Nervous on a cruise ship?

Far left: Odysseus’ dilemma crossing the Strait of Messina. Left: Cruisers on the Nieuw Amsterdam in the strait take it all in stride.


Friends know that Sara and I often travel on and write about cruise ships, and occasionally we’re asked if we are at all nervous while doing this job.

For three days on the Queen Elizabeth 2 in the fall of 1986, we probably should have been concerned. Instead, we rolled with the punches as that mighty vessel fought through a gale and heavy seas with a broken stabilizer. That’s another story — and probably a good one for a later edition of (this blog).

Last year, I might have been a little apprehensive as my ship, the 86,000-ton Nieuw Amsterdam aproached the Strait of Messina. That’s the narrow strip of water between the toe of Italy’s boot and the large Mafia-legendary island of Sicily.

That narrow gap was where Odysseus, that ancient mariner of the Mediterranean, was forced to navigate carefully between Scylla and Charybdis. If you remember your Odyssey, Scylla was a six-headed creature who occupied a cliff on one side of the two-mile-wide channel and Charybdis was a monstrous whirlpool stirring up trouble along the opposite bank.

According to Homer, Odysseus’ ship managed to skirt Charybdis and then scoot through the channel intact.  Never mind that he lost a half-dozen members of his crew in the process — one sailor each to feed the six mouths of Scylla.

Our own passage through the strait was smooth and uneventful. No monster appeared, and although there is indeed a large whirlpool still indicated on modern sea charts, the stately flagship of the Holland-America Line was up to the task.

All of our 2000 passengers and 1000 crew members, and the beautiful, black-hulled ship itself, survived intact.


  1. Emma Krasov says:

    I love the rich story you put in such a concise format, Bob.
    Little personal details like the ones about your head photo are priceless.

    Emma Krasov,
    Art and Entertain Me

  2. Michele Burgess Although I hadn’t met you yet, that 1986 voyage (New York to London) on the QE II with the broken stabilizer was quite the adventure. I was a brand new SATW member at my first annual conference. Many seasick people missed seminars, meetings…, and meals. Accidents were rampant due to the ship rolling so drastically: nearly every perfume bottle in Harrod’s broken one night (whew!); a shattered ice sculpture at the farewell party; the indoor swimming pool emptied first on people sitting nearby, then on purpose; Sergio Franchi singing, then running across the floor and landing in an audience member’s lap; wet tablecloths in the dining room so the dinnerware didn’t slide into people’s laps (and sometimes it did anyway); a waiter dropping flaming cherries jubilee on the dining room floor and setting the carpet on fire; someone not thinking it through when they put speaker James Michener onstage in a comfy chair with castors, so that when the ship rolled his wife had to grab the arm of his chair to keep him from rolling away; Rich Steck putting his mattress on the floor to keep from falling out of bed; the window of my cabin on the fifth floor going underwater when the ship rolled. My, what an introduction to SATW conferences….

  3. I was on that QE2 crossing, s the ship’s final crossing under steam before going to a shipyard in, I believe, Bremerhafen to be refitted with electro-diesel engines, so there was a group of ocean liner fans as well as SATWers. IMO, this ship, which was after all built to cross the North Atlantic year-round and not to cruise tranquil waters, was not at all suited to heavy seas. I remember waiters wetting down tablecloths so that the crockery wouldn’t off (it did anyway), clean dishes sliding back and forth on stainless steel shelves (every diner had dish wells with springs into which clean plates and cup racks were stacked but the QE2 had cabinets) and the closet doors and the drawers in the nightstand opening and slamming shut every time the ship pitched. I don’t get seasick, but there weren’t a lot of us who were up and about until that Force 9 gale subsided.

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