The Last Great Cruise of the R.M.S. Queen Mary
By Commodore Everette Hoard
When the news that the City of Long Beach, California had submitted the successful bid to purchase the world renowned liner, Queen Mary, in the summer of 1967, frantic plans got underway to organize one last fabulous voyage to her new permanent home in the 'Golden State'. Knowing the venerable and elegant ship was not designed to sail in the tropics and would cross the equator twice (without air conditioning, which was not added until the ship opened as a hotel). The Cunard line offered to deliver the Queen without passengers free of charge but that seemed such an anticlimactic way to end the sea-going days of what is perhaps the most beloved passenger ship since Noah's fabled ark! Cunard refused to sell the voyage, so the energetic Long Beach team set to work to do it themselves. Fugazy Travel was enlisted to market and help manage the trip. Thus "The Last Great Cruise" was born.
More than a thousand passengers purchased cabins for the cruise ranging from $1,200 to $9,000 per person. They were mostly retired Californians that had the time and money for a journey of 39 days duration. Others came from nearly every state in the union and from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Voyagers also came from Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Australia, and Canada. The itinerary would take the massive liner from Southampton, England with stops at Lisbon, Portugal and Las Palmas, Canary Islands. Too large to transit the Panama Canal, she would cross the South Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and then sail south around the notoriously treacherous Cape Horn. Next, she went up the west coast of South America with calls at Valparaiso, Chile; Callao, Peru; Balboa, Panama; Acapulco, Mexico; and then finally Long Beach!
The Queen Mary was built for five-day North Atlantic crossings at high speeds of 28 1/2 knots. The great distances between ports on this last cruise would strain the limits on fuel oil, and water, so it was prudently decided that the ship would make the trip using half the engines and boilers and only two of the four propellers. It was thought she could still maintain a respectable 22 knots with this plan.
The weather was cold and drizzly on the morning of October 31, 1967 as the Queen Mary lay at her berth in the Western docks in Southampton. With all his passengers and crew aboard and steam up, veteran Cunard master mariner, Captain John Treasure Jones, anxiously awaited the appointed time that he would sail his beautiful ship from England for the very last time. It was a particularly poignant moment for the Captain as well because he too would be taking his retirement after the Queen Mary arrived in Long Beach. He had been going to sea more than 40 years. He knew his last voyage would be one of the most challenging of his career and was thankful that the City of Long Beach had invited his wife, Belle, along.
There were thousands of people on the docks to say a tearful goodbye to the Queen Mary. As it was in 1936 for the Maiden Voyage, the Royal Marine Band was on hand to play the ship away. One lad, Peter Boyd Smith, was among those thousands of well wishers and had asked his boss for the day off to be present. When his boss declined, he went anyway and was sacked! To this day, Peter has never regretted his decision.
Two London double-decker busses had also been purchased by the City and were now lashed to the teak on Main Deck aft. Passengers were crowding the decks, and streamers were everywhere. At the mainmast, flapping in the stiff westerly breeze was a 310 foot paying-off pennant, ten feet for every year of the Queen Mary's 31 years at sea. At 9:42 a.m. the port propeller started turning, and ropes holding the ship to Great Britain were quickly hoisted inboard. The happy tune of "Anchor's Away" ended and the wistful strains of "Auld Lang Syne" could be heard floating over Southampton water. The P&0 liner Oriana, berthed close by, hoisted signal flags saying "Adieu Great Queen." The harbor became a cacophony of sound as ships of all shapes and sizes blew whistle salutes to the departing monarch. Captain Jones replied to each of them with three blasts from his mighty one ton Tyfon sirens. The Royal Air Force sent a squadron of helicopters to fly over in an anchor formation. It was a fantastic send off! Once down the Solent and into the Channel, the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Hermes came close alongside, and in the driving rain, her crew were lining the decks to cheer ship. Surely this was the end of an era.
The Queen Mary would face gale force winds in the Bay of Biscay, and many were sea-sick as the great ship pitched and rolled on the rough seas. It was becoming evident to Captain Jones that the drag from the two dormant propellers was shaving a knot off her speed, thus causing problems arriving in the ports on schedule. He would miss the tide for the arrival in Lisbon so speed was further reduced as to catch the next one. It didn't set well with some of the passengers that time in ports would have to be shortened to compensate for the slower speeds, but it was a necessary step. The Queen Mary eased over the Tagus River bar 12 hours late. Passengers were treated to many colorful retail displays once ashore in Lisbon. It was here that the ship picked up one of her last two stowaways. Stacey Miller had been backpacking through Europe when in a Lisbon waterfront bar; he heard that the Queen was sailing for California the next day. So he decided to hitch a ride home!
Calm seas and fair winds were upon the great ship as she sailed south bound for the Canary Islands, and people were getting to know their way around and enjoy the fine cuisine and first class entertainment offered. A typical program showed that both indoor pools were open, there was a lecture on shopping in Las Palmas in the Flamenco Room, a ladies keep-fit class in the gym, and that evening, the golden voice of Johnny Mathis could be heard in the Main Lounge. In the Cinema, the feature film was "How to Steal a Million" with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole.
At dawn the Queen Mary was eased alongside the concrete seawall at Las Palmas. It would be only a brief stop where the ship was refueled and watered in preparation for the first long haul of the cruise - the seven days at sea and 3,544 nautical miles to Rio. Many passengers took the opportunity to buy light clothing here in anticipation of the warm weather of the tropics. Others found the only liquor store open (it was Sunday) to stock up on cheap alcohol to save a little money. Cards were placed around the ship asking the passengers to conserve on fresh water as it was a commodity on these long hot tropical stretches.
As the liner sailed closer to the equator, the hotter she got. Thousands of tons of high-tensile steel was holding the heat in like an oven. Home-made air scoops protruded from every openable porthole. Some passengers slept on deck in deckchairs. Stowaway Miller had confided in a fellow passenger who lent him $10 for a razor and then his status was promptly reported to the Master at Arms. He was apprehended and locked up in the isolation hospital in the stern of the ship. He was lucky.. he had several portholes for air! One lady commented that she had only dreamed of having such elegant meals served to her and now it was just too hot to eat. Despite the discomfort of the brutal heat, most people took it in their stride and in the spirit of adventure. It was thought at the time that a ship the size of the Mary would never be built again, so there was a feeling of novelty at being able to experience such a world class vessel on such an epic odyssey.
Tensions eased on November 9th when the Queen Mary crossed the equator. In the ancient lore of seafaring, even King Neptune himself along with Queen Aphrodite and seaweed garbed minions, mythically "rose from the sea" and held court on deck. Several good natured passengers were sentenced to various fates and being smeared with great gobs of goo resembling shaving cream then drenched with seawater from a fire hose! Captain Jones was present, immaculate in his dress whites, to greet the King who was played by a quartermaster. There were suitable proclamations passed out to all passengers proclaiming them honored subjects of "Neptune, King of all Great Waters" and duly signed by Neptunus Rex. Finally people were starting to accept the shorter port times and really embrace the high quality of onboard entertainment. By that evening everyone was enjoying Master of Ceremonies, Bert Parks, the dancing stars Ramos and Nanette, and singer and television star, Helen O'Connell.
While passengers were settling down, the crew was suffering the most in the heat. Especially in the kitchens, and engine rooms where the temperature was in excess of 110 degrees. But, seafarers are a hardy lot, and all were glad to have been able to be part of the historic voyage. There were several members of the crew that had been with the ship all her 31 years. However, one crewman would not make it to Long Beach. A salad chef named Lock Horsborough would die before making landfall in Rio. Perhaps he died of a broken heart at the thought of having to leave his beloved Mary. Crews have a real bond with the ships they serve.
The Queen Mary arrived in Rio de Janeiro's magnificent harbor on the afternoon of November 12th where she would lay in resplendent glory for the next three days. The weather was hot though, and many went ashore to stay in modern air-conditioned hotels. The Queen was dubbed in the local press as the "millionaire's ship," and local prices seemed to reflect that to the passengers!
Upon sailing south from Rio, the weather started to cool and the Southern Cross hung in the heavens like jewels. Before long there were fur coats adorning the ladies and moonlit evening strolls around the Sun Deck with that lovely silvery trail the moon lays across the sea. Through it all, the matchless Queen Mary was working her own insatiable magic on her guests. She was becoming forevermore ’their' ship. Also, Lock Horsborough, who had spent 37 years of his life at sea, was committed to the deep. Captain Jones read a prayer over his remains, and several crew members chanted the Lord's Prayer in the simple and dignified traditions seafaring.
Excitement was building with everyone as the ship was getting close to the Cape. Many a windjammer had been lost with all hands in this area of the ocean where Atlantic meets Pacific. There were more than a few passengers nervous about the event! Captain Jones, a stickler for discipline, had many challenges along the way and was in constant contact with Cunard in England for approvals. But the closer the Queen got to the bottom of the Earth, the spottier was the radio reception. Finally Cunard told the Captain, "No need to try to contact us further. We place full confidence in you. Just get her there safely!" With this, the 'Old Man' would later say that the Queen Mary had become his "great and beautiful toy!"
The weather was now so cold that heat had to be run through the ship. A local Long Beach doctor and member of the Chamber of Commerce was busy selling tickets to passengers for a double-decker bus ride around Cape Horn. A clever diversion, and a sell-out. Another fellow, Bill Center, had been busy all the way throwing note filled bottles over the side promising a prize if found. Many were found and returned to Long Beach.
Sunday, November 20th dawned with clouds and rain. The seas were uncharacteristically smooth. After lunch the sun broke through the clouds, and at exactly 3:01 p.m. the ships whistle sounded a great blast signifying the R.M.S. Queen Mary was abreast Cape Horn! The ship had been carefully navigated to within one mile of the shore for good viewing. Dutch Miller, a Long Beach Lifeguard instructor, plunged into the C Deck pool and quickly swam a lap so that he could say that he had swam around the Horn! Dr. Cole's bus ride around the Horn was in full swing and even entertainer, Tessie O'Shea, joined in the fun. Money raised by the Chamber bus ride would be donated in Valparaiso to help build a new school.
With every turn of the giant propellers, the Queen Mary herself was being pushed 18 1/2 feet closer to forever. Passengers and crew would wake up to a driving gale on Monday the 21st, and the ship was pitching heavily. The Pacific was giving her new Queen a North Atlantic welcome! A lot of crockery was broken in the bad weather, and plastic cups were brought into use to supplement the losses. It was decided that Thanksgiving turkeys would be served the day prior as the ship would be in port that day and most people would be ashore. Upon arrival in Valparaiso, the Queen Mary had been at sea eight straight days since leaving Brazil. She continued to be a big hit with the locals which had never seen such a vast ship. Long Beach Mayor, Edwin Wade, and his wife joined the ship here for the remainder of the cruise. Many decided to go into Santiago, Chile's capital for sight-seeing, and would find themselves in the middle of a conflict between police and strikers. Tear gas canisters were flying along with rocks and bottles.
At 6:00 p.m. November 24th the Queen Mary heaved up the anchor for departure. Like every other port but Rio, a huge send off was accorded the liner. Ships from Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan started a deafening plethora of vibrato noise. The cruiser, Captain Black, fired an extra boiler for one long heroic blast. The Mary's mournful reply could be heard for ten miles. One man onboard quipped, "This beats the hell out of Southampton's farewell!"
The stop in Callao, Peru would be only be 36 hours, but the locals went all out in laying out their wares for Queen Marians to view. Business was brisk too, and a lot of llama and alpaca fur items were purchased by passengers. Laurence Stroud, the ship's sanitary officer, would spend the rest of the trip fumigating them for lice! Local tour boats were packed to the gunwales as Peruvians came in mass to view the majestic Mary. Many found their way aboard, and when sailing time came, Second Officer, Alistair Watt, was having trouble getting the visitors off the ship because they didn't understand English. Fortunately there were some passengers onboard that spoke Spanish to give Watt a hand, and the Queen would sail for Panama on schedule.
Sailing north in the cool comfort of the Humboldt Current, the ship was a pleasant place to be. Schools of porpoises darted back and forth across the Queen Mary's bow. So far, this last great cruise had been one round of elegant parties. Many were organized by the passengers themselves. Ward De Witt remembers one particular party thrown about this time by Mayor and Mrs. Wade and said it was "a real howler!" The old Queen was glamorous to the very end and people were soaking up every bit of luxury they could. Now the ship was approaching the Pacific side of the equator, and she would inevitably begin to heat up again. Thankfully it was not nearly as severe as it had been in the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the home made air scoops were once again in use.
Captain Jones was enjoying knowing that he would be able to tie up alongside the pier in Balboa. He was concerned though about his beautiful lass clearing a link of the Pan American Highway known as the Thatcher Ferry Bridge en route to the berth. Prudent as ever, he had crewmen climb each mast back in Peru and remove the Queen Mary's weather vanes. Years later he would comment candidly, "I thought that would give me a couple of extra feet!" On the warm afternoon of December 1st, Captain Jones stood on his navigation bridge with the Balboa Pilot keenly observing the arrival of his ship. Excited passengers and some crew were on the forecastle below anxiously watching as the Mary approached the cantilever bridge. She was riding high in the water and breasting a half tide. The foremast reaches 237 feet above the keel, and it looked as if surely the mast would strike the bridge. One lady squealed, "She’s not going to make it!" At this people began to take cover. Seeing what was happening, Captain Jones couldn't resist in a little Welsh ribbing and said, "You see those people standing on the Bridge, now when you see them run, you run, because we won't be makin' it!" She made it with four feet to spare and a tremendous cheer went up from the crowd onboard the ship and on the Thatcher Ferry bridge.
The Queen Mary was only in Panama over night as she had to sail on the next tide to arrive in Acapulco on time. A local band played a rousing rendition of "California here I come" as she got underway.
It was a warm, muggy, but brilliantly blue morning as the Queen Mary dropped her anchor a mile off shore of Acapulco's golden beach. Many of the locals were out in small boats for a closer look at this stateliest of ships, and youngsters were diving for coins. Tenders were immediately pressed into service to get everyone ashore to enjoy the warm Mexican hospitality. The posh hotels offered air conditioned comfort and a cool place to eat and drink. Quite a few VIP's from Los Angeles were joining here for the final few days of the voyage including actor Robert Stack and his wife. A chartered jet bringing some 70 journalists to cover the last four days and the arrival in Long Beach did a low fly-by to take photographs. The media were treated royally by the City of Long Beach while ashore but when they finally arrived onboard the ship, they would find their cabins were all lower inside rooms and blazing hot. It couldn't be helped as that was all that was left. One Passenger from Texas had a truck load of Mexican watermelons delivered to the ship and had a good old fashioned watermelon bust on deck to help cool everyone off. He told the press core, "now I don't want ya'll sayin' nothin' bad about my ship!"
After leaving Mexico, the ship started to cool off and became most pleasant to be in. The Queen Mary had firmly woven herself into the hearts of all onboard, and nobody would ever be quite the same afterwards feeling so much richer for the experience. On December 8th, the last day at sea, off the coast of Baja California, a brand new sleek Douglas DC-9 flew low over the dowager Queen dropping thousands of red, white, and blue carnations. Thus repeating what veteran pilot Captain Eddie Rickenbacker had done in a DC-2 in 1936 as the ship approached New York on her maiden voyage. That last evening at sea where the Queen Mary would cross into 'forever,' the Main Lounge was resplendent in tinsel and glitter and beautifully dressed people. Captain Jones would address his passengers in a heartfelt, dignified and seaman like fashion. He was so happy that the Queen Mary would know a second life and that he was not taking her to the ship breakers as he had done with the Mauretania. On this night the Queen Mary lived as if it were the glory days all over again. But, nothing could prepare anyone for the events of the next morning.
In the cool of the morning of December 9, 1967 the Queen Mary was steaming serenely past San Diego. Most of her passengers were up in spite of the late night before. Some had even stayed up all night partying. The deck buffets were busy and a shortage of coffee cups would ensue. One steward commented that people were putting coffee into cereal bowls and lapping it up like puppies! An armada of boats were streaking out from every inlet and following along in the Mary's wake. At Newport Beach, Captain Jones brought the ship within two miles of the coast so Southern Californians could get a preview of their latest attraction. The armada grew so large that the Coast Guard was brought in to shepherd them along. The U.S. Navy even sent the state of the art nuclear powered cruiser U.S.S. Long Beach to join the parade. By the time the venerable Queen was close to Long Beach, there were an estimated 5000 small craft of all sizes welcoming her home! Captain Jones would pass up Queen's Gate, the opening to the breakwater leading into Long Beach Harbor, and steam out past Point Fermin and the Palos Verdes peninsula to further 'fly the flag.' The master mariner with a tear in his eye would say, "I could not have imagined such a reception. I had no idea that so many small craft existed in any one area of the world." Passengers were into the spirit of arrival as well and started tossing souvenirs to the thousands in the hungry fleet below. Deck chairs, cutlery, crockery, steamer blankets - anything that wasn't anchored to the deck was going over the side! The Coast Guard moved in and the souvenir party subsided.
Finally, slowly, majestically, and so beautifully, the R.M.S. Queen Mary would enter Long Beach Harbor. Just before noon she was made fast to Pier E. At 12:16 p.m. Captain Jones walked over to the engine room telegraphs and rang "Finished with Engines" and the Queen Mary's great heart was allowed to cool- forever.
This magnificent liner now has been in Southern California longer than she was at sea. She has hosted some 50 million guests, and more than 12,000 weddings have been performed on board. She has become to Southern Californians what the Eifel Tower is to Parisians, what Big Ben is to Londoners and what the Statue of Liberty is to New Yorkers.
Long may the Queen Mary reign as the crown jewel of Long Beach and an icon to all Southern Californians!
Long Live the Queen!