Skip to content

Twenty Days on the High Seas – Part One

November 7, 2022

If, on reading the title of this post, you’re expecting a harrowing account of a voyage through the Southern Ocean on a life raft after a yachting accident, followed by a miraculous rescue, you’ll be disappointed.

This is the story of a much more mundane experience: nearly three weeks on a cruise ship from Barcelona to Singapore. But perhaps not so mundane. A tale of fear and loathing, of rabbis and vicars, of inhabitants of a temporarily village doing their best to eat themselves to death while mummifying themselves in the sun in preparation for their demise. Of swimming pool wars and duels in laundrettes. Of COVID and pirate alerts. And of whales that didn’t show. All the while, back in the UK, my home country, our beloved government was engaged in its own dance of death.

We’d booked the cruise before COVID. Why? This jaunt was due to stop at Heraklion in Crete (good for Knossos), Sagada (Karnak and Valley of the Kings) Salalah (the greenest point in Oman) and Columbo in Sri Lanka. All places where we’d never been or wanted to revisit. So why not?

Things didn’t quite turn out as expected. For one thing Heraklion and Columbo were struck off the list. Heraklion was replaced by Souda Bay, which is about three hours drive from Knossos. And Columbo was out because of the political and economic turmoil, to be replaced by an extra day in Singapore, which was fine for those staying on the ship on its next leg to Sydney, but not for us, because we were going to be staying in Singapore anyway.

Anyway, for the lack of anything better to do – unless you count the plethora of silly quizzes, the ballroom dancing or the West End hit shows – I decided to write a diary of the trip. I’m not going to bore you with everything I wrote because I doubt if your attention span and level of interest would let you get through the whole thing. So here’s an abridged version. It’s in two parts, in case you get bogged down somewhere near Iran. You could call it lowlights and highlights. If you’ve never been on a cruise before, you might find it useful as a forewarning of what you might encounter on the ocean wave. Beware: both episodes are quite long. And since trigger warnings are obligatory these days, both pieces are liberally spiced with cheap shots at the clientele and rude comments on the political nonsense at home.

The ship was the Queen Elizabeth. The operator was Cunard, once a venerable brand in its own right, now just a part of the Carnival Cruises empire. The customers were a mix of Brits and Aussies (most of whom were going on to Perth and Sydney), with a smattering of other nationalities.

Day Zero: Forms, forms and yet more forms

Boarding in Barcelona. Shedloads of paperwork. Vaccination certificates, a COVID test certificate no more than 72 hours old. A £2 million pound travel insurance policy. And a declaration of health. The latter made me laugh, as I listened to the click-clack of walking sticks all around me in the boarding queue. What could you own up to that would be sufficient to have you banned from cruising? A triple bypass? A degenerative neurological condition? Necrotising fasciitis? The plague? Looking at some of the passengers, I would be willing to bet that some of them might not make it to the end. The usual Mr and Mrs Blobbies, but also pallid, skinny folk who look like they would be blown over by the gentlest ocean breeze.

Anyway, COVID seems to be the main preoccupation. We’re informed that we must wear masks at all times other than at the trough or in our rooms. Which I find rather irritating, coming from a country that abandoned these practices long ago. But I guess that the proportion of “vulnerable” people among the eighteen hundred passengers must be quite high, even if the health declarations would have you believe that we’re all ready to run marathons round the promenade deck.

All of a sudden, I feel cast back two years, to the days when the Plague Ship docked in Yokohama while its occupants dropped like flies.

Day One: Queues, queues and pole-vaulting Aussies

Sailing. Much fun ahead of us, if we can navigate the strange catering practices. Long lines in the breakfast buffet snaking around the middle of the ship. Every time we enter the line, a masked attendant sprays disinfectant on our hands. After a couple of visits, I begin to forget the purpose of the queue. Passports? Or “Crucifixion?”

Much of the day spent not going to stuff. We gave the LGBTQ+ get-together in the Commodore Club a miss. Masonic gathering? Nah – never learned the handshake.

Dinner was a laugh. It’s waiter service. You have to dress up; no shorts and sleeveless tee shirts allowed. When you book your time in the coach class dining room (the premium customers live on the top decks and have their own restaurants, curiously known as “Grills”), you get assigned a table with the same people every night. Our companions included an engineer and a special needs teacher from Stafford, an anaesthesiologist from Vancouver who loathes “socialised medicine” and insists that Joe Biden has dementia (an established fact apparently) and an accountant from Queensland with an impenetrable accent and a sharp wit, who shared a few tales about pole-vaulting over large sleeping passengers to get to the loo on long-haul flights. Whether the joke supply will last over twenty nights remains to be seen.

Day Two: COVID Redux

We’re introduced to our Master and Commander, who apparently is the only female captain employed by Cunard. I never caught her full name. But ThorHauge is two of them, which is good enough for me. She’s from the Faroe Islands. there’s a deafening blast from the ship’s horn, and the Captain, in her rather dour tones, gives us our position, mainly for the benefit of the trainspotters among us who religiously log the information in little notebooks.

During the day, we were all asked to do a lateral-flow COVID test. Those who test positive will be isolated in balcony rooms just beneath our deck, where they can cough and splutter to their hearts content in the open air. Doesn’t bode well for those of us who might be taking the sea air at the time, since you would expect the virus-infested air to drift upwards…. Nobody was allowed out of their rooms until they’d done their test. I later learned that a number of people tested positive.

Every morning we’re invited to listen to a distinguished speaker hold forth on his favourite subject for 45 minutes (about the limits of the attention span of the average passenger, it seems). This morning it was General Sir Simon Mayall, formerly of the British Army, attempting to relate the entire history of the Ottoman Empire in a one lecture, which was somewhat ambitious. A fair bit of cut and paste from other talks was clearly evident. I’m sure he was a fine general, but as a public speaker addressing an audience of arthritic old farts, he made a lot of assumptions about their knowledge. Arrogant though I may be, but I reckon I could have delivered a more coherent account of the period by focusing on three themes: infanticide, the janissaries and Suleiman the Magnificent.

Day Three: Souda Bay, Crete – exploding Ottomans

Off we go to Souda Bay. We booked a trip to a monastery where in the 19th century hundreds of people resisting Ottoman rule blew themselves up with gunpowder along with an equal number of soldiers in the monastery’s wine vault. The church was nice, but overall not the most exciting visit, enlivened only by the arrival in a Porsche of a guy and his girlfriend, who was wearing shorts about three inches below her buttocks. Not the most appropriate clothing for a Greek Orthodox holy site. Our guide reproached her in no uncertain terms, though she kept gliding around with no apparent sense of remorse.

Later our bus took us down the mountains to the Venetian port of Rethymno. It was charming enough to have merited a longer visit. Unfortunately, we only had an hour there, which we spent in a harbour café guzzling Cretan yoghurt with honey while watching old ladies devouring big plates of fish.

Day Four: Pirate paranoia

This morning, the Captain conducted the Pirate Drill. This had been announced the day before. We were told that in a few day’s time we would be crossing past the Horn of Africa on our way to Salalah in the Oman. This, she reminded us, is pirate territory – as in Tom Hanks held hostage by a host of Somali fishermen turned privateers. No matter that it’s been at least ten years since piracy has been a serious problem and no pirate has been able to breach the defences of a cruise liner to date. The captain’s warning spooked us into taking the drill seriously. Which is why, at precisely 10.30, which barely gave me time to bolt down my breakfast, we were required to close our curtains, lock the door to the balcony, leave our cabins and stand outside in the corridor while the crew went through the prescribed rituals.

In the unlikely event that a boatload of pirates tries to take over a ship with 2,500 passengers and crew, I would hope that we have a few RPGs and people who know how to use them, as well as the legendary sonic gun that blasts out the eardrums from 200 metres. And of course, there’s the international anti-piracy task force patrolling the area, who would no doubt send their helicopters to the rescue if needed. My theory: it’s all for insurance purposes.

On our morning walk round the promenade deck, the sight of the people splayed out on the deckchairs is not edifying.

It’s a shame, in a way, that we don’t have technology on board that allows us see other people at the age of their choosing. Instead of the person in front of you at the age of eighty, face and much else besides sagging towards the floor, how much better if you could see them, say, at thirty, in the full vigour of youth yet with incipient maturity. I say this because it’s quite depressing to look at the hordes of seniors on the ship. Faces betraying what looks like disappointment, disapproval or just blankness. Gait that suggests a lifetime of toil, though more likely the result of years of obesity. Bodies that spread out over two seats, so vast that they begin to envelop the relatively tiny heads that perch on top of them.

Yet when you speak to some of these individuals, you realise that they’re people who have probably lived interesting lives and have perspectives and experience worth sharing. It’s also true that among the British contingent there are plenty of immigrant-bashing, lefty-despising, Truss-voting Brexit lovers, whose every response has been pre-baked for them by the Daily Mail. But the rest? I suspect we’ll meet some people who have not only have plenty to say, but experience to back up their words.

Day Five: welcome to our canal

Early in the morning, we glide into the Suez Canal. So this is what we fought a war for in 1956. Doesn’t look like one of the seven wonders of the world, but this little waterway carries a serious amount of the world’s maritime cargo. Fertile, irrigated fields on one side. Scrubby wasteland on the other. Down in the water, we pass a fisherman in a small boat who shouts “welcome”. To his canal, not ours.

After a succession of lakes, the canal finally squeezes us out into the Red Sea. I looked for the gouge in the bank caused by the Evergreen cargo vessel that blocked the canal last year, but no sign. All around the ship, strange devices are being set up. Also fire hoses that look a bit too dinky to make a serious impression on determined intruders scaling up their rope ladders. Young women with “Security” emblazoned on their uniforms scan the seas with high-powered binoculars. They include a fierce-looking Nepalese woman. Are there Ghurkas on board?

Day Seven: pharaohs, more pharaohs and Liz Truss

Luxor, Karnak and Valley of Kings – the big trip. I’ve never been to Luxor. We signed up because if we don’t go now, we might never have another chance. After an early breakfast, 800 passengers sallied forth on a convoy of buses for the three-and-a-half-hour journey. At least that was the theory. In practice, the departure was something of an EasyJet experience. Multiple staging posts, plus the delight of the Egyptian security station at the port. Not one X-ray, but two. It took an hour to get on our bus. By that time all the others had gone. So much for safety in numbers. Anyone intent on doing us harm could easily pick us off one by one before we had the chance to circle the wagons. In fact, I think the bus drivers were engaged in some kind of race.

We got there in the end, after a discourse from the tour guide about the iniquities of the Egyptian economic system, the various revolutions since King Farouk was deposed, ending with a eulogy of President Sisi, who, apparently is a good man doing his best to sort out Egypt’s problems, as evidenced by the second cutting of the Suez, the new capital and various new roads. Which must be a great comfort to the hundreds of political prisoners locked up by his security services.. Not by coincidence, as we passed through Egypt, I had decided to read Alaa Al-Aswany’s Republic of False Truths. Our guide’s description of the private sector’s methods of evading the labour laws very much chimed with Al-Aswany’s description of rampant corruption in pre-Arab Spring Egypt. The guide told us that some companies demand that you sign three pieces of paper before you are start a job. The first: the employment contract. The second: your letter of resignation. The third, a waiver of your outstanding wages and other benefits should you resign. The second and the third are, of course, undated.

Karnak – as magnificent as expected – was followed by the Valley of the Kings. About which I can’t say more than that it was good to have been there, among hordes of Russians, Spanish, Italians as well as our lot. Only four tombs are open, including King Tut’s, which costs an extra bung to visit. You enter, you go down and you come back up again in the space of 15 minutes per tomb. Yes, of course the carvings are impressive, but so are the queues waiting to descend. Did one have the opportunity to stand before the empty spaces for a few minutes contemplating the fleeting nature of power? Nah, unless you wanted to be crushed by lines of Russians on a last bash before going home to be mobilised. Still, I did spare a thought for Liz Truss, about to be deposed with a speed that would cause any self-respecting pharaoh to raise a mummified eyebrow.

The First Selfie

Day Eight: The Captain Phillips Zone

The Captain tells us that we can abandon our face masks. Hurrah!

The next five days at sea. The fact that we’re about to enter pirate-infested waters perhaps explains why General Mayall was rolled out again, this time to regale us about The Making of the Modern Middle East, with special reference to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Given that I’ve read about twenty books on the subject he covers, I decided to give him a miss. More fool me perhaps. After all, he was there. My experience was more tangential. That said, it would have been far more fun to have a gin-soaked conversation with him and listen to his war stories. Or possibly his thoughts on the role of the tank in the light of Ukraine’s ongoing mangling of Russian armour.

As it is, I think about heading for the Hobby Club meeting, an event that promises fascinating possibilities. Do people sit around the room with little placards proclaiming their pet obsessions? Who knows – I might learn something about snakes, nematodes, crocheting or home-made pipe bombs. More fun, I should have thought, to produce a home-grown version of Mastermind. No subject too obscure. Or possibly Brain of Britannia.

If fact, if they employed me as their Geriatric Entertainment Officer, I’d be quite happy to come up with the questions. As it is, the entertainments people are on average 50 years younger than the customers. What do they know about what gets us old bastards going? How about designating a corner of the ship for Grumpy Old Men, where the malcontents can drone on about the quality of the food, the rudeness of foreigners, the size of the swimming pools and so forth? Actually, we have one. It’s called the smoking area.

Or a Speakers’ Corner, where guests can get excited about vaccine conspiracies, aliens (extra-terrestrials or the sort that arrive in boats), extol the virtues of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, or warn us of the Second Coming. They could call it the Q Corner.

Out on deck, the temperature is much the same as I remember from this time of year in Jeddah, where we worked for most of the Eighties. Which is not surprising, given that my favourite Middle Eastern city is a mere fifty miles away. The inmates are spread around the deckchairs, sizzling away in the sun, lost in thought – or possibly slumber – mouths open, corpse-like. The pool, which is large enough to accommodate around six people of massive girth at one time, reminds me of a tiny version of the Suez Canal, as human versions of container ships ease themselves from one end to another, before hauling themselves up the steps with all the grace of sea lions coming ashore to bask.

Out at sea, no sign of pirates, or even sharks, which tend to hang out in these parts and eat unsuspecting tourists.

Day Nine: The Penguin Parade

Rushing down the Red Sea. Very hot and humid. The ship is battening down the hatches for imminent pirate attacks. The sonic guns are locked and loaded. Water hoses are unfurled around the promenade deck. The young women in uniform are ranged around the ship with binoculars, looking out for suspicious-looking fishing vessels. The biggest threat would seem to be a USS Cole-style attack, wherein a boat blows itself up and, in the process, blasts a hole in the liner’s side.

Speaking of threats, there appears to be a new COVID variant waiting for us when we land in Singapore. Perfect.

And if our elderly fellow guests aren’t nervous enough, Cunard has kindly supplied a lawyer to lecture us about medical negligence law. I passed on that one. Likewise, I missed The General’s latest talk on the First Crusade, which he described in the title as a “victory”. I suppose in Putin’s terms it might have been, though descriptions of Jerusalem knee-deep in the blood of its occupants are hardly a story of victory worth celebrating.

Tonight, the ship’s external lights will be dimmed. For the next four days, until we reach Salalah, the dining rooms will be blacked out by curtains. The promenade deck, where we regularly do circuits in the morning and at night, is off limits from dusk to dawn.

Inside, it’s penguin night, when you are expected to don the black tie and all that jazz. Why they bother is beyond me. Our community of old trouts and leathery lounge lizards are no easier on the eye when draped with sparkly dresses and silly suits.

Conversation with an elderly American at breakfast. We talked about Brexit, Trump – all my favourite subjects. He told me that I was the first British passenger to tell him that Brexit was a bad idea. Which reminds me that we all have our blind spots, based on belief rather than logic. These are the no-go areas where discussion is pointless. Things get dangerous when, with the encouragement of manipulators like Trump, they metastasise and grow, to the point that they define the individual. And when they define sufficient like-minded individuals, that’s when they become cults. Or religions, or political parties, you might say.

What’s my blind spot? That’s for others to say, because the blind can’t see.

Day Ten: Worst job job you’ve ever had?

Of all the jobs on this ship, there are two I would least enjoy. The first is that of the security guard, who has to stand on deck for hours on end with a set of binoculars scouring the seas for imaginary pirates. Why this is necessary when the ship has perfectly decent radar is beyond me. The second is that of the spa therapists, who spend most of their time giving “treatments” to ancient passengers, and whose job is to convince them that they look years younger afterwards. I suppose one prerequisite of the job is to be a convincing liar.

But we all live in hope, so why wouldn’t you go to a Puffy Eye Seminar, or partake of Wrinkle Remedies? Though speaking as a man, I might baulk at The Ultimate Cut. Unless, of course, I was converting to Judaism.

Day Eleven: Bring back Boris

Distant rumblings from the imperial capital. Truss has fallen! We overhear a couple on the next table at breakfast expressing the hope that the ever-wise Conservative Party will bring back Boris. I resolve that if the mendacious tub of lard returns to “save the nation”, then when we get to Singapore I shall go straight to the authorities and apply for political asylum.

Not that that would help. I suspect that if there was a referendum on board that asked British passengers if they would vote for Brexit again today, not only would they vote overwhelmingly yes, but a sizeable majority would be in favour of applying to be a colony of Singapore. Then where would I be?

Day Twelve: Frankincense, Myrrh and Job

Hi ho. We’ve reached Salalah in Oman. It’s a seriously hot day. We opted not to go on one of the trips offered by Cunard. It’s Friday, so the souks are closed. We could have gone to see the tomb of Job, which is apparently an object of reverence to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. But as my wife says, do we really want to go to a rock, say “hello Job” and piss off again? Locals say that the Virgin May is buried somewhere nearby. Yeah right. So far, we’ve visited her tomb in at least two other countries, and very fine locations for tourists they are too. One can only think that when she died some smart apostle divided her into pieces, so that everyone could get to visit a bit of her. After all, this is what the ancients did with saints, whose relics can be seen in various cathedrals. Perhaps Oman got a fingernail.

Anyway, we made it past the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Oman without any visit from fishing vessels with AK-47s, so that was good. Looking out from the cabin, we can see a warship at anchor, looking very similar to the British destroyer we spotted in Souda Bay harbour. Good to know that one eighth of the British navy was keeping a protective eye out for us as we churned our way through the pirate-infested seas.

Speaking of British destroyers, it would be truly amazing if Boris, the arch destroyer, returns in triumph to Downing Street. Should that be the case, would he appoint to his cabinet any of those who “betrayed” him by resignations or their votes back in July? If not, he would have a very limited field from which to select his top team. All the greater chance that our immediate future will be in the hands of a team of all the talentless.

Tomorrow we hit the high seas, all the way to Singapore.

In Part Two, Cruise Wars break out…

From → Books, Social, Travel, UK

  1. Hi Steve, you should have telegraphed your intentions – Gillian and I were in Chania when the cruise ships were in. We could have shown you around with some local insight. As it was, on the day we were visiting from Kalyves there was a high tide and a strong wind, so we amused ourselves watching tourists on the quayside getting drenched by occasional waves that would surge up over it.

    Likewise the Suez canal – I’ve returned to Egypt to take up a contract with Emaar, hopefully to ensure that New Cairo and other developments can meet or exceed the now-faded grandeur of Cairo and Alexandria. Spontaneous tourism in Egypt is much more fun than group tours, although there’s no avoiding the queues in the Valley of the Kings.

    Having lived in Salalah during the latter part of the 80’s, I can share with you my hand-written tour guide of the region that I prepared for visiting yachtsmen – there was a grapevine between boats, and having assisted one with finding various spares and bits of equipment, we hosted about 15 over two seasons; hot showers, rooftop barbeques and a chance to call home being fair exchange for meals on board and hearing tales of adventure on the high seas.

    We never knowingly met a pirate in Salalah, but we did meet an award-winning Australian restauranteur from Melbourne who was running an obscure back-street restaurant in Salalah. We could only surmise that he had fallen foul of the Melbourne Mafiosi and needed to disappear where no-one could ever find him.

    I won’t have so much to say about your next instalment – its beyond my patch.

    • Thanks Doug. Great to hear from you. Pity we didn’t meet up. The storm came the day we left, so we were lucky. By and large, the excursions were much too short, so your comments on Egypt were well made. Never got to Salalah in the 80’s. Must have been a blast. I didn’t realise it was such a stop-off in those days. In Bali at the moment… S

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: