Stephen Payne OBE FREng - Queen Mary 2


The creator of the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner realised a childhood dream when he witnessed the ship moving under her own power for the first time. Stephen Payne, Chief Naval Architect at Carnival Corporate Shipbuilding, first announced he would build an ocean-going liner aged seven and now, over 50 ships later, he has become an enthusiastic campaigner for young people to pursue careers in engineering. Michael Kenward interviewed him at Carnival’s centre of technical expertise in Southampton.

Stephen Payne OBE FREng © Andrew Milligan/Press Association Images

Stephen Payne OBE FREng © Andrew Milligan/Press Association Images

For Stephen Payne, being awarded a gold Blue Peter badge was as important as the OBE he received in 2005 “for services to the shipping industry”. After all, he points out, the gold badge is much rarer, which is why it sits on his CV in a long and growing list of awards and honours. “I was probably the oldest person to receive one,” he adds proudly.

Blue Peter gave him the gold badge during filming prior to the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) – the ship that Payne designed and brought to reality. Three decades earlier, Blue Peter featured the Queen Elizabeth (1940) in one of its programmes and this kindled Payne’s passion for ocean liners. In June 1969, Payne was fortunate to visit the brand new Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) whilst on a visit to Southampton Docks. Three years later, the former Queen Elizabeth was again featured on Blue Peter, this time in her death throes whilst on fire and sinking in Hong Kong Harbour.

Young Payne was stung into writing to Blue Peter when the 1972 Blue Peter Annual, commemorating the Queen Elizabeth, described her as the last of a great age of ocean-going liners. “We will never see its like again,” the annual claimed.

The young Payne thought otherwise. As a part of a classroom exercise, the then 12-year-old drafted his response: he would build one, he told Blue Peter. Payne sent his letter to the programme and received an encouraging response and his first Blue Peter badge.


Thanks to an inspiring and supportive physics teacher, Mr Justin Johnson, Stephen Payne went to Southampton University to study naval engineering. His degree was “mostly theoretical” he says. “Nothing about getting on a boat or a ship and seeing what happens when you turn the rudder.” So to get his hands on real ships Payne joined the University Royal Naval Unit. That gave him an understanding of what the Navy does, which was useful when they later asked him for advice on specifications for aircraft carriers.

A degree in ship science was Payne’s first step to becoming a naval architect. From then on his career was relatively plain sailing. Before long he was working for what became Carnival Corporate Shipbuilding, whose parent company, Carnival Corporation, now owns many of the world’s major cruise lines, including Cunard, the operator of QM2.

Payne was happy to build cruise ships. He explains that cruise ships exist to sail majestically, and in no hurry, around the world, stopping off at different ports for sightseeing and shopping opportunities. A liner, especially one that plies the Atlantic, exists to get people from one place to another, albeit in luxury. It has to be faster and capable of sailing through severe storms without being delayed or upsetting the crockery and the passengers.

The opportunity to build a genuine ocean-going liner came after Carnival bought Cunard from Kvaerner. Carnival’s senior management, knowing Payne’s interest in ocean liners, asked him to think about realising his ideas for a true liner. “I was given a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and told to get on with it.”


A cruise ship has a rounded bow that can accommodate as many passengers as possible. “If you look at the Queen Mary 2, the bow is like an arrow. It is designed to cut through the big Atlantic storms and bears no resemblance to a cruise ship bow.”

The need to maintain schedule also explains why the QM2 has plenty of reserve power. In good weather, the ship needs about a half to two thirds of its maximum power to do the scheduled six-day run across the Atlantic. “The rest is for when the going gets tough.”

Payne, now Chief Naval Architect with Carnival Corporate Shipbuilding and, among other high profile roles, President of The Royal Institution of Naval Architects, ascribes his chance to realise his ideas for a genuine liner down to a combination of Carnival’s purchase of Cunard and the blockbuster movie, Titanic. Perversely, the movie rekindled people’s taste for ocean going liners.

Seeing an opportunity, the head of Carnival, who had already been on the receiving end of Payne’s sales pitch, told the naval architect to drop what he was doing and come up with some ideas for an ocean-going liner that would be both economical and would meet the aspirations of travellers used to the conveniences then found on cruise ships. “Micky Arison, Carnival’s Chairman and CEO, basically said that unless the design of the ship incorporated a sufficient number of balconies, we wouldn’t generate a satisfactory return on investment to make the project worthwhile.”

The need for more cabins of greater luxury arose out of changes in the cruise business. These days it’s difficult to sell cabins unless they have a balcony. “Once one cruise ship started having balcony cabins then everybody was obliged to follow suit.” It is no longer acceptable to have cabins low down in the depths of the vessel; even a cabin with just a window commands a lower price.

Adding all those balconies, which goes against the transatlantic tradition, led Payne to contemplate a number of other revolutions in ship design. He decided that, with all the balcony staterooms requiring to be sufficiently above any turbulent seas, the large public rooms – restaurants, theatres and other things that make up the mobile city that a liner has become – would need to be placed below these not far above the waterline to provide a safety cushion.

The change meant saying no to the interior designers who like big rooms without pillars to block the view. Pillars are important structural components; if you are building a cruise liner that doesn’t have to go through a storm in the Atlantic, you might be able to move pillars around. “I said we just can’t do that on this ship, because it has got to be strong enough to contend with mountainous seas that occasionally may be encountered.”

The need for strength, and those pillars, is related to another milestone in ship design. Payne and his team specified fatigue standards for QM2 so that there would be no need for major structural work for at least 40 years. This was, says Payne, the first time that such a Carnival passenger ship was modelled and tested for an extended fatigue life.

It took Payne just a couple of weeks to sketch his revolutionary initial design for his new liner. Then he had to persuade his superiors that the design would work. “Micky kept saying, ‘I just can’t get my head round this layout because it goes against everything that we have done with our cruise ships. Will it work?’” It made sense to Payne. “Once you’re on a ship, and you are within the public rooms, it doesn’t matter where they are so they can be placed as necessary.”

In many respects this is why the QM2 looks nothing like its immediate predecessor, the QE2. At 150,000 gross tonnes, the new ship is also significantly larger than the 70,000 gross tonnes volumetric capacity of the QE2. The size of QM2 is an important factor in its commercial viability. “There’s an economy of scale, the larger the ship and the more beds there are the lower the cost per bed becomes.”


Payne illustrates the sheer size of QM2 by describing the liner’s propulsion system. It consists of four huge ‘Mermaid pods’, made by Rolls-Royce/Alstom, that hang under the rear of the vessel. The pods – the largest and, at 21.5 MW each, the most powerful ever made – were a first for a liner. “Two are fixed – they just drive the ship forwards and backwards. Two of them, as well as driving the ship, can swivel on slip rings. That is how you can manoeuvre.”

All it takes to move the ship around is a hand on a joystick on the bridge. With the aid of computers, data from satellites and wind gauges, this controls the four pods and moves the ship in the direction the joystick is pointed.

Each Mermaid pod, as they are called, is “like a big outboard motor,” says Payne. When he says big, he means it. “Even though I have lived the dream throughout the building of the ship, it still amazes me that each one of those pods weighs 320tonnes, which is the weight of a fully loaded 747 jumbo jet on takeoff.”


Payne spent just two years working on QM2 before Cunard was ready to put out contracts. That was in November 2000. The vessel, built in two and a half years at a cost of £550 million, entered service in January 2004 (see True Liner – the creation of the QM2, Ingenia 26, March 2006). By October 2009, she had travelled 750,000 nautical miles and completed 104 Atlantic crossings. In October 2009, QM2 marked its fifth birthday with her first voyage around Britain.

With so much experience in ship building, it seemed logical for civilian shipbuilders to be consulted by the Navy on new military vessels. So when the UK Government was looking into replacing its ageing aircraft carriers, Payne was consulted for some thoughts. After all, at 75,000 tonnes displacement, the QM2 is bigger than the 65,000 tonnes or so of the proposed new aircraft carriers. One idea that Payne put to the Navy was to use the pod system that powers the QM2. “There has been a big debate as to what route the carriers should go.” However, after much consideration: “They eventually decided to go the conventional shaftline route.”

Architecture isn’t the only difference between civil and military vessels. “Navy ships used to spend a large portion of every year in the dock, undergoing maintenance. You look at our ships and they run 51 weeks of the year. To get value for money now you have got to design and operate things on a much more commercial basis.” This means getting in and out of harbour as quickly as possible.

Ocean-going liners may seem to be a relaxed way to travel but they have to spend as much time at sea as possible. This means disgorging one load of passengers and replacing them with the next group of holidaymakers as quickly as possible. When the QE2 entered service, it took a leisurely two or three days to turn around; commercial pressure eventually forced them to do it in 10 hours.

QM2 may be the biggest feather in Payne’s cap but he has had a hand in the building of 50 or 60 vessels – he has lost count on exactly how many. In some cases, he worked on the first of a class that went on to have several sister ships. In all, Carnival alone operates more than 90 vessels under a number of lines. QM2 isn’t even that much bigger than some of the company’s other vessels. The second largest part of the fleet, the cruise vessel Carnival Dream, is 135,000 tonnes.

Payne can’t stay away from QM2. Ever since it entered service he has managed two or three crossings a year, which he takes as holiday. “I find that being at sea, you just completely get cut off from the rest of the world. It is acting as it was designed. It is a city at sea.” Then again, as he says later, QM2 does have internet access in every cabin, so the isolation isn’t that complete.

After such a climax relatively early in Payne’s career (relatively speaking – he has been in the shipbuilding business for over 25 years), what comes next? Would he like to build a nuclear-powered ship? After all, that would solve one of the challenges facing the maritime industry: its carbon footprint. “Yes I would.” He admits, though, that it won’t be as easy to persuade the world to take another radical step forward in liner design, “but when the power cuts start coming there will be much more reasoned consideration towards nuclear power”.


It will, though, need new generations of engineers to make it happen and Payne isn’t leaving the creation of those engineers to chance.

Since the launch of the QM2, Payne has become one of the often seen faces of modern engineering on television. This public visibility has brought home to him the fact that today’s youngsters can still face some of the same obstacles that nearly sank his own engineering ambitions. He did an initial year studying chemistry at university in 1982 after his school convinced him that there was no future in engineering. Thankfully he was rescued by Mr Johnson who assisted him switching to ship science and arranged an extra year’s grant which enabled him to change courses and study
at Southampton.

Stephen Payne’s postbag regularly includes letters from today’s youngsters who tell of teachers trying to put them off of careers in engineering. “One young woman was even told by her school to look for something more feminine to do!”

Upset by these tales, Payne started to use QM2 as a way of enthusing youngsters, with Cunard’s backing. The first event on the vessel led him to set up Future Engineers with Brian Ansell, a physics teacher who does not turn up his nose at the idea of engineering as a career option.

Payne is particularly keen to encourage young engineers into ship engineering. “I know that there is a need,” he insists. Perhaps one day a young engineer will emerge from the scheme and go on to make a nuclear-powered, ocean-going liner.

Stephen Payne sees naval architecture as underpinning the UK’s long-established shipbuilding and ship operation industry. The Future Engineers programme organises trips for youngsters aged 9 to 11 to go onboard the QM2 and visit other marine and aeronautical engineering venues. These he hopes will show that “Engineering offers a kaleidoscope of rewarding career opportunities across many disciplines” and will enthuse them as much as Blue Peter captured his imagination.

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