Day 6 – Sea Day – En Route to the Panama Canal
Thursday, January 25, 2018
Marvelous M and Rowdy R joined me for breakfast in the Lido. I was sitting at a large, round table, hoping Perfect would arrive so I would not be commandeering a large round table to no purpose. Marvelous and Rowdy would be good stand-ins for Perfect, but I noticed that they were already seething when they arrived, Marvelous carrying a large bowl of steaming porridge, Rowdy with a dish of prunes.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “You seem a little frazzled.”
“Oh,” said Marvelous. “I’m just so upset. We heard last night at dinner that a couple we don’t much like are joining the ship in San Fran and they insist on crashing our table. It’s an 8-top and not big enough for ten. Besides, we don’t want to have to dine with them for the next three weeks. What a cheek to think they can push their way in to our little dinner circle.”
“Don’t worry, my love,” said Rowdy. “I’m sure the Maitre d’ will take care of it for us.”
“What if he doesn’t?” said Marvelous. “They crashed us last year and no-one stopped them. It made our table much too crowded and I hated it.”
Marvelous was getting very worked up. I was shocked. I had heard of laundry room histrionics, but nothing like this.
A few years back, on board QE2, the second of the Elizabeth ships, the laundry room was reputedly the site of multiple fights. Screaming fishwife arguments, squabbles over who owned which dress, fights over next in line for a washer or a dryer. Some fought over the right to sit in the only available chair.
“Bloody nose in the launderette” whispered the gossips.
“Fisticuffs in the launderette,” shouted the troublemakers.
“Lock up the laundry,” yelled the agitators.
“Not so fast,” said Mary Higgins Clark, author of best-selling murder mysteries. She was sailing on Cunard as a celebrity speaker. “I find this all quite fascinating. Don’t be surprised if one day you read one of my stories and find that it’s about murder in the launderette, on board the QE2.” I guess she was joking because I’ve been looking for that book ever since, without success.
This evening, all thought of laundry room spats was banished. It was another glamorous night with another cocktail party, hosted this time by Andrea and Cristina from the Future Cruise Sales department. Pretty, Perfect and I arrived in our finery, found seats and ordered our favorite drinks. As usual, the bar waiters were dancing attendance on Pretty, so we were served in a very timely fashion.
Andrea and Cristina took the floor. Each said a few words, thanking guests for their loyalty to Cunard, and encouraging us to book more trips. If we book a cruise while on board, there is an automatic discount and valuable shipboard credits which can be used for either on-board service or purchases such as wine, shore excursions, or pampering treats at the spa. Guests can also buy future cruise credits which guarantees the customary on-board discount, even if one books the cruise months after leaving the ship.
Cunard is part of the Carnival Group, the leader in cruise shipping. Any guest who owns at least 100 shares of Carnival stock is entitled to additional discounts. With all this information, I’m planning to visit Andrea, buy future cruise credits, book a cruise to Iceland, and think about another World Cruise. It’s a wonderful life.
Day 7 – Transit of the Panama Canal
Friday, January 26, 2018
Our ship was given an early (but not the first) transit time so I was up betimes and positioned on my balcony before we reached the canal. The sun was not yet up but in the early light of dawn I could see that we were nearing the approach channel. I looked toward the front of the ship and could see a strange looking construction, high in the sky. It seemed to be part of a bridge, like a few pieces of a child’s Lego kit, sticking up from nowhere, coming from nowhere, going nowhere. At that moment the Captain made an announcement from the bridge. Forward open decks on 4 and 5, crew quarters, were now available for guests who wished to have a full-frontal view of the canal. I grabbed my camera and my room key, flung open my door and raced down the corridor to the bow.
Now I could really appreciate the new bridge. It was being built in segments, with huge gaps between the enormous supports. As we sailed under one rather strange T structure, we heard cheers from above us. Looking up, we could see construction workers sitting on the edge of the bridge, their legs hanging down so that we could see the soles of their boots.
Then we were past the bridge and heading for the entrance to the canal. As we approached, tugs alongside gently pushing us so that we might make a perfect entry into the first lock chamber, we saw the mules standing, ready to run alongside us and take us safely through the locks.
The mules are mechanized trucks which guide each ship as they run on rails alongside the lock. Our ship necessitated four or maybe five mules for our safe passage.
The Panama Canal is the only body of water where a ship’s captain relinquishes control of his vessel. A Panama Canal pilot is the only one authorized to command during the canal transit. In addition to the mandatory Canal Pilot, Cunard retained a canal expert who talked us through the experience, pointing out things of interest along the way, inundating us with technical information.
Like many of the guests, I had been through the canal on several occasions, so I went to breakfast. Of course, we were gazing out through the windows, searching for the new Panamax extension to the canal. We saw nothing. The new Panamax locks have their own approach channel and the locks were not visible from our location.
The Panama Canal runs North-South through a narrow part of the land bridge which connects North and South America. Although construction began in 1880, the project initially failed. It was ultimately completed in 1914 by the United States, who managed the canal until 1999. Panama took over responsibility for the canal at the beginning of the new millennium, the waterway now managed by the Panama Canal Authority.
The canal is a wonderful short cut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but the lake in the middle of the canal is nearly a hundred feet higher than sea level. Consequently, a vessel must be raised through a series of locks to reach Gatun Lake, and then lowered back down to sea level.
This challenge was handled through the construction of Gatun Locks at the Atlantic/Caribbean end of the canal and by Pedro Miguel and Mira Flores Locks on the Pacific end.
Queen Elizabeth entered Gatun Locks without incident and we reached Gatun Lake by mid-morning. I had invited friends to join me at 11 am for a photo shoot on my balcony. I opened a bottle of champagne, brought orange juice from the Lido and voila, mimosas for all. Daniel, from the ship’s photography department, arrived promptly and captured us for posterity, mimosas in our hands, the lake behind us, broad smiles, warm sunshine. A perfect morning.
These days, every cruise ship maintains an active photography department. Anyone who has cruised will remember the display of glossy photographs of guests arriving on board, smiling with the Captain at the Welcome Aboard dinner, negotiating the gangway at each Caribbean port, smiling in the restaurant with a forkful of steak en route to one’s mouth. Now, in the era of digital, Cunard has gone a step beyond. All our photographs are available on a computer screen. In the Photo Gallery, one may search the professional photographs on one of perhaps a dozen interactive screens. I entered my name and room number and selected photos taken on the outside deck. I found my photo, taken on Day 1 at the Sail away party. From there, it was an easy step to find all related photos using facial recognition. All my photos appeared on screen and I was able to select the best and put them in a folder. If I choose, I can buy a USB stick with all my photos from this vacation. It’s a very modern and high-tech way to handle it and I am delighted.
Arranging the photo shoot as we sailed through Gatun Lake was akin to last year’s photo shoot when we enjoyed mimosas while cruising the Amazon River. I certainly appreciated these opportunities to pose with friends while Daniel captured us on film.
As we slowly traversed Gatun Lake, we saw another cruise ship, several heavily laden container ships and a tanker or two. We waited until all the east-bound ships from the Pacific completed their ascent through Mira Flores and Pedro Miguel into Gatun Lake, and in early afternoon we began our descent to the Pacific.
Later that evening, when my room steward completed the evening service, I found a certificate on my bed, my name inscribed, the Captain’s name thereon. The certificate commemorates the transit and shows very clearly our route through Central America from Las Minas Bay in the Caribbean, through the locks, a dotted line marking our route through Gatun Lake, and the descent through Pedro Miguel and Mira Flores locks to Balboa Harbor and the Pacific Ocean. A special memento indeed.
Day 8– Sea Day – En Route to Guatemala
Saturday, January 27, 2018
A cruise ship is a League of Nations, whether it be passengers or crew. On this sailing, there are about 2000 passengers, or guests as we prefer to be known. The ship is staffed by about 750 crew ranging from deck officers and crew to hotel staff. The Captain is in complete command of all aspects of the vessel, Deck department, Medical, Technical and Hotel. Deck officers include all the management necessary to operate the vessel – Engineering, Navigation, Security and Environment.
The Hotel Department is much bigger, with a staff of hundreds. The top spot is the Hotel General Manager. Imagine you are running one of the big New York hotels such as the Hyatt or the Waldorf Astoria. Now imagine how much more difficult your job is when you serve 12,000 meals every day even though your hotel is in the middle of a vast ocean, and suffering gale force winds. Of course, you have a few people to help you – the Food and Beverage Manager, the Executive Chef, Bars Manager (and there are at least eight bars on this ship), Senior Maitre d’ (and there are six dining venues open every evening), Retail Manager and Cruise Director. There is also a Production Manager who is responsible for the nightly shows, a Shore Excursion Manager, a Voyage Sales Manager, Human Resources Manager and the onboard Training Manager. Quite a staff.
This evening, we met some of those special people. A select group of Cunard World Club Members, most of them repeat guests, attended a cocktail party hosted by the Captain and his senior staff. Many of them looked far too young for such responsibility. I guess that means I’m getting old.
Several nationalities were represented at tonight’s party, primarily the Brits (about 800 on board at present), then the Americans (300) followed by Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders with a handful of Japanese, enough Germans to warrant their own international German-speaking hostess, and a few French and South African guests. The crew consists of young men and women from 52 countries, Filipinos, Indians, Eastern Europeans, dark-skinned, light-skinned, every one of them with the ability to speak English. There is no color bar, no animosity. I have noticed crew members on shore leave although they are often hard to recognize when not in uniform. I have observed crew couples who are oblivious to differences in color, in race, in job assignments. They are living in a community removed from the everyday problems of life on land. They live in harmony within this multiracial community and they set a fine example to the world.
Tonight, I went to the show! Every evening there is a show in the magnificent Royal Court Theater. There are two performances, each timed to begin shortly after diners complete their evening meal in one of the restaurants on board. There are two sittings in the main restaurant, at 6:00 and 8:30, the shows at 8:30 and 10:30. I never fail to be impressed by the energy of the dancers who seem to give their utmost, only to do it all over again an hour later.
The entertainer tonight, a man with the almost impossible name of Goronwy Thom, was billed as a juggler, not my usual cup of tea, but I wasn’t quite ready to go to my room. I took a seat in the last row, so I could discreetly leave if necessary, but I laughed from the moment this man ran on stage and started to juggle, first with one ball, then two, then three, two of which were stuck together. Then he juggled on the floor for the benefit of the Aussies from down under.
He was a laugh a second, his patter so engaging, his antics so amusing, I laughed until tears were cascading down my cheeks. He involved a few people from the crowd, including EP3, who were up on stage trying to help Goronwy get on a unicycle. It was an uneven struggle because EP3 is tall and elegant and the other helper was deliberately chosen for his lack of agility, his advancing age, and his general ineptitude. I stayed until the very end of the show and would have watched a repeat if given the chance.