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Ship Stories

In January 1989 I joined the M/S Sagafjord for a 3-month world cruise. That was the beginning of 10 years at sea with Cunard Line including stints in the tour office and as Cruise Sales Manager. During that time I compiled a collection of stories and humorous questions that I remember with relish.


Part I - Silly Questions and Comments


Where there are answers to questions, they are merely an imaginary response you might wish to say!


"Does the crew stay on board at night?" "Oh no, we fly them ashore every night and bring them back in the morning!"

"Does the ship produce its own electricity?" "No, we have a very long extension cord to land!"

"What time is the midnight buffet?"

"Do these stairs go up or down?" "Neither one, sir, YOU do!"

The following in an actual scenario. "Where is the elevator that takes me up to the front of the ship?" "I'm sorry madam, but our elevators only go up and down." "You're wrong dear, I took it yesterday!" We still don't quite know where that one came from.

To the ship's photographer, "How will we know which photos are ours?"

"Is the ship's TV satellite or cable?"

Pulling into Skagway, Alaska, "What is the elevation here in Skagway?" "Uh, last I checked we were still at sea level!"

Arriving in Leningrad, a question to the purser, "What is the temperature here in Leningrad?" "Do you want that in Centigrade or Fahrenheit?" "No, Leningrad!"

On a Mediterranean cruise, "Why did the Greeks build so many ruins?"

Sailing past a Caribbean Island, a woman said to me, "Do you know I found out that island goes all the way to the bottom of the ocean?" "No, really? You mean it's not one of those floating kind?"

"Does the water go all the way around that island?"

On a Panama Canal cruise, "Did Columbus discover the Panama Canal?"

Standing on the bow of the ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a man remarked to me, "Isn't that beautiful? Do you suppose the ocean goes on like that until we hit land again?" "Yes, I sure hope so!"

Also in the middle of the Pacific we were having several days of lousy, rainy weather. An eternal optimist, one woman proclaimed, "Well, I suppose we do need the rain!" "Yes, the ocean is getting a little dry out here!"

"What do they do with the ice sculptures when they melt?"

Asking about a time change, "Do we have to stay up until midnight to change our clocks?"

Embarking in Fort Lauderdale, a woman looked out her porthole to see the port's parking lot. Incensed, she marched to the Hotel Manager and demanded another cabin, because she was not going to look at that parking lot the whole cruise! The Hotel Manager calmly assured her that if she would wait a couple hours, he would have the parking lot moved. Satisfied, she returned to her cabin.

At the end of a cruise, "Do we put our luggage out before or after we go to bed?"


Part II - My Favorite Incidents


As Cruise Sales Manager I often hosted travel agents at my dining room table. One cruise I had a couple from Atlanta, Georgia who just plain reinforced stereotypes of blacks in many ways. She was the agent, who supposedly booked clients on cruises, and was on board to get familiar with the Sagafjord. The evening we sailed from Savannah, Georgia, heading down the river, she asked, "Why doesn't the Sagafjord ever come to Atlanta?!" "What?" I asked, somewhat taken aback. "Why doesn't the Sagafjord ever come to Atlanta?" "Uh, well, you don't have a port in Atlanta," I replied. "Well, why don't we have a port in Atlanta?!" "Well, you don't have enough water in Atlanta," I replied diplomatically. "Oh, I guess that's right. I've seen lots of water around Atlanta, but I guess not enough to have a port!" The other guests at the table didn't dare look at each other for fear of laughing, but I quickly changed the subject and moved on. Later, the rest of us decided if she had booked passengers on a Sagafjord cruise, they might be still waiting in Atlanta for the Sagafjord to come pick them up!

One of my favorite stories is not as unlikely as it might seem. When you consider the age of most of our passengers (average age, deceased!) it's not surprising we get some strange queries. A rather elderly English lady called the Pursers Office from her cabin, and in her very British accent said, "Oh, dear me, I seem to be having a bit of a problem getting out of my cabin. I've got two doors. One goes to the bath, and the other has a "Do Not Disturb" sign on it!

Dolores lived on the Sagafjord well over half the year towards the end of her life. She was a lovely lady, but her life consisted mainly of sitting in the North Cape Lounge drinking the day away. She opened the bar in the morning, had lunch in the bar, left for dinner in the dining room, and was there to close the bar down late at night. Generally the bartenders would walk Dolores back to her cabin once the bar closed. One night, I happened through as the bartender was closing up and he asked if I would mind walking Dolores home, since he was busy with something. I agreed and off we went. I knew the general area of her cabin, but as we went down the corridor I told Dolores she would have to tell me which was her cabin. She stopped, looked up at me, and in her slurred voice declared, "You're passionate!" Flabbergasted, I mumbled thanks and continued with her down the hall. At the end of the corridor I repeated that she would have to tell me which was her cabin. She looked up at me again and said, "I was trying to tell you, you were pashin' it way back there!"

In Bermuda one of our passengers asked the port agent for a bottle of that gorgeous, turquoise water from the bay. He agreed and filled a jar with water and presented it to her. "No! Not that water. I want that pretty colored water from the bay!" He quickly said, "Yes, ma'am," went and filled a tinted coke bottle with water and returned it to her. "Yes, that's the water I wanted!"

We had a power outage on board the Sagafjord while we were docked at Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica. It was necessary to take passengers off the ship for several hours and arrangements were made with a five-star hotel to host us, provide a lovely buffet, and allow use of their facilities, beach and swimming area. The cruise director called everyone into the ballroom and explained the arrangements, saying buses would be departing momentarily. A woman raised her hand and asked, "Does the hotel know we're coming!?"

Part III - All About People

It didn't take me long, working on ships to learn that people with money were an interesting lot. Oddly, some of the wealthiest people showed no evidence of it whatsoever, but the next tier down could at times be positively unbearable.

Another concept I learned after a few years, that was completely foreign to my upbringing, was that some people want to be unhappy. Really. It seems they are never unhappier than when they have nothing to be unhappy about.

John worked with me in the tour office, which was run by American Express. Though the office had the same name as the financial giant, we had no connection to the credit card or financial services part of that company. We ran shore excursions, period. On a busy morning a man came up to the counter and asked to get money using his Amex card. John explained that the tour office didn't handle money and we weren't able to do that kind of transaction. The man insisted. He was told he could get money with his card anywhere in the world he found an American Express office and he was not going to be put off. John explained again that this was not an American Express office. The man became more and more belligerent as the line of people behind him, waiting to book tours, grew longer and longer. Finally the man yelled at John, "Do you have any idea who I am?" John saucily replied, "No sir, but you can't be too important or you wouldn't have to tell me!" The people in line applauded and the man was furious. He demanded to speak to the manager, who came out from the back and just said, "I heard the whole conversation. If John says you can't do it, you can't do it." He did admonish John later to be a little more careful of his comments to the guests.

Another down-to-earth couple did the full world cruise each year. This was back in the early 80's when the dollar had quite a different value. They always had the same accommodation, a modest cabin on a lower deck and they were really a lovely pair. At the beginning of one world cruise the man went to Ingvar, the Hotel Manager and said, "Ingvar, my wife and I were thinking. We would like to have one of the penthouse suites, so we could go up once in awhile after dinner and have a drink on the balcony. Then we would come back down to our own cabin." Ingvar said, "But you would have to pay for the suite for the full world cruise." "Oh, of course, we realize that." Ingvar stammered, "But that would cost you over a hundred thousand dollars!" The man calmly replied, "Ingvar, there has not been a day in my life where I have not earned at least that much money!"

Joyce was on her first world cruise and having a wonderful time. She always had a smile, enjoyed a good laugh, and liked being around people. There was nothing fancy about Joyce, and in private, we often wondered who had paid for her to come on such an expensive cruise. Toward the end of the three months Joyce and I went out for an afternoon in Villefranche, France. We just wandered about the town window-shopping and enjoying a beautiful spring day. When she saw a grocery store, she suggested we go in and have a look. Since I spoke French, she asked me to find out if they would accept US dollars. Yes, they would. So she started filling a little shopping basket; chocolate for her stewardess, a few spices, and a few other odds and ends. At the check stand the clerk told me it came to a hundred dollars and I almost couldn't stand to tell Joyce how much it was! But I did, and Joyce cheerfully pulled out a hundred dollar bill and we were on our way. Outside, I ventured, "Joyce, you don't even look at the price of things." She responded with a smile, "No, I've been very lucky. Since I was in my early twenties, I've never had to worry about how much something costs. My late husband invented the machine they use to shrink wrap breads and meats in supermarkets and I can go into stores the world over and see my name, Corley, on those machines." Joyce could have bought our ship and we were wondering who had paid her way!

John was a 45-year-old fellow from California. He had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, so to speak, and had never had to do much for himself. He sailed with us on the Sagafjord in 1995, and about that time he was in a phase of trying to become more independent. One day on board he did his own laundry (a first for him) and actually managed to make the washer and dryer work. The shirts then needed ironing so he was cheerfully working away on one of them when a lady came in and volunteered to do the ironing for him. "Oh no," he replied, "I'm going to learn to do this myself." She insisted she would be happy to do it for him, but he was equally insistent that he wanted to do it himself. Finally she advised him that it would be more effective if he would plug in the iron first!

The same character ordered spaghetti for dinner one night. After taking a few bites, he asked the waiter to cover his plate with plastic wrap and he would take it to his cabin. We said, "John, what are you going to do with spaghetti in your cabin?" He told us he gets hungry about 3:00 in the morning and we asked him if he eats it cold." No, I heat it up with the hair dryer!"

Part IV - Death at Sea

Death is rather a matter of fact event on luxury ships. On my first world cruise, we lost three passengers, the first within two weeks of departure. Rather than go through the red tape of putting the bodies off in a foreign port, they generally stay on the ship, down below in the cooler. After all, they paid for the whole cruise.

My boss in the tour office was a dignified, elegant gentleman in his 70's. When Parnell would start telling stories, it was evident that he was a wilder character in his younger days. He told of a world cruise, on which there was a most unpleasant passenger from New York. The man made life miserable for staff and passengers alike. Toward the end of the cruise the man died. His last wishes were to have his body cremated and then to have his ashes strewn in the New York Harbor when the ship returned from the cruise. The cremation was done in the next port and the urn was given to the staff captain for safe keeping until New York. Parnell and the staff captain were good friends and Parnell reminisced how they would often be having a drink together in the officer's quarters, remembering how awful the man had been, and how strange it seemed to have the man's ashes there in the staff captain's quarters. As the ship was pulling into New York, Parnell and the staff captain took the urn down to the big, steel doors at water level. They opened the urn and dumped the ashes into the wind, expecting to see them scatter across the waves. However, the air conditioning vent for the ship was next to the door and the suction pulled the ashes right back into the ship and spread them throughout the vessel. The man's ashes are still riding the high seas to this day, spread from one end of the ship to the other!

On the QE2, Mr. and Mrs. Smith were enjoying a world cruise, when he suddenly died. Mrs. Smith was most distraught and flew home immediately. She requested that Mr. Smith be cremated and his ashes kept on board until the ship returned to New York, whereupon Mrs. Smith would come for the ashes and the rest of their luggage. This was done and when the QE2 finished its world cruise Mrs. Smith came to pickup Mr. Smith. When she was handed an urn, she almost fainted. Unfortunately, the Mrs. Smith who was on the cruise was not the real Mrs. Smith and the woman who came to the ship to pick up her husband had no idea he had even died! Evidently, the cruise line settled out of court.

In previous years burials at sea were common, but by the time I came on the cruise scene, that was pretty much forbidden by international law. It was too easy to dispose of evidence of foul play when the body was conveniently left behind in the ocean. One of the last burials at sea occurred after there had not been one for several years. The story is a favorite and has been related countless times on ships. Though the actual details have perhaps blurred over time, it's worth recounting here. The Philippino crew were in charge of the body and the actual mechanics of carrying out the ceremony. Unfortunately, none of those aboard at the time had helped with such a thing before and they were understandably uncomfortable. They decided to do a practice run in the middle of the night. The corpse was in a body bag and they placed it on the plank, which then rests on the ship's rail until the appropriate moment of the service. In their nervousness, practicing at night, the body was released and disappeared over the edge into the black waters of the Atlantic. Horrified, they frantically tried to figure out what to do. They agreed to take another body bag and fill it with potatoes, hoping no one would notice. At 6:00 am the priest conducted the short service with the widow in attendance, along with a few officers and cruise staff. On his signal the Philippinos released the bag over the edge and it plunged to the water far below. Upon impact, the bag came open, spilling the potatoes in all directions. The social hostess, quickly took the widow by the arm before she could look over the side, and escorted her away, while the others in attendance stared aghast at the site below.


Kent Kauffman, March 2004


Stories   Rita   World Cruise 1996   Milan & Memory Repression   USSR 1980   Santa Matilde   Poland   Olympics   Mullets   Angels   Poems   Christmas Letters