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Japan beckons the `Queen Mary'

Deborah Prussel speaks of the Queen Mary with a sense of patriotic ownership in a vessel that was once the pride of British shipping.

It is bad enough that the 61-year-old liner is now the back drop for dockside bungee-jumping. "Queen Mary must be turning in her grave at that one," she said. But worse, far worse, is the notion of floating the one- time Second World War troopship to Tokyo Bay, 30 years after her final voyage, for use as a gambling den.

Mrs Prussel and other residents of Long Beach are up in arms. An acrimonious meeting is promised tonight when the Long Beach city council meets to consider the proposal of a local businessman Joseph Prevratil to send the Queen Mary to Japan.

Mr Prevratil operates the ship as a floating hotel under lease from the city, and says the trip would raise cash for urgent repairs. But residents fear the Queen Mary, gutted of her engines when Long Beach bought her as a tourist attraction in 1967, could sink.

Towing the Queen Mary across the Pacific would take about six weeks, assuming any needed repairs to the hull were carried out in dry dock. Even if Mr Prevratil could pull off his scheme, they are worried she will never come back. "We don't want her going to Japan, pure and simple," said Mrs Prussel, a board member of the Long Beach Historical Society. "There are serious concerns about whether she would make it."

The Queen Mary was launched in 1936 by the Cunard-White Star line, and soon established the world record for the fastest Atlantic crossing. She boasted excellent food and celebrity passengers well into the Sixties, but by the end of the decade she was losing money. She has swallowed up $100m (pounds 62.5m) in private and public money.

Mr Prevratil, 59, announced his plans at a news conference in the ship's grand ballroom late last month. Sending her to Japan for just three to five years would raise an urgently needed $40m, he said. The ship was so seaworthy, he insisted, that Lloyd's of London was prepared to insure it.

Under Mr Prevratil's stewardship the Queen Mary last year turned a profit for the first time.

All of the ship's 365 rooms are now open, at prices frompounds 50 to several hundred dollars, with two award-winning restaurants.

But the ship has also become part of the landscape in Long Beach. It is host to many functions, and it is part of social and official life. Sitting at the mouth of the Los Angeles River, it is virtually impossible for a visitor to miss.

Many are reluctant to see it go, including city councillor Mike Donelon. "It would leave a black hole if it was gone," he said.