QE2: The Final Season

(as published on Mad Mariner)

Born on the river Clyde, in the John Brown Shipyard, the Queen Elizabeth II was launched by a young queen of the same name in 1967. When she first went to sea the following year, the QE2 was powered by great steam boilers.

After four decades of service and 5.5 million nautical miles – the equivalent of 13 round trips to the moon – the world’s most traveled vessel will make her final passage.

QE2 Accompanied by RAF Nimrod

The Cunard line’s most famous queen will make her final departure from Southampton on Nov. 11 and head slowly southeast, arriving a little more than two weeks later at the port of Dubai World. As she glides to a stop at the quay, her modern diesel-electric power plant, capable of lighting the entire city of Southampton, will gradually still itself.

There she will cease her role as an ocean-going passenger vessel and be refurbished and adapted for her new home. In 2009 the vessel will be berthed at a specially-constructed pier at The Palm Jumeriah, the world’s largest man-made island, to create a floating luxury hotel, retail and entertainment destination.

The fact that her sponsor, Queen Elizabeth II, outlasted her may be testament to the British Monarch’s royal constitution, but the ship will retire with quite a legacy of her own, one that spanned generations of both technology and customers.


By the late 1950s, it was clear that the Queen Mary (1934) and Queen Elizabeth (1938), were showing their age, and there was a great deal of debate over whether a new liner was the right investment, given the recent boom in jet air travel. The British government was originally set to support two new liners but eventually settled on one, with a government subsidy reported at 18 million pounds Sterling (about $35 million at current rates).

Though the original design called for a ship of 75,000 tons, the final plan was slightly smaller – just more than 70,000 tons – to facilitate transits through the Panama and Suez canals, and cost approximately 29 million pounds, or about $57 million.

QE2 Salutes Lady Liberty

QE2’s official maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, began on May 2, 1969, just two months before the first Moon landing. The ship was outfitted in the best of the Cunard tradition of luxury and comfort. The interior design of the time was known as Space-Age Décor, and reflected a taste for all things modern.

While other ocean liners were being withdrawn from service at the time – the United States, the fastest liner ever, left service just months after QE2 began and France, the largest liner of the day, never overcame the massive cost overruns associated with her construction – QE2 proved to be a magnet for those seeking the old-world luxury of a five-day passage between the United States and Great Britain.


Cunard’s Commodore William E. Warwick was on the bridge that inaugural day, accompanied by HRH Prince Charles. The Warwick family shares a lot of history with QE2. Commodore Warwick was the ship’s first master, and his son grew up to command the same ship. Warwick’s grandson, Samuel, maintains a tribute website to the QE2.

In fact, the young Warwick caused quite a stir on his first trip aboard QE2, a voyage with his father in command. The youngster was on the quay, mesmerized by the loading of bananas by conveyor belt, and couldn’t be found. Warwick says he remembers those bananas to this day, as well as a number of other, perhaps more important, family events aboard QE2.

One involves the marriage of his sister, Rebecca, aboard ship. She had planned a shipboard marriage when QE2 pulled into New York in October, 2001. But because of security restrictions after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the ship had to change its port of call to Boston. With the family priest in New York, Sam’s dad, Ron, then QE2’s master, arranged special permission from the governor of Massachusetts to perform the ceremony there. British law normally does not permit ship captains to perform marriages.

Sam says he never aspired to be the third Warwick to command the QE2, but says the ship means a lot to him. He was sad to learn that the ship would be sold and retired before his three-year-old daughter could accompany him on a QE2 cruise, but says he is happy that the ship will be preserved for future generations.


The QE2, at 963 feet long and 105 wide with a 32-foot beam, is the fastest ocean liner currently in service. Her relatively fine hull and moderate weight give her a top speed of 32.5 knots. In fact, Cunard says the QE2 will achieve 19 knots astern, faster than many cruise ships normally move ahead.

That kind of top speed puts her in a class with the fastest of conventional Navy warships, fitting because the QE2 served with the Royal Navy during the Falklands war between Britain and Argentina in 1982. She ferried the British 5th Infantry Brigade to South Georgia Island and returned the survivors of the HMS Argent, a Royal Navy frigate, which was attacked and sunk by Argentinean aircraft.

QE2 has always been a favorite of ship-spotters. Her long, sweeping sheer line and relatively compact superstructure give her a sleek look, befitting of her reputation as the fastest liner afloat. All the Cunard liners are painted in the same distinctive livery – black hull, white superstructure and red stack.

In late 1986, QE2 underwent an extensive, six-month overhaul, a project that included replacing her original steam power plant with huge MAN nine-cylinder, turbocharged diesels that power the electric motors driving her two controllable-pitch propellers. These engines drive some of the most powerful generators ever built for sea duty, each producing 10.5 megawatts of electricity, at 10,000 volts.

The engines are the size of double-decker buses and burn standard bunker fuel that is so thick – it is the consistency of road tar at room temperature – that it must be heated to 284 degrees Fahrenheit in order to get it to flow properly.

QE2 moves approximately 50 feet for every gallon of fuel burned, which means it must burn roughly 20 gallons to move its own length. Even so, this is almost twice the fuel efficiency of its original steam boilers.


While all cruise ships have to meet ocean-class standards for design and construction, the liners of Cunard – intended from day one to traverse the often-angry waters of the North Atlantic – were built to withstand the worst Mother Nature can dish out. Extra steel in her hull gives QE2 extra margins of safety in waters where extreme waves and icebergs are all too common.

In 1995, QE2 had a brush with Hurricane Luis during a westbound transatlantic voyage. During the night of September 10 and early morning hours of Sept. 11, the ship experienced winds of 130 MPH. The average wave height that night was 40 feet, with one specific wave “at 0205 hrs (11 Sep) estimated at 90 feet,” according to the ship’s log entry, written by Sam Warwick’s father, Captain R.W. Warwick.

During that encounter, with the ship still 130 miles away from the “eye” of the hurricane, QE2 was forced to slow to five knots, from her normal service speed of 28 knots. Sam sheepishly admits that while his father was battling hurricane winds and waves up on the bridge, he was dancing the night away in the nightclub below deck. More than a comment on teenage priorities, it is a testament to the hardy liner’s sea-keeping pedigree.


QE2 visits several east coast ports before returning to Southampton this summer. A number of local cruises will help mark her impending retirement, before she leaves in November for Dubai. But she will not be the last Queen in the Cunard fleet, nor even the last Elizabeth.

Cunard announced last fall that it had signed a contract for a new Queen Elizabeth. The 92,000-ton ship, second-largest in the line, will be built by Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri, at its Monfalcone yard, for a cost of approximately $700 million.

Fincantieri also built the Queen Victoria, which entered service earlier this year with Cunard. The Queen Mary 2, which entered service in 2004, is the largest of the Cunard fleet, at more than 151,000 tons. The new ship will launch in 2010, bringing the Cunard fleet back up to three ships.

QE2 Fact Sheet 

Text Copyright © 2008 Thomas M. Tripp

Photos Courtesy of Sam Warwick

Posted by Tom

Tom Tripp is the owner of OceanLines LLC, the publisher of OceanLines and founder of Marine Science Today. He is an award-winning marine journalist, science writer and long-time public communications specialist. His PR career and much of his writing stems from the fact that he loves to explain stuff. It all began when he and his brother Mark threw all of Mom's tomatoes at the back wall of the house. . .