Centenary World Cruise: The End of the Line

We were expecting our journey to end after 118 days with a triumphal sailing into New York. Sadly, that’s not exactly what happened. What happened was that it ended after 111 days with a sad limp into Southampton.

During his daily navigational announcement on 22 April 2023, the captain mentioned that, because of a technical issue, we would be making for Southampton at speed. We were due to arrive at 06:00 on 23 April, but were now going to be in port by 22:00 on the evening of the 22nd. The plan was to diagnose and fix the issue, which could mean that the ship might leave a few hours late on the 23rd.

A World Cruise isn’t a single, nonstop trip. It’s actually a series of smaller cruises back to back, each one a separate leg of the journey. For 300 of us, the New York to Southampton (and on the way home, Southampton to New York) crossing were the first and last legs of the larger trip. At each leg, lots of passengers got off and would be replaced by new folks. That was the case with Southampton, which was the end of the World Cruise for most (approximately 700 out of 1000) of the World Cruisers.

This meant that while the engineering crew was busy trying to figure out what was wrong with the ship, the rest of the crew was busy getting almost all the passengers off the ship. The Pirate and I didn’t have a shore excursion, so we decided to stay in our cabin until the crowds at the gangways thinned out. This meant that we were sitting around playing video games when the captain came over the PA and announced that the repairs were going to take longer than anticipated, so the crossing from Southampton to New York was cancelled.

The cancellation instantly made the news.

That news, though, concentrated on the new passengers due to embark that day.

And a lot of people felt that Cunard had somehow done it on purpose just to be contrary.

But for those of us stranded in Southampton, the experience was very different. First of all, a lot of the 300 passengers already aboard were on shore excursions. Many of them didn’t know about the cancellation until they got back to the ship that afternoon. Second, almost every single person remaining on the ship went down to the purser’s desk, demanding to know what was going on.

We had all made our travel arrangements from New York on April 30, and most of us had contracted with Luggage Forward to pick up our bags from New York and send them on. In addition, many of the passengers had let Cunard make their flight arrangements, and would now have to wait until the dust settled so Cunard could make new arrangements for them. We were all told that we would not be expected to leave the ship before we could depart for home – the Queen Mary 2 would be our hotel for as long as we needed it.

My husband and I are great in an emergency — our ability to divide and conquer is unbeatable. The first thing I did was to call the travel insurance company. We had bought travel insurance because our mothers are elderly and four months is a long time. If anything happened to either of them, we needed to be able to get home without losing the money we paid for the trip. Good thing – all the added expense and trouble was covered by our insurance.

Next, the Pirate camped out in the lobby near the purser’s desk so that he could be around to hear any announcements or gossip, and so that he could access the ship’s wifi to book new flights home. Meanwhile, I was upstairs packing. I had thought we’d have a couple of days to pack four months’ worth of clothes, toiletries, souvenirs, and gifts. Instead, I had an afternoon. Just getting the suitcases (which were in a storage locker) took more than 3 hours because the room stewards were busy helping the disembarking passengers get off the ship.

The Pirate was a complete hero, not just getting us flights home the next day (the 24th), but getting nonstop flights to San Francisco, rather than the “San Jose by way of Dallas” flights we’d had before. This felt like even more of a triumph after talking to some of our friends who said that Cunard was making their arrangements, but they wouldn’t be leaving for 2 or 3 days. I’m a control freak, and I wouldn’t have been able to sit around for days while someone else made my travel arrangements.

Getting the luggage shipped was a little more challenging. Luggage Forward told him that they had a representative on the ship, but that turned out to be wrong. She couldn’t get to the ship because the train she was on had been stopped by a dead body on the tracks. Once again, the Pirate to the rescue! He just called Boston (where Luggage Forward is headquartered) and dealt with the head office. This meant that by the time the representative got to the ship, all we needed from her was to print out our luggage tags and give us the plastic envelopes to put them in and then attach to our luggage. The bonus was that, while we had only contracted for them to ship 4 cases back home, we could now make arrangements for 6.

Meanwhile, packing took about 6 hours. It wasn’t just about folding clothes and putting them into cases. We had bought a lot of stuff on our trip, and some of it was heavy. There was a whole lot of putting things in suitcases, picking the suitcases up to test their relative weight, re-distributing things, re-testing and on and on for six hours.

So, it’s bedtime on the 23rd and we’re packed and have a flight leaving from Heathrow the next afternoon – an afternoon flight, so we had plenty of time to get to the airport. We did let Cunard book us a taxi to the airport, which set them back at least £100. The one thing we couldn’t control was what would happen to our luggage. Luggage Forward wouldn’t even be picking it up until the 25th or 26th, so we had to leave it in our cabin and hope for the best.

We got a good night’s sleep, had breakfast and said good-bye to our friends, then set off for the airport. The flight was blessedly uneventful – I even managed to get some sleep, in addition to seeing Wakanda Forever, and Minions: The Rise of Gru.

After some drama getting home from the airport, we picked up the dogs from my mother’s place and came back. By the time we walked in the door, it was after 22:00 at night, and the Pirate was dead on his feet. I had enough reserves to go to the grocery store and buy food for breakfast so that in the morning, we could figure out next steps while we enjoy breakfast at home.

That was a week ago, and at least forty times a day since then, the Pirate and I have looked at each other and said “We’re so happy to be home.”

Centenary World Cruise Day 99-110: I Sea What You Did There

Day 100:

This is the point in every new presidential administration where the opposition party starts piling on about how little the new president has achieved. I will say that in my first 100 days on board, I have passed no legislation, I have undone none of my predecessor’s policies, I have instituted no sweeping reforms. There is a good chance that I will not be re-elected to this ship.

Day 101:

This might be the last entry for this trip. I know that we’ve still got more than two weeks, but after more than 100 days at sea, I have COVID. My trip effectively stops here, because I’m not allowed out of my stateroom for at least six days (which ends on the day we’re supposed to be in Tenerife), or until I test negative. What’s weird is that I haven’t had any loss of taste or smell, I haven’t had any major fever (two tenths of a degree) – this isn’t anything like I thought it was supposed to be.

Being sick on the ship is tough for many, many reasons. First off, I’m stuck in a 200-square-foot room, and can’t leave until I test negative, and they won’t retest me for six days. Second, we have to get our meals brought in, which is tough because they can only bring us food off the set menus, and NOTHING from those menus is looking appealing at this point. The dinner menus have been…utterly unimpressive. Normally, if I don’t like what the dining room is serving for dinner, I just go to the buffet, but that’s not happening. Third, nobody’s taking our trash (including the boxes and vials from all the COVID tests they gave us test Stephen). Fourth, I just want to sleep, but I can’t. Not least because I’m just not a good day sleeper, but also because our phone is ringing off the hook with the purser asking us if we need anything, the medical team asking us if we need anything, housekeeping asking us if we need anything, catering asking if we need anything…Yes. We need a social secretary to handle all these calls.

Stephen’s not testing positive yet, but it’s only a matter of time. There’s no way he doesn’t have it.

And by the time we start feeling better, it’ll be time to start packing for home. I’m already exhausted thinking about it, but hopefully I’ll be more up to it once we get there. We’ll see.

Day 109:

I am finally sprung! After nine days stuck in a tiny stateroom, having nothing but room service meals (which aren’t as hot as they could be, and the menu is extremely limited), and not taking more than three steps at a time, I’m sprung!! I immediately left our room this morning and went down to the pub, where I could catch up on a week’s worth of email and work conversations.

Sadly, we missed a lot while we were sick. We missed the second Crossing the Line ceremony, we missed the Country Fayre held in the ballroom, we missed Tenerife. We also missed the immigration inspection for the UK, because it was being held in one of the restaurants. They told us they would visit our room today at 2:00pm and do it there. When I went up to the room at 1:00pm, Stephen (who’s still quarantined) said they’d already been and gone. He said he tried reaching me at the pub, but the person who answered the phone at the pub said that there was no one drinking iced tea in the pub. He lied.

I ended up going down to the restaurant where they were supposed to still be doing inspections, but they’d gone. I checked in at the purser’s desk, and was told (with a reproachful look) that the immigrations officers would be around at 10:00am tomorrow, and if I don’t come down and present my passport, I won’t be allowed to leave the ship. Now I wonder if that’s how they attract employees on these long-haul voyages – “Sorry, you didn’t give us your passport, so you work for us now.”

Day 110:

We make port in Southampton tonight, but no one will be off the ship until tomorrow. There is a couple we met early on in the trip that have become friends, and I was afraid we wouldn’t get out of COVID jail before they left, and that they’d think we’d been avoiding them.

Centenary World Cruise Day 98: Walvis Bay

Did you know that Namibia is the home of the oryx? I knew that because when I was growing up, the oryx was endangered, so they shipped a bunch off to the Phoenix Zoo, because Phoenix’s climate is very similar to Namibia’s. The breeding program was so successful that they were eventually able to send some back.

Namibia’s coastline also has some impressive sand dunes. We stopped at a place where one could rent ATVs (although we weren’t there long enough for that), so a bunch of us piled out of the bus and climbed the big sand dune. I felt very accomplished, and also like my choice of footwear (old sneakers) was probably not the wisest.

Next, we went to Moon Valley, which has been featured in dozens of films because it’s such a dramatic landscape. The guide joked that when people first came there, they thought they were on the moon.

Hellscape as far as the eye can see

Now, we’re going to take a tiny detour. My mother likes cabbage. I think it’s hideous, but it’s likely that her love of cabbage comes from the fact that her mother lived through the Depression, and cabbages were (and still are) cheap. Cabbages are easy to grow, so if you had enough dirt to plant something in, you could grow cabbages no matter where you were. My mother always joked that you could grow cabbages on the moon. Back to our story. There’s a little oasis in Moon Valley where a German couple started a little restaurant and sort of all-purpose stopping point. Inside, there’s a tiny museum of the couple’s early days in the Moon Valley, and sure enough, there’s the man proudly showing off the cabbages he’s grown.

This is our last stop in Africa. From here, we’re back to Europe. We’ve got two stops, and then we’re back in New York. How did that happen so fast?

Centenary World Cruise Day 97: Happy Easter!

We’ve gone to church services every Sunday we’ve been on the ship, and they put on a nice service for Easter. Later, we went to lunch and saw that they’d decorated the galley with all kinds of Easter-themed chocolate and sugar art.

Later, because my lovely husband had it downloaded on his computer, we got to uphold our annual Easter tradition of watching Jesus Christ Superstar. Sadly, we did not uphold our custom of creating a delicious feast. In fact, I didn’t even go to the formal dining room, because (as happens with depressing regularity) “Madame does not agree with chef’s choices.”

Centenary World Cruise Day 95-96: Cape Town

Day 95:

Cape Town is beautiful! The panorama that greeted us when we looked out from our balcony was just breathtaking. I was up in time to catch the sunrise just hitting the hills, giving everything a little gold glint. It was a good thing, too, because by the time we set out on our tour, the sky had clouded over, and it rained for the duration of our tour.

We saw the Castle, which is really the first Dutch fort. It’s just like every other early fort – big, blocky, stone, lots of cannons.

A model soldier in the famous Dutch “5th Armored Stupid Hat Brigade”

There were a couple of cool things, though. The first was inside the courtyard – four statues of African kings who had fought the Dutch (and all been arrested). Even though these were clearly statues of the kind that have hollows for eyes, they looked like actual men daubed with clay. I was convinced that any second, they would begin moving and talking.

The second was a section of carriage path that went through a passage into an inner courtyard. Just where it went through the passage, the path was paved with wooden bricks cemented with — resin? tar? — I have no idea. It was put there because the general’s office was just above, and carriages passing over cobbles made too much noise. I’m thinking about how to implement this in the new house.

We also met with one of my editors, Joya Taft-Dick. She’s been with us for almost a year, and I was looking forward to meeting her in person for the first time. I was excited when she said that she and her husband might be brewing earlier in the day, because my husband has also been a home brewer, and it meant that Joya and I wouldn’t be talking literature the whole time and leaving the two men to sit and stare awkwardly around for hours. In fact, we barely talked about literature at all – we just had a really extraordinarily lovely evening with people who felt like they’d been friends of ours for a long time.

Day 96:

Day two in Cape Town was spent with the penguins. In the morning, we drove about forty minutes away to the beach where the penguins live. The penguins aren’t afraid of people, although they’re not exactly friendly. At one point, there were two in the brush and rocks opposite the beach, and people were standing a few feet away taking pictures. The penguins hopped off the rock, threaded their way between the humans, and got into the water. The penguins used to be called Jackass Penguins because they make a braying sound, and there was a lot of that in evidence.

We also saw a little brown animal high up on a rock. Because it was far away, I took a picture at 20x magnification, and then enlarged it on my phone. It was a little pixelated, but in the picture, it looked really angry. We heard a guide say it was a Rock Hyrax, which is the best name ever. The guide told us it was called a “dassie,” and that there was no English name for it. Okay, she’s right – hyrax is probably Latin, but still.

Not the clearest picture, but it was very far away

We then went to a little coastal town that looked a lot like Capitola Village – very touristy, right on the beach, tons of coffee places, bars, and tiny restaurants. We didn’t go to any of those. Instead, we found a tiny little art gallery up some stairs above a restaurant. I could have spent an entire day in that place. The art was just wonderful, including mechanical sculptures by Etienne de Kock that I would really, really love to have at our house. They’re completely my jam. We did buy a couple of small prints that will go into the library in the new house.

Later, we met our new dining companions. It turns out, they live very close to that neighborhood and knew exactly where we’d been. They were pleased to hear that we loved South Africa. I feel like it’s the kind of place where everyone who lives there appreciates how beautiful it is.

Centenary World Cruise Day 94: I Can’t Sea Straight

We have discovered a new passion. The Great Pottery Throwdown.

Much like the Baking (my term for the Great British Baking Show), twelve people get together and meet challenges given by two experts in the field. The show is hosted by Siobhan McSweeney, who played Sister Michael on the show Derry Girls. She’s every bit as hilarious and acerbic on this show, but also sweet and supportive and just generally delightful. Also delightful is one of the judges, Keith Brymer Jones, a big man whose eyes well up with tears every time one of the potters presents something really good. It’s so sweet and touching that it’s impossible not to cry with him.

Centenary World Cruise Day 93: Port Elizabeth

Port Elizabeth today. We didn’t have a tour organized, so we took the shuttle into town with a friend. Except that the shuttle dropped us off at a mall. It seems that in every town we’re in, the ship’s shuttles drop us off at a mall, most of which are almost identical to American malls.

We did hit a grocery store and pick up a few things, and a pharmacy to pick up a few more. One of the things we looked for was ibuprofen, but they didn’t seem to have it – another example of things that are easily available in one place can’t be had at all in another. On the other hand, we did find two things that feel like they’re from another era: Doan’s back pills, and Grand-Pa headache powder. It was kind of charming.

Your guess is as good as mine

From there, we took a cab to what was billed as an art walk, starting at a pyramid built for the wife of the white man who founded the town. The pyramid was fine, but the art walk was a huge letdown. There were a few interesting works, but the grounds were strewn with litter, and the gardens that looked to have been planted with care had gone to weeds.

We walked up to the Nelson Mandela Art Museum, where we saw some really interesting works, mostly by South African artists, but a few by Europeans. By that time, we were ready to get back to the ship. We had to get an Uber, but port security wasn’t going to let our Uber near the ship. One problem: our friend is disabled and depends on a walker. She got out of the car and demanded to know which one of the security guards was going to carry her the 100+ yards to the ship. They all looked at each other, and after some murmuring and grumbling paired with the cajoling of our Uber driver, they let us through. It was kind of nice, because the driver had never seen the Queen Mary 2 (I feel like, even living in a port town, it’s easy to miss – it’s usually in a town for a single day, and if you don’t happen to be right by the port that day, you miss it), and he was tickled to get right up close. We told him that it’s big enough that he could probably drive us right to our rooms. It’s not. In fact, most of the elevators only hold 3-5 people

Centenary World Cruise Day 92: Sea the Light

Every once in a while, the captain holds a cocktail party for the World Cruise folks, and tonight was another one. We’ve been to maybe four of these things, but they’re not normally our thing. Our captain from New York to Singapore was a very social, hilarious guy whose daily announcements (every day at noon we get our location, the sea conditions, and the weather) always included some interesting anecdote. For instance, for military memorial statues of men on horses, if the horse has two legs in the air, it means that the man died in battle. If the horse has one leg in the air, it means the man died of his injuries. And, according to the captain, if the horse has four legs in the air, it means the horse died.

Since Singapore, our captain has been much more introverted. His announcements are very dry and dull, although in person, he’s hilarious. At these cocktail parties, the captain normally gives a small speech of some kind. This time, though, the captain was spared the stress of having to speak to us by leaving that task up to…SIR BOB GELDOF!!!!! He was excited to be on the ship because apparently his father was a chef on the original Queen Mary – who knew!

For these cocktail parties, there’s a dress code. Normally, they’re formal dress affairs, so all the men are in black tie, and all the women except me are in evening gowns. I am also in black tie, but my tuxedo jacket is jaguar print. And, as happens every time I dress up, everyone makes a fuss.

This is still such a novel phenomenon to me. I’ve always had very particular tastes in clothes, and people have always commented that they like this or that outfit or article of clothing. But never before have I been showered with dozens of compliments in the space of just a few minutes.

Here’s what this tells me: it’s not that I wear great clothes – I’ve always worn great clothes. It’s that now that I’m thinner, people actually see me in the great clothes. It’s kind of heartbreaking.

Centenary World Cruise Day 91: Durban

Today’s stop: Durban. Before hitting South Africa, everyone has gotten the same disclaimer on a letter delivered to our cabins, in the daily announcements, and in the printed program for each day: South Africa is dangerous, don’t carry a lot of money or valuables with you, don’t advertise the fact that you’re a tourist.

That’s fine, except that we’re coming into port in what is essentially a floating city, coming into town via enormous tour buses, and most of us are white people who speak only English. There’s no way we don’t look like tourists.

They dropped us off at a place that’s very familiar to me: the local equivalent of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It’s an arcade of tiny tourist shops and restaurants between the street and the beach. We walked around, we bought a few things, it was fine.

Then we decided to leave the area in search of a pharmacy for a few things we needed. There was supposed to be a pharmacy about 3 blocks away, but we got there and the building was vacant. At that point, we’d gotten enough attention from people in the street that I figured we’d be safer back at the boardwalk. To me, there is no feeling of vulnerability like being lost in a place where I don’t speak the language.

A Chinese military ship parked next to us in the harbor. They look like fun guys!

To be fair, every single person we spoke to was friendly and helpful, which has been our experience wherever we’ve gone. Even people who aren’t service workers or taxi drivers or anyone else in the tourist trade, they smile if I smile, and they say hello on the street. There’s never been anyone I could point to and say “That person looks really sketchy – avoid them.”

Centenary World Cruise Day 88-90: Must Sea

Day 88:

Normally, I take advantage of the at sea days to get Zoetic Press work done, but today was spent trying to get online and having everything take six times as long, and even then things don’t always work. It’s frustrating, because although I got one issue out from the ship, that issue’s selections had mostly already been made. This time around, it’s going considerably less smoothly.

But I decided that, since I couldn’t get online, I’d work on the novel that I swore I’d finish while on the ship. Aaaaaaaaand it’s finished. [[huge sigh of relief]]

Now, it gets to rest for a bit before I start editing. Meanwhile, I’m planning the follow-up, because a I really love these characters.

Day 89:

Today, for the first time, they offered a photo scavenger hunt. On other cruises I’ve been on, these are a daily thing, but this is maybe only the second. Of the ten photos, we knew where three of them were, and we were able to find another three after running all over the ship, there were four that we never found. It was nice, though, because it gave us an excuse to run all over places on the ship we haven’t seen, like the baby nursery and the kid’s playroom. If I were a small child, I’d be outraged. Then again, what I’m comparing them to is the rooms set aside for various aged children on Disney cruises. I don’t think it’s exactly a fair comparison. 

Day 90:

We’re still looking for most of those photos.