At Sea: The North Atlantic


    People often ask me about the worst weather I’ve seen as if I’ve just come back from the eighteenth century. Usually cruise ships  sail around storm systems; sometimes this means the next port-of-call will have to be shortened or cancelled, but this is better than putting thousands of people in an unsafe situation. Ultimately, it is the captain’s decision to sail through bad weather or try to avoid it.
    It’s also important to note that captains are rumored to receive large bonuses for keeping to the schedule and not wasting too much fuel. For instance, the stabilizers - these large underwater fins that deploy from the ship’s side, preventing rolling in choppy seas - require the ship to burn extra fuel, but generally result in a more pleasant experience. The cast of dancers in the theater pay close attention to the stabilizer preferences of each captain, as it makes dancing on stage much safer when the ship isn’t heaving.

    In 2016, I was working on Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Anthem of the Seas, as it sailed from New York to the Caribbean. The New York-Caribbean route is a small market, because most passengers realize it’s more practical to fly down to Florida than to board a ship in New York and spend three days each way in the North Atlantic Ocean. Still, New York receives some year-round cruise traffic. Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is stationed in Red Hook during the transatlantic season, which extends through January. Norwegian and Carnival ships have been known to dock in Manhattan throughout the year. Royal Caribbean ships sail out of Bayonne, New Jersey (in the same way Southampton is sometimes referred to as London, and Cape Canaveral is sometimes referred to as Orlando). Many crew members don’t have enough time off on turnaround day to get into Manhattan - a crew member could do a ten-month contract stationed out of Bayonne and only be in New York for the flight back home.

    When the storm hit, we were at 32°52.38’ N, 076°27.37’ W. This is about one hundred and fifty miles off the coast of South Carolina. We were on our way from New York to Florida, and it was the day of Super Bowl 50: guests around the ship were wearing football jerseys, and numerous parties and trivias had been planned for the occasion. The screens around the ship were tuned to some kind of Caribbean ESPN channel, with all of the commercials for local cricket tournaments.
    Having been inside all day, I was a little nauseous. The portholes had been shut, and my only indication of the outside weather was the significant rolling, which was normal for February. As I was in the forward rec room, the situation got much worse. Chairs and tables that are specially weighted for stability started sliding across the room. Behind the bar, a glass mini-fridge with Red Bull advertising almost toppled over. A large freezer with ice cream unplugged itself from the wall and crashed into the wall, leaving a dent. The floor suddenly felt like it was another wall.
    After I helped the barista secure the room’s loose objects with rachet straps, I took the forward crew staircase two floors up to the production office, nestled in the bulkheads behind the theater. Chairs had rolled into the hallway, and computers had fallen off their desks onto the floor. Papers were everywhere. On my way out, the captain made an announcement for everyone, including non-essential crew, to return to their cabins and await further instruction.
    The forward rec room was in Fire Zone 1B, mid-ship. If I recall correctly, Royal Caribbean divides its ships into seven or eight separate fire zones, with large flame-resistant curtains that can close off the giant multi-story interiors of shops and restaurants. From there, each fire zone is divided into A (forward) and B (aft) sections. Zone 1B was the furthest forward section on the 2nd floor (the main crew deck, which sits just above the waterline), because the pointed shape of the hull necessitated the A-section to only be on higher decks by the bow. Still, the rec room was built against the hull, and the sound of waves breaking against the metal was common.
    I recall my cabin being in Fire Zone 3A, 1st floor. This meant I had to follow a winding corridor aft of the rec room until I reached the crew mess, which was a giant meal room spanning the entire width of the ship.



Leaving New York’s Harbor on Anthem of the Seas in winter.