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There was an almighty splash 49 years ago today when the QE2 was launched in a ceremony at Clydebank on September 20th, 1967.

Tens of thousands of people gathered on the banks of the Clyde to see Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II launch the ship which would carry her name. Standing on a specially constructed platform high against the bow of the 963ft long ocean liner, the Queen was accompanied by her husband Prince Philip and sister Princess Margaret.

In a loud clear voice she said: "I name this ship Queen Elizabeth the Second. May God bless her and all who sail in her."

She then pressed the button which released a bottle of Champagne to smash on the ship's bow and began her descent down the launch ramp, stern first. As she hit the water travelling at 22mph, the 58,000 ton ship sent up a two-foot high wave which travelled across the wide river, splashing against the far bank.

Although the mighty liner was now afloat, there was still lots of work to do aboard and it would be another 20 months before she set sail on her maiden voyage to New York on May 2nd, 1969. The QE2 marked a turning point for its owners, Cunard, who were focussing much more strongly on the pleasure cruise market as their main source of income.

Previous mammoth liners, like the original Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, were built for speed, their purpose to transport passengers across the Atlantic between Britain and the USA as quickly as possible. In the early 1950s ocean liners carried more than a million passengers a year across the Atlantic, but by the mid-1960s that figure had halved.

The reason was the massive rise in popularity of air travel, with jets slashing the travel time between Britain and America to a matter of hours. Flying was also becoming much cheaper and more accessible thanks to a rapid growth in the number of competing airlines, new and larger jets, and more airports.

In order to survive, shipping lines like Cunard were forced to re-assess their market, seeing the luxury pleasure cruise sector as the way forward. With that in mind the new QE2 was being fitted out with leisure and luxury in mind, equipped with big deck spaces, four swimming pools, cocktail bars, restaurants, night clubs and a theatre, in addition to almost a thousand passenger cabins.

Her launch came just a few days after Cunard's other great liner, the Queen Mary, made her final transatlantic crossing. QE2 would become the company's flagship and one of the most famous cruise liners in the world. After several refits over the years, including new and more efficient diesel engines to replace her original steam turbines, QE2 became a byword for the ultimate in luxurious sea travel.

The mighty liner sailed for almost 30 years before new maritime safety regulations – which would have meant costly structural alterations ­– forced her retirement from service in 2008 after completing a grand farewell tour. She had sailed 5.6 million miles, carried 2.5 million passengers, crossed the Atlantic 806 times and been requisitioned for military service during the 1982 Falklands War, carrying 3,000 troops and 650 volunteer crew to the South Atlantic.

One passenger, 89-year-old Beatrice Muller, had lived on board continuously for 14 years in her retirement as the QE2's only permanent resident, at a cost of around £3,500 per month!

Sadly, since 2008 the liner had led a more chequered life. She was originally sold for conversion to a luxury 500-room floating hotel moored at Dubai, but the 2008 financial crisis scuppered those plans. Since then she has been laid up, first in dry dock at Dubai and now at a former cruise terminal at Port Rashid. Subsequent conversion plans have been announced but have all stalled and her future is now uncertain, with persistent rumours that she will be towed to China for scrapping.

Meanwhile a "Bring QE2 Home" campaign group continues to push for the liner to be brought back to the UK and moored, probably on the Thames, as a maritime attraction, hotel, events and conference space.

Cunard, however, were right about the leisure cruise market, which is now big business. It has helped reverse the decline of some shipyards which are once again building massive cruise liners. Queen Mary 2 made her maiden voyage for Cunard in January 2004, dwarfing QE2 at 1,132ft, with 18 decks and weighing almost 149,000 tons. Designed in Britain but built in France, she is capable of carrying 2,695 passengers plus 1,253 officers and crew.

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