Every so often, an opportunity arises that you simply cannot refuse. I’ve always been passionate about using astronomy as a tool for education and outreach, and in late 2012 a partnership between Cunard and the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) gave me the opportunity to craft an entire lecture series for the ‘Illuminations’ enrichment programme on the Queen Mary 2’s transatlantic voyages. Moving beyond the usual hour-long lecture I give on the giant planets, I’ve written four new planetary science presentations for an even more general audience, as well as getting trained up on Cunard’s planetarium (yes, the Queen Mary 2 is the only ship at sea boasting a high-tech planetarium on Decks 2 and 3) and preparing for evening star parties, should the weather be clear enough. In return I get to enjoy the vast brooding seas of the Atlantic Ocean during a 6-day crossing to New York, with relative peace and quiet away from continuous email!
I arrived at the Ocean Terminal in Southampton to board at around 1 pm, being assigned a small cabin on Deck 5 forward with a porthole looking out to sea. Commodore Christopher Rynd welcomed us aboard at 4 pm and took us through a rather serious safety briefing, before I met with my fellow speakers (White House correspondents, art historians, military music historians) to organise the schedule for the next six days. We set sail at 5pm on a glorious summer evening, the Queen Victoria right behind us as we sailed down towards the Solent and the Isle of Wight. A band played us out from the aft decks; guests were waving Union Jacks and sipping champagne, waving to the vast array of yachts out on the water. I stood high on the observation platform on Deck 12 as we sailed past Portsmouth, and then clockwise around the Isle of Wight as the Harbour Pilot left us, and the Queen Victoria headed for Scandinavia; before we set a course West for the United States. As the sun began to set the English coast was a faint dark band on the northern horizon, the last glimpse of land I’ll see for a week.
This blog will change flavour slightly this week as I keep a record of the voyage, learn about this beautiful ship, and try to summarise some of the stories and themes from the lectures I’ll be giving each day.