A Travellerspoint blog


Last days at sea

View QM2, Westbound Apr-May 2012 on Gelli's travel map.

A few days along and I have settled in. As is normal for me on a ship, I have acquired a basic routine now I know what is going on. One logical curiosity of the trip is the combination of time zones and journey time mean that the clocks change virtually every night (6 out of 7) – thus on a Westbound voyage, the days are generally 25hours long. After the first night the scene was quite empty, with just the occasional bird to be seen until Day 5 when occasional cargo ships started to be spotted as well as a random airplane that circled the ship one evening and came, I assume, from Newfoundland. After 24 hours on board, I was further West than I have ever been in my life and rapidly moving more into the unknown hemisphere.

Though I have found my niche on board, I have felt increasingly out of place. Whilst I freely admit that I haven't 'played the game' fully, at no point have I have ever really felt welcome on the ship. I have thus found it much harder to relax than normal, and making connections has also not really happened. In theory, I should find it easier to fall into conversation with people on this trip than on my HAL trips - the vast majority of people on board are native English speakers, and whilst many passengers are much older as a percentage there are more younger people. In practice, I have found it harder to connect with people. Although I talked to any number of people, I only managed to have anything resembling a meaningful conversation in isolated cases. For the first time on departing a ship, there is not a single person who I will stay in touch with once ashore or would wish to become friends with.

Thus instead of being social, making friends with crew or drinking beer, all of which were regular features of previous trips, I have spent more time alone, often in my cabin or reading in the library. Plans to attempt some work rapidly went up in a plume of smoke – literally - when the power supply on my macbook went BANG! on the first sea day, rendering me sadly mac-less for the voyage. Frequent strong winds and squalls (it was, after all, the North Atlantic in April/early May and not prime summer weather. Heck, 100 years ago this month, the Titanic and other ships were encountering icebergs on this very journey) limited the amount of time that could comfortably be spent on deck or that I would normally spend outside, although I still went out as much as possible and also tried to do a few laps every day at least. I went to a solo traveller meet on Day 2 (which was very, very scary being full of mostly retired American and Canadian ladies who seem to virtually live on cruise ships and I can only assume are not lacking the odd dollar – several had just completed the 4 month round the world voyage, and at least 3 had been on board for more than a year. To put into context, at the very cheapest rate that would cost me about 3 years salary just for the cabin alone), took in a couple of lectures, and watched some films and sport shown via satellite link in the main auditoriums.

In the early evening of Day 5 we passed 50miles north of the final resting place of RMS Titanic, a slightly eerie and sobering moment on any transatlantic voyage, but more poignant in the 100th anniversary of it's sinking and barely a couple of weeks after a memorial cruise had come this way. But onwards, relentlessly we sailed. I tried hard to empty my head, to relax, to forget things and to a point it definitely worked. Perhaps not quite as well as I would have hoped, but it was not bad. After all, I was no longer in Newbury. I also managed to sleep about as much during the week as in the previous month or two combined, and for that reason alone the trip has been worthwhile.

Though it has not been a bad voyage, I admit that it has probably been the least enjoyable of all my voyages to date. It is also the first time that I have been increasingly happy that I will be disembarking soon; on all previous ships I would have been content to remain on board for longer. I am not entirely sure why, but guess that my mental and physical state have probably not helped and the novelty of passenger trips has also probably worn off. But as previously noted, I don't fit the desired demographic of passenger and feel quite awkward because of it. This does not necessarily bode well for the return voyage, especially as an administrative balls-up has led to my paying in excess of 400gbp more than I should have done – something I had resigned myself to before this voyage, but after this experience it certainly hasn't helped my mood about the incident. I may well have company on my return trip, which will force me to get some fancy clothes and play the game more, and it may mean I enjoy it more. I should also be much healthier, which will be a definite help. Time will tell. But on this trip at least, though I have enjoyed being at sea again, especially after finding a nice spot to watch the sea, I have found the whole experience just a bit, well, oddly underwhelming. I have realised that I miss the slight chaos of German chartered HAL ships, but more than that, I really miss the freedom of cargo ships.

Oh well. Tomorrow is a new day, and assuming I can prize myself awake in time, I should see the promised land – America; New York City – slowly appear though the dawn.

Posted by Gelli 04:46 Archived in USA Tagged boats ships transatlantic Comments (0)

Little details

View QM2, Westbound Apr-May 2012 on Gelli's travel map.

One of the things I traditionally enjoy about any trip is the bit before - the dreaming; the planning; the anticipation. In this case, everything had happened so fast that I hadn't really had time to take it all in, especially in my still less than perfect state. Though I was expecting to be heading to the US for a period and had finally received my visa earlier this year, I was expecting to be going to work. Thus most of the pre-preparation had been work related. But this trip is entirely personal, for convalescence, and essentially unplanned which left no time for any build up or anticipation. Baring some time hiding out in the sticks and hopefully regaining something resembling “normality”, I have very little idea of what I am going to do or where I am going. But I do like being at sea. It is one of the things that generally relaxes me most. At the moment relaxation is something I desperately need, and I settled onto the QM2 pretty quickly.

Cunard and the Queen Mary 2 pride themselves as the very epitome of luxury; throwbacks to the glory days before jet air travel, when transatlantic voyages were the norm and evocative names of companies such as White Star line and Cunard themselves, competed to be the most luxurious way to cross between Europe and North America. Given more time between booking and sailing, i'm sure my expectations would have increasingly risen, and in a way I think I am glad that I have not had that anticipation time. Why? Because thus far, and admittedly I am not entirely sure what I was expecting, I think I was expecting more from the QM2. First impressions are often telling, and after the first few hours on board I admit that I am not overly impressed. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the decor, to my mind, none of it is really very fancy: rooms feel like midrange chain hotel rooms, whilst the restaurants feel either a bit more or bit less fancy than that - I have been on a couple of cruise ferries in the Baltic which had not overly dissimilar standards in certain restaurants. Even the grand lobby and staircase looked surprisingly understated to me. Yes, there are posher bits, but after a pretty full exploration of the ship, I am still searching for that thing which gives me the “wow” factor that I should undoubtedly have received.


Though I have been on passenger ships before, I suppose this is my first proper crossing/cruise. The nature of the RMS St. Helena means that it is a very different sort of experience as well as being tiny in comparison, and whilst the HAL Noordam and Westerdam which I used to and from South Africa for the World Cup in 2010 are much closer in scale and scope to the QM2, both voyages were private charters and thus not really typical of more regular or scheduled services. Beyond that, I have only been on ferry-type vessels and cargo ships.

The QM2 is 345metres long and about 148,000 gross tonnes. Big, yes, the largest liner ever built by some distance and large amongst cruise ships when built, but are only average by modern cruise ship standards. The Allure of the Seas and her sister ship, for example, are over 225,000 tonnage, whilst the liner design of the QM2 means that she is significantly narrower than modern cruise ships. In terms of passengers, capacity on the QM2 is considered to be about 2,600 although the theoretical maximum is just over 3,000 (the extra people come from using the fold down beds in some cabins and suites and sharing with friends, not extra bookings). Yes, this is allot of people but in nautical terms, not as many as you might expect. In comparison, the Titanic also had a passenger capacity of about 2600, but in a tonnage of under 47,000 – less a third of the QM2, whilst the average modern cruise ship takes 3000-3500+, and a handful comfortably take upwards of 6000 passengers. Staff numbers generally add 50% to that total. As a comparison, The HAL ships I had been on were about 82,000tonnes, 285 metres and about 1,900 passengers, so significantly smaller that the QM2.

My first night on-board was not great. My cabin is on deck 4 (of 12), above the Queens Room near the stern of the ship. But it is, I assume, also above the engines, because I can hear a constant mechanical droning noise in the background, and feel (and even see, if I put a book on the desk, as the cover flaps up and down) a constant and noteworthy vibration in the room. Though the noise is generally audible on the lower decks, I can't see or feel the vibration anywhere else on ship including in the corridor just outside my cabin. In the evening, I can hear the music of whichever show was being performed below, which added an extra irritant and mean't that early nights were impossible. My cabin is roughly the same as my return on the Westerdam: both inside cabins of approximately the same size, style, layout and content. It can be converted between between double or twin beds, and two extra beds can be dropped down from the ceiling for use by a family or a group of 3-4 friends. These are folded up and locked into the roof when not required, which is sensible. But they both rattle something chronic, and really affected my sleep.

By the first morning I knew that if I didn't do anything about it, the rattle would be constantly on my nerves and I would struggle for sleep all week, but after asking both my cabin steward and the pursers office (the nautical equivalent of a hotel's reception) I was told that they couldn't do anything and even refused to send somebody to come and have a look. That seemed very poor customer service to me, and forced me to take matters into my own hands: some judicious use of tightly folded cardboard wedged into offending gaps, combined with unsightly but effective duct tape and rebuilding a desk lamp which also rattled gave me some much needed peace and quiet. For the remainder of the trip, I was forced to add an extra “room-rattle fix” approximately daily, with the end result being that my cabin started to resemble a bizarre piece if modern art or failed origami. A couple of existing bits of cardboard in the roof suggested that I was not the first to encounter these issues, but it was equally obvious that it was not one that Cunard cared about or checked when they were making the room up.

Elsewhere on the ship, I kept finding small things which were irritating or just not thought out properly. In isolated terms none of them were a huge problem, but all in combination convinced me that the ship was just not quite as well designed or as user friendly as others I had been on. For example, one of the larger lounges - the Winter Garden - was full of comfy chairs and tables. But all of the tables were either so low or so poorly designed that it was impossible to put legs under the tables, leading to an uncomfortable stretch to get drinks/other things from the tables. In the Kings Court area – location of many meals, including the self service options – each of the food serving areas had large perspex overhangs, as is normal. In theory, the idea is to stop the spread of germs by preventing people sneezing etc on the food, but in practice overhangs here are so large that it is incredibly awkward to actually get any of the food, especially from the back row. Air conditioning in the cabin could be varied by temperature, but not level as would be expected and can not be turned off. Sign-posting around the ship was patchy and lacking in many places where it would be helpful, whilst oddly, neither in cabins or with the welcome pack was there a top-down deck plan of the ship which would certainly have helped aid learning orientation of the ship, especially as some of stairwells and passageways do not run the entire height/length of the ship.

I also find some of the little details irritating or missing: though allegedly with a much larger selection of books on board, the library is probably less than a quarter of the size of that of the Westerdam and feels claustrophobic, whilst the presence of DVD players in cabins with a vast library of films, music and shows available to be borrowed on HAL ships added extensively to entertainment options, especially for those not feeling very well or sociable, and wishing to remain in their cabins. On the QM2, you are restricted to a few generally unexciting films shown on a daily loop on the TV, some of which were being repeated after the first day or two. In the Chart room, there are some lovely large charts are on the wall – the North Atlantic initially one looks quite impressive, but (admittedly, to a cartographer) at a slightly more detailed glance has some 'interesting' content. All of the text and names are in English, except for Corsica which is randomly shown as “Corse”. There are some curious inconsistencies in font sizes and styles, whilst despite the ship being launched 10years after the split, “Czechoslovakia” is shown; the only place named in Scandinavia and one of only 8 in the half of Europe that is shown is somewhere called “Viken” which despite the fact it is located within about 50km of Kristianstad where I lived for 6 years took me 2 days to recall it's existence, as it is only a village of maybe 4,000 people.

I also noted that whilst the variety of drinks on board was quite extensive, the entire selection of Ale's were stored in fridges or freezers. Whilst this is a constant battle outside of Britain and Ireland to make people understand why they should be stored and served at room temperature, for a mostly British crew on a British ship catering to at least a strong percentage of British passengers, this is unforgivable. Also, although I am sure it is done to disguise the true cost, I was irritated by the fact that 15% is automatically added to all drink purchases on board – hot or cold, in bars or room-service, bottled or hand made, alcoholic or not – and is compulsory. It is not that fact the service is compulsory that I dislike, but rather that it is not included in the price-lists (although the fact that it is added is mentioned on every page). I don't want to have to work out what 15% of 5.85usd is and if it is impossible to avoid, why not just show the total price with a note saying that 15% service is included? That, at least, is more honest.

I have also found staff attentiveness to be lacking: To take one example, on the entire voyage I was only once asked if I wanted something to drink: On all other ships, people are constantly enquiring if they can get you a beer or glass of wine with your meal or when you are sat in communal areas. I have also witnessed a couple of arguments/discussions between crew and passengers, to which the general attitude of the crew has been surprising and an almost arrogant “we work for Cunard. Of course we are correct. How dare you question us, you mere passengers who should be grateful just to be allowed on board”. Combined with my own experiences, I can say that there definitely hasn't been the levels of service and politeness that I would expect in any circumstances, let alone towards people paying hundreds (or in some cases, many thousands) of pounds to be there. The whole thing just feels, i'm not sure, perhaps elitist and not as relaxing or welcoming as I would expect. Oh well.

Posted by Gelli 13:41 Archived in USA Tagged boats ships transatlantic Comments (0)

Transatlantic speed records

View QM2, Westbound Apr-May 2012 on Gelli's travel map.

Before Jet air travel suddenly became regular and affordable in the 1960's, journeys on ocean going liner were common and transatlantic voyages routine. And whilst some people were interested in price and others in opulence and luxury, for many the most important issues was speed of the crossing. It was so important that both shipyards and ship-lines actively sort to develop new technologies and refinements with the goal of making voyages as quick as possible.

The most prestigious, competitive and lucrative market was always the transatlantic one, and whilst certain ships (such as the Titanic) were designed with luxury in mind more than pure speed, a prize was introduced for the ship which held the fastest crossing. This was the Blue Riband, and in the halcyon days of transatlantic voyages, holding the title was of such prestige that the battle to win it was fierce; increasingly ships were built with attempting to win the Blue riband in mind. As port-pairs obviously differed along with distance, a set of rules were laid down and the award given to the average speed, not shortest number of hours, and only the harder Westbound voyages were counted.

Between 1885 and 1939, the title changed 34 times and a total of over knots average speed was gained, and was held by a number of ships included some famous names - The Lusitania, Normandie and the original Queen Mary amongst others - who held the title for between a few days and an astonishing 20 years for the Mauretania between 1909 and 1929 at just over 26 knots. By the outbreak of World War 2, the record stood at virtually 31knots. By the early 1950's the battle had become increasingly political, and advancing technologies and government backed ships such as the France and the United States (no prizes for guessing which country built and operated either liner!) brought sudden new increases in speed culminating in the United States reducing the record by over 10hours, a huge amount (with journey time of under 3.5days). But by then, the writing was already on the wall and days of sea travel being king were numbered. As the jet-age soared and the rich and famous took to the skies, the days of transatlantic crossings rapidly dwindled and the last tranche of great liners had life spans of as little as 5 years. Many were completely re-fitted as cruise ships and transatlantic sailings were drastically cut back or withdrawn completely. Many companies went bankrupt, whilst others re-focused on either pleasure Voyages (eg: Cruising) or carrying cargo. The market for fast transatlantic crossings collapsed, as the few remaining seagoing passengers increasingly wanted either more luxury or lower prices – liners originally designed and built for maximum speed were generally inefficient and had fuel-hungry engines and were doomed. The last “classic” blue riband owner was the United States, which took the title at 34.5knots in 1952 and finished on the route in 1969. By then, year round service by any liner was virtually extinct, and many had gone completely. A handful of operators continued transatlantic service into the 70's though at much reduced speed and lower service levels, and a Polish liner with muliple stops survived into the 1980's. At that point, scheduled transatlantic service was reduced solely to the one remaining luxury liner afloat, QM2's Cunard predecessor, the Queen Elizabeth 2, which maintained a hugely loss making, if regular transatlantic schedule in summer months into the early 21st century. By the end, there was no point or interest in obtaining the Blue riband, and the journey had generally been slowed down to 5 or 6 days. It was utilised almost exclusively by wealthy and more elderly leisure passengers, attracted by a combination of it's luxury, history and the experience of the journey it's self, as opposed to a means of transport: it was essentially a cruise. Many combined it with a flight on Concorde.

Times have definitely changed, and though the fast passenger liner at which it is aimed at has long since become obsolete, the prestige of the Blue riband lives on. From 1990 the glory, if not the official title was fought over by a different breed of craft, ships designed specifically to win the Blue Riband for either the challenge or prestige or both, without such inconveniences as passengers, cargo or commercial purpose. Richard Branson amongst others has made several attempts. The current record was achieved by a Catamaran in 1998 en route from it's construction in Tasmania to it's new owners in Europe (The Fjord Cat is now running between Denmark and Norway). Though in essence a publicity stunt, as well as taking the riband for fastest average speed at 41.3 knots (which is a huge 76.5km/h, though admittedly it was an Eastbound voyage) it's crossing was the first time a passenger vessel - albeit without passengers onboard - had crossed the Atlantic in less than 3 days.


The Queen Mary 2 (QM2) was launched as a replacement for the QE2 in 2004 and is the only Ocean liner built in the last 40 years. It differs from cruise ships in it's design; a different shape of hull and greater freeboard and onboard facilities designed more for faster, shorter point to point crossings in often miserable North Atlantic weather as opposed to cruise voyages which are for pure pleasure and in warmer climates, with slower speeds, increased numbers of balconies, maximised outside space and facilities and frequent calls in port. At full speed, she touches 35 knots, but despite that is scheduled to average a more leisurely 18-22knots making her markedly slower crossing the Atlantic than the fastest liners of 70, 80, even 100 years ago. If this voyage had been a Blue riband attempt, it's speed would have only been good enough to win in 1882, and would have lasted only a few months. These days, speed is not important, and oil prices mean it is expensive. The QM2s Transatlantic crossings are a cruise in all but name, and occur in summer months only. The rest of the year she does a World Cruise and more profitable traditional cruising, trading on her name and history. In transatlantic terms, most passengers are interested in the voyage, the glamour, the experience; few people use the ship solely for transport, and the cruise itself is an integral part of (or, for some people, the entire) holiday and not a means from A to B. After all, if you are in a hurry, any sane person would fly.

In transport terms, it is interesting how progress seems to go and be repeated. To begin with, we see what is physically possible. Then it becomes an usual if regular event. Then, it becomes normal and mainstream, at which point variants and refinements occur as it becomes accepted by the masses. Then there is a burst as we actively seek and develop any new technology to go faster – we strive to be as fast as possible, to be the jewel in the crown, the race for speed. Then, it appears, realism kicks in: yes we can go really fast, but is it worth it? The novelty value wears off, the markets flatten and pragmatism takes over as pure speed takes a back-seat to capacity, affordability, sustainability and market forces. Thus, it is almost an oddity that in terms of both air and sea services, transatlantic crossing times are now significantly longer than they have historically been: Both Concorde (by air, 30 years ago) and, for example, the Mauretania (by sea, 100 years ago), took little over half the time that the equivalent journey today takes. The realisation that the extra cost of building machines for such higher speeds, coupled with the extra fuel – whether jet fuel, diesel, or in the old days, wood and coal – required to meet those speeds is just not sustainable or economically viable.

As with most cruise schedules, instead of steaming as fast as possible and arriving sooner but at potentially more unfavourable times (eg: the middle of the night) journeys are generally timed to leave port late afternoon and to arrive early in the morning: Both are logical. It maximises daytime port time for passengers and also lend themselves to some wonderful views of arriving in the early morning light, and of land fading away around sunset on departures. In addition, same day turnarounds in ports cut down on expensive port fees, and allow more time for people to spend money at sea.

Today the Queen Mary 2 is scheduled to take a week for the transatlantic voyage.

At full speed, QM2 would be 2-3 days quicker (at least), but being so leisurely means passengers will spend more on-board and fuel efficiency rises (eg: profits go up). It also leads to some dubious claims. As we proceeded down Southampton Water in heavy traffic – a random cruise ship from the adjacent dock, a container ship, a pleasure cruiser and a sister Cunard ship, the Queen Elizabeth were all ahead of us - past the the Fawley oil depot, we turned to port for Hayling and not Starboard for Yarmouth as would be both logical and quicker. In layman’s terms, as we hit the Solent we turned left, not right, and took the long way around the Isle of Wight. Why? Well, apparently, so we would get a better of view of Portsmouth...

Posted by Gelli 14:05 Archived in USA Tagged boats history ships transatlantic Comments (0)

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