If you love sailing on the giant ships of today you may want to consider not reading this article. No, it’s not about sickness spreading throughout the ship or the overstuffed toilets, which often accompanies these voyages. Nor is it about passengers jumping overboard after one too many “Peña Colata Supremes”, or screaming children running up and down the deck as you try to re-read Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” while sitting in a sticky deck chair from some kid’s melted ice cream. Well, maybe it’s about those things a little, but my affliction is much deeper than that. You see - I am a ship SNOB! A ship is supposed to look like a ship and be engineered to be aqua dynamic. Bring me back to the age of the great cruise lines - Cunard, White Star, American, and so many others and I will happily slumber with a smile as I feel the ocean swells below me. We are on a ship at sea, correct? That’s the experience we came for, right? Well for some, maybe not! Time to deploy the stabilizers so passengers don’t get sick! Why?
We’re at sea right? Suck it up! Be one with the queeze! Be one with the sea!
Yes, this old scupper is a man behind the times. I’m a crotchety old sea dog who probably should be in the “nautical writers home” overlooking the remains of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where trendy enterprises and million dollar plus housing have replaced the ghosts of union ship wrights and provisioners, as they have in many great ports of the world. In Manhattan, the cruise line piers have been reduced to a motley few on the Hudson. Most cruise ships now sail from Port Elizabeth because they are so huge and the old shorter piers have been turned into parks and sports activity venues. The remaining piers on the Hudson are currently used by a few smaller cruise ships and are probably birthed there to accent the Intrepid Floating Sea Power Museum (Worth seeing!)
But alas, I am old enough to remember the beautiful Queen Elizabeth I, and her sister ship, Queen Mary, now sadly resting in Long Beach California as a quasi-museum, wedding hall and conference center. I have strode the decks of the S.S. United States (The fastest ocean liner EVER built), The Elle De’ France, and Andrea Doria when on was a youngster and they had visitor days. I witnessed the great ships of the British, American, Italian and Norwegian Lines glide past the Statue of Liberty that had invited my ancestors with the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your teeming masses longing to be free!” Have times changed. My grandfather would take me down to the harbor to see them. These were real ships! They were MAJESTIC! They had class! Except of course if you were traveling and sweating in the cheap bunks called “steerage”. But I’m “steering clear’’ of that issue because I am a hopeless sea romantic!
My father wove tales of the great passenger ships of the early 20th Century - the Aquitania, which he actually sailed on, the Mauritania, Lusitania, Titanic, and many more ships of class and beauty. I am obligated to point out that some of these grand ships met with tragic ends, which most likely did not fit well into their passengers. That said, it was cool as a child to live next door to Mrs. Gilligan who survived the sinking of the Titanic. Ironically, her spinster (Who uses that word anymore?-quite inappropriate!) daughter Marion survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria near 40 years later. Ah! The adventure of real ships!
But let's get to my real issues with today's cruise ships. They don’t look like ships. They look like an over inflated Trump Tower turned on its side in the water. They are inappropriately gigantic and boxy and are just not what a ship should look like. They sit extremely high in the water with disproportionate lengths. This ugliness will continue since every cruise line is competing to build the largest, ugliest, most ostentatious vessel on the high seas and sadly they are succeeding.
Time to sail!! Passengers flock gangways, fighting to get aboard and grab those pre-cruise drinks and crowd mammoth tables of every type of canapé imagined while luggage is being delivered to cabins and suites. Since a few of these ships can hold up to six thousand passengers, you can imagine the competition as cruise wear fashion aficionados pile their plates with fistfuls of shrimp while holding two drinks to avoid getting back on line. They challenge their stomachs with too much drink and eat their way through the voyages “Get your money’s worth” buffets, including the midnight chocolate extravaganza and stand in line to get into the same restaurants found ashore.
Once underway, these floating crystal palaces don’t want you to experience the real wonders of being at sea. Instead of days of reflection, while staring out into the blue or relaxing on deck chairs reading, the loudspeakers prompt you to “Climb the rock cliff wall! Time to Zip Glide! Enjoy the giant water slide in our jumbo wave pool! Pilate’s classes in the state of the art gym! Pamper yourself in our sensual spa!” There’s even ice skating and golf! One cruise line will soon introduce on deck horseback riding! It’s only a matter of time. And if you bring the brats, correction-little children, you can deposit them in the Child Retention Center, or whatever they call it, and never run across them through the entire voyage, if you so desire.
The onboard casino never opens because once at sea, it never closes. Many passengers sit at the gaming tables the entire voyage. I understand showers and bathtubs are being installed in the casinos on some of these floating castles. You will virtually have your clothes removed, cleaned, and placed back on you by a personal valet as you exit the tub while you continue laying your chips down. You won’t miss one hand of Black Jack. One gambler died at the slots but his arms kept depositing coins and pushing the play button for three more days. No one took notice until he began to throw off a stiff aroma that overwhelmed the “Sea Breeze” filtered air scent being blown through the ventilation system.
Then there are the shows! Direct from Las Vegas! One cruise line features a Liberace-Elvis-Lion King Extravaganza on one stage at the same time. It’s SPECTACULAR, but a tad bit confusing! Better to spend time at the karaoke bar and make a fool of yourself! On deck, there is always some band poorly playing Beach Boys, Jack Johnson, and Jimmy Buffet songs! Sea Shanties and songs about dockside ladies of the night are just not considered appropriate anymore. “Quick! Let's catch the not so funny comedienne in the forward lounge or maybe just go to our cabin and take a nap!” Hard choice for many. Nap for me.
As your gargantuan vessel plies the seas, you are never without a drink in your hand, food to stuff in your mouth, or a boutique shop to stroll into and spend money on more stuff you don’t need. Every member of the crew, the entertainment specialists, chefs, valets, waiters, card dealers, deck boys/girls, excursion guides and janitors has a cruise line supplied Botox frozen smile look on their face. It’s a floating wax museum where reality is a thousand nautical miles away.
Gone is the dignity and grace of ocean voyages. Welcome to the age of the floating amusement park, casino, Broadway, and shopping mall that makes occasional stops in third world ports where the locals sell their trinkets. No matter how hard their lives may be financially, poorer than the passengers on those bloated ships, they try to enjoy what little they have.
So there you have it. A ship’s manifest of my complaints concerning the gross tonnage, overstuffed design, and over the top “amenities” on the passenger cruise ships of today. Of course, there are many readers who have had wonderful experiences aboard these “Ships’’ and quality time with their families they would have never had. I’ve tried hard to combat their happiness, torpedo their desire for worldly fun within their budgets, and a chance to forget the everyday stress and worry by enjoying a cruise. I hope for their sake and my hysterical, I mean historical, love of the classic cruise ships of old, I have succeeded. Probably not!