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An interview with the 'Falklands' captain of the QE2

By Ellen SteeseTravel editor of The Christian Science Monitor / September 7, 1982

''The most vivid experience I had,'' said Captain Peter Jackson of his tour of duty as master of the Queen Elizabeth 2 during her Falklands mission, ''was navigating this ship in the South Atlantic in dense fog amid hundreds of icebergs. It was pitch dark,'' he said, ''but I knew they were there.

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''The next day, when visibility improved, I saw a few. One was 300 feet high and a half-mile long - that means that there's 2,000 feet below the water.''

The QE2 had just arrived in New York, after a frenetic 60 days of refitting, repainting, and redecorating in Southampton, England. One debarking passenger declared that the trip had been a kind of ''maiden voyage for everybody,'' and the ship's arrival had that feel about it. A small but enthusiastic crowd cheered, and tartaned bagpipers skirled on the pier; helicopters had hovered overhead as three tugs nudged the ship, so immense that she dwarfed everything about her, into her berth.

The ship gleamed in the New York sunshine in her unfamiliar new coat of pale-gray paint, brightened by orange at the waterline and on the traditional Cunard orange-red funnel. From a maintenance point of view, at least, the new color did not seem a success; small traces of rust could already be seen after one trip across the Atlantic.

Captain Jackson emphasized that he is delighted to be back in his role of master of a pleasure vessel. But, if hard pressed, he can tell a tale of the Falklands that will surely shiver the timbers of passengers at the captain's table for years to come.

''There were two Argentine submarines that were around, and this was one of our biggest problems,'' he said. ''So we had the ship (communications) blocked out at night. It was heavily overcast with dense fog; that destroyed any reconnaissance.''

Captain Jackson is a rather short, stocky, silver-haired man, sunburnt, blue-eyed, clad in blinding ship's-captain white. He also seems judicious, patient, and genial. But his voice hardened slightly when he referred to the Argentine seizure of the Falklands as an ''act of piracy.''

''They were never theirs at any time,'' he said. ''Spain had them once. Britain has been there for many years. When the Argentines refused to remove themselves, it was necessary to organize a task force to retake the islands.

''The British government requisitioned the QE2 when she returned from Philadelphia - she had the necessary speed (over 27 knots) to go without an escort. So we sailed, with 3,500 men - Scots and Welsh Guards, and Gurkha Rifles. And because we took those men there, successfully accomplished that task , the invasion of the Falklands was possible.

''Having got there, we were then on hand. There had been a lot of attacks, and the British Navy had lost three ships - they had lost everything. And this ship was on hand to bring them (the 700 survivors) home.''

Although the QE2 stayed out of range of Argentine aircraft - near the South Georgia Islands, 800 miles southeast of the Falklands - there is no doubt, said the captain, that she was in ''the greatest possible danger. It's an established fact that she was a prime target. Can you imagine the boost to the morale of the Argentines if this ship had been hit?''

Captain Jackson, therefore, is in the odd position of never having seen the islands he came 8,000 miles to protect. ''I've seen pictures of the Falklands,'' he said. ''It's another world entirely. It has not kept pace. Life is simple. The summertime is very, very pleasant - I'd like to go back to South Georgia in the summertime,'' he added thoughtfully. ''[When we were there it was] frighteningly bleak and inhospitable. The sharp, jagged peaks of the mountains reared up to 10,000 feet. It looked almost threatening. . . .''