I like going to sea. No, I love going to sea!
Despite the fact that I sailed over much of the Pacific Ocean in years gone by, I still get excited every time I get underway on a cruise ship. Quite the adventure. Think of the short story Youth, by Joseph Conrad.
Although now retired, my feelings on sailing the oceans have not changed since my time in the U.S. Coast Guard, when I was stationed on the USCGC Mellon — then a newly commissioned, high-performance, jet turbine–powered cutter — for 2 years. Today, I ship out on larger, slower, but vastly more comfortable cruise ships. Different ships but similar sense of exhilaration.
Then And Now
When I cruise now, I like visiting destinations new and unknown. Voyages of adventure. As an enlisted Radioman communicator on a military ship, my job was to send and receive Morse Code, voice, and radioteletype transmissions from ships and stations across the seas. I went where the ship was ordered. But I enjoyed being at sea then, and I enjoy it now for the same reasons: opportunities to experience the wonders, power, and beauty of the ocean, and to visit areas of the world.
As I list the reasons I’ve fallen in love with the sea, I will try to communicate this joy to you. Please understand that these memories and observations are being filtered through the lens of an older guy looking back to what his younger self observed and felt as an 18-year-old. As we know, the lenses of our eyes change over time, becoming harder, less flexible, and sometimes more cloudy. The same could be true here… but my times sailing on cruise ships since retirement hold true to what I remember from back in the day. I loved cruising then, and I love it now.
1. The Experience Of Being At Sea
Being on a ship, traveling through an ocean or sea, is exciting. An individual in the elements.
At times it may be uncomfortable. Sea or motion sickness is always a possibility, especially for the uninitiated. This is true even on the larger, luxurious cruise ships of today. But the excitement of being at sea, far from land, cannot be denied. In good times, one feels soft winds, warm sun, and rhythmic vibrations of the ship as it steams through light seas. Rough times are another matter. Even on large ships, cruising on heavy seas can be uncomfortable. Dramatic. It can be frightening when the bow plunges underwater in a large wave or white water is thrown onto the bridge in particularly rough weather, or when a large wave unexpectedly hits broadside and the ship heels far to one side or the other. Fortunately, these are rare occurrences.
What amazed me when transiting the Pacific was the vastness of the ocean. That, along with the never-ending waves, the always distant horizons, the ever-changing clouds, the stunningly colorful sunsets, and the brilliant, star-studded sky, tugged on my emotions.
Then there were the fish and fowl. They almost felt like part of the crew. Porpoises and flying fish in large pods seemed to race us, time and again. And the albatrosses following the ship glided so gracefully up, over, down, and back up the waves, never touching the water. All beautiful. All great entertainment. All part of the magnificence of traveling the ocean.
2. Views, Ports, And Possibilities
I was equally excited by the possibilities of what lay over the horizon. Today, that thrill keeps me coming back to cruising. Of course, I could fly, but flying is so much less satisfying. Since I no longer have official communication responsibilities, I spend a lot of my time at sea on my veranda or in the ship’s forward observation lounge or on a stern deck, watching the sea pass by and thinking about where we are headed and planning what I will do when we arrive. Contemplative, yes. Boring, no. Fun, absolutely!
While in the U.S. Coast Guard, I visited San Diego, Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, Midway Island. Guam, Da Nang, Singapore, Hong Kong. Manila, Bangkok, Kaohsiung. Once, we nearly steamed into Cambodian waters to tow a hijacked, fully loaded munitions ship back into open water. Fortunately, we received countermanding orders before we could attempt the rescue.
To be sure, some visits were more memorable than others, but steaming toward all ports aroused a sense of anticipation. Entering new ports of call is an extraordinary experience.
I had an amazing seat. My job when entering a port was on the bridge (the main command center of the vessel), relaying navigational bearings from my navigation shipmates on either side of the ship to the navigator, who steered the ship safely into the harbor. The vistas from the bridge while entering the harbor are spectacular. If you are ever on a ship entering a port and are curious, climb to the highest deck possible. It will provide the best views available of the harbor, the port of call, and the surrounding areas. Wonderful to behold. This is an opportunity that should never be missed.
Remember: No matter which port of call you arrive in, there will be new, interesting, and fun things to see, do, and experience, new culture to embrace, new foods to sample, and new people to meet.
3. Stormy Stories
Nine months later, after changing course near Taiwan to avoid a typhoon, we were on a winter Ocean Station Victor patrol in the North Pacific. Cruising an area of 10 miles square, about halfway between Tokyo and Midway Island, taking weather and oceanographic readings, providing positioning coordinates to commercial airplanes passing overhead, and standing by for search-and-rescue and assistance operations as required.
Then a storm hit.
Wind velocity increased, moaned, howled, then roared. Waves grew, some towering 40 feet or more. We were tossed about like a cork. The ship steered directly and slowly into the waves to maintain headway and stability. But there was nowhere to run. And nowhere to hide. The ship alternately climbed the peaks of the waves and then fell into the troughs, sometimes completely submerging the bow before recovering and repeating the pattern. The bridge was frequently inundated with white water from the dark, monstrous seas.
Our ship, Mellon, healed severely to port and starboard (left and right), at one point to over 45 degrees following a wave hitting broadside. The capsizing point was not much further. But the ship steadied up and recovered, then and every other time.
To walk down a corridor in that storm, one foot had to be placed on the deck and one on the bulkhead — that was the new horizontal. Hands at the ready for stability. In the radio room, I had to strap into a harness to remain safely at my duty station. Part of my job was to listen for SOS distress messages from across the Pacific Ocean on an emergency Morse code frequency. And I dutifully did.
Maybe that night I should have sent a distress message of my own. A bit alarming then. Memorable now. And while much rarer today due to ship design improvements, vastly superior weather forecasting, and more accurate navigation and routing systems, ships still encounter storms at sea every day.
4. The Goonies And More
A subsequent visit to Midway Atoll was memorable, too. Midway was sparsely inhabited, as far as I could see. I was too young, too uneducated at the time to appreciate the historical significance this island played during World War II. I was even less aware of events there than had occurred at Pearl Harbor.
What I do remember is brilliant sunshine, a turquoise sea, flat, featureless land, trees and scrub bushes, several one- and two-story military buildings, an airplane runway, white sandy beaches, and thousands of gooney birds.
Remember the graceful albatrosses skimming the oceans? Goonies are one and the same. Black-footed and Laysan albatrosses. Exactly the same birds, but on land, they are clumsy, ungainly, and when they land they invariably tumble, stumble, and fall head over heels. It is said that if you place a golf ball on the ground, one of these birds will invariably sit and try to hatch it.
My visit to Midway is a fond and lasting memory, made possible because I was sailing the Pacific. Midway Island (now referred to as Midway Atoll) is currently closed to visitors. In the past, it has been open for certain educational or scientific purposes. Hopefully, it will be again in the future. And if you can get there someday, do so. If by sea, all the better.
The goonies, flying fish, and porpoises were the animal highlights of my Coast Guard sailing days. Entertaining and enthralling. The sea animals seen on my commercial cruises in Pacific and Atlantic waters have been different: larger and more awe inspiring. Beluga and minke whales in waters of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, humpback whales in Glacier Bay, and orcas in the Salish Sea between Victoria, British Columbia, and Washington State.
All were magnificent to watch, but the orcas were special; moving in pods, organized, and predatory. Actually somewhat alarming. Glad I saw them. Glad I was on a boat.
It’s A Wrap
Time at sea — really at sea, far from land for days on end — is a magical and, at times, mystical experience. Visiting ports of call was and remains an anticipatory experience. On a cruise ship, the sea time can also be a lull on, and massage for, the senses. A period of reset and rejuvenation. The rhythm, hum, and vibrations of the engines are a comforting constant. The daily routines are too. They might include breakfast, exercise, lunch, lectures, lounging, reading, dinner, and evening entertainment. And, of course, an Old Fashioned on the fantail.
While R&R on a military ship is not the norm, the time spent can be equally magical. Time with shipmates, building friendships, learning, sharing, and growing together are bonding experiences to be, if not cherished, at least appreciated for a lifetime.
If I had a choice, I’d take an ocean voyage on a cruise ship over a military one, any day. But if my option was a military ship or nothing, I’d enthusiastically report aboard. Being at sea is that special.
Pro Tips: Maximizing Your Time At Sea
- Most cruises rarely roam far from land. I love them, but if you want an authentic seagoing experience, book a transoceanic voyage where you will be away from land for days at a time.
- If you take any cruise, take time to soak in the ocean environment. Go outside, stand at the railing for a while, and feel the wind and sea spray whip against your body. Scan the water, the sky, and the horizon (there is drama in each), and sense the almost organic movement of the ship sailing through the water. Magical!
- If I have learned anything from my days at sea, it is that the ocean demands respect. It can and will toy with you. But if you are smart, sensible, curious, and abide by the directions of the ship’s crew, you may have the time of your life.