It was a warm day for December, even by Tampa standards.
The boarding pass said to be at the cruise ship terminal at 1 PM for processing and boarding. My attorney dropped me off at 12:30. A porter grabbed my bags and pointed to the end of the line which wrapped around the terminal.
Sunday, December 7th, 2014.
Seventy-three years ago, it was a day that lived in infamy. I just wanted to get on board and wrap my hand around a cold beer and get the hell out of Dodge. The line hadn’t moved. But the explanation for our wait filtered down the line quickly: The ship had hit fog out in the Gulf and was three hours late getting in. Scheduled arrival was 7 AM. Didn’t tie up at the port until after 10.
Passengers were still filing off the ship. Getting reunited with their luggage. Dealing with customs. Eventually, we were able to begin filing in through another door, go through security, present our passports, be photographed and receive our stateroom keycards. The ship was scheduled to pull away from the dock around 4 PM. We didn’t pass under the Sunshine Skyway bridge until just before 8 PM.
Waiting on the sidewalk to get onboard gave me ample time to do a thorough demographic analysis of my fellow passengers. They generally fell into two groups: Old. And really old.
I’m no spring chicken. But I was one of the few teenagers onboard. Yes, there were one or two families of the nuclear variety. A few “mature” gay couples. A newlywed couple or two. But generally-speaking, I was one of the youngest. And by the looks of it, I was likely one of the only passengers sailing solo.
I expected that.
But the fact that many of my fellow passengers were born during the last days of the Coolidge administration – and many of them required some form of remedial mobility assistance – caught me off guard. Looking at it logically, who the hell else would be taking a 14-day cruise to the southern Caribbean that would return four days before Christmas? Parents with children work. Time off between Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially two weeks worth, doesn’t exist. And kids wouldn’t be on holiday break until, I assumed, the day we’d return. So, you’d need to be retired to even consider this cruise. And for some, it appeared that there weren’t many cruises left on their horizon.
So, December 7 was a great time to be aboard Holland America’s Ryndam. For some, this was their cruise of a lifetime. I just wanted to get as far away from the ho-ho-holidays as possible. Even before Thanksgiving, I had started watching “last-minute” cruise prices every day for ships leaving Tampa. This 14-day cruise kept dropping like a rock. When oceanview staterooms hit $599 (based on double occupancy), I grabbed the phone and sealed the deal. A week later, there I was: Standing on a sidewalk outside of the cruise ship terminal with 1,200 senior citizens of the world whose collective patience (and strength) was clearly beginning to wane.
Once on board, I went to work with my new, albeit, defective Canon 70D digital single lens reflex camera. A very generous Christmas gift to myself. My first “serious” camera. Unfortunately, one of the big features of the camera – Live View – didn’t work out of the box. But it was too late to exchange it with Amazon before I sailed. Besides, I was still able to take some very cool photos. So I did. A lot. Until the whole camera crapped out on me while en route to St. Lucia. The cruise was an ideal environment for me to focus on (excuse the pun) the intricacies of operating the camera. I came prepared with a copy of “Canon 70D for Dummies” and had printed out some hints and tips off the Internet. I shot hundreds of images and took the camera everywhere…while it still worked. I like to think I was gaining some proficiency with it.
The itinerary was impressive: Key West, San Juan, St. Thomas USVI, Antigua, St. Lucia, Curacao, Aruba and Grand Cayman.Key West gave me a whole afternoon to wander around Duval Street and pick up a few things I had discovered I needed once we left port in Tampa.
Like a watch.
I have relied on my cell phone to tell time for almost 20 years. I own a few watches, but seldom actually wear one. But once the ship was a mile off shore, the phone couldn’t find a signal to keep the clock synched. And, as I discovered, time is vital on a cruise ship. Things are tightly scheduled. Which was one of the more surprising take-aways I had from my trip: Cruising brought structure to my otherwise unstructured life. And frankly, I really enjoyed the whole experience.
You’re never alone on a cruise ship. And while many of the relationships I had with people onboard may have only consisted of small talk on the elevator or during dinner or over drinks, the usual rules of engagement – the social barriers we raise – go away when you’re at sea, away from home.