How I Spent My Christmas Break, 1998

Sunday, Dec. 13, 1998


I join the Monarch of the Seas in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for four weeks as a trombonist.

Monday, Dec. 14, 1998


We arrive in St. Thomas.


We leave St. Thomas for Martinique, where we are scheduled to arrive at noon tomorrow.


After the show they announce that we are diverting to St. Maarten to drop off a passenger with a medical emergency. They promise we’ll still be in Martinique at noon.


I’m sitting in one of the lounges with about half the band. I didn’t get my ship-board charge card today, so they’re buying. Tomorrow night it’ll be my turn. We’ve just arrived in St. Maarten harbor.


We can see the local boat approaching the ship to take away the sick passenger.


Royal Caribbean has a 1:30 curfew for staff to get out of passenger areas, so we all head downstairs to our cabins.


They sound the emergency alarm signal (seven short followed by one long blast) twice (that’s a total of 14 short and two long, very loud blasts — a lot of noise). This is the signal for everyone to put on their life jackets and go to their emergency stations. Immediately after the second alarm, the captain announces (in a slightly panicked voice) that we have struck a coral reef and the ship is “taking on water” (that would be a euphemism for sinking). He repeats, “We are taking on water fast.” He then says we will turn around, go back into the harbor, and intentionally ground the ship to prevent it from sinking.Emergency stations for the passengers are on the deck beside the life boats. The crew emergency stations are scattered throughout the ship so we will be able to assist passengers to their stations if they come through our areas. My station, along with six or eight other crew members, is in the show lounge. If this was several hours ago, there would be a ton of passengers for me to deal with, but at this hour the show lounge is deserted. As the show lounge is in the back of the ship, directly above crew areas, there’s also no chance of a passenger wandering in. Jan, a jazz pianist from Holland, is also stationed in the show lounge, and he begins to play. Chief among his repertoire tonight are “How Deep is the Ocean” and “Under the Sea.”


The captain announces that we will now disembark passengers (a.k.a. “abandon ship”). There are a lot of small boats in St. Maarten that normally ferry people to and from the cruise ships, so we will use those instead of our life boats.


The captain announces that all passengers are now off the ship and on their way to local hotels.


We’re dismissed from our emergency stations. The captain then says, “I want to thank you for your outstanding cooperation, and… whatever.” I did a lot of whatever.The bad news: We sank the boat. The good news: It sank in 20 feet of water.

Tuesday, Dec. 15, 1998


They wake us up and tell us to assemble in the show lounge. Once there, they tell us that the passengers will be sent home without being allowed back on the ship to pack their bags. Therefore, they want us to go into the passenger cabins and pack suitcases.

12:00 noon

I packed three cabins. The first one was a couple from Toronto. They had 13 pairs of shoes (plus the ones they wore on the life boat). That’s two shoes a day, everyday of the cruise, with a pair left over. Every cabin has a camera, so some of the crew have taken pictures of themselves before packing the cameras.Back in my cabin, I discover that my hallway has no electricity (or windows — although I already knew this). The whole ship has had no water and no air conditioning since they first sounded the alarm.


They managed to feed us (apples, cheese, hamburgers, and french fries). The guy who works in the staff mess says he was told he could give us Coke, but we have to pay regular price for bottled water. I guess they have to offset their losses somewhere.


I’ve been sitting in a deck chair for two hours. It’s really hot inside. There have been no official announcements, although someone said my electricity might be on again.Rumors abound: supposedly we’ll be flown out of here tomorrow. It looks like they’re still unloading passenger luggage, so I don’t imagine we’ll get a chance to go ashore today. Another rumor has it that we’ll have a big crew party tonight, but I doubt it.Cruise staff have returned from babysitting passengers on the dock. Apparently they ran out of hotel rooms on the island and some of the passengers ended up sleeping on the pier.


Still no news. I suppose it would jeopardize ship’s security to actually make an announcement regarding their intentions.


The captain just announced that we get a free sandwich and drink at Everyt’ing Cool (a bar on the beach). Tenders (small boats that go between the ship and the pier) will run from 6:00 to midnight.


I managed to squeeze onto the first tender. Still no news about tomorrow, but I heard the hole in the hull is 40 meters in diameter. As we pull away I can see that the bow is about 15 feet lower than the stern! The ship looks kind of like a lowrider with big back tires.


The owner of Everyt’ing Cool has T-shirts for sale that read “I survived Monarch IN the Seas — Dec. 15, 1998.”


Back on the ship I discover that if I keep my door closed there is a tiny bit of air conditioning — not much, but some. Most of the crew either don’t have this yet or they haven’t tried closing their doors, so they end up sleeping on deck.

Wednesday, Dec. 16, 1998


Today was supposed to be payday for the first half of the month, so they called the entertainment staff to the Cruise Director’s office to be paid through yesterday (the 15th). For me, that’s only three days, but I’ll take it.While we’re in line, the Hotel Manager comes out of his office and tells the people who happen to be standing in front of him that 90% of us will be on planes by 8:00pm today, with the others leaving tomorrow morning. He thinks the ship might be in drydock for repairs for two months. He says that everyone on the ship will be paid for the entire time the ship is in drydock and will return when the ship is ready to sail again. Someone whose contract ends Jan. 10 (same as mine) asks about that and he repeats himself. He then mentions that the Nordic Empress (another Royal Caribbean ship) is also in St. Maarten today and they have 200 empty passenger cabins this week. We are invited to go there to shower, relax, and have lunch in air-conditioned comfort. No announcement is made; I just happened to hear this.


After getting paid, I go immediately to the gangway to wait for the first tender to the Nordic Empress. Somehow, I’m the first one here.


Fresh from a shower, I am now relaxing on the sofa in an air-conditioned room on the Nordic Empress. I feel better than I have in 36 hours. Now it’s time to find that lunch.


Lunch was excellent. They treated us like passengers, with first class food and service. Now we’re waiting for the boat that will send us back into exile on our ship. I think this must be what it feels like to be homeless around the holidays: “Come in, have a shower and a good meal, then push your shopping cart back under the bridge.”


Back on the Monarch, it turns out that only about 50 of us made it over to the Nordic Empress before they stopped running that tender service. There is still no official news, although I overheard the Hotel Manager tell someone that all crew luggage must be off by 5:00. This won’t be possible, as they haven’t yet begun.There has been absolutely no official announcement after a day and a half of sitting here.


The captain comes on the intercom and announces nothing. He says thank you and Merry Christmas and wishes a safe trip (why wasn’t he thinking about this two nights ago?) for those who will be leaving tonight or tomorrow, but he doesn’t say who that will be. He also says the ship will sail Friday for Newport News, Virginia, for drydock.


The crew purser announces that all crew on tonight’s charter to Miami must load their luggage by 4:00 and be on the tender by 6:00. But he doesn’t say what crew are on tonight’s charter to Miami.


My name is now on a list on the wall outside the crew office. I have a flight tomorrow morning from Miami to Denver. I don’t live in Denver. I didn’t come from Denver. I don’t want to go to Denver. Maybe they have running water in Denver, though.I finally find the crew purser — in the middle of about 200 crew members. Apparently he feels the intercom is too impersonal. He tells me that all the musicians are on the charter tonight. He also tells me that I will have to call the Miami office in the morning to have my flight destination changed to Huntsville. Supposedly, we all have hotel rooms tonight in Miami. On the other hand, they said all of the passengers would have rooms in St. Maarten two nights ago.There are apparently 350 of us on the charter. The others will have to spend another night here under the bridge.


An announcement! All crew members on tonight’s charter (the one that was leaving half an hour ago) are told to come get our vacation pay (Royal Caribbean withholds 10% of your pay each month and gives it to you when you leave to make you think you’re getting a bonus).Some of the crew are given a full month’s pay (through Jan. 15) and told they will receive checks at home after that until the ship is ready to sail again. Musicians are told that we are on a different kind of contract; we get paid for today plus the vacation pay. That’s it. In my case, this equals $57.15. The purser gives me a paper to sign, then hands me $57 and a dime. I look at him, and he shrugs and says, “I’m out of nickels. We’ll have to owe you.” I can only laugh. It never occurred to him to give me two dimes and let me owe them.While we’re standing in line, they announce that after being paid we should go immediately to the tender.


I made it to the tender.


Still sitting on the tender. I’m thinking the plane is not leaving at 8:00.


Finally, the tender leaves the ship.


We arrive at the airport, but some of the luggage is not here yet (did I predict this?). We are told to go to one of the two “restaurants” and relax until the other luggage truck arrives. One of the restaurants is a roadside stand with two tables and two employees. I didn’t see the other, but I’m told it’s comparable. There are 350 of us.I find a local newspaper, with us featured on the front page. According to the paper, we had 2557 passengers, and it took 12 charter flights to get them all off the island yesterday. We have “gaping holes in the hull over an area of 150 yards.” Some local official was quoted as saying that if we hadn’t quickly grounded the ship it would have sunk and “become a piece of local history.” Three of the 18 watertight compartments were flooded.


The last luggage truck arrives.There are two Royal Caribbean employees from the Miami office at the airport with directions and information. They were brought in yesterday to help with the passengers, and somebody apparently forgot that we don’t need information. There are actually two charters to Miami tonight. One will take 100 crew members who live in the Caribbean or Central America; the other will take 250 who live in Europe, Canada, or the USA. Busses will take us to two different hotels near the airport in Miami and then back to the airport in the morning for connecting flights. Our tickets for tomorrow’s flights are at the hotel desks. They have carefully divided the groups because of the available hotel rooms. There are a couple of dozen people on our plane with incorrect flights booked for tomorrow. I am told that I should call the musician contractor in the Miami office in the morning to change my Denver flight, but that I should pick up the incorrect ticket tonight anyway. The people on the smaller flight are told to check their luggage and go through the gate.


Our luggage is now checked and we are waiting at the gate. The other plane is gone. We have a charter, and there are no other planes leaving this late at night, but we wait at the gate.There are no assigned seats, so everyone is pushing like crazy. Nobody wants to be in the middle seat, especially because most of the crew have not bathed in more than 48 hours. Those of us who have, have spent twelve hours hauling luggage on a tropical island.

12:00 Midnight

Finally on the plane!


Still sitting on the tarmac, loading luggage. This plane is really beginning to smell. The flight attendant says it’s 2½ hours to Miami.


Take off! (12:07 EST)


Touch down in Miami. Exactly 2½ hours — the flight attendant is one of the few people I’ve met in the last two days with reliable information.


My luggage is among the last to come out.


Off the bus at the Days Inn Motel in downtown Miami. This is nowhere near the airport. There are 200 people already here standing around in the parking lot and trying to shove into a very small motel lobby. Another musician tells me we are to find someone for a roommate and shove our way inside. Then we are to wait in another line to get our flight tickets for tomorrow.


Finally picked up my ticket for Denver and got into my room. I was lucky — they ran out of rooms with about 25 people left over. Surely they knew how many people were on the plane and how many rooms were empty, but still 25 people stood in line for 90 minutes and were then taken elsewhere.

Thursday, Dec. 17, 1998


Time to get up and fix my ticket.


I called the RCCL office about my flight. They will rebook me to Huntsville, Alabama. I’ll hear from them later.

12:00 Noon

Still sitting in Days Inn waiting for flight info. They have found the one motel in America that still charges for local and toll-free phone calls.


Still waiting. CNN Headline News has us on every half hour with a wonderful picture of the ship.


The RCCL travel office tells me I will fly sometime today, and the ticket will be delivered to the Days Inn. They ask me to stay in my room until then.


The Days Inn front desk calls and tells me my ticket is at the RCCL office and I am supposed to go pick it up. I check out, then run into another musician who is on the phone with the RCCL travel office. They tell him two of their people are on the way to the motel with all tickets. I spend 15 minutes trying to call the travel office, and am finally told tickets are on the way. There seem to be about 30 of us whose flights were screwed up. It has taken them six hours to book 30 tickets.


The travel office employees arrive with all the tickets except mine. They had been told I was picking it up at their office, so they left it there.I am told to go get my ticket — another $10 in a cab.


I go to the RCCL office and they give me my ticket. I stop to talk with Rob, the man who hires musicians. He tells me that he has been told he cannot pay musicians for the lost time, regardless of our contracts. He assures me that he will try to get this changed, as some other crew have been paid through Jan. 15 already and promised more when they return. I believe he will try; I do not believe he will succeed.My flight is for 6:20, but I decide to go to the airport because I hear they have air conditioning and running water.


I arrive at the airport, check my luggage, then discover there is a 4:40 flight to Atlanta. I’m getting on it regardless of my luggage. I must put distance between myself and the Royal Caribbean office or risk a nervous breakdown.


Atlanta! My flight to Huntsville is at 9:40, but I’m on standby for the 7:40 flight.


Made it on the standby flight.

8:15pm (CST)

Arrive in Huntsville. No luggage.


Home at last.


My luggage is delivered! Almost exactly 72 hours after the initial wrong turn in the harbor.

Saturday, Apr. 17, 1999

Exactly four months after returning, I receive a check honoring my original contract. If you count only the minutes spent playing trombone, it comes out to more than $600 an hour.

It wasn’t worth it.

Q. If a ship hits a coral reef and there’s nobody on the bridge paying attention, does it still make a sound?


Don Bowyer
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