Sitting on a becalmed boat (well, a colossus of a ship that’s 17 decks high) whilst marooned in the middle of a somewhat eerily mist-filled North Sea, is as good a time as any to contemplate the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
A day earlier myself, the husband and sons No’s 2 and 3 had boarded P&O’s Ventura for a quick trip across the English channel, taking in Bruges and the island of Guernsey. After a rapid embarkation process (cruise-speak for going on board) we had been accosted, minutes from the gangway, by a bloke wielding a gigantic camera. Against our collective will we were lined up and forced to strike what we hoped was a happy cruising pose. The husband’s view was that we may as well enter into the spirit of the whole thing, and it wasn’t as if they could force us to buy a photo in which we all looked like we’d just come from a collective shopping spree at the local charity shop (to be fair this sartorial comment mainly applies to me and the husband.)
Unfortunately P&O know what they are doing, and what they really know how to do is to get us happy cruisers to part with our cash. For the very next day, whilst sauntering about the ship in order to find our bearings, we found ourselves in the photo area, where rows and rows of passenger pics adorned massive boards, and where an enjoyable few minutes can be spent engaged in a critique of your fellow passengers’ hair styles and dress sense. But it was also here that we found our own enforced photo-op, and rashly decided that it would make a very nice souvenir and, with even greater rashness, decided to fork out £11.80 on said photo – but this was just a taste of the financial state of things to come.
The afternoon of our boarding we made for one of the ship’s restaurants; one done out to resemble the sort of Greek island establishment you’d find yourself in, if you’d been an extra in Mamma Mia! A fake tree had been plonked right in the middle, surrounded by rattan type tables and chairs, and overhead was a dimmed ceiling studded with electric stars (the kind you’d see at twilight) and around the walls hung electric lanterns, and on those walls somebody had painted a mural featuring a blue sea lapping up against a Greek shore – it was LOVELY; possibly better than being on an actual Greek island. A waitress pounced the moment we sat down (as the cruise progressed I began to wonder if we were all under constant surveillance), placed an electric candle on the table and asked if we would like drinks? And so began the first of many cocktail hours – at £5.50 a pop.
For the only thing not included in the price of a cruise are the alcoholic beverages, or indeed beverages of any kind. And from where I was sitting (I did a lot of aimless sitting about) consuming alcohol seemed to be what cruising is mainly about – and what’s wrong with that? I now ask myself. Not many moons ago I used to be alarmingly puritanical in nature, but age and the crappy vagaries of living life have softened those righteous edges and, besides, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So the Pina Coladas, the Mai Tai’s, the Caribbean Cruises, the Martinis (pure, distilled yuckiness; what was Bond thinking?) flowed freely – except they weren’t free. It was at this point that I also discovered that son No.2 does a remarkably accurate impression of Sean Connery.
Now, I’m a non-flyer, so cruising had seemed like the safer, less terrifying option but not so. How is this floating block of flats staying up thought I, as we climbed the 14 flights of stairs, subsequently deciding that the claustrophobic lifts would be less heart attack inducing. ‘How can it just sit here in dock, stationary on the water and not sink?’ I whinged to the husband. The husband and son No.3 then explained about displacement of water and the incredible density of water etc etc, but this reassurance became moot when we were called to the casino to take part in the emergency drill exercise.
This exercise, which requires you to run back to your cabin, grab a life jacket from the wardrobe and then navigate your way to your ‘muster station’ takes place at roughly 4 pm, by which time a sizeable section of our fellow passengers had had time to get completely plastered, obviously experiencing great difficulty in wending their way back to their cabins and then finding their way to the Muster Station. And so it was that son No. 3 practically fell asleep on his life jacket, which was placed on top of a card table in the Casino, as those of us sober enough to have heeded the Captain’s call waited and waited for the latecomers.
When all were assembled around the slot machines and card tables, crew members, who had previously been standing motionless in the background for ages; almost invisible, were it not for the fact that they were wearing bulky, bright orange life jackets and a suitably ‘this is serious stuff’ facial expression, suddenly leapt into action, showing us how to put on the cumbersome life jackets and pointing out the attached lights and whistles. ‘Please don’t start blowing your whistles,’ the compere of the proceedings begged, ‘they’re very loud.’ This was all well and good, but the comforting presence of a life jacket did not take into account the fact that I had counted the number of available lifeboats and worked out that there weren’t enough to contain all 3,078 passengers (not to mention 1,200 crew.) Well ok, the life jacket might save me if I couldn’t get a place in a lifeboat, but that didn’t take into account the freezing temperature of the North Sea. Discussing the uselessness and discomfort of the life jackets with the husband, his reply was that the best thing to do was to go straight up to the dining area and get stuck in – being that we only had 4 available days of cruise gluttony ahead of us.
And so the eating began. The husband and sons’ plan was to begin early with breakfast, to be followed with a second breakfast round about 11 am (they’d morphed into hobbits), to be followed by an early lunch, to be followed by afternoon tea, to be followed by dinner, to be followed by supper, to be followed by a midnight snack courtesy of room service.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – I was marooned in a deserted, open sea. The following day we found ourselves stretched out on loungers, on deck 16, looking out at a dead calm sea and a veil of mist stretching across the horizon, contemplating life, the universe and everything. The night before the husband had wondered how P&O were going to stretch out a trip to Bruges and Guernsey over the course of 5 days and on Thursday 23rd June we found out. The captain’s solution was to park up, somewhere just off the south coast of England, and stay there for roughly 8 hours (‘pottering about a bit’ was how he referred to it.) Caught in this strange and silent aquatic limbo our thoughts naturally turned to the Bermuda Triangle (the possible British version), to ghost ships trapped in a time warp, to passengers suddenly running amok and resorting to cannibalism (this is always the husband’s favourite scenario based on too many Discovery documentaries.) With the amount of food on board this was unlikely to happen.
My own thoughts turned to just how many British people are exceedingly fat, pasty-faced and just plain unattractive – this cruise ship was looking very like that spaceship in Wall-E. Not to mention the obscene amounts of food and the left- over food that probably got chucked away; and the cost to the environment, as these juggernauts burn their way through gallons of fuel an hour. But there’s only so much thinking and loitering about on sun loungers (in the absence of the sun) that a person can take, so we went back to our cabins, turned on the rubbishy TV, which only showed the P&O channel and the News, to find that Britain was on the verge of voting to get out of the EU.
Judging by the reaction of BBC commentators this was an event on a par with Armageddon. ‘Let’s go get another drink,’ the husband said.
And so our cruise passed in a very pleasant haze of brightly coloured cocktails; as many desserts as we could fit on one plate; the occasional bit of exercise, in the form of a gentle stroll round the walking deck, whilst other passengers power walked round, overtaking us 2 or 3 times, and attending a show every single night.
A four man vocal harmony group called The Octaves provided entertainment for two of those nights and boy were they good. I was entranced and won over. This could have been due to something I’m going to call the ‘cocktail effect’, along with a mild case of cabin fever, in that I’m pretty sure that four blokes could have come on stage and played the spoons, and I’d have found it all madly exciting, due to a nightly state of mild inebriation and the fact that I was imprisoned on the North Sea. Anyway, I spent a tenner on an Octaves CD and pointed at members of the group, grinning madly, whenever I saw them floating around the ship. At one point we found ourselves in a lift with two of the Octaves. I mouthed at the husband: ‘it’s them!’ and he asked ‘them’ if hanging around in lifts was what they did between shows.
In another lift a hefty Scots bloke asked the husband and sons if they’d seen the football? The husband had to briefly feign an interest in football before the lift doors mercifully opened at our floor. It was very like this:
The trip to Bruges was lovely but in searing hot weather. The highlight of the guided tour was not the historic medieval buildings or beautiful waterways, as you might think, but the appearance of an imperious cat as it stalked its way across a small village green. It then sat down gazing at us tourists in utter disdain. A line formed as the mad tourists took photo-ops of the star cat. The trip ended with the stocking up of Belgian chocolate. In a case of life imitating Facebook, it would appear that chocolate and cats really do rule the world.
The trip to Guernsey was cancelled due to tidal currents, the threat of wind (the husband said he was already suffering from the effects of wind due to a cruise diet) and the danger of boarding the lifeboats, since Ventura was too big to access Guernsey’s harbour. This begged the question that if it was actually dangerous to try and board a lifeboat in a slightly choppy sea, then what the hell happens in an emergency? The cancellation meant another day spent parked up at sea but the silver lining was we all watched Eddie the Eagle, mid-morning, in the ship’s theatre. I have to admit here that I cried almost the entire way through this film, and I was not alone, judging by the sympathetic ‘Aww’s’ and sniffles that regularly came from the middle-aged women behind me.
We were chucked off the boat four days later, at the impossibly early time of 8.30 am, but still managed to find the time to stuff a quick breakfast down our necks. On approaching the lift to the dining level I whinged: ‘last time we do this,’ and a bloke in a naval-type uniform called out from the stairway: ‘I can hide you away for two weeks if you want,’ and then laughed and ran off down the stairs.
Cruising usually gets a bad rap, and some of it is justified, but the thing is; I nearly took him up on the offer.