''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.
''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. . . .''
Captain Jackson's tour in the Falklands was not his first military experience. He served in the Royal Navy during World War II. At one point he and his crew were left adrift in an open lifeboat, when his ship was bombed and sunk by a German U-boat during the evacuation of Dunkirk.
The majority of his all-British crew, has no military naval training. ''They're trained to look after passengers,'' he said. But morale in the Falklands was ''wonderful. Nobody was made to go; they asked (among the crew) for volunteers. We had to say to people, 'well, sorry, we have enough.' ''
The life on the ship was, of course, totally different. ''Instead of elegant passengers, you have soldiers tramping around in full assault equipment.'' And meals, of course, were far simpler. '' 'If you give the troops plenty of steak and chips, they'll be very happy,' I was told. A sergeant told me, 'We have never seen anything like it.' ''
Although, like her predecessors, the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, the QE2 was designed to be a troop ship, if need be, it was a major operation to prepare the ship for war. ''There are 17 miles of carpeting - we couldn't take it up. It had to be covered with hardboard.'' The blue leather wall covering in the midship area was similarly protected.
But the ship returned in very good shape. ''The protection had saved a good bit of wear and tear. There was a great deal of damage. But none of it was done intentionally.''
The soldiers were, of course, under the jurisdiction of their military commanders. But ''the Ministry of Defense and the Admiralty advised me that I remained master of the ship,'' said the captain firmly.
In the 36 years Captain Jackson has worked for Cunard, he has seen many changes - especially in ship design. ''You can look at the Queen Mary and say ' 1930s.' This ship is a totally different concept.'' In what way? ''More public rooms. The Queen Mary had only one complete deck of public rooms, but this ship has three decks.''
Captain Jackson's favorite body of water is not the South Atlantic, but the Mediterranean. ''I like the weather. There are not great distances between ports. But it has very interesting places to call at: cultural places like Greece and Italy, mysterious places such as Istanbul. Also places of great historical interest, like the Holy Land. The Mediterranean offers the greatest diversity.''
The QE2 is the last of the transatlantic liners. But Captain Jackson believes the ship will still be plowing the waves up to 20 years from now. ''We'd have to give her great maintenance,'' he added. The QE2 does the transatlantic crossing 24 times a year, which seems often enough to satisfy passenger demand. ''Nowadays people find they haven't got the time to cross the Atlantic in comfort,'' the captain said.
According to Cunard president Ralph Bahna, Cunard took advantage of the ship's long period in dry dock to do $10 million worth of changes in the ship, in addition to the money the British government paid to restore her to her pre-Falklands condition. The most noticeable results of this expenditure are the very attractive golden-tiled Golden Door spa on 6-deck, and the redoing of the old Q4 Room - renamed the Club Lido, widened, and redecorated, with a plate glass ''wall'' looking over the quarterdeck and its swimming pool. Still to come is a retractable glass dome over the pool area to allow dancing under the stars and outdoor buffets in all weather.
Mr. Bahna agrees that, with a lot of attention to maintenance the 13-year-old Queen might last another 20 to 25 years. One reason to preserve her: ''Some say the ship could never be rebuilt, but at a cost of $400 million - if you could find a yard to take it,'' he said.
Mr. Bahna feels that the ship's stint in the Falklands may benefit the company ultimately. ''The most important thing is that people have seen the ship in all her glory. They relate to the fact that it's real, not something in the movies. A lot of people didn't know the ship was still in service.''