From Bill Miller
Tue Mar 22nd: At sea in the eastern Atlantic onboard the Queen Mary 2: In the long lineage of glorious Cunard captains, Aseem Hashmi is one of the very best. On our recent three-part voyage, he took the time and sit down (and over coffee) discuss the Cunard flagship and the recent Covid pandemic.
Capt Hashmi is also quite unique. In the annals of both ocean liner & Cunard’s 182-year history, the captain has held two prestigious roles – he commanded aircraft for British Airways and then, making a career change and being extensively re-educated and retrained, he attended maritime college, graduated, joined Cunard and became master of the illustrious Queen Mary 2.
COVID & THE QUEEN MARY 2
The Queen Mary 2 was on her annual long winter cruise and in Australia when the disruptive and deadly covid virus took its firm hold back in March 2020. Like cruise ships worldwide, all plans were disrupted — and huge changes and, of course, challenges lay ahead. Captain Aseem Hashmi was due to go on leave from the Cunard flagship, but sudden, fresh orders were flashed from Carnival/Cunard headquarters in Southampton.
“We were ordered to return to the UK – and abort our long, 95-day winter cruise. So, we disembarked all passengers at Fremantle and flew them home – well, except for 200, who for medical reasons could not fly. Our homeward routing was simple: Directly to Southampton via only Mauritius (for fuel) and then Durban (again for fuel). Before departing, however, we were officially re-classified as a ‘merchant ship’. We were no longer a ‘passenger liner’. Therefore, there would be no entertainment onboard (except for one pianist), the menus reduced and, at my own request, having church service only once a week. After departing from Fremantle, we did have an added duty: We set-up meteorological buoys in the Indian Ocean for the Australian Government.”
Captain Hashmi continued: “Once at Durban, we waited at anchor for 6 days. There was a long queue of ships with us. No one was allowed ashore even as we took on South African fuel. We actually loaded 3 days extra fuel just for a possible emergency. We would be 2 ½ weeks at sea, without port calls, from Durban northward to Southampton. We did, however, have a medical emergency off East London and used a helicopter evacuation. Altogether, we sailed at a reduced 20 knots to conserve fuel. There was a long gap between Walvis Bay and Dakar with just about no suitable ports [along the West African coast] for landing or even emergencies.”
“We had 1,250 crew and the 200 guests onboard for the 29-day voyage,” added the Captain. “Deck 13 was reserved for passengers only. A bar was open four hours a day – two hours in the daytime, two in the evening. The crew generally spent time ‘deep cleaning’ the ship. The only notation during the trip was that we did have another medical emergency off Tenerife, but again we used a helicopter.”
“When we finally reached Southampton, there was great uncertainty, even great fear, of the virus. It was the very beginning — there was no covid testing yet. Even the harbor pilots feared us. On the bridge, we were all dressed like suited astronauts. Southampton itself was so strange, even eerie. It was totally silent – completely empty. The Queen Victoria, Azura and Britannia were already laid-up. We could see from the bridge that the roads and streets on shore were completely silent. There wasn’t a car or bus or truck in sight. But our first priority was to get the staff & crew off the ship. It became a slow and difficult process. Quarantine periods in the UK were in place. The crew was told that they would be paid for at least several months, but sent home first. Carnival UK chartered several 747 jets and sent them to India & the Philippines. But first, it was all a very emotional farewell. The Queen Mary 2 was their home, their safe haven. Many crewmembers were in tears. We told them that they would probably be back in 4 months. But it actually took 20 months for them to return.”
The next decision was what to do with the Queen Mary 2. Captain Hashmi rotated in command and along with a much reduced 120 maintenance crew. The 131,000-ton liner was placed in “hot lay-up” (as compared to “warm lay-up” for longer periods and “cold lay-up” for extended periods). The Captain added, “We were anchored for a month at a time off Weymouth and later Torquay, along England’s South Coast. At one point, 10 liners were gathered together. We were a solemn group. Months and months passed, but we would actually leave for sea at times, mostly in winter and because of storms. Every crewmember had his or her own cabin — and one with a balcony. The Carinthia Lounge on Deck 7 was converted to the officers’ club.”
“The normally busy and happy Queen Mary 2 was like the Mary Celeste,” concluded Captain Hashmi. “She was empty and silent, and we had only dim lighting. Once a week, we would run water (showers, sinks, toilets, etc) at the same time to avoid plumbing problems. The ship was of course full of rumors, especially ones of a return to service. The dates were actually postponed several times. It was all referred to as our ‘RTS,’ our return to service. Finally, we were sent to Brest in France for drydocking and a refit, and then, in late September , the crew returned. A few did not return of course, but those that did had to be re-trained for safety, newly in place Covid rules & precautions and refreshing for Cunard’s fine White Star service. The Queen Mary 2 resumed sailing that November .”