When my family took a cruise to Cozumel last week to celebrate the high school graduation of two family members, I recorded the trip each day in the form of a modified underway ship’s log. Here it is.
1600, Thursday, 30 June 2022. Underway from Mobile, Alabama, Cruise Ship Terminal onboard SS (Steam Ship) Carnival Ecstasy, enroute Cozumel, Mexico. Latitude 30 degrees, 41.17 minutes North; Longitude 088 degrees, 02.23 minutes West. Course: 185. Speed: 5 knots. Number of passengers onboard: 2,036. Number of crew members: 920. Distance sailed: 0.
We got underway on time and without the assistance of a tug, because this ship has bow and stern “thrusters,” enabling it to push itself away from the pier. We only got about thirty yards out, however, and then we came back. It soon became obvious why because an ambulance appeared on the pier and the ship’s crew unloaded an elderly passenger who had some type of medical emergency. Lucky for her, we were still in Mobile.
Finally steaming slowly down the channel out to sea, it’s amazing the number of ship repair yards, oil and natural gas pumping stations, bulk material silos with extensive conveyer belts, and freight container facilities that aren’t visible from the interstate. Mobile is a huge port. Two large container ships were unloading at different piers, the SS Zim Europe and the SS Intregale, and both displayed Monrovia, Liberia, registration. Neither ship has probably ever been to Monrovia, it’s just an example of what’s known in the trade as “flags of convenience” – a business practice of registering a ship in a different country than where the owner lives, or the company is based in order to save money on taxes. It also allows them to circumvent certain safety rules and to pay their crews non-union wages. Among several ships, I only noticed one registered in the States, the SS San Jose, a natural gas tanker, out of New York City. While Carnival is based in Miami, all 31 of the companies’ ships are registered in Panama, the Bahamas, or Malta. Judging from the thousands of containers stacked high on the piers, the “supply chain problem” is also a local issue.
It was twilight before we finally got out into Mobile Bay proper, the site of the famous Civil War naval battle of 5 August 1864. This was where the Union admiral, David G. Farragut, had himself tied to the mast of his flagship, the USS Hartford, so that he would not be blown overboard, and supposedly uttered those famous words: “Damned the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” That wide-ranging battle between two fleets wouldn’t be possible today because the bay is now full of oil drilling platforms – their lights are twinkling in the dusk as far as the eye can see.
There are three distinct types of cabins or accommodations on this and most cruise ships: Interior, Oceanview, and Balcony. The interior cabins are to be avoided, because they are claustrophobic, and an invitation to seasickness or, as the French say, “mal de mer.” The Oceanview is the best deal because it’s usually on a higher deck (smells better), and it has a porthole. You want to be able to look out and see where you are going. In the Navy, you know that you have “arrived” when you finally get assigned to an individual stateroom with a porthole. I only had such plush residences on my final two ships, and it took me 25 years to reach the top of that food chain. The balcony rooms are obviously the best. You can kick back in your deck chair with a cold one and watch the world go by, but they are for the high rollers. I also imagine that, even on an old ship like this, there are several suites topside, but they are way beyond my pay grade.
2200, Friday, 1/7/22. Lat. 22.5350N; Long. 086.4758W. Course: 190. Speed: 16.3 knots. Distance sailed: 482 miles.
Today was advertised as a “Fun Day at Sea.” My first impression is that this is a good, entry level cruise. I’ve been on many cruises on many oceans on many ships, but this old girl, while showing her knickers in some places (rust, frayed carpets, just one electrical plug in the cabin, etc.) still has some “juice.” She rides well in moderate seas, is clean and functional, and apparently holding up admirably for her 31 years.
My wife doesn’t particularly enjoy going on a cruise with me because, she says, all I do is “read, eat, and sleep.” I guess I’ve been conditioned to such behavior because, with the addition of standing watches 8-12 hours each day underway, that’s about all you can do on a Navy ship. It’s very different on the SS Carnival Ecstasy, because there are activities provided to keep you entertained day and night. The Cruise Director, a young man from South Africa, is continually on the public address system touting the “next big event” – Broadway shows, musical performances at various times throughout the ship, photos at “Pixels,” Build-A-Bear workshops, cooking demonstrations, mixology competitions, Bingo, mini golf, art exhibits, a military appreciation event, various games (Trivia, etc.), karaoke, activities around the pool, etc.
And, of course, there’s the food. Although you always eat for free (you’ve already paid) at the buffet, the burrito bar, the deli, the pizza parlor, the never empty soft serve ice cream machine, etc., I recommend that you also not pass up the formal evening meal in the grand dining room. I use the word “formal” loosely because, on Carnival, that means men wear long pants, otherwise, you see just about everything. There are two settings, at 6 pm and 8 pm, and you sit at the same table each evening. This allows you to make friends with other guests at the table. Each night we sat with a wonderful Indian family from Meridian, Mississippi, the Patels (There are more people in the world named Patel than any other name), whose children all attend or have graduated from Mississippi State – where one of my granddaughters is going in the fall.
At each evening meal, there’s a choice of at least four entrees, including one international dish. I chose “Indian” most nights in honor of the Patels; actually, I’m a vegetarian at heart. I thought the food was exceptionally good, but I was raised on institutional food, so my palate might be a little flat. I did see some criticism of the food in general posted on the ship’s online chat forum – “no fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, or barbeque” – but you can’t please everyone. I also overheard someone complaining that the buffet breakfast “always had baked beans.” That person has obviously never been to England where baked beans and bangers (sausages) are a staple of the working man’s diet.
0800, Saturday, 2/7/22. Lat. 20.4230N; Long. 086.9223W. Arrived Cozumel, Mexico. Distance sailed: 707 miles.
Whatever you do in Cozumel, you have to do it quick because we get underway at 1700. It’s safe to say that this is a Carnival town because there are two other ships here, the SS Carnival Breeze, out of Galveston, and the SS Grandeur of the Seas, out of Baltimore, also owned by Carnival. Between the three ships, they have dumped more than 6,000 passengers ashore today.
While there are a wide variety of shore excursions available here: catamaran trips, snorkeling in the clear waters, swimming with the porpoises, off-road jeep tours, barhopping, a trip to the Mayan ruins at Tulum, shopping and dining in town, etc., I suspect that Carnival is the absentee owner of most of them.
To tell the truth, this is not my favorite place. A hurricane came across the Yucatan peninsula a week or so before this cruise, and I was hoping that bad weather would cause our destination to be diverted to someplace like Key West, or maybe Jamaica. In fact, my last cruise to Cozumel several years ago got diverted to Progresso on the mainland (Cozumel is an island), and we were able to visit Chichen Itza, probably the most extensive and well-preserved of all the Mayan ruins.
I get the ship’s latitude and longitude, course and speed feed, etc., off a tv channel in my stateroom. This comes from an onboard GPS unit working off a satellite. You can track the location of any ship in the world, civilian or military, using a similar set up, for free by downloading an app such as “Ship Finder” or “Marine Traffic” on your phone and simply typing in the ship’s name.
1100, Sunday, 3/7/22. Lat. 24.5559N; Long. 086.5360W. Course: 355. Speed: 17.5 knots. Distance sailed: 913 miles.
Another “Fun Day at Sea.” I notice there’s all the same activities, except no church. A sign of the times, I suppose. Not too long ago, I had several friends, including a rabbi, who regularly went on free cruises by serving as the ship’s volunteer chaplain for a few days, providing religious services for all who were interested.
So instead of church, I went gambling. “High stakes bingo,” at least that’s how it was advertised, with a grand prize of $5,000. The game was “Black Out,” where all the numbers on the card must be covered to win. With my whole family playing at $25.00 per card, I had a lot of skin in the game. By some subterfuge, hocus pocus, sleight of hand, now you see it, now you don’t maneuver by the smooth-talking South African bingo maestro, the announced pot of $5,000 was somehow reduced to $600, but at least one of my granddaughters won it. I “know” enough about bingo to smell a skunk because I used to run bingo games on ships for the recreation of the crew. We made enough money selling $1.00 bingo cards each week to give away a Rolex watch every month.
0800, Monday, 4/7/22. Happy July 4th! Arrived Mobile Cruise Ship Terminal. Total miles sailed: 1273.
“Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter, home from the hill.” Surprisingly, there’s no customs check like in the old days, with declaration forms to fill out the night before arrival, and the certainty of officials riffling through your bags in search of that undeclared cigar. A certain “cloud” also hangs over this arrival because, in October, the SS Carnival Ecstasy will be taken out of service and sold to the highest bidder. This crew, all 900 of them, will be scattered to the four winds. Ecstasy, built in Helsinki, Finland, in 1991, is the last of the six Fantasy class Carnival ships still sailing. Even worse for the city, it won’t be replaced in Mobile until October 2023 when the Carnival Spirit will be moved up from Miami. In the meantime, you can still sail Carnival out of New Orleans and Galveston. Ships have lives, just like people, and the Ecstasy’s fate, if she can avoid the breaking yard, is problematic – anything from living out her last days sailing for a lower echelon cruise line hauling pilgrims on the haji, to serving as a floating youth hostel somewhere in Asia. Only time will tell.
If you have a few extra dollars in your pocket; like to meet interesting people; can still climb stairs; don’t mind gaining a few pounds; and have a birth certificate to get back into the country, a cruise may be in your future. If no, maybe not. The big question is, will Gulfport ever get a cruise ship of its own? Sadly, the answer is probably “no.” While some cruise ships have briefly used our state port as a storm haven and as a Covid layover, the channel is too narrow and shallow, and there’s no infrastructure to support 2,000 people boarding and departing a ship every week or so. But it’s not impossible. There’s even hope for me – one day, I might not be at the airport when my ship comes in.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: email@example.com.