November 17, 2015

Freedom B2B October 11 & 18, 2015

Boarding was non eventful at Port Canaveral. Before sailing there is the usual muster drill. Just as the announcements were being made that the drill would be in 15 minutes, the clouds opened up and the rain came down in buckets. I was on the channel side of the ship, and the rain was so heavy I could not see the shore a few hundred feet away.

Fortunately at the conclusion of the drill we were permitted to pass thru the dining room and avoided having to walk in the rain. Many people standing close to the railings got wet.

For dinner I was seated at a window table with four delightful table mates, and we were blessed with one of the brightest double rainbows I have ever seen. Of course I didn't have a camera with me. You would think with my professional photo lab background I should know better than most that a picture is worth a thousand words. Another habit I need to change if I am going to make blog writing successful.

Our table enjoyed each others company so much, and our waiter and assistant waiter were so good that we decided to dine together every night even though we had initially booked "my time dining".

Before and after dinner I meet some passengers that are neighbors at home. Of course I never see them there, I need to be on a cruise ship to see them.

There are about about 200 Diamond, 100 Diamond plus and a handful of Pinnacle Loyalty Club members, a very typical and manageable number. Several passengers have been here for several weeks and will be among the 60 passengers doing back to back cruises next week as well.

Most of the staff is unchanged from a month ago. Well the important staff anyway. The servers in the Diamond and Concierge lounge and most of the cabin stewards and dining room staff. The cruise director is still on board, and the captain, well I'm not sure except to say I know we have one.

Most importantly Kelly is still at the piano keys. I have known Kelly and his wife Ann for a number of years. Kelly plays the same rotation every week, but not exactly the same. He will do tributes to The Beatles, Elton John, Neil Diamond, and of course Jimmy Buffet, along with many piano bar favorites. While the themes may repeat the music is always changing to please the crowd. Just a few weeks ago Kelly celebrated his 5th year with Royal, and as always with Ann in the audience.

If you haven't guessed, on any ship that has a piano bar, that is often where you will find me in the late evening.

Despite my intentions to get off the ship more often, my feeble efforts were easily thwarted this cruise. The Weather forecast for Grand Cayman was wind and rain. I made my decision to stay on the ship. The weather actually turned out pretty nice. A few people got caught in some rain but for the most part the day was good. A passenger was injured just before sailing and needed to be taken ashore for medical treatment. Our sailing was delayed about an hour and a half, time that was made up en-route to our next port.

A group of us make plans to meet at a local bar in Cozumel for happy hour. Not what I often do, but an excuse to get off the ship with a mission entices me to make the commitment. After we tie up and it is nearing time to think about disembarking, the heavens open up with high winds and heavy rains. I'm not usually one to back out, but there is no way I'm going out in this weather just to get a beer at a local hangout, even if it is happy hour at 1:00 PM.

The rain and wind howls all day. Some of the cabins that were added during the last refurbishment are flooded. We hear this is a common occurrence due to an engineering oversight that can't be addressed until the ship is in dry-dock again.

Many of you are probably aware that there was a fire on the Freedom several months ago. Several passengers that were on The Freedom that week have nothing but praise for the officers, and crew in handling the situation. A sharp contrast to what has been reported on other cruise lines. While an official report hasn't been released it is assumed by most that the fire started in the area where exhaust scrubbers are being installed. Work that continues everyday. This has resulted in portions of deck 14 outside being closed, and with the card room on deck 14 being converted into a temporary construction office.

As we head back to port Canaveral we hear an announcement from the captain that the ship will be taking a sharp 180 degree turn. A makeshift raft with a number of people on board has been spotted and the US Coast Guard has requested The Freedom to rescue the passengers. A small boat is launched, and over the course of several trips, 7 Cuban refugees are brought on board. They have been at sea for 10 or 11 days in an attempt to reach mainland USA.

They all are checked out by the medical staff and given food, water, and clothes. Several hours later the refugees are transferred to a Coast Guard boat to be returned to Cuba. Not happy to have failed in their attempt for freedom, but very greatful to be rescued and alive after their ordeal at sea.

I really can't count this as "getting off the ship", but in Port Canaveral all the passengers doing back to back disembark, show a customs agent our passports and declarations forms, and then after a brief wait board the ship again. Many of us are in the same cabin, and they are ready when we board the ship, several hours before the cabins for new passengers.

The cruise line has lunch for us in the dining room. A special menu to order from, and most importantly only about 50 people. No fighting the crowds in the buffet as most passengers have to do while waiting for their rooms to be ready.

Our next scheduled stop is Royal Caribbean's private island of Coco Cay. This is a small island and passengers have to tender from the ship. Well that is how it works sometimes. As we approach the general vicinity, the winds are blowing at 50 to 60 miles per hour as they have been all night and the seas are running 20 feet or more. No way are we going to stop. Actually this happens quite often. I knew a lady several years ago that had been on many cruises, and in about 15 attempts she never made it to Coco Cay, the seas were always too rough. Despite all the advanced ship designs we are still at the mercy of weather, the same as the early explorers hundreds of years ago.

All outside areas were closed for most of Monday. Walking outside would be impossible. The strong winds broke one of the revolving doors leading to deck 11, and water sloshed out of the pools more from the winds than from movement of the ship.

One of the advantages of large ships like The Freedom is that she rides very nice in rough water. At most the pitch and roll of the ship is just a few degrees. Many passengers don't even feel it, but of course there are some passengers that find the ship movement bothersome when we are still tied up to the dock.

This week we have over 500 Diamond level passengers and the Diamond Lounge is impossible to get into. Fortunately I also have the option of the Concierge Lounge where Arnie, one of the servers, takes excellent care of the guests. We missed her Monday becaue she was too sea sick to work, but she returns to duty Tuesday. Very rarely do you hear of a crew member getting sea sick.

Arnie is a seasoned employee, having completed numerous 6 to 9 month contracts. Because of all the new ships coming into service, RC has been adding many new employees, and the HR manager tells me that he has over 500 crew members on the ship that are in their first contract. An unusually high number and I am sure a big challenge for management.

As we head south, the seas calm down and the weather is hot but nice. While in St. Thomas I spend the day in or around the pool. Unlike many passengers I do my best to stay out of the sun. The UV index is very high on sunny days in the Caribbean.

It is getting near the end of the 2 weeks and I haven't been off the ship except to see the customs agent. I decide to take a shore excursion in St Marten. I choose one that goes to areas I haven't been to in recent memory. (Of couse recent memory may only be a few weeks.) My tour meets on the pier as soon as we dock. I wait with 30 or 40 other passengers when we are approached by a representative from the tour operator. There is some sort of unrest on the French side of the island and the demonstrators have blocked all the roads. He offers us the choice of a canceling the tour or taking a modified tour that will stay on the Dutch side. I elect the modified tour and we are driven around parts of the island that tourists are never taken to, and probably shouldn't be.

Just as the ship is leaving port I head to the lounge and see Kay and John. They took a cab to the French side before the roads were blocked. When they attempted to return to the ship no drivers would take them. After they met up with a younger couple with the same problem, they devised a plan. They made up a story of the woman being pregnant and needing immediate medical attention from the ship's doctor. Finding a sympathetic driver they headed for the ship. Not being able to get past the road blocks, the driver called a buddy on the Dutch side and the four passengers walked a half mile or so around the road blocks and found the "buddy" waiting to take them to the ship. They made it back with only minutes to spare. I never learned if the two drivers involved were from the Dutch or French side, nor what the demonstration was all about, but with 4 ships and probably over 10,000 tourists in port, the financial impact was not trivial.

Unfortunately I expect several others were not so fortunate in getting back to the ship. Several passengers were repeatedly paged as we prepared to cast off. A strong indication that the ship has no record of them returning to the ship.

The rest of the voyage is uneventful and I reluctantly disembark and return to reality. I did take notes for this post while on the ship, but posted it from home. The next time I am at sea, I will post to the blog from the ship. Well that is the plan anyway.

November 09, 2015

Curacao and Aruba on The Sunshine

Curacao has become my favorite port in the Caribbean, and I haven't been there in many months. The people are very nice, the city is clean, and the architecture is visually appealing. A blue arched bridge crosses high above the water. Buildings are brightly painted a rainbow of colors, merchants from Venezuela bring fish and produce to the boat market on the edge of the downtown area, and of course the floating swing bridge is unique in the Caribbean.

So off I go. I am settled in to a deck chair 5 hours before sailing, but preoccupied with the world cruise I just booked 2 days ago. How can I make best use of the next few hours while I still have cell service thru land based cell towers.

First I secure travel insurance. The company my travel agent has suggested waives any exclusion of pre-existing medical conditions providing the policy is secured within a certain time frame after booking, and providing the passenger is able to travel at the time the policy is purchased. What better way to prove I am fit to travel than being on another cruise. I secure my travel insurance.

Despite being officially retired I manufacture a small electrical assembly for a friend. Since I will not be able to produce any for a number of months I need to deliver enough inventory by December. Several messages back and forth to Bob, and I ask him to forecast his needs for 8 months and place orders by October 19th. Another of hundreds of details taken care of.

Curacao is about 1500 hundred miles from Port Canaveral, so I will have lots of sea day time. I scour the ship looking for a quiet place to to do some planning. At the back of the upper balcony of the theater I find a nice comfortable location and settle in to work on some "to do" lists.

It is easy to pack for 7 or 14 days, I have done it so many times I don't even think about it. But packing for 115 days is going to be different. And besides I just can't run to the local store if I forget something. I can't imagine 4 months with only the 1 pair of socks I was wearing when I boarded the ship.

I do regress for a moment, yes I did meet a passenger a few years ago that managed to leave home without any additional clothes. His wife packed for herself, and he thought she was packing for him also, but wasn't. Yes, this is a true story.

Just after I get settled in, Paul the head of sound and lighting approaches me. He tells me that he is supposed to ask everyone to leave the area as they need to repair some overhead equipment. He recognizes that I am no where near where he needs to work and offers a proposal. If I don't see him or his staff, he will not see me and I can stay where I am. I thought that was very generous and went back to my laptop and the packing list.

I realize that cruising for me is going to change and I need to learn some new habits. I have become so engrained with just staying on the ship, I don't even think about where we are. That needs to change, and this is probably a good a time as any. So I decide to get off the ship at every port. It was really OK and I adapted to the change quite easily. The only frustration was that the floating swing bridge was closed for maintenance so I had to take the ferry to get across the harbor.

Several days later I find myself in the back of the theater again with my laptop working on some model railroad electrical designs for Bill C. when Paul, the tech guy, comes in. He stops and we chat, and then he informs me that he needs to work on calibrating all the spotlights. Normally he would do this in a dark theater, but he has left one light on directly over where I am seated and wants to make sure that is enough light so I can continue working on my computer. Maybe he thought I was a spy from the home office, I'm not sure, but just thanked him and told him the lighting was perfect.

As is the case on nearly every ship I am on, I run into passengers that I have met on a previous cruise. This time was no exception. Dick is retired from the ownership of several businesses including several marinas, a large charter boat operation, and a yacht manufacturing company. Each afternoon we solve a few of the world problems.

The 8 days fly by, and I am soon driving back home.

Home for a week

I arrive home and go thru the usual routines of unpacking, laundry, looking at the pile of mail and scanning the hundreds of emails that have accumulated. Now its time to do some serious homework. I quickly discover that there are 2 world cruises leaving in January of 2016. One being offered by Princess, the other by Holland America. They both leave in January, have similar itineraries, and are 111 and 115 days in length respectively.

Why does there have to be more than once choice? I fire off an email to Kent, my travel agent, telling him that I might be interested in one of the 2 cruises and to please give me a call. There may not even be any cabins available. It is already past the date for final payment. If there is no space, I don't even need to consider all the other issues.

Next I start thinking about some of the logistics and how to handle them. What is the procedure for getting more than 90 days worth of medications? What countries require visas? Will I find the weather tolerable? Will may age and medical history make travel insurance prohibitively expensive? None of my credit cards have chip technology yet, but much of the rest of the world switched several years ago and many merchants no longer take cards that aren't chip equipped. These are all potentially show stopper issues.

I review my Medicare insurance coverage, call my prescription drug insurance carrier, and talk with my credit card issuers. I research the process for getting visas. I review all the accounts I can't set up for automatic payment. It is quickly confirmed for me that all of these issues are relatively easy to address, it just is going to take time and the paying attention to details. Yes time, time is going to be the challenge.

I begin researching the differences and the advantages of each cruise line and ship. Historically I have preferred smaller ships and have preferred Princess over Holland America. The Pacific Princess is smaller than Holland America's Amsterdam, and Princess also offers free internet and free gratuities. But Holland America has several ports where we spend 2 or 3 days like Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai. Holland America has a larger variety of shore excursions to choose from, and Holland America has fewer sea days in total even though the total cruise is a few days longer. Decisions. Decisions.

Only a few days before I head to Aruba and Curacao. I must make a decision soon. Doubts pass through my mind. What will the other passengers be like? Will I become totally bored after a few weeks, or even after a few months. This will be nearly four months in a little tiny cabin with no window. Four months of the same food week after week. Some people would be excited to have salmon, lobster, and shrimp frequently, but not me. I'm allergic to all those foods.

Probably half the dinner menu items would send me to Davy Jones' Locker. Is food going to be an issue? It never has before, but I have never been on a ship for four months either.

I talk with Kent. He confirms availability of cabins. I remember all the conversations with Pat, Fred and Chuck. One statement Pat made sticks in my mind. "If you have the time and can afford it, then do it." No, none of the other stuff really matters. I make a decision and book the 115 day around the world cruise on the Amsterdam with Holland America.

Some of you will wonder why Holland America when I historically have preferred Princess. It all comes down to the available shore excursions and the length of time in port as opposed to time at sea. Most cruises I take for the journey. I don't even get off the ship. But this one is different. Out of approximately 45 ports we will visit, 41 of them I have never been to before, and probably will never get back to again. This cruise is all about the destinations, the ship is just the method to get there. The ports and the excursions are what is important. I decide I can live with any of the other possible problems, well except for the lobster.

I Have To Start Somewhere

I spent all my life near or on the water. I grew up on the shores of the Hudson River where there was a State of New York sign on the corner of our property indicating that was the spot where Henry Hudson landed centuries earlier. Maybe this is where my love of the sea is rooted.

In my early twenties I moved to the Midwest near the shores of Lake Michigan. It was there that I began to think about long sea voyages, specifically on one of the tramp steamers that stopped at Burns Harbor about every 6 months. Unfortunately the need to work for a living prevented my from ever acting on such thoughts.

After retirement and moving to Florida, by 2012 I began taking frequent cruises in the Caribbean. With 5 ports within driving distance of my home cruising was easy and soon became one of my favorite pastimes. I'll start this blog with a cruise on the Freedom of the Seas in early September 2015, about my 45th.

By now I have fallen into a pretty predictable ship life pattern. I usually don't get off the ship, preferring instead to enjoy the peace and quiet of the ship while most of the passengers have gone ashore to shop or go to one of many sandy beaches. I usually request "My Time Dining" which gives me flexible dining times, and different table mates most nights, and I always book an inside cabin for the lower cost. Besides, I only shower and sleep there.

Having attained a higher loyalty status with Royal Caribbean, I often frequent the Diamond Lounge or Concierge Lounge before dinner, and then again after dinner if timing permits for free drinks and social conversation with fellow frequent cruisers.
This cruise however was just a little different. I was seated with Pat and her husband Fred nearly every evening, but in different areas of the dining room. I soon learned that in 2012 they had taken a World cruise with Princess. Having a long time interest in such an adventure I asked many questions. What a wealth of information. I don't recall ever having met travelers that had taken a world cruise before.

About the second of third night into the cruise I went to the Diamond lounge for a drink after dinner. There was only a single chair available. I asked the gentleman if I may join him and of course Chuck said yes. We chatted as we consumed more drinks. I quickly learned that he too had taken an around the world cruise the previous year. What a coincidence. I met several world cruisers in just a few days. Somebody is sending me a message.

The more I think about the experiences Pat, Fred and Chuck shared with me, the more intrigued I become with the idea. I'm not getting any younger, and if I were ever to take such a trip maybe now is the time. I mull it over in my mind as the week goes on. By Thursday afternoon while most passengers are on shore I decide to get on the Internet and see what world cruises are being offered in the next couple of years.

I get my laptop and go to the Internet Cafe on the ship. I go there not because of wireless reception, but because the adjustable office chairs and computer desks provide a comfortable place to sit and type. Much more comfortable than using the desk in my cabin. I log onto the wireless network, and enter "Princess Cruise Line" into my search bar. I wait, and wait and wait some more. Nothing happens. I soon learn that some gremlin took down all the satellite communications and no one was able to use the Internet for the rest of the cruise. I can only assume that Royal was preventing their customers from contacting the competition.

I continued to think about the possibility of a world cruise, but anything further would have to wait until I returned home.