Abandoned ships: what happens to the great ocean liners once they've completed their final voyage?

For the QE2, a new lease of life as a 'royal experience' is on the horizon, but not all retired ships are so lucky

Crowds wave from the quayside as the new Cunard Liner Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) sets out on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, 2nd May 1969. (Photo by Potter/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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One was the fastest in the world now lies rotting in a river estuary. Another was the longest in the world, but it ended up as scrap. A third was a queen, consumed by fire, which sank to the bottom of Hong Kong Harbour.

Like people, ocean liners often find it hard to make the transition from work to retirement. For these ships the future is, all too easily and literally, the scrapheap. Where they live on, however, also like people, is in the memories of their glory years.

Now it is the turn of the Queen Elizabeth 2, arguably the last of the great transatlantic liners until she was taken out of service by Cunard in 2008, made irrelevant and uneconomic by the jumbo jet and the cruise ship.

For the last eight years the QE2 has been moored at Port Rashid in Dubai, the ship's future clouded by uncertainty and rumours of Chinese scrap merchants.


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Now it seems the prophets of doom were wrong. A website that launched this month promises a new lease of life for the 'old lady', who, at 50, might more respectfully be described as middle aged. The QE2 is being refurbished as "a royal experience", although details at present are sketchy.

It looks likely that the ship will become, as was always envisaged after her purchase by Dubai, a floating hotel and entertainment destination. It will, the new owners promise, offer, “a new take on hospitality.”

Queen Elizabeth II and Dr. John Rannie attend the launching of the Queen Elizabeth 2. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II and Dr John Rannie attend the launching of the Queen Elizabeth 2. Hulton-Deutsch / Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis via Getty Images

It is an experiment that has been tried successfully before with an ancestor of the QE2. The Queen Mary, another Cunard liner was built in the 1930s for the golden age of the Atlantic crossing. From 1936 she carried thousands, from royalty and Hollywood stars to those seeking a better life in the New World, between Europe and America.

Withdrawn from service in 1967, the Queen Mary escaped the clutches of a Japanese scrapyard thanks to US$3.45 million from Long Beach in California, a slightly grimy port city that had long lived under the shadow of Los Angeles and Disneyland.

Reinvented as a tourist destination, the Queen Mary played a large part in revitalising the fortunes of Long Beach as a convention centre. The ship was refitted with offices, restaurants and bars and became a major draw for visitors, attracting 1.3 million last year.

It has not all been smooth sailing though. After the removal of the liner’s engines and propellers, the United States Coastguard insisted on redesignating the ship as a building.

More recently, concerns have been raised about the Queen Mary's physical condition. Quoting a maritime engineering survey, the Los Angeles Daily News reported a year ago the ship had serious corrosion that could cause it to flood and even sink. Putting it right would cost at least $230m, the experts warned.

The QE2 pictured arriving in Dubai from the UK on November 26, 2008. Randi Sokoloff / The National
The QE2 pictured arriving in Dubai from the UK on November 26, 2008. Randi Sokoloff / The National

It is the cost of maintaining ocean liners after they leave passenger service that usually dooms them.  Symbols of national pride, it makes their eventual demise even harder to bear.

The Queen Elizabeth, the forerunner of the QE2, also taken out of service in 1967, passed through a series of buyers until ending up in the hands of a Hong Kong businessman, who announced the ship would become a floating university.

In January 1972, while in the final stages of conversion as Seawise University, several fires – that were never explained – broke out in different parts of the ship and it eventually capsized under the weight of the water pumped in to put them out.

The Queen Mary was eventually declared a hazard to shipping and broken up where she lay.

Once the longest ocean liner in world at 316 metres, the SS France criss-crossed the Atlantic from 1961 to 1974. Her sale prompted a national outcry and a protest song by Michel Sardou, Le France, which reached number 1 with the chorus: "Don't ever call me France again, France has just left me in the lurch. Don't ever call me France again, this is my last will."

Sold to the Norwegian Caribbean Line, the France became the Norway, a cruise liner. Increasingly outdated in term of facilities, the ship was taken out of service for the second time in 2004 and sold for scrapping.

Renamed the Blue Lady, the last months of one of the greatest ocean liners ever built were mired in controversy, with claims the ship was riddled with asbestos. Despite a series of lawsuits by environmentalists, the liner was eventually broken up on Alang beach in Gujarat in 2008.

The same fate met the P&O liner Canberra, which featured in a memorable scene in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, and served with distinction as a troop ship in the 1982 Falklands War, as did the QE2.

Of the survivors, perhaps the greatest and saddest is the SS United States. Built in 1950, the liner was the fastest ever built, capturing the coveted Blue Riband for the swiftest Atlantic crossing in both directions during her maiden voyage in 1952.

With two thirds of the ship's construction underwritten by the American government, the United States was designated as a Cold War troop ship and hospital ship in time of war, although never used as such.

The ship's top speed was a state secret and rumoured to be 43 knots or 80 kph, although in reality it was no more than 36 knots. The United States was the last of the 1950s transatlantic greats to be withdrawn from service, making her final trip in 1969.

Various options for preservation were considered, but taking to the high seas again is not one of them. Two years ago, the owners decided the cost of making the United States seaworthy again was prohibitive.

Designated as a national monument, the ship has spent the last 20 years slowly rusting at a pier on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Its current owners, the SS United States Conservancy Group, still hope to preserve the ship as a viable attraction, but the threat of the breakers yard constantly looms.

For the QE2, the calmer waters of the Arabian Gulf and a new life in the sunshine of Dubai, surely seem a much better choice of late career change


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