Growing Rebellion on the High Seas
USED to be, you’d be hung from the yardarm for mutiny at sea. Now, it seems, some rebellions may get you a refund.
Evidently, that was a lesson learned in January 2006 when passengers on the Queen Mary 2 organized sit-ins and alerted the news media of their grievances by sending e-mail and making cellphone calls from the ship.
Hobbled by a propeller problem, the liner had been forced to cancel three port calls on a Latin American cruise. Furious passengers were holding tense onboard meetings with the embattled captain when the ship’s owner, Cunard — perhaps alarmed by publicity like a Times of London article headlined “Mutiny on the Queen Mary 2” — ended the impasse by offering full refunds.
A similar incident occurred last month aboard the Sapphire Princess, a 2,600-passenger cruise ship on a 16-night voyage with scheduled stops in Singapore, Shanghai and other Asian ports. Two late-season typhoons severely disrupted the trip, canceling port calls in Vietnam, at Okinawa and at Taipei, Taiwan.
Unhappy passengers rushed to Internet stations to tell the world. Some were “claiming they were on the verge of mutiny,” The Sunday Mail reported while the ship was still at sea.
An online critic, Carolyn Spencer Brown, happened to be on the ship. Ms. Spencer Brown is editor of CruiseCritic.com, which features cruise news and reviews.
Naturally, she also turned to the Internet. As the passenger unrest spread and the crew seemed unable to keep up with the clamor for timely information, she compiled a daily log from the storm-racked vessel.
A former Washington Post reporter, Ms. Spencer Brown has sailed on most cruise lines. But this was her first mutiny.
As port stops were canceled and passengers found themselves with little to do, protest meetings broke out. “It became ‘Monty Python Meets the Perfect Storm,’ ” she said.
“First there was a group of what I’d call rabble-rousers, led by a lawyer,” she said. “We were missing all of these ports, and they felt they weren’t getting the truth” from the ship’s officers. At one point, with passengers assembled in the ship’s theater, she said, “the attorney jumped up and grabbed the microphone away from the assistant cruise director and said: ‘We’re taking over the stage! We have a petition!’”
There was once a time on the bounding main when a captain would not kowtow to rebels armed merely with a petition, but the world is now watching everything. News accounts in London and elsewhere were following the plight of the storm-tossed Sapphire Princess.
“There was a big shouting match with the captain,” she said. “One passenger was telling everybody he was captain of a yacht back home.” He stormed the bridge with Google Earth printouts, she said, and demanded to show the captain how to navigate around the storm.
As the ship approached its final port, near Beijing, a few passengers threatened to barricade themselves in their staterooms unless they got $1,000 in chits and a free cruise. Resistance collapsed when the captain noted that the police in Beijing would probably not be in the mood for negotiation, Ms. Spencer Brown said.
Ms. Spencer Brown — and many CruiseCritic readers — sided for the most part with the ship’s officers, saying that during typhoons, safety is more important than port calls. Her main criticism was that the ship’s officers did not provide enough information and activities.
Julie Benson, a spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, the ship’s operator, said the company understood how "disappointed" passengers were at missing some ports of call because of severe weather. "In the end, it’s all about passengers’ safety," she said, adding that Princess gave each passenger a chit for $250 in onboard spending and a 50 percent discount on a future cruise.
The cruise business has been growing: Last year, 12 million people took cruises, compared with 4.2 million in 1990, the Cruise Lines International Association says.
Douglas Ward, author of the “Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2008” and a former cruise director for Cunard, recalled being on a ship near Grenada during the United States invasion in 1983, when passengers crammed the rails to try to witness the onshore action.
“Today,” he said, “they’d be broadcasting it to the world on their cellphones and saying: ‘Can’t we get any closer? This is great stuff.’ ”