Captain Peter Philpott became captain of Queen Mary 2 in 2017, We spoke with him about his career, his ship and the future of Cunard.
The path to command of a great ship
After obtaining experience in tankers and frieghters, Captain Philpott switched to passenger ships in 1989 joining Princess Cruises as a navigation officer. Rising through the ranks, Philpott became staff captain of the Ocean Princess. He decided to go with that ship when it was transferred to P&O Cruises where it became the Oceana. Continuing on with P&O Cruises, Philpott became a captain in 2007. “First, with the Artemis, then Aurora, Arcadia and Oceana. In 2012, I was asked if I would like to move over to Cunard.”
Although Cunard has a long history, the Cunard cruise experience that we know today was largely formed during this period on Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. Going back in history, the Cunard liners would do the occasional cruise between crossings and then there were ships such as the “Green Goddess” Caronia, which was purpose-built to do post-war luxury cruising. However, in the second half of the 20th century, Cunard found it difficult to decide what exactly a modern Cunard cruise was all about. It tried mass market British cruising with ships like Cunard Countess and Cunard Princess. It tried ultra-luxury small ship cruising with the Sea Goddess yachts. It tried Nordic-style cruising with the Sagafjord, Vistafjord and Royal Viking Sun. And, of course, the Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) did a number of cruises each year between crossings. All of these were quite different cruise experiences and thus there was no single, readily-identifiable modern Cunard cruise experience going into the 21st century.
Management decided that the line needed to get back to its roots and so Cunard's first two 21st century cruise ships were built to evoke the style of the transatlantic liners while still meeting the expectations of today's cruising public. Responsibility for implementing this strategy in practice fell to the early captains of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.
“As I see it, they are very much the Cunard ethos and product while taking a cruise. A lot of people like the Cunard style of doing things but still want to visit many different ports and countries while they are away. These ships are ideal for doing just that. Onboard, it is very similar to [Queen Mary 2] with the formal evenings etc.”
After five years as captain of Queen Victoria, Captain Philpott was asked to become captain of QM2. “I am very pleased to be on Queen Mary 2. I came to sea to become a captain. I never imagined that I would become captain of probably the most famous ship in the world.”
Despite his experience with Cunard and with other ships, Captain Philpott came aboard Queen Mary 2 prior to taking command to observe and learn about the ship. “Every ship is different and the thing about this one is that she is a unique ship, she is not a standard design. There is not another one like this.”
“Clearly, the biggest difference coming over from Queen Victoria is the size of Queen Mary 2. Its a large ship by anyone's standards; although for her size, she has relatively fewer guests than other companies would put on her. The biggest thing to get used to in maneuvering the ship in and out of port and berthing her is the increased size and weight and therefore momentum. It is just like going from driving a mini-car to driving a huge limousine. You just have to get used to the different techniques and requirements.”
“There is no doubt that she was built for crossing the Atlantic, keeping on schedule in any weather. She sits deeper in the water, she is a lot heavier than the other ships. Everyone who comes on here marvels about how comfortable she is in any sort of weather the Atlantic may throw at her.”
Looking out the bridge window, Captain Philpott continued, “It is not much under a gale out there, a lesser ship would be feeling that quite a lot. We are going along quite smoothly at 20 and a half knots. She is a great ship, very strongly built and she has all the seakeeping qualities that you would want for a liner on the Atlantic.”
In addition, Captain Philpott familiarized himself with the additional facilities that QM2 has for guests such as the only planetarium at sea. “So much more is on offer on Queen Mary 2 because she spends so many more days at sea so there is more to offer the guests.”
Tradition and evolution
One of Cunard's touchstones is tradition. For example, Cunard is one of the only lines that still has formal nights during which almost everyone dresses up. (Those guests who do not wish to dress can dine in the ship's buffet restaurant).
Recently, Cunard announced that it was substituting the word “gala” for “formal” in its dress code and that “smart attire” would replace the word “informal.” This caused some to believe that Cunard was doing away with dressing up.
Captain Philpott dismisses such concerns. “It was just a name change. The suggestions and requirements are exactly the same as they ever were. It simply is another way of saying formal and informal, really. There were not any changes in the requirements and I don't think there will be. As I say in my cocktail party speeches, isn't it nice that we do stick to the gala or fromal evenings because people don't dress up much these days and it is a great tradition.”
Things do evolve on Cunard, however. For example, the line now does marriages at sea. “We have an average of one a week on here.”
“The ships are so well-positioned to have weddings onboard. There is everything you want - -. you have the location, the captain to perform the wedding, the food and beverage department to do everything you want in the way of cakes and drinks, the photographers are onboard, If you want music, the string quartet or the harpist. Plus the built-in honeymoon!”
Indeed, Captain Philpott is not just an advocate for Cunard's wedding program, he is a satisfied customer. In 2017, Commodore Christorher Rynd married Captain Philpott and his fiancee on the Queen Victoria. “I think I was the first Cunard captain to marry aboard a Cunard ship.”
Guests meeting for the first time in one of the ship's bars, however, cannot end the evening with a spur of the moment marriage. “It all has to be arranged and applied for, the bands read. It has to be booked through the office and there is a three month or more time scale involved because it is a completely legal wedding.”
The Cunard ships are now registered in Bermuda and so the weddings are governed by Bermuda law. “Because we are registered in Bermuda, we are treated just like a small piece of Bermuda floating around the world. So all the Bermuda laws apply when we are in international waters. The only proviso being that we always have to perform weddings when we are in international waters and not in another country's territorial waters.”
Inasmuch as Bermuda law governs, Cunard's ability to perform same sex marriages depends upon whether such marriages are permissible in Bermuda. Same sex marriage has been a topic of considerable debate and litigation in Bermuda. “We are keenly awaiting the outcome of that debate.”
Cunard has announced that a new ship will be added to the Cunard fleet in 2022. “It has given a boost to everyone in the company. Going from three ships to four is a big step. We are going to have to man a new ship before very long and that has focused the crew members minds that there are going to be visible steps up the ladder for them [on their] career path. It has everyone excited thinking that they'd like to be on that ship when it comes out. It is a great thing to look forward to in the future of Cunard. “
Cruise interview - - Cunard Line - - Queen Mary 2 - - Captain Philpott