The bridge of the Queen Mary 2, as seen from the giant fish sculptures (actually, they are spare propellers)
It was just a little over a week ago that I boarded the Queen Mary 2 in Brooklyn and sailed for Southampton, England. It was a bit of a rough – and somewhat dramatic – start, just getting under way. All of us passengers who arrived after 3pm were kept in a holding area for an hour and a half before we were permitted to board the ship. Once we were allowed on, we had to race to a special evacuation drill for latecomers, and then I had only a few minutes to dig something out of my suitcase and dress for dinner.
In keeping with the notion of retracing Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps, I had opted for the early seating at dinner. They weren’t given a choice.
“… [I tried] to create an impression of being a seasoned, cultivated traveler. The impression apparently didn’t take with the Chief Steward because after one look at me, he allotted us two cards for First Service (Second was the chic meal)… Our table was off to one side near the swing-doors where stewards in order to get past had to graze our heads with their trays.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner
It actually tickled me when I was shown to my table, only to find it was the one closest to the kitchen, complete with swing doors and stewards coming in and out (although happily we didn’t have an issue with trays grazing our heads). Not a chance I would’ve requested a better spot to sit. It seemed quite perfect.
We still hadn’t left the dock by the time dessert arrived. We were about two hours behind schedule when Captain Wells came over the loudspeaker with an explanation for the delay. It seems that we weren’t permitted to get on earlier because the FBI had been on board at the time, investigating a report that a female passenger who had boarded in Southampton eight days before had not disembarked in New York City, and was nowhere to be found (to be clear, the transatlantic crossing hadn’t stopped in any ports of call along the way). The FBI investigators had spent the day performing an exhaustive search of the ship along with combing through the closed circuit footage, before determining that the woman was “no longer on the ship” when it arrived in New York.
The captain didn’t elaborate, so we were left to conclude that the woman had gone overboard by choice. If there had been foul play, or if it had been an accident, the FBI certainly would have stayed on board and we wouldn’t have sailed that evening. It was a thought that offered only the very slightest comfort.
The next day, I made friends with Charlene, a fabulous woman from Valencia, California, who just happened to have the cabin directly across from the woman who jumped (she knew this because there was police tape across the door). She reported later that, though no one was allowed to stay in that cabin, the police tape had been taken down, so clearly the FBI had closed the case.
When Cornelia and Emily sailed on the Montcalm and the ship got stuck on a sandbar, there was an incident involving an immigrant who was being deported, who jumped overboard and tried to swim to shore. He was prevented from doing this because Emily, in an effort to be helpful, hoisted a deck chair over the rail and dropped it smack on top of him (amazingly, he survived with only a concussion, but you will have to read the book to get the rest of the story). Though the girls and I both had a delay and a “man overboard”, it seemed to be a grim correlation to have. I could only hope that there wasn’t more tragedy in store.
Thankfully, the QM2 never ran aground and made it safely across to England. But just like it had been for the girls 95 years before, barely 48 hours into our voyage, we encountered fog that lasted for two days. And just like it had been for the Empress of France (the girls’ second ship, remember?), the foghorn blew every few minutes for the entirety of those two days. Even with all of the amazing technology on board the QM2, the ship still followed the century-old maritime protocol.
But then just like it had with the girls’ voyage, the fog lifted after two days. Okay, perhaps this isn’t so extraordinary, because it all has to do with the time of year and passing along the coast of Newfoundland. But I don’t recall there being two days of fog when I sailed 14 years ago on the QE2 (June 1, 2003, to be annoyingly exact).
There were other instances of symmetry between our sailings.
Whereas Emily took part in a deck tennis tournament (one of the more embarrassing and hilarious episodes that takes place on the ship), we had a ring toss tournament, but we used the same style of rope rings (“quoits”) that they had used.
Two evenings before we were to land, we had a passenger talent show, followed by a masquerade ball (no costumes, just masks worn with tuxes and evening gowns). When the girls sailed, Cornelia performed in their talent show, two evenings before the ship was to dock (a budding actress, she performed a few monologues while being hepped up on cold medicines and brandy). Their talent show was followed by a gala where everyone wore, not masks, but festive paper hats. A nice parallel.
On the morning of the talent show, Cornelia had woken up with what she thought was a cold, which later proved to be the measles. I, too, woke up on the morning of our talent show (not that I was going to perform, God forbid!) with the start of a cold. Once again, symmetry. It seemed fitting, so I didn’t mind a few sniffles, knowing that my case wouldn’t turn into something I could get quarantined for.
All of this may seem like a lot of insignificant details, and that I’m not giving you the meat of the story. But the moments in this journey when my travels match up with the girls’ experience mean so much to me.
I set out on this adventure to travel with Cornelia and Emily, and in those times, I feel like I really am. It is a joy when I find bits of a world that they would still recognize today. It makes me feel connected to them and their enchanting story.
At least, I can report that I had a wonderful time, with numerous delightful experiences. Too many to recount here, in fact. I will save them for the book. I met an awful lot of amazing people. From my table mates – the adventure cyclist from Estonia, the former ballerina – to the retired Oxford don who closed down the disco at 3am every night, to the Russian couple who, even with speaking very little English, had just driven (and loved!) Route 66. So many remarkable stories (again, for the book). And I made quite a few terrific new friends.
For those who had expressed hopes that I would have some great romance during the crossing, I am sorry to disappoint you (and myself, too) but it just wasn’t the case. Not even any nice young doctors like Cornelia’s and Emily’s Joe Aub and Paul White, who might go on to be prominent figures in the medical world.
Of course, there was the hot-blooded Turkish Uber driver who brought me from Manhattan to the ship (Downton Abbey fans, think Mr. Pamuk, only still alive). He said he wanted to be a story in my book. Perhaps he will be.
Below: Leaving New York (brand new friend, Carmel, an Irish writer of Celtic history and lore, is the shadowy figure in the foreground); the fog rolls in; inserting myself into the gallery of celebrity passengers (cutting in on Joan Crawford as she dances with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr); quoits tournament; my Poseidon Adventure moment (my favorite photo from the trip!); and finally, sunny skies… and vertigo.