Cruising For Fun And Profit

Mollie and Jim, 2011

Mollie and I have just returned from a treat in celebration of our 50th wedding anniversary (which was actually last December).  It was a week’s long Caribbean cruise aboard Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam, still in her inaugural season.  I thought our collection of impressions and facts might be of interest on several levels, including the evolution of cruising as recreation and as a business.

Hollywood entertainment is ubiquitous around the world, so I don’t have to describe to you how cruising was designed in the day of the Titanic.  When I revealed my submariner past to our Indonesian wine steward he was eager to comment on having seen not only “Titanic”, but the movies “Hunt for Red October” and “Crimson Tide” Such is the sweeping power of American media to homogenize culture!  I find that significant.  I wonder how many of the young demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have seen those movies, and many others too?  With democracy and first-world life-style on full display, is it any wonder that dictatorships are falling?  The wonder is that it has taken this long.

MS Nieuw Amsterdam

The Nieuw Amsterdam is Holland America’s newest and biggest so far, but we have been on their ships before and it is clear that the design and the business have evolved to a standard.  Other than sheer size and the obvious newness of the furnishings, the layout and operation were, with tiny exceptions, the same as before.  The artwork displayed was of course different, but still of very high quality.  Two large dining areas on decks 2 and 3 in the stern, and a large buffet amidships on deck 9.  Two swimming pools, the larger with sliding covers amidships.  The buffet appeared to operate pretty much around the clock, sometimes full-service and sometimes limited.  The food quality was superb all around.

If a sociologist or psychologist needed a laboratory in which to study modern human behavior I would suggest a cruise ship as an ideal setting.  For example, there is anxiety apparent in some cruisers, probably first-timers, when the cruise starts.  They crowd the buffet and load plates heavily, but soon the portions are diminished as satiety is achieved.  Similarly, the dining room is more popular on the first night, but some clearly prefer the larger food portions of the buffet to the dining rooms’, which are designed to fit activity.  (One can pretty-much distinguish the two types by their distinctive profiles.)  Another predictable phenomenon is swimming-pool behavior, in that people “stake-out” lounge chairs early with towels and possessions and then leave them largely unoccupied during the day.

Passenger pastimes should also be of interest to behavioral analysts in how idle time is used.  There are games such as trivia, the Marriage Game, and lectures on things such as shopping and getting more out of your digital camera, but this is pretty thin gruel if you ask me.  The casino, open only while at sea, was always crowded, and the ship’s store attracted a good number of lookers if not buyers.  The main items were over-priced high-end leisure clothing and jewelry.  I, having forgotten our toothpaste, invested $5.99 in a small tube of Colgate.

One Pier at St. Maartens

You might (or might not) be glad to know that despite the Great Recession, the cruise business appears to be booming.  When we arrived at the port of Ft. Lauderdale there were eight huge cruise ships in port, including the largest in the world, the Allure of the Seas.  This behemoth displaces about 100,000 tons, is 154 feet in beam at the waterline (way too large for the Panama Canal), and has a capacity of 6,300 passengers!  I understand its center court is much like an American mall.  (I don’t know what the designers are smoking, but people are buying tickets anyway.  “There’s a sucker born . . .” )  Like the others it is diesel-electric powered, just like the submarines of my youth.  They are designed for their purpose – the diesels provide the AC power which in turn powers everything else, including fore and aft side thrusters which make pier-side maneuvering a snap and tugs virtually obsolete.

Here is an interesting factoid.  A tour of the ship “behind the scenes” was offered for $150 per person, only twelve tickets available.  I assume this would be a glimpse of the working innards beneath the glamor:  engineering, kitchens, crew’s quarters.  Thanks but

The twin diesel engines of the WWII design Bri...

Image by Anguskirk via Flickr

no thanks, I prefer to keep the fantasy.  Actually, I got that kind of “glimpse” for “free”.  I still have visions of “rigging for dive” when as a junior officer on a submarine it would be my turn for the duty of physically checking against a formal check-list the proper position of every critical valve from forward to aft in the entire boat as it was putting out to sea.  I know that kind of machinery and plumbing all too well.

Cruising does not make financial sense.  I figure our 7-day venture cost us something over $5,000, or something over $700 a day.  Why would it be worth that?  I have puzzled over the answer.  It was exotic, a total change of pace from our normal life, a whirlwind of having a large cabin, a nice veranda on the stern out of the wind, and being catered to by

Winter Sunset, from the Crow's Nest

well-trained professionals who did a really good job of “liking” us the whole time.  And then there was this one time.  It was about 6:30 PM, in the “crow’s nest”, the observation lounge at the top, forward.  Magnificent sunset, brilliant orange through twin lines of clouds on the horizon, sea state low.  A single vodka martini, straight-up, extra olives.  A few salted peanuts.  Guitar player playing softly for us and only about four others.  Priceless. I told Mollie, “Let’s do this every 50 years.”

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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10 Responses to Cruising For Fun And Profit

  1. Duane Graham says:


    Very well-written account of your enviable experience (all but the cost). As they say, I almost felt as if I were there. And it’s good to have you back.



  2. wingwiper says:

    “If a sociologist or psychologist needed a laboratory in which to study modern human behavior I would suggest a cruise ship as an ideal setting…”

    I’ve often wondered about that very thing; never having been aboard a cruise, civilian or otherwise. The closest I ever came was the ferry from Dunkirk to Dover many years ago – quite an experience. Especially when “feeling” that huge ship shudder as it made various maneuvers. But, the thought of being encapsulated with several hundreds of total strangers, on the water, for a few days is, well, a disturbing concept to a recluse.

    Still, it sounds like an amazing experience and I enjoyed reading the after-action report.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Glad to have your comments, Wing.

      Since you haven’t had the experience, allow me to suggest that it is one I think everyone should have at least once. I recommend you go with someone close to you if at all possible. And be aware that all these ships now have stabilizers, large fins at the bow which minimize the ship’s roll amazingly well. As for cost, it can be surprisingly minimal if you wait until just before sailing and settle for an inside cabin. As such, you can roam the ship just like anyone else, look out the big windows, visit the crow’s nest, and get the same service and food. They try hard to sell you tours at the various ports, but i can’t remember a single one I thought worth the price.It’ Just enjoy the ship. It’s a unique experience.

      Holland America adds $11/day/passenger for tips, thus removing all anxiety over that process. IMO, it’s worth it – you get lots of pretend love and it’s easy to like. And as far as strangers go, being on a cruise makes it surprisingly easy to make friends. They encourage you in the dining room to join others and people are naturally open and friendly – they know they’ll never see you again, so why not?

      : ) Jim



  3. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    I spent many years at sea as most know. But only once, for five days, could I sit in a deck chair and drink bourbon whiskey. It was in 1970. My family and I were enroute from Charleston, SC to Hawaii. Through some slick (but very legal) manuevering we travelled from San Fransisco to Hawaii aboard a cruise ship. Our experience was much like Jim and Molly’s above except we had a two year old and five year old in tow.

    But the ship even provided (for free) babysitters all day and night.

    We knew no one when coming aboard. The first evening we “ran into a couple of guys and gals” who were also military travelers and had a “round together”. It cost about $10 bucks a round (1970 again). The evening before arrival in Hawaii there were some 50 of us and a round cost about $75. Far too much for a young LT. and his wife to afford, but what the hell, you only live once, right!

    The climax of course was our arrival in Hawaii complete with young, brown boys and girls swimming out to the ship from the Aloha Pier in Honolulu while the Royal Hawaiian Band played all the songs imaginable and “hula girls” real hula girls with real grass skirts did their thing.

    That one trip of 5 days was worth at least $25,000 of the (total of) $50,000 that was “shoved up my ass a nickel at a time” during my days at USNA to “qualify” for such a trip!!!


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Great story, Anson. I have a similar one. In 1961 an extremely pregnant Mollie and I drove from New London to San Francisco, shipped our car, and flew to Honolulu for my first submarine assignment. The whole wardroom met us at the plane and took us to the Ala Moana hotel on Waikiki beach where we stayed for several days. The chief engineer, Lt. Byron Higgins bless his soul, loaned me his prized classic MG to drive until our car arrived. I remember breakfast on the hotel patio, birds pecking around the tables, the absence of insects, the incredible ocean. We thought we had gone to heaven. Such memories do indeed last a lifetime.



  4. Congratulations on the 50 years.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks, Bruce, although I doubt that congratulations, in the sense of praise, is really the appropriate word. Looking back on it all I am in wonder. As a young man I thought myself to be in love three times, but it was merely infatuation. Real love takes time and shared trials. Speaking only for myself, but suspecting that it applies to all, I consider that marital compatibility can be confirmed only through time and stress together, and true love is as much a matter of luck as anything else.

      If I were to be asked for advice by a young person I would say this: Have a long engagement and make sure you are compatible in conditions of stress before finalizing the contract. Then, hope for luck too. I was ever so lucky and I consider myself among the most fortunate of men.


  5. ansonburlingame says:

    Hremmm! My first and only Mother-in-law told my wife and me (about two years after we were married the following.

    “Men get married for regular sex and women get married for security”. That was in about 1967.

    She hit the nail on the head for me and for her daughter, Sally. We remained married for 33 years.

    This time around, now 12 years and counting it is a whole different story.



  6. drmathprog says:

    “Here is an interesting factoid. A tour of the ship “behind the scenes” was offered for $150 per person, only twelve tickets available. ”

    Perhaps for $250 they would let you inspect the battery compartment prior to charging or close out a sanitary tank!

    Until recently, my only experience with cruise ships consisted of coming to periscope depth to copy the 0200 sked and catch a Navsat (yes, it was a very long time ago) only to discover a HUGE cruise ship, lit up like 10,000 suns with bow-on aspect at a range of about 10 inches (well, ok, it was a bit farther, but it seemed pretty damn close). Other than temporarily blinding me and nearly emptying my bowels, it was a routine “emergency deep”. It turns out the vast hull aspect of a cruiser, even a 1970’s version, is remarkably effective at masking screw noise.

    I resisted my wife’s urge to cruise for 15 years after retirement, claiming I was afraid I would get seasick, but really I had nightmares of a Titanic scenario with the USS Tautog playing the role of the iceberg.

    I finally relented, and have cruised twice with my family in recent years; once with Royal Caribbean (pretty nice) and once with Carnival (not so). All in all, it was pretty much like you described, Jim. We did manage to visit all the Caribbean Islands on my wife’s “must see” list, although we missed one of mine (Trinidad, where I lived for two years as a boy).


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