On Site: She's Here! Her Majesty Delights

Christening a ship is a historic moment in time. It’s usually both a colorful occasion and one draped in pomp and circumstance.

But sometimes, ship namings are the stuff of legends – as great people and legendary ships cross paths.

And that was the case in Southampton, England this week as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II participated in her fifth Cunard naming ceremony – that of the 90,900-grt Queen Elizabeth.

The new vessel joins the Cunard Line fleet as the second largest “Cunarder” every built (after the Queen Mary 2, the largest). Now owned by Carnival Corporation, Cunard has owned an amazing array of 220 ships in its 170-year history.

The Queen herself is also quite familiar with maritime tradition and ship christenings. She was present as a 12-year-old when her mother launched the original Queen Elizabeth in 1938.

Since then the Queen has launched Caronia in 1947, Queen Elizabeth 2 in 1967, and Queen Mary 2 in 2004.

Catching the Buzz

For the 1,600 invited guests – myself among them -- the buzz of excitement really started over the weekend in anticipation of the event. Reporters traipsed over the ship, looking for the best photos, the best angles, the best sights.

Travel agents toured cabins and suites. All talked to executives. Stories were written, tips compiled, gleanings rendered, future guests impressed. 

But after a Gala Luncheon in the Britannia restaurant the whispers began. Is she here yet? Has anyone seen her? Where is she coming from?

Despite America’s disdain – at least early in its history – for a monarchy, it was amazing to see how much we wish we had one. Journalists can be pretty jaundiced, but we cleaned up well and were dressed in our finery.

I even donned the black hat I wore for the Queen Mary 2 christening several years back.

And the British weather, which can be a bit of a drag at times with fog, rain and overall grayness, must have known the Queen was coming. It was a picture perfect day, with blue skies and crisp, cool -- but not cold –weather.

About 2:30 p.m. I made my way down to the gangway to walk the short distance to the grandstand area on the pier. Along the way, I passed security personnel with a sniffer dog, but it wasn’t an aura of stifling police action. The security folks were, I’m sure, all around, but blended well into the background.

The setting for the christening could best be described this way. Pretend you're watching an American football game from the bleachers, with two grandstands in each end zone, so to speak. That was the layout

On one end, the grandstand for the Queen and other dignitaries – including Carnival Corp.’s Chairman and CEO Micky Arison and Cunard Line’s President and Managing Director Peter Shanks -- had soft grey chairs, while in turn, the invited guests in the main grandstand were given a small cushion to sit on.

Facing the royal area was a second grandstand for the orchestra, chorus and featured performers. Between was a large red carpeted area and a blue one with a Royal insignia. Large television screens faced the main grandstand, which spanned the entire area on one side.

After hundreds of people walked from the ship ashore to the area and took their seats -- a steady stream of military personnel, members of Parliament, mayors of local cities and so on -- the momentum began to build.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1893, launched into its pre-ceremony selections with vim and vigor. On this occasion, the conductor was electric in his performance; a former violin player, I almost found myself taking his direction!

As the crowd settled and the last streams of visitors quickly arrived at the stands, the crowd watched video on the screen; it was our first glimpse of the Queen now onboard for a tour.

Dressed in a dark, bright aqua outfit and hat that were stunning, the Queen walked around the bridge, greeting the ship's officers.

In one humorous moment, she looked down. Her finger pressed and presto, the ship’s horn blared – startling the media, agent and VIP guests in the grandstand outdoors. 

Then we watched via video as she viewed her newly commissioned portrait hanging within the ship’s Grand Lobby. Award-winning, Lancashire-born Isobel Peachey, the artist, was onboard to greet her at the painting. I must say the Queen looked pleased with the final result.

After stops at a few other spots along the way -- and as grandstand guests viewed black-and-white and color video clips of previous ship launches and the Queen’s previous christening activities -- it was time for the Queen to arrive for the official naming ceremony.

An announcement advised guests of the proper protocol, instructing us to rise when the Queen entered and left the area. My mother had told me to practice my curtsy, but alas, I wasn’t that close, as I suspected would be the case. But I could see quite well.

Soon dozens and dozens of guardsmen – the Band and Piper of the Coldstream Guards, founded in 1650, and the Band of the Scots Guards, founded in 1642, marched into the grandstand area.

They were a stunning sight with their red tunics, black pants and those high fluffy-looking puffed hats, which Americans always associate with such occasions as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

Parading up a slight incline and back and forth across the red-carpeted stage, they stood proud and played vibrantly. The Queen’s car entered and the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Irish Guards heralded the arrival of Her Majesty the Queen.

More pomp, more circumstance, more pageantry ensued. As the Queen exited her vehicle, she was greeted by Arison.

Then in a stirring fashion, the crowd erupted into the National Anthem of the United Kingdom. “God save our gracious Queen,” they sang and so it went.

From the orchestra grandstand, Lesley Garrett, one of Britain's best known sopranos, delivered a robust rendition of the song, with a broad smile and celebratory air.

Next, it was time for business. Shanks provided an apt welcome, noting that of three Cunard ships with the Queen Elizabeth name, or some variation of it, this present Queen had been at all three ceremonies, and thus had a longer association with Cunard than even the line’s current management.

Shanks described the storied event as a “weaving of the old with the new” and then reflected on the QE2, since retired, which he noted traveled more miles and visited more ports than any other ship in the world.

He said the newest Queen Elizabeth is “quintessentially British” but also has an international appeal that will allow it to gently coax dollars from American pocketbooks and those of other foreigners as well.

Stressing that the new Cunard is steeped in history, Shanks also said the line is a modern one with three new ships in six years.

But the official remarks were relatively short. “Many claim the soul of ships as their own,” Shanks said, “but the essence of this ship belongs to one person,” referring to the Queen for whom it is named.

Two pipers launched into "Amazing Grace," the strains soon picked up by the featured performers, orchestra and chorus for a stirring rendition of the classic.

The Right Reverend Michael Scott-Joynt, Lord Bishop of Winchester, gave the official blessing, “asking God to give thanks for this amazing ship and to pray for all who will sail in her.”

Finally, after all the music, the fanfare, the hoopla, it was time. The Queen stood and moved to the microphone, pronouncing: “I name this ship, Queen Elizabeth. May God bless here and all who sail in her.”

A bottle atop the ship smashed onto the bow, breaking the first time. And for one brief moment, the view of the ship’s massive bow, the Queen Elizabeth name, streamers and brief pyrotechnics, provided that snapshot in time so many of us long to be a part of.

Then the crowd gave three cheers for the Queen (hip, hip, hooray and so on) and within minutes she was gone. In all, she said little, but did much simply by her presence.

The Queen was on site about an hour including the ship tour. She seemed genuinely happy to be at the event. I know I was. Her presence delighted all.

Today, Queen Elizabeth sets sail on her maiden voyage with paying guests. The VIPS are headed home. The journalists are writing away and submitting coverage. I’m writing this in my cabin in the minutes prior to heading to Heathrow.

The event is over. My visual snapshot in time will never be. I am honored to have been there.

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