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Steering Your Dreams Straight to the Bridge

For most people, being served pina coladas by the pool is as good as it gets. They don't aspire to be more than a passenger on a pleasure cruise. A few others, though, are more ambitious. They need to drive the ship.

For most people, being served pina coladas by the pool is as good as it gets. They don't aspire to be more than a passenger on a pleasure cruise. A few others, though, are more ambitious. They need to drive the ship.

Meet Ben Lyons, a 27-year-old Second Officer on Cunard's QM2, who's spent his entire life preparing for the job.

"All the real childhood memories I have involve ships. My room was decorated with pages cut out of cruise line brochures," remembers Lyons, a lanky young man with an aw-shucks smile that belies a serious soul.

"My childhood obsession with ships never died out," he says, adding, "how many times does that happen?"

Ben's mother, Jane, remembers that he was four or five when he became obsessed with ships, though she can't say for sure what inspired it.

"I remember that by age seven he was writing and calling cruise lines on his own, asking questions or requesting brochures. By this time he was remarkably proficient at dealing with people and getting what he wanted. Whenever we went near a travel office he would go in and engage the agents in conversation," she recalls with a hint of pride.

While other kids were playing with Ninja Turtles and reading Old Yeller, Ben was devouring ship classics written for adults, like Captain Ronald W. Warwick's beloved book about the QE2 and John Maxtone-Graham's classic The Only Way to Cross. A man-child on a mission, he continued writing more letters.

"Ben first contacted me when he was at Groton School," says Maxtome-Graham, a distinguished maritime historian, author and lecturer. "We became friends¿via correspondence and I followed his career with great interest, through Kings Point [U.S. Merchant Marine Academy], and was delighted that he became Cunard's first Yank officer."

Writer and lecturer Ted Scull was another ship expert Ben latched onto as a young teen. From the start, Ted remembers Ben's keen interest in the QE2. They would talk for hours about the ship. Through the years, Ben's world continued to grow as he met more and more people in ship circles.

The precocious boy with a one-track mind made his first inroads at Cunard at age 10, writing to arrange a tour of the QE2 when the ship was in Baltimore.

They ended up being invited to visit Captain Woodall in his cabin, Jane recalls.

"He was a very tall, imposing and Cunard-looking captain," Ben says, "and he made quite an impression on me." Indeed.

A year later, Ben sailed on the QE2 -- the first of nine sailings to date. Along the way he met Cunard captains Paul Wright and Ronald Warwick. The kid was making an impression.

Underneath the innocent boy-next-door looks was an ambitious kid with an agenda, which included spending as much time as possible on ships during school holidays. No time for hot rods and summer crushes. At age 15 he contacted Cunard about a summer job. There weren't any, but it didn't matter, Ben had an alternative aboard the SS John W. Brown, one of two WWII-era "Liberty-class" cargo ships that survive from the original fleet of 2,710. Today he's still one of the dedicated volunteers, along with mostly 70-something war veterans, who keep the Baltimore-based ship operating on occasional coastal sailings.

"After my stint on the John Bown, taking her out to sea and learning things like celestial navigation and using a sextant, it was the first time I seriously considered going to sea as a profession," Ben says.

Finishing up a few months aboard the SS Independence as a cadet, Ben could finally see himself working on cruise ships.

"Compared to cargo ships, I had thought cruise ships weren't real ships. How could they be, I reasoned, when officers have to dress up all pretty and toodle around the Caribbean. Now, I see how much more multi-faceted passenger ships are. We're dealing with passengers and people issues as well as real navigating. Cruise ships are in and out of a lot more ports than cargo ships, and that requires a lot of ¿driving,'" he says.

After graduating from the Merchant Marine Academy, Ben signed on as Third Officer on the ms Patriot for the short-lived (reincarnated) United States Lines, then worked for the next two years as a Third, Second, then First Mate on cable-laying ships in the Pacific.

By this point, the super-achiever had taken up travel writing as a side gig when on leave, publishing his first cruise article in Porthole magazine when he was 21. The occasional love letters to Cunard continued, as did QE2 trips.

Not surprisingly, he was already on Cunard's radar, though he claims to have been surprised when, in early 2003, he received an email from Captain Wright regarding a job as Third Officer on the new QM2, the hottest, most talked-about new ship in the world.

It was a dream come true, and it was also unprecedented: In its 163-year history, Cunard had never before hired an American in its officer ranks. Ben joined the vessel in the shipyard during its final stages of construction, and spent his 25th birthday on the ship's maiden voyage from Southampton to Ft. Lauderdale in January 2004. Not a bad way to celebrate.

Two and a half years later, he's now Second Officer and Senior Officer of the watch. And he's happy as a clam.

During his two- to three-month stints at sea, Ben's typical day at the "office" starts with the midnight to 4am watch. He along with a junior officer and a Quartermaster are on the bridge, literally looking out the windows and checking the radars for ships, whales, icebergs, bad weather and anything else that could get in the QM2's path. They're also keeping an eye on the safety systems and doing paperwork in the chart room, making sure, of course, not to drop too many donut crumbs on the charts.

"The bridge is the first response, so we need to know what's going on all over the ship, from welding in the engine room to the special effects in the Royal Court Theater. We have to temporarily shut down some of the fire warning systems during performances, for example, so that smoke and haze don't set off alarms," he adds.

Other duties include keeping all electronic and paper charts up to date with new information about the location of buoys or changing water depths. Speaking of water, Ben occasionally takes a swim himself. Officer perks include the use of passenger areas like the pool and also the free passage of spouses or significant others, unless of course your girlfriend already works on the ship. Meet Tina, the ship's cruise sales consultant and Ben's shipboard honey. There aren't many places where the social life is better --- you do the math. More than 1,000 crew members, most young and single, are all crammed together in close quarters for months on end. The trappings of a fancy ship become the backdrop to courtship, whenever work schedules are sync, that is.

After the midnight shift, Ben is off to his cabin to sleep around 4:30am, then awake again at 11:30am for the noon to 4pm watch. Unless, however, his slumber is cut short by crew emergency drills or other training sessions, which are held about twice a week.

Like any red-blooded 20-something, Ben's favorite part of the job is "driving." Whether it's maneuvering through heavy traffic or anchoring in the Caribbean, he's happiest when behind the proverbial wheel. (The Captain himself is on the Bridge during extreme weather and always handles docking, considered the trickiest job.)

On a cruise ship, though, it's more than docking, davits and data points. Socializing with passengers is another part of an officer's job.

"You have to like people to work on a cruise ship," Ben points out -- though he has his moments when asked one too many times where a bathroom is.

Ben gets decked out in his formalwear three evenings of a typical crossing or cruise to attend passenger cocktail parties, and about once a cruise, he dines with passengers.

"Part of what I really like about the QM2 is that it maintains a certain formality. It adds to the experience and makes it special," he says, without a hint of longing for other cruise lines' dress-down policies or the baggy jeans and shaggy hair-cuts of his peers shoreside.

Still, he has his share of casual, carefree moments too, when he might canoodle with the dogs in the kennel or hang out with other crew. Sometimes, on a beautiful evening, he just leans on a railing gazing at the sea and thanks his lucky stars for such a cool job.

But he doesn't think he'll do it forever.

"I would love to be a captain; it would be tremendous fun, but don't see myself staying at sea for that long," he says. "There will be a point when I don't want to be away for eight months a year."

Looking ahead to middle age, he sees himself working on the shore side end of the cruise industry. President of a cruise line? Don't be surprised, this cat's no wall flower. In the meantime, anchors aweigh.

"It's almost like being in college again," he adds, as his inner child makes a rare public appearance.

"Who wouldn't want to live and work with a big group of friends," he asks with a wide grin.

Sounds good to me. Sign me up.

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