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Cruise Control

by on November 12, 2015

                                                                   Cruise Control

                                                                by Marco M. Pardi

                                          As always, your comments are appreciated.

“I discovered the secret of the sea in meditation upon the dewdrop.” Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) “Sayings”, Spiritual Sayings of Kahlil Gibran, 1962

Going by the numbers, many people float around on cruise ships.  Since 1970 the industry has grown 2,100%.  Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon; previous ocean voyaging was more for transportation to other countries for settling, trade or occasional land based vacation. Strong and undeniable archaeological and linguistic evidence shows Punic (pre-Roman Carthaginian) and Phoenician (the origins of the Carthaginians) presence throughout North and South America over two thousand years before Columbus.  And, they had worked out the shape and size of the Earth thousands of years before the Greek Eratosthenes approximated it (in stadia) in 246 B.C.E.

Analysis of language, specifically using lexico-statistical glottochronology, yields enormous information about cultural change.  Within my brief lifetime the term Ocean Liner has all but disappeared, replaced by Cruise Ship. My maternal grandmother made twenty five Atlantic crossings by ocean liner.  The number is uneven because she began in Liverpool, England where she was born and raised.  After that, all but the last two crossings were to visit her son and daughter, being raised and educated in Italian and Swiss boarding schools and eventually the Sorbonne in Paris.  One of those trips was interrupted by several years as she happened to be in Italy when the United States declared war on the Axis powers.  The last two crossings came in 1950 when we all moved back to Italy and were then confronted with the unexpected death of my maternal grandfather. She never once set foot on a cruise ship.

My paternal grandmother made three crossings that I know of.  Before her birth her family had moved from Edinburgh, Scotland to Dublin, Ireland.  For her debutante celebration she took the “Grand Tour of the Continent”, meeting and marrying my paternal grandfather, soon to be Chairman of the Economics Department, University of Rome.  In the early 1950’s she visited us in the U.S., sailing on the Andrea Doria, the Italian ocean liner which, in 1956 collided with the MS Stockholm and sank off the coast of Nantucket.

Interesting that it was a Swedish ship.  My first Atlantic crossing was on the MS Gripsholm, a Swedish ship taking passengers out of post war Italy to the U.S.  (Then) Captain James Jesus Angleton rushed my grandmother, mother, brother and me to the port of Ostia and saw us off, none of us knowing the relationship would endure until his death in 1987.

Crossing the Atlantic in December is not exactly deck chair weather.  And ocean liners of those days were not outfitted with anything like the entertainment amenities of today’s cruise ships.  One passed the time in (gasp!) conversation with fellow passengers.  But even that could be problematic; smallpox broke out on the ship, forcing us into a three week quarantine off the coast of New York.  One of my more memorable events was getting my vaccination from a gorgeous blonde, blue eyed Swedish nurse.  I had not known these creatures existed. A portent of things to come.

Through much of the 1980’s I SCUBA dived the southeast coast of Florida, the Keys, and the Caribbean.  One could distinguish jetsam from freighters versus cruise ships; freighters dumped ballast crude oil, sticking in lumps to any wetsuit in the area, and cruise ships dumped waste including plastic tampon applicators which washed up on beaches in their thousands, leaving a legacy of “beach whistles”.

During that same period I became aware one of our secretaries took almost weekly “gambling cruises” just beyond the limit where on-board gambling became legal.  But I doubt any ship listed The Poor House in its itinerary.  A girlfriend and I sometimes passed these gambling ships while sailing her 48′ motor yacht to the Bahamas.  Refueling that monster was formidable; watching her down a six pack (“to prevent seasickness”) before setting out at dawn more so.

Since then I’ve been on cruises on several lines in various parts of the world.  Twice (before 9/11) I got a tour of the bridge, getting a good look at the navigational gear.  Among his fleet of sailboats my brother has two trans-oceanic sailboats, one a steer by the stars classic and the other packing over $100,000 in navigation and communications equipment.  

I’ve long favored claims and archaeological, biological, and linguistic evidence for ocean voyaging of early modern man yet there is still resistance among many traditional anthropologists.  While we accept that Australia was inhabited by early man as long as 40,000 years ago, why do so many still resist the idea that much later humans sailed from SouthEast Asia to South America long before the now discredited Bering Strait Land Bridge of only 12,000 years ago?    

One impediment which has biased our perceptions is the simple fact that we rely so much on evidence in the form of stone tools.  Have you seen an ocean going vessel made of stone?  Didn’t think so.  As still in use today, SouthEast Asian people made rafts of bamboo and South Americans still make them of balsa and bamboo.  Neither leaves a trace in the archaeological record.

A great amount of literature, and speculation is devoted to Viking long ships.  Yet, little is popularly known of their means of navigation.  On one of several visits to the Viking long ship museum in Norway I saw the sunstones. Pieces of birefringent crystals (Iceland spar – calcite; or, cordierite – magnesium aluminum silicate) that detected polarized sunlight, they were used in the foggy and high latitudes where the sun was often hidden. They yielded the direction perpendicular to the sun.  Also little known, with the emphasis on Britain and travels further West, is one of the main sources of income for these murdering, raping plunderers: the slave trade.  Dublin, Ireland arose as a hub from which the long ships carried captives into and across the Mediterranean as far east as modern Lebanon, selling them as slaves. Lashed together in heaps on the open decks, these passengers would not anticipate a Carnival Cruise. 

Nonetheless, we have today a thriving industry in which the equation has been reversed; ships with over 4,000 passengers cruise the seas, serviced by crews approaching 1,000 or more, many living completely out of sight of the passengers and grouped in tiny quarters for as much as 10 months straight.  The center of most ships is given over to a grand atrium, partly accessed by sweeping staircases.  On a cruise some years ago, as I watched passengers milling in indecision over which of the several dining facilities to use again – and again, my eye caught a monstrous purple caterpillar, topped with red crowned segments, undulating down one of these staircases.  At first I was undecided on the symbolism; gastric reflex, or lower bowel effluent.  Looking more closely I saw it was a massive bolus of Red Hat Society ladies making their grand entrance, all looking for who was looking at them, unaware of their surroundings except as props for their debut. 

That particular ship was furnished in exquisite carved wood and paneled with impeccable renderings of the Pre-Raphaelite School, including Alma-Tadema. Yet, along inside decks resembling the human crush of Manhattan at lunch time as passengers anonymously cruised from lounge to restaurant to casino to phony art auction to bingo games to “theater” performances I sat and watched their eyes.  The amazing art reproductions may as well have been wall coverings from Home Depot. In seven days and nights I never once saw a person pause to appreciate the work.

While I’ve taken several cruises, much of my time has been spent at cruising altitude.  Of all the aircraft, my favorite is the Gulfstream.  Take-off and climb is reminiscent of a B-58 Hustler, and the interior is far more comfortable with low set curving couches and coffee tables.  On an emergency 02:00 flight to Virginia (why do emergencies happen between 01:00 and 04:00?  Why not, say, after a light lunch?) I had settled back onto a couch as the flight attendant, straight from Central Casting, brought me coffee.  Her heel caught the carpet and she dumped steaming coffee into my lap.  Before I could say much she whipped out a Club soda, poured it in my lap and was on her knees between my thighs rubbing a towel vigorously to remove the external stain, oblivious to or perhaps encouraged by what was happening on the inside.  My fellow travelers were torn between the vision of her devoted attention to the stain and her sculpted bum, waggling like a compact travel trailer with a suddenly flat tire.  Cruise control, I reminded myself.

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  1. Gary permalink

    “A girlfriend and I sometimes passed these gambling ships while sailing her 48′ motor yacht to the Bahamas. Refueling that monster was formidable; watching her down a six pack (“to prevent seasickness”) before setting out at dawn more so.”

    This left me a little bit confused. I could not decide whether the “monster” was the gambling ship or the 48 foot motor yacht. Then when I got to the 6 pack part I concluded it was the girlfriend.

    Vikings at least used instruments, but the voyages of Polynesians are still mysterious. Celestial at night on clear nights for sure, but the rest of the unnerving long voyages seemed to be by some intuition.


  2. Thanks, Gary. Indeed, the Polynesian navigation is still a mystery, and one I would not try to duplicate.

    The motor yacht was the monster, but the girlfriend had her moments. She died SCUBA diving off Honduras.


  3. Pam Wedding permalink

    You are funny!

    Enjoyed the purple caterpillar image….and your mile-high coffee club experience! 😆

    What does birefringent mean? Rhetorical question…i’ll look it up now.

    Welcome home!

    Sent from my iPad



    • Thank you, Pam. I find fun where I can, often unexpected. Try Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia – I keep mine by my computer. And, it’s fun reading..


  4. I recall you telling me about your first sea voyage back in the day; it must have been stressful and, at times, frightening for a child, but what an adventure! My only adventures with “cruising” was a day trip on the Rhine while living in Germany. I remember the scenery, but I also remember seeing people who stayed inside the whole time; what a waste!

    Travelling is as much about the journey as the destination, but I think people somehow forget to pay attention to the environment as they go from one place to another. God (or the devil) is in the details. I always love your descriptive words, often so precise that I imagine myself seeing what you saw; details are not lost on you. Thank you for sharing. Rose


  5. Thank you, Rose. I share your dismay at people who see cruise ships as nothing more than floating hotels. I have wondered about those river cruises through Europe. With so fewer people aboard one would expect an opportunity to socialize and to encourage discussion of what one is experiencing. But, I suspect I would be disappointed in that regard.


  6. Similar to hiking or gardening (previously called ‘going to the store’ or ‘eating’).
    “In seven days and nights I never once saw a person pause to appreciate the work” – this can be extended to include “friends, neighbors, family, a chocolate bar, etc.” As an American, I’m guilty of this.


    • Thanks, Ellie. We have really become wrapped up in ourselves. Of course, at sea there is no one with their nose in their I-Phone. Marco


  7. Michael E. Stamm permalink

    Delightful, as always; I’ve always wondered about those week-long traverses of the Atlantic which were pretty well passe’ by the time I was old enough to think about them as a possible reality. Dad was in the Merchant Marine and the Navy and got plenty of sea time; the most I’ve done is the big ferry from Bremerton to Seattle and a huge hydroplane from Hong Kong to Macau and back. The latter was more like riding on a train than on the water. (Just as well; I get seasick in smaller vessels.)


    • Thanks, Mike. I’m certain our readers would very much like to read your impressions of Hong Kong and Macau. Did you fly into the old airport, the one which requires the plane to dive into a tight canyon of apartment buildings?

      Please do tell us your impressions. marco


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