Category Archives: Cruising Across the Atlantic 2009

Disco on the High Seas

Choppy Waters

Choppy Waters

We knew it was going to be a rough night when the captain- in typical understated fashion- came on the intercom and said it ‘might be a little choppy this evening.’  Sick bags appeared by the elevators, and the crew sealed off the lower exterior decks in anticipation of the storm.   Throughout the evening, the swells became more intense, with huge waves lifting the Jewel into the air then crashing it down until it landed with a huge shudder that shook the hull and made the staircases and rivets creak disturbingly. Later that evening, after a few screwdrivers (vodka orange) we ventured out onto the pool deck.  It was like a hurricane, with the wind howling, the trash cans and deck chairs blowing around the deck, and the waves in the pool sloshing around violently, a chlorine infused mimicry of the ocean waves below.  In fact, most of the water ended up on deck before they had a chance to drain the pools.

Wild Weather on the Deck of the Jewel (Photo Leah Arnold)

Wild Weather on the Deck of the Jewel (Photo Leah Arnold)

Though the ship was equipped with stabilisers- large wing structures extending into the water from the hull, these were (bizarrely) only usable in calm weather, as they had been known to break off in rough seas, costing the cruise line $50 million, according to the staff.

Luckily that night was 70’s night in the Spinnaker Lounge, so we dressed in our flares (bellbottoms for you Americans) and headed up to Deck 13 at the bow, which was experiencing the rough sea’s worst (or best, being intoxicated as we were and enjoying every minute of the wild weather). Upstairs outside the Spinnaker, a crewmember was desperately trying to seal a door that was refusing to keep shut in the gale, making us wonder what kind of weather the Jewel, which normally cruises the Caribbean, was built to withstand.

Out for the night in the "Spinnaker Lounge" with Leah and Sophie

Out for the night in the "Spinnaker Lounge" with Leah and Sophie

The band played all the classic disco tunes, from Stayin’ Alive to Dancing Queen.  It was quite an experience trying to boogie while being thrown around the dance floor, much to the amusement of the retirees sipping their cocktails.  The gravity became really intense as the bow reached the bottom of each trough and then lifted us a dozen meters into the air, leaving the seventies hipsters nearly weightless as we reached the top of the wave and descended into the next trough.  It was quite a night, and as we stumbled back to our cabin, we were not out of place with the other off-balance passengers, turning green and clutching the stair rails.

Dancing Queen.... (photo by Leah Arnold)

Dancing Queen.... (photo by Leah Arnold)

Down on Deck 4 in the middle of the ship, where our ‘stateroom’ is, it was a bit better as the pitching and rolling was less extreme.  Still, even though our cabin was on the inside, we could feel the crash of the waves striking the hull, and several large waves during the night made us wake up in a cold sweat.

The inevitable downside to turbulent drunken carousing is turbulent hung-over-ness as we discovered the next morning.   Still we kept our breakfast down.

Mmmmmm.....greasy breakfast

Mmmmmm.....greasy breakfast

Invasion from the Sea

Shetland fights back against cruise ship invasion (photo Leah Arnold)

Shetland fights back against cruise ship invasion (photo Leah Arnold)

I’m writing this from the public library in Lerwick, Shetland islands, on a rainy and blustery morning, where the cruise ship has anchored off shore and small boats attached to the side of the ship (sort of like pods from the side of a space craft) brought us ashore.

I plan to update the blog during each stop, rather than pay their exorbitant internet fees onboard (almost a dollar a minute) so I can update it daily- in fact I’m going to try and not give NCL a single penny more during the cruise- we’ll see how it goes.

Last night we watched a broadway style stage production in the large onboard theatre- called Band on the Run- a musical about 1970′s music.  It was actually pretty entertaining.   Everything is sort of undefinably fake and plasticky on board though so its nice to get some fresh air and get away from the crowds– off to hike along the cliffs around Lerwick!

The Cliffs of Lerwick.... (photo courtesy Leah Arnold)

The Cliffs of Lerwick.... (photo courtesy Leah Arnold)

Cruise ships started descending on the Shetlands in greater numbers about a decade ago, and you can imagine the impact of 2000 passengers arriving in a town of only 7000 people (both the positive economic impact and potentially negative cultural impact).  Looking out into the harbour, the ship looks like an invading presence in this small maritime outpost.

The Port of Lerwick wasn't big enough for our behemoth (photo: Leah Arnold)

The Port of Lerwick wasn't big enough for our behemoth (photo: Leah Arnold)

Maritime twee (photo by Leah Arnold)

Maritime twee (photo by Leah Arnold)

Later that afternoon…

A 4000 year old "broch" in Shetland

A 4000 year old "broch" in Shetland

We walked around Lerwick and visited what’s known as a Broch- a defensive structure dating from the bronze or iron age (back to 2000 BC) It was made of stone and you could see the shelves they presumably used for storage etc.  Pretty eerie thinking about the generations that had inhabited it.

We also witnessed some more modern (and unsavory) aspects to life on the Shetlands- such as cars parking on the pavement.

Picking up bad habits from the mainland...

Picking up bad habits from the mainland...

But we were happy to see the Shetland Community Bike Project thriving in Lerwick, one of a growing number of community based bike repair centers springing up around the world.

Shetland Community Bike Project

Shetland Community Bike Project

Departure from Dover

On the gangway, excited to be on our way

On the gangway, excited to be on our way

When Leah (my friend who I’m travelling with) and I arrived at the Dover Cruise Terminal, the Jewel towered above us.  The ship is even more massive than it appeared from photographs- a veritable floating city designed to fulfil every whim of the largely American, retired passengers who keep Norwegian Cruise Line literally afloat.

And you can see why cruising appeals- everything is taken care of for you from all-you-can-eat buffets and specialty restaurants to pilates and spinning classes, two swimming pools, half a dozen bars, a huge theatre, and 24 hour room service.

The "Stardust" Theatre at the Bow

The "Stardust" Theatre at the Bow with a typical cross section of passengers...

There are 2400 passengers on the ship and about 1100 (mostly Filipino) crew.  Before boarding the ship, and at every opportunity you are offered hand sanitizer, presumably to reduce the risk of swine flu transmission, but also the dreaded norovirus, a gastrointestinal virus that has been the bane of cruising, sickening thousands of passengers- a real threat to the reputation (and profits) of cruise companies.

According to sources on the web, the cruise industry is growing at a rapid pace.  This is evident from the recent additions to NCL’s fleet, which are all on the scale of the Jewel, constructed in 2005: the Sky (built 1999), the Spirit (2000), the Star (2001), the Sun (2001), the Dawn (2002), Pride of America (2005), the Jade (2006), the Pearl (2006), and the Gem (2007).  At least prior to the recession, the demand for cruising was predicted to skyrocket, and the industry has responded by rapidly growing their fleets.  Due in 2010 is the Norwegian Epic, an obscene monster of a cruise ship.  I shouldn’t have to mention the obvious- that this growth is based on artificially low fuel prices, unconstrained carbon emissions, and a culture of unbridled consumption.  All this clearly cannot last.

One tonne of CO2 every minute.....scary

One tonne of CO2 every minute.....scary

A couple of weeks before the cruise, I e-mailed NCL to ask them about their carbon emissions.  Unsurprisingly, I didn’t receive a reply.  But fortunately, courtesy of the Freestyle Daily newsletter, we can glean the following about the Jewel’s environmental performance:

*Fuel consumption at top speed with all 4 engines running: 1 gallon per second

*Fuel type: Heavy Bunker B IFO 380 cst

*Fuel oil capacity: 713,300 gallons

*number of light bulbs on board: over 25,000  (primarily low efficiency halogen- after all when bunker oil is so cheap, who cares about efficiency?)

I’ll leave it to those of you who love doing carbon calculations to work out the horrendous impact implied by these figures.

The "AGE locker...." Is this where they keep the cadavers?

The "AGE locker...." Is this where they keep the cadavers?

The vibe of the ship feels a bit like Las Vegas, somewhere I never want to return to.   And Leah and I feel (and probably look) quite out of place here amongst the retirees.  But we’re going to make the best of it and try to enjoy ourselves, while trying to better understand the phenomenon of cruising and expose what we can of the dark underbelly beneath the glitz.

Your reluctant cruiser.....

Your reluctant cruiser.....

Cruising to Climate Chaos

'The Norwegian Jew'

'The Norwegian Jew'

Yes yes I know I haven’t blogged for several months.   Sorry people.   Perhaps a part of me wanted to allow the Sustrans article to stew in its own juices (more about Sustrans soon). Or maybe I just needed to step back from it all.  But I’m back online now, and headed to the States for a few months.  I plan to continue to present my Driven to Excess research, see what trouble I can stir up, and of course catch up with friends and family.

I’m booked on the next Virgin flight from Heathrow…….Ha!!!  Got you!  Justkidding…  I’ll actually be travelling with my friend Leah, via the Norwegian Jewel cruise ship (depicted above).   I know that cruises are the floating symbol of excess, the Las Vegas of transatlantic options, the carbon glutton of the seas- some say three times the impact of flying, but……

Unfortunately I don’t know anyone with a sailboat, and the recession’s impact on the cruise industry mean that you can get relatively cheap passage at the moment. This is in comparison to basic accommodation on a cargo ship which is twice as much!  I’ll be reflecting on these conundrums and more here on my blog during my overland return journey to San Francisco from September 19th to October 15th, so watch this space! 

When I rang up NCL Cruise Lines to book the voyage, I thought the agent said the ship was called the ‘Norwegian Jew.’     I could imagine this man with long braided sideburns eating gefilte fish out of a fjord…

Anyway… my friend who works in the travel industry, writes to me:

“The most damaging mode of transport you could have chosen.  I hope campaigners against big fat polluting cruise ships close the port on the day you travel xxx”

Yes, Ali, I hope so too.    Indeed I am experiencing carbon guilt.   Nevertheless I am going to try and enjoy it, sliding down the waterslide and going for a swim, enjoying a show or two and trying not to think of the Africans, Bangladeshis, and Tuvaluans for whom the emissions from the smokestacks mean they’re homes will be submerged and livelihoods destroyed.

Anyway, we will be stopping for the day in Lerwick, Shetlands, Reykjavik, Iceland,  St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Halifax, Nova Scotia before arriving in New York on the 30th.  I have talks scheduled in Halifax, New York, and hopefully the University of Iceland in Reykjavik will come through soon as well.

I will be blogging daily across the Atlantic, finding out what life is like on a cruise ship, how ‘environmentally friendly’ these ships actually are, and interviewing other passengers, particularly those who are on board to avoid a transatlantic flight.

Stay tuned from the 19th of September, when the Jew leaves Dover.  Come down to the dock and protest if you like ;)   J x