CareerIt occurred to me that my daughter Joanna had lived in the Northwest her whole life, so far, without yet seeing the magnificent country of SE Alaska. So, when I had the opportunity to secure cut-rate fares on the last Alaskan cruise of the season, I grabbed it. When the day of our week-long cruise arrived, I was all set for this nautical adventure: compass, sextant, and octant were wrapped in my watch cap, and my duffel coat was stowed in my duffel bag. Joanna, land-lubber that she is, just packed ordinary clothes, a book to read, and a digital camera.
My seafaring experience has been long and varied. In the 60s, I was navigator and first mate of a cabin cruiser named The Honorable Admiral T. Head when she tried to go ashore at Lopez Island. The shipwreck achieved legendary status in the San Juan Islands, inasmuch as the reporters had never seen a boat in a position quite as weird as that which the T. Head assumed after the tide went out. I explained to them that we had been forced into the rocks in order to avoid running down an orphan whale, but after so many photographs appeared in the local press I took to denying any connection whatsoever with the wreck of the Admiral T. Head.
Then, I was for some years master of the good ship Narwhal, a double-ender whaleboat that my partner and I converted to sail, gaff-cutter rig. The boat was so intensely picturesque, especially whenever she went aground, that tourists used to follow us around with cameras in hand.
For twelve years, the Narwhal --- followed by her hordes of admirers --- plied the waters of Puget Sound. Her ancient Utility-4 engine broke down so often that our regular marine mechanic, the proprietor of Endless Despair Repair, simply moved his shop aboard the Narwhal. He eventually retired to the Bahamas with his earnings, as did our bank. My partner eventually succumbed to a nervous breakdown.
In the summer of 1987, our underwriter, Rocky Mountain Spotted Insurance Ltd of Grand Cayman, informed us that they would not renew our insurance policy without a new marine survey. That autumn, the Narwhal went down with all hands on an otherwise routine midnight voyage across Lake Washington. Nobody knows exactly how it came about. The loss of the Narwhal is just another of those mysteries of the sea, like the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. When landlubbers ask me how my sailboat came to sink, I squint off into the middle distance and mutter laconically: "She filled up with water."
When Joanna and I went aboard our cruise ship, I briefly mentioned my long nautical experience to a deck officer and confided that I was available to take the wheel, should an emergency arise. The deck officer relayed this information to the bridge, after which the PA system immediately ordered all passengers to don their life-vests. The deck officer also advised that I might find it comfortable to spend the entire cruise in my cabin, inasmuch as the captain would order Abandon Ship if I were found anywhere else. However, during the cruise I was often able to sneak out of the cabin in disguise and join Joanna on deck or in the buffet.
I must say, the buffet was spectacular. Each day, it offered a selection of half a dozen tasty meat or fish dishes, a roast, several well-prepared vegetable dishes, a salad bar, another table of elaborate prepared salads (like Niçoise) and cold shellfish, a table of coldcuts and cheeses, a table of fresh fruit, and a table of prepared deserts. The dishes were often quite exotic, like various curries, or a mysterious concoction called "Vegetable Pojarski." This was a round, flat object, looking like a cutlet ... but grey-brown in color, apparently somehow made from vegetables. Its contents were quite unidentifiable and none of the servers could tell me what it was, exactly.
Plenty of the cruise passengers did little all day but haunt the buffet, occasionally beaming themselves from the buffet to one or another of the many lounges to top up the alcohol content of their blood stream. The lounges were always filled with people, whereas the decks, from which one could survey the spectacular scenery going by, generally had relatively few occupants. In fact, a few of the cruise passengers deliberately avoided looking at the view throughout the trip, explaining that the sight of water made them nervous.
There were no lack of distractions. Besides the buffet, three other restaurants, and the various lounges, the ship contained a gambling casino, an auditorium, an exercise room, a small library, an internet room, and an art gallery.(!) If I had had more time to explore, I wouldn't have been surprised to come upon branches of Disney World, the Tower of London, and the Las Vegas Bellagio.
The only of these attractions that we patronised was the auditorium, where we participated in a mass calisthenics exercise on how to put on a life-vest ... and the internet room. The half hour I spent the latter provided the usual electronic bewilderment, at thirty cents per minute. I clicked on this and clicked on that, and may or may not have succeeded in sending some E-mails. After every adventure with the mysteries of computer technology, I muse about what it would be like if automobile technology had developed in the same way. If that had been the case, it is easy to picture a typical drive in the country in, say, 1925. Out of every ten times you turn the wheel to the left, the car would respond as follows: five times it would turn to the left, eliciting some false confidence; but two times nothing at all would happen; one time it would turn to the right instead; once, the car would stop dead, the message "your car has performed an illegal function" would appear on the dashboard; and the final time the back seat would fill up with gasoline.
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These cruise ships are gigantic, a city block long and the height of a ten-to-twelve story building. Ours wasn't even the largest of the fleet. In Skagway, there was an even larger behemoth moored alongside ours. The presence of the two cruise vessels together effectively quintupled Skagway's population for an afternoon. The great size of these floating palaces leads to a curious urban planning anomaly at their ports of call in SE Alaska.
In Juneau, the municipality is sufficiently concerned about the magnificent downtown views of the Gastineau Channel that it forbids the construction of buildings over 4 or 5 stories high. But every summer, the cruise ships docked near downtown tower over everything, and fill up most of the seaview airspace.
The dozen or so decks on cruise vessels are served by two banks of elevators that are filled with crowds of passengers day and night. There are capacious stairways too, but most of the passengers are well into their golden (or tylenol) years, and surely couldn't make it up more than two decks on the stairs before collapsing. One consequence of the high proportion of geezers amongst the cruising clientele is that it is not infrequent for the angel of death to be aboard as well. We met one woman who had been on another ship on which no fewer than three of the passengers expired before the end of the cruise. When a passenger passes on, this woman told us, the ship's medical personnel take the corpse off on a gurney. But the ship's elevators aren't big enough to accommodate a gurney horizontally, so they must stand it upright, the corpse strapped in place. Her anecdote led me to imagine a charming scene. I am waiting on my deck for the elevator: it arrives, the door opens, and I come face to face with the day's cadaver standing, it seems, upright. I guess I would shout "Have a nice day!" out of reflex, before diving for the nearest porthole.
Come to think of it, amongst all the lounges and amusements on the various decks, maybe they also have a ship's mortuary tucked away somewhere. The elevators didn't stop at deck 13, now that I recall. I wonder if one could get a summer job as an undertaker on a cruise ship? I must look into that next summer, as a way to cap off my nautical career.--- Dr. Phage