• Otter Views: Cruise Ship Ahoy

    by Tom Stevens

    Recent passenger ship travails in Italy and the Gulf of Mexico have me recalling a bygone Alaska cruise aboard the 77,000-ton “Regal Princess.” That fine vessel did not run aground or need to be towed back to port, but our voyage was not without incident.

    The problem was in the timing. My stepmother had sold her house advantageously and wanted to share her bounty with the family. So she booked five of us onto an Alaskan cruise for early May, 1996.

    Having never been on a cruise nor seen the 49th State, I was keen to embark. But as my stepmother is prone to seasickness, I wondered how she would hold up.

    “Alaska? In May?” I asked. “We could run into weather.”

    “No, it will be nearly summer up there,” she said serenely. “Besides, I’ll have my Dramamine.”

    That conversation came to mind as we made the 350-mile crossing from Seward to Glacier Bay through the bumptious Gulf of Alaska. A frisky spring gale had kicked up 50-knot winds and barn-high swells through which the “Regal Princess” pounded for 12 hours. This sent most passengers below to their staterooms, but one brother and I clung to a railing on the wildly pitching observation deck. We wanted to photograph a big wave.

    “That one!” I shouted. “Get that one.”

    Out of the murk ahead loomed a wave the size and shape of Mount McKinley. Snorting spume and spray, it took aim at the starboard bow like a surfacing sea serpent, its thousand-yard back spiky with whitecaps. The “Princess” was an iron-plated dreadnaught able to crush even the rowdiest seas to the flatness of a sumo’s cushion. But the titanic wave fuming and toppling toward us seemed willing to take whatever punishment to ship cared to dish out. I changed my mind about the photo.

    “Get back!” I yelled, hooking my brother’s arm and pulling him into the companionway. He smacked the bulkhead wetly, his camera bouncing on its strap.

    As we crouched against the railing, the Princess hammered into the wave’s rolling flank with a resounding “Da-Doom!” The blow shot a seltzer blast of spray 60 feet into the air, drenching the observation deck and sending buckshot blasts of pelletized spray crackling off the hull. Rebounding from the ship, the wave roared crazily off at an angle, bashing over other waves and filling the air with a stinging smoke of spray.

    “Whoooo-ey!” I shouted, bracing for the next one. “This is the life!”

    As it happened, the storm caught us on the second evening of the cruise, the one traditionally reserved for the Captain’s Dinner. Many passengers did not make it out of their cabins to that sequin-spangled affair, but those who did found plenty to eat and drink. They also found the Italian captain: trim, jovial, dapper as a dance master in his black uniform with gold piping. Storm? There was a storm?

    Whether posing for snapshots on the chandelier-lit grand stairwell or decanting the first bottle of champagne into a seven-foot pyramid of glasses, our captain was a model of decorum and crisp confidence. And why shouldn’t he be? He commanded a huge ocean liner built for the rough-and-tumble of the Alaska trade, a vessel so sturdy the pyramid of champagne stems scarcely trembled as each mammoth wave belted the hull.

    At length we reached the jade-green “inland waterway,” a serene world of rain, mists and fog. Gyres of eagles circled overhead. Clouds streamed from distant ridges. Twists of vapor rose from dark forests, giving the coast the primordial aspect of an emergent world. This seemed appropriate, as the ship’s science specialist told us retreating glaciers were exposing vast swatches of barren land that hadn’t seen air or sunlight for 10,000 years.

    I found that an eerie prospect. As deep-frozen glacial soil emerges from the ice sheet, will seeds and spores deposited 100 centuries ago stir to life? Will Clovis Points surface? What about mastodons? Could we be getting into a Jean Auel novel here?

    “More like ‘King Kong,’” my brother mused as a range of cloud-capped peaks slid silently past the ship’s rail one evening. “That scene where they first get to Kong’s island and see the skull mountain and those gigantic gates in the jungle?”

    “You know something big lived behind there,” I agreed. “This place gives me the same feeling – a sort of lost world, with huge creatures thumping around just out of sight.”

    I half-expected pterodactyls to come gliding out through the Alaskan mist. What we got were eagles. Perched in treetops along the water’s edge, wheeling high overhead, or swooping astern to snatch flotsam from the ship’s wake, Alaska’s raptors put on a show for cruisers who had the foresight to bring binoculars.

    Maybe next time.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on February 22, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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