The Queen Mary 2 has just sailed from Southampton, and I’m not on it. I’m standing at the terminal, dumbfounded by the outrageousness of the situation. I’ve crossed the Pacific Ocean. I’ve crossed Asia and Europe. Seas, mountains, deserts, political uncertainty, poor infrastructure, perilous storms; I have slayed them all. And now, in England, I’m stopped in my tracks by an incorrect departure time given by a vacation cruise line. The elderly take this ship. Families take this ship. There’s probably an on-board morgue to transport the corpses of those who die on this ship. How is it possible that I, the seasoned circumnavigator, missed it?
My project to circumnavigate the planet without using an airplane is in immediate and critical danger. But maybe there is still a way…
Facing into the hurricane
“Can I take a helicopter?” I ask the agent who stands with Alan and me at the nearly deserted terminal. The agent looks at me with a sympathetic look that says, in a word, no. “What about another cruise ship?” I ask.
I know the answer before I ask. The Queen Mary 2 won’t return to England for weeks, too late for me to meet my July 1 deadline to return to Vancouver. And no other passenger ship crosses the Atlantic, the rest having fallen victim to the convenience of air travel. My only hope now is to find a merchant ship, leaving immediately, that can take me to the American east coast. I know my chances are remote.
Cunard sends a taxi to take Alan and me to a hotel while we (and they) figure out what to do. Safely ensconced in our characterless business hotel, we wait. Within a few hours, we receive a phone call from Cunard’s head of customer service in Europe. He apologizes for the mix-up and promises that all of our meals and lodging will be provided until further arrangements can be made. I feel like crying.
Everyone has a go-to activity that cheers them up, or at least distracts them, from stressful situations. Some people eat a tub of ice cream. Others go for a vigorous run. I go to a drag show.
As luck would have it (loser’s luck, anyway), the London Hotel in Southampton has a drag show on tonight. Aland and I decide to go, and as an act of defiance, I don my most outrageous cruising outfit—a blue shirt with silver cufflinks, slim black trousers, a blue velvet jacket, patent leather shoes, and a vibrant red silk cravat.
When Alan and I walk into the bar, all heads turn. The senior-aged drag queen on stage stops and looks straight at me. “My, my, my,” she says, “the last time I saw a velvet jacket like that…on a boy like that…I was still a young serving wench at the country manor. Tell me where you’re from, sweetie.”
“Vancouver,” I reply. The queen looks at me for a further cue. “It’s above Seattle,” I say helpfully. Still nothing.
The queen gathers her skirts and signals for music. “Well, wherever that is,” she says, tapping her feet to the rhythm, “here’s a song for you, sweetie.” And then and there, at a backwater drag bar in Southampton, I receive my very first personalized drag queen serenade, a song about Chicago, but with the lyrics modified on the fly to fit in whatever she knows about Vancouver, which is essentially nothing.
After the song, she approaches me with the microphone. “What are you doing in Southampton, honey?”
“I was supposed to be on a cruise, but the ship left without me,” I reply.
“In other words, you were late,” she says, to laughs from the audience. I laugh too. And why not? There’s no need to clutter up a good evening with a sob story.
The queen sings several other songs to me over the course of the evening. One is Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To the Moon; the irony is not lost on me. When the pub closes down at the end of the night, a cross-dressing man who has been watching me from across the room approaches and hands me his business card. Professional luxury yacht service and installation, it says. “Send me an email tomorrow morning,” he says, “and maybe I can help.”
Claws to the wall
Reinvigorated and with new hope, I get to work as soon as I return to the hotel. I send an email to the cross-dressing yachter. I phone the travel agent in Australia who booked my cargo ship journey across the Pacific, and she promises to scour the schedules for a merchant ship leaving Western Europe this week. I find the contact information for an agency specializing in cargo ship travel from the UK and send them an email. This done, I try to get some sleep, but my mind is racing. Just maybe…
The next morning I receive another call from Cunard’s customer service chief. He says that he too has been trying to find a cargo ship for me, and that he hopes to have more information by tonight. Alan will be given a plane ticket back to Vancouver, departing the following day, and a full refund will be issued to both of us. He says a car will pick us up in the afternoon to take us to a hotel in London near Heathrow Airport while we wait for more information.
A black Mercedes picks us up as promised and drives for several hours to Heathrow. On the way, I receive an email from my Australian cruise agent: there is a ship leaving June 30 from Genoa, but it doesn’t arrive in New York until July 12. Too late, I reply. That evening I also hear back from the UK-based agency. There is space on a different ship leaving Rotterdam on on June 24 and arriving in Charleston on July 6, they tell me. Again, too late. I check my email one last time; there is no reply from the yachter.
The following morning I get another call from Cunard, this time with news: he’s found a third ship. Sadly, it too will arrive too late.
“Can I have an agent contact you about arranging a flight to New York?” the customer service chief asks.
I feel the last bit of hope drains away. That’s it, then. I’m going to have to fly. “Yes, please,” I reply.