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Time to test the waters

By Associated Press
Published September 26, 2003

ST. NAZAIRE, France - The world's largest passenger ship, featuring a planetarium, 22 elevators and the largest floating library, tested the open water for the first time Thursday as it began a three-day cruise off the French coast.

The Queen Mary 2's trip was a preparation for an inaugural voyage across the Atlantic early next year. The ship pulled out of the dock at St. Nazaire, aided by tugboats. About 300 people gathered to watch the giant head out to sea.

The $800-million, 150,000-ton trans-Atlantic liner will undergo three days of tests as its operators check the ship's stability, make sure the hull is perfectly watertight and examine other functions.

The QM2 will be the world's longest, tallest and most expensive passenger ship and will accommodate 2,600 passengers on its first trip, scheduled for January from Southampton, England, to Fort Lauderdale.

Capt. Ronald Warwick, surveying the interior of the ship before it set sail, said it is a cut above the Queen Elizabeth 2, on which he served 14 years as captain.

"I always thought that was the best ship in the world, but now I think we have competition with this one," he said in the control room.

The QM2 is still a couple of months away from assuming its luxurious appearance.

The teak deck is covered with plywood, the theater echoes with buzz-saws rather than an orchestra, and the scent of fresh paint fills the air. Some 3,500 workers still roam its corridors to paint, drill and make other final touches.

"It's a magnificent ship," said Gianfranco Carbella, who is managing construction of the theater, which will feature a rotating stage.

The QM2 will join an illustrious list of massive passenger ships. The QE2, whose trans-Atlantic route will be taken over by the new ship in April, was built in 1967; the original Queen Mary was launched in 1934 and is now a hotel in Long Beach, Calif.

In sheer size, the QM2 tops them all. It's about 377 yards long and 79 yards high, or about the height of a 21-story building. It will weigh more than twice the QE2's 70,000 tons.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.'s Voyager-class ships, about 138,000 tons, are currently the largest cruise ships in service.

Passengers can enjoy six restaurants, 14 bars and clubs, a library, theater, pools, a disco and casino. Twenty-two elevators will ferry them from floor to floor.

The 1,310 cabins include duplexes with private gymnasiums and penthouses with butler service. If the stars of the clear night sky aren't enough, not to worry, there's a planetarium.

In France, tickets will range from just over $1,150 per person to more than $34,500, with tickets for the first voyage costing even more. Prices vary among countries; in the United States, tickets for a six-day trans-Atlantic trip start at $1,499.

The ship is being built by Alstom Marine's Chantiers de l'Atlantique for the British ship operator Cunard Line, which is owned by Carnival Corp.

Construction wasn't without problems.

Some 300 Indian workers went on strike for 20 days in March to demand more money and better living conditions. Then 92 Romanian workers putting together the air conditioning went on strike in August, claiming they hadn't been paid for two months.

The troubles ended when Alstom broke the contract with the company who hired the workers in early September.

Then there have been the travails of parent company Alstom SA, which is heavily in debt and had to work out a restructuring plan between France and the European Union earlier this week to save it from ruin.

The gigantic project was announced in 1998, and some 800 companies, most of them French, have been involved in construction.

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