THE DREAM became a reality when water lapped around the massive hull of Southampton's latest liner for the first time yesterday.

Water rose higher and higher and, as it flooded into the dry dock, Cunard's Queen Victoria gently floated and was held by the sea that will take her to all corners of the world in the years ahead.

Not only was the "float out" of the world's newest liner a day of celebration for Cundard, it also marked another major financial boost for Southampton.

QV will generate millions of pounds for the local economy in Southampton, the ship's home port.

Up to now QV has been a steel cocoon containing a metal skeleton but now the complete vessel has begun to emerge as the Italian shipyard near Venice turns the blueprints into a living ship.

Even as the great bulk of the ship stood marooned in the dock yesterday, propped up on massive blocks, she was without doubt an impressive sight.

The sheer size of the hull, designed to face the worst conditions of any ocean, soared more than 200 feet above the quayside while onboard a confusion of pipes and cables snaked overhead and along the decks.

By the time QV reaches Southampton early in December, she will have been transformed into a classic ocean-going liner, fit for the 21st century.

When she makes her way up Southampton Water, QV will be resplendent in Cunard's distinctive livery of a dark grey, almost black hull, gleaming white superstructure and crowned by a funnel painted in traditional red and black.

Since the spring of last year, QV has been gradually taking shape as 80 steel blocks, each weighing 325 tons have been positioned and welded into place. Yesterday the ship was ready to make the first, short journey which is a crucial milestone in the £300m project. The manoeuvre will require a great deal of planning, time and expertise to move the ship out of the construction dock to a nearby berth. It is here that all the highly complex technical systems, as well as the interior design of the many luxurious public rooms and 1,007 cabins will be installed.

Although the liner will be officially named in Southampton, in Italy it is the traditional custom for the ship's "Madrena", Italian for godmother, to smash a bottle of champagne against the ship. This time-honoured ceremony was performed by guest of honour Maureen Ryan. Miss Ryan joined Cunard in 1963 and is the only known crew member to have served on all Cunard Queens - Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2.

As the bottle crashed against the ship it was the signal for a series of large valves to be opened and the water gushed into the berth.

Cunard have been quick to stress that QV's entry into service does not mean the beginning of the end for the QE2, which is nearly 40 years old.

It has taken intensive work from an army of designers, architects, marine engineers and craftsmen of all trades for QV to reach this stage in her creation since the day in December, 2004 when Cunard announced its was to build another liner.

Queen Victoria, like Cunard's flagship, Queen Mary 2, is to be named in Southampton in what promises to be a spectacular ceremony on the city's waterfront.

At this stage Cunard is refusing to discuss who will carry out the ceremony but QM2 was named on January 8, 2004 in Southampton by the Queen, who also launched the QE2 four decades ago.

It is expected that this royal connection will continue and it is known that top Cunard executives are in discussions with officials at Buckingham Palace and an announcement is expected shortly.

When Queen Victoria makes her dramatic entrance in Southampton Water at the end of the year it will be a historic day not only for Cunard but also Southampton.

This latest addition to the company's fleet, which also includes Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2, means for the first time in Cunard's long history there will be three Queen liners in service together flying the company's famous Golden Lion house flag.

Never before will the city have seen three Cunard Queens, although, because of operational reasons, the chances of all the liners being in the docks together at any one time are slim although that event will happen on January 13 next year in New York.

QV will set sail from Southampton on the first leg of her world cruise on January 8, 2008, and at the same time she will be joined by her sister ship, QE2, on an historic tandem transatlantic crossing as the legendary liner also starts her annual circumnavigation of the globe.Both vessels will then meet up with QM2 in the Big Apple.

Thousands of sightseers will be out in force all along Southampton Water on that departure day to see the two liners set sail.

Earlier in the previous month, QV's maiden voyage, a ten-night cruise to northern Europe, which sold out within 24 hours of going on sale 18 months ago, will leave Southampton on December 11 before she returns to the city to embark passengers for a Christmas cruise to the Canary Islands on December 21.

Passengers booked on QV's maiden voyage have paid from £1,779 each for an inside standard cabin while for guests in top-of-the-range, sumptuous grand suites the price is £15,779 per person.

When QV enters service she will boast some of the best on-board facilities of any modern day ship. These include the Royal Court Theatre with 830 seats with the first private boxes at sea, a library containing 6,000 books, the renowned Queen's and Princess grill rooms together with the Britannia restaurant which will be on two levels.

QV is a 90,000 ton symbol of the phenomenon that is today's international cruising industry, a sector that has seen a massive rise in popularity over recent years.

It was not that long ago when old hands, who had witnessed the demise of the great ocean liners in favour of jet travel, would have dismissed the ideas of building brand new vessels and shipping lines locked in fierce battles to capture the biggest slice of the rapidly growing market.

In little more than a decade there has been a huge rise in the numbers of people opting for a holiday afloat with well in excess of a million Britons choosing a cruise last year with Southampton as the UK's major centre for this multi-million pound trade.

This activity has been driven by cruise ships operators investing billions of pounds in bigger and bigger ships, increasing the numbers in their fleets and offering an enormous range of itineraries and on-board activities.