A former seafarer’s vision of a ‘busman’s holiday’ has got to be a 9-day cruise from Southampton to Norway’s fjords on board Cunard’s newly refurbished ‘Queen Mary 2’. My wife, otherwise secretly known as ‘she who must be obeyed’, thought it would be a splendid idea. Having spent 22 years at sea, inclusive of much bouncing around in North Sea gales, I did not share the same rosy view. However, after 34 years of married life, I have accepted that overt resistance to ‘she’ is futile. My holiday report is therefore as follows.
Joining the ship at the Southampton terminal was a relatively painless, even jolly experience, aided by a team of pleasant grey haired English ladies well skilled in herding several thousand passengers at a time on board cruise ships. The fact that I was sporting my new ‘Ancient Mariner’ baseball cap no doubt helped by way of advertising that, if nothing else, I was game for a laugh. Nevertheless, as we climbed up the gangway, I could not resist checking that the QM2’s Plimsoll line was not improperly immersed.
Cabin accommodation proved to be ‘yacht like’ i.e. nicely fitted but no room to swing anything other than a Singapore short tailed cat. The toilet and shower cubicle was also not suitable for anyone suffering claustrophobia and/or persons edging towards the medical definition of morbidly obese. Despite this, the cabin’s small outdoor veranda saved the day by providing instant access to sea air and glorious views of stevedores loading our baggage on board. Not to be sneezed at when you seem to have spent much of your life dragging suitcases around airports.
Details of the QM 2 include the fact she was designed as a combination of transatlantic passenger liner and winter season global cruise ship. This dual role formula had been tried and tested aboard the QM 2’s predecessor, QE 2. Not rocket science of course as no one but a masochist would choose to cross the ‘pond’ for a bit of winter fun. The really interesting thing though is that the summer liner passenger trade from Southampton to New York still exists as a steady and well heeled niche market.
Further details include QM 2’s build in France and delivery to Southampton in 2003 and her recent refurbishment, including new decks and accommodation, in Germany in 2016. Propulsion is diesel electric by four large Wartsila diesel generators in the engine room and four GE gas turbines mounted behind the funnel. Drive is through four pods that hang under the hull, with two of them that can azimuth through 360º. Top speed is 29 knots. Three massive bow thrusters provide even more ship manoeuvring ‘toys’ so as to negate the use of tugs in even the trickiest of berthing scenarios.
Our smooth departure from Southampton, under the command of Capt Chris Wells RD RNR, was effortless as one would anticipate. I checked out his CV and learned that ‘Wellsie’ (an Aussie style nickname invented by my eldest son) had been a cadet at the Warsash Marine College near Southampton. This was at about the same time I was studying for my Master’s Foreign Going Certificate at the same school. We did not meet then as Cadets and Master’s candidates did not drink at the same pubs. Nor did we meet during the QM 2 voyage. However, my mother-in-law (a Cunard gold card holder) later wangled me a visit to the bridge. ‘Wellsie’ was ashore (reportedly out riding his bike in an effort to elude pesky passengers and perhaps me as well). So, as shown in the photo, I ‘borrowed’ his uniform cap for the bridge tour. Great fun and Wellsie’s personal secretary (the very efficient and delightfully named Ms Viktoria Kiss) obtained his signature in my copy of the excellent QM 2 book I had purchased on board.
Our trip north to Norway’s fjord’s provided a day at sea in windy but stabiliser smoothed conditions. Lots of abandoned oil rigs hove into view along with bouncing North Sea coasters and fishing vessels that I was pleased not to be sailing on. It was also our first introduction to ‘cruise gluttony’ and the endless array of 24-hour food available from the formal dining rooms, the massive and ever changing buffets and the speciality shops. Cunard’s Mission Statement: “No man, woman or child shall ever feel the pangs of hunger whilst cruising with Cunard”. OK, I made that up but I did so as my stomach walls stretched to deal with multiple episodes of, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing”.
And what about Norway itself? Our first port of call was Stavanger, an offshore service town that seemed very quiet, no doubt as a consequence of the oil price downturn. An excursion had been booked to visit an island based tropical garden. A short ferry ride later we arrived at an oasis of brilliant colours and – this is crazy but true – a small plantation of Norwegian grown banana trees! However, I have to say that my absolute garden favourites were the autonomous electric lawn mowers that I chased round the manicured lawns to marvel at, video and place on my Xmas wish list. It was then back to Stavanger and an excellent but simple local cafe lunch of a Norwegian open faced sandwich (Smorbrod) with the biggest pile of fresh North Sea shrimp and dill on rye bread I have ever seen. That and the local beer were eye wateringly expensive but delicious. And what the hell, you only live once!
Next stop was the tiny Norwegian village of Olden which provided an opportunity to visit a still impressive but rapidly receding glacier. After that, it was the village of Flam to take a train up and then bike down a steep mountain gorge complete with torrential waterfalls. Great stuff but, as the world warms up, these villages had better make all the tour bus and crap souvenir money they can now before the ice and the marvels melt away.
On a happier note, the passages into the fjords and the hundreds of cascading waterfalls were magnificent. Even better, the grand isolation of the people who inhabit this unique part of the world was profoundly evident. Perfect little wooden houses and red painted barns placed in small green paddocks carved out of birch tree forests, with slopes that quickly rise to angles of 45º and more. I do some hobby farming and I am thinking to myself, “How could anyone have cleared and seeded those paddocks and built anything unless they had choppered in the equipment with a twin rotor Sikorsky?”. But they did it before Sikorsky’s were ever invented and therein lies the mystery and the magic of the people who settled and still live in these places.
Final call was at the Port of Bergen, Norway’s second largest city. Another picturesque entrance but this time with the entry channel winding through multiple granite islands dotted with Norwegian summer houses. It rains a lot in Bergen but on this day the sun was shining and the locals were out to play with their motor yachts and sail boats. A total of six cruise ships had berthed and, during our walk ashore and trip up a crowded cable car to a magnificent view, the sound of ringing cash registers filled the air. OK, so cash registers don’t actually ring anymore but the plastic was flashing and the fish market’s fresh sea food platter vendors were grinning from ear to ear. Anyway, it was a great last day in Norway and our only complaint was that our departure was too early to provide more time to explore the cobbled streets, pristine white wooden houses and museums of Bergen.
Is there a connection between my QM 2 cruise and the SeaProf/BI Norwegian Business School “Key Elements of Shipping” course scheduled for 10 -12 October 2017 in Singapore? Not really except that my visit to Norway provided a snapshot of its people, their culture and the rather privileged lives they now lead in a country renowned for its shipping, offshore oil expertise and natural beauty. Worth a trip back? Yes. I want to find out how they cleared those incredibly isolated and steep hillside paddocks, built those houses and red barns, raised cows, goats and children, grew food crops and survived. Therein lies a serious lesson in endurance and tenacity that’s surely worth far more than all of the fjords, waterfalls, receding glaciers, Norwegian sweaters, souvenirs and sea food that I saw the first time round.