Queen Elizabeth Transits the Panama Canal – World Cruise 2012

At 7.30 on the morning of 26 January 2012 there was a buzz of anticipation on board Queen Elizabeth as we approached the Panama Canal. The decks were packed with guests, the majority of whom had not transited the canal before.



A million ships have passed through the canal since it was opened in 1914 and this was only the second time that the majestic Queen Elizabeth had transited the canal.

Queen Elizabeth had left Southampton on her 2012 World Voyage on 10 January and after calls at New York, Fort Lauderdale and Grand Cayman she made a maiden call at Cartagena in Colombia before heading to Panama.
Queen Elizabeth under the command of Captain Christopher Wells, approached the first set of locks – the Gatun Locks – and it then became clear to those of us who had not transited the canal before how narrow the locks were and how little space there would be between the ship and the lock walls.

The three sets of locks making up the Panama Canal lift each ship 26 metres from sea level to the level of the Gatun Lake and then lower the ship on the other side to sea level again.

At each of the three set of locks eight locomotives (known as ‘mules’) pull the ship through the lock keeping the ship precisely in the centre of the lock. In the case of Queen Elizabeth the clearance on each side was only two feet.

After passing through the Gatun Locks, we then had the wonderful spectacle of the Gatun Lake and its beautiful forests and wildlife. The lake then narrowed and we sailed through the Culebra Cut before arriving at the Pedro Miguel Locks which were swiftly followed by the final set of locks – the Miraflores Locks – which brought the ship down to sea level and the Pacific Ocean.

The transit had taken us the best part of ten hours but it was a magical day. The precision of the pilots and locomotive drivers and the efficiency with which the whole operation was carried out by the Panama Canal authorities and the ships officers and crew made it a breathtaking experience. And it was exciting to hear the cheers from the crowds that had assembled at the Miraflores Locks to watch Queen Elizabeth pass through.

Queen Elizabeth is now sailing north to San Francisco for her maiden call tomorrow before continuing her World Voyage across the Pacific.


Queen Elizabeth’s Call to Aqaba

More than 1000 of us travelled to Petra from Aqaba. If you have not been to Petra, you need to add it to your ‘must visit’ list. Petra is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is stunning.

The two hour drive to Petra was easy and took us through Bedouin territory littered with their distinctive tents, their sheep and their camels. And in some areas we saw settlements of concrete houses provided for them by the Jordanian government. Often a brown tent could be spotted alongside the concrete house because the grandparents refused to move out of their tent!

The city of Petra was built by the Nabataeons, who had moved from Arabia in the 6th Century BC. Work started in 169BC and most of the city appears to have been completed by 106 AD, when the Romans conquered Petra by cutting off the water supply! Amazingly the Nabataeons had constructed water channels which can still be seen. And to survive in the dry seasons they constructed dams and reservoirs.

The Nabataeons continued to occupy Petra, despite parts of the city being destroyed by earthquake. But eventually Petra became a ‘lost’ city and for nearly 2000 years its existence was forgotten by Europeans. But in 1812 a Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt found it again.

When you visit Petra today it is easy to see why it disappeared. It is approached through the Siq, a narrow chasm which wends its way for a mile through 100 foot high rocks on either side. The surface is uneven and although the majority of visitors walk, others ride through on horseback or in horse drawn carriages.

Regular World travellers with Cunard, Mary and Celia, with combined ages totalling nearly 180 years were determined to visit Petra. They each thought the other was too old to do so, but they both decided to go and felt that the horse drawn carriage was the option for them. The problem with the carriages is that the Bedouin drivers take the journey at speed and the surface is not flat, but Mary and Celia survived the bumpy ride and loved the experience.

The Bedouins occupied the lost city until 1985 when the government persuaded them to move to homes built for them on the hill above Petra to allow archaeologists to explore and excavate and to enable visitors to enjoy the site. In exchange the Bedouins were allowed to run the visitor facilities – the horses, the camels, the carriages and the market stalls.

At the beginning of the Siq you are confronted by the Djinn Blocks forming the entrance and after travelling through the narrow Siq you reach the Treasury which is the best known and most photographed monument in Petra. Standing some 130 feet high the building is carved out of the living rock. Some believe that it was a temple and others a Royal tomb.

If you continue to walk down the valley you encounter the Street of the Facades and then the dramatic theatre which is thought to have accommodated 6000 people. Wherever you look there are hundreds of tombs, many of which you can enter. At the end of the Paved Street you will find the Temenos Gate. You also need to find the Temple of the Winged Lions and numerous other beautiful structures carved out of the sandstone rocks.

Petra is an amazing place. Although it is not the easiest place to reach I recommend that you try it. In my view it is well worth the effort.


Queen Elizabeth’s Grand Welcome to Travemunde

I have a particular attachment to Queen Elizabeth because my father, the late Captain George Smith was one of only three men who were Captain of both the original Queen Elizabeth and the QE2. My wife and I were aboard Queen Elizabeth for her maiden voyage in October and are now enjoying the voyage to the Baltic capitals and St Petersburg.

I am reporting on our visit to Travemunde, it was not in the original itinerary but it was an inspired addition. It was a maiden call and at 7.00 am as we approached land the sun was shining and the sky was clear and blue. There were beaches to the left and to the right of the river and there were vast numbers of people on the beaches welcoming our arrival.

As we began to travel up the river to our berth there were thousands of people at every vantage point waving and shouting. Those aboard quickly realised that something very special was happening and it all became very emotional when ‘God save the Queen’ rang out from the shore on both sides of the river over and over again.

We reached our berth on time at 8.00 am and enjoyed a wonderful day in Travemunde and the surrounding area of Lubeck. Travemunde is immaculate – a resort town with boutiques, shops and bars and is clearly a popular holiday spot.

Throughout the day, boats of all shapes and sizes sailed by Queen Elizabeth, which we were told later was the largest passenger ship to have visited the port.

Our departure proved to be more emotional than our arrival. Captain Christopher Wells told us that it had been estimated that 20,000 people had greeted our arrival and that in the early hours of the morning there had been major traffic jams in the town. In the evening there must have been 3 or 4 times that number watching our departure.

As we proceeded down the river there were people crammed on to every vantage point. Jetties were packed and people were 10 or more deep along both river banks for miles. And it was a joyful occasion with those ashore and those on the ship waving and clapping. Again ‘God save the Queen’ rang out from both sides of the river.

Hundreds of boats formed a flotilla which followed us out to sea, gently kept under control by police boats.

It was clear that the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Travemunde was a stunning success. It brought great joy to the people of Travemunde and the surrounding area. It was a very emotional day for us and for those in that northern part of Germany.


Queen Elizabeth’s Exotic Voyage 2013

The itinerary in the Pacific looked sensational. Clearly more than 1500 others thought the same as they boarded Queen Elizabeth in Los Angeles in early February 2013.

The prospect of visits to Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Bora Bora and New Zealand was irresistible. And additionally we were to cross both the Equator and the International Dateline twice.

Honolulu was the first call and as we had been to Oahu and the Pearl Harbour Memorials before, we returned to Waikiki and to the memories of our visit seven years earlier. We had stayed then in the magnificent Moana Surfrider, the first hotel ever built on Waikiki Beach, and it was as elegant as ever with a massive Banyan tree in the courtyard by the beach. Many of our fellow passengers went to Pearl Harbour and they inevitably found the USS Arizona memorial very moving. It is a must if you visit Honolulu.

We then sailed south to the Equator and on 12 February King Neptune and his Queen came aboard and on a beautiful sunny day performed the traditional crossing the line ceremony.

We arrived at Pago Pago in American Samoa – a lush tropical island – on Valentines Day. An amiable taxi driver took us on a long tour of the island said by some to be the birthplace of Polynesion culture. The island is beautiful.

The following day we were in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) and we visited Robert Louis Stevenson’s house (now a museum) where he spent the last four years of his life. He is buried nearby on Mount Vaea. We then travelled south, passing the beautiful Papapapaitai waterfall, to the idyllic beaches on the south coast. Parts of the capital Apia were devastated by a cyclone last December. Homes were flattened and cars washed away but those affected are putting on a brave face as they clear the debris.

From the Samoan islands we then had three days at sea before our arrival in Auckland. The weather was marvellous and we had four wonderful days in New Zealand. Auckland was followed by Tauranga, Napier and then Wellington.

In Napier the vintage motor cars were out in force, their drivers in period costumes to complement the Art Deco architecture prominent in the town. The centre of the town was destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 and it was reconstructed in the Art Deco style. The following day in Wellington many of us were at the Harbourside where masses of teams were assembling in Frank Kitts Park for Dragon Boat racing. Once underway the racing was fierce and exciting.

Tahiti was possibly the highlight of the voyage. After five days at sea we arrived in Papeete. The island of Tahiti is the highest and largest in French Polynesia and consists of two parcels of land joined by an isthmus. Our driver took us round the coast in a clockwise direction from Papeete and at the isthmus drove up into the lush green cattle country where the view of Tahiti was spectacular. Tahiti is close to the ideal of a tropical paradise.

Of course we all remember the film South Pacific with its beautiful girls. They are still there and it is easy to understand why the Bounty mutineers were reluctant to leave Tahiti after five months tending their breadfruit and their relationships with the local ladies. They dreaded the voyage ahead of them. We would have preferred to stay longer but looked forward to further travels in the wonderful Queen Elizabeth in Polynesia and the Hawaiian islands.

We were in Bora Bora the following day and as we edged in past the coral reefs, sadly the sun was not shining and rain was forecast. But that did not deny us a trip to Bloody Marys for an expensive drink of that name. The island evokes memories of Bali Hai but the movie was filmed elsewhere. The island is wonderful and is surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef.

Queen Elizabeth headed north again towards the Hawaiian islands. Hilo on Big Island was our next call and after the Rainbow Falls we visited the impressive Hawaii Volcanoes National Park with views across the crater. The volcanoes are described as ‘active’ and the museum in the National Park is excellent.

Our final call was to the island of Maui. We drove south to Kihei and our driver was keen to show us the holiday homes of Jack Nicholson and Tiger Woods before embarking on a drive through the lava fields. We then headed north through the beautiful homes in Kula before rushing back to the ship from the Tedeschi Winery. Maui is clearly an island with much to offer. We merely scratched the surface but vowed to return one day.

Throughout the voyage we heard stories of Captain James Cook and in the South Pacific and in Tahiti in particular stories of HMS Bounty, Lt William Bligh and Fletcher Christian. The history of exploration in the Pacific in the 1700’s is fascinating and Cook’s three voyages between 1768 and 1779 took him all over the South Pacific and wherever we went we found evidence of his exploits.

It has not escaped our notice that the Queen Victoria will be in the South Pacific in February 2014. No doubt many of our fellow Queen Elizabeth passengers will find it hard to resist a return to that ocean next year. We will certainly be there.


10 Days to go!

In 10 days time we should be packed and ready to go. There will be 3 ships in Southampton that day and, as a result, there will be massive congestion around Dock Gate 4 and our access to the docks.

Sir Ben Ainslie with me on a recent docks visit.

We are on our way!

We left Southampton on time on Thursday evening to a firework display, Queen Victoria being the first of the three Cunarders to embark on her World Voyage. It was a wet and windy evening and it quickly became apparent that we would not be escaping the stormy conditions that were engulfing the UK.

On Friday we hit a massive storm with gale force winds reaching 10 on the Beaufort scale and 6 metre waves. At times the Captain had to drop our speed to as little as 3 knots to keep the ship safe and reasonably comfortable for those of us aboard. The storm continued unabated through Friday night and Saturday morning. Many of us calculated that we would not be able to reach Porto Delgarda in the Azores by Sunday morning and the Captain duly made that announcement this morning.

His plan is to take the ship on a more southerly route in the hope that he can avoid the worst of the ferocious storm engulfing the whole of the North Atlantic. It means no ports until we reach Fort Lauderdale on 12 January, but it is predicted that we will see calmer weather from the 7 January. We will see!


Day 5

We are still not out of the storm that has spread itself across the whole of the North Atlantic. At times we have been travelling at only 3 knots according to Captain Philpott but yesterday we made massive progress and at noon were some 70 miles south of the Azores and heading on a more westerly course.

The largest wave recorded by those on the bridge on this voyage was a gigantic 18 metres high. No wonder there are a large number of empty seats in the dining room in the evening.

Last night we were woken during the night by an almighty crash. Bottles had gone flying in our room  but the only casualty was a broken champagne flute.

We have attended a series of parties in the Queens Room and Jane’s rising wheelchair is already a great success. At the press of a button she is at the level of those standing alongside her.


Mid Atlantic Ridge

We are approaching the Mid Atlantic Ridge having made substantial progress. The wind is now gusting at only 40 knots and it is anticipated that we will have cleared the storm by tomorrow. The swell is now down to 5 metres so the signs are good.


And on the sixth day

The sun shone a little and the seas settled down with only a smallish swell. And on the seventh day there was continuous sunshine, a temperature of 24C and a calm sea. But compare that with Queen Mary 2 in New York just a few days ago!