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Captain brings his 'baby' home; QE2 40 Alastair Gilmour talks to Ian McNaught, the QE2's Sunderland-raised captain.

Byline: Alastair Gilmour

THE mental image is of grey beard, gold braid, black peaked cap and an aloofness bordering on the haughty. The reality is nothing of the sort.

Captain Ian McNaught, Master, Queen Elizabeth 2, does not conform to Hollywood seafaring stereotypes. He is down-to-earth, utterly charming, superb company and really quite ordinary - much what you'd expect from someone brought up in Sunderland and living - ashore time, at any rate - in Washington, Tyne & Wear.

Although he is captain of the world's most prestigious ship, he maintains links with the North-East and its maritime traditions by being a "younger brethren" of Trinity House in Newcastle, the seamans' welfare organisation that can date its origins to 1505.

"The QE2," he says with obvious pride. "My little baby. Mostly when people ask what I do for a living I say 'I go to sea'. Some people don't believe you when you tell them; they're expecting someone like the captain on the Titanic film.

"For me, there's no better job; it's a boyhood dream realised, to be able to be standing aboard her coming into the Tyne. It's tremendous for the river and it's great for the region. The Port of Tyne Authority has been working very, very hard getting passenger ships into port and this is a great flag-waving exercise.

"I'll be on the bridge driving it in; it'll be really great to come through the two piers then look down the Tyne. The last time we came near was in 1999 when we anchored off the river. Sadly, the weather was pretty awful, you couldn't see a thing, and we quickly headed down the coast for Southampton."

It's curious that Captain McNaught uses the term "driving" when he refers to wheelhouse duties. "We all say 'drive' the ship, but the correct term is 'con'. You'll say when you take over, 'I have the con'.

"Coming into the Tyne should be relatively easy, we just have to keep well away from the Black Midden Rocks. I don't do rocks or icebergs. We can only come in two hours before or two hours after high tide so there's only a little 'window'. It'll take an hour-and-a-half to come in and turn around to berth at Tyne Commission Quay so we're ready for next day to head out."

Ian's father was a merchant seaman, as is one of his two brothers, and he spent the first half of his career working on tankers, often docking in the Tyne at Velva Liquids, South Shields. He reels off the ship's names his father was connected with - the Silksworth, Pennyworth, Ravensworth and the Tyne-built Bamburgh Castle, the first ship he sailed on with his dad.

"My father was at sea for two years at a time. Wives have to be very independent women; it's only now that I realise what we put my mother through with three of us in the family at sea.

"We work three months on and about two months at home, depending on the ship's schedule. After a while my wife will say, 'isn't it about time you were ringing the office?'. She and my son will be on board when we come to Newcastle. He's 20 and doing biomedical science at Newcastle University, though he has hankerings to go to sea.

"I just hope the weather is good for everybody who'll be coming out to see us at Tynemouth and South Shields.

"Coming up river is quite normal when you think about it, as you approach New York you're two hours coming up river and Southampton is also a two-hour run-up. On our cruises to Spitzbergen, we could be going up a fjord for seven or eight hours until we reach a small village where passengers can get off. It's tremendous variety as on an ocean passage you can see nothing for four or five days. When you see Manhattan as you drive into New York; that skyline is tremendous. Sydney is a tremendous natural harbour with the Opera House and the bridge just like ours here in Newcastle. Moorea in Tahiti was featured in the film South Pacific - the one with the two mountain peaks. You go into the reef, the surf's washing over the anchorage, the jungle's in the background - you can see why Jolly Jack jumped ship..."

There is no such thing as a "normal" day being captain of the QE2, but memorable moments are part and parcel of the job. Ian says: "When you've got 1,000 crew working for you and 1,800 passengers depending on you there are no two days the same - that's what makes the job so interesting. It's the crew and the passengers who give the ship its atmosphere. The voyage will be full of our regular passengers - the loyalty of these people never ceases to amaze me. The loyalty's the same with the crew; some of them have been there since day one.

"There are a few Geordies on board and we've had a lot over the years, especially the girls. One of our ex-waitresses, Shakila Akbar, is originally from Trimdon and she's now running the bar at the Irish rugby ground in Dublin - and 'Geordie Julie' from Newcastle worked as a waitress in the Queen's Grill; they're both coming for the day. We still do things in a very traditional way. We have the captain's table, the captain's cocktail party and the captain's dinner. My job is split three ways, the first being on the bridge and the safe control from A to B. That's of paramount importance.

"Then it's like being the general manager of a small factory, and there's the social part with passengers which is very important as well."

So, how does a seafarer from Sunderland become captain of the best-known ship in the world?

Ian says: "In the 1980s the industry began to change and a lot of businesses moved their headquarters and registered their ships abroad and employed more and more foreign crews. One day we turned up for work in Manchester and were told to sign a new contract with a Spanish company or that would be it. We accepted redundancy.

"I took the opportunity to change career direction and wrote to P&O and Cunard who took me on as a second officer in 1987. It was then a case of working through the ranks. When I was appointed in 2003 I was the youngest captain in the Cunard Line, at 48."

Superstition aboard ship isn't the issue it once was - these days, everything is much more reliant on high technology and crew members are far better educated, so there are few areas where there is any need to call upon myths and old wives' tales.

"There are no ghosts aboard the QE2," says Ian, "but I know where there's a man's finger. It's in a little store in the fc'stle. Somebody lost a finger in an accident and nobody will go and get it out. The Queen Mary has a ghost, though.

"None of us calls a ship by its proper name; I don't really know why. The QE2 is the Black Pig. The Normandy is known as The Blue Canoe and The Canberra is The Formica Palace. And I can't possibly tell you what the Queen Mary's called."

Often on duty there is no time to think, just react to the situation in the way that years of training have prepared you for.

"A few years ago in the North Atlantic we were heading south trying to avoid Hurricane Luis," recalls Ian. "We had waves of 50 or 60ft. The sea just looked white, there was so much foam on it. About 1.30am this 100-ft high wave just appeared; it's the biggest wave the QE2's faced but she poked her nose through it and came out the other side - but that's what she was built for. Not many of the newer ships would have survived that."

The QE2 will be delivered to Dubai World in November 2008, where she will cease her role as an ocean-going passenger vessel and be refurbished and adapted for her new home. From 2009, the vessel will be berthed at The Palm Jumeirah, the world's largest man-made island, to create a luxury floating hotel, retail and entertainment destination.

"Next year is the end of the line, sadly," says Ian. "We'll be heading off to Dubai on November 11 and arrive on November 20, then hand her over to her new owners.

"It's a little bit sad and there'll be a few tears when we leave Southampton for the last time. But it's a good and proper retirement; she's going to someone who can afford to look after her.

"I'll be going to the Queen Mary II or the Queen Victoria, both Cunard liners."

But first, it's Newcastle, the red carpet treatment and a boyhood dream fulfilled.

QE2 timeline

Dec 30 1964: Contract signed with John Brown Shipyard of Clydebank

Jul 5 1965: Keel laid. Assigned job number 736

Sep 20 1967: Launch by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Nov 19 1968: QE2 sets sail from the fitting out berth at John Brown's under the command of Captain Bill Warwick

Nov 26 1968: Start of preliminary trials in the Irish Sea

Apr 22 1969: Mini maiden voyage to Las Palmas

May 2 1969: Official maiden voyage to New York

Jan 8 1971: Rescues passengers from Antilles, which had run aground

1975: First world cruise

May 1982: QE2 requisitioned for Falk-lands War as a troop transport. On May 12, 1982 she sets sail for St Georgia with 3,000 troops aboard. Arrives safely back in Southampton on June 11, 1982

Oct 1986: Work starts in Germany on conversion from steam to diesel engines

1987: QE2 wins The Queen's Award for Export Achievement

Aug 7 1992: Hits uncharted rocks off Vineyard Sound

Dec 1994: Extensive, much publicised refit

Sep 11 1995: Encounters Hurricane Luis on a westbound Atlantic crossing and is hit by a 100ft wave

Jan 2 1996: QE2 logs four million miles.

1996: Following the sale of Trafalgar House to Kvaerner, Cunard Line ownership transfers to the Norwegian construction company

May 1998: Kvaerner sells Cunard Line to the American-owned Carnival Corporation

Oct 4 2001: Captain R W Warwick performs the wedding ceremony of his daughter Rebecca on board QE2 in Boston.

Aug 29 2002: QE2 logs five million miles at sea.

QE2 on-board facilities include:

Five restaurants and two cafes

Three swimming pools (four before 1994 refit)

One pub, a nightclub and eight bars

481-seat cinema


Shopping promenade and a branch of Har rod's

Health club

Beauty salon



Computer learning centre.

Skipper's story

Captain Ian McNaught became Q E 2 's 21st captain in 2003, her 34th year of service and, at the age of 48, the youngest captain to hold the position.

He was born in Sunderland in 1954 and has followed his father in going to sea. He saw his first ship when he was four and, after spending the summer of 1968 with his father on the Bamburgh Castle, he joined the BP Tanker Company after graduating from Fleetwood's Nautical College for pre-sea boys.

He spent the next four years with BP where he served on British Power, British Commerce, British Architect and, among others, British Scientist. He then joined Liverpool's Bibby Line in 1976, trading between the Gulf, Singapore and Hong Kong before being deployed in the Gulf.

In 1979, having had enough of oil tankers and LPG ships working deep sea, Captain McNaught joined Hullgates Shipping of Grimsby which ran a small fleet of coastal tankers.

He joined Cunard in September 1987 and joined Queen Elizabeth II as a second officer. After two years he was transferred to Cunard Princess as first officer. He spent several months in Bahrain when Cunard Princess served as a recuperation and recreation centre for American troops in the first Gulf War before he rejoined QE2 in summer 1991. Three years later he was promoted to chief officer and, after a brief spell on Sea Goddess II, returned to QE2 as staff captain in 1999.

Captain McNaught's first command was of Sea Goddess I in June 2001. In April 2003, he was appointed Master of QE2, flagship of both the Cunard Line and the British Merchant marine.

He is married with one son and lives in Washington, Tyne & Wear. At home he maintains his connections with the sea as a member of the Nautical Institute and as a member of Trinity House, Newcastle.

Trinity House

THE construction of Trinity House in Newcastle began in 1505 and has since housed the headquarters of a unique maritime organisation.

It has been dedicated to the welfare of seafarers on the North-East coast since its Charter of Incorporation was granted by King Henry VIII in 1536.

Seafarers had already formed a Brotherhood or Fraternity and purchased the site on Broad Chare on Newcastle Quayside in 1505 in exchange for one red rose, to be paid on demand on the feast of John the Baptist (now Midsummer's Day). An order was then made for the building of a hall, chapel and lodgings for the brethren. It is now owned by English Heritage. Captain Ian McNaught says: "Trinity House managed the river, in effect, from 1506 up until Victorian times when the Port of Tyne Commission took more and more control. It was responsible for the High and Low Lights at the mouth of the Tyne, its pilotage and its buoyage. It still sets exams for pilots for here and at Blyth and for deep sea divers in the North Sea and the English Channel.

"I'm a 'younger brethren' of Trinity House. I did an apprenticeship where you study the history of Newcastle and the organisation as well as navigation then do . a four-part exam at the end of it.

"I finished my apprenticeship two years ago, so I suppose that makes me a mature apprentice. Lord Collingwood was a pupil at the school. It's important that these things are encouraged and not allowed to die out."

QE2 facts

Length: 963 feet

Beam 105ft 2.5ins

Beam at bridge wings: 117ft 5.5 ins

Draft: 32ft

Height (keel to funnel): 204ft, 1.5ins

Gross tonnage: 70,327 tonnes

Guest capacity: 1,778

Crew: 1,016

Top Speed: 32.5 knots. QE2 is the fastest merchant ship in operation; she can go faster backwards than most cruise ships travel forwards

Power: Diesel electric

Propulsion: 9-cylinder 58/64 medium speed turbo-charged diesels driving two 400-ton GEC electric motors.

Strength: Extra thick steel hull for strength and stability

Cost: pounds 29,091,000. Since her launch, Cunard has spent 15 times that amount in refitting

QE2 has: Sailed 5.6 million nautical miles, more than any other ship ever, and the equivalent of travelling to the moon and back 13 times; carried almost 2.1 million guests; completed 24 full world cruises

Eating on board: The QE2 is the world's largest consumer of caviar. On a world cruise, 18,000lb of beef will be carried, plus 850 tins of Portuguese sardines, 15,500lb of turkey, 25,000lb of butter, 95,000lb of tomatoes, 6,500 litres of cream, 600lb of strawberries, 1,000lb of kippers, 2,000lb of lettuce and 12.5 tonnes of potatoes. The drinks list is equally staggering: 10,000 bottles of champagne, 27,000 bottles of still wine, 45,000 cans and bottles of beer, 13,500 gallons of draught beer and 16,500 bottles of spirits.

Powering the QE2: Its 95MV total power output is enough to light a city the size of Southampton.

Did you know?: The QE2 sends all its used cooking oil ashore for reconstituting into animal feed. Pound for pound, the most expensive foodstuff on board is saffron. The library, with 6,000 books, is staffed by two full-time librarians.

In the news

May 1972

A CALLER rang Cunard's New York office and demanded EUR350,000 or else QE2 would be "blasted out of the sea".

Bomb disposal experts were eventually parachuted into the Atlantic and picked up by crew but found nothing. The hoaxer had laid a trail for the cash to be delivered but never turned up at its final rendezvous point (the FBI had it under surveillance). It was later regarded as the work of a lone con-man.

'Queen' runs aground - January 7, 1982

THE luxury liner Queen Elizabeth II ran aground at the entrance of 1 . San Juan harbour, Puerto Rico, and was later refloated by tugs. A harbour spokesman said the ship had steering problems but later docked under her own power.

Big rush to sign for QE2 war run - May 8, 1982

MORE than a quarter of the crew on board the luxury liner QE2 are refusing to sail with the ship to the Falklands.

But North merchant seamen have responded to an appeal for men from the ship's owner, Cunard. Twenty-eight vacancies on the QE2 have been allotted to the North-East, and yesterday the National Union of Seamen's South Shields office was handling applications from throughout the North.

June 11, 1982

A MASSIVE flag waving crowd gave the QE2 a real red, white and blue welcome home at Southampton today.

Hundreds of Union Jacks, banners, hats and bunting greeted the liner as it docked just before midday.

On the quayside families stretched to catch a glimpse of their heroes, home from the South Atlantic.

On board, the 700 survivors from the warships Coventry, Ardent and Antelope clambered on to every available vantage point to wave back.

QE2 dented April 3, 1984

THE QE2 is to undergo minor repairs in Lisbon this week after denting her hull on a breakwater off Athens at the weekend while on the last leg of a three-month world cruise, her owners, Cunard said.

QE2 hits jetty April 5, 1984

THE luxury liner Queen Elizabeth II hit a jetty at Gibraltar yesterday, despite an attempt to halt it by dropping an anchor.

QE2 clubs December 10, 1987

TWO 32-ton bronze propellers from the QE2 are being cut up in Southampton to be turned into golf club heads costing pounds 1,000 I each.

August 9, 1992

AN operation to evacuate almost 2,000 big-spending passengers from the stricken QE2 liner got under way late last night.

Their luxury cruise was halted when the ship ran aground 12 miles off the US coast in the Atlantic Ocean in the early hour s.

American coastguards said the world-famous Cunard giant hit an underwater obstruction, probably a rock, off Cape Cod.

Holes were torn along a third of the vessel's length under the water line.

QE2 at the publishers

On August 12, 1982, The Journal reviewed a new book, Captain Of The Queen by Robert Arnott.

"If pressed, Bob Arnott does a neat line in name-dropping. But then, as the master of the world's most luxurious floating city - otherwise known as the Queen Elizabeth II - he does perhaps meet rather more celebrities than the average man in the street. And in this entertaining autobiography, he gleefully recounts some of his more unusual meetings with the rich and famous.

One of Captain Arnott's tales concerns film star Burt Lancaster who met him one morning while running the complete length of the boat deck - on his hands.

Another story concerns Captain Arnott's encounter with legendary funnyman Oliver Hardy. The man who made millions laugh all over the world wasn't in a laughing mood at the time. Instead, Hardy was returning to America in a near-suicidal mood, after a disastrous tour of the British music hall circuit with partner Stan Laurel.

'Can you imagine me and Stan as stand-up comics?' said a sad-faced Hardy, explaining how the tour had flopped. 'Neither of us is exactly Bob Hope.'

One film star who Captain Arnott met in a happier mood was screen Samson V ictor Mature. Mature, who loved roast turkey and could demolish a whole 12lb bird at one sitting, once autographed a menu for one of the chefs, writing: 'Cunard cooking is as great as sex - almost.'

Although the Q E 2 's skipper destroys the myth that sea captains are still allowed to perform marriage ceremonies, he does recount the time he acted as marriage guidance counsellor to Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.

The American stars, estranged at the time, cornered him one night in mid-Atlantic and asked him what he thought of their chances of getting together again. He told them: 'Yes, of course, I'd have another go.'

He adds that after his spot of advice, the couple walked off hand-in-hand towards the moonlight.

In addition to the household names who have sailed with him, Captain Arnott takes time out to recall the more eccentric people he's met in 40 years at sea.

Such as the captain on one of his first voyages who kept a loaded catapult on the bridge so he could fire lumps of coal at anyone or anything that took his fancy."

Samuel Cunard

THE Industrial Revolution had progressed far enough by the 1830s to make the idea of transatlantic communication with a fleet of steamships plausible.

The desire for a dependable delivery of the mail that commerce depended on prompted the government to invite interested parties to bid for a contract.

Samuel Cunard of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the successful contender. His contract to deliver the mail across the Atlantic from Britain to North America was signed on May 4, 1839, and originally involved a commitment to provide three steamships of 800 tons and 300 horsepower.

Samuel was a highly successful and enterprising Canadian businessman and one of a group of 12 individuals who directed the affairs of Nova Scotia. He had the reputation for being not only a very astute businessman but also an individual with exceptional diplomatic ability.

In order to successfully carry out his contract, Samuel brought in Robert Napier, an engineering genius who was responsible for creating the engines of some of the best new ships of his day. Samuel also needed financial backing and received it from three accomplished businessmen; James Donaldson, George Burns and David MacIver.

These five men founded the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, later known as the Cunard Line.

Sir Samuel Cunard died on April 28, 1865.


1969; PROUD: Captain Ian McNaught, Master of the QE2, in Trinity House.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 17, 2007
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