Icons & Innovators: Cunard: A History Fathoms Deep
Cunard came to my notice in November 1969 when the Queen Elizabeth 2 arrived at Kingston, Jamaica, not long after it had made its maiden voyage in May of that year. My father, William Warwick, was then the first captain of the QE2, and I was the chief officer on a freighter ship that also was docked in Kingston. I was 29 years old at the time, and I was doing very well in my career. I could have become a permanent captain within four or five years, but that would have been the last stage of my freighter career. Once you’re a captain, you can’t climb any higher, and had I stayed in freighters, I would have performed the same job for the next 25 years.
At that stage of my life, I wasn’t sold on the idea of working for passenger ships. I knew I liked them, because I had served on a passenger ship earlier in my career, but I had put the notion on the back burner. But because my father would be in the same port, naturally I thought about paying him a visit. I wasn’t motivated by any particular desire to see my father’s brand-new ship; I just wanted to see my father.
A smart-looking junior officer met me at the gangway and escorted me to the bridge, and when I arrived, the crew was busy trying to anchor the vessel; their first attempt wasn’t satisfactory, so they were repeating the maneuver. The QE2 remains a magnificent ship—it was many years ahead of its time, and even now it is extraordinarily modern in certain ways. But in 1969, it was brand-new, and no one had ever seen anything like it. As I stood on the QE2’s bridge, I realized that there was more to life than becoming captain of a freighter. I decided then to join Cunard with the ambition of one day becoming captain of the QE2.
My father, not one to make his three sons’ lives easy—although he could have done so—insisted that we work for the things that we wanted. I still was living at home when I accepted my first job at 17, as an indentured apprentice aboard Port Line cargo ships, a position that paid only 12 pounds a month. Soon after, my father informed me that although I would often be away at sea, I owed him a pound a week for rent because I now was employed. Whenever my brothers or I returned home, the rent increased, but we could settle the difference by working around the house: trimming the lawn, cleaning the windows, tending the garden. So I knew that if I applied to Cunard, my father would not give me an easy entrance, and in fact, my job interview was an interesting experience indeed. In 1969, my father told me that there had been some resignations, and that I should apply for a position if I was interested. I did, and I was interviewed by a board of three people: a shore-based captain, one of Cunard’s directors, and someone else whose position I can’t recall. Each member also met with me separately. Normally, in my field, candidates speak with one person, but I never thought anything of the board, assuming that it was the norm at Cunard. I passed muster and was offered a job as a junior third officer on the Carmania and entered the company’s employ in April 1970 at age 30.
Six months after I started, I met another junior officer who had been hired recently, and we chatted about how we came to be there. I mentioned my experience with the board, and the other officer said, “What are you talking about? I had an interview with one man.” I then questioned several of my colleagues, who confirmed that they, too, had met with a single person. The next time I saw my father, I asked him about my job interview, and he said, “Oh, I told Cunard to put you through that because I didn’t want to be accused of nepotism.”
My most memorable moment at Cunard was when I became captain of the QE2 in 1990. I remember well the first day I was in command because that same day, Queen Elizabeth II came aboard with her husband, Prince Philip, during a royal review of Cunard and Royal Navy ships near Southampton, England. I didn’t have any greater goal after becoming captain of the QE2; I had assumed I had reached the pinnacle of my career. But several years later, in 1998, I was offered the opportunity to serve as the first captain of the Queen Mary 2. Cunard would not announce the news until July 2002, at the QM2’s keel-laying ceremony at the shipyard in Saint-Nazaire, France. My wife, Kim, and I decided not to say anything about the appointment to anyone because things could always change. I was invited to the ceremony, during which Pamela Conover, who was then CEO of Cunard, would signal the crane driver to lift the first section of the QM2’s keel into the dry dock. When she reached the podium from which she would commence the event, Conover said, “Before I do anything else, I want to make an important announcement.” She then revealed that I would be the captain designate and said that, as such, I should give the order to lay the keel. That was an incredible sacrifice for her to make; she had an opportunity to make her mark on history, and she handed it to someone else.
It was a fantastic experience to be the first captain of the QM2, particularly because my father had been the first master of the QE2. I was happy and proud when I took over the helm of the QE2, and since my father was long retired by then, he was able to sail with me. We did a few voyages together, he as a passenger and I as the captain. But it saddens and disappoints me that he never knew I was going to be the first to command the QM2 because, as I noted earlier, my wife and I resolved not to tell anyone, including my father, who died before the formal announcement was made. Still, it is a great honor for me to be part of Cunard history under such unique circumstances.
In 1990, when I was appointed to the QE2, many people asked me if it was unusual for a son and a father to serve as captain on the same ocean liner and whether it had happened before. I had no way of knowing, so I posed the question to other senior colleagues of mine, and they didn’t know either. To find an answer, I wrote to retired officers and conducted other research. Now I have mountains of biographical information on Cunard captains going back to 1840, and I’ve never come across another instance of a father and a son commanding the same vessel before I was appointed to the QE2.
Thirty-five years ago, I was willing to forfeit my seniority on the freighter vessels—where I was second only to the captain in the hierarchy—because being with Cunard was important to me. There are many lovely ships in the world, and others might consider some of them to be better than the QM2 in some respects, but I don’t want to captain those ships; I want to helm a Cunard ship in the Cunard line, and that always has been my ambition. Being part of Cunard’s heritage, which began in 1840 and continues to this day, is also important to me. I find it remarkable that Cunard has existed for this long, and many times I’ve pointed out to others here that we work in a company that was named for the founder, Samuel Cunard. I’d like to think that anyone who joins Cunard takes on some of that man’s resolve, resolution, and determination to succeed.
Commodore Ronald Warwick was the first master of the Queen Mary 2 and continues to serve in this role. He made Cunard history in 1990 when he helmed the Queen Elizabeth 2, the ship that his late father, William Warwick, was the first to captain in 1969.