≡ Menu

Hey, I know honey, let’s take a cruise!

“A life on the ocean waves,
A home on the rolling deep…”

— Sea Shanty

[DATELINE: A dungeon horrible, on all sides round. ] In travel I once thought there were only three levels of tedium that overtake one between departure to destination. If you go by car, your tedium level is light. You have the power to interrupt your journey at any point as well as a changing view and a task, driving, for diversion. Travel by rail or bus introduces you to the second level of tedium when only scheduled stops enable you to break the journey, but the scenery remains in the middle distance as a diversion. Should you go by air, your despair and terror are lessened by the knowledge that, except for extreme distances, your powerlessness and lack of view will at least last no more than a day.

The three levels of tedium. Each more or less equal to the others and each part of what you pay for wanting to indulge in the mindlessness of modern travel. But I have, this week discovered, a fourth level and this level contains all the horrors of travel plus the horrors of actually being there. This is a level of tedium previously unexplored by me but rumored to exist by sensible travelers who have gone and returned to tell the tale. I should have believed them but, like the fool I have always been, I had to experience it myself. Right now I am still trapped within the confines of the experience but it isn’t too soon to send out a warning in the hopes that there are others out there who will not be the fool I was; who will turn back before committing themselves to this constantly renewing fresh hell on the ocean waves.

But should you have a taste for tedium, should boredom be like mother’s milk and daily bread (lots of it) to you, you will be surfeited by this otherwise antiquated mode of travel. Indeed, for sheer, mind obliterating tedium, for the kind of vacancy induced only by event horizons with no events and fewer horizons; for a feeling that arises in no experience other than incarceration, there is nothing that can beat the tedium induced by that modern masterpiece of torpor, stupor, and pointlessness, the Cruise Ship.

This marvel of contemporary capitalism — a hotel that takes its patrons far out of reach of any competition — has no peer when it comes to simultaneously suspending and extending time. At sea, the ship”s clock is all there is, and its pendulum pulses exceedingly slow. After a day or so, you exist in this world with either way too much time or outside of time altogether. Either way, the first thing to leave is your mind and judgment. This is hardly noticed by most since management has arranged for a host of activities so mindless that you will be convinced for days that you are actually in possession not only of your mind but your right one at that. It is only when the credit card bills arrive long after you are at home that you will realize what you have done to yourself.

The sane reaction to a cruise, once one has trapped oneself on board and has perceived exactly what sort of fresh and renewing hell one is in, would be to wait until midnight and throw yourself off the ship in the hopes that the props would convert you to chum before the sharks found you.

But since you are obviously so insane as to actually get on the cruise ship in the first place, this blissful option is closed to you. Besides, the small pattern of looping dots on the map in the main lounge that lays out your trip to nowhere gives you the hope that, when all the little red dots have changed to green, you will be released and returned to life. Since the ship only moves at a piddling four dots per day, and since the dots are many, you try not to peek too often lest despair absorb you and you hear the chimes of the starboard rail at midnight.

Still, in the brief moments of lucidity that come between meals and naps, an experience aboard a cruise ship is not without its uses. It can, properly considered, instruct you in the deeper meanings of your foolishness. Indeed, it can cause you to re-examine attitudes towards life issues you previously thought of as resolved. Capital punishment Vs. life imprisonment comes to mind at this moment.

Before being trapped aboard this bobbing monument to all that is mediocre in our culture, I had been of the firm opinion that for certain crimes only death was a just reward. After these past days hiding from Muzak in my ironically named “Stateroom,” I am beginning to believe that life imprisonment in such a room, even if were a bit larger, would be a finer and more just torture than a bit of nod and wink before the big sleep at the end of a needle or rope.

As an added punishment to the condemned, I would allow him the cable system I possess of four channels, two of which endlessly repeat either an infomercial for amber jewelry and the roast of a minor celebrity. The others are devoted to the X-files and Wolf Blitzer and seem, after a couple of days, completely interchangeable. A week of this begins to melt the sheathing from every nerve fiber you possess. Several decades would a hell beyond imagining. For especially heinous crimes, the remote would be removed from the cell and handed to the steward who hasn’t been tipped in ten years.

Another lesson learned when trapped on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean is a lesson, a deep lesson, about food.

I”ve long held that one of the sure signs of the success of modern civilization in the United States is that we have, for the first time in the history of creation, created a culture whose central problem is that it has Way-T00-Much-Food™. We have a nation so drenched in food that we now have to have our legislature spend time passing laws making it illegal to sue those companies whose business is offering cheap food in massive quantities to the population. Given that the entire history of life has been a ceaseless search for adequate food, the advent of a nation that produces, winter, spring, summer, and fall, Way-T00-Much-Food™ is a signal event in evolution. But it still, alas, remains a problem for the human-animal that has evolved to consume food whenever and where ever available. Since many cannot just say no to the bacon-chili cheeseburger option, the persistent supply of cheap food is a problem.

Cruise ships seem, as part of their most persistent purpose, to be designed to eliminate this problem of way-t00-much food once and for all. Never before have I been in an environment that pushes food at its end users as frantically and methodically as a cruise ship. The offers come thicker and faster than the suggestions to buy at Amazon. Your Gold Box is on your screen all day every day. You can pass but it all comes back the very next instant.

Whole herds were sacrificed for this ship. Flocks of poultry that could darken the skies have been plucked and jammed onto its ravening spits. Oceans of grain and islands of sugar cane have been hijacked into its ovens. In New Zealand, mountainsides of happy, gamboling lambs have been seared black beneath its broilers. And, of course, in the quiet, seldom visited case marked “Sugarless Desserts” lurks the knowledge that “there’s always room for Jello.”

Like the boiler rooms deep below, the buffet pulses heat night and day trying to push out and dispose of all this food. It looks to be Way-T00-Much-Food™ and on land, it would be. But this ship”s passengers are doing their level best to keep up with the buffet. On any given day it is difficult to say who holds the lead, but both sides struggle to stay on top.

While somewhere long ago this ship may have had a sign that said; “Our Policy: One mammal per person per seating,” that sign has long since been purloined to decorate the refrigerator of a double-wide somewhere in Oklahoma. Indeed, a brief, very brief, glance at many in the buffet line that has no end confirms that unlimited opportunities for gluttony was one of the lines in the brochure that made them reach for their Discover cards.

More than the sea or the money, it is the food that fetches them at sea. Five, six, seven times a day. The moist pink carving boards, the sizzling griddles, the burbling steam tables, and the tiers of dessert offerings have lured them here as surely as the Sirens of old lured mariners to their deaths on the rocks of the lee shore. The only difference here is that the rocks in question are made of mashed potatoes with three kinds of gravy, and the comforting knowledge that a portable defibrillator is fully charged with a trained operator on-call 24/7 only three decks below.
Written for a bottle at sea, somewhere off the Baja California Coast, 2003

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ronetc September 22, 2020, 9:21 AM

    I am as proudly curmudgeonly as any . . . but I like cruises. The author did not mention having a beautiful young wife sharing his cabin, perhaps that is the difference.

  • Bear Claw Chris Lapp September 22, 2020, 9:21 AM

    Amen after one Caribbean cruise. I would only go on the west coast alaskan cruise with the train ride up there if I ever cruise again.

  • ronetc September 22, 2020, 9:23 AM

    I apparently cannot proofread and cannot find an edit button: I am as proudly curmudgeonly as any . . . but I like cruises. The author did not mention having a beautiful YOUNG wife sharing his cabin, perhaps that is the difference.

    [ GVDL: Fixed it but maybe that was my mistake. I was on assignment so my beautiful young(er) wife stayed home.]

  • James ONeil September 22, 2020, 10:10 AM

    Last time I read anything on it was back in August but then over 50 cruise ships running around in circles, not allowed to dock due to the kungflu. Wonder if those over 10,000 crew members are still stuck at sea.

  • WDS September 22, 2020, 10:44 AM

    I survived a MA to SC (and back) road trip as a kid in the back of a Dodge Dart station wagon with no
    A/C in the summer and guess what? It was better than a cruise on today’s ships.

  • captflee September 22, 2020, 11:27 AM

    Personally witnessed my first cruise ship collision in San Juan back in ’76, as a rather green seaman apprentice standing the morning 4-8 gangway watch on a buoy tender. I forget which spanking new Cunarder it was, but whichever one it was, it rounded La Puntilla at waaaay too good a clip. Having watched the ballet of those big girls being spun around and backed alongside the tourism pier quite a few times, I suspected something was amiss, and woke up the OOD, telling him that the feces was about to hit the fan, as directly in the Cunard ships path was one of the Italian ships slowly backing in. Fortunately the Cunard ship was eventually able to override whatever glitch had control of the throttles and start backing down, no doubt a double full astern with a jingle, so amidst a welter of short blasts echoing off the hills of San Juan Viejo, began to slow her ahead progress. Damned near made it, too, but with just enough forward momentum to complement her rapid swing to port, the clipper bow of the Cunarder raked a 40′ long by 10′ high section of plating away just as pretty as you please. Said plating was for the baggage locker, where dwelt all the offgoing passenger luggage. The small boat crews spent the rest of the day fishing suitcases out of that nasty harbor.

  • ghostsniper September 22, 2020, 11:46 AM

    I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I’ve only seen an ocean liner once, with my own eyeballs, in my life and that was from about 1/2 a mile away. So it would take me weeks or more to survey everything I could on that monstrous example of 21st century human engineering.

    Food? Twice a day. A large farm breakfast in the morning, then at night a big plate of mostly protein, mostly porterhouse and grouper or reasonable facsimiles thereof.

    Bored? Pleez. That’s the realm of the sparsely used minds.
    Make it the way you want it.
    You know what they say, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

  • Bones September 22, 2020, 12:36 PM

    Sorry, but I have to disagree.

    I’ve been on a few cruises, and enjoy them. Yes, they serve so much food, that it’s unreal, and there’s always too much going on with activities, shopping, the casino, and other money making schemes.

    But for peace and quiet, there’s nothing like it. We (wife and I) did the San Diego to Hawaii round trip – 18 days. That’s 10 days at sea. Good cocktails, good food and unplugged from the chaos that is modern American life. Just spending time together.

    Try it, you’ll like it!

  • PA Cat September 22, 2020, 1:10 PM

    In addition to the tedium Gerard notes, cruise ships have long had a bad reputation as floating virus farms. COVID-19 is the current problem, but norovirus (aka winter vomiting bug) is a well-known hassle on cruise ships. The CDC (insert Bronx cheer or cuss word of your choice) has had a Vessel Sanitation Program or VSP for years. I like the ambiguous phrasing of their “tips for healthy cruising” on the page for gastrointestinal illness surveillance:

    I’ve never been on a cruise, but I did come down with a case of supermarket-acquired norovirus some years back, and it is an experience I hope never to repeat. Three straight days of splitting headaches, frequent vomiting, and a low-grade fever. Ozzy Man’s closeup of crew members bailing out what looks like sewage sloshing through the ship’s corridors at 2:35 brought back some very unpleasant memories– and a resolve to permanently avoid cruising, “healthy” or otherwise.

  • Andy September 22, 2020, 1:10 PM

    “double full astern with a jingle”

    Also the Joe Biden campaign slogan.

  • azlibertarian September 22, 2020, 4:20 PM

    Yep, you can count Mrs.azlib and I as cruisers, she more than I.

    Its kinda funny how we switch roles while on a ship. She has always been the out-going, gonna-meet-everybody type of gal. Before long, everyone knows her. I’m the introverted guy who sits by her side, and rarely gets a word in edgewise.

    But put us on a ship, and she’s the one who spends the day in the room, reading a book….and happy as a clam to do it. On the other hand, I’ve got my whole day planned from one end of the ship to the other. Work out at the gym, then a movie, or maybe the casino, followed by put-put golf, and ending with trivia games…on the surface, all of them stupid, time-wasting events…but I can go all day with that sort of thing. And while (in our experience) it varies, the evening entertainment can be of almost Las Vegas quality. We once signed up to be the backup dancers for a production of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Lotta fun.

    Though I imagine that if I’d been on one of those ships that collided with each other, or came down with some violent bug, that I’d have a different opinion, but in our experience (4 ocean, one European river cruise), we like them.

  • Bruce September 22, 2020, 4:23 PM

    “Being in a ship is like being in a jail, with the chance of drowning.” – Samuel Johnson

  • leelu September 23, 2020, 11:44 AM

    The absolute *only cruise I have ever been interested in is one on SeaLaunch. It is/(was?) an outfit in Long Beach that would put a satellite in geosync orbit for you at a relatively reasonable cost. They had a floating launch platform and a launch control/cruise ship. The rocket & payload would chug down to the Equator at 150 deg, and, once the launch control ship arrived, they’d rocket your bird into orbit. It was supposed to be cheaper than launching from, say, Canaveral, then maneuvering it into the geosync orbit.
    They had a lounge w/ bar & dance floor. If you were paying for the launch, you could bring eight of your friends along to watch the launch.
    Anything else is probably worse than what’s written here.

  • Chris Markle September 24, 2020, 6:31 AM

    notice that booze isn’t included in the price (and you aren’t allowed to bring any on-board).

  • Jim September 24, 2020, 4:17 PM

    Chris Markle September 24, 2020, 6:31 AM

    “..notice that booze isn’t included in the price (and you aren’t allowed to bring any on-board).”

    I have yet to fail in my method of smuggling said booze aboard cruise. Which I will not type here, and have compromised by widespread public knowledge. But it can be done, with a modicum of effort and imagination. And the value of a 1.5 litre of bourbon illicitly boarded, will be about $700-ish in drinks, were you to order that much over the bar in your time at sea.

    Sunk New Dawn
    Galveston, TX