Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ship of Fools

The recent engine fire aboard the cruise ship Carnival Splendor, which left its 4,500 passengers and crew temporarily adrift off the coast of Mexico, rapidly became the most overblown media event in recent memory.

To hear tell, it ranked somewhere between the Titanic and the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald for sheer unmitigated human suffering.

Except that it didn't. Sure, the poor souls had to subsist on Spam and Pop Tarts washed down by free booze while the ship was towed back to port.

And a fire at sea is no trifling matter. But it became quickly apparent the worst result of the incident was inconvenience for the passengers and a public relations disaster for the cruise line.

The most daunting challenge passengers faced was the onslaught of reporters and the morbidly curious who descended on them like seagulls on a garbage scow when they disembarked in San Diego.

One traveler grumbled that he hadn't had a hot cup of coffee in four days. Another had her honeymoon interrupted. This got translated into "Cruise From Hell" in headlinese.

Most of the passenger comments went like this:

"Considering the situation, everyone was pretty well behaved. I think we all made lemonade out of lemons. What are you going to do?"

Carnival said the passengers will be fully refunded, awarded a free future voyage and receive reimbursement for transportation costs back home.

Seems generous enough. But it was a lesson the industry learned the hard way.

In 2006, a passenger revolt forced the Cunard cruise line to offer 2,500 passengers aboard its flagship Queen Mary 2 full refunds after the ship missed three scheduled ports of call. Originally, the company said it was willing to give only 50 percent refunds.

The QM2 brushed the side of the channel as it rounded Florida. The resulting damage caused the captain to reduce the ship's speed for the rest of the voyage. To make up for the lost time, the cruise line announced the ship would not make scheduled stops in Barbados, St. Kitts and Salvador, Brazil.

But irate passengers reportedly demanded full refunds, notified the media and threatened a sit-in and a class action suit. The company relented and said full refunds would be made.

All of the above lends support to my decision to forgo cruising as a recreational outlet.

Look, I'm an adventurous guy. I've traveled to faraway places with strange sounding names. And I know that at any given moment, thousands of cruisers are enjoying themselves bobbing along on the oceans of the world.

To them, I wish bon voyage.

I love my fellow man. But the idea of being cooped up on a massive floating mall/playground/nightclub/disco with thousands of people to experience a week of long lines and orchestrated fun doesn't sound like my idea of a good time.

Visiting a port of call as a member of an invading horde doesn't appeal to me.

Neither does dining at the same place and time every night with the retired couple from Des Moines who regale you with tales of his 30 years in the cement business.

Neither does having your tiny cabin as your only resource if you don't like the entertainment.

Ditto for rogue waves. And a norovirus outbreak. One wag called a cruise ship a "petri dish on the open seas."

Neither does giving my money to an outfit like Royal Caribbean, which last year ferried passengers to a private beach on the island of Haiti for an outing of fun and sun at the same time the residents of that country were digging out of the rubble following a massive earthquake and burying more than 50,000 of their citizens.

That same Royal Caribbean has now given birth to two monsters lyrically named Oasis of the Seas and the Allure of the Seas.

The Oasis displacement - the actual mass of the vessel - is estimated at approximately 100,000 tons, about the same as an American Nimitz class aircraft carrier.

Arthur Frommer, perhaps the best known travel writer in the United States, called the Oasis a symbol for the end of Western civilization. The gargantuan ship is really America for Americans who don't want to travel, he says.

"The sole explanation for a 6,000-passenger ship is that it is able to offer more entertainment and thus cater to more of those people who are unable to entertain themselves, those arrested personalities who rely on constant, massive, outside distractions to ward off depression," he wrote. "I'm talking about people who get fidgety if they have no nearby television set, who never read a maga

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