These are trying times for fans of old ships. Cunard's QE2 is gone from the seas, sold to Dubai for use as a permanently moored hotel. Ditto for Holland America's late, great Rotterdam V, which retired from active service almost nine years ago and is now scheduled to open as a hotel, convention center, and museum in her namesake city in about two months (see www.derotterdam.com -- if you speak Dutch). Defunct Delta Queen Steamboat Company's Delta Queen, a real stern-wheel paddle boat from 1927, is now the Delta Queen Hotel (www.deltaqueenhotel.com), following expiration of a congressional exemption that had grandfathered in her wood-heavy construction, which is verboten under current safety standards.
But those ships are lucky. They've transcended their original functionality and become icons, revered and polished daily like fine antiques. Others? Not so much. Word is that the fabled SS United States, launched in 1952 and still the fastest ocean liner of all time, is up for sale again after Norwegian Cruise Line -- which bought her in 2003, intending to gut and restore her to service -- decided it was unfeasible to do so. She's been berthed in Philadelphia since 1996, awaiting a rebirth befitting her status as a fixture on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Got $5 million and a dream? She could be yours.
Reportedly, United States' status means she's available "for non-demolition only," but less honored old ships don't have that protection. In February the wonderful 1969-vintage Maxim Gorky, built as the German Atlantic Line's SS Hamburg (later SS Hanseatic), arrived at the shipbreakers' yard in Alang, India, sold for scrap just months after she was to have begun a new life as Marco Polo II for the restored Orient Lines. That enterprise, which was to offer its first cruises last month, never got off the ground due to the global financial crisis.
And now the crushing blow, for me: My favorite ship, the clunky old, 1953-built Regal Empress -- late of budget lines Imperial Majesty, Regal Cruises, and Commodore Cruise Line -- is about to arrive in Alang as well, her more than half a century of sailing ending under a barrage of welders' torches.
It's a sad, sad thing.
Why They're Going
The trouble with older ships these days is twofold. One, they're expensive to maintain and operate, their aging structures requiring constant attention, their older engines less efficient than today's. The second reason, though, is more immediate: They'll soon be illegal to operate. Stricter international safety regulations scheduled to take effect in 2010 have drawn a line in the sand for the few truly antique ships still offering cruises in the western world. Come October 1, 2010, owners of passenger ships built before May 25, 1980, and engaged on international voyages, must verify that their vessels conform to new provisions of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) if they want to maintain them in service. The standards were first adopted in 1914, in response to the Titanic disaster, with new standards adopted in 1929, 1948, 1960, and 1974. One hundred sixty-seven member nations have signed on to the pact, which governs everything from vessel construction to communications equipment and fire safety -- the latter being the sticking point for many older vessels once the 2010 deadline hits. SOLAS governs everything from construction materials to the layout of decks, so short of complete reconstruction, many older vessels -- Regal Empress included -- are doomed.
A (Not So) Regal History
At 56 years young, Regal Empress was until February the oldest cruise ship serving the U.S. market. She was built in Scotland in 1953 as the two-class Greek Line ocean liner Olympia, and spent a decade and a half sailing between Europe and New York. In 1970, long after air travel killed the transatlantic trade, she switched to cruising, but by 1974 had been mothballed at a pier in Piraeus, Greece, where she languished until 1983. In 1984, after a major refit, she sailed as the Caribe I ("The Happy Ship") for now-defunct Commodore Cruise Lines. She was sold to Regal Cruises in 1993, then to Imperial Majesty 10 years later, and for her last six years operated the same unvarying itinerary -- two nights, Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau -- year in and year out. By that point she was the last of the fleet of budget cruise ships that held a distinct market niche throughout the 1990s, before the major lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, et al) had gotten mature enough that they were able to fill the niche themselves with their older vessels.
I have no illusions: The last time I sailed, a few years ago, Regal Empress wasn't anything near regal. Her cabins and suites were low-end motel quality, her decor was a hodgepodge of old (remarkable detailing in her restaurant and library, cheap, gaudy furnishings in her lounge), and she'd begun to emit that funky "been at sea too long" smell. Still in all, I loved her like people love the late-night diner they went to in college, or the little Italian restaurant where you went with your wife on your first date. Regal Empress may have been way past her prime, but she was also a time machine, adorned with elements that we'll probably never see aboard a ship again -- like the rich wood paneling that covered her main stair landings, dining room, and purser's lobby; the sunken seating clusters port and starboard in her cozy Commodore Lounge; and the little-used but delightfully old-fashioned enclosed promenade, an essential element on northern Atlantic crossings but an anachronism for warm-weather cruising. Her layout was also peculiarly charming, owing to years of alterations and also to the fact that she was originally built as a two-class ocean liner, carrying 138 first-class passengers and 1,169 tourist-class, with her layout configured to keep the two mostly separate. Once those areas were merged for use by everyone, Regal Empress turned into a kind of Winchester Mystery House at sea, full of odd little stairways leading from deck to deck, doors that went where you wouldn't think they would, and corridors that twisted and turned like an English hedge maze. Regal Empress was quirky and unique, and as different as can be from modern ships, with their open and spacious design.
The Real Reason I Loved Regal Empress
As I intimated above (the college diner, the Italian restaurant . . .), people grow to love inanimate objects because the provide a tangible link to some memory from the past. That's probably a lot of the reason I loved Regal Empress.
Let me tell you a story.
In August 2001, when I was a carefree 30-something New York writer (pre-marriage, pre-fatherhood, pre-Oregon, where I live now), I sailed aboard Regal Empress from Manhattan's west side docks, on a quick overnight cruise to nowhere. I wrote about that trip for a popular cruising publication, submitting the article in October 2001, and it was promptly rejected as too much of a downer. Earlier this week, I came across the article in my archive, and decided to print it here as part of my Regal Empress epitaph. So here it is, in its entirety and unchanged -- a time machine in and of itself.
A Cruise to Nowhere Aboard Regal Empress, August 2001
I've often wondered why I like cruises. After all, I'm a miserable, critical, artsy New Yorker. Shouldn't I prefer to vacation in, say, Venice, sipping 3-ounce coffees at eight bucks a pop and spending hours at a time discussing the wonderful collection at the Accademia?
I suppose I should. But let me tell you a story . . .
In late August, I arranged to sail with three friends aboard Regal Cruises' vintage Regal Empress for a two-night Cruise to Nowhere out of New York: a party cruise -- I'd spend my two nights on board, take a ream of notes, then write up a story on the raucous scene I'd survived. Wild, wacky, drunken fun! Gambling 'round the clock! Big-haired chicks in hot tubs!
So I went. I cruised. I took notes. I came home. I procrastinated.
Then, one morning, a week before my deadline, I turned on the radio and listened in real time as American Airlines flight 11 struck the World Trade Center, a few miles away. A few minutes later, the second plane came in. I ran to my roof and saw the smoke, off to the south.
Skip ahead three or four days. I'm sitting in a bar with writer Heidi Sarna, a close friend and frequent collaborator who'd been part of my group aboard the Empress. She showed me photos: herself and her friend Chrissy, sitting smiling on the pool deck, behind them the twin, glittering towers of the World Trade Center, past which we'd sailed while heading to sea.
That was several weeks ago now, and my editor is breathing down my neck for copy. But it seems strange, strange, strange to write what I'd planned to, despite Rudy Giuliani and George Bush telling me I should get back to work.
So I go for a walk, to clear my head. Everywhere, reminders: hastily drawn handbills on the walls, all with the same message ("Missing: John, JosÃ©, Maureen, Amir, Leah, works in WTC 2, 101st floor. Please callÂ?"), and of course flags everywhere. And here's what I'm thinking whenever I look into anyone's eyes: Thank god you're OK. I feel like hugging everyone I see.
And then, since it had been in my head, I start to picture the people I'd been with or met aboard the Regal Empress: little mental snapshots that were so vivid they almost come with their own soundtracks.
Click. Standing with my friend Cindy near the bow, watching as the ship sails out of New York Harbor. It's Cindy's first cruise, a short little hop to see if she likes it. As we pass Manhattan and Brooklyn, then under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and off toward open sea, she asks, "Where is nowhere, exactly?"
Click. An hour or so before, investigating our cabin, a tiny little windowless inside, way down on a lower deck. Cozy. Checking out our temperature control, an old, Buck Rogers-looking thing that seems to offer a hundred options for cool, cold, warm, cooler, warmer, colder, hot, hotter. Checking the bathroom, the closets, the mattresses. Betting whether there'd be a Gideons' bible in the dresser drawer. (There was.) Cindy: "Look, there's a little personal safe in the closet. Let's use Elvis's birthday as our secret access code."
Click. Up on deck, by the pool, a reggae band playing on the bandstand and bar waitresses circling -- too many of them. No, no thank you. Not right now, no. Maybe later, thanks. But then I see a pair of fireplug-red Nikes come into view in my peripheral vision, and look up. Her badge says she's from Turkey. She charms the life out of me by sort of bobbling her head as she holds her order pad in front of her, smiles widely, and asks, "You want to drink something?" I decide that I will only order from her, at least until dark.
Click. A little while later, my Irish skin having taken enough sun for the day, I go exploring. Out through the unmarked rear doors of the Grand Lounge there's a small patch of covered deck right in the stern, just me, a few deck chairs, a faux ship's wheel, and the ship's wake stretching behind. I drag a chair into the shade and set up shop, a bottle of beer at my right hand and my book in my left. Then, of course, I fall asleep. Guess what wakes me up? A very happy young Turkish voice: "You want to drink something?" In fact, I would.
Click. First night, sitting in the wood-paneled Commodore Club, the coziest space on board, hung with nautical prints. On each side of the room, little sunken seating nooks, with windows out to the sea. A piano player plays. Identical twin Chinese bartenders serve me a White Russian. As I admire the room, I hear one passenger saying to another as they walk through, "It's not dull, but . . . well, it could use a little glitter." To each her own.
Click. Next door, on the disco's dance floor, a tall, muscular Latino in designer sweats trades moves with a developmentally disabled but full-on funkified young fella, a member of a large group that's aboard, accompanied by several chaperones. The young fella shimmies, he shakes, he wiggles his butt. The crowd goes wild. Till dawn.
Click. Day two. Joao De Sa Noguiera, Regal Empress's general manager, is charming and professional. Over the course of an hour's interview he imparts some wonderful pearls: on the kind of people that take cruises to nowhere ("It's their first cruise. They don't know what to expect. They've seen The Love Boat, you know?"); on mixing age groups on a cruise ("When you have older folks and teenagers it's no good -- they bite each other's ears."); on why Regal doesn't offer baby-sitting anymore ("Just because people want to sue us."); on where nowhere is ("About 20 miles."). He also describes his ship: old, classic, a constant struggle to keep ship-shape, but full of character, an honest-to-god riveted ocean liner of the old school -- they don't make 'em like this anymore.
Click. Heidi and I leave Joao's small office and start puttering around, looking for elements of the ship's original fixtures. In the wonderful wood-paneled library, which was once the first-class tearoom: Little white buttons inset in the walls, to call for service. The original letter box. A large oil painting, dated 1953. The rooftops of Paris? And behind the doors, hidden now: writing desks that fold out from the walls, with dusty old wooden slots for paper and pen -- to write to your people across the Atlantic, and tell them you miss them.
Click. Late afternoon, in the Grand Lounge for the passenger talent show -- something I try to attend whenever I can, to see what people can do. Here, on this ship: A frail, elderly woman from the West Indies makes her way to the stage and flawlessly, gorgeously recites an ancient highland ballad. On this ship: A guy from Brooklyn gets up and unleashes a string of awful groaners. When he finally lands one that's genuinely funny, the whole audience erupts with applause. And here on this ship: A beautiful middle-aged African-American woman sings "The Greatest Love of All" with a voice like an angel. A voice you want to swim in. When she finishes, the audience -- her fellow passengers -- won't let her leave. That one of us could do that.
Click. On deck, with Cindy, Heidi, and Chrissy. Twilight. I haven't seen the Turkish waitress for a while, so have bent my rule and ordered from one of the others. Above, the sky has turned up the volume on beauty, is streaked with pastels, the first lights of distant ships coming visible on the open sea around us. A breeze blows. Across the way is a young couple from New Jersey, she in a skimpy bikini, he with tattoos. On the other side, an older black couple, holding hands across their deck chairs. "This, right here," says Heidi, "is what I love about cruises. This time of day, just as it's getting dark. The ship's lights. The sea. The quiet. It doesn't get any better than this." We clink our glasses. We agree.
And now, back in the present, CNN in the background telling me the news from Afghanistan, I find myself thinking that my whole Regal Empress experience -- traveling with three women friends, imbibing often and happily, luxuriating in song, flirting (albeit just a little bit, and not enough in Heidi's opinion) with a young, beautiful Turkish barmaid -- all of this is suddenly a political statement: not an offense against a fundamentalist god, but a simple round of pleasure in human company. My advice: Eat, drink, and be merry. Preferably on a ship, where you can enjoy god's own ocean. Preferably with friends -- male and female friends, new and old friends -- where you can enjoy being together in the twilight. Now there's a prayer for you.
Bye-bye, Regal Empress. You gave me some wonderful memories.