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View from our window!

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Opera house from ship.

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Two photos of the Atrium.

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Library, such as it is.

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Chocolate chip scones.

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Typical lounge area.

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Izumi Asian Cuisine

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Fitness center.

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Ocean view.

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Solarium.

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Spa deck.

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Wake.

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Funnel.

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Outdoor screen.

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RHAPSODY OF THE SEAS

April 13-30, 2012, from Sydney to Honolulu

 

“It’s horrible,” she grumbles during our short elevator ride up to the Lido deck. “There’s a door into the crew area just outside our suite, with carts rolling in and out all hours of the day and night.” She does look a bit haggard. “For $20,000, you expect to get a good night’s sleep.”

“I would hope so,” I commiserate. In my mind, I silently calculate that we paid one-tenth of her lofty price tag for our perfectly fine Deck 4 mid-ship ocean-view room. We are only a few days out of Sydney. The Coral Sea and Vanuatu lay behind us (a country unfamiliar to me, once important as a United States military base during the battle of the Pacific).

Our work building a labyrinth for Westmead Children’s Hospital near Sydney, the culmination of our Australian adventure, finished ahead of schedule, opening the possibility of this cruise. We made reservations just ten days before departure. I was expecting give-away prices at that point, but no such luck. Only three staterooms remained, and they knew we wanted one of them. Supply and demand.

On April 13, from our spectacular 12th story apartment in Lavender Bay, with views of the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, and the busy boat traffic, we simply walk the 100 yards from our building to the McMahon’s Point Ferry.

Alas, there is no ferry in sight, even at the scheduled time. Ten minutes later, a different kind of ferry arrives, not the ubiquitous yellow and green two-level one. With all seating on one level, the new ferry squats low and wide in the water. The rope is secured and the gangway placed. “Circular Quay?” we ask, pronouncing the second word “key,” as do the locals. “Yes.” The deckhand helps with one of our suitcases. We stop briefly at Milson’s Point, by Luna Amusement Park, continuing under the towering bridge.

I learn that the deckhand is British and once mastered a ship out of Southampton. Hm-m-m-m-m. From captain to deckhand. I’ll bet there’s a story there. It was left untold.

As we swing into the wide channel leading into Circular Quay, we see our destination gleaming in the sun, Rhapsody of the Seas. We are astounded at the lack of security, with dozens of boats passing within 30 feet of the ship. A sign warns boats to stay away, but they ignore it.

We have too much luggage, as usual. Thank God for the invention of wheels, especially four wheels that roll the suitcase upright with the push of a finger. It is necessary to buy a ticket in order to exit the ferry station. At a machine, we buy two “pensioner” tickets. At $2.50 they are good all day for all means of transportation -- ferry, bus, and train. The normal price is $5.60. Every country in the world has senior discounts based on age, but for some reason, Australia limits the pensioner fares to Australian citizens. It’s like a slap in the face to seniors. Ouch. So, as we’ve been doing for two weeks, we buy them anyway, citizens or not.

With our luggage, the turnstiles are no easy matter. We roll up to a table at City Cafe to get our croissants and mochas and to check our email before being subjected to outlandish onboard rates. The table beside us also has suitcases stacked beside it.
“Coming or leaving?” I ask.
“Leaving.”
“So you’ve just come from Singapore, after the month-long refurbishment in dry dock.”
“Right you are.” His accent is hard to place. He’s reading the local paper with relish while she talks on her cell phone. Locals I would guess.
“What do you get for 54 million these days?”
“She’s beautiful.”

Not too chatty of a bloke, he. Six words total. We turn to our own affairs. Previously, at the recommendation of a friend, we tried the pumpkin soup here at City Cafe, with a dollop of sour cream on top. Excellent. The crusty bread, too. Sometimes, in high traffic locations that assure steady business, management gets sloppy and food quality suffers. Not here. I’ve read that tipping isn’t required at restaurants in Australia, which we find to be rather pricey, but I do anyway. Even in France, I leave a little extra pourboire. I was a waiter once.

We roll past the throbbing digeridoo music of an over-weight paint-striped aboriginal man, sitting under a canopy, available for photos, welcoming tips, selling CDs. Holding that distinctive guttural hollow tube in his left hand, one end resting on the ground, he surreptitiously manipulates a small electronic control with his right, to adjust volume, reverb, and tone -- just like his ancient forebears.

We roll through the park and along the yellow caution tape, restricting us from new plaza construction. To our right, numerous ferries come and go, somewhat constricted by the dominant Rhapsody, while above us, trains rumble on overhead tracks. To our left, George Street leads into The Rocks, the oldest part of town, where only yesterday we climbed up to see the Stevens Building, built by our host’s father 80 years ago, but the building is no longer in the family.

The Rocks are dominated by the terminus of the Harbour Bridge, opened in 1932. Rising 440 feet above the water, it is reportedly the widest and tallest long-span bridge in the world, accommodating vehicular traffic, trains, pedestrians and bicycles. You can book a bridge walk that goes across the top of the arch, where the flag is always blowing perpendicular. Not me.

Large cruise ships don’t fit under the bridge, forcing them to stop at the crowded facilities along the quay. It’s a fabulous location, right in the business district. I think they should build a cruise port beside the Opera House, where the Botanical Garden meets the harbor. Others are eyeing a nearby naval base, which wouldn’t be as convenient.

We roll past the new Museum of Contemporary Art, which has only been open for a week. Good location.
With all of this rolling, even on level ground, the arrival is a sweaty proposition. Quickly processed and documented and stamped and room carded and photographed and scanned, we are onboard by noon. Small. That’s our first impression. Everything seems miniature compared to the ships on which we’ve previously sailed. (Funny, they still use the word “sail,” even though billowing canvas no longer pertains.)

Lunch being our highest priority, we head for Deck 9 and the Windjammer Cafe to eat salads and hummus. Taking the stairs, we stop at Deck 5 to check out the library before all of the books are claimed. It has been moved to a new place, just a slight widening of a passageway in the atrium with only three bookshelves. Pretty meager. Still, Linda finds two novels by Baldacci, and I a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child. Beside the library we find the imaginatively named Cafe Latte-tudes. They serve Starbuck’s products, whereas the dining room features Seattle’s Best Coffee, a subsidiary.

Embarkation day is one of the few times everyone tries to eat in the same place at about the same time. It is more crowded that you are ever likely to see again. It must concern first time cruisers to see the crush. Still, we find a great table by the window. In one direction, we see the now familiar skyline, in the other, the Opera House on the opposite quay. It’s elegant sail-like tile roof line has become the iconic symbol for this vibrant city, cover photo for cruise brochures, and excellent performance venue.

During the past week, the nightly performance of La Traviata on outdoor stage sent up one minute of fireworks at exactly 7:43 p.m. every evening. Our friend Iris, from Andover, MA, whom we stumbled upon through sheer chance in St. Andrew’s Cathedral one day, attended the play one evening and solved our puzzlement, having seen the brief pyrotechnics from our apartment windows but not understanding their purpose.

By the time the requisite mustering around the lifeboats comes around, we’ve already napped, unpacked, and explored. All surfaces have been redone, walls, carpet, furniture. We are astonished at the faux pas regarding bed height. In the days of ocean liners, trunks were 14 inches high and beds 15 inches, so the trunks fit underneath. On all of our other cruises, our mid-sized suitcases have fit under the bed. But not here. The bed is too low. From the top of the mattress to the window sill is a good six or eight inches, so the bed could easily have been higher. Underneath, half the space is taken up by bedding stored there. Ah well, what do you want for 54 million. We fill much of the small closet with our empty suitcases. Hanging space and drawer space are adequate for our needs.

Our relationship, marriage, honeymoon, and retirement are all associated with cruising. For us, every ship is a Love Boat. I am saddened to see the final scrapping of the former Princess ship, star of the television program for a decade, now 40 years old, too small, obsolete, unwanted, rusting, purchased for $3.3 million by a Turkish demolition company.

It turns out that, unlike most American-dominated cruises, 80% of the passengers are from Australia. Not to worry. We’ve learned to talk Australian. The key is to avoid all long A sounds, such as we would find in the word “say.” Replace it with a two-syllable diphthong: “Sah-ee.” So the greeting we know as “Good day, mate,” becomes “Guh dah-ee mah-eet.”

Cruise companies are directing more ships to the southern hemisphere, partly due to the strength of the Australian dollar, and partly because the percentage of Aussie’s who go cruising ranks third, only after Brits and Americans. Princess has the greatest presence, with 8500 berths, P&O is next (7650 berths), followed by Celebrity (6550), Holland America (4700), Royal Caribbean (4100) and Carnival (2120) -- all to serve around 425,000 customers.

Australia evokes images of the vast, featureless outback, a huge continent with a very small population of adventurers and pioneers, eeking out a living through sheer will power. Yes, yes, I know. There are also bankers and teachers and computer programmers. Most of the population lives in a handful of cities. But just as Texas brings to mind a certain dust-ridden cowboy stereotype, so, too, does Australia have a rugged image. The principle cultural feature seems to be friendliness and gregariousness, as if to say, “there aren’t very many of us, mate (mah-eat), we’d better stick together -- oh, and make that a Fosters (Fah-sters).”

Perhaps I’ve been influenced by Dorothea Mackellar’s poem, “My Country”. Every Aussie school child learns the poem, written not by a pioneer, but an erudite teenage socialite. It starts out . . .

I love a sunburnt country
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains. . .


No doubt it was from this first line that Bill Bryson named his very humorous and informative book, Notes From a Sunburnt Country. We recommend it.

Another difference between this and other cruises is reflected in the lack of repeat cruisers. On our Mariner of the Seas repositioning cruise last fall, about two-thirds of the passengers were repeaters. On this cruise? Only 387 of the 2,000 passengers -- less than 20 percent. Shocking. Perhaps that’s why our platinum status has resulted in some handy perks. Checking in, for example, we joined a much shorter line. Plus we have a book of discount coupons that will be very useful.

On our previous cruise on Mariner of the Seas (subject of my book: Retired Gone Cruising), we lucked out with our dining arrangement, being given a table for two beside the window every evening. On Rhapsody, everything is discombobulated, partly due to the new computer system. We eventually land at a banquette in the rear, where Linda is comfortable and I have an uninterrupted view of the waiter’s work area and the entrance to the galley. The captain of this section, Jerry, goes overboard to try to accommodate our new, restrictive diets (vegan, low fat, low sugar, whole grain). One night, he brings us a huge bowl of greasy wok-fried bell peppers and onions with a smattering of broccoli and carrots, enough for at least six people.

Another night, sitting next to a German couple, we order appetizers and the cold soup. Upon finishing, we spot Jerry, smiling proudly, bringing us two dinner plates containing large triangles of fried tofu on a mountain of cabbage. We reject one and share the other, out of sheer obligation. The German couple looks confused by our special treatment. As they are both chowing down on platefuls of steak, we say nothing about being vegetarians, lest we sound judgmental. Finally, we tell Jerry to let us be in charge of our own meals.

We try some other dining venues for a couple of nights. The refurbishing has added Giovanni's Table, Izumi Asian Cuisine, Chop's Grille steakhouse and a 14-place Chef's Table -- dining concepts first introduced on Oasis class ships. On the third day, we are awakened from our after lunch nap in our stateroom by a phone call. It’s Jerry. He misses us. He’s ready to do anything for us. We can’t shake him, so we agree on a Bocaburger, baked not fried, a baked sweet potato, and steamed veggies.

That evening we don’t order from the menu. We wait. Our neighbors finish their baked brie. Our neighbors finish their chicken. Our neighbors start on their chocolate fondant. Finally, Jerry appears with our dinner. We each receive two fried Bocaburgers and very ordinary steamed veggies. Sorry, no sweet potatoes. We are firm with Jerry. No more! At the end of the cruise, we give him an extra tip. He worked hard for it.

Subsequent evenings, we are back to the standard obligatory vegetarian menu choice, invariably Indian food. I like Indian food, but not every night. The poppadoms are glistening with oil. Our waiter, Ronny, is from India. I ask if we can have them baked or done on a dry grill. He agrees that they are too greasy. He brings proper ones. He understands. He should talk to Jerry.

Ronny says he’s been with Royal Caribbean for 21 years. And he’s still a waiter? Very low-key and clearly professional, he says something we don’t quite grasp. “I sued Royal Caribbean for not letting me go home for 14 years and made a fortune.” Is that humor? He has two daughters, 9 and 14. We see him some afternoons in the Park Cafe, a new venue up in the glass-enclosed solarium. There are tables along the windows, lounge chairs, a pool, a bar, two hot tubs. I think the glass roof opens. Almost all of tables wobble, some severely. They can redesign a whole ship at great cost, but they can’t get tables that don’t wobble. It’s common to see thickly-wadded napkins jammed under one of the legs.

The Park Cafe remains a well-kept secret breakfast place few have discovered. We eat there every morning just after 7:00 a.m.. Oatmeal. Fruit bowl. Whole grain toast. Stewed prunes. Decaf. The coffee shops have soy milk because they can make a chai latte with soy, rather than milk. But asking for soy milk to go on my cereal at breakfast results in a blank stare. They don’t have any.

At first I put the powdered cocoa mix into my decaf to make a mocha. Then I read the ingredients: Sugar (first ingredient, by quantity), corn syrup solids, dairy product solids (that’s rather vague), cocoa processed with alkali (ugh), vegetable oil (partially hydrogenated coconut or palm kernel and hydrogenated soybean), less than 2% of sodium Caseinate, cellulose gum, salt, sodium citrate, guar gum, artificial flavors, mono- and diglycerides, and sucralose. Whew. There isn’t a single redeeming ingredient. In this day and age of growing health consciousness, how can anyone manufacture such a poor product? More to the point, why does anyone buy it? I decide to drink my decaf black.

The solarium leads into the spa which leads into the fitness center which is nothing to write home about. Shoehorned into an inadequate space, the free weight section is a joke. I discover that the men’s locker room is available in the spa, even if you don’t buy a spa package. So, I have been using the sauna after working out. My routine is this: 15 to 20 minutes on the elliptical machine, 30 to 40 on the exercise machines or weights, followed by 15 to 20 in the sauna, cool down, and hike back to the stateroom. It takes about an hour and a half for all of that. Every afternoon.

Unlike other cruises, on this one I lose a pound. This defies the common wisdom, “When on a cruise, pig out.” On my first cruise, I gained half a pound a day (bread and desserts), seven pounds in 14 days. People just assume that will happen -- I’ve heard of gaining ten pounds or more -- a sign that you received your money’s worth. Such a justification might be reasonable for vacationers, who cruise a week or two a year. You can’t eat like this at home. Have fun. Go for it. I see plates piled high with bacon and sausage and donuts. You can diet when you return home.

But for serious, frequent cruisers, some kind of discipline is in order, something akin to the ecological principle of sustainability. We’re not on vacation. We’re retired. This isn’t an exception to our regime, it’s our life style. Porking out on every cruise would ruin our health. And so we set limits, especially regarding sugar, fat, and empty calories.

During his noon broadcast, the captain has a dry sense of humor. “As far as our location, um, oh, I don’t know, it looks like we’re out in the middle of the Pacific somewhere.” I like it, Linda doesn’t. I’m impressed by the depth of the ocean, often more than three miles deep. Once, we passed over an underwater mountain so that the ocean was only 2,000 feet deep. That was a 14,000-foot mountain! We are definitely dawdling, going only a few hundred miles between ports.

Several hours a day, I hole up in our stateroom, working on “the” book. Linda goes out to find a little niche for reading. Not so easy. Some of the cozy little bars were opened up for the new glitzy atrium, eight decks high, with specialized equipment for aerial shows. During the captain’s reception, two chandeliers were slowly lowered to ground level, at which time two showgirls concealed inside stepped out to pour champagne. Another evening, acrobats performed with giant bungee cords, bounding up and down. The chairs are full, with people five and six deep at the rails. Not a very comfortable venue.

Still, we’re happy as clams. Cruising R us. We feel a little more movement than on megaships, but that’s OK. On some days, barf bags appear on the stairway railings. We find that the motion of the ocean rocks us to sleep. Dancing, however, is another thing. When you swing around and take a step, the floor isn’t where it should be. Either it disappears, leaving you hanging in the air for an unexpected second, like not knowing there was one more stair, or it rises to meet you faster than expected, causing you to stumble. Across the whole dance floor, everyone seems to follow some unknown conductor, leaning uniformly first in one direction, then the other.

We learned to dance by taking lessons during various cruises. Having enough daytime dance opportunities is a sore spot with us. Most dancing starts at 9:30 or 10 p.m., which happens to be our bedtime. Yeah, I know. We’re old. The kids disco ‘til the wee hours. Not us. We would be satisfied with some prerecorded music in a lounge somewhere, so we can practice. Nope. They’re playing bingo or the Musak isn’t danceable. One night we stay up to go to Shall We Dance, the lounge with the largest dance floor. On the way in, we have our picture taken next to the statue of a couple dancing. Our dance instructor friend, Shirley, and her husband had their photo taken there, also -- 15 years ago. We send her a copy by email.

We settle into a table near the dance floor as the ship’s musicians configure themselves into an old time orchestra for some big band music. The ceiling is low, with a sort of dome-like thing above. When they start playing, the volume is deafening. We last ten minutes.
Then there are the automatons. Six couples come early to practice their dance routines, each couple doing exactly the same steps, in unison. Half an hour before the dance starts, they play music from their laptop computer. The leader calls the name of the dance. It’s as if they are practicing for some coming olympic competition. Their faces are solemn in concentration. There is no conversation. No one smiles. No one seems to be having a good time. The erie tap tap tap of their automated dance seems inhuman and creepy in the dim light and low sound, with just the rustling of their clothes and the uniform steps audible. They resemble some kind of bizarre cult of brainwashed zombies. We get really spooked and leave. We encounter the automatons numerous times during the cruise.

From 5:00 to 5:30, prior to our early seating at dinner time, a very excellent band plays in the soaring atrium. Every seat and barstool is packed for happy hour. From several levels of deck railings, hundreds of pairs of eyes watch whatever brave souls venture out onto the dance floor. Much of the time, two couples dominate the floor. One man we call ”the colonel” due to his shaved head and erect posture. The other isn’t quite so severe looking, earning the moniker “The sergeant.” Of course the wives are involved, too, but the men lead with such strong direction that the wives seem more like victims than partners. Both couples have had years of experience, whirling and swooping extravagantly around the floor, enjoying being the center of attention.

Every ship has some version of these couples. They are mesmerizing. And intimidating. Few others join them. They thwart the dance intentions (or is it pretensions?) of ordinary couples like us. They become famous. When we see them on the ship, we say “There goes the colonel.” At a cocktail reception for loyalty awards, they appear to be in one of the highest categories for cruising frequency. They greet many passengers and staff like they are old friends, which perhaps they are.

We stratagize. Our only hope is to get out on the floor before they do. So we hop out there at the first strains of a new song while they are still sipping their cocktails. Confident in our box step -- slow. . . quick-quick, slow . . . quick-quick --we hold the space until other couples join us. Soon the floor is full.

The band plays “Twist and Shout,” with lyrics encouraging one to do the twist. So we do. I was a confirmed wall hugger at high school dances, but even I could do the twist. No one else does. Two nights later, we strike up a conversation with a woman who declares, “Oh, you’re the ones who did the twist.” Our waiter also mentions it. We weren’t that good. Really.

No longer do I cringe when the music starts, wondering what sort of step one does to that. True, I can’t distinguish a samba from a mambo, or is it sambo from a mamba? Still, we jump into the fray, unafraid to try a few new things. Linda reminds me to smile, and to bend my stiff left index finger so it doesn’t look like I’m pointing at people. If we can’t figure out what to do, we make up something or we go sit down. It would help if we remembered even a single move that we learned in all of those beginner’s dance classes.

Our last port stop is Pago Pago in American Samoa. They swear it is pronounced pang-go, pang-go. The population is about the same as the number of passengers and crew on our ship. We attempt to walk into town. It’s 90 degrees with 90% humidity. Half way, we give up. Knowingly, several taxis are parked right there.

Our shore excursions are predictable. First, an internet cafe, then the market place, a few souvenir shops, and back to the ship by lunch time. On my own, I would find a restaurant and try the local cuisine, but Linda is both cautious and frugal. No big deal. All of these islands are lush green, the water outrageously blue, and the temperature, well, unbearable. This would be no paradise for me. I associate heat with that other place.

All the taxis and buses converge two or three times a month when the big white ships arrive. One type of bus is comprised of a bus body imposed on an undersized Toyota frame. The hood and motor are very small. Just where the windshield would have started is an obvious weld. The new windshield goes up almost vertically. The bus is very close to the ground, but tall enough to stand inside. It looks all out of proportion, but is very cute, especially when painted decoratively.

Thus ends our excursion through Melanasia and Polynesia. By attending lectures, we now know the population demographics and migration patterns, the geological formations, and some of the military history.

Finally, we are on the last leg to Honolulu, with its contiguous sea days. We love sea days. Linda overhears one passenger exclaim, “Well, not much to look at.” On the contrary! Watching the ever changing sea is a favorite pastime of ours, especially from the window in our stateroom. Being on Deck 4, we are at a good level to observe. Because the window doesn’t open, we hear very little. The sea slides by in silence. The longer I watch, the more mysterious it becomes. The swells have a texture of little wind-blown peaks, a few of which roll over into small white caps, dotted throughout the seascape.

Speaking of silence, one of my peeves is the lack of quiet space to sit and write, allowing me to get out of the stateroom. Even vacant lounges blare loud music from their speakers. The best candidate would be the Viking Crown Lounge, the one that sits above the top deck as if a spaceship from Startrek had just landed. Its tall slanted windows offer a broad vista of ocean. Officially designated as a quiet area, the silence is repeatedly marred by loud conversations or, even worse, whispered ones. I have always felt there should be a sign at the entrance asking people to respect the quiet, which would be enforced by a crew person.

I decide to make a suggestion to that effect. I go to the Purser’s Desk and ask for a suggestion card. My wording for such a sign would be “Quiet space: Please refrain from conversations.” In reality, it should say “Quiet Space, If you can’t hold your tongue, get the fuck out of here.” Even card playing should be discouraged.

“The suggestion forms will be distributed halfway through the cruise,” I’m told.

“What if we have a suggestion right away?” I ask.

“We want people to be on board long enough to be acquainted with things before making suggestions.”

“I am acquainted with things. I have a suggestion to make.”

“The cards will be available in about a week.”

“Great. My first suggestion will be to make the suggestion cards more available.”

The truth is, I have made this suggestion before, more than once, to no effect.

The Captain of Rhapsody, Rick Sullivan, is Canadian. That’s different. A break from the usual British, Scandinavian, or Italian. He grew up boating on the Great Lakes, went to nautical college, captained commercial fishing boats, and joined Royal Caribbean in 1993. Starting over in rank, he worked his way back to master in 2000. Like the new breed of captain, he is friendly and upbeat.

Typically, the officers are international: Canadian cruise director, Croatian engineer, German hotel director (living in Australia), Canadian food and beverage manager, Japanese Australian for cruise sales. On most cruise ships, the officers are from first world countries, and the crew from third world countries. Pay and social distinctions follow accordingly.

I find that one of the most interesting and informative events is when the captain addresses the passengers and answers questions. Some stupid questions are legendary, as when someone asked whether the crew lived on board.

Captain Rick explains how we make our own water. The ship burns heavy fuel to power its huge generators, which run everything, including the engines. The hot exhaust going up the funnel is utilized to heat water to a steaming temperature. This in turn is used to boil sea water in a vacuum, the steam condensing into pure water. The faster we go, the more engines are running, the more water we make. It is essentially free, other than the labor and equipment. We have been going relatively slowly, 15 to 16 knots, so only two of the four engines have been engaged, which is just enough to meet the demand for water.

Lifeboats, we learn, are relics of the past. With modern communication and GPS technology, the days of stranded passengers spending days in lifeboats trying to reach distant shores are over. Rafts are enough. Ships should have slides and rafts, just like airplanes. Yet, maritime regulations call for life boats, so we continue to have them. Some serve double duty as tenders, for taking passengers ashore in ports without docking availability.

Why three long blasts on the ship’s horn when greeting other ships, or a long one when leaving port? The long one is just to let people know the ship is moving and maneuvering, preparing to enter the channel. There are many signals made with horns, detailed in the Rules of the Road. For example, turning to starboard is one short blast, to port is two short blasts. Danger is five short rapid blasts. Open the draw bridge is one prolonged blast followed by a short blast. Motoring through fog requires one prolonged blast every two minutes. The one combination that is not used for anything else is three long blasts. So that is reserved for courtesy purposes, to greet other ships in arriving or departing. In Sydney, on the harbor, we commonly noted three toots by ferries. Rhapsody’s horn is powered by a 60 hp compressor!

Onboard the ship are additional signals. I always find it humorous when they point out that seven short rings mean report to your muster station, which is to say, your assigned lifeboat, with your life jacket. It does NOT mean abandon ship! So don’t jump overboard.
Definitions: A “boat” has a frustrated husband. A “ship” has a captain. Are there woman captains? Yes. Royal Caribbean’s Captain Karen was the first, perhaps in the whole industry. Plus Captain Lynn. Each ship has two complete sets of officers, as they work 10 weeks on and 10 weeks off. Of the two crews for Rhapsody, a woman is second in command on one and third in command on the other, working their ways up.

“The ship that we passed the other day seemed to be heading very close to Rhapsody,” pointed out a passenger. “What was it?”
“Pirates,” quipped the captain to laughter. Then he explained. “Pirate fisherman. They put out miles of nets that catch everything, indiscriminately. They keep and freeze what they can sell, throw back the dead sharks and turtles and dolphins and whatever. They violate international conventions and good ecological practices.” As a former fishing captain, he seems quite passionate about this subject.
He continues. “Often these illegal trawlers are on auto-pilot so everyone can be down below, working. It was on a collision course with our ship, so we altered our direction. It came within about 500 yards.” I had commented to Linda how close it was, seeing that we had a whole ocean around us.

“Legitimate tuna fisherman have fast, modern ships with helicopters and speed boats. They go through an area and drop into the water a series of platforms made of several pallets with beepers attached to them. They cause shade, which is unusual in open ocean. That draws small fish to congregate under the platforms, which in turn draws bigger and bigger fish until the huge tuna show up. They are big enough to see from the helicopter. When the time is right, the big ship returns. Speed boats herd the tuna into a small area, where they are netted and brought aboard.”

The Starkist processing plant that we saw in American Samoa produces 80% of the tuna eaten in the United States. Captain Rick says it is a pretty clean operation, compared to some processing plants. Makes you wonder.

On these sea days, we get into a routine that is not possible when interrupted by ports of call. Life at sea is called shipboard. The basic aspects -- venturing far from land, dining, social intercourse, distraction, reverie -- have remained generally unchanged through the centuries, but the specifics today are quite different due to the size and features of cruise ships. Pulling away from the dock and beginning our adventure, counting the days, or arriving at our destination, evoke emotions in us, as it did our seagoing ancestors.

When we stand at the rail and look out at sea, it is no different than when my grandfather and grandmother did the same on the Stockholm in 1924. Yet they were subjected to the smoke and cinders from the coal-burning steam engines. Passengers were dressed formally, even for recreational activities, the men in suits and vests and long coats. The ships had opulent dining rooms, yes, but no air conditioning, just rows of noisy fans pushing the stuffy air around. Even first class cabins were half the size of our modest ocean view stateroom. Shipboard today is far superior, much more casual, comfortable, and safe.

The archetypal aspects of the sea and shipboard may be the same, but not the ships. Propulsion evolved from oars to sails to steam-driven paddle wheels, to diesel propellers to today’s electric-powered azipods and side thrusters. What ships do, namely, travel across oceans, remains the same, but how they do it is always changing. An ocean liner first held 5,000 people before World War I. Twenty knots -- Rhapsody’s cruising speed -- was reached in the 19th century. In the 1930’s, ships achieved a thousand feet in length. William Francis Gibbs, who redesigned the Vaterland and thirty years later designed the United States, the fastest and most technically advanced ocean liner ever built, could never have even imagined Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, 220,000 tons, 18 decks, carrying 7,500 passengers and crew.

If the era between the wars was the golden age of ocean lining, this is the platinum age of cruising. Not once does it even enter my mind that we might not make it to our destination. Not once have I been afraid of the sea. Never in history has travel on the ocean been so accessible, affordable, and care free. That is one reason why we love cruising so much, and why we return again and again.