The RMS Queen Mary, one of the world’s most famous ships and an enduring icon of Scotland’s industrial prowess, is facing a precarious future after a confidential report identifying the need for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of vital repairs, a Scotland on Sunday investigation can reveal.
The first comprehensive inspection of the historic Clydebank-built ocean liner in a generation has uncovered a catalogue of faults which, unless addressed, could lead to the vessel being mothballed within a decade.
The marine survey of the 83-year-old ship, now a permanently moored tourist attraction in California, specifies that “urgent” repair work will cost as much as £235 million.
Conservationists say the way the ship has been treated is “criminal” and that if the legacy of “irresponsible” custodianship is any guide, her demise is “inevitable”.
One veteran naval architect has told Scotland on Sunday that the ship’s condition is so perilous that she could sink if attempts were made to tow her.
Politicians in Scotland have led calls for an international fundraising campaign to restore the former Cunard liner, and urged Prime Minister Theresa May to put pressure on the US government to step in.
The ship, which once played host to presidents, prime ministers, and royalty, and transported nearly a million troops during the Second World War, has in recent years, been used for pole dancing competitions and a “haunted maze” attraction occupy several decks.
A half-century after she was bought by the Californian port city of Long Beach, the parlous state of the ship’s fabric has intensified fears for her viability.
The marine survey has not been released to the public, but Scotland on Sunday can reveal it indicates repairs in the region of £195m to £235m are required as a matter of urgency.
Authorities in California have been told the essential work should be carried out within a decade.
Around a tenth of the bill – $23,560,326 (approximately £19,250,000) – is designated for “critical” work. A breakdown shows £2.4m is needed to tackle problems with the side shell and bridge wing, with the same sum recommended to carry out structural repairs to the ship’s floors. Some £2m is quoted for structural work on the tank, hull and propeller.
The bill includes a further £3.2m for repairs to the internal structural suspension and fire panels, as well as £2.2m to prime, paint and rust-treat her exterior. Urgent repair work is identified for the ship’s roofing, decks, electrics, pump systems, lighting, mechanical rooms, lifeboats, and sewer systems
Wyn Davies, a veteran naval architect who co-authored the marine survey, said the ship’s interiors have been “badly neglected,” with a pressing need to install a pumping system to address leakages, otherwise “corrosion will proceed unchecked” and the ship’s structure will “become fragile in due course”.
“The cutting out of everything was not well finished. There’s a large amount of corrosion within the vessel,” he added.
“One of the problems is we don’t actually know how bad the steelwork is internally. We know that the tank top, which is the inner shell of the double-bottomed tanks, has been penetrated by corrosion in places and we also know there is water on top of it, which is not helping.”
After the Queen Mary retired from service, the city of Long Beach paid £2.8m to secure her as a landmark attraction, outbidding New York by just £40,000. When she arrived on 9 December, 1967, she was met by more than a million people lining the shore, before a four-year refit programme converted her into a floating hotel.
The result saw visitors from all over the world follow in the footsteps of former passengers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Winston Churchill and JFK, but an array of ambitious business projects floated over the following decades sank without trace.
In the early 1990s, executives at the then leaseholders, Walt Disney, were frustrated in their attempts to incorporate the Queen Mary into a £2.3 billion maritime theme park and pulled out. Separate blueprints for a casino, science fiction museum, monorail, and sports stadium also foundered.
The custodians after Disney’s lease ended, Queen’s Seaport Development, filed for bankruptcy.
Bill Cwiklo, a past curator of the Queen Mary, said the 77,000-ton ship has been accorded the reverence of an “old Holiday Inn” and, he claimed, was last painted a quarter of a century ago.
“The city council and various leaseholders have spent a fortune ruining her,” he said. “We all wanted to see her the way she was when she arrived in 1967, but it has been mucked up and the public is supposed to be grateful.”
Michael Davisson, a campaigner for the ship’s restoration, points out that her celebrated interiors are also suffering, with many original rooms “half intact” and “destroyed”.
He said: “People here are rather complacent with the way the ship is cared for, stressing that we should be glad that the ship is at least still here, but very little of the ship is actually ‘still here’ and much of it is disappearing on a regular basis.”
Diane Rush, a former president of the Queen Mary Foundation, is even more scathing. “Past custodianship of the Queen Mary has been irresponsible if not criminal,” she said.
“With the ship’s maintenance, if the future mirrors the past, the results are inevitable. City administrators and leaseholders that benefit most from the ship’s profits seem to take her for granted.”
The ruin of the transatlantic liner, hailed by George V as “the stateliest ship afloat”, can be traced back to the 1970s conversion.
“The work that was done to take out components for the refit was not carried out to the highest standards, shall we say,” Davies explained.
The overhaul saw the ship’s guts removed – the steam turbo alternators, boilers, propulsion turbines and bulkheads. To compensate for the loss in weight, her double-bottomed tanks were filled with water and drilling mud, with an impressed-current system installed around her hull’s outer shell to protect internal steelwork.
That, at least, was the theory. The marine survey has identified corrosion and leakages in the inner shell of the tanks. Any repair work, Davies stressed, will be hindered as a consequence. “Because the weight has been taken out, the ballast has to stay in,” he said. “So it has to be moved a very short distance whenever work is being done on the steelwork which surrounds it.”
Other naval architects, however, believe the extent of the repairs required could further jeopardise the vessel, which is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.
Dr Stephen Payne, who designed the Queen Mary 2, Cunard’s current flagship, said the urgency of the repairs required action “in the space of a year”, but even that process could prove ruinous.
“One of the problems would be getting her out of Long Beach to a dry dock,” he said. “I would be worried about the condition of the double-bottom, because if that is paper thin, when you start towing it, undue strain could open up seams and she could sink where she is.”
The latest entity to be tasked with safeguarding the Queen Mary is Urban Commons, a Los Angeles real estate firm which, after several years of negotiations, signed a deal last year with the Long Beach authorities to become leaseholder until 2082.
Urban Commons intends to spend £12m modernising the 346-room hotel and converting her boiler room into a nightclub. Yet the big money – around £200m – is earmarked for regenerating the surrounding 45-acre waterfront, with plans for a hotel, marina, amphitheatre, and Ferris wheel.
So far, however, there has been no confirmation of how the company intends to address the extensive disrepair detailed in the marine survey. Cwiklo believes there is a need for transparency.
“If Urban Commons can raise that kind of money, will they further adapt the ship for entertainment, or will they spend it on real restoration work to represent the Queen Mary as she was built?” he said.
Asked by Scotland on Sunday what timetable and funding mechanisms it has in place, Taylor Woods, the company’s principal, said it had a “real commitment” to making the Queen Mary a leading attraction, with “a clear focus on restoring the ship and rolling out new creative programming to draw more visitors”.
He added: “Not only are we in full swing making necessary structural renovations and repairs to restore the Queen Mary to her glory days, we are working closely with the city on a master plan to develop the surrounding waterfront land to create a dynamic entertainment destination unlike anything else offered in Southern California.
“We see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to help shape the future of a storied landmark, and we are honoured to have a hand in this transformation.”
The master plan is being driven by the city-appointed Queen Mary Land Development Task Force, but documents show “maintenance and operation of the ship” are not under its “purview”.
The Long Beach government has stepped in to provide £18.7m towards “significant structural and utility deficiencies requiring urgent attention”. The money consists of a £14m construction bond, secured against oil revenues, and £4.7m from reserves.
However, another city document raises questions over where the remaining hundreds of millions of pounds will come from. It emphasises “no new funds will be used to address these urgent repairs”.
While an initial lease stated repair funds would be generated via passenger fees and base rent, the conditions of a revised lease that was eventually signed reveal those revenue streams will service the bond debt until 2024.
The lease, seen by Scotland on Sunday, absolves Long Beach of responsibility for making good the ship’s faults, stating that the “landlord shall not be required to maintain or make any repairs or replacements of any nature or description whatsoever to the leased premises or the improvements thereon”.
Mary Rohrer, executive director of QMI Restore the Queen, a not-for-profit organisation raising funds for the ship’s preservation, said “smoke and mirrors” surrounded the city financing. “There’s no detail of what the bond will be used for, it’s a mystery,” she added.
Doubts over how the full repairs will be underwritten have also been raised by Laura Doud, Long Beach’s city auditor, but officials refused her request for time to conduct due diligence on the lease.
“The disrepair is a legacy issue, but there has been no oversight of the lease and no analysis of the repair requirements,” a source at the municipal government said. “The entire project has been mismanaged. The ship will be the casualty.”
Kerry Gerot, public affairs officer for the City of Long Beach, stressed the authority “places a high importance on the preservation of the Queen Mary”. She said: “As part of the recent lease negotiations, an enhanced emphasis on ship preservation was a major focus area. Through the new lease, there is now a dedicated funding stream to fund historic preservation of the ship.
“Through that new funding stream, the city and Urban Commons are jointly committing $23m to jump-start the most critical improvements, demonstrating a joint commitment to fund Queen Mary preservation projects.”
On the subject of the marine survey – compiled by Wyn Davies Consultancy, John Fidler Preservation Technology, Burness Corlett Three Quays and Simpson, Gumpertz & Leger – Gerot said the city did not have the “actual entire finalised study to release”, but would do so “as soon as it is available to us”.
John Keisler, director of economic and property development at the authority, added that the only repair projects that have been “prioritised” are the $23m worth of “critical” works.
In the town that gave the Queen Mary to the world, news of her condition has been met with dismay and anger in what is Scotland’s year of history, heritage, and archeology.
Martin Docherty-Hughes, MP for West Dunbartonshire, was born and raised in Clydebank. His constituency office looks on to the site of the former John Brown’s shipyard, where the ship – forged from 150,000 tonnes of raw steel and ten million rivets – was launched in 1934.
“This is a litany of disasters as far as I’m concerned, and it is particularly galling for the community of West Dunbartonshire,” he said.
“This isn’t just about a ship, but the men and women who built her. We will seek to hold to account the city of Long Beach, who took her in good faith, to maintain and restore that ship to the way she was handed to them.”
Gil Paterson, MSP for Clydebank, agreed: “The Queen Mary is one of the finest vessels ever built and her grandeur and craftsmanship have never been replicated. I would be horrified to think that because of deterioration in the superstructure, we could lose what is quite frankly irreplaceable. It should really be a protected heritage site and the whole world should take notice. There should be an international fundraising campaign to help repair this ship.”
Following Scotland on Sunday’s investigation, Docherty-Hughes is to write to Downing Street demanding pressure be put on the US government to intervene. He said that in principle, there was no reason the Queen Mary should not return to the Clyde.
“I’m sick to the back teeth of people at home and abroad who’ve tried to appropriate this region’s cultural heritage,” he said. “The Queen Mary seems to be rotting from the inside, the Queen Elizabeth is a burnt out hulk in Hong Kong, and the QE2 is draped in the metaphorical dustsheets of the Arabian peninsula, yet we’re told that we’re not fit enough to retain and restore these types of vessels within our own community.”
Conservation groups in California also believe the Queen Mary’s homeland could have a vital role to play in her future. Rohrer has held talks with Bernadette Greene, Britain’s deputy consul-general in Los Angeles, who, by coincidence, hails from Clydebank.
“I’ve had people from Scotland tell me Long Beach should just return the ship, and we’ve looked at aligning ourselves with people in Scotland with the desire to invest and have a voice here,” said Rohrer.
If there is a glimmer of hope among the Queen Mary’s well-wishers, it is tempered by the knowledge that the grand old lady’s time is fast running out. “For me, losing the Queen Mary would be like the death of a dear friend or family member,” reflected Rush. “The ship’s real value will only be known when she is no more.”