November 1st, 2010

Keep Walking

Return of the "Boat People"

While reading the article about Royal Caribbean's new cruise ship "The Allure of the Seas" on CNN (article below), I started thinking of the one and only cruise I've taken so far in my life -- it's quite a story, so here's the interesting CNN story first:

Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas passes under Denmark's Storebaelt Bridge on Saturday - CNN

It was a tight squeeze for a giant new cruise ship sailing from Europe to its home port in in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, over the weekend.

Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas passed under Denmark's Storebaelt Bridge with about a foot to spare, drawing applause from people on board the ship.

The captain called it "the great excitement of the day."

The normal height of the ship from the water level to the top is about 73 meters (240 feet), said Capt. Hernan Zini, but the vessel couldn't be higher than 65 meters (213 feet) in order to safely go under the bridge, the captain said.

To make that happen, the crew lowered the ship's retractable twin smokestacks, carefully adjusted the ballast so the ship wouldn't be too light (and therefore sitting too high in the water) and boosted its speed.

"When you increase the speed in relatively confined waters, the ship has a suction effect from the bottom, and that actually makes the ship go a bit deeper into the water," Zini said.

The plan went off without a hitch, and the ship safely cleared the bridge.

YouTube: Watch the ship pass under the bridge

The vessel is the sister ship of the Oasis of the Seas. The pair are the largest cruise ships in the world.

The Allure of the Seas is scheduled to arrive in Florida on November 11. Its official naming ceremony will take place on November 28, and the ship will sail on its inaugural cruise in early December.

Let's start in the beginning. Brian Martin was a friend of mine who lived in Rochester, NY. Like me, he worked for Eastman Kodak and ran a Bulletin Board System (the pre-cursor to the internet). While mine was a gay, lesbian and bisexual system called Multicom-4, Brian's was called "The Oracle" and was pretty much for general information.

Brian and I met online in the mid-80s and became good friends. Brian suffered from macular degeneration (genetically passed, Brian and his siblings were losing their sight over time). Brian was also one of unfortunate persons in my close circle of friends to contract HIV during the first wave of the AIDS epidemic/holocaust.

As Brian grew older, his vision loss became much worse. As he was also growing ill from AIDS, he stopped working and started to enjoy what little time he had left. One of the things Brian discovered he loved was taking cruises. I assume that there were a number of factors, such as 'environmental standards' on a ship (every railing, staircase, lift, etc.) would have a similar and standardized layout, allowing for freedom for a blind person to get around. Also, as there was helpful (paid) staff at every turn, Brian wasn't feeling he was asking too much from anyone when he needed guidance getting around. It didn't hurt that there were no streets to cross and his seat at dinner was always the same place! In the final years of Brian's life he went on cruise after cruise. When Brian passed in 1996, he left cruises in his will to five of his closest friends. I was one of them. They were to be used within 24 months or would be forfeited. (Having the time limit was a smart idea -- Brian knew many of us simply would never make the time to go on a cruise without some sort of deadline.)

As the end of 1998 approached and the two year expiration date for the cruise approached, my business, Rochester Custom Leathers, was being drained of life and liquidity by someone I mistakenly trusted to manage it and the person I was in a relationship with was in denial about being HIV positive (he had Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions developing all over his body!) Times were just shitty in general.

Not knowing anything about cruises, I booked a week-long Caribbean cruise with Royal Caribbean for me and my lover. We were to start from San Juan and had stops in St Thomas, Martinique, Barbados, Antigua, St Maarten and then return to San Juan.

Making a very long story short, October through December 1998 was the period in time when John Ipacs (Johnny) and I were just forging our friendship and was to soon turn into a passionate relationship. About mid-November 1989, I was spending every night at Johnny's place. With all the troubles in my life, I needed someone strong to turn to. I was growing very tired of being the person with all the answers for everyone else (and feeling generally worthless). After an emotionally charged visit from my lover, we mutually ended our relationship and I changed my companion's cruise reservations to Johnny's name.

December 1998 came quickly. Our cruise started on the 6th of December and we were sailing on (what was at the time) the largest Royal Caribbean cruise ship, the Monarch of the Seas.

It didn't take long to discover we should have done more research. We got to our room, and were a little shocked to see just how small it was. The couch unfolded into the bed -- and when it was in "bed mode", there wasn't space to move in the room. (see the stock photo, as our actual photos were thrown away by Dale*)

As you can see in the photo on the right (taken a year later in St Maarten), Johnny was tattooed and pierced everywhere. Even when he dressed up nice, he was constantly being discriminated against -- you could see and feel the loathing from other people on the cruise. We dressed in tuxedos for formal dinner the first night -- we soon discovered that virtually everyone at our table requested to be moved (based solely upon appearance!) We stopped going to the formal dinner and ordered room service fast-food (which was complimentary) from that point on. We isolated ourselves during the day away from what we were to soon be calling "The Boat People".

* Johnny and I had some nice photos from the trip, but in a fit if rage, Johnny's boyfriend after me, Dale Albertson, threw all of Johnny's photos in the trash. Including virtually all of the photos Johnny had of Brittney as a baby. How cruel can someone be? -- Throwing out someone's memories is pretty close. Sadly, I didn't get a digital camera until July 2000.

To our delight, we discovered there were FOURTEEN BARS/CLUBS on the boat. One of them just had to have people we could hang with, right? Nope. All but ONE closed by 11:00 PM. The one left open was a crappy disco named "Splash", filled with geezers and kids alike.

We went to the excursion desk to ask about para-sailing and other exciting outings -- the Royal Caribbean employee looked at us as if we had three heads and bluntly said: "Perhaps you should be on a Carnival cruise -- or anything else with people your age!" *SIGH*

We made serious effort to put as much distance between the "Boat People" and ourselves. Our fifth (and final) port of call, after experiencing the anti-gay, 'rip-off the gringos' attitude of the first four stops in the Caribbean -- was St Maarten. We were 'warned' by the Royal Caribbean excursion people that there were nude beached on St Maarten! I think they expected us to be shocked and offended. We made a bee-line to Orient Beach, a clothing-optional beach resort on the French side of the island. We didn't want to wait for the coaches provided for the "boat people" -- we hired a cab and soon after arriving, dis-robed and had the first enjoyable day in the Caribbean!! Later on, we noticed that some coaches arrived from our boat -- we made sure to get in their faces with our tattoos, huge prince alberts and nipple rings. Let's see how they like feeling uncomfortable for a change!! :-)

If you see me in person, be sure to ask about the luncheon meat 'sculpture' of an eagle with the wings that shuddered to the grind of the engines... It was truly revolting! Of course, there's a lot more to tell -- like the female hookers on Barbados that tried to get in our pants --- the native in "Bottom's Bay" that climbed a coconut tree, retrieved a juicy coconut and Johnny and I filled it with Jack Daniel's from our flask and we drank it up! There are many more stories from our cruise -- sadly, most of them were just disappointing tales of the discriminating reality of human nature.

Now Royal Caribbean's got even bigger ships!! I've been thinking of going on another cruise again, this time with K.K., but next time, our eyes will be open and we'll check it before booking!! (Back in 1998, internet reviews were unheard of!!)

Following the 'boat trip', Johnny and I grew even closer, as we had faced strong adversity together and pulled through. I wish we still had the photos though...