“Rule Britannia”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat was that deal about “mad dogs & Englishmen” . . . something about the “mid-day Sun.” Well, get one thing straight . . . there is NO sun in England. Maybe one or two days a year, but it ain’t sunny old England, especially in Southampton. Which is why, I suppose, Brits on holiday feel compelled to expose their lily-white bellies to the sun until they turn lobster red and get to go back to gloomy old England and show their peeling bodies to jealous friends and tell about escaping completely on a cruise ship to the Mediterranean. It should have dawned on me, but it didn’t. The English right now have more money than the Americans, so a ship sailing on itineraries out of Southampton would be loaded with Brits. Nothing against our sun-starved cousins, but it isn’t just their humor, or make that humour, and their spelling that is different. The Med to the Brits is like Mexico is to Californians, the Caribbean is to Americans (meaning North Americans, and US Americans and Canadian Americans in particular), and SE Asia is to Australians. The reason why a Californian takes a cruise to the Mexican Riviera isn’t for the ports. So the Brits aren’t particularly interested in most of the Med ports, but want to loll around and get burned in the mid-day sun, which makes it a challenge for me, the Port Lecturer, who things that the ports not only are the best thing since sliced bread, but the reason WHY people go on cruises.

These are heady times for England and London: the Olympics and the Queen’s 60th Jubilee. Incredible that this aging monarch, with no real power other than her person and personality, has reigned for 60 years, been through wars, including some within her family, and survived to be the old lady (well not as old to me know as she would have been when I was younger) who in her own way is charming, and now that the palace is dropping some of the mystery turns out to in some ways be a doting mother and grandmother. Now we have Prince Charles’ memories of the Queen getting in shape for the coronation, watching he and his sister in the tub getting bathed with the crown on her head to build up stamina to pull of the lengthy coronation, or the Queen taking home movies of her kids playing on the beach. So after 60 years she emerges not only as the mouthpiece of “my government”, always reading carefully prepared scripts, but as someone who is human. And it strikes me that the Queen, for all the pomp and circumstance, money and luxury of royalty does NOT enjoy one great luxury that all of us take for granted, and that is retirement. So the other day, as we sailed from Gibraltar, I decided to go up on deck and make an appearance for what the cruise directors were promising to be a traditional, flag-waving British sail away having nothing to do with the 60th Anniversary, just being a “typical British sail away.”

The decks were packed as the Union Jack flags were distributed to passengers in all stages of dress and undress around the pool. I expected we would wave the flags, sing “God Save The Queen” and go back to drinking beer and getting sun burned. What I never expected was almost an hour of rousing singing, flag waving, patriotism, drinking and celebration! First a recording of a screeching soprano singing “Rule Britannia” which unbeknownst to me actually had verses other than the well known refrain. The soprano screeched out the verses . . . MANY verses . . . and all joined in lustily singing “Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves!”

Even US Americans, whom Canadians and others look upon as excessively patriotic at times, would have been embarrassed. [Although I grant you that patriotism in the US right now is somewhat confused with people unsure if we live in the United States of America or “The Homeland”, if it is politically correct to wave the flag with your right hand or left hand since one or the other may indicate your leanings or if you are Blue or Red (or if you are gay or just in favor of gay marriage with both hands held together high above your head). Whatever!]

So, here in all its glory, is “Rule Britannia” at the last night of the Proms 2009 …

Then came “Land of Hope & Glory” . . . which I, and many in the US, associate with commencement ceremonies. I almost felt compelled to walk down and pick up another degree. All these degrees, all these commencement ceremonies, I never knew there were actual words to “Land of Hope & Glory.” And that’s just two songs . . . it went on and on and on until the Deputy Cruise Director, a Brit himself, mercifully brought it all to a halt. But you know, even for a non Brit, it felt good to see this enthusiastic display of patriotic feeling. And I know the bars did a good business. Funny thing. July 4th, Memorial Day, British sail away, ANZAC day . . . all these patriotic celebrations involve a lot of beer which may just be one way of dealing with the reality of the high price of freedom.

And if, like me, you thought “Land of Hope & Glory” was all about getting another degree …

For those of us from “the colonies”…

The Proms, more formally known as The BBC Proms, or The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC, is an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts and other events held annually, predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall in London. Founded in 1895, each season currently consists of more than 70 concerts in the Albert Hall, a series of chamber concerts at Cadogan Hall, additional Proms in the Park events across the United Kingdom on the last night, and associated educational and children’s events. In 2009 the total number of concerts reached 100 for the first time. In the context of classical music festivals, [the Proms has been described] as “the world’s largest and most democratic musical festival”.

Prom is short for promenade concert, a term which originally referred to outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens, where the audience was free to stroll around while the orchestra was playing … The Royal Albert Hall could be filled many times over with people wishing to attend the Last Night. To accommodate these people, and to cater for those who are not near London, the Proms in the Park concerts were started in 1996. Initially there was only one, in Hyde Park, adjacent to the Hall. More locations have been added in recent years … Each location has its own live concert … before joining in a live big screen video link up with the Royal Albert Hall for the traditional finale. [Wikipedia]

Things Change

If there were a mantra for living in Panama it would be “things change!”  In fact, if there were a mantra for life it would be “THINGS CHANGE!”  Living in Panama I’ve learned that you always have to be expecting change and to have a “Plan B” in mind.  In Panama, also  Plans C, D, E, F, etc.  But here, as everywhere else, the secret is to keep plugging and respond as positively as possible to the changes life throws at you, whether they are the gigantic life-altering changes, or the little “that’s interesting” changes.

It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since I was at sea, so wanting to get back in the swing of things I agreed to do several “one-off” cruises this fall, one for Celebrity and four for Silversea. While in the Canary Islands on Celebrity I experienced loss of vision in my one eye several times.  Once when attempting to start a talk, while an inexperienced AV guy tried to figure out PowerPoint, I was stalling by telling jokes I’ve used many times and in the middle of the joke I forgot the punch lines.  I ended up in the medical center with the ship’s doctor sending me to an ophthalmologist.  When the eye doc said there was nothing wrong with my eyes, the ship doctor, fearing a stroke, sent me back home to Seattle for a whole string of tests.  Tests which proved … drum roll! … I’m normal, much to the surprise of some of my friends.  But in the meantime, not to leave Silversea hanging at the last minute, I had to cancel my four scheduled cruises.

The silver lining was getting to spend some time with my daughter and her family in Seattle.  I’m now with my other daughter in Sonoma County working my way back to Panama.  And the other day … Princess called.  They want me back at sea, doing my favorite run through the Panama Canal on ISLAND PRINCESS … starting mid-November!

Island Princess in locks

Since 2014 is the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal, and with all the expansion construction going on, this is an exciting time to do the Canal run and be able to introduce a shipload of folks [1,970 passengers, 900 crew] to Panama.  Plus, no long-haul flights!  I start with a Canal transit from Los Angeles to Ft Lauderdale in less than a month, and then do the partial transits round trip from Ft Lauderdale.

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“If I Were Not Upon The Sea”

There are many traditions that have evolved over the years on board cruise ships, some good, some bad, some indifferent.  “If I Were Not Upon The Sea” is a spoofy skit [or read goofy if you prefer], drug out over the years by cruise directors and their staff and involves a lot of pawing, double entendre and generally burlesque humor.  And, maybe unfortunately, it still makes occasional appearances on board.  One night you may be entertained by a show that cost $1.6 million to produce (that is the figure given by the cruise director for Princess’ “British Invasion” which to date has only been used on one ship with a mostly British audience).  The next night, in these days of cutting budgets wherever possible, the evening show might be a crew variety show with a highlight being the cruise staff’s production of “If I Were Not Upon The Sea.”  Knock offs of old TV game shows featuring passenger participation are also a low-cost favorite.  Ironic: one night a $1.6 million show and the next night a knock-off of “To Tell The Truth.”

When I started on cruise ships, in the late 60’s, it was a different world.  Holland America had a Dutch crew.  My table for two (the Roman Catholic priest and I) had a waiter and bus boy who ONLY served our table, plus a wine steward and bar steward standing by. Entertainment, such as it was, usually included an aging dance duo, a dance band, and a soloist.  A few spotlights, no stage, no production crew, simple, and frankly rather boring.  There were movies in a genuine theater, all of which was followed by a sumptuous and lavishly presented midnight buffet.  There was no casino.  The purser organized bingo games and tracked the money to insure that all the money paid in was returned to the winning passengers.   The cruise director would tell you what to do in the ports and where to shop, and when in port you’d see the cruise director visiting all the stores and attractions to collect his money.  Cruise directors in those days lived large and they all had nice villas somewhere.  Cruising was expensive but it WAS an all-inclusive vacation.

Volendam Mar 08 004Well life has changed!  I was on Holland America when they announced they were scuttling the Dutch crew.  My wife was on Cunard when they announced they were terminating the British crew.  Today’s crews, although wonderful and without attitude, are mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe.  On most ships today a waiter and assistant waiter take care of three  to five tables, including getting bar drinks and being the expert on wine.  There may be one sommelier on the entire ship!    And all he revenue from the ports and the shops and the Bingo goes to the cruise line.  I remember when Carnival started up and all the other cruise lines looked down their noses at Carnival.  Royal Caribbean introduced 6 slot machines, tucked away in the dark corner of an upper deck, for gamblers (presumably and other degenerates) who simply had to gamble no matter what.  Now the casino is the most prominent location on most ships.

“All-inclusive”: you’ve GOT to be kidding!  Expect to pay extra for everything.  You want the “good” food: pay for it.  Forget about the Midnight Buffet [which was an extravagant waste anyway].  Food is all portion controlled which not only cuts cost but is better for the environment as well as the health of passengers.  Entertainment has changed as well.  Cruise lines will do almost anything to be “different”, so much so that “different” on cruise ships now consists of being the same as everyone else.  Cruise lines are like lemmings.  One line introduces something, then everyone follows suit.

One of the early concerns about cruise marketing was something called “commoditization.”  [Defined by Wikipedia as: “the process by which goods that have economic value and are distinguishable in terms of attributes (uniqueness or brand) end up becoming simple commodities in the eyes of the market or consumers.”]  The fear was that eventually cruise lines would compete solely on price and cruising would become a commodity .  There would be nothing unique about the experience or about a particular cruise line.  So everyone has big-screen, outdoor movies, circus acts, and $1.6 Million shows.  Cruising has become Vegas at sea and people love it!  Cruising is big business and is making big bucks.  Don’t let the price competition fool you: that’s commoditalization.  Royal, regal, majestic, princely . . . think of any of the royal terms you can imagine.  Let the marketing departments go wild with promises, but the bottom line . . . What determines what you get – as usual – is the price.

When I started cruise ships had a Catholic priest, a Rabbi, and a Protestant Chaplain who was sometimes me.  Eventually they dropped the Rabbi, except on High Holy Days, and now most cruises don’t even have a Rabbi then.  The Protestant Chaplain was the next to go, except on Easter and Christmas, and now many cruises just have the cruise staff fill in and read some kind of generic service designed to create warm feelings.  Last to go, the Catholic priest.  Every accommodation that can be sold is sold.  And most people don’t care since they are on vacation and if you’re getting away you might as well get away from church as well.

The other thing we used to worry about when I had cruise only travel agencies was something I called “peeling the onion.”   Twenty years ago we’d watch as cruise lines eliminated one thing, then another, all to cut costs.  My concern was that if you remove enough layers from the onion, pretty soon there is nothing left!  But the cruise industry has, successfully I might add, been peeling the onion for twenty years and continues to do so cutting back here, there and everywhere, hoping that customers either don’t notice or don’t care.  And since the customers keep coming back . . .  Anything that does not create onboard revenue is, or will soon be, history.   Theaters don’t create revenue, so you either watch a movie while swimming or on your stateroom TV, but don’t worry about missing anything because these are the same movies you’ve been seeing for  years.  The shows are there to entertain you, but also to give you the opportunity to buy drinks.  But that too may be changing.  Norwegian Cruise Line has introduced a “Dinner & Show” extra where, by combining two previously free items, they can charge $25-35!

Set in the 217-seat, two-floor Spiegel Tent, Cirque Dreams is a theater-in-the-round show with a surreal mix of motor-mouth monologues, singing, acrobatics, audience participation and food. Reviews have been mixed; those who like it really like it, and those who don’t have a viscerally negative reaction.

Everything is for sale!  On board shopping malls with the same “special discount” sales every cruise.  Teeth whitening, acupuncture, Botox, dozens of spa “treatments” making promises that would never pass FDA muster.  Cruise lines used to pride themselves in their onboard collection of art: now it’s all art for sale.  Pictures, videos, coffee cards, soda cards, good brewed coffee, ice cream, quality food, tours of the ship, special luggage  handling, Internet, special suck up treatment from the staff . . . you name it and it’s for sale. And it’s probably only a matter of time before plastic surgery is offered as well! “Oh, after your world cruise Janet you look so much younger!”

Cruise Critic, an online forum popular with frequent cruisers and where I occasionally contribute on the “Panama Canal” board, has a fascinating article Nickel and Dimed? 22 Cruise Ship ‘Added Fees’ Compared  that’s well-worth reading.  It’s not just one cruise line, but across the board everyone is scheming and dreaming up ways to make more on board revenue.  Cruise Critic readers were allowed to vote and hands down the most obnoxious extra was . . . drum roll! . . . Royal Caribbean for charging an extra $15 – $37.50 + 15% gratuity for the items they know guests love to eat and have always been staple menu items in the main dining room.   Nothing special here . . .  other than the added charge.

On several of its ships, Royal Caribbean’s main dining room menus encourage passengers to celebrate their cravings with a $15 filet or $37.50 surf ‘n’ turf. Since cruise-time immemorial, these options were fee-free on at least one night in the MDR. The freebies are still there in some capacity, but they’re shrinking in size and, many say, quality. But what might be more frightening than the food is the confusing 15 percent gratuity Royal levies. The food is certainly unique; the service and venue are not. There is no special presentation of the lobster, no dancing crustacean or opera-singing claw.

You gotta admit, these guys have balls!

Now I have a vested interest in this.  Years ago, when it was relatively cheap, I bought Carnival stock, Princess stock [now UK Carnival stock], and Royal Caribbean.  The stocks have done well and I’ve made money.  I know people like to grouse, complain and winge about all the extra charges on board, but the fact is that it is the onboard revenue that makes the difference between profit and loss.  And the cruise line makes a whole lot less than you might expect.

Consider this breakdown from WORLD CRUISE INDUSTRY REVIEW:

Cruise Passenger Spending

I’m sure most cruise passengers assume that the cruise line is making a whole lot more than 10.7% before taxes [and taxes are another whole issue]!

The mantra for working on board a ship as well as in the cruise industry is “Things Change”!  And they do.  Face it: most people could NOT afford to have taken those cruises back in the late 60’s.  Today most people can afford to cruise and cruising is one of the most cost-effective ways to vacation and see the world.