I love cruising and I think I’ve taken 25 cruises. For me it was always the only way I could ever really relax and I love being at sea. I sleep like a baby and always get off the boat feeling rested. The first cruise I ever took was in 1993 on the QE2 from New York to Southampton. I was traveling first class and really looking forward to it, but, almost as soon as the ship set off, I started to have second thoughts. I don’t know why but it took me a full day to settle down, and from then on I was hooked.
The QE2 was an old ship, very elegant and refined and was full of wealthy, sophisticated passengers. I fitted right in; yeah, right. We were assigned to a table in the dining room. That was our table and we had the same dining companions for the entire crossing There were 2 middle aged men at the table. One was from Scotland and was very effeminate and more than a little pompous. His traveling companion was a University Professor from the mid-west and who was constantly complaining about his food allergies. Everything brought him out in hives, which I didn’t understand as I never saw a single bee on board.
After a couple of days of this, I was getting a little bit bored with their company, and requested a change of table only to be told No. That evening, one of the two mentioned that they were amazed at how often lobster was being served. I jumped right in saying that the ship had a huge lobster tank down on one of the lower levels. They exclaimed in amazement, and I proceeded to give them very detailed instruction on how to find it. I told them that the area was off-limits to passengers, so they couldn’t ask any of the crew they saw for directions. They were not happy with me at dinner the next evening having spent 5 hours hunting for the lobster tank. Of course, I insisted that it was there and they hadn’t been following my directions.
During the day, I would wander the ship, sit down with a book or just watch the waves. I became quite friendly with the young couple who taught ballroom dancing. I had noticed that every morning they were out trying to persuade the passengers to buy raffle tickets to guess the distance that the ship would have travelled during the previous 24 hours. Over coffee, I asked how many tickets they usually sold and they told me between 65 and 75 $1 tickets. “You’re kidding me.”, I said. “You’ve got 1200 very wealthy people on the ship and you can only sell 65 to 75 tickets.” They told me that nobody wanted to buy them. “Tell you what,” I said. “Tomorrow, I’ll go and sell the tickets for you. I can do better than that.” They agreed but were very doubtful that I’d be able to do any better.
They met me at 10am to give me the tickets and the change allowance and off I went, returning two hours later with my haul, which was stuffed in my pockets. I came up with a shamefaced expression. “Hah,” they said in unison. “We told you it was difficult!” I handed the takings over and their jaws dropped. “How many tickets did you sell?” “1675”, I replied. “But how?”, they stammered.
I explained to them that they were making a fundamental mistake in their approach. They would ask people if they wanted to buy a ticket, and almost everybody said No. I told them that I went and told the passengers that I was raising money for a good cause (the Seamen’s Benefit Fund), and could they help out. If they bought one, I cajoled them into buying 5 and if they bought 5, I upped the ante to 25. I had fun with people, especially those wearing expensive watches, and sold a lot of tickets. Apparently the Captain almost fell off his chair when they handed him the days takings.
On the 4th day, we hit a massive storm, which, in the Atlantic, are very dramatic with massive waves and the ship rocking violently. Many, many people were very seasick, but not me. I was absolutely fine and enjoyed every minute of it. The next morning, the worst of the storm had passed and people were up getting breakfast in the buffet. I was sitting at my table in the corner, and felt the beginnings of a big wave. I quickly braced myself and held on tight. Seconds later, the wave hit and the ship cantilevered quite vertically. Everything hit the floor, food, drinks and quite a few passengers, several of whom slid down the highly polished floors and out the other end of the room. I shouldn’t have laughed but it was very funny.
The sea took revenge on me later that day. I was in the lounge having coffee. The sea was very calm. The next second I had a sudden attack of seasickness. I upped and ran for my cabin, getting there just in time to bring up everything that was in my stomach. Along with that, I had a headache from hell and I felt like I was dying. When I looked in the mirror, my skin had turned an unpleasant shade of green. That was the one and only time in my life that I’ve been seasick, and believe me, once is enough.
Arriving in Southampton, I was met by my parents who had driven down. They asked when I was going back and I told them that I was flying to New York on Concorde a week later. I’m sure they wondered where all the money was coming from, but were too polite to ask and I didn’t volunteer any information, and I’m not going to do that now either.
We got to Heathrow just in time to see Concorde taking off. I immediately checked my ticket. I was on time on the right day. When we got to check-in, I presented my ticket only to be told, with profuse apologies that the time had been printed wrong. I didn’t get annoyed or upset; I never do, but told them I had a connecting flight to Los Angeles and asked what were they going to do to resolve the mistake. They booked me on the next Concorde, leaving 4 hours later and said they would arrange for me to be the 1st person off when we landed at JFK (I think it was), and that they would rush me to LaGuardia so I could catch my connecting flight. In the meantime, we were to wait in the Executive passenger lounge where all our food and drinks would be complimentary. We made the most of that.
Eventually, I boarded Concorde and the plane took off. While the Concorde was an incredible feat of engineering, and watching it come into land was one of the most spectacular sights, flying in it was a big disappointment as it was very cramped, especially for somebody of my height, and uncomfortable. I didn’t enjoy the flight and the food itself was mediocre. Also while the flight is supersonic and took 3 hours and 15 minutes from London to New York, some 3 hours quicker than a regular flight, getting through customs and immigration was anything but supersonic.
The moment I cleared, I saw a man standing with my name on a card. He quickly whisked me through the airport and onto a waiting helicopter to take me to La Guardia for my connecting flight. We made good time, but not good enough as my plane was taking off as we landed. I then had to spend a night at a hotel in Newark which was not an experience I’d recommend.
I took another trans-Atlantic cruise 6 months later on a Cunard ship called the Sagafjiord. This time, I was going both ways and would only be in Southhampton for a few hours, and, in fact, I didn’t even get off the boat. While it was a very nice ship, the cruise itself was not. It seemed that the vast majority of the passengers were old, very cranky and went to bed immediately after dinner. By 9pm, the entire ship was like a ghost town, and I spent my evenings in the crew bar playing cards and dice.
I said the passengers were very cranky. One afternoon I was walking through the ship and saw an elderly couple playing Scrabble a game I love. I went over and watched for a few minutes, then very politely asked if I could join in the next game. “No”, they both snapped in unison. To annoy them, I stood and watched the next 3 games, and, to really annoy them, I pointed out bad moves they had made. I bet they wished they had just said “yes”.
It was a few years before I cruised again; this time traveling with a girlfriend, Alisen, who I later married. The cruise was on Carnival, a low budget line, and went out of Los Angeles down to Mexico. It was an absolute disaster. On the 2nd day, I got a very painful gum infection. Two days later, I dislocated my shoulder somehow and Alisen had to pull hard to get it back into the socket, and boy, does that hurt. On the last night I got food poisoning and had to disembark all the while feeling like death warmed over. The final straw was when we got to the airport only to discover that Carnival had forgotten to book us on the flight. We had to wait almost 5 hours before they could get us on another flight. Carnivals’ customer service was as bad as their cruise, and I’ll never take another cruise with them.
Between 1991 and 1993, I was running a huge art gallery in Las Vegas. Tom Barnes, one of the 3 owners and a very close friend, was supplying art to a company in Florida that was running art auctions at sea. When the gallery sold, I decided that I would become an art auctioneer at sea and so I did. Another close friend, Tommy Varzos, was in charge of that operation so it was no problem to get hired, and a week later I was boarding a Celebrity Cruises ship to spend 10 weeks at sea. There were 3 of us trainees, Matt, Jackie an myself. Matt was one of these hysterically funny people and Jackie was great fun. Anyway we went through our training during the day, and at night, we would help Tommy with the auctions.
Finally, Tommy pronounced us ready to do our first auctions. He would be standing in the wings but we were running the show. I went 3rd. My 1st auction was quite memorable. The crowd I had was, for all intents and purposes, dead. They were sitting in chairs but barely breathing and I couldn’t get anybody to bid on anything no matter how hard I tried. The 7th piece that came up was this absolutely appalling print by somebody who no right to call themselves an artist.
After introducing the piece, I started the auction. “Who’s going to give me $5 for this wonderful pieces of art; looking for $5, who’s going to give me 4. Nobody’s going to give me 4, who’s going to give me 3?” Not a hand went up, not a smile was cracked. I moved with the picture a little down the edge of the room. “Ladies and gentleman. Please do me a small favor. Would everybody in the room who hates this picture raise your hand? Go on, I promise not to hold it against you or mock or anything. I just want to know. Please.”
Every hand in the room went up. “Fine,” I said, opening the door and throwing the picture overboard. There was a gasp from the audience. “Tommy,” I yelled out. “Mark that one down as lost at sea!” The room erupted in laughter. Two more pieces were lost at sea that night, but the auction was incredibly successful, and profitable. That was my first experience in turning a crowd around from looky-loos to buyers, and I did something unexpected every night. One time I made a comment about Tommy’s tie which was pretty flamboyant. The crowd loved the tie, so I took it from his neck and sold it to the highest bidder while Tommy looked on in mock horror. Another time, I had him wear an absolutely hideous tie and cut it half with a pair of scissors I just happened to have in my back pocket. I had fun with the audiences, they had fun with me and we sold a lot of art. It was great.
One evening, the four of us were walking back to our cabins after another successful auction when Matt spotted a lipstick that somebody had dropped. Without breaking stride, he leant down, picked it up, opened it and applied a very bright red lop color to his lips. He couldn’t have put in on more accurately if he been using a mirror. As you can imagine we had hysterics.
That ten weeks was one of the best times of my life, but I had realized that it wasn’t something I wanted to do long term, and left the boat to return to Las Vegas and carry on with computer programming. A year later, one Friday morning my phone rang. It was Tommy. “Mike, can you do me a favor?” “Sure,” I said. “We’ve got a 10 day cruise going out of Anchorage (Alaska) tomorrow and the auctioneer has been rushed to hospital with appendicitis. Can you fly up today and handle the auctions?” I said it was no problem, and within an hour was at the airport boarding a non-stop flight to Anchorage.
The ship was due to dock at 2am, so I had to hang around until then but the afternoon and evening passed quickly. At just after 2, I went on board and to my cabin. The extraordinary thing I remember is that it was broad daylight at 2.30am and at 3am, it immediately went completely dark. It was as if somebody had flipped a switch. Amazing.
In my cabin was a beautifully printed list of the passengers, names, where they came from, etc. As I was thumbing through it the next morning, I saw a couple whose names I immediately recognized, Vic and Pamela Mentzel from Beaconsfield in the Uk. I knew them very well as Vic’s daughter, Trisha and I had dated for quite a long time. I had a complimentary bottle of Champagne in my cabin so thought that I would surprise them with it.
A few minutes later, I was knocking on their door. Pamela answered it without looking to see who it was. All she saw was the bottle of Champagne I was holding. “Oh we’ve already got our Champagne, thank you,” she said. “I replied “I know that, Pamela, but I thought you might like another.” It was only then she looked up. The look of surprise on her face was priceless. Vic was also delighted to see me and we had a lot of fun on the cruise. It was a bust as far as selling art but seeing Alaska was spectacular, specially the wildlife. Seeing a humpback while surfacing and then diving 50 yards away is an incredible sight as was seeing hundreds of sea otters floating on their backs happy with the world.The most spectacular sight of all though was coming through the Puget Sound on the way into Vancouver and see a pod of about 30 killer whales (Orcas) was absolutely breathtaking.
While I was living in Las Vegas, Mum would come out every other year for a 3 week vacation, often over the Christmas period. One of those years, I arranged for her to fly into Los Angeles instead of Las Vegas. She wanted to know why but I wouldn’t tell her anything other than I had a surprise planned. She was a very good sport and didn’t press me on it. “So what are we doing in Los Angeles?” she asked once we had got to our hotel. “We’re going on a 7 day cruise down to Mexico.” It was one of the few times I had seen her speechless. I had booked us on a Royal Caribbean cruise out of Long Beach. Mum had never been on a cruise so she was quite excited. When she saw the ‘boat’, she couldn’t believe the size of it, and she loved every minute of the cruise.
We were seated with a very nice group of people at a table for 8. One meal, as Mum told me later, one of the ladies asked if I was married. Mum laughed and said. “No, he travels all over the world, does what he wants to, when he want to. Why would he ruin that by getting married!” Undeterred the woman asked me the same question and, without any prompting or collusion, I gave her almost exactly the same answer.
Mum and I were each others best friends. We had the same wicked sense of humor, were both always upbeat and positive, and we laughed all the time. The cruise was no exception. The most joy I got from the cruise, though, was seeing how much fun she had, and it was worth every penny.
The last cruise I took was 2 years ago (2020) with Karen, her first cruise. In fact, it was her first trip outside the US. It was with Norwegian Cruise Line, and it was not a good experience. The first thing that put us off is that we had brought some bottles of wine to drink in our cabin. They charged us $15 per bottle to bring an $8 bottle of wine. I wouldn’t have minded that fee if they were serving it to us in the dining room but it was just to bring it on board.
There were a number of other irritations and frustrations but the worst was on the last day but one, Karen woke up in incredible pain. She could hardly move. I took her to the medical center where it was going to be $187 to see a doctor. I didn’t mind that at all. What I did mind is that the form she signed said that they could run any tests they wanted, and they did, hitting me with a bill of $2350, and charging that amount immediately to my bank card. I got them to reverse that charge and agreed to pay the money when we got back from the cruise. Then followed several weeks of tense phone calls. Finally I agreed to pay it but at $25 per month. The girl said that was ridiculous to which I replied that it was no more ridiculous than them charging $2350 without any consultation or warning. (I finally settled with them for $1100 at $100 per month and will never get on another of their ships. I did tell them that we didn’t have to worry about prates at sea as they were working in NCLs Medical Centers.
That trip killed my enthusiasm for cruising, and I thought it would probably be my last. With COVID, and its variants, running wild, plus numerous horror stories about outbreaks on board and passengers being restricted to their cabins, I will never take another cruise. I’m not actually sure that the cruise industry can survive.
I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed reading or listening to this chapter as much as I’ve enjoyed writing and recording it.
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