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.
I only had to be reminded once of the ocean’s unquestionable power. I was working on and off as a fill-in on the company’s newest ship, sailing from New York to the Caribbean and back. In the winter, the Atlantic Seaboard is a significant danger outweighed only by the sheer amount of money New Englanders are willing to spend on a cruise without flying to Florida.
The ship had been outfitted for cold-weather endeavors, with a large glass awning that enclosed the pool and a focus on making the Casino more lucrative during the daytime. There would be a point in each cruise where the weather outside would match the climate-controlled temperature inside, and guests would begin to open their balcony doors in awe of a 12-hour season.
But that never happened on this voyage. Instead, the weather of our first sea day was choppy and only worsened into the early afternoon. Like the forty-five hundred guests who accompanied us, I had only signed onto the ship the day before. I would normally be at a point of total disorientation and confusion, but I had worked on this ship only a few months earlier, so I was returning to the same cabin, the same band, and the same friends.
I noticed a shift in morale as soon as I stepped back onboard, which I equated to the now-departing holiday season. I had left around Thanksgiving, before the overbooked crowds of obnoxious families commenced their annual takeover. Christmas was always a day of mourning, an incessant reminder of the family you were far away from. And then, in an almost schizophrenic reversal, New Year’s Eve was a celebration of the family you were with onboard, a night when those who weren’t working drank copiously, and those who were working joined in as immediately as possible. The subsequent come-down from this one night often lasted a month or more, and inspired months of bar-talk. It was after this month that I arrived, and looking back, I now blame morale on the weather inflicted upon the crew for the month of January. It was a month of relapses from a total summer to a total winter. It was four years of seasons gone by in the course of a month. The wear this does on one’s mind is not to be understated. By the time I had returned to the ship, my friends were years older. The following weeks would only continue their expedited aging.
The first sea-day normally brought us to a temporary end of winter, somewhere around the latitude of Bermuda. Instead, the weather worsened to the point of actual sea-sickness, a sensation I often edged onto but tried to avoid in full. Many rocky nights of ascending four decks of stairs to the Officer’s Bar in the bow of the ship had brought on an appreciation for pitching, the act of rocking from bow to stern. Gravity disappeared as the bow fell into the next wave, allowing us to fly across the staircase at will. And then gravity abruptly came back with a vengeance, destroying our knees and preventing us from continuing. It often continued this game upon our arrival to the bar, allowing us to experience brief moments of spaceflight from our stools.
Rolling, on the contrary, brings none of the fun of free-floating misadventures, and only leads to the dispensing of Dramamine and the cleanup of vomit. As I sat in the crew coffee shop nestled in the bow of the ship, on the afternoon of February 7th, 2016, I questioned the severity of the weather relative to my months away from sea. Only once chairs started sliding across the room did I decided I was fine, and it was the world that was faulted.
The coffee shop was often quiet or empty during daytime hours, when everyone but the entertainers were at work in guest areas. A solitary barista stood behind the counter, reading something on his phone. The job was a training position, used to vet bartenders before sending them into guest venues. The baristas I had gotten to know from my last contract had moved on soon after I left, and I didn’t know this one yet. I sat reading, or listening to music, or writing; anything to distract my mind from the unrelenting movement of the ship. The furniture in the coffee shop, despite being less than a year old on the Company’s newest ship, had been worn in from constant use. Between shows, dancers would saunter down from the theater’s backstage stairwell through a door leading directly into the coffee shop (a secondary emergency exit) for smoothies and a couch to soften sore muscles. Deckhands would come at odd hours, often when the coffee shop’s services were closed, to sleep on the chairs and use the free websites of the wall of computer stations. Officers heading to the bridge from the crew mess would stop for a quick coffee. All of this put strain on the furniture, which was already built to high standards. Every chair and table is counter-weighted so that it stays upright in heavy seas. This makes everything exceptionally heavy, and subsequently more dangerous after the first chair started sliding across the floor.
The barista and I looked up at the same time. We were the only ones in the coffee shop. Almost by instinct I imagined what obstacles I would have to avoid if the room were suddenly turned on its side. I gripped the sides of the chair and spread my feet. The next roll caused the frozen ice cream locker to unplug itself and fall across room on its locked wheels, knocking out a set of tables and chairs as if bowling for pins. The Captain came on over the intercom and ordered the entire ship’s company and guests back to their cabins, as chairs seemed to collapse at random, and a glass display case of Red Bull fell off the counter and shattered.
Any significant space on modern ships has emergency equipment, and two or three emergency exits. The coffee shop was adequately prepared with equipment to strap tables and chairs against the wall, which we did before wedging the ice cream locker into a space behind the bar and cleaning up the glass. The display wall of various bottles of alcohol was locked with a mesh gate that prevented its contents from shifting around. The counter of coffee accessories was placed into drawers and the computers were shut down. The barista and I then made our way aft, around the main staircase and through corridor of HR offices and the slop chest, a kind of closet-sized Walgreens where Filipinos could find pineapple juice and overpriced necessities.
Beyond the corridor of miscellaneous offices lay the crew mess, an overwhelmingly large space of buffets serving mostly variations of rice dishes next to the cuts of meat that weren’t deemed to be guest-quality. There was a salad bar but no salad dressing to be found. The dancers had started a committee pushing for better quality food, but to this point had not been successful. The floor was a tile pattern occasionally interrupted by draining grates for spilled liquids. On this afternoon, greywater flowed freely across the floor on each roll. Between each wave, we cautiously proceeded to the aft corridor. Behind a crowd of deckhands, water flowed freely down the slats of the main forward crew stairwell. The waves lapped into elevator shafts, found further recesses to lower decks, and wetted feet as they tried to escape. Somehow, I made my way further aft without incident.
The stairway down to the entertainment cabins was the next, and fortunately it had not been discovered by water.