Professional Mariner: The consummate captain for the ultimate ocean liner

He is the quintessential British shipmaster. Gray-bearded and broad-shouldered, tall and resplendent in brassbound blue serge or tropical whites. With a pair of binoculars slung around his neck, Ronald W. Warwick is first and last a sailor.

He is also unique among professional mariners. With 45 of his 63 years spent at sea, he is former captain of the 70,372-gross-ton Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2 and recently named captain of QE2’s trans-Atlantic successor, the 150,000-gross-ton Queen Mary 2, the biggest passenger vessel ever constructed.

QE2, launched in 1967, is the only ship now offering regular six-night crossings between Southampton, England, and New York. After a final westbound run Dec. 15, the aging workhorse will continue in service on a worldwide cruise schedule. QE2’s replacement, meanwhile, is fitting out at Alstom Chantiers de l’Atlantique, in Sainte-Nazaire, France. Vital statistics for the huge new liner include an LOA of 1,132 feet, a keel-to-funnel height of 236 feet, beam of 131 feet and draft of 33 feet.

In more arresting terms, the ship, built at a cost of $800 million, stretches four city blocks and rises higher than the Statue of Liberty or Rome’s Colosseum. It has 10 restaurants, five swimming pools and a jogging track. Passenger capacity is 2,620 with a crew of 1,253.

Quadruple screws housed in diesel-electric propulsion units, called pods, will deliver a combined power output of 86 megawatts and drive the vessel at 28 to 30 knots. Each of the pods weighs 250 tons. Two are fixed, two pivoting and steerable. There is no rudder.

For Warwick (the second “w” is silent), the social graces of a born diplomat as well as a lifetime connected to ships and the maritime industry paved the way to his new command. “He embodies everything we value to make our line successful,” said Cunard President Pamela Conover. “With his confidence and his commitment to making the Cunard experience the best it can be, it was only fitting that we selected Captain Warwick as the first master of Queen Mary 2.”

Deferred retirement

Cunard captains normally quit the sea at 61. In Warwick’s case, the age limit was pushed back indefinitely. “The president asked if I would be interested in delaying my retirement to take command,” he said in an email interview from his home in England. “Given my long association with the company and that of my father and mother before me, this was a great personal honor and one that I did not have any hesitation in accepting.”

Warwick is the son of the late William E. Warwick, a former Cunard commodore. His mother, Evelyn Warwick, was a Cunard hairdresser. At one time or another, the elder Capt. Warwick served as master of all Cunard passenger liners, including QE2 and the majestic 1930s-era near-sisters Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary.

In his early teens, Ronald Warwick decided to sail in his father’s wake. At 15, he enrolled in a nautical training school, in Anglesey, Wales. Two years later, he joined Britain’s Port Line as an indentured apprentice &mdash a legal contract binding him to three years’ service. “My first ship, Port Fairy, was 28 years old, and the voyage lasted seven months,” circling the globe, he said. When he returned to England, he shipped out again almost immediately. This time the trip lasted 13 months.

“I thought I’d been given a raw deal,” Warwick said, “until my father told me he had spent the whole of his three-year apprenticeship abroad in the Far East without returning home.”

Apprentice duties in the late 1950s revolved around tasks typically performed by ordinary and able seamen: lookout and wheel watch, chipping paint, painting, splicing wire and rope. “But in addition, we had to study,” Warwick said. “Each of the officers taught us a subject or two. The work was inspected by the captain every Sunday, and also on Sunday at sea, we had to take a morning sight and meridian altitude.”

After putting in his time on four of Port Line’s cargo ships, Warwick paid off in London in 1963 to sit for his second mate’s ticket. In the British merchant service, this is the entry-level exam for an officer’s career. Administered by the government’s Board of Trade, it covers seamanship, navigation, ship construction and signals.

“My mark for each paper varied, but I recall them as being very high,” Warwick said. “On passing, I was given a slip by the examiner, and this was exchanged for a certificate of competency.”

The newly minted second mate needed 12 months’ sea time as officer in charge of a watch to sit for chief mate and another 30 months for master. Determined to qualify as soon as he could, he spent the next five years almost entirely at sea. By 1968, he had earned both certificates. He had also sailed worldwide in some 10 ships with five different companies as third, second and chief mate, perfecting skills he would need when he moved up the ladder to Britain’s premier steamship company, Cunard (today a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Carnival Corp.).

Warwick joined Cunard in 1970 as a junior officer in the twin-screw, 21,637-gross-ton Carmania (ex-Saxonia II, 943 passengers, 21 knots). He advanced rapidly in his chosen profession, sailing as second, first and chief officer aboard Cunard ships. In 1986, at the age of 45 and by then a seasoned mariner, he achieved his first command, the Danish-built, 17,495-gross-ton Cunard Princess (800 passengers, 22 knots).

Later billets included the captaincies of Cunard Countess (17,495 gross tons, 800 passengers, 22 knots) and Crown Dynasty (19,089 gross tons, 727 passengers, 19 knots). And in 1990, he joined the world’s most select group of seafarers with his appointment as master of QE2 (1,777 passengers, 28 to 32 knots), the ship he had become thoroughly familiar with over the years as a boyhood visitor in his father’s day and in his own, as second first and chief officer, and as staff captain.

According to Warwick, trans-Atlantic passenger bookings have held steady since QE2 entered service more than three decades ago. But with Carnival Corp. at the helm, Warwick said, “there has been a significant determination to attract more passengers and build occupancy.” Carnival Corp. also operates Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Line and P&O Cruises.

He conceded, however, that the planned withdrawal of QE2 from the Southampton to New York run is an obvious indication that “we do not think there is enough business to sustain two ships” &mdash QE2 as well as QM2 &mdash in the North Atlantic.

From 12 to three

Although Cunard dominated Atlantic travel for more than a century, the explosive growth of air competition eroded the line’s passenger base and reduced the roster of ships from 12 in the late 1950s to the current three, all British-flagged: QE2, Caronia (ex-Vistafjord, 24,492 gross tons, 665 passengers, 20 knots), and the soon-to-sail QM2. (A fourth liner is expected to join the fleet in 2005.)

Warwick’s first Cunarder, Carmania, launched in 1954 for the Liverpool to Montreal service, was sold as a result of shrinking passenger revenues in 1973. The Soviet buyer renamed the ship Leonid Sobinov. Of Warwick’s former commands, three met similar fates.

In his long and distinguished career, Warwick has played host to actors and authors, royalty and heads of state. Yet beyond the glitz and glamour of liner life, there remains the reality of the sea itself &mdash always unpredictable, an elemental force with the power to cripple or destroy the inept or unwary.

Warwick is a disciplined professional with a profound understanding of the mariner’s craft. And the ultimate test of that knowledge came in his handling of QE2 during Hurricane Luis, in September 1995. “It was the worst weather I have ever experienced,” Warwick said.

With his ship three days out of Southampton and bound for New York, Luis was working its way north from the Caribbean. Hoping to avoid the brunt of the storm, Warwick shifted course to the south. But the wind gained strength. It battered the ship with gusts of up to 100 knots. In mountainous seas, Warwick’s only choice was to heave to, barely maintaining steerageway.

“A bit of white-knuckle time, rather scary,” the Boston Globe quoted him as saying, though he gave a far less colorful account in his 1999 book on the liner, called QE2. Here the tone was dry, measured, phlegmatic. At the same time, Warwick left little doubt about the pummeling his ship took.

“On September 10,” he wrote, “the great circle course was abandoned … to increase the distance from the predicted path of the storm.” Still, by late that night, “the sea was nearly white in appearance, with foam and driving spray lashing the ship … At 0210 hours (the next morning) a large wave was sighted right ahead looming out of the darkness.”

A 95-foot wave

Warwick estimated the crest as level with his line of sight on the bridge, 95 feet above the water. The giant comber slammed into the vessel with tremendous force; it smashed railings and dented deck plating. “A shudder went through the ship,” Warwick wrote. “The sea cascaded over the forward deck, including the bridge, and it was several seconds before the water had drained away … and vision restored.”

Fortunately, passengers and crew escaped unharmed, and QE2, designed for the rigors of North Atlantic voyaging, was no more than eight hours late arriving in New York. “She withstood it marvelously,” Warwick said of the liner’s performance. “It’s a magnificent ship that Britain should be proud of.”

When away from the sea, Warwick lives with his wife, Kim Warwick, in a 400-year-old farm cottage 100 miles west of London. He has a daughter, Rebecca&mdash two years ago he exercised a rare sea-captain’s prerogative by officiating at her marriage aboard QE2 &mdash and a son, Sam, a software testing consultant. Warwick’s elder brother, Eldon J. Warwick, is a retired freighter captain, and a nephew, Robert Warwick, holds a chief mate’s ticket and is at sea in tankers.

Ronald Warwick counts his interests as family genealogy and researching the history of Cunard Line captains. Inevitably, however, the bigger slice of his life centers on whatever vessel he happens to serve in. His daily routine includes a light breakfast and lunch taken in his quarters, although a conspicuous part of the job &mdash he is as much hotel keeper as skipper &mdash is dining nightly with passengers in a different shipboard restaurant by rotation. He manages to stay fit, he said, walking around the decks and “avoiding the elevators.”

In addition to coping with the myriad executive challenges of large liner command, Warwick ranks winter cruising to the tropics high on his list of the sea’s attractions. Perhaps just as high, he noted, is the 21st-century appeal of “not having to commute.” Except, of course, making the trip from the captain’s cabin to the bridge!

Alan Littell, a longtime contributor to Ocean Navigator, is a journalist, novelist and former merchant seaman. His most recent book is Corruption, a novel of a Boston newspaper (written under the pseudonym Ciaran Ross).

By Ocean Navigator