From bomb hoaxes to hurricanes: Long-serving QE2 chief engineer tells of life at sea

John Chillingworth prepares to open engine room tours of the famous ship to visitors

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From terrorist bomb threats to sailing through a hurricane and a temporary deployment to a war zone – life on-board the QE2 was rarely dull for chief engineer John Chillingworth.

Now repurposed as a floating hotel in Port Rashid, the ship has a rich and varied history, much of which has been witnessed first-hand by the long-serving Liverpudlian, who recently marked a 40-year association with the Cunard company.

As Mr Chillingworth, 71, oversees the development of a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship’s engine room and mechanical operations hub for visitors, he recalled some memorable occasions during his 20 years spent at sea.

“My father worked for Cunard and I did my first trip with the company when I was five years old, going to New York as my grandmother was American,” he said.

“I did another one in 1961 on the Queen Mary and then in 1971, I joined a ship called the Franconia in Bermuda for three months before joining the QE2 in November of that same year.

“That time was great, it was the end of the swinging sixties, so the QE2 was designed with that in mind – it was a five-star operation and very glamorous.”

Mr Chillingworth joined Cunard in Southampton and the QE2 as an engineer cadet at 19, and then a junior officer.

While at sea, he was part of a team of seven engineers, two electricians and four mechanics, on a four-hour watch rotation.

After some time as general manager of the QE2, while anchored in Dubai, he is one of the longest-serving crew members and remains an indelible link to the past.

40 golden years of service

On June 8, he marked 40 years of service on the QE2 and continues to develop the vessel as a tourist attraction.

One recent addition opened by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, who visited Dubai in March, was a small museum dedicated to the intrigue around a bomb hoax that caused mild panic on board the luxury ocean liner on May 17, 1972.

Mr Chillingworth, whose two children would often accompany him on board, remembers the incident well having joined the ship’s crew just six months earlier.

“We were told about the bomb threat and did a search, but found nothing,” he said.

“We thought it wasn't real, but the authorities decided to fly the bomb disposal people out and parachute them in. It was obviously an interesting thing to watch as we were two days out from New York.

“After that, we carried a permanent bomb disposal expert and he was also our head of security.”

A call into the Cunard Shipping Line’s New York office claimed six bombs had been planted on board the QE2, with two passengers primed to detonate the explosives unless demands for $350,000 were met.

On its way from New York to Cherbourg, the ship was sealed.

Bomb disposal called in

A military operation was launched and a four-man team parachuted into the Atlantic Ocean from a low-flying Hercules aircraft and were picked up by landing craft to board the ship.

They then conducted a full sweep to search for any incendiary devices.

The FBI later identified the threats as a hoax, tracing them back to Joseph A Lindisi, a 48-year-old shoe salesman from New York, who was later fined $10,000 and jailed for 20 years.

The story is one of many to be told from newspaper cuttings on the walls of a small museum inside the QE2.

Another memorable time for Mr Chillingworth was when the QE2 was deployed as a troop carrier to the Falkland Islands in 1982 as Britain briefly went to war with Argentina.

“We were coming back from New York when we had notice the ship was being requisitioned,” said Mr Chillingworth.

“The British government chartered the ship and paid Cunard a day rate for it. At the end of the charter, they would pay for any damages.

“It was strange seeing a helicopter deck on the forward end and another on the back end.

“It really hit home when I was down by the provision stores on seven deck and I saw boxes of blood being loaded on to the ship for transfusions.

“We went to South Georgia and offloaded all the stores and the troops and then took a boat and went to shore.

“Because it was such a high-profile vessel it was a legitimate target, so they wanted us back out quickly.

“We were going through all the ice fields and we had to have the radar off because that would have transmitted signals to the Argentinians – so we were sailing blind through all the icebergs. “We survived anyway.”

The QE2 transported about 3,000 troops to Ascension, returning to Southampton on June 11, 1982.

Electrical fires and the occasional blackouts were other incidents engineers on board were faced with.

Typically the ship would cruise from Southampton to New York, arriving at 7am to take on 5,000 tonnes of fuel, which at that time would cost about a million dollars, or about $3 million today.

Refuelling would take around five hours, while crew would restock other provisions and new passengers would embark.

Hurricane drama

The QE2 would then make its return trip to England, leaving at 5pm the same day. Cruising at a speed of 28.5 knots the trip would usually take five to six days, weather permitting.

On one occasion, disaster almost struck when the QE2 sailed into a hurricane on one of its trans-Atlantic crossings.

“A day out of New York, a hurricane fell around the ship,” said Mr Chillingworth.

“There were swirls going around us, but blue sky up above and it was calm in the middle but taking us off course.

“After 24 hours, we tried to push through the hurricane, but unfortunately, the ship went at a 90-degree angle and the wind pushed us back into the eye of the hurricane.

“We were stuck for another 24 hours and realised if we hit the winds head-on, we could push our way through.

“Being stuck in the eye of the hurricane and going over 45 degrees was extremely concerning.

“That's the closest to ship ever got to a total catastrophe.”

Updated: June 10, 2024, 3:06 AM