The Florida daily weather forecasts constituted the carrot-on-the-stick syndrome. Forecast each evening: "Breezy and sunny tomorrow." Next day actual weather: gale winds, a fleeting hour of sun, and torrents of rain the rest of the day.
Several hours after my wife, Joanne, and I checked into our condo in Hollywood for what we hoped would be a fun-filled week of top-down weather, our son Mark, his wife, Kathy, and baby Collin arrived. It was obvious that unless we all slept standing up, there was simply not enough room in the condo. Off I went to rent a room in a nearby motel.
Three nights later, after Mark and family departed, Joanne and I tried the condo hide-a-bed for the night. Joanne decided that she could not endure another night on this the world's first Simmons for fear her spinal column would fuse into some distorted hunchback. Once again, I sought and found alternate lodging in a Motel 6 off the beaten path, so we finished our visit with Tom Bodett's favorite.
From the beginning, I had planned to visit the Bahamas on the one-day cruise ship out of Ft. Lauderdale. As it turned out, there was an almost identical trip from nearby Palm Beach. When to book passage became a bet that sooner or later one of the evening forecasts predicting sunny weather the next day would be accurate.
We bet on Thursday since it was our last free day and, after five straight days of rain, sunshine was really called for.
Thursday morning, the bleak, overcast beginning with more rain did little to assure us we had chosen wisely. Oh, what the hey, we said. Let's try it. And off we went on our never-to-be-forgotten cruise.
The view from our upper-deck cabin was great and afforded us the opportunity to scurry onto the deck to absorb the sun as soon as it popped into view. The trip over and the stay on the island were outstanding. We walked to the casino and wandered around in the shops just looking and enjoying the people and vendors without buying anything. The cab ride, however, was a rather precarious experience. The limo to which we were assigned for round-trip travel to the marketplace, a stretch Caddie, was due for safety inspection months earlier. I guessed an inspection was performed once each decade, and poor Caddie was only 60 days away from the scrap pile.
We sensed that all was not business as usual when the crew requested that we return to the ship for an earlier departure. As we boarded, Joanne was quite concerned for our safety and said with a voice loud enough for others to hear, “We are going to sail right into a terrible storm." The horizon was a solid black mass broken only by bolts of lightning streaking across its expanse like illuminated dancers performing a spirited ballet on a blackened stage.
In retrospect, I concluded Joanne was trying to get support from a sufficient number of the passengers to stage a mini mutiny so the captain would order the crew to remain in port. From comments overheard, I knew more than the two of us were extremely concerned for our safety.
For whatever reason Palm Beach Captain Ahab decided to risk the lives of one and all to sail into what might well have been a hurricane-force storm. The waves grew in size and frequency, crashing against the ship's sides and heaving us toward Florida.
After an hour or two out of port, almost everyone forgot the impending doom. The sky was pitch black and the ever-present ominous cloud was "out of sight out of mind." Yet the calm-before-the-storm false sense of security soon gave way to concern among the passengers when lightening surrounded us like the ever-tightening rope of a hangman’s noose.
By now the wind whistled across the deck and tossed the ship around like a feather in the wind. We finished our early dinner and attended the floor show, in the upper deck forward, featuring the standard cruise fare of a comedian and a few singers and dancers. To their credit, the performers in no noticeable way telegraphed the fear several admitted to in subsequent conversations. One singer said he was terrified by the experience and hoped he had not let it show in his performance.
The bongo drums fell from the stage to the dance floor, then the bingo table rolled across the floor toward some patrons, who quickly evacuated their seats. The table took off at will whenever fewer than two crew members held it in check. On one such occasion, when one crew member left his end of the 200-pound table to attend to some other flying missile, the table made a beeline across the dance floor on a collision course with the flustered comedian, who by now was not in a laughing mood. He finally gave up trying to maintain his footing and sat on a chair in the middle of the dance floor. Then, as a giant swell lifted the ship, the seated comedian almost immediately started like a Mustang 5.0 toward the scurrying audience.
Many of the passengers guffawed at the performers' demise and showed little concern for their own safety even when joined by other shipmates who had not finished their dinner at the late seating. As soon as the show ended, the master of ceremonies announced the cancellation of the planned 10:15 p.m. bingo session and the 11 p.m. show. In fact, they decided it would be in our best interest to proceed immediately to the lower deck. Joanne and I considered that to be excellent advice and led the stampede down the stairs. A few short minutes later a loudspeaker announcement advised us to "sit down immediately wherever you are."
We had left a comfortable lounge chair and were now perched only several steps below our point of origin on a very hard, narrow step of a steep staircase along with dozens of equally unfortunate souls. Soon thereafter the crew wisely distributed barf bags to every passenger with the good sense to accept one. We endured the steps for about 30 minutes with the storm's intensity increasing by the minute. Finally, we decided the heck with it; our best chance of survival was to stagger to the lower aft deck. After about 20 minutes we made it to our goal.
Our travel took us past the devastated dining room strewn with overturned tables, broken dishes and glasses, past stair landings with overturned potted plants and each hosting literally dozens of well-rounded barf bags. The smell and sound of sickness surrounded us like a plague.
We stepped over dozens of prone or supine passengers, each of whom at that moment would rather have been dead. There was little conformity of comments among the stricken but a good deal of moaning, and all were certainly happy that they had not brought their kids along.
About 11 p.m. many of us began demanding that we receive an official announcement of our status and destiny. Rather than an official announcement we received comments or opinions from staff members. "How much risk is there?" said one. "This is really not serious. The captain will make an announcement any minute," said another.
With total disregard for the passengers' fear, the captain never made such an announcement. Six hours into the trip, about midnight, Ahab finally hit the air waves to advise us to "Remain seated. The next 15 minutes might be a little rough while we maneuver to pick up the pilot ship." Believe me, no one would have noticed any difference without the announcement.
We kissed the ground at Palm Beach. The other passengers, one and all, were equally thankful to have arrived safely. I asked Joanne, "Do you still want to take that 20th anniversary cruise next February that you have been looking forward to for the last 10 years?" Her reply, "I am not sure." She refused an invitation for an airboat ride and a harbor cruse of a placid inland lake later that week.
Did the cruise line feel that the passengers had been given a raw deal? Maybe so, because each passenger received a 50 percent discount voucher authenticated by the seal of the chief purser.
It would not surprise me if a sizable number of lawsuits were filed against the cruise line for the wanton disregard for passengers' safety displayed by the captain. Maybe he felt safe through the entire ordeal, but if so he was the only one.
For Joanne and I this was the odd ball. We had cruised to the western Caribbean and Hawaii and had plans to fly to Seattle and cruise to Alaska with our pastor, his wife and members of the congregation. We always recalled this disaster when on a cruise or discussing plans for a new trip. We had no clue at the time that our passage to Florida would be eclipsed by the grim reaper’s passage several years later.
As an indication of how Joanne enjoyed cruises, I booked a trip on what she knew would be her final one to the Caribbean with her brother, sister-in-law and me. She spent her final months with me and her daughter caring for her around the clock until she passed.