The other day while cruising the Web, I stumbled across this bizarre and alarming site, describing some of the things that have happened to people while sailing on cruise ships. It left me thinking I’m glad to stick to metaphorical cruising!
As it develops, sovereignties and courts of law apparently have little jurisdiction over what happens on the high seas. Read one or two of these stories and you think, “Naaaah… This person is some sort of complainer.” But when you read a bunch of them, you see a consistency in what they’re saying: rapes, molestations, injuries, deaths (some evidently resulting from foul play) going unreported and uninvestigated, sick people being dumped ashore in Third-World ports. So many themes keep repeating, it’s hard not to take them seriously.
It reminds me of an experience my ex- and I had aboard a Royal Caribbean ship. We spent about three months in England while I worked on my dissertation—he used the project as an excuse to take a “sabbatical” from his law firm and came with me. To get home, our travel agent decided we should take a cruise ship from Dover to London…in the middle of December.
I recall having some vague misgivings, though I didn’t do a lot of thinking while I was married. Most of the time, I just went along for the ride.
And what a ride it was!
The North Atlantic is given to fierce and terrifying storms during the winter. Remember, I grew up with a man who was a sea captain. My father sailed with the Merchant Marine almost all his adult life (when he wasn’t in the Navy and the Coast Guard). We had always lived next to one sea or another. So I knew something about the ocean, mostly because he had taught me by tutoring me with his Bowditch, a thousand-page-long manual for mariners. I knew the Atlantic could be rough at that time of year, but (stupidly) I figured if it was unsafe for civilians they wouldn’t be running passenger ships across it in December.
Come to find out, the reason we were offered the “bargain” price our agent obtained was that Royal Caribbean would not normally offer transatlantic cruises at that time that time. The ship was being moved from Europe to North America simply to get it into the Caribbean, where they wanted to put it to work in the high season there. Rather than run it empty and lose money, the Scandinavian company that owned the line sold space at low rates. They did not give one thin damn about the safety or comfort of the people they suckered into this cruise.
After we were fully out to sea, we ran into a major storm. The seas began to get rough and before long were running very high. Waters were covered with spume, the air grayed-out with spray, and huge waves were breaking not just across the bow but over the bow, over the deck, and as high as the bridge. Water was crashing into the windows around the passenger lounge, which itself was fairly high above the main deck.
Passengers were grayed-out, too: almost all of them laid up with seasickness. I don’t normally suffer from any kind of motion sickness, but even I was so queasy I had to spend most of a day or two in a bunk. Understand, a passenger ship is designed to resist rolling and pitching specifically so that passengers will be insulated from motion sickness. When a lot of people are getting sick, the ship is wallowing in a bad way—indicating the ship itself is in a bad way.
About halfway across, the captain decided to heave to. He didn’t actually stop the ship, I don’t think, but he slowed its speed as far as he could without shutting down the engines. He claimed it was because the winds were pushing us west at a rate that would get us to New York several days ahead of schedule, and the company couldn’t afford the docking fees if they put into port early. Although the fee part probably was true, there was nothing to stop him from standing off shore a day, where at least we would have been within reach of a Coast Guard cutter had the ship started to take on water. The fact was, he simply couldn’t make much headway through such high seas, and he probably slowed in order to take the waves at a more stately and slightly safer pace.
Wind speed at sea is measured according to the Beaufort scale. I happened to know about the Beaufort scale from studying my father’s Bowditch, and from observing storms in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of San Francisco. I estimated the seas were running at about Force 11 and at some points at Force 12, which is the level of a hurricane.
One morning our table’s waiter reported that the waves had stove in the porthole of the cabin where he was bunked below. Though he was a fairly cool, macho young Italian, it was clear he was frightened. For a wave to stave an ocean-going ship’s porthole, it has to hit the ship with a mighty force. It was at that point that I realized for sure, we were in trouble. If the ship had gone down, we couldn’t possibly survive in lifeboats on seas that high, and I would have been surprised if it carried enough lifeboats to accommodate all the passengers and crew. Not that it would have mattered.
Carrying passengers across the North Atlantic in the middle of winter is insane. Intense storms are a fixture of the North Atlantic at that time of year. That Royal Caribbean’s management chose to do so demonstrated they have absolutely no concern for passengers’ safety, to say nothing of their comfort, nor for the safety of the ship’s large complement of servers, stewards, maids, cooks and other employees who are not seamen.
We finally made it to New York—obviously; otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog. I would never set foot on another Royal Caribbean ship again. And after having read the reports on the ICV site, which seem to emanate without pause, I doubt if I would book a cruise at all. Sure wouldn’t recommend it to a friend!