“A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned…for he will be going out on a day he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.” From The Aran Islands by John Milington Synge.
People whose lives aren’t regulated daily by the sea have a different set of expectations when it comes to going on a ‘cruise.’
We’ve been struck by the number of articles in the news for the last few days about the cruise ship that was stranded in the Gulf of Mexico after a fire in the engine room. Living as we do aboard a small sailing yacht in the eastern Caribbean, we see cruise ships every day. We’ve never taken a cruise nor even been to sea aboard anything much over 40 feet long; we’re in awe of the behemoths that approach 1,000 feet in length and carry 5,000 passengers and crew. When we encounter one in the open ocean, especially on a lonely, stormy night, we try to imagine what life must be like for the people aboard.
Certainly, most of them are oblivious to the details of seafaring as we know them. They aren’t dependent on the wind to move them along, and they probably don’t ever get slapped in the face by a confused flying fish. The people we know who take cruises liken the big ships to floating resorts; almost everything they might want while on holiday is at hand without leaving the ship. Each morning, they awaken to the opportunity to spend a few hours exploring an exotic new place. We have often thought of how dramatically different that experience is from our own cruising; people tell us that they are only conscious of being at sea if they choose to be, and we’ve discovered that most of them have only a vague notion of the geography they are traversing.
From the news accounts of passengers’ reactions to the recent ‘disaster,’ it’s clear that the cruise lines have attracted large numbers of customers who have but little interest in seafaring. This was true of ships’ passengers historically, until air travel became so common during the mid 20th century. Then people only went to sea for the experience -- not because they needed to travel across the ocean. Historically, though, people who traveled on ocean liners were perhaps better acquainted with the risk of going to sea than today’s cruise ship patrons are. Sea travel is much less a part of the common experience these days, but the cruise ship industry has managed to leverage the romance of the era of ocean liners to attract an entirely different kind of customer. They’re selling ‘the cruise’ as a safe, all-inclusive holiday at a bargain price.
When my wife and I set sail for a few days out of sight of land, our expectation is that we will be left completely to our own devices to deal with whatever happens. When you are hundreds of miles from land and something breaks, you either fix it or do without it. There’s no option of calling someone to fix it. Abandoning ship in circumstances like that is dangerous, even if another vessel happens to be nearby; it’s an absolute last resort – not something to be undertaken because of discomfort. That is even more so when you consider the logistics of moving thousands of people from one vessel to another when both vessels are in constant motion relative to one another. In the absence of a clear, immediate threat to life, the safest option is usually to remain with a disabled vessel until help arrives, even though it may be days in coming.
Typically, the reaction of our society to the ill-fated cruise, at least as reflected in the news media, is that we need to investigate, litigate, find fault, punish, legislate, and regulate to keep this from happening again. We should be grateful that our lives are so sheltered that five days at sea without modern conveniences is viewed as a disaster. The passengers had a memorable adventure when they were expecting prepackaged, guaranteed-to-be safe amusement, but at least nobody got ‘drownded.’