Fort Lauderdale is a sunny nightmare. A dozen large ships rest in port on a busy Sunday, with shuttle buses taking crew members to the airport and shopping malls as tens of thousands of Americans board cruise ships bound for the Caribbean. Combined with Miami’s lengthy row of terminals an hour away, southern Florida is the busiest region of cruise traffic in the world.
This is where I began my journey on ships. Looking back, the full weight of bringing thousands of American tourists on one-week vacations to the Caribbean, former site of mass-murder and slavery under the guise of European exploration, went slightly over my head. When I started working on ships, I was a recent music-conservatory graduate and felt some pressure to use my degree in a professional setting. If that could include sitting on the beach for a few hours a day, I wasn’t going to complain.
I joined the Oasis of the Seas in late February 2014. It shared the distinction of being the world’s largest cruise ship with the Allure of the Seas. During a busy cruise, each carries over 6,300 passengers and 2,200 crew members. Oasis would sail to the eastern Caribbean itinerary (the Bahamas, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten) on Saturday and Allure would sail to the western Caribbean itinerary (Haiti, Jamaica, and Mexico) on Sunday. The next week, they would switch itineraries. The two ships were so wide that these were the only ports they could fit in, and most had to be rebuilt or expanded by dredging to accomodate their sheer mass.
Take Jamaica, for instance. In a 2011 article titled “The Trouble with Falmouth,” Cruise Critic details financial problems plaguing the construction of Jamaica’s newest port. In an effort to bring their latest ships to Jamaica, Royal Caribbean helped the Jamaican government obtain $200 million in financing from Denmark. The town of Falmouth sits squarely in-between the cruise ports of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, a distance of fifty miles, but obstacles at both ports prevented the dredging and expansion required for the new ships. In designing Falmouth’s cruise terminal, Royal Caribbean worked with Orlando-based IDEA Inc. to reflect the Georgian-era buildings in town, in a way that can only be described as theme-park-inspired. In these buildings, you’ll find: Margaritaville, Dairy Queen, Appleton Estate Rum Factory, House of Diamonds, Shade Shack, and an outdoor food stall selling beef patties to crew members.
The reality of the Falmouth situation is that it’s a mess. A gated entry with heavy security separates the port from the town, and passengers complain bitterly about the experience of Falmouth itself: dozens of locals line the streets agressively selling cheap trinkets and offering weed or hard drugs. In their trip to Jamaica, many passengers don’t make it past the Margaritaville pool.
Within the necklace of islands in the Northern Bahamas lies an outcrop known as Coco Cay. Its north side is a destitute slab of rock plunging into the ocean, split down the middle to form a channel into a sheltered inlet. A half-dozen decrepit Tender boats spend hours ferrying tourists from cruise ships to this inlet.
The Cay’s east and south sides form a long stretch of pristine beach, utterly obliterated by thousands of beach chairs, umbrellas, paper plates, hammocks, and water slides. Jet skis and parasailing boats create an inescapable frequency of noise. Look east and you’ll see similar islands, their coasts dotted with identical vacationers from the other cruise lines. On the narrow western expanse of the Cay, far from the overcrowded beaches and obscenely inauthentic Caribbean shopping experience, lies the remains of a small British fort from the eighteenth century.