When two mighty ships named Queen Mary saluted each other Thursday in Long Beach harbor, the buzz was all about big numbers: two of the largest ocean liners ever built, more than 6,000 fans watching eagerly from shore, 800 sailboats and yachts hovering nearby, 14 media helicopters and even three blimps.
But for those pilots working behind the scenes, everything came down to just three feet -- the closest the keel of the massive Queen Mary 2 got to the harbor bottom as the ship glided as near as physically possible during low tide to its illustrious ancestor, the Queen Mary.
The older boat, built in 1936, is now a hotel and museum, parked permanently in shallow water in the Long Beach port. No one wanted the world’s largest and most expensive ocean liner to run aground trying to get close to it. So Jacobsen Pilot Service, which was guiding the QM2, asked the port to sound the area weeks in advance.
“We were very concerned,” said the company’s vice president, John Strong.
The firm used the new soundings and a computer linked to a GPS device to lead the ship into the harbor. In the end, the QM2 stayed clear of the harbor floor, although it kicked up massive amounts of silt, surrounding itself with a brown halo, and could not approach closer than three-quarters of a mile.
Onshore, jubilant onlookers oblivious to the pilots’ maneuverings cared only that they could see the two ships together.
At 12:30 p.m., the QM2 sounded its horn to salute its famous ancestor, which sounded its own horn in response.
The moment drew thousands to the first Queen Mary’s stern.
“It was like a family welcoming another family. It was like seeing someone they hadn’t seen for a very long time,” said Linda Hicklin, 48, of Lakewood, who brought her 17-year-old daughter Heather to witness the meeting.
Hicklin’s parents emigrated from Scotland to the United States on the first Queen Mary in 1952, and she grew up hearing stories of the ship. Her mother “talked about the elegance and beauty of the ship, and traveling on such a grand lady,” she said.
Children were everywhere on the older ship’s decks, waving special commemorative flags and peering at the giant new ship.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Isaac Dominguez, 6, whose mother drove him from Corona.
“I thought it would be big, but it’s really big,” added his brother, Fredric, 7.
Their mother, Marta Dominguez, 48, said she was most impressed by the agility of the ship, which slowly spun counterclockwise during its 90-minute stay before heading out to sea for a short cruise to Mexico.
“Just the way he can go out and spin around -- it’s very impressive, considering that I can’t even parallel park,” she said.
The event caused such a traffic jam that the 14-member volunteer Salvation Army band nearly missed its chance to participate.
Band members finally jumped out of their cars and ran along the narrow road edge, clutching their instruments.
As soon as they reached the old Queen Mary, they began playing. The ships sounded their horns again at 1 p.m. and at 1:30 p.m., and then the QM2 started gliding out to sea.
As it left, the Salvation Army band struck up “Rule Britannia,” and then, solemnly, “God Save the Queen,” as onlookers waved goodbye.