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Senior Correspondent

Once again USA Today’s Craig Wilson has triggered a memory that cries out to be shared. In the August 4, 2010 issue he wrote about a cruise he’d received as a gift from a close friend who would be sailing with him. Wilson didn’t want the gift – it wasn’t his idea of a vacation to sit around and talk with a bunch of strangers or join in an activity with people he’d never seen before. Nor was he going to climb any rock walls or sing at Karaoke – if he was going, he wanted to be left alone.

So it is the memory of having my heart in my mouth on a cruise I call “Jonah Escapes Poseidon” that my friend, Craig, stirred and prompted me to tell the following unbelievable account of my cruise to Freeport in the Bahamas.

In 1985 my son, whom I was visiting in Miami, purchased tickets for a one-day cruise to the Bahamas as a New Year’s gift for me which turned into our very own Poseidon Adventure. The trip was called "Sea Escape," but to this day we still call it "Escape from the Sea." The tickets were only $99, which I questioned immediately – even before we boarded. “Gambling starts the minute the ship leaves the dock," my son explained.

We boarded the ship in the Port of Miami on a gorgeous Florida day – the blue Atlantic mirrored the color of the sky and I can still see the golden windows created by the sun in the buildings that make up the Miami skyline. We made our way to the outside deck where vividly colored chairs ringed the pool. The bar lounge was at one end of the deck with hundreds of glasses standing at the ready for thirsty customers. We sat in deck chairs and watched the boat cast off and then went into the dining room for the advertised “sumptuous” breakfast buffet.

The dining room was through the lounge and here were the gleaming stainless steel buffet counters accompanied by stacks of white china plates. It was an “all you can eat” buffet so we quickly got in line and loaded our plates with a feast of fruits, eggs, potatoes, three kinds of meat, biscuits and gravy. In addition there was French toast, pancakes and an assortment of muffins and breads. It was all delicious. We knew we’d be on our own for lunch in Freeport and then an equally elegant dinner buffet was scheduled to be served on the return trip to Miami.

Gambling started as soon as the ship was outside the legal limit, so we decided to return to the deck chairs to enjoy the air and the gorgeous day. Just as we stepped outside the rain began. What happened to our beautiful day? Just then streaks of lightning shot through the darkening sky. The sea became rougher and thunder crashed all around. We made our way into the passageways inside where seasick passengers were leaning against the walls.

Overcome by the dizzying rolls of the ship, first one and then another deposited their “all you can eat breakfast” on the floor. I turned and fled to the lounge where I could at least get some air although the rain was blowing in. The ship continued to roll until we got out of the stormy channel and we steamed into Freeport with the sun once again in control of the skies.

I have no idea what Freeport is like today, but in 1985 it was a huge disappointment – a total tourist trap with warehouses filled with souvenirs including every conceivable way to carve a coconut. Overpriced strings of beads, baskets, straw mats, hats and bags were displayed unendingly. We had a light lunch under the palm trees, did a small bit of shopping and then made our way back to the ship. We decided to take advantage of the pool before cocktails and dinner. The ship finally left Freeport in late afternoon.

Just outside Freeport Harbor once again we entered the Gulf stream and without warning the skies got dark and the seas were immediately rough. We abandoned thoughts of a swim and went to the lounge for a drink. The storm quickly intensified and the sea roared and crashed against the small ship. It was hard to distinguish anything outside the windows except the tremendous swells that appeared and disappeared as the ship rolled from side to side and end to end.

With each pitch of the ship, unanchored furniture shot unchecked back and forth across the room. We rode to and fro in our chairs terrified to stand up. The bartenders looked on helplessly as a woman was thrown from her chair where she crawled from the room on all fours. During one of the ship’s more violent shudders, the entire stock of bar glasses and liquor bottles were swept from the bar shelves in a frightening crash. All the water swirled out of the swimming pool as if controlled by centrifugal force. The chairs where my son and I had sat as the ship left Miami raced across the deck and flung themselves into the space vacated by the water.

We decided to move to the dining room where I remembered the tables were anchored to the floor. As we entered the dining room we were just in time to see stacks of dinner plates cascade uncontrollably down the buffet counters and crash to the floor in thousands of pieces. As carelessly as the passengers had been looked after, so were the lovely china plates.

We were never told about life jackets or life boats and I couldn’t remember seeing either one. I was terrified and whispered prayer after prayer to God to save me and my son. Actually, I alternated between fear and anger that the crew wasn’t available to help us in any way. My son figured it took all of them to keep the ship afloat.

Four hours later we sailed out of the storm and back into Miami. Incredibly the moon was out and stars were shining. The lights of the causeways and other ships shone a bright welcome and seemed surreal after the experience we’d just survived. Had I imagined the storms in which we’d spent our day? Would anyone ever believe the tale of our escape from the sea?

As we disembarked, the ships’ officers stood shoulder to shoulder in spotless white uniforms. Instead of an apology or any mention of the dinner we had missed, they waved good-bye to their departing passengers who were all reduced to disheveled masses – yearning to be free! Too bad Poseidon. A close call, but this time Jonah came out a winner.

So Craig, I’m with you – leave the cruising to someone else.

Writer's note: Much of this article is an excerpt from my book "Sisters by Heart: A Memoir," published in 2001 with a second printing in 2003. The book is available through Amazon.

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