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Two cruise ship monarchs 
sail into the sunset in 2008

September 19, 2007

The Delta Queen transports passengers in time as she plies the Mississippi. The paddlewheeler will go out of service in 2008. 


On a Tuesday afternoon in November of 2008, the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2 will slip out of Southampton's harbor bound for Dubai and an indelible role in maritime history.

It will be the 40-year-old Cunard ship's last cruise, capping a career that has seen this regal vessel cross the Atlantic more than 800 times, make more than 25 world cruises, carry troops to the Falkland Islands, survive bomb threats and rogue waves, and win the hearts of millions of passengers.

The QE2's final sailing will come about the same time that another celebrated vessel makes its last run. The 81-year-old Delta Queen, a revered fixture on the rivers of America's heartland, also will sail into oblivion in November of 2008.

Built in 1926, the Delta Queen is the last operational steam-powered overnight stern-wheeler in America. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the paddle wheeler is being retired because its superstructure is made of wood, no longer permitted by law for vessels that sail overnight, and the exemption it had obtained from Congress for decades was not forthcoming this year.

What will happen to the Delta Queen after November of 2008 has not yet been determined. Its owner, Majestic America Line, says it is exploring options. There's still a chance - admittedly slim - that Congress could renew the boat's exemption before its November 2008 expiration, and some groups are clamoring for that. One is www.save-the-delta-queen.org, organized by a German steamboat enthusiast.

On the other hand, the QE2's future is settled. Sold for $100 million, it will become a hotel permanently docked in Dubai, and many past passengers view that as a good thing.

One of them, Ben Lyons, who has made 10 voyages on the QE2, wrote a tribute to the ship for CruiseCritic.com, an online cruise magazine.

"Dubai," he wrote, "will be able to spend the millions needed to convert her into a hotel and keep her for years to come. She will be docked in the middle of a major tourist center, and a steady stream of visitors seems assured," he wrote in his letter to CruiseCritic. "This is indeed a time to be sad, but not a time to dwell on the sadness.

"Ultimately, she leaves us with dignity."

Before their maritime lives play out, though, both ships will make a series of special farewell sailings.

Two QE2 voyages previously planned for fall of 2008 have been replaced with a British Isles voyage and two transatlantic crossings, and a final sailing to Dubai has been added. The itineraries will include a final call to the Clyde (Greenock) in Scotland, where the QE2 was built, and a final Farewell to America Crossing from New York (its 806th such voyage).

As for the Delta Queen, Majestic America says it will dedicate the 2008 season to the ship. "We will make every sailing in 2008 a special event," said David A. Giersdorf, the line's president.

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QE2

During its 40 years, the QE2 has taken more than five million passengers on itineraries that ranged the world over. Among its more famous passengers: Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Nelson Mandela, George Bush, Julie Andrews, Debbie Reynolds and Shimon Peres. A special guest was Millvena Dean, the youngest survivor of the Titanic.

The ship exudes glamour. In port, its distinctive red funnel and black hull regally announce its presence. Aboard, understated elegance is the byword for the decor. Formal nights bring out exquisitely dressed passengers.

It's not a cookie-cutter ship. Staterooms are sometimes oddly shaped, and nooks and crannies appear here and there. It has a full-time librarian and a huge selection of reading matter as well as facilities unheard of on modern cruise ships - a nursery, dog kennel and garage for cars.

It has also won devotion from thousands of passengers as well as crew members.

"It's like a good home," says Erma Klindt, 78, of Pasadena, Calif., who has sailed on the QE2 85 times and has already booked one of the upcoming farewell cruises. Klindt is proof that one does not have to be wealthy to enjoy cruising on the QE2: She only books low-cost inside rooms.

Many Cunard officers and crew members also have a special feeling for the QE2.

"There's something magical about this ship," QE2 Capt. Ian McNaught told me in 2003, when I last sailed on it. "It's a special ship."

Says QE2 devotee Lyons, who is now a Cunard officer (but has never worked on the QE2):

"They say that while not every ship has a soul, QE2 does... . Like most things in life, what you take away in memories are the people, and I associate so many good times on QE2 with family and friends, both old and new, that accompanied me on my sailings."

Good times on the QE2 are well remembered, but over its decades of voyages, the ship also has hit some rough spots.

Ron Warwick, who was captain of the QE2 for 13 years and now is the retired commodore of the Cunard Line, was on board the ship during some of its most traumatic and well-publicized experiences.

"I was second officer when we had a bomb and ransom scare in mid-Atlantic in 1972. The RAF flew a bomb squad out, parachuted them into the ocean and we picked them up in lifeboats. They found nothing," Warwick recalled in an interview last month.

In 1982 the British government commandeered the QE2, repainting it in camouflage colors, tearing out partitions to accommodate helicopters and loading it with troops to take to the Falklands Islands, which Argentina had tried to seize. "It took eight days to get ready to go, eight weeks to convert it back to a passenger ship," said Warwick, then chief officer of the ship.

In 1995, Warwick was captain of the QE2 when it was struck by a rogue wave - a 95-foot-high wall of water. "It looked as though we were heading for the white cliffs of Dover," he said. "The wave broke with tremendous force over the bow ... and an incredible shudder went through the ship." The QE2 survived with little damage, though Warwick says, "I cannot begin to imagine what effect it would have had on a smaller vessel" - a tribute to the ship's sound structure.

In nasty weather on a 1986 crossing, I remember watching dishes, tumblers, tablecloth and everything else on my lunch table go flying when the ship heeled at a sharp angle in near-hurricane force winds. A bit later, the lectern from which broadcaster Edwin Newman was speaking suddenly took off toward the wings of the stage as the ship made another lurch. Newman, ever unflappable, continued his lecture as if nothing had happened. We passengers, too, took the inclement weather in stride. Somehow the QE2's regal aura made such incidents seem more like adventure than discomfort.

Less traumatic are some of the other tales told about the fabled ship.

There's the story of the British passenger who insisted on having his Rolls-Royce stowed in the QE2's garage on every trip he made, but never took it onto shore. Another passenger always booked a series of rooms for his family - and for his teddy-bear collection. And there was Beatrice Mueller, who liked the ship so much she decided to live permanently aboard the ship after her husband died. She still lives aboard the ship.

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DELTA QUEEN

The Delta Queen, too, evokes emotional responses from its admirers.

"It has warmth and charm, almost like a person," recalled Patty Young, who directed public relations for the Delta Queen line for 13 years until 1998. "The first time I went on board, I started crying. The captain asked me what was wrong, and I said I felt I had just gotten a hug. He just smiled."

Nori J. Muster, daughter of Bill Muster, president of the line in the 1960s and into the 1970s, took summer vacations on the Delta Queen during her teen years and fell in love with the boat. "It was so much fun," she recalled.

She hopes the ship will have a dignified afterlife, like the boat's twin, the Delta King. An exact clone of the Delta Queen, the King is a hotel/restaurant in Sacramento, where both ships plied in their early years.

For years, the Delta Queen sailed on the Mississippi and its tributaries, giving its guests a unique view of heartland America. Middle America flows by in slow motion as the boat wends its way past small river villages little changed from steamboating's romantic age. Guests watch in admiration as a single tugboat pushes as many as 30 linked barges up and down the waterway. Once in a while one sees a fisherman in a skiff, angling for catfish.

Ohioan Danny Back, who with his wife Sue has sailed on the paddleboat five times, loves the steamboat feel and sound, and its homespun itineraries. "It's always a treat to arrive at a town where the boat has not been before," he said. Back particularly remembers going on a "trampin' trip" from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, when the Delta Queen stopped at seven little towns on the way. "The mayor would meet us, kids were out of school and little celebrations were held."

Life aboard is leisurely, with little formal entertainment. A "riverlorian" - river historian - gives talks on the history of the region through which the ship is traveling. Meals feature regional specialties like crawfish and fried dill pickles. An 1897 steam calliope makes itself heard every now and then. Snack items may include corn dogs, root-beer floats and cheese fries.

As befits a Queen, the ship's decor is rich in art and antiques, with hardwood paneling, brass fittings, overstuffed furniture and Tiffany-style stained-glass windows. All of which have been enjoyed by such diverse guests as Britain's Princess Margaret, Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Arlo Guthrie, Chief Justice Earl Warren and three presidents - Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter, who spent a much-reported week aboard the ship campaigning in 1979.

Those are all memories for Nori Muster, daughter of the man who saved the ship in the 1960s, and they make the Delta Queen's coming retirement especially painful for her.

"My father once told me that boats die and that it can be as sad as losing a person," she said. "His words ring in my ears now."

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QUEEN ELIZABETH 2

Length: 963 feet

Width: 105 feet

Gross tonnage: 70,327

Speed: Cruising 25 knots, 32.5 knots maximum

Passenger capacity: 1,778

Crew: British

Itineraries: Cruises of various durations out of Southampton, plus an annual world cruise.

Information: Cunard Line, 800-728-6273; www.cunard.com.

SHIP'S HISTORY

1965: Keel laid, July 5.

1967: Launched by Queen Elizabeth II, Sept. 20.

1969: Official maiden voyage to New York, May 2.

1971: Rescues passengers from Antilles, which ran aground, Jan. 8.

1972: Ransom demand and bomb scare in mid-Atlantic, May.

1975: First world cruise.

1982: Requisitioned for Falklands War.

1986: Engines converted from steam to diesel.

1992: Hits uncharted rocks off Vineyard Sound.

1995: Hit by 95-foot-high rogue wave.

1998: Cunard Line sold to Carnival Corp.

2002: Logs 5 million miles at sea.

2007: Sold to a Dubai investment company to become moored hotel in Dubai in 2008.

2008: Final voyage, Southampton to Dubai, departs Nov. 11.

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THE DELTA QUEEN

Length: 285 feet

Width: 60 feet

Gross tonnage: 3,360

Paddle wheel: 19 feet wide, 28 feet in diameter

Speed: 10 knots cruising, 16 knots maximum

Passenger capacity: 174

Crew: American

Itineraries: Cruises of various duration on Mississippi River and tributaries.

Information: Majestic America Line, 800-434-1232, www.majesticamericaline.com.

SHIP'S HISTORY

1926: Fabricated on River Clyde in Scotland, shipped to California for final assembly.

1927: Starts service on Sacramento River traveling between Sacramento and San Francisco.

1940: U.S. Navy leases ship, uses it as troop barracks.

1947: Sold by government for $46,250 to Greene Line (now Delta Queen Steamboat Co.).

1947: Towed 5,378 miles to New Orleans, sails to Pittsburgh for extensive renovation.

1948: First passenger sailing, on Ohio River.

1963: First steamboat race between Delta Queen and Belle of Louisville.

1966: Congress passes Safety at Sea law outlawing overnight cruises on boats made of wood, but Delta Queen gets two-year exemption; continues operating under exemptions to present.

1970: Listed on National Register of Historic Places.

1989: Designated a National Historic Landmark.

2004: Inducted into National Maritime Hall of Fame.

2007: Fails to get exemption renewed.

2008: Final voyage departs Oct. 31, Memphis to New Orleans. From $2,299.

 

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