Queen Mary a slow boat to China?

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LOS ANGELES - The British-built Queen Mary luxury ocean liner is likely to be sold to an investment group which plans to take her on a precarious, and almost certainly final, journey on the high seas to Hong Kong, writes Phil Reeves.

Harbour commissioners in Long Beach, California, where the once magnificent vessel has been in retirement as a loss-making floating tourist attraction, have decided that they prefer the Hong Kong offer to five others on their short list. Details of the dollars 20m ( pounds 11.5m) bid are being kept under wraps by the commissioners' staff, but they said yesterday that the Hong Kong consortium wanted to use her as a luxury hotel and entertainment centre.

Her possible move to Hong Kong is already proving controversial. Preservationists have not forgotten the fate of her fellow flagship, Queen Elizabeth, which was sold for conversion into a sea-going university in Hong Kong, where she caught fire and sank.

The Queen Mary has spent the last quarter century in a losing battle for tourists who clearly prefer Disneyland to tramping around an old British ship. She has been up for sale since her operators, Disney, decided not to renew their lease in September.

Towing the 58-year-old vessel, once the fastest of the Cunard fleet and winner of the Blue Riband, across the Pacific will present a considerable engineering challenge. She requires an estimated dollars 27m in repairs. The prospect of Communist China gaining control of the Queen Mary, which once carried Hollywood's grandest stars across the Atlantic, is causing an outcry. 'The move to Hong Kong would be entirely inappropriate,' said David Clarkson, a trumpeter in a US Marine Band who has long campaigned for the preservation of the ship. 'To move her to what will soon be a Communist society doesn't bode well. She is a Western creation.'