One if by Land, Two if by Sea…

August 1, 2009 at 8:02 pm Leave a comment

  John Maxtone-Graham arrived in New York on Thursday and is not a fan of flying.

“You’re packed uncomfortably into an aluminum tube and hurled across the Atlantic,” he said, just before lunchtime. “I find air travel essentially uncomfortable and graceless as opposed to travel by sea.”

Fortunately the maritime historian did not come to New York via the Kennedy or Newark airports.

Instead, he traveled on the Queen Mary 2, a 151,400-ton, 1,130-foot ocean liner.

The gargantuan vessel moored at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook — where its towering superstructure and scarlet funnel were visible from the F train tracks well inland — and guests came on board for a luncheon to celebrate Mr. Maxtone-Graham’s 80th birthday.

The author of more than a dozen books about passenger vessels, Mr. Maxtone-Graham spends much of his life at sea, where he gives lectures spiced with nautical anecdotes. On Thursday he was dressed in a blazer and trews — traditional Scottish-patterned pants — in Graham of Montrose tartan. He also sported a red and white polka-dotted tie and a yellow handkerchief.

Over pre-prandial drinks in the Queen Mary’s Commodore Club he spoke of the heyday of liners, a century ago.

“The real golden age was just after the turn of the century, just before World War I,” he said, and because of it, the vessels helped make New York the place it is today. “What really made the liners pay were the immigrants.”

Steerage class trans-Atlantic tickets were inexpensive but, Mr. Maxtone-Graham added, the conditions were grim — far different than the Commodore Club. “You were treated like cattle, which in effect you were, but you were coming to America — which made it all worthwhile,” he said.

However, trans-Atlantic air travel would bring the age of the great ships to an end.

Mr. Maxtone-Graham said that “1956 was the turnover year — more people booked aircraft seats than cabins.”

With liners outpaced by aircraft, cruise ships — that dawdle from port to port in the name of leisure — provided a new business model that could thrive in a changed world.

However, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, with her powerful engines and regular Atlantic crossings, is still described as a liner. At Mr. Maxtone-Graham’s birthday luncheon, guests extolled the virtues of a sea voyage between Europe and America.

“Crossing trans-Atlantic is incredibly relaxing,” said Frank Trumbour, an investment analyst from New Jersey. “Crossing the ocean you get a feeling of the way life used to be, and should be.”

Blood orange salad was served (almost certainly not to stave off shipboard scurvy), and pinstripes and loafers were in abundance.

After the meal this reporter set out to roam the Queen Mary 2 in search of some old-time glamor. High up the teak decks gleamed in the sunlight, and the dogs in the onboard kennel had retreated from their alfresco playpen, apparently beaten back by the ruthless heat of a New York summer.

Down below, in the bowels of the vessel, Pauline M. Power, a travel agent, explained that there are still different passenger classes. While the inexpensive tickets are around $1,000, she said, the expensive ones can be five times that much.

On deck, Ms. Power added that the ship required a small funnel to fit underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. On a balcony outside one of the Queen Mary’s most exclusive restaurants — accessible only to the highest rollers onboard — there was a man with long hair and aviator shades, surrounded by a brace of women who appeared as if they looked like that for a living.

And at that moment, above the Brooklyn asphalt and under a burning sky, the glamor of trans-Atlantic ship travel felt more or less intact.

By Simon Akam
New York Times


Entry filed under: Brooklyn, Get Wet, Maritime. Tags: , , , , .

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