Cunard sails into PR fiasco over plumbing

David Usborne joined a press tour of the liner when she docked in New Y ork and found the £30m refit still not finished
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"Well. Go on, flush it then." The man from Cunard with the thick Scottish accent and sweating brow was clearly on the brink of exploding in much the way the now-famous lavatoriesaboard the QE2 had allegedly been doing all week.

"Just give it a try," he barked. So, with the chairman of the company, John Olsen, looking on in barely disguised pain, we did. Repeatedly.

There had been hoards of press people at Pier 9 on New York's west side early yesterday to greet the world's most famous, and now infamous, cruise liner as she docked.

As the first passengers had emerged from Customs, we had descended on them like seagulls on to crusts of bread. Was it true? Was it really like Bosnia on board? How were the toilets in your cabin?

However, this was what we had really been waiting for - the promised tour. The television crew from Japan could not have seen very much because all they seemed to be interested in was the plumbing.

The first cabin we were shown was 1032. A maid was in the bathroom desperately working the plug to get rid of the inch or so of brown water and human hair that was still in the bath as we approached. But the water was going nowhere. She had to make way for the Japanese. They closed the door behind them and the rest of us waited while they flushed and flushed.

Separated into smaller groups for the tour, we had Mr Olsen as our leader. He swept us through the public areas as rapidly as possible, pausing only to highlight some new painting or furnishing. His first stop: a scale model of an old Cunard liner, the Mauritania. "Beautifully made, I think you'll agree," he said hopefully.

The model, certainly. And, to be fair, Mr Olsen did have a lot to show off about on the QE2. Most of the £30m refit indeed looked splendid. The bars and restaurants gleamed with their new carpeting and neo-Deco finishings. And there was the new and classy New York club where we were served champagne and salmon. Even better for the chairman, there was the group of not at all disgruntled pensioners sipping clear China tea around a table on the quarter-deck.

Barbara Johnson was adamant that the crossing had been marvellous. Yes, she had been obliged to switch cabins, when her own had flooded, but that was not so bad. "We're very phlegmatic. We're British, you see," she declared to the delight of the Americanreporters.

Mr Olsen could not get enough of these people, shaking their hands like a politician kisses babies. Then he ordered us to move on. "Come along, we like to have privacy for our passengers," he snapped.

In the end you almost felt sorry for Mr Olsen. The ship, though clearly in far better shape than a few days earlier, was still not finished.

Feet from the Mauritania, he agreed to pose for the cameras under the entry to a new bar area. It took him a few seconds to twig why they wanted him there so badly: the missing panel and dangling wires just above his head. "That was a neat trick,", he said. "I wouldn't like you to do that again."

And then there was the inquiry about a lavatory that seemed to work fine, but which had water in it of much the same hue as Mrs Johnson's tea. She sought confirmation from the chairman. That water is brown, isn't it? "Oh, I don't hardly think so," he replied limply.

The passenger whose lavatory had apparently erupted, throwing detritus on to her, was Christine Hall, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

A lawyer, she seems poised to help some passengers bring a lawsuit against Cunard and she was happy to share with us once more the circumstances of her bathroom detonation.

However, there was a limit to her indigation. She was booked to continue on to Fort Lauderdale. Would she abandon the ship? Not at all. "I can't wait to get back on board."