Lunching with John Maxtone-Graham

Writing on Promenade Deck

Florida 2,000 miles straight ahead.

Sailing into the sunset.

Sunrise from the stern of the ship.

Another sunset.

Bread pudding in the pub.

Skywalker Lounge on Deck 18

Medical evacuation by Coast Guard

Gluten-free desserts

John and Mary Maxtone-Graham

Crown Princess in Galveston


Venice to Galveston, December 2-22, 2012


I write a note to John Maxtone-Graham explaining that I’m working on a book about cruising and would like to interview him. He responds by inviting Linda and me to have lunch with him and Mary. What a great opportunity. The day before I write out a series of questions that I want to ask him, but in the end, we mostly just talk and have a good time. He appears to lecture exclusively on Princess ships at the present time, still spending about half the year at sea. Like me, he finds it a great place to do his writing.

Linda had dropped off my original note to his stateroom. We previously had seen him get off the elevaator on the same deck as we do, Dolphin. So she asked one of the room stewards, who pointed out the right door, and hence, mail slot. It is a suite, having a single door in the same hall space which holds two doors to mini-suites like ours. In the conversation he states that they upgrade him to a suite whenever one is available. His lectures are packed, with almost every seat full. He will give a total of ten of them. Considering that most entertainers do three shows, and sometimes six, J M-G gives them a lot of entertainment value, doing ten.

I tell him he’s my living connection to the past, and his books have inspired and informed me for my own writing. I ask if someone served that same role for him. He says Walter Lord,, who wrote the introduction for The Only Way to Cross, J M-G’s first book, published in 1972. He agrees to look at my manuscript when it gets finished, and gives me his card with his postal address.

During the meal, I express my opinion that the cruise industry is a whole different enterprise than ocean liners. The design of the ships, the marketing, and the clientele resulted from forward thinking, not looking back to try to preserve some kind of tradition. Ted Arison, Richard Fain, Bob Dickenson -- the pioneers of the cruise industry -- can’t really call ocean liners their forbears. (Cunard makes that claim, of course, with some justification.)

J M-G relates that Mickey Arison, son of Carnival’s founder, current CEO and multi-billionaire, told him he bought Cunard specifically to build the biggest and best ship, and wanted it to be an ocean liner. And so it is -- Queen Mary 2. It instantly became the largest, roomiest, fastest, most comfortable ship ever built for plying the North Atlantic between New York and Southampton. Although Arison subsequently built two much larger mega-cruise ships, they were built to a different standard and purpose. QM2 still remains unique. J M-G wrote a spectacular book on QM2, and so visited the shipyard and went on the maiden cruise. The other two queens owned by Cunard (Elizabeth and Victoria) are built like cruise ships, with flat bottoms rather than "V" hulls. So QM2 stands alone. After publishing the hardcover book on QM2, an abridged paperbound version came out. It doesn’t have all of the text and, due to a clause in his contract, J M-G gets no royalties for the paperbound edition. So, be sure to buy the hardcover edition.

True, says J M-G, cruising doesn’t resemble ocean liners, but some connections remain. They both have ships, of course, and passengers and the same ports. When ocean liners began doing cruises, I argue, they no longer deserved their names, as their itineraries became circular, no longer traversing a line from point A to point B, a trait that earned them their moniker “liner.” They should have renamed them ocean circlers or wanderers. J M-G believes ocean liner activity to the Caribbean gave the cruise industry a hint of the potential market, and thus did serve as an example. That’s one connection.

Ocean liners had a purpose, whereas cruise ships seek pleasure. Despite this difference, they both have bridges with captains and officers who must conduct the ship across the ocean. That task remains unchanged, although technology makes it quite a bit different in its execution.

Mary M-G had the same peeve that we do, namely, recorded music playing in bars and lounges during the day, when people are seeking a quiet place to sit and read. The problem started when they built the ships with speakers in every public space. So, I go out on a limb, stating that I feel Princess quality is slipping. The whole company seems engaged in nothing but hype for the new Royal Princess, going into service next year, while the basics of every day service and the quality of the food are slipping through inattention. “You should put that on your comment card,” suggests Mary. Although neither John nor Mary express a direct opinion, their body language seems to indicate agreement with my point. As their services are engaged by Princess, I don't suppose they are at liberty to be too vocal in any criticism.

We talk about the murder mystery that Mary is writing that takes place on Queen Elizabeth 2. She and John took many cruises on that ship, which they liked very much. The detective is Norwegian, with the family name of Odd, apparently common in Norway. So the book is titled Odd Man Out on the Queen Elizabeth 2. No publication date has been set.

J M-G’s next book is on the United States, the greatest liner built in the U.S. It’s top speed was kept secret, for security reasons, so it crossed the Atlantic just fast enough to win the Blue Riband, averaging over 37 knots. I remember reading that they only used two of the three engines to reach that speed, but J M-G says that is not correct. I state it in my book, so I will need to check my sources. It could go somewhere in the low 40 knots forward, over 20 knots backwards (the speed of Crown Princess), and seven knots sideways. To avoid the danger of fire, the entire ship was built of metal, including aluminum furniture. The only wood reportedly was the piano and the chef’s chopping block. I knew about the current efforts by a conservancy to restore the ship. Mary and John had visited it earlier this year. It's just a shell. Restoration would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. What would be the market? Who would come to see it?

Then we discussed the title of my book, as I’m considering changing it from Retired Gone Cruising: Diary of a Transatlantic Crossing to Found At Sea: Retirement and Love on a Transatlantic Cruise. If I followed the current rage for titles, I could call it Retire, Love, Cruise: Rebirth on a Transatlantic Cruise. Or maybe: Retire, Marry, Cruise: Getting Found at Sea, Memoir of a transatlantic crossing. The original title will just remain the address of my website. (Note: The current title is now: Found at Sea: A memnoir of love, renewal, and a transatlantic cruise. I am seeking beta readers to give me feedback on the manuscript. For more information, click here: Beta.)

I remember reading that J M-G had his honeymoon on the original Queen Mary, so I mentioned that Linda and I had our honeymoon on Queen Mary 2. Mary responds, “Well, that wasn’t our honeymoon. I would have been five years old.” She is considerably younger than John. That was a different marriage, as John and Mary took their honeymoon on Rotterdam. We discussed the fact that it has been docked for some time now in the city of Rotterdam, awaiting transformation into another use. A hotel chain just bought it, with the idea of making it into a floating hotel. Wouldn’t that be fun.

The waiter brings dessert menus. The rice pudding looks good to me, but no one else orders, so I pass. The lunch went by so fast! I have many more questions to ask. What was the greatest ship ever? Where is the industry headed? But alas, we say our good byes and go our separate ways. I feel privileged to have had the time that I did. I will send them my book, and stay in touch via email. Later, I recall that in John Maxtone-Graham's book, Crossing and Crusing, pages 236 - 244 very favorably describe Crown Princess. Most of my criticisms are petty compared to the larger picture, namely, how magnificent this ship still is. I find that it is always polished and clean and presentable. The crew members are responsive and friendly. Yet, a few issues need to be acknowledged if my report is to be truthful.

Eventually I did send J M-G my manuscript and he replied. I, of course, would have hoped for a raving review. Instead, he read only the first two chapters, didn't like my style, and saw no reason to read further. He found my writing too scattered. Compared to his erudite articulation, I can see why he could feel that way. Still, I'm disappointed. I guess he never reached all of the good things I had to say about his rewarding and scholarly books. If you only have time to read one book about ocean liners, read The Only Way to Cross, still in print 40 after years.

The last several evenings the food in the dining room has been excellent, in presentation and taste. After a shaky start, perhaps they have gotten their act together. The weather has warmed, the seas calmed, and the sun even appeared a few times. Today reached 77 degrees, so we lunched outside on the Lido deck. The chaise lounges were full. Linda and I have improved in our dancing, although three days after our swing dance lesson we couldn’t recall a thing. Oh well.

Norovirus concerns continue, with some illogical policies. In the library, for example, they have stopped putting out sudoku puzzles. How does that help? I guess when you took one sheet, you might touch the next. However, they have a daily contest to answer questions posed on the daily TV program, for which there are wooden pencils and contest forms. You take a pencil, fill out the form, deposit the form in the box, and return the pencil for the next person to use. How sanitary is that? The other questionable practice is in the dining room, where multiple people touch the menus. We mean to take hand cleaner to use after handling the menu, but keep forgetting.

Last night, as we left the dining room, we were directed to a different exit because there was a man lying on the floor, being attended to. He was flat on his back, wearing dressy trousers and nicely shined shoes. He wasn’t moving. Someone had just started to open his shirt. We continued down the hall and heard the emergency announcement about two minutes later: “Code alpha, code alpha, Michelangelo dining room, deck five. Code alpha, code alpha, Michelangelo dining room, deck five." Almost instantly, two nearby crew members ran full speed in the direction of the dining room. Several minutes had passed. If it were a heart attack, every second counts.

During the rest of the evening I couldn’t help but think about that situation. Was that man's wife with him? They got nicely dressed and prepared to enter the dining room, as they did every night, and then something happened. What a sudden change in their lives. Linda asked why I was pensive, so I told her. She said, “Don’t you do that to me.” Most likely I will, some day, but not, I hope, until afew decades down the line, with forty or fifty cruises under our belts. (Hm-m-m-m-m, consider how we tend to gain weight during a cruise, "under our belts" is not a bad metaphor. Thirty days after the cruise, I am hospitalized in Puerto Vallarta with massive life-threatening double pneumonia. In fact, I came much closer to "doing that to Linda" than I want to think about. The doctor felt that my excellent physical condition allowed for my remarkable survival and rapid recovery.)

Now we are trying to understand the complicated directions for disembarking in Fort Lauderdale, where we must go through passport control and customs, even if we are continuing on to Galveston, which we are. We have discussed whether we should make a deposit for a future cruise, but learn you only have two years to use it. We aren’t sure how soon we will go on Princess again. At platinum level, Linda is half way to elite status. It would take about 75 or 80 more cruise days to reach that level. Then, you get free laundry, free internet, and other perks. We are much closer -- around 30 days, to reaching diamond status on Royal Caribbean. That may be the direction we will go. Or, more probably, we’ll just look for the best bargains.

I now spend some of my writing time out on the balcony. This is how I like my cruising -- not too hot, not too rough, not to brief. Still, we barely have a week left. Where did the time go? I’m writing on the balcony now, the wind warm for the first time. Glorious. Stars shine brightly in the night sky as morning begins to lighten the horizon. Soon, the scattered clouds are streaked with orange, announcing the arrival of a beautiful day. On some crossings, every day has been like this. Now, all's well that ends well.

Linda talked with some ladies at tea who said that Crown Princess has had some problems, having been taken out of service to disinfect the whole ship against norovirus, and another time, breaking down and being left without power. Everyone at her table agreed that the food on this voyage has not been up to the usual standard. It makes you wonder what is going on with management. I know I have mentioned this several times, but it was a fairly common topic of discussion. For exampe, when we get back on the ship from our shore excursions, there are no hand cleaner dispensers at the security station. They should be mandatory.

Now on our last day, we go up to the Carribe buffet (adjacent to the Horizon Court), where we discover that the entire line consists of desserts. Amazing creations, one after another, of every kind. Dozens of them. What a surprise! There was no mention in the daily events listings in the Princess Patter, no announcement by the cruise director. If you didn't happen to stumble upon it, you wouldn't know to go up and partake of the great array of delicacies. In fact, there are even two gluten-free ones, for me. I'm sure many more people would loved to have been informed.

As we cross the Gulf of Mexico, a coast Guard helicopter comes to perform a medical evacuation. The evening before an anouncement was made for anyone wth type "O" blood who was willing to donate for an ill passenger. Apparently the patient could not be stabilized before our arrival tomorrow. The upper deck is closed, and some staterooms evacuated. We are asked not to go out onto the balconies on the port side (which includes our own). We go up to Skywalker lounge on Deck 18 at the back of the ship where a few side windows look forward to the Lido Deck. From there I am able to see the dramatic action as the bright orange helicopter matches the speed of the ship, hovering just to the port side. A man appears in the doorway of the helicoper, and is lowered down onto the deck.

They lower a stretcher, along with a large metal cage. Eventually, they are all pulled back up again, including the sick person and her husband and luggage. Then the first man was hosited back up again, waving to the watching crowd. In fairly heavy seas with strong cross winds, the whole operation goes very smoothly. I am again reminded why I always buy medical insurance when traveling.

At an event in the theater, we notice one woman who should not be out in public. She is coughing and wheezing, dabbing her eyes with Kleenex. This kind of irresponsible behavior can negatively affect dozens of other passengers. Finally, the sick woman gets up and leaves before the program begins. Thirty seconds later, unknowingly, someone else sits in her germ-ridden seat. Linda and I have been conscientious in not touching railings or elevator buttons, and in washing our hands frequently. Still, on the last day, I caught a cold. The same thing happened on two previous cruises, leaving me with respiratory infections and two months of coughing. I hope this isn't history repeating itself. Was this the cause of my pneumonia?

The disembarking procedure is well-organized and goes very smoothly. Soon we are on the shuttle to Hobby Airport in Houston, and then a flight back to San Antonio. Linda's sister and brother-in-law picked us up, as usual. They tell us they heard something on the news about a cruise ship coming from Venice that had a norovirus epidemic aboard. We love crusing, and recommend it to all of our friends. We would like to have Linda's sister and brother-in-law join us some day. However, his medical situation leaves him with a vulnerable immune system. I'm not sure a cruise ship is the right place for him. It could be too risky.

Cruise Ship health reports are public information, posted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) on their website. December of 2012 hasn't yet been posted, although the first 11 months of the year are available. Includiing this voyage, 15 ships have had enough cases of illness to require a report. Of those, seven are Princess ships, of which three cases are Crown Princess. The next largest number for a company was two reports, by Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises. Three companies had one report, and numerous had none at all. The fifteen reports involved 12 ships (Ruby Princess was mentioned twice, Crown Princess three times). Put this into perspective. There are 150 major cruise ships plying the oceans of the world. Twelve ships makes a small percentage. For all of those ships with no reports, I have a question. What do they know that Princess doesn't?

My bed back home felt surprisingly steady last night. We found no candy on our pillows. We have heard no anouncements from the captain or the cruise director. No towel monkeys wearing my sunglasses. How different life is here on land. Despite the shortcomings and potential health risks, we look forward to another cruise as soon as possible. Maybe Holland America next time.