ABOARD THE QE II. — Aboard the QE II.--A gull drifts in the slipstream behind the funnel, now and then raising a languorous wing. The bird picked up the ship as it was pushed by a fat tug into the Hudson's current and pointed toward the sea. The ruined West Side of lower Manhattan glides by. Perhaps the bird has found the way out of this urban misery and would go all the way to Europe. They have been known to.
The departure of an ocean liner like the Queen Elizabeth II is no the dockside festivity it once was when people traveled this way for serious purposes. There was a meaning to those celebrations; they harkened to the days when travel by ship across the North Atlantic was perilous and often marked the last time one might see or touch the loved one. Only about a hundred people waved from the quay at those aboard the QEII in late June. There were no streamers and no brass bands.
* The Queen is not a Love Boat given entirely over to frivolou uses. Though she does jaunts among the islands and into other vacation areas around the globe, she remains the only trans-Atlantic liner operating today; probably she is the last of her kind, and maybe for that reason there is an obvious affection for her on all levels.
A New York port policeman, asked the whereabouts of Cunard' flagship, brightens and says: "The Queen? Ah, there's no one like her." He points down to Berth 3, where she sits waiting to get under way, 67,000 tons of white and black steel and teak wood, piled 13 stories high.
Who sails on the QEII these days? Why? What do they d aboard?
Taking the last question first, the list of activities, innocent an exotic, seems endless. You can swim (in three pools), play basketball or racquetball, drive or putt a golf ball, you can go to the movies, see a song and dance show, watch television. You can play bingo, bet on a horse, hear a lecture on how to manage your money or make up your face.
You can buy jewelry or virtually anything else that is expensive i not useful. You can shop in Harrod's, get a massage, learn to dance, win at dice or lose at cards, drink and eat until you have no more capacity for it.
Eating, in fact, and the consequences of doing too much of it, i the commonest subject of conversation heard in the airy white arcades, and various lounges, grills and elegant dining rooms of the QEII.
"I've got to be careful with all the food," says a woman wit bluish-white hair and a red face waddling through the casino, her voice suggesting a suspicion that the cooks (there are 100 of them) are laying coronary traps at every meal.
Who sails on the QEII? Many who have done so before. Th repeat passengers range upward from 20 per cent each voyage.
"Easily 30 per cent have been aboard before," says Morte Mathiesen, surveying the tables in the Columbia dining room. He is a young Norwegian and the ship's hotel manager; he sees to the provision of all the pleasures the Queen has to offer.
Many of the passengers on the Queen are elderly. They have th time, the money and the strongest desire to avoid the bumps and hassles that are so much a part of modern air travel. But there are many children aboard, as well as young and middle-aged couples still building careers.
Among the repeat passengers is a retired English businessma willing to offer his opinion of the experience if not his name for publication. He has crossed seven times, and was aboard this ship's predecessor. He finds the QEII lacking by comparison with the first Queen. "The grand stairways. The wood paneling. The chandeliers. There's none of that here. It's all plastic!"
It isn't all plastic, of course, and he is not so filled with nostalgi regret as his words might suggest, else he wouldn't keep coming back. He still believes it is the only way to cross.
He is the perfect Englishman, pink-faced, handsome an white-haired, polite almost to a fault, faintly diffident. He spends much of his time watching the sea change its color and texture and mood, and from every vantage point aboard. He seems to know that that is the true reward of voyaging rather than the gaming tables, the late-night shows and other entertainments put on to divert the passengers from dwelling on the sometimes unsettling fact that they are encompassed every mile of the way by a cold and immense sea.
There are many like him, people who might have been mor comfortable living their lives back when the words "the only way to cross" were literally true, not merely an expression of preference.
The clear and deep pleasure they all take from this experienc naturally raises the question: What killed the trans-Atlantic liners? The answer of course is the jet. Before 1958, most travelers to and from Europe went by boat. Two years later, with intercontinental jet service firmly established, 70 per cent were flying. John Maxtone-Graham, a nautical historian, wrote of the great liners that they had become "white elephants almost overnight."
In response to the challenge from the jet, the liners switche from crossing to cruising. They offered short sojourns to Sybaritic venues. For some it paid off, because it is cheaper to go nowhere slowly than somewhere fast.
The reason? A ship's fuel consumption grows geometrically a its speed increases. A five-day crossing at 28.5 knots (the QEII's cruising speed) becomes extremely expensive (which is why the tickets cost so much). Ships cruising lazily through the Caribbean from island to island burn much less fuel and make much more money. Which is why virtually all the lines have turned entirely to that kind of travel. All, that is, except Cunard. This year, the QEII will cross the North Atlantic 26 times.
It has been suggested that the QEII serves as much a symboli purpose for the United Kingdom as an economic one. Mr. Mathiesen refers to the Queen as "Britain's flagship." It, along with the Concorde, according to this interpretation, asserts to the world that Britain counts for something yet. The Royal Navy may be in tatters, but the Queen still sails.
The Queen and the Concorde, working in tandem, target th elite levels of the travel market. You can get a cheaper fare back on Concorde if you take the Queen across. Both appeal to a specific pretension among the well-off. Concorde shrinks travel time to just over three hours from New York to London; it sells this advantage to those who either believe the three hours gained are worth the price, or are willing to pay to give the impression of importance and clout that Concorde flights bestow on their passengers. Did you ever meet anyone who has traveled on the Concorde who did not eventually let you know about it?
The Queen's appeal is to a more traditional pretension: to th notion that the true way to advertise one's importance is by squandering the most precious commodity in today's world, time. A three-hour crossing is less impressive to friends than a leisured six days.
Of course, a lot of people go on the QEII simply because the like ocean travel.
South of Newfoundland, Captain Robin Woodall advises th passengers that the ship will soon approach the great ice field and then will pass near the resting place of the world's most famous liner, Titanic. Then the Queen will turn on to what is called its "great circle course" to the entrance to the English Channel, then to its home port, Southampton.
The sun is high and bright. Only patches of cloud paint the sky We are 30 miles south of the ice but the air has not yet gained the bite for which the North Atlantic is known.
The wind hits the ship hard on the port side. The sea is black then green and in some agitation. Old folks with canes keep to the starboard side of the promenade deck. The joggers press on, round and round, their hair flying.
Other passengers, less convinced of the benefits of exertion deploy across the sheltered aft deck, around a sloshing pool too frigid to consider.
They are right above the diesels back here, newly installed i 1987, and you can imagine their power. You can feel it. The entire fantail vibrates; it is soporific. People nod and nap.
There are bodies everywhere, sprawled across the teak; ol bodies that look like sacks of beans, white bodies that haven't seen the sun, young bodies, French bodies, German bodies, Japanese, English and American bodies; 28 nationalities are represented on the passenger list.
The ship's white wake, as wide in places as the Patuxent, roil and churns sinuously off toward North America. Beneath the deck of teak are crew's quarters, and they, too, the ones off duty among the thousand of them who run this ship and tend to the 1,300 passengers, are sprawled out on a painted steel deck above the wake. Everyone is taking the sun almost as if they expected it to disappear from one day to the next.
Which it did the second day out, only to return on the third.
Richard O'Mara is The Sun's London correspondent.