Before long, we were being directed to the elevator at the back of the lounge. We joined the heady, halting pilgrimage to board. As the elevator doors closed, the operator explained that we should go toward the gangplank as soon as the door opened. Twenty seconds later, we were on the plank, leading the throng.
We quickly discovered a problem with my wheelchair. The tip of the left leg rest was not tolerating the articulation of the plank very well. At each articulation it would stick, striking the floor.
“Wonderful,” I thought, “That would only happen while a long line of the anxious are mere steps behind us.”
I told Chris to stop for a moment, while I extended the leg rest to a better angle. It did the trick. We, and everyone behind us, were moving into the ship.
As soon as we emerged from the plank, I knew where we were, the Grand Atrium on the Empress Deck. I had only seen it photos and deck plans, up to that point. The elevator bay was to the left. I directed Chris which way to go. She pressed the down button. As we entered the elevator, I told her to press "U." When the doors reopened, the search for our cabin began.
She pushed me down the starboard hallway toward the stern. Soon, we passed the Cat 12 cabins. She asked if we'd be able to squeeze past the housekeeping carts. "Yes," I answered, as a smiling steward reversed course to back into a cabin, leaving us just sufficient berth. We thanked him in passing, as he welcomed us aboard. Then we passed the amidships elevator bay. Only one more bay lay between our cabin and us. Our cabin would be only 2 doors beyond that last bay.
Finally, there it was, U181. It took a moment to figure out which way to insert the card into the lock but we quickly heard the satisfying click and the door opened. I arose from the chair, and grabbed my canes. I think I beat Chris through the door by a very slight margin--I had to go to the bathroom.
The Seahunks 11 learned a new word that day. The word was "BAAAAAAWOOSH!" Actually, I had heard it years before on “Married with Children.” It would become our shipboard euphemism for going to the bathroom. "Wait a minute, honey. I have to baaaaaaaawoosh."
Chris and I couldn't believe what awaited us in the cabin. It was bigger than either of us had imagined. And our TA had sent us a Bon Voyage bottle of champagne. There was a letter inviting us to lunch in the Seaview Grill. I also found a form letter addressed to me, inviting me to be unhesitant about asking any employees on board to assist me. It was very nice, though I'm still not comfortable with the notion that I have "special needs." I lived far too independently for too many years, even with my apparent condition. I don't like to take advantage of it. But, whatever serves the safety and convenience the other passengers, I'll do.
We looked at the size of the beds and decided not to have them joined, the better to accommodate the wheelchair. I still intended to use it as little as possible while aboard. Also, I tend, at times, to toss and turn. I knew that I would occasionally, fitfully rise during the night, to look out the window. Chris would sleep more comfortably, undisturbed by my nocturnal curiosity, in the bed along the bulkhead.
I went back out to the hallway and folded the chair to make the hall a little wider for the other passengers. I found the rest of our family beginning to look for their cabins.
"What do you think?" one of them asked.
"I think I'm going to like it here," partially mimicking Elvis in “Fun in Acapulco.”
"We're going up to get some lunch," someone else said. I decided not to fold the chair.
"We'll join you," I said.
Baaaaaaawoosh! Chris appeared and we were ready to go above.
“How do we get there?” someone asked.
“Elevator.” Soon, we were emerging from the stern elevator and entering the Seaview Grille. Near the middle of the starboard side of the room, we found a large, round table, that wasn't quite large enough. A few of us occupied an adjacent booth. My nephews quickly found the pizza and reported how good it was. I just had a small salad, saving room for dinner, not realizing how early it still was.
After eating, I showed Chris the starboard door to the afterdeck, explaining that’s where I’d wait until the muster, with my fellow smokers. She and the other 11 were discussing shopping expeditions. I went out to the afterdeck, which I knew from all my research, would become my favorite part of the ship. I planned to have sunrise coffee there the following morning.
Astern of Sensation, the whole length of Garrison Channel could be seen. Off the starboard and into the distance, Peter O’Knight Airport could be seen at the end of the NE Cut of Sparkman Channel. I knew we'd turn to port at that point to enter Hillsborough Bay, en route to Tampa Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico beyond. Beyond Harbor Island, the sails of some boats participating in a regatta could be seen. I spent a long time taking it all in, at least 2 hours.
In Garrison Plaza, on our port side, there was a Parrot Head party. Jimmy Buffett was scheduled to perform that night, somewhere in Tampa. I assumed the concert would be somewhere in that general neighborhood. Among the songs I heard emanating from the party was, appropriately, "Southern Cross." Part of the reason I had brought the GPS was to be able to find the constellation while at sea. The cruise would be my first trip into latitudes where it was visible.
The only disappointment, thus far, was our early dinner assignment. I had programmed our departure route into the GPS, connecting all the starboard lateral buoys with rhumb lines. I had flagged the route with truncated notes indicating the compass bearing and distance, between each of them. I wanted to stand on the forward observation deck as we left the harbor to see, among other things, just how accurate my line placement had been. The early seating would not give me time enough to track the whole route. The GPS like its ancestor, the sextant, is only useful on the weather deck.
Chris, Shirley, and Margaret soon joined me, cameras at the ready on the afterdeck. We could see the first 2 lateral buoys, green cans, at the top of the Sparkman Channel. I pointed them out to Chris and explained the coloring and numbering scheme of the buoys.
"The green buoys mark the starboard side of the channel going out to sea. They are assigned odd numbers. The same system applies aboard the ship. The navigation lights on the starboard side are green, and the rooms on that side are odd numbered." Again, I was giving her too much information but she just smiled, sincerely. My excitement was displacing her phobic trepidations.
Muster was scheduled for 3:30. At about 3:00PM, all of us returned to our respective cabins to get our PFDs. This time, I folded the chair, and pushed it into the cabin. Our luggage had already been dropped off while we were topside. So we pulled that in as well. As Chris hung up our formal wear and arranged the suitcases, I dug into the PFD trunk.
I had traveled aboard Mediterranean coasters before SOLAS 1974. My subsequent Great Lake ferry trips did not require muster drills. It took a moment to figure out how to wear the PFD. When I put it on, it just didn't feel like the waist strap would keep it from slipping off over the head. Neither could I seem to tie it tight enough at the neck. But a quick consultation of the drawings indicated we were doing it right. Chris and I both "Yucked" at the notion of putting the whistles anywhere near our mouths--no telling where they might have been previously. I showed Chris the recovery lights on the PFDs, noting the absence of a switch. Indicating the tiny electrodes on the bottom of the lights, I explained that saltwater would complete the circuit to activate the strobe. That seemed to actually hold her interest--not!
We heard muffled noises outside our door, indicating that the migration to our muster station was occurring. Our station was in area E in the Plaza Lounge, three decks above. I left the wheelchair next to the bed, folded. I grabbed my canes and we left the room. I took the stairs to the next deck up. As we rounded the flight, a crewman suggested that we use the elevator. We did as he suggested. We made it into the Plaza Lounge just as the muster signal came over the PA—7 long tones followed by a short one, as would be sounded by the ship's horn in an emergency. We found the 11 occupying a couple of round booths on the starboard side of the lounge.
Some folks just don't get it! The lecture was frequently interrupted by individuals blowing their whistles. I could easily imagine those same folks later reporting picking up NLV while aboard the ship, and threatening to sue over the illness. The moderator requested silence and advised them to only use the whistles if the little lights on the PFDs were flashing. In the absence of strobes, the lecture continued and concluded.
THE time was rapidly approaching. We headed back to the cabin, telling our families to join us in the hall after securing the PFDs. I knew the perfect place from which to watch our departure. We made it back to our cabin and discovered that our steward had found an even better place for the wheelchair. It was nestled between the foot of the bulkhead bed and the PFD trunk. Perfect! There was room for us, and it, within the cabin.
With only 15 minutes until sailing, we gathered in the hall. I led the procession to the elevators. Only my wife's family joined us, for this occasion. Of the 11, four from my side of the family were going to the sun deck. Terry was going with the group I led. Throughout the previous months, I had become the Sensation expert. I was about to fulfill my role.
We emerged from the elevators on the Lido Deck. The seven of us began the long march forward. I led them to the port side quarter rail. Where it ended near amidships, we went through doors to the pool area and continued forward. I was walking faster than I had in a while, as close to quickly as I could manage, the family easily keeping up.
We passed by the pool, where the departure party was at its peak. I headed for the door behind the forward snack bar. And then I obliterated any possibility of maintaining a low profile while aboard the ship. Had Melville seen it he would probably have written:
Look now at the Seahunks! See him twerping along, as sailing time nears. See him confidently striding forward on the Lido deck. Notice how he swaggers on the left leg, limps on the right, two canes counterpoising his rapid ambulation. Hear the tick and click of the canes! Hear the clop and trop of his footfalls! He is leading an entourage of wife and relatives to the foredeck so that all may watch their departure and passage through the channels of Tampa Bay. Among them, only he knows how to get there! Only he knows the right elevators, the right decks. Only he knows the doors and passageways. And he will get them there fast!
Look ye now! As he and they pass behind the poolside snack bar, his left cane tip finds a wet spot on the tile. See now how he pitches forward and sprawls across the snack bar, spilling its contents all over the deck! Mark, ye Olympic stumbling judges, a definite 10.0!
I don't know what kind of snacks were being served. I only heard the sound of plastic cups and cellophane wrappers falling to the deck, along with wordless gasps and "ohs." I muttered my apologies and assured the snack bar attendant, and my family, that I was okay. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Chris was right behind me, explaining that I only do such things occasionally. But she stayed even closer behind me as we emerged through the door and proceeded along the port rail. On the few subsequent occasions I walked anywhere near the pool thereafter, the bartenders kept an uneasy eye on me.
I quickly recovered my footing and resumed the pace. Soon, we were approaching the stairway, just abaft the bridge. As we reached the stairs, I turned and handed one of my canes to Chris, to leave a hand free for the banister. We ascended the stairs and found enough empty space along the forward rail to have a great view ahead. I looked around momentarily to spot a sitting place, in case I needed it. There was one just at the centerline of the ship, the hood over a water spigot.
Amy and Jason had brought their champagne along with several glasses, and began to pour and serve to our little group. I had my GPS out and had already selected the "Out from Tampa" program. The party noise, in the plaza below, continued, completely drowning any noise from the party aboard our ship.
The wind was quite strong, and fairly chilly there so I offered my coat to Chris, which she gladly accepted. She had left her windbreaker in the cabin. And so we stood and waited for the magic.