After spending 13 weeks crossing the expanse of Eurasia, it’s finally time to set sail again and head west across the Atlantic Ocean. This is the last major hurdle of my circumnavigation, the only remaining pinch point. And since it’s a scheduled service, run by one of the most reputable and luxurious large cruise lines in the world, I’m more worried about the style of my outfits than the risk of delay.
When Sunday morning arrives, I wake up in a buoyant mood. It’s cruise day! Fortunately, there’s no need to rush this morning. Several weeks ago Alan called our personal “cruise vacation planner” (i.e. customer service agent) to request a late boarding time. She assured us that, despite our official boarding time of 3:30 p.m., we could board as late as 9:00 p.m., and put a note in our file to that effect. So we enjoy a lazy Sunday morning of homemade breakfast and coffee with Dave and Clive, and then I spend an inordinate amount of time organizing and coordinating my cruising outfits. It’s all ready for action: black slim-fit three-piece suit for formal dinners; selection of bow ties; royal blue velvet jacket with red silk cravat for enjoying brandy in the Admiral’s Club; lightweight baby blue cotton blazer for strolling the lido deck in the afternoon. Finally, a use for all of these things!
Clive drives us to the local train station just before lunch, and we catch a rickety old local train, transfer in Cardiff, and then spend a few hours trundling along the rails at low speed towards Southampton. When we arrive, we hop in a taxi and ask to be taken to the ferry terminal.
“What ship?” the driver asks.
“The Queen Mary 2,” Alan replies.
The driver hesitates for a moment, looking puzzled, but then starts driving. I guess he didn’t expect that two vagabondish men, one carrying only a worn-out backpack, would have tickets on such a luxurious ship.
Not long after, we stop at a security gate and the driver exchanges a few words with the guard. I can see our ship sidled up to the pier; its enormous bulk blots out a good segment of the sky. After a long pause, the gate opens, we pull through, and then drive inside a big steel hulk that looks like an ancient airplane hanger. Dozens of oversized British flags hang from the iron girders that hold up the ceiling. There are a few other passengers milling about, their luggage stacked high, but the scene is otherwise quite subdued. I was expecting more fanfare.
As we get out of the taxi, a man in a uniform walks up to meet us. “What ship are you here for?” he asks.
“The Queen Mary 2,” I reply.
“I’m sorry,” he says jokingly, “but the Queen Mary 2 has sailed.”
I laugh half-heartedly—this is no time to joke!—and reply: “nice try, but we saw the ship as we came in.”
There’s a long pause.
“I’m serious,” he says. “Boarding closed an hour ago. You’re too late.”
“But that’s outrageous!” exclaims Alan. “Your customer service agent specifically said we could board as late as 9:00! I wrote it down, see?”
The agent takes and briefly scrutinizes the printed e-ticket with Alan’s hand-written annotation. “It says right here, boarding at 3:30. I’m sorry, but it’s your responsibility to be on time.”
The agent is unmoved. “You can write whatever you like over the ticket, but it doesn’t change the facts. I go with what the ticket says, and the ticket says 3:30.”
Is this ticket agent really going to prevent me from boarding? Impossible. I try explaining my particular situation: that I’m circumnavigating the planet without using an airplane; that crossing the Atlantic is the last major obstacle between me and success; that I’m blogging about my journey. The agent’s eyes brighten for a moment, and he exclaims “oh yes, they told me about you!” Recomposing himself, his face resumes its unsmiling and emotionless position. “But I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”
Up until now I have failed to notice the family of four that arrived at the same time as us. No longer. The mother erupts: “What do you mean we can’t get on the ship? We must get on! We can’t fly. My daughter has special needs, she can’t fly. The ship is supposed to leave at 10:00 p.m. See, it says so here!”
The furious woman tosses the agent a piece of paper. It’s a printout from Expedia, the online travel agent she used to book the cruise, and sure enough, it lists a departure time of 10:00 p.m. The agent creases his brow for a moment, but then looks up and replies: “I’m sorry, you’ll have to contact Expedia about this. I don’t know how they got the wrong information, but there’s nothing we can do.”
“Nothing you can do? Stop the ship!” she screams. “Tell it to lower the ramp.”
“I’m sorry, but it has already cast off. I can ask for a pilot boat to take you out, but they already refused the same request for another late passenger an hour ago, so I doubt they’ll do it for you.” The agent walks away and appears to make a very brief phone call. Ten seconds later, he’s back. “I’m sorry, the ship has left, and they won’t send a pilot boat. There’s really nothing I can do. Is there anything else I can assist you with?”
As if on cue, the air explodes with the sharp double blast of the ship’s horn. It’s leaving. It’s really leaving.
With this final pronouncement, fatefully emitted by the ship itself, the stranded family loses control. The mother screams, the father cradles his head, and the kids run wild. The agent loses patience and starts yelling back. Divorce is mentioned. Meanwhile, an older Asian couple, who I have failed to notice until now, stands silently next to their pile of hard-case luggage, looking utterly lost.
I don’t know what to do. I pace back and fourth in great agitation, thinking rapidly. How can I get on this ship? Or, failing that, how can I get on another ship? And how can I do either without the cooperation of the agent? He won’t help me if he thinks it was my own negligence that caused me to be late.
As if reading my mind, Alan pulls me aside and shows me his phone. He has found an email, dated two months ago, from the very same customer service agent to whom he later spoke on the phone. It was sent in response to Alan’s initial inquiry about possible boarding times.
Alan: …I was hoping to know the boarding time [before the e-ticket is issued], if possible.
Company representative: …as early as noon, the latest will be at 9 pm, one hour prior to ship’s departure.
Alan: …it sounds like that assignment is more of a suggested time for boarding…
Company representative: The assigned boarding times are indeed guidelines for a faster check-in; otherwise, if not adhered to, you at least know the earliest and latest times to get onboard.
Alan manages to extract the agent from his argument, shielding him momentarily from the angry mother’s fury, and passes him the phone. The agent goes pale as he reads the email. He hands back the phone. “Just a moment,” he says quietly. “I need to make a phone call.”