The women dazzled in elegant gowns, the men were equally splendid in tuxedos, champagne flowed, a band in the grand ballroom played Glenn Miller and the moon rose out of the waves. I had feared, before I learned better, that I had been born too late to experience the fabled romance of a transatlantic crossing. A recent voyage aboard the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2 convinced me that the old elegance endures.
Ah, but once there was high adventure, too, in an ocean crossing, and on this particular trip the QE2 managed to provide a modern-day version, something not even the captain had expected. In mid-voyage, our ship stopped, dead, in the middle of the sea, and stayed there unpowered for the next 36 hours.
We were marooned hundreds of miles from land, captives aboard a floating island. But a marvelously luxurious and well-provisioned island, so who minded the captivity? It was an adventure that became a party -- what else could we do? -- and it meant I got to spend three extra days enjoying the QE2's splendid amenities.
The voyage began conventionally, with a pre-departure champagne party in our stateroom and a flurry of handwaving over the rail as we pulled away from the dock. My father, sister and I had booked an October passage, sailing from New York harbor on a cold, gray afternoon.
The first two days aboard, I feasted on five-course gourmet meals, enjoyed mid-morning bullion on the afterdeck, met my sister for high tea before bingo, sipped wine in the piano bar before dinner and wrapped up the evenings dancing until the wee hours in the Lido deck disco.
On the afternoon of our third day out, I was in a spot-toning class at the ship's own Golden Door spa, a branch of the elite Southern California-based spa that, on shore, costs as much as $2,500 a week. (I just couldn't pass up a free week of the same treatment at sea.)
Fifteen of us groaned and grunted to a recorded beat until, suddenly, the music died, the lights went out, the hot whirlpools stilled and the constant whirring of the engines ceased. Our class, on one of the lowest decks, was plunged into quiet darkness by the apparent power loss.
Our instructor, a slim Valley Girl from Southern California, took it all quite calmly. "Like, what's the story?" she said. "Come on people, let's keep counting." She was a regular on the ship, and we found her approach reassuring.
I was joined by my father and sister, who had found me in the darkness, and the three of us made our way to the upper decks through darkened, creaking passageways. As we went, we had to lift heavy watertight doors that had slammed down automatically when the power failed.
Above, we met other passengers milling in the bars and ballrooms in confusion. The ship still seemed to be moving along at top speed, although I later learned that this was due to the QE2's momentum. Because of her tremendous weight and speed, she would travel several sea miles without engine power before slowing to a stop.
A crackle of static brought the captain's voice over the loudspeaker, which somehow was unaffected by the power loss. The captain said there was indeed a problem but we should not worry; he would let us know what had happened as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the bars would be opened to serve complimentary cocktails.
The captain's remarks were not all that informative, but again they were reassuring enough, and the passengers remained calm and happy.
The bars were the logical place to gather since they all have big picture windows, and the afternoon sun shone through brightly. The ship's entertainers soon appeared and began to play the piano, sing and dance -- though without microphones or lights. As the sun began to sink into the sea, candles were lighted and placed on the pianos. They also decorated the center of hors d'oeuvre trays brought around by agile waiters.
As the night grew cooler, I ventured to my cabin to change out of my gym clothes. The steward, standing guard in the passageway outside the door, handed me his flashlight so I wouldn't be stumbling around the cabin lighting matches. After much unsuccessful scrounging about, I grabbed a sweatjacket and went back out into the passageway.
The loudspeaker crackled with another announcement, this time from the cruise director. Dinner, he said, would be by candlelight and informal. As an unshowered passenger, I was very relieved.
Despite our attire, the meal was served with proper English aplomb. Wearing jeans and sneakers and sweatsuits, we were each led to our tables by flashlight-bearing waiters and fed a feast of cold roast beef and turkey, caviar, smoked salmon and ice cream. And lots of complimentary wine.
The crew requested that we not roam about the ship in case it suddenly rolled, possibly causing an injury in the darkness. Actually, although the stabilizers were also out of commission, the ship was quite stable since, I learned, a ship that is dead in the water does not roll as much as when it is powered and moving.
What appeared to be a majority of us reconvened in the nightclubs after dinner. A piano played the familiar French jingle "Alhouette," and a passenger got up and led us all in singing the refrain as he boomed out the verses. Even the quieter passengers began to laugh and join in.
The cruise directors distributed fluorescent plastic headbands, intended for a Halloween party later in the voyage, to help keep us from tripping over each other. We promptly tied them around neck, arms, legs, eyeglasses, canes and began again to dance, creating a crazy light show.
Although there were some difficulties -- the toilets didn't flush, for example -- the unusual circumstances gave passengers the opportunity to get better acquainted with each other. We all buzzed about what could possibly have gone wrong with the ship's turbines and where we happened to be when the lights went out.
Another big topic was when next we would see land. Thoroughly enjoying myself, I put my money on our being stranded indefinitely. I changed my bet to two weeks when a waiter said we had only enough food and drink for that length of time. One woman calculated that, drifting without engines, we would put into port on Christmas day.
No one, however, seemed at all concerned with conserving alcohol, and the scene got merrier by the moment. In the dark Theatre Bar, only one glass table top got broken, and no one was hurt. Suddenly, seven hours after they had gone out, the lights came on.
We all cheered as the captain announced that we now would find that all lights, water and electricity were operative. But not all the ship's problems were resolved. The engines still weren't working, and the cause was being investigated. We all excused ourselves to flush our cabin toilets.
By the next day, the crew had discovered what had brought about our predicament. A failed switch had shorted out the ship's main electrical switchboard. Though this problem was easy enough to fix, the short had caused a chain reaction that proved more difficult to mend. When the engines stopped but the ship continued to move from momentum, several engine parts burned out, and they had to be replaced. Those parts not available on board had to be made, which took time.
While we marvelled at the whales and porpoises that surfaced alongside the silently floating leviathan, the engineering crew worked round the clock in the great engine room and machine shop below deck.
The captain was forced to stay on the bridge only one foggy evening and those officers unconnected with the engine work appeared at dinner and afterwards in the bars to chat with passengers and update us on the latest developments.
For the rest of the crew it was business as usual once the lights, refrigerators and whirlpools were operative. But as our vacation at sea gained three days, so did their work week.
The incident did produce at least two injuries. One crewman experienced smoke inhalation and the chief engineer suffered burned hands when the switchboard shorted -- though not so seriously that it kept him from dancing in the Lido club a few nights later, bandaged but otherwise in good shape.
The ship was on its way again, although at about two-thirds steam, about 36 hours after the problem started. The repairs obviously caused the crew a good deal of trouble and the Cunard line a lot of money, but we passengers were kept happy.
Of course, there were disruptions in travel plans. Many British passengers were anxious to get home, a few passengers missed their berths aboard the luxurious Orient Express to Venice and a soccer announcer didn't make it to the Saturday match. And some of the crew members had dates waiting on the other end. But anyone who had been inconvenienced was helped individually with rearrangements and new reservations.
Our trip had been extended from five to eight days at sea, but the least of our worries was boredom. There are so many things to do aboard the QE2, I needed the extra days to get to all of them.
Every morning a trivia quiz was published, and the answers could be found in the small but fully adequate library. There were movies, bingo, lectures, gym classes and weight lifting in the spa, swimming in four pools, high tea, the hair salon, the driving range, skeet shooting and putting (always fun to try while the ship rolls from side to side).
And some of my favorites: reading, napping, relaxing, strolling, lazing and chatting.
Every cruise should have such an agreeable adventure.