividly because of the famous personalities involved.

After discussing how he met Jerry Colonna "head-to-head rather than face-to-face," Mr. Copeland continues on:

My encounter with Bob Hope was equally unmemorable to anyone but myself. We were mid-ocean heading east and had so few patients that trip we closed the ward just off the lab. I was therefore very much surprised one evening when I went into the lab to get a report and heard some unusual noises in the vacant ward. I opened the door and switched on the lights, and there in the center of the room stood Bob Hope!

"How in the hell do I get out of this place?" he demanded.

I said, "No problem, Mr. Hope, I was just wondering how in the hell you got in...you must have come in through the wall."

"No I didn't. I was outside and saw that door there and just walked in quick-like to get out of the wind and rain...and it closed on me...and there's no knob to re-open it," he explained.

And it was true. There had been a cabinet in front of that door, so there was no knob on it. We never used it as a door, and I had forgotten it was there. I escorted Mr. Hope out through the lab, and in an effort to be friendly, and perhaps also to have something to tell my grandchildren offered him a tour of the hospital.

"No thanks...hospitals give me the creeps!" he said, and with that, Mr. Bob Hope left my life forever.

References: Robert R. Copeland, Warrior Without Weapons: An Army medic's life aboard the Queen Mary during World War II, ed. Martine H. Justak (Indianapolis: Griffing-Horne Press, 1989), 56-57.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Great Queen Mary Propeller Hunt

When the Queen Mary arrived in Long Beach, CA in 1967, it was agreed that she would be decommissioned and become incapable of sailing anywhere under her own power. All twenty-seven of the ship's boilers were dismantled, along with both turbo generator rooms and the forward engine room. Three of her four massive propellers were also removed as a part of this process. Someone asked me what happened to them over the summer, and I had to confess to her that I didn't know. But that set me on a quest to try and find out what happened to the Queen Mary's propellers.

The first one is still attached to the ship and on display in a specially-built box. Each of these screws are 18 feet in diameter, weigh a total of 32 tons and made of manganese bronze. They were so delicately balanced, however, that the slightest push in drydock would actually spin them.

Turns out that I really didn't have all that far to go for the next two propellers. This one is displayed near the entrance of Carnival Cruise Line's parking structure on the other end of the property. It used to be mounted in the Queen Mary Seaport Village but was moved a few years ago due to renovations.

Here's a close-up on the plaque located nearby.

The third prop is actually located a little behind the second one. I couldn't get too close to it, but I've had it confirmed by two different people that it indeed belongs to the Queen Mary (and why else would would there be another ship's propeller on the property?). Makes sense to me.

The Queen Mary's fourth and final screw is located at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in nearby San Pedro, CA. This one actually took a bit of searching. It wasn't marked at all, nor was it remotely close to the main entrance. If you look way, way to the left you'll see it. There also seemed to be a bit of confusion inside as well: the lady at the front desk said it didn't belong to the Grand Old Lady while the man in the radio room upstairs said it did. Upon closer examination, however, this propeller does bear the inscription of J Stone & Co. Ltd - the makers of the Queen Mary's screws. So there's no doubt about it whatsoever.

One of them used to be on display in Los Angeles' Exhibition Park; I remember seeing it there on a field trip way back when. I've heard it said that it was the one at the Maritime Museum, but I have no way to confirm or deny this.

It also seems that there was a fifth propeller. This one was a spare, I understand, and melted down when the Queen Mary came to Long Beach to be used for things like commemorative coins, tie clips and the like.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"What the hell is this war all about, sergeant?"

The great ocean liners of the 1930s were mobilized as the Second World War erupted and plunged Europe into another bloody conflict. Perhaps the grandest of them all, the Queen Mary was activated as a troopship in March 1940. She began her service transporting ANZACs, but would become famous for carrying American GIs from New York to the Scottish port of Gourock.

The Queen Mary would ultimately carry over 800,000 troops to all corners of the world and play a role in every major Allied campaign of the war - most of her passengers were Americans. She would also take the world record for the most number of people ever embarked on a single ship: 16,683 in July 1943. That record still stands (which is probably a good thing). But since the U.S. Army was integrated during this period, I've often wondered how black soldiers were treated aboard the Queen Mary. The bit of information that I've been able to find on the subject comes from Howard Zinn's autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train:

The officers on board were all given supervisory jobs, and mine was to "keep order" in the huge mess hall where the troops ate twice a day, in four shifts. The four thousand black soldiers on board, who slept in the depths of the ship near the engine room, ate last.

(It seems absurd - but is so typical of whites in this country - that I hadn't noticed the absence of blacks in basic training at Jefferson Barracks until one day I took a long walk through the base and found myself in an all-black environment. What I remember most vividly is a squad of black soldiers taking a break on the grass near me, singing "Ain't Gonna Study War No More!" I was startled. I had never heard white troops sing that.)

On the fifth day at sea, there was a mix-up, and the last shift was sent into the mess hall before the previous one was finished eating - four thousand black men pouring into the hall, filling in wherever other men had finished and left. It was now, accidentally, a racially integrated dining hall.

"Lieutenant!" A white sergeant, sitting next to a black man, was calling to me. "Get him out of here until I finish." This angered me, and for the first time in my military career I pulled rank. I shook my head. "If you don't want to finish your food, you can leave. What the hell is this war all about, sergeant?" It was a long way to the next meal, and the sergeant stayed and ate. I learned something from that little incident, later reinforced in my years in the South: that most racists have something they care about more than racial segregation, and the problem is to locate what that is.

References: Howard Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 91-92.