I was sitting in the middle of what we colloquially referred to as The Ice Bar. The title was a factual designation and nothing more; the bar was literally made up of ice, and talented bartenders would casually juggle shakers of martinis while bantering with guests. The bartenders showed up only around noon, and prior the ice bar was merely a trough built into a long table. Perfect for a gathering of like-minded folk.
It was just before 10am, meaning that tea was about to be served. Of course, tea time wasn’t part of the official cruise itinerary. Tynan, he who organized this mishmash of entrepreneurs on a long repositioning trip, enjoys gongfu tea ceremonies and anything tea-related. Gonfu rituals, translating to “making tea with effort,” require some items not likely to be present on board. Tynan took it upon himself to carry in the supplies he needed, including a small ceramic gaiwan pot, a dozen tiny tea cups, and sachets of tea supplied by his friend, each sufficient to satisfy a group of ten.
We originally began these daily tea ceremonies on the floor, but realizing that we were attracting quite a bit of attention cuddled up in a circle around a teapot, we moved to the bar itself. With the occasional nod of acknowledgement from a tea-loving passenger, Tynan would pour the boiling water on his puehr tea starting at 10am, usually as he mused about the dinner conversation from the night before.
“Listen guys,” Nick implored, “we need to up our game. How about a mixer where we invite cruise passengers to meet with us and ask us any questions they have?”
A few of us nodded, others thinking ahead to the day’s activities.
“We need a work session this afternoon, but we can swing it if the mixer is at 4pm. Doable?” asked Jimmy, half of Minaal and on board with his business partner Doug.
“Wait — is this going to interfere with the poker tournament?” Ben burst out in a moment of panic.
Nope, not at all.
Leaning back in our chairs, we settled into our tea in silence, thinking about the days ahead. With over a week at sea from Vancouver to Russia on this trans-Pacific cruise, we had plenty of time to sink into the rhythm of the ship and learn what we could before we stopped in the Kamchatka peninsula in Eastern Russia.
If only we realized how fast time would fly.
Making the Most of a Transpacific Repositioning Cruise
Since quitting my job in 2008, I have avoided cruises. I thought they would be difficult because my pleasure was slow exploration and food, and with short port days, I would be left with little time to dig into destinations. How would I get an accurate snapshot of a country’s history in only one chunk of time? Instead, I took shorter boats for small hops, lots of buses and trains, and many many motorcycles to get around. My family seemed to love cruises but I shied away from them.
When Tynan invited me on this repositioning cruise, it was presented as a leisurely way to get from North America to Asia, which is precisely what drew me in. Moreover, the schedule added on an extra hour to almost each day until we crossed the International Date Line and skipped one day entirely in the middle of the sea. 25 hour days? A dream come true. The sea days were actually why I took the trip. They promised uninterrupted writing time, a break from the Internet, and a chance to spend a few weeks with a group of interesting people.
What I did not know at the time was that I would have only brief moments to scribble down a few reminders of events on the ship, because I was too busy having fun.
I should note that much of this joy was directly derived from the perfect storm of a great group of people, a really lovely ship (we took the Celebrity Millennium on a repositioning route), and an increasingly enthusiastic social contract that had us maximizing the excitement on board. This wasn’t a sponsored or press activity either. I booked it via CruiseSheet, but Tynan did all the legwork in planning out the itinerary and deciding that this was the boat he wanted to take.
In the event anyone is thinking about a repositioning cruise — others run from Europe to North America, a better option for those with less time available — I thought I would set out a semi-serious list of why I think we had such a good time.
We cultivated an air of mystery.
I say “air of mystery” in jest, but truthfully a good part of our cohesive fun came from Nick’s decision to purchase green bandanas for each of us prior to boarding. He also bought a large faux-gold chain, below, which he wore at all times.
The chain, as well as our bright green bandannas, lent us an air of mystery that both perplexed passengers and encouraged a barrage of questions from perfect strangers.
“Well, we heard that you are all really rich. That’s how you are on this boat even though you are so young,” a woman confided smugly as she walked into the restaurant on Deck 10. “You’re all rich writers!”
“Uh, no — we’re not rich writers. Actually just a few of us are writers, really. We’re entrepreneurs, and while we’re all working hard I don’t think any of us would say that we are here because of an amassed fortune. We just work for ourselves, so we have flexible schedules. And this was a great way to get to Asia.”
Her face fell. “So, not even a few of you are really rich?”
I didn’t answer. Let the rumours continue.
Of course we were also asked about the provenance of green, and why it was that we wore them all the freaking time. We started telling people that we had formed the first ever Cruise Gang (“Gang Green”) and that wearing green was our gang sign. We also ran through group rules: anyone who was not wearing their bandana would be obligated to do ten push ups on the spot, and being late for any group meeting would also result in one push up per tardy minute.
Toward the end of the trip, if anyone was missing their bandana we could count on other passengers to make that person drop and do ten numerous times during the shameful walk back to their cabin. No, we repeated, we were not related to Greenpeace. We were not related to anyone, not even each other. We just wanted to reward ourselves, and others, for having a good time.
For the latter, I again credit Nick for his bag of goodies that he brought on board. In addition to the green bandanas, there were mini trophies, name tags, Sharpie markers, and about 50 masquerade-style masks. We started giving out spirit awards to passengers with a Gang Greenesque enthusiasm. To do so, a small presentation would not suffice. No, we would take a long walk through the formal dining room in the middle of dinner, snaking our way in and out of tables, arms linked. Then we would present the award with a tiny speech, and flee as fast as we could.
My point being: half the boat thought we were official entertainment, a quarter thought we were nuts, and a quarter wanted to know how they could join Gang Green for themselves. Mystery loves company, right?
We didn’t take ourselves seriously, but were polite.
There was an important business component to the trip, but when we were off the clock, we were off the clock. What surprised me with this group was the consistency of silliness. We did not take ourselves too seriously.
This attitude manifested itself in a variety of ways. There were the push ups mentioned above. When fellow passengers looked askance at our giggles during a push up punishment, we would explain that we were merely enforcing group rules.
In addition, from the get go Tynan requested that we flex in all of our photos. Official photographers abound on board, from the actual check-in, to formal night, to wandering the decks. Sadly I don’t have the photos from formal night, where all dressed up we put our arms in the air like we just didn’t care. There was also a magnificent session where I met the captain and got him to flex with us as well, to his confusion and glee.
In the absence of those pictures, the following snaps will have to do.
The result of “don’t be serious all the time” occasionally teetered on the edge of reasonable. The reaction from a particularly well-dressed couple near our table in the dining room when one of us showed up late to dinner and was required to do pushups in a skirt was noted, begrudgingly. But overall the combination of laughter, curiosity, and a lot of collective thought meant that most of the people we met were entertained by our enthusiasm.
In contrast, there were passengers who were extremely serious, and occasionally downright rude to staff. One, who I dubbed Terrible Steak Guy, chewed out the Maitre d’ in the dining room before we had even set sail. “This steak is terrible,” he ranted. “Do you hear me? TERRIBLE. I’ve never had a steak this bad.” Mid-mouthful and eating the same steak I paused, confused. The steak was quite good. His attitude was not.
While I took pleasure in glaring at Terrible Steak Guy and his grumpy cronies whenever we crossed paths, he wasn’t the only one to make a fuss out of nothing. While we were a weird group of green-clad, underdressed misfits, at least we weren’t ranting about perfectly good steak.
We had a group of compatible people.
I can’t think of anyone in the group who would be rude to any staff onboard. That should be step one in your group formation: “is anyone going to be a dick to staff?” (See below for actual Dicks, which are different.)
In addition to Tynan, Nick, Ben, Jimmy, and Doug, mentioned above, the group included Dick, Debra, Adrienne, and Amit. What all of us had in common was a connection to Tynan and an ability to spend 15 days on a boat, no questions asked. Had members of the group been reticent to participate in the learning parts of the trip, the cruise would have had a very different trajectory.
I am grateful for the honesty and openness from the others, be it in providing feedback for the business lunches, frequent hugs, in discussing big-ticket items, or in answering yet another zany question at the dinner table. Each one of us showed a desire to learn tempered by a desire to have fun, which made for a really wonderful few weeks and for newfound friends.
If I were to do a long trip like this again, I would definitely take the time to think about consistency amongst future participants. You cannot orchestrate fun, of course, but likemindedness is important. That’s not to say everyone is obliged to be a part of each group activity; this is a cruise, not summer camp. We each took alone time when needed but the group stuff was a huge component in why it worked.
We asked as many questions as we could.
Things we wanted to know:
- Is there a morgue on the ship? (Answer: Yes.)
- Was there any body currently in the morgue, like right now, as we are on board? (Answer: What? Why would there be a dead body?)
- No really, what about on this trip has anyone died? (Answer: No, no one has died. Seriously, you guys are creeping me out.)
In addition to annoying people with our quest to find the non-existent dead people, we asked all sorts of other questions about the food on the ship. To that end, I was able to meet the Executive Chef, a fellow Canadian, who sat down for a few minutes over coffee to quench my thirst for logistics knowledge. When I said I was joining the cruise and was a celiac, Celebrity was quick to let me know that there were steps taken to make it easy for gluten-free dining. It turns out that all their sausages are wheat-free, their sauces all have rice or corn flour in lieu of wheat, and they also had a pasta station with corn pasta made to order.
This was all fine but what I really wanted to know was how they planned feeding so many damn people. According to the chef, the menus for the company work on a 14-day cycle, and all ships run on the same set menu. So the meal components are ordered in advance — it turns out, to their giant warehouse in Miami — and doled out appropriately before the ships set sail. The lamb is from Colorado, the beef from the US Midwest, vegetables are USDA-approved, and the salmon hails from Alaska. When I studied Maritime Law I recall learning about USDA inspections on board, but did not think of how it would impact larger ships like this one.
In scheduling the meals, the company uses data analysis from the last year plus the last six cruises on the same ship, so they can allocate appropriate amounts of food.
Maybe you don’t find this as fascinating as I did. A bonus for bothering the chef and getting answers was that (1) the restaurant staff got to know me (probably due to a poster that said “If you see this girl DO NOT LET HER ASK QUESTIONS”), and (2) it made eating on the ship that much more interesting.
We wanted to hear about everyone’s life stories.
We met a family who had raised their kids on a catamaran, who were moving to Penang as their next big step, taking all their belongings on the boat in order to do so.
We met a woman who was in her 70s, whose husband had recently died. “I’m taking my money and I’m seeing the world. If I cannot keep doing it with him, I’m sure as hell still going to do it while missing him.”
We met a man who used to be a speechwriter for the Queen. We met a man who had a birthday of September 18th, the day we missed when we crossed the International Date Line. The ship threw him and ten others an Unbirthday Party, summoning them to a meeting room onboard and surprising them all with cake.
We met a lovely woman from the States now living in Australia, trying to write the life story of a Holocaust survivor before the survivor passes away.
I could go on, because in those two weeks there were so many interesting people with compelling stories. I wanted to hoard them all, gathering all their words into a duffel bag to save for later. So many fascinating paths that life can take, and with this many days on board together, people were more willing to share their pain points and vulnerabilities.
I also had the pleasure of meeting a reader, Gabrielle, who read my pre-trip post and wrote me a quick note saying she thought she was on the same ship. We did not fix a meeting point, but one day early on in the trip as I was heading to my room a woman called out, “Jodi?” and sure enough it was Gabrielle and her husband. Not only did we get to chat then, but I also ran into her quite on accident, once at a hot spring in Hakodate, and once in the middle of a chaotic rush hour in Tokyo, at the bustling Shinagawa station.
We found a creative way to coordinate meetings.
It’s a big ship, and if you’re travelling in a group it’s hard to keep track of one another. The schedule of tea time and fixed business lunches (which we called Blunches) served to give us a place to meet and a time to do so. It’s 10am? Oh, tea time. It’s 12:30pm? Blunchtime!
Tynan, uh, may or may not have solved this problem for us by building an app that ran on the ship’s intranet, a secret chat room where we could ping each other based on location, and plan our next meeting. This definitely made it easier, but barring a tech wizard, you can just set a schedule to meet.
We upped our karaoke game.
A Backstreet Boys duet, a passionate “Baby Got Back” replete with backup dancers, and so much more: it turned out many of us could sing, and weren’t afraid to do so. Will add “can carry a tune” to the next list of group requirements.
We dedicated sea days as our best mastermind days for business learning.
I referenced business above, but truly the blunches were an incredible component to the trip. Each one of us was given a sea day to present current problems in our work and to answer questions and receive critical feedback from the rest of the group. The lunches lasted two hours and everyone was invested in bettering the projects of the others at the table. I’m very grateful for the tough love I received, and I truly enjoyed providing my own thoughts during other blunches.
We obsessed over dinnertime games.
Werewolf figured prominently, starting just after we ordered our meals. Accusations were flung, lies were told, bluffs were called. While the original version is the game of Mafia, despite heading to Russia we stuck to Werewolf, adding more complicated characters as the trip went on.
We befriended the staff.
From the evening maitre d’ from India who couldn’t wait to see his wife in a few days, to the waiter from Thailand who was happy to chat to us in his native language, to the lovely staff member who was back on board to help her heal after a personal tragedy, the staff made much of the trip more fun.
I’m not talking about organized activities or the cruise director either. We did not interact with them, and other than karaoke competitions, we barely participated in official activities.
What I mean is the connections you can form with the staff members you see every day. They each wore name tags with their country of birth, which was an ideal jumping off point to discuss their lives. As many of us were travellers ourselves, we were able to launch into a story, a commonality, something to kick off a conversation.
Also, Washy-Washy (above — and even on his name tag) gave great hugs.
We made sure someone in our group was named Dick.
It was helpful to have someone at the table named Dick because of all the resulting Dick jokes.
We minimized our Internet time and went offline often.
Knowing that we would have many days at sea with no internet, I took some precautions:
- Downloaded the Gmail offline app and synched everything.
- Set up vacation responders.
- Loaded up my Kindle with books to read, most from the pre-Japan reading list post.
- Made a list of things I wanted to think about during the long trip.
Most of us bought some sort of Internet package that we used for work. Ben, above, kept winning at poker and then spent his winnings on Internet minutes. The Minaal boys split the package up between the two of them. I was offered a package from Celebrity when they read that I would be on board, provided I Instagrammed a few shots when at sea.
While internet is cost-prohibitive, the offline mail apps meant that I could log in, sync, then log right off and answer the emails as needed. A quick login sent them out from my queue. Being so expensive, we simply stayed off the Internet when we could, which for me was a nice change from my normal life.
We tried to be appropriate for formal night.
Sometimes we failed.
Generally it is wise to have at least one formal outfit for the formal nights. Meaning: no jeans, no sneakers/sandals, and no t-shirts. For the ladies, a dress or fancy skirt/top combo. Many guests were in ballgowns or cocktail dresses, tuxes and tails. Not us. I had a few dresses with me as I’ll be attending weddings in early 2015, but if I did a cruise again I would probably make sure to bring something a bit dressier.
We banned all nautical puns.
DOWN WITH NAUTICAL PUNS.
We made the most of port days with unconventional trips.
Port Day: Petropavlovsk, Russia
What excited me most about this particular cruise was the fact that the ship was going to stop in Petropavlovsk, in Kamchatka province. The oldest city in Eastern Russia, Petropavlovsk was basically cut off from the mainland for hundreds of years. While there was limited settlement from the 1650s to late 1800s — as well as the occasional siege — it was rendered even further obsolete when Alaska was sold to the United States, as it was no longer a stopping point for those on their way to the US territories.
Following WWII, Kamchatka was declared a military zone and, our guide said, was closed to Russians outside the peninsula. Isolated to Russians until 1989 and to foreigners until 1990, she said it had a village feel despite its huge landscape.
Having been to Russia in 2008 when I started this trip, I was amazed to see the same style of makeup, leggings, high uncomfortable heels in hilly terrain, and aviator sunglasses — despite it being on the other side of the country and 8 days by sea to Vancouver. We were also rewarded with dashboard cams, a staple nowadays in Russia, and a drive back next to the valley of the geysers, rays of light streaming toward the snow-capped mountains.
For our port day we opted to hire a guide in lieu of the official ship activities. She took us to local hot springs and then for lunch, with our day culminating in a solo wander around Petropavlovsk, to the confusion of the local kids in town.
Port Days: Otaru and Hakodate, Japan
In Otaru and Hakodate we branched out on our own once more.
For the former, we took trains for hours in order to reach a sulphurous natural hot spring in the middle of a forest. Noboribetsu (“hell valley”) was one of Tynan’s favourite places in Japan and he insisted the trip would be worth it. Would it have been easier to just wander Otaru instead? Sure. But the train rides, station confusion, teeny bento boxes, and confused Japanese tourists surprised at a gang of ten travellers with green bandannas made the trip so much fun.
After hiking up into the sulphurous springs and looping down toward the valley below, we found a public footbath and peeled off our socks and shoes, taking a quiet moment to dip our feet into the healing water and take in the forest sounds around us.
It was surreal to wake up on a monster of a ship and then find myself hours away in Hokkaido, feet dipped in minerals and cloudy springs, staring at the maple trees so intently that I felt like I could see them changing colour in the autumn sun.
In Hakodate, we opted for a public tram around town followed by some time in a traditional onsen (Japanese mineral spa), as the town was built around a healing mineral spring.
On the walk to the onsen, we found a footbath in the middle of the road, used by the town’s inhabitants as they came home from work or school. I sat there a bit stunned at the public nature of this community relaxation, with salarymen and high school students and restaurant workers all wandering by, dunking their feet, smiling at us and then heading along on their way.
It was one of my favourite moments of the journey.
My point in explaining what we did is only this: that port days can be what you make of them.
As a perpetual wanderer it was extremely satisfying to leave almost all of my belongings on the ship, taking only what I absolutely needed for the day trip, and then disappearing into someone else’s routine. I think I would have felt differently if I were not staying on in Japan for further exploration. It would have felt like too short a time. But knowing there were weeks of Japan, these snapshots of tinier places were a great introduction to the country.
* * *
During each of the port days, we were some of the last passengers to return to the ship, just in time to set sail for the next day. Security, already well-acquainted with our laughter and green bandanas, were waiting with smiles, hands raised to swipe in our key cards and register that we made it back.
“You guys always look like you had the best time,” one of the guys in uniform said as we boarded.
“We did, we always do.”
“One day you need to tell us your secret,” he responded with a wink.
“I’ll write all about it, I promise.”
And with that, we took the glass elevators back up to our rooms to freshen up before another game of Werewolf over dinner.