The Queen Mary Project UK, set up a few weeks ago, has sent a representative to Long Beach, California, where the ship has been since 1967, and commissioned a quotation for towing the liner back around the Horn (she is too big for the Panama Canal). But the group is still some way from bidding. 'At the moment we are investigating the possibility,' said David Abraham, the chairman. 'She might be scrapped or scuttled; I would be very disappointed if nobody over here had even tried to save her.'
Mr Abraham, who is deputy leader of the Conservative group on Southampton council, sees a future for the ship as a hotel, conference centre and museum in the city's docks. 'This is her natural home,' he said, 'but if she came back it would have to be as an asset for the whole country. And she would have to pay her way.'
The sums involved are still unknown, but even the feasibility study is expensive. 'We are looking for support. If there are companies or individuals out there who would like to be involved, we would love to hear from them,' says Mr Abraham.
Some in the ship conservation world swallow very hard at the thought of bringing home the Queen Mary. Colin Allen, secretary of the National Historic Ships Committee, said more than 100 ships were preserved around the country - including the Victory, Cutty Sark, Great Britain and Belfast - but he doubted if any made money. The Queen Mary, eight times the size of the battlecruiser Belfast, would be by far the biggest and most expensive. Great public enthusiasm would probably greet the ship's return, but the maintenance costs, which in Long Beach have been running at pounds 4m per year, will be unrelenting. 'Will the emotion still be running in 25 years' time?' Captain Allen wondered.
No one doubts the ship is special. 'One thousand feet of riveted Clydebank hull; there's nothing like it. She is absolutely unique,' said Alastair Forsyth of Southampton City Heritage. The Queen Mary's sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, burned and sank in Hong Kong harbour in 1972. The great pre-war rival Normandie was burnt out in New York in 1942. Of the post-war big liners, the United States (1951) has been bought by a Turkish group for refurbishment as a cruise ship, but her original interior was long ago removed. The France, once mothballed, has been refitted and now cruises as the Norway. Only the QE2, although mainly a cruise ship, still occasionally sails the Blue Riband route.
There could be no better monument to the great age of the ocean liner than the Queen Mary; but if Long Beach does not want her, does Britain?