Commanding the Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2)

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

In the history of passenger shipping, few companies can boast a longer or more illustrious history than Cunard, and few vessels are as well known as the line's flagship Queen Elizabeth 2. Commanding the QE2 requires a special

Captain WarwickClick for full-size pic
kind of captain--one who can not only handle any seagoing situation worldwide, but can maintain the bearing and the stiff-upper-lip tradition that this prestigious job demands.

When the QE2 docked at Southampton on April 18 to disembark her British passengers from an around-the-world cruise, Captain Paul Wright turned command back over to Captain Ronald Warwick, who had taken the liner on the first half of the global voyage from Fort Lauderdale to Hong Kong. Captain Warwick would take the ship on the final leg, from the U.K. back to the U.S.

QE2
QE2Click for full-size pic

Embarkation began shortly after 2 p.m., swelling the passenger list to nearly 1,500--including many Americans who were on the last leg of the world cruise, plus a large number British, Germans and other Yanks making the year's first westbound transatlantic crossing. I was on the Boat Deck looking up at Captain Warwick, his officers and pilot as the ship slipped her lines.

On this crossing to New York, the captain said that his ship would make less of a northward arc--the Great Circle Route--because of a large storm ahead and drifting ice off Newfoundland. On previous December crossings, Captain Warwick recalled, he has set an even more radical course change, first going southwest to the Azores to avoid a major storm, sometimes several in succession. Even with this diversion adding over 200 nautical miles to the voyage, the QE2's high speed and reserve power usually results in an on-time New York arrival. Once I was aboard when the ship made 31 knots.

 

Captain Warwick looks every inch the quintessential British captain, bearded and ramrod straight, very much the man in charge. His father, Cunard Commodore William E. Warwick, had commanded the QE2 when she was new in 1969, retiring in 1972 and making the father-son combination unique in the company's 163-year history.

The younger Captain Warwick went to sea in the late 1950s; his first passenger ship was Royal Mail Line's handsome RMS Andes, the very British equivalent to the Cunard's RMS Caronia, the 1948-built Green Goddess. He took to passenger ships, and one day in 1970 after visiting his father aboard the QE2 docked in the port of Kingston, Jamaica, he decided to join Cunard.

He was Chief Officer when the QE2 was requisitioned by the British Government to carry troops and supplies in the 1982 Falklands Campaign following Argentina's attack on the U.K.'s South Atlantic territory. He has lots of memories from that voyage south, including the ship's conversion from the brightest star on the ocean to the darkest: The vessel not only got a military paint job, but had to transport troops without lights or the use of radar, in order to avoid detection. The QE2 was an obvious enemy target.

Mauretania Cabin
Captain's TableClick for full-size pic

As the ship neared South Georgia, Chief Officer Warwick remembered mist settling in over an ice field. When the radar was switched for safety reasons, more than 100 icebergs could be seen, each large enough to sink the ship. When the 3,000 British troops were transferred to P&O's Canberra and Norland, the QE2 became the world's largest hospital ship, carrying 640 survivors--some badly injured--from three British navy vessels. Chief Officer Warwick and the QE2 returned to Southampton on June 11 to a tumultuous welcome, had a major refit, and resumed service in August 1982--still painted gray. He said the hull color was difficult to maintain and within months the color reverted to midnight blue.

His first commands were the Cunard Adventurer, Cunard Countess, Cunard Princess (a favorite) and the Cunard Crown Dynasty. On July 26, 1990, he had his first appointment to the QE2 following the retirement of Captain Robin Woodall and became permanent captain in October 1997.

Captain Warwick is a Cunard man through and through. During his time away from the ship, he researches the company's history; he said he has reached the 90 per cent mark in documenting a list of all Cunard Line captains since 1839. He is the author of 'QE2, The Cunard Line flagship Queen Elizabeth 2,' published by W. W. Norton. First published in 1985, the book was updated in 1993 and 1999. The captain's editor is his wife Kim, who is present on this first westbound crossing of 2002 and comes aboard as often as she can. Book signings are part of every crossing and cruise, and sales are invariably brisk.

The captain has a son and a daughter, and he officiated at the marriage of the latter on October 4, 2001 in Boston harbor. This was the first legal marriage in living memory conducted by a Cunard captain. His son does not go to sea except to dive to wrecks on the ocean bottom; he also maintains a QE2 website.

On every voyage, the captain hosts a passengers' question-and-answer session in the Grand Lounge, and he is masterful in handling difficult questions. When asked if the rumor was true that the QE2 had collided with a tall ship during the New York Harbor July 2000 celebrations, he simply said "No," and that was the end of it. I was aboard then and can attest to the veracity of his answer.

Passengers' favorite questions are usually about the worst storm and the roughest crossing. Captain Warwick said the most dramatic came during hurricane Lewis (1996). The ship hove to, making 4-5 knots to maintain steering into the mountainous seas, and he advised passengers to stay in their cabins. The ship encountered a massive rogue wave, estimated at 95 feet high--the same height from the ocean surface as eye level from the bridge.

According to the captain, the white cresting wall looked like the white cliffs of Dover, and he turned aside in case the forward glass windows gave. They held, and a shudder went through the ship, but the only damage was to the foredeck and a tripod mast at the bow. A less well-built vessel might have been in considerable trouble with such a powerful force coming down hard on the forward part of the ship.

Another incident occurred in Milford Sound, a narrow fjord on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. A squall rose as the QE2 entered the sound, and the wind was so powerful that Captain Warwick could not reverse course to make for the open waters of the Tasman Sea. He remembers that the strong winds actually caused the waterfalls along the shore to turn back upward halfway down the cliff face. Finally, he found a relatively quiet turning basin, and with the bow just 15-20 feet from the cliff face, he was able to safely turn his ship.

On our voyage, Captain Warwick talked about his adventure last summer, when he went two and one-half miles below the ocean's surface to the wreck of the Titanic in an untethered submersible. After 35 years sailing the North Atlantic, he had a great interest in the loss of the Titanic, and landing on the ocean floor at the broken bow of the White Star liner was an emotional experience for him. The submersible then traveled along the wreck's hull, where he could see promenade deck windows and cabin portholes broken or opened to allow some to escape. He noted that from disaster often comes good--in the case of the Titanic, the creation of the ice patrol and the "safety of life at sea" (SOLAS) regulations.

He thought that perhaps Titanic's Captain Smith had never known ice to be so far south when he sailed westbound for New York in April 1912. On this QE2 voyage, Captain Warwick had hoped to pause above the Titanic site in remembrance of the tragedy 90 years ago. But once again, the ice had drifted far south into the shipping lanes, and he set a course to pass some 100 miles south of the Titanic grave, which was 20 miles south of the nearest ice.

On Monday, April 22, 90 years and one week after the 1912 sinking, officers, crew and passengers gathered in the QE2's Yacht Club for a service to commit the ashes of former QE2 Chief Engineer William Farmer to the deep. Captain Warwick planned the service, which included a prayer he wrote for the deceased shipmate, who had been his mentor at Cunard until his retirement in 1979. The congregation sang the hymns - "Abide with Me; Nearer Thy God to Thee"; and the Sailors' Hymn - "Eternal Father, Strong to save...For those in peril on the sea."

As the ship steamed ahead at 25 knots in sheeting rain, William Farmer's ashes, accompanied on board by his wife and daughter, were cast into the sea followed by wreaths and flowers.

Captain Warwick appears at two welcome cocktail parties, where he introduces his principal officers and says as little as he can about the weather--especially if it is deteriorating. He saves that for his daily noontime announcements from the bridge. He and his wife Kim host a table in both the Caronia and Mauretania restaurants, and the conversation is never dull when the captain and Kim are in charge. His other public duties include appearing at an evening party in the Queens Room, a Cunard World Club affair for past passengers; and at other gatherings in his private day room, just below the bridge.

The latter invitation is the most prized, and includes a private escort by one's cabin steward as the route is complex and unfamiliar to many passengers. Ship aficionados are always eager to see what new ocean liner paintings may be hanging in the day room. Often they are by maritime artist Stephen Card, who earlier works grace F Stairway.

For the arrival into New York, I offered to give the commentary, and the captain accepted and asked that I be on the bridge by 5:30 a.m., just before the ship would clear the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. It would clear the bridge by 52 feet, according to his calculations, but it appears much less. The new Queen Mary 2, on her triumphant first entry into New York harbor in April 2004, will clear by a mere 10 feet.

Captain Warwick hopes to be in command, and all he can say right now is that he has put his name in for the job. Then like his father, he would move from the older Queen to the newer one, a most fitting cap to an illustrious career on the high seas.


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