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Three immense ships met in the bay of New York last week for a rendezvous full of pride, irony, poignancy and beauty. Massive and glittering they lay there as night fell upon a snowy Manhattan They were supervised across the water by the Statue of Liberty itself, and the city spectacularly feted them.

The Empire State Building was floodlit red in their honour and the wide bay was speckled all over with lights – lights on bobbing buoys, lights on firefloats ceremonially spouting, lights on tugs, on ferries, on sightseeing craft, lights on helicopters circling above, the steady monumental light held high in Liberty’s torch. As the three vessels moved stately and slow into line ahead, a vast flurry of fireworks lit up the horizons, from Hoboken to Sandy Hook.

It was a marvellous publicity display but it was also a genuinely historical spectacle. There at the very gateway of America, where so many ships before them had brought the huddled masses of Europe to breathe free – there those three behemoths richly and showily lay, Manhattan style, as to the manner born.

For they were the three Queens of the Cunard Line – the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Victoria, and although they had never met in New York before, their hereditary association with the city was profound. They were the latest and largest of the Cunard Line’s Queen ships, which for half a century dominated the Atlantic passenger trade, and which during the second world war played an allegorical part in the victorious Anglo-American alliance.

During the war, the two earliest Queens, the first Queen Mary (launched in 1936) and the first Queen Elizabeth (1938), used their size and speed to defy the U-boats and maintain their own supply line between America and Britain, sailing independently of plodding convoys. They became so familiar to New Yorkers, and to the millions of American soldiers they carried, that when they steamed storm-tossed, battle-scarred and grimly camouflaged through the Narrows into this same bay of New York, they seemed true symbols of Churchill’s indomitable Britain.

So yes, pride of heritage certainly emanated from the three great vessels lying out there, with the launches and tugs and speedboats circling around them in homage, and their festive lights lordly in the dark. The Cunard publicists called their meeting a Royal Rendezvous, and the ships themselves are replete with monarchism and Britishness.

Mind you, the three of them are not entirely British thoroughbreds, like those heroic Cunard Queens of old. For a start they were not built, as their predecessors had been, on the Clyde. The Victoria and Elizabeth were built in Italy, the Mary, ironically enough, was built at the very same yards at San Nazaire that had built, 70 years before, the supreme rival of their forerunners, the utterly French Normandie.

Grandly as they lie there beneath the skyscrapers, they do not look altogether pure-bred either. This is because, in fact, they are functional hybrids. Their dazzling style suits Manhattan but the Queen Victoria did not seem half so patrician when I saw her in Venice a couple of years ago. She seemed out of scale then, out of sympathy, looming vastly over the ancient quays with a touch of the nouvelle riche to her passage among the prodigies.

The truth is that only one of those three ships, the Queen Mary 2, is a real ocean liner, in the sense that their illustrious forebears were. Who needs ocean liners now? The Mary 2 is the very last vessel to offer a regular express passenger service across the North Atlantic, and even she, the flagship of the line, spends much of her time as a cruise ship.

Her two sisters are entirely pleasure craft, among the greatest of them all, and this has inevitably cheapened their silhouettes. Stacked high as they are with swimming pools, spas, casinos, croquet lawns, theatres and such, their massed cabins all with their own balconies, at a glance they look more like slab-sided container ships than the Ocean Greyhounds of tradition.

They fly the Red Ensign as Cunarders always have but their ultimate owner is the Carnival Corporation, a multinational that controls half the world’s cruise ships, and many of its cruise companies. It is many a long year since Cunard’s headquarters were on the waterfront at Liverpool – the home port of the Queen Mary 2 is Brooklyn.

As for poignancy, well, to my mind there is always something poignant to the presence of great ships because they seldom live for very long and, in their decline, often sail into pathos. Most of us will certainly outlive those three majestic vessels of the Royal Rendezvous and I, myself, have witnessed all of their tremendous predecessors in their sunset years.

The original Queen Mary, the first of them, can still be seen in her final degradation, berthed permanently (economic conditions allowing) as a hotel and tourist attraction at Long Beach California – her three great Cunard funnels still spick and span but her interiors touristically transformed. I twice encountered her noble wartime comrade, the original Queen Elizabeth: once limping sadly out of New York, rusted and unloved in her old age, and once lying upside-down and burnt-out in the harbour of Hong Kong, whence bits of her hull went into landfill for the construction of the nearby airport.

And, year after year, wherever I wandered, I used to come across the Queen Elizabeth 2, familiar to the whole world as the QE2. For my tastes she was the most elegant of them all, the real thing, the last of her kind, Clyde-built but destined, after 40 years of beloved vicissitudes, to end up today in a Dubai limbo, waiting to be converted into something else.

That accounts for them all. There have only been six Cunard Queens. In their day they have all been the very latest thing – the biggest or the fastest, the most expensive, the most epic, and in the idea if not always in the substance, the most beautiful among their peers.

And when those three brave ships of today, their rendezvous fulfilled, sailed away from New York in the blaze of fireworks, the moment was certainly beautiful to experience. This event also had a historical resonance all its own. I really do doubt if its particular ambivalent grandeur can ever be repeated. On the one hand it possessed the beauty of remembrance, because it evoked such grand echoes of the past, when within human memory merchant ships played a more majestic part in the lives of the nations – seeing those ships slip out to sea summoned in my mind all manner of folk-memories, folk-prides, that later generations can never know. On the other hand, it was an event instinct with the beauty of change and modernity.

For those ships were not like the old ships. They were far bigger than anything our fathers thrilled to – and they sailed into the dusk more like floating cities than instruments of transport. They were, as Le Corbusier said of his houses, living machines – complete vast floating communities with a population of thousands, equipped with every adjunct of contemporary living, huge, powerful, tremendously purposeful if only for pleasure, profit and frivolity.

As they sailed out to sea at the turn of the year, while the fireworks died down behind them, the Manhattan revellers went home and Liberty was left alone with her torch upon her islet, the Cunard captains of old must surely have been proud and excited to know that one of those three mighty vessels, the Queen Victoria, was commanded by a woman, Captain Inger Klein Olsen, who was born in that nursery of hardy seafarers, the Faroe Islands.

On my flight home that week – honestly! – I came across a passage from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. “Let Neptune hear,” it said, “we bid a loud farewell to those great fellows”, and it was followed by a stage direction: sound a flourish, with drums.

‘Manhattan ’45’ (Faber) by Jan Morris has just been republished


Details

Jan Morris travelled with Continental Airlines (www.continental.com) which flies direct to New York from more than 140 airports worldwide. Return fares to New York cost from £462 from Manchester and £444 from London Heathrow.

In Manhattan, Jan Morris stayed at the Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com/newyork) which has double rooms from $829 including breakfast.


Ship shapes: Titanic dwarfed by new leviathans

The biggest cruise ships ever built are the new Allure of the Seas and its sister ship, Oasis of the Seas, writes Susannah Butter. Launched last month by Royal Caribbean, Allure is 361m long, weighs 225,282 tonnes and can carry 5,400 passengers. Allure cost Royal Caribbean $1.5bn to build and has an onboard park with 12,000 trees and plants.

Oasis was launched a year earlier and these two floating leviathans are just the latest entrants in what, in recent years, has become a highly competitive race to produce ever bigger and better cruise ships. Both of these ships are 40 per cent bigger than the previous title holders, Royal Caribbean’s Freedom-class trio.

In 1912, the Titanic was the largest vessel in the world at 46,328 gross register tonnes, with capacity for 3,547 passengers and crew. She boasted an onboard swimming pool, a Turkish bath and electric lights. In 1969, when she made her maiden voyage, the QE2 was thought huge at 70,327 tonnes.

The Allure is nearly five times the size of the Titanic, three times the size of the QE2 and about 10 times the size of the Ark Royal, the British navy’s biggest ship (although military and leisure ships are measured in different ways).

The routes of these giant new liners are determined by their dimensions. They can’t dock in any European port because they require custom-made facilities that can manage the mooring requirements of their tonnage and can cope with the disembarkation of up to 6,000 people. Royal Caribbean has built mega-piers for them at Fort Lauderdale in Florida, Haiti and the Bahamas.

Prices for a seven-night western Caribbean cruise on the Oasis start at £625 per person based on two sharing and rise to £16,659 staying in a suite with baby grand piano. A seven-night eastern Caribbean cruise on the Allure starts at £633 per person.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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