Hell Is A Ship

Boats and ships scare me. That dates back to a particularly difficult English Channel crossing in the 1960s, when my dad thought it’d be cool to take the train to Dover from London, then the Dover/Calais ferry, and the train to Paris.

We were halfway across when the storm hit, and the ferry was bucking and rolling and there was water everywhere. I remember being in the game room (which mostly smelled of cigarettes because everyone could smoke anywhere in those days) and the air became redolent with vomit and cigarette ash. I gather from real sailors I later came to know, that the whole thing was probably relatively safe, but it was enough for me. I seem to have bad luck at sea – or even in millponds. One time, my high school friend Bill K and I took his laser out from Gibson Island in November and managed to flip it and get the mast stuck in the soft bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. We were getting giddy and dizzy from the cold by the time we managed to right it – by complete luck – being lifted by the bow wave from a far off tanker. Another time, Bill and I were crewing on his uncle’s 60-foot sailboat and uncle hit a sandbank at a fair clip and we all slid down the deck like bowling balls. And then there was the time Fred M and I were fishing off of one of the footers of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on the Potomac and a storm blew up and sank our little aluminum bass-boat. Who’d expect 6-foot waves under a bridge? We were stuck there for 6 hours until someone came by and heard us yelling. My worst boat experience was in high school, when one of my dad’s colleagues invited me out sailing with his sons, and we had a fine time on a dead-calm day on the Chesapeake. Since it was dead calm, there wasn’t much sailing to do, so Professor W fired up the aptly-named trolling motor and we putted out a good distance from shore, at which point the trolling motor died. So we had a good-sized boat that was dead in the water, and some little wooden paddles which the boys (including me) attempted to use to paddle the boat back to shore. That did not work. Eventually, one of us fell overboard (his son Gilbert) and noticed that the bottom was actually pretty shallow – so the three of us jumped overboard with ropes and pulled the damn thing nearly a mile. I think I am bad luck; what they used to call a “Jonah” and I try to avoid boats ever since. My company used to have its annual Xmas party on the Pride of Baltimore – a converted piece of crap that has been turned into a floating booze, buffet, and 80s’ music party boat. Since I was an officer of the company I had to go, but I was always ready to grab a life vest and start swimming.

I can only imagine the post traumatic stress disorder that is going to result from the hellish combination of cruise ship + novel coronavirus. “Hey let’s all get on a perfect incubator with someone who has a new virus!” – the experience of the Diamond Princess is now history [nyt has an interesting in depth] but there was also the Grand Princess in San Francisco. (conclusion: do not get on ships named .*Princess.*) [21 cases and lots of infections] but that’s the tip of a hellish iceberg: there are other cruise ships that have become floating outbreaks and are being denied landing at multiple countries. It’s like the M.S. St Louis all over again except the disease is virus not antisemitism. [history] The St Louis held ~900 jews fleeing Germany for the US, but was turned away at New York, tried Cuba and was turned away again, and eventually wound up landing in England where some of the passengers were locked in an English concentration camp and others were sent to Europe where they wound up in German concentration camps and were murdered.

Currently the ships are: [bi]

  • MS Braemar – Denied entry at multiple ports in the Bahamas, currently en route to Cuba where the British hope to recover their citizens “by air” – at least 4 infections on board.
  • The Silver Shadow – Docked in Brazil, the passengers are still being held on board. At least 1 infection, 600 passengers.
  • The Silver Explorer – Docked in Chile, passengers still held on board. Note, do not get on ships named .*Silver.*! 111 passengers, at least 1 infection.
  • The Golden Princess – Docked in New Zealand – nobody being allowed on or off. 2,600 prisoners, 1,000 crew, 1 infection.
  • The Norwegian Jewel – Headed for Samoa after being refused in 2 scheduled Polynesian destinations. 2,000 crew no infections. Note: Do not get on ships named .*Jewel.*
  • The Pacific Princess – a 111 day cruise around the world may turn into a couple laps.
  • The Costa Luminosa – turned away from the Canary Islands currently en route to Marseilles, France. 3 infected passengers evacuated from the ship.
  • The Celebrity Eclipse – enroute to San Diego after being denied in Chile. No passengers aboard appear to be sick, but the Chileans aren’t taking chances.

I’ve never been on a cruise ship but I know someone who was, years ago. They described a surfeit of oily cooking and cheap sugary colored drinks full of white rum. It sounded like The Pride of Baltimore except you’re in shark-infested waters and can’t swim ashore.

Oh, but it could be worse: [vice]

The German icebreaker Polarstern is locked in ice near Svalbard and they are wrestling with the problem of resupplying the ship without exposing anyone aboard to coronavirus.

The first signs of trouble came earlier this month, when a researcher who had planned to participate in survey flights out of Svalbard to support MOSAiC tested positive for the virus. That caused MOSAiC to delay its spring airborne campaign, and subsequently, the campaign was canceled as the Norweigan government and local authorities on Svalbard began restricting international travel.The MOSAiC team is exploring the possibility of extending a series of planned summertime flights to compensate, although Rex warned that it’s “too early to say what will happen to the summer phase.”

I bet they never planned to sign up for a Shackleton re-enactment. It’s not like you can escape over the ice, either – Svalbard is one of the big nature preserves where they study and observe polar bears, and those bears are seriously pissed about the global warming.

The pièce de résistance to all of this is the nuclear aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was in the western Pacific and has steamed for harbor in Guam with several infected crew. [fox] The ship’s normal complement is 5,000 people, including the fighter wing. Isolating crew on a military ship is not a capability that was built into the design of the system – crew do not have individual rooms, so the potential for outbreak makes a cruise ship look positively healthy, in comparison. Except nobody is handing out sugary colored rum-drinks with little umbrellas in them.

My deepest sympathies to all the people on all the ships. Note: don’t get on ships with names that match: .*

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Another scary ship: I took the Caledonian MacBrane ferry from the mainland to Islay, once. It was a beautiful calm day on the Irish Sea and the water was flat as a surface plate. I wandered around the ship and in the upstairs lounge was a good-size model of the vessel, pretty detailed. The model showed large extensible underwater planes that would help keep the boat upright in nasty weather. That made me look around and notice that all the doors were water sealable and basically I was on a submarine that chose to ride on the surface at that moment.  The rest of the trip I spent scanning the horizon for scary clouds.

A lot of Norwegian-descended people, like myself, seem to like to fancy themselves as vikings. I lack all illusions on that score. Definitely, I’d be the one who’d jump up and say, “well, I’ll just stay here on land and make you some nice stabby sword-things while you go out to sea possibly never to return.”

The ballistic missile sub crews are some of the people in the world who (for now) don’t  have to worry about coronavirus: [la]

Submariners stealthily cruising the ocean deeps, purposely shielded from worldly worries to encourage undivided focus on their top-secret missions of nuclear deterrence, may be among the last pockets of people anywhere who are still blissfully unaware of how the pandemic is turning life upside down.

Crew members of ballistic submarines are habitually spared bad news while underwater to avoid undermining their morale, say current and former officers who served aboard France’s nuclear-armed subs. So any crews that left port before the virus spread around the globe are likely being kept in the dark about the extent of the rapidly unfurling crisis by their commanders until their return, they say.

“Spared bad news”!? So they live in an information vacuum? I guess that’s part of what it takes to get people to the point where they’re willing to kill millions of strangers.


  1. says

    Friends of ours decided to take a short cruise from Oz to NZ and back last month on the “Ruby Princess”. They of course have the dread virus. It’s a complete debacle as the passengers were let off the ship with little oversight and then flew/drove/Ubered home. The repercussions are still reverberating around the country. The crew/staff of course remain mostly onboard and no-one in the Oz government wants to know them.


    Luckily our friends seem to be on the mend, the lucky buggers.

  2. says

    When I was a young’un my father would regularly take us out fishing on the Pacific — leaving Ilwaco to cross the Columbia Bar on a dinky fishing boat was exciting. We’d routinely see swells that were 30′ high and towered over us in the trough. I did not get seasick, probably because that experience inoculated me. I’ve ever since found rough seas exhilarating.

    My brother did not. He had awful seasickness, and I, as a terrible young’un, mocked him for it. Fate then determined that I grew up to be a landlubber in a state in the center of a continent, while he became a commercial fisherman and routinely saw seas in the Pacific crab trade that would probably leave me crying in a terrified huddle.

  3. rq says

    As long as the Shackleton reenactment doesn’t become the reenactment of the Ross expedition, I think they’ll be fine! (I hope.)

    Spared bad news”!? So they live in an information vacuum?

    I think there is/were a couple of TV shows that did this, as well. Not sure how that turned out.

  4. says

    PZ Myers@#2:
    We’d routinely see swells that were 30′ high and towered over us in the trough.

    For me, that’s about 29′ of “nope.”

  5. says

    Daily Kos has some coverage of the impending aircraft carrier disaster: [kos]

    Apparently the captain has written his commander a 4 page note begging for help. 150-200 out of the ship’s complement of 5000 are sick.

    Say no evil, see no evil:

    NBC News reports that the Pentagon has instructed military bases to stop sharing specific numbers of coronavirus cases to both the public and the media. Why? As Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Rath Hoffman explains it, the decision comes down to a question of security.

    “If a commander believes that COVID-19 could affect the readiness of our strategic deterrent or strategic response forces,” Hoffman said in a statement, “we understandably protect that information from public release and falling into the hands of our adversaries – as we expect they would do the same.”

    “Deterrence” is the dumbest argument I’ve seen in months.

  6. says

    Friends of ours decided to take a short cruise from Oz to NZ and back last month on the “Ruby Princess”

    I had some friends in my medieval re-enactment group, who portrayed minstrels (because they couldn’t play very well, I say “portrayed”) and one of their favorites was The Song of Gilligan converted to a sort of bardic pavane.

    Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale
    a tale of a fateful trip,
    that started from this tropic port,
    aboard this tiny ship.

    The mate was a mighty sailin’ man,
    the Skipper brave and sure,
    five passengers set sail that day,
    for a three hour tour,
    a three hour tour.

    Then, coronavirus, cannibalism, and a close encounter with a Japanese submarine crew that did not believe the war in the Pacific was over…

  7. xohjoh2n says

    The Channel ferry? Hah! You should have taken the hovercraft, now that was a wild ride even in calm weather:


    (There’s something in there about your “princess” thing too…)

    others were sent to Europe where they wound up in German concentration camps

    Not much changes. The Home Office really likes rubber-stamping applications with “failed to demonstrate they would be at risk” – even when they get the right grounds for application, or even the right country, it’s clear it’s just any excuse will do for them.


  8. says

    The Channel ferry? Hah! You should have taken the hovercraft, now that was a wild ride even in calm weather

    If I recall, it was pretty expensive.

    I know, the ferry’s supposed to be no big deal. The storm we were in was probably not that bad, but it was bad enough that if you tried to vomit overboard you might go with it, or it’d blow down the rail and all over the guy trying vomit 20 feet downwind of you. I did my vomiting in the bathroom, which was a typical British Public Transportation Bathroom circa 1970 – i.e.: miserable. [If you like bathroom vomit stories, you should listen to Henry Rollins’ tale of traveling on the oriental express and throwing up his fish dinner into the hole in the floor called ‘toilet’]

  9. says

    Aircraft Carrier guy makes me sad. He and I both know that he does not have 10 cases, or 150 cases, or whatever. He has N cases where N is his ship’s complement. They’re gonna wind up with some single digit percent of the crew dead, and a double digit percent incapacitated, and they’re still gonna have to sail around making threatening noises.

    I just hope they can manage to not drive the damned thing through a container ship, an island, or their own escort vessels in the meantime.

    They are about to be tested in ways the Navy has been able to avoid for many decades now. According to the ads, this is what you sign up for, but nobody in the Navy has signed up to be seriously threatened by anything except the (sometimes very dangerous) incompetence of their own fellows since.. Korea, maybe? WWII I think, really, though. So it’s been 75 years? No serving member of the Navy has ever faced any serious danger that wasn’t self-created.

  10. cartomancer says

    Maybe someone should put about the rumour that Covid-19 can infect F-35s, then watch as more than enough money to kill the pandemic stone dead pours in.

  11. voyager says

    Hell is other people, especially in close quarters.
    I’ve had a healthy fear of cruise ships since hearing about an outbreak of Legionnaires Disease back in the 90’s.

  12. lochaber says

    I spent several months on a boat whilst enlisted. It blew.
    For some reason, the higher-ups decided to schedule our unit’s gym time slot right after our unit’s shower time slot. And the ventilation in our bunk area wasn’t working on top of that. Yet, day after day, the officers were continuously surprised that our bunk area smelled like ass perpetually…

    Smaller craft can be kinda fun, but then, every time I’ve been on one, I’ve been in sight of shore, so I always had the option of just swimming to land if something went wrong. It probably helps that I’m not prone to motion-sickness.

    Chesapeake Bay area seafood is pretty good though.

  13. publicola says

    Many years ago, I sailed with my cousin on his 24 ft. sailboat to the Newport Jazz Festival. We had a great trip there: calm waters; sunny skies; nice breeze. On the way back, though: overcast; cold wind; choppy seas. I was doing ok until I stupidly decided to eat a cold, and somewhat mushy, eggplant sandwich. Two bites and ten minutes later–lunch overboard! My cousin and his buddy laughed the whole trip back. I, of course, was miserable.

  14. billseymour says

    I had a meeting to attend in Belfast the first week in November, and this geek thought it would be Really Cool to make the entire trip on the surface. That included the Queen Mary 2 both directions across the Atlantic and the Stena Line ferry both directions between Cairnryan and Belfast.

    I was in the cheap seats on the QM2 (I had an inside cabin), and my heart goes out to those folks who are currently stuck on ships that aren’t allowed to dock anywhere. I can’t imagine being cooped up in that small cabin for weeks and weeks.

    I’m fortunate in that I’m able to work from home and have been doing so for about twelve days so far. I haven’t had to leave my apartment except for a few quick runs to the grocery store. I spend most of my time at the office sitting in my cube writing code anyway, and I’m still able to do that (write code, not sit in a cube); plus I have an Internet connection and plenty of books to read. I’m well aware that I’m one of the lucky ones.

  15. moose says

    The Pacific Princess… was the name of the ship on The Love Boat.

    i ship you not.

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