Ripped open by an iceberg! Who could forget the Titanic, all 46,329 gross tons, breaking in half and sinking for two hours and 40 minutes into the black and icy sea with Leonardo DiCaprio turning blue, holding onto a piece of paneling?
April 14 is the time to commemorate with thoughts of the sea. (Especially because I am on a ship right now, sailing from Oman to Egypt and beyond.) Not only are cruising enthusiasts starting younger and long before retirement, but New York City’s cruise industry is booming with the 30-year master plan, according to the Economic Development Corporation. Approximately 1.7 million passengers are expected to pass through the city in 2010, up from 845,000 in 2004. At the new Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook, 225,000 passengers are expected in 2007.
Of course, New York City’s terminal commotion will never again be like the postwar 1950’s, when cruising as a holiday reached its peak, with more than 60 passenger ships a day coming and going from the Hudson River docks: confetti and “Darling, you must come with us and leave dreary Manhattan behind, and there are sooo many interesting people in the other countries, with their shoes that turn up at the toes.”
Sadly, the ships (even the grandest lines: Regent, Crystal, Seabourn, Silversea) have stripped down—a tale often told, but let us go over it again. No more Pompeian baths, portraits of the Sun King, feudal banquet halls or the de rigueur Moorish room, with carpets and a man in a hat and embroidered robe making little cups of coffee—though the Regent Voyager’s specially themed “1,001 Arabian Nights” dining room the other night wasn’t so far afield, with its burlap palm tree, aromatic lobster skewers and rose-water sherbet, and a belly dancer from Epcot Center in purple chiffon and then orange chiffon for her special number, “Aisha.” The crowd went wild. According to the ship’s regulars, people who take the four-month World Cruise every year, Aisha used to be a flamenco dancer. Men from New Jersey were dressed as oil sheiks for the evening, hanging around the papier-mâché camel. The West is angry at the Middle East.
Passenger A. has been on 37 world cruises, played bridge with Omar Sharif and ate at Lutèce “all black and blue” after she had plastic surgery in the 1980’s. “The Sagafjord—that was a ship! And the parties!” she said. “There was a pumpkin coach made by the ship’s carpenters. We had to learn the gavotte. We wore ball gowns, beading by Richelieu. Not like the slobs today.” The Sagafjord burned in 1996 from an engine fire, and it drifted for days on the South China Sea. These ships, so festive with hilarity, often have sad ends. The France, 1912, was laid up after the Great Depression and sold to ship wreckers. The Statendam, 1929, destroyed during the Nazi invasion of Rotterdam, burned for days; her twisted remains were later scrapped. Then, of course, the Titanic’s silk walls and Adams paneling. And now the Sea Diamond.
The architectural plan of cruise ships hasn’t evolved much since those days. There is still the grand stairway to the dining room for Mrs. Clockus to sweep down in the polyester caftan she bought in Salamah because her luggage was lost. There is still the same top deck with the same officers in white smiling at the women at lunch and making them feel valued. And, of course, the entire layout is not far from the bluish Kodachrome of late 1970’s Love Boat television shows, with people with fruit drinks around a small, kidney-shaped pool, bouncing up and down when they dance, scarf tops. The ship’s doctor is waiting for Sherry Bolero, whom he met during a former cruise, and she comes on wearing a plum beret with feather quills, and someone says, “Hel-lo, Evelyn,” and another person says, “Will you excuse me, please?”, and there is always someone ordering a double bourbon—6,000 bottles a month (wine and hard liquor) are consumed by 550 people (on the Regent Voyager cruise, which lasts four months). The ship experience is so liquid—the ocean, the drinks, the tears of joy or sorrow, depending.
Thankfully, unlike Love Boat, there is no obnoxious little boy saying, “I’m going to change things” and get his divorced parents back together, a sort of 1970’s preoccupation, though no one would bother today. Many of the people who go on world cruises together aren’t even married, because they don’t want to complicate their vast holdings later in life.
The Internet café, full of black Samsungs and wood veneer, has replaced the grand ballroom. The cafés get bigger on ships every year, and everyone’s crying “Marco, Marco!” to the tech guy. It is like he is running a nursery with babies crying and he has to calm down the passengers with his French accent: “Reception is difficult in the Red Sea. It will get better when we get to the Mediterranean.” Many former titans of industry are only learning to e-mail at 80. They stare down at their large hands on the keys. “My wife told me that …. ” The photo downloads are too much for everyone. “Where did my captions go?”
There are two windows in the Internet café. They are not even shaped like portholes, the way they are in the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea, where you can wrap yourself in white terrycloth and stare out at the water and drink a bottle of something. People occasionally turn from their computer screens, aquariums in their own way, and glance at the sea passing by to the left.
Centuries ago, people were phobic about the ocean, according to The Ocean at Home. People knew only of paintings of shipwrecks, and sailors’ stories of sea monsters. The ocean was a “treacherous, cursed, and lonely place.” Then came the enthusiastic naturalists, railways taking people to the seaside, where they discovered the healing powers of saltwater and sniffed the ocean air. Then the diving bells, for observing the creatures with arms and eyes on top of their heads.
Ships are for people who want to cut away, lose the shame, cut the rope of a dull or unhappy past, disappear into the night: The ship leaves for Cuba at midnight—be on it. They seek the adventure, but those who do it a lot prefer the same ship, the same breakfast table, the same pale yellow linen, the same waiter, the same eating companions. Gladys, formerly from Manhattan, said: “Some of us have been together at least 25 years”—from Royal Viking to Seabourn to Regent Voyager. The closeness leads to dust-ups, like at lunch when X snapped at Y and Z said, “Are you having another martini?” Concentrate character in one place for more drama. During pre-dinner drinking at Observation, as Frankie, the guitarist who is Aisha’s father, played “Begin the Beguine,” a woman walked by and three onlookers said in chorus: “There she is—the kleptomaniac. They barred her from the ship. Now she’s back under a different name.”
Is there truly still danger and adventure on these ships, so insulated from the water with all the bedrooms, couches and chairs that they are like condominium towers on their sides floating over the octopus, the anemones, the porpoises? My aunt, 30 cruises later, recalled the 40-foot tidal wave in the Pacific that sent her rolling across the nightclub floor with the piano. Then when the Royal Viking Sun crashed into Egypt’s coral reef—a national treasure—she had to sleep in the dining room with her head on the table. All the passengers were evacuated; Cunard had to pay $23.5 million in damages; and the captain had to take the fall, as captains do, even though he wasn’t supposed to be on duty. But now he is the captain of the ResidenSea, the cruise ship in which people own apartments and forever is truly forever, as long as the water holds up, though actually the ship could be beached and still go on.