The Perils Of A Cruise Ship Musician
Life as a musician at sea may sound glamorous, but not if you're working for a dictatorial Romanian diva. Bill King survived to tell the tale here, and he remains a lover of ocean travel.
By Bill King
As temperatures climbed and humidity rose this past week in Toronto, my disdain for air conditioning returned with a vengeance. I’m a ‘windows open’ guy, especially at night. I truly think it’s ancestral. If I were to locate through some DNA search primitive ancestors, I’m certain they would have lived outdoors amongst the ferns and fishes. Any thought of living beneath ground, a cave or an enclosed shelter absent windows, would have been an anxiety-weighted existence.
The bedroom air conditioner is a necessity and is now installed; the room sealed tight like a stationary elevator and, when turned on, the eco-friendly container blows a cold wind much like an arctic front. That was cool the first 20 minutes or so, but then I relapsed into a frightful memory and spent six surreal hours chasing a deep satisfying breath. This is a serious head thing for me when it returns. That moment when anxiety materializes courtesy an incident nearly twenty years ago when I took a nine-week gig on a cruise ship called the M.S. Sundream sailing around the Caribbean Sea.
I wanted the experience. An ex-jazz DJ was booking and looking for a pianist and sold me on the adventure. I won’t go into details other than, in the end, the pay didn’t add up, and the guy wasn’t clear about the mental capacity of my lounge working partner.
I was locked away with this Romanian diva who marched about like a perfumed duck, barking orders and imposing her CD on every mark.
We played the Midnight Lounge 5 - 6 pm. Then 7:30 to 8:30 before the disco crowd arrives.
Let’s call her ‘Sea Princess’.
On our first encounter, she informs me she has no music charts, and asks if I would get that together. WTF? Fortunately, I brought along a pile of music fakebooks and manuscript paper. I then spend the next week transcribing forty charts into her key and scripting. For this, she agrees to pay a nominal fee. That never happened! The pay part, that is.
Over time she became abusive, demanding, arrogant and a practitioner of third-world guerilla sales tactics. The Midnight Lounge became a nightly retail zone, known today as a ‘pop up store’, for her latest CD, the only recording mentioned or made available. These were her conditions.
As the weeks pass, ‘Sea Princess’ began referring to me as “American shit,” I embraced her as recurring sciatica. To say I didn’t feel her love would be soft-balling her insanity. She was a favourite daughter of dead communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu. More on her later.
Every time we departed, something of critical importance would break down in the ship’s components. We crossed from Cartagena to Montego Bay and the engines expired. No air conditioning or electricity. The aroma of twelve hundred ‘bouquet pounds’ of ripe shit stung the nostrils and agitated back in forth in the bowels of the ship.
I was housed three decks below in a cabin the size of a filing cabinet and without portholes. The space was pitch black.
One exasperating night I was suddenly awakened to find myself covered in a dry sweat and I realized all air had been siphoned away. I panic - abandon and sprint for the stairwell. By then I’m overcome with debilitating anxiety. I know this isn't something that happens to most, but not all cruise ships are equal.
Four of the seven engines had collapsed. The ship was becoming a pressure cooker leaving no area unaffected. The ship’s patrons abandon the lounge and sprint to the top deck and invite the prevailing winds to chill their bodies. I return to my cabin where a slight breeze is seeping from a vent above my bunk and doze off. Within minutes I awaken gasping for air and discover I couldn’t arouse a deep breath.
I slow the brain and request it focus on delivering one deep gratifying moment of relief. It didn’t come. I began to panic, run from cabin, climb three floors to an open-air area and wait. The magic moment still doesn’t come. I then walk the circumference of the vessel and talk myself down. Slowly, I regain my natural breathing rhythm and return to the room which by now is a toaster oven.
I rest for a moment then realize I can’t rouse a deep breath. That would be the prelude to months of anxiety that would catch me in a deep sleep and fearful I’d just taken my last breath. An open window was the only solution.
I had packed two Nikon D90s, lightbox, negative sleeves, boxes of Fuji Film; all things photographic, with the intent of jumping ship each day and photographing each island stopover. I had an adventure in mind, and this gig was one way to supplement my passion.
These destinations sealed the deal: Antigua, Grenada, Tortola, Havana, Dominica, St. Lucia, Barbados, Isle of Navidad, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Montego Bay, Santa Domingo, Guadeloupe, Cozumel, Cartagena, San Blas Islands, Costa Rica, and beyond. I also decided to keep a journal and discipline myself to write a chapter each evening after the last bit of humanity stored themselves away in their respective cabins. I titled it, ’64 Days at Sea’ – the extent of my time aboard ship.
The ocean intrigues me.
I grew up a block from what they call ‘the Mighty Ohio River’. Let’s be factual. The Ohio at times, is a rampaging beast whose main objective is to meet head-on with the Mississippi River and become a tributary south of Cairo, Illinois, then saunter lazily southward, serenaded by blue birds and singing crayfish. That’s how the fable goes.
The river near where pops tethered his rickety craft was scary. Not a place for kids to flop merrily above an undercurrent bent on sucking young ones lacking physical strength deep into a dark, murky hell. Scary thought.
The ocean, on the other hand, will transport you for days and allow you to float along until someone possibly rescues you or a sizeable seafaring bird plucks and drops you safely into your backyard. Well, maybe not!
Even skimming a hand over the ocean’s surface and kicking around the shoreline is cause for celebration.
My theory. The ocean is a large soothing and healing tank. It coaxes a smile and encourages one to think about the ‘big picture’, aware that what’s below the surface are billions of residents and a certain batch would playfully snap a leg off and drag your remains several metres below to meet the family.
I’ve read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim – I humbly bow to you Mr. Conrad. I’ve watched the sea-faring saga, Master and Commander, several dozen times, gone down with the Andrea Dora, imagined being in rough seas facing a hurricane and I get spine-tingling shivers thinking about those kinds of bare bones adventures.
I’ve experienced calm on open seas, the slap of waves against the vessel’s bow, the clanging of a warning bell, the occasional scavenger bird landing only a few feet away, a brisk headwind, a violent storm that rolled the ship side to side compelling me to clutch the metal post separating upper and lower bunk beds in my cabin. Damn, what am I doing sitting at my desk scraping the imagination for more sensory recollections when I could be… nah!
The M.S. Sundream was built in 1970 with the future in mind and was a break from ferry-like structures that preceded it by the Norwegians. It originally sailed under the banner – Song of Norway, then was sold in 1996 to a British company, My Travel, and billed as Airtours Sun Cruise, along with name change. This was truly a passenger-friendly ship with a classic open-air fifth floor - wrap-around wooden deck, deck chairs and the feel of a bygone era. The vessel was broken up and scrapped in 2013.
Nights on big sea were magnificent. I brought nothing but classics to read. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, The General in his Labyrinth, Lolita, Farewell to Arms, and others.
Nothing like sailing past Panama and Colombia steeped in writer Gabriel García Márquez and on the distant horizon the silhouette of a steam-cloaked mountain chain, the same terrain that often appears in his acclaimed novels. In fact, the evening portion of our gig went from 7:30-9:30 pm – then a ‘mad dash’ to my cabin below, a quick change, book grab and a return to my deck chair. It’s that ‘please don’t talk to me’ nightly session when imagery leaps from the book pages and comes to life and words read as if penned by the Gods.
A year before this gig, I signed up for a creative novel writing course at Ryerson University, night school. My instructor was none other than acclaimed author Eliza Clark. Eliza was all I needed to get the brain and hand thing coordinated and words to paper. What a godsend.
Most activities occurred around the pool deck. This is where Canadian music icons Walt Grealis and Stan Klees from RPM Magazine held court.
It was the Christmas holidays when the Canadians arrived and pushed the Brits aside. Walt and Stan would pause two weeks each season and sail aboard one cruise ship or another. To my surprise, neither ever left the boat, choosing to lounge at poolside, nap, then dress in their prized suits for dinner and show.
While I was coming and going, I would try to lure the two into a Havana neighborhood or a walk through Bridgetown, Barbados. No, go! Walt chose to smile at life as Stan went about passing out photostats stamped with miniature images of celebrities he’d encountered through the years. He’d even autograph them for you.
I loved lounging on the sun deck at a reserved table near the communal pool and hanging with the week's resident house comics, mostly Brits; Dave Evans, John Bell, Andy Rudge, Graham Powell and George King over the nine-week stretch. If you ever sail – insist or trade up for a cargo of Brits - they are clever, come with a wicked sense of humour and get every joke. They are heaps of fun anywhere on deck - Canadians not so much. They are pretty much like fallen trees. Americans tan and snort – Canadians watch and complain.
There was a hilarious scene with this firefighter from the Beaches in Toronto who invested himself in daily poolside trivia matches. The guy recognizes me as the music guy from the Beaches International Jazz Festival and adopts me as his new best friend. Not so fast, dude.
“Fireman Phil” took trivia games seriously but never won. Most questions were slanted towards British history. After a week-long losing streak, Phil protests until the ship entertainment director acquiesces and throws in some solid Canadian history. Phil scores sixteen out of twenty. Still loses but feels confident of his impending luck. I tolerate the cluck until one of the band members from the ‘show lounge’ drops by and joins us. Phil interrogates. “Aren't you crew and prohibited from socializing with passengers?” I cover for the guy and say he's my friend. “El fire jerk” then asks me why I'm allowed to sit at the same table with him? I explain I have status bestowed me by’ Flail of the Spaniards,’ the most ruthless pirate of the mid 1600s that allows me to date mermaids and toss anyone I feel annoyed with overboard, absent limbs. ‘Fireman Phil’ doesn't bite.
He then slithers away in pursuit of the ship’s ‘warden’ then returns in a righteous huff and succeeds in getting all musicians banned from above deck, except me. ‘Fire dude’ was still pissed about losing those trivia hands and me disrupting his purge. I reminded him if I saw him in the Beaches during jazz festival I'll have him stalked by a lunatic busker whose specialty is fire and knives and British history.
A month in and that pesky Norwalk Virus arrives. Listen up – you are likely to experience this. I caught it and didn’t leave my room for two days until Costa Rica and even then, there were microbes still hatching in me.
I dialed home from an outdoor booth with a hundred other locals looking on, me sweating under the most oppressive heat since hell was uncovered! My lower extremities cooked up a toxic stew. I pleaded with my intestines to not accidentally unleash anything medieval on the region.
Did I say toxic stew? Beware of freelance karaoke singers especially when there’s a prize involved.
It’s near 5 p.m., and we’re prepping for our late afternoon set when this wheel-chair bound woman rolls in and positions herself only feet from ‘Sea Princess.’ “I’ve come to see you sing. I hear you’re good. I am too! Do you want to hear my cassette?”
At first ‘Sea Princess’ pretends to care then tries to cold-vibe her away. “I won first prize last night and no one can beat me,” she continues. I’m laughing inside knowing resident diva is going to blow at any moment. Then she does. “You see this room, it’s ‘My’ room, now move along.” Just as the last syllable is about to part her lips, a massive gurgle can be heard bubbling up from the pit of the karaoke contestant’s craw. Dry heaving begins, and without warning, a seismic convulsion follows accompanied by a shotgun blast of puke. I don’t mean a mid-level throw up, but one of epic proportions on a par with Mr. Creosote’s spray in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life - A Bucket for Monsieur. It was as if she had a garden hose implanted in her oesophagus.
I quickly evacuate the piano bench, ‘Sea Princess’ runs squealing to the lobby, the lone Filipino bartender says, “I’m out of here.” The newly crowned karaoke queen looks over at me and begins wheeling backward through a mammoth pool of body sewage and says, “I’m going to win tonight, believe me, nobody can beat me. Will you be coming?” Damn!
I stayed gone until the 7:30 set and returned to find two Indonesian boys still scrubbing the floor and damping down the odor.
After seven weeks of the ‘Romanian Duck’ and her CD escapades, which played exclusively in the lounge, I dropped some Joni Mitchell into the player. Mitchell singing ‘The Man I Love’ with Herbie Hancock on piano.
Filipinos waiting tables and manning the bar applaud as we slip into a momentarily period of ecstatic relief. Even the blue dolphins which accompanied the ship from time to time, served up a cartoonish applause. It was like a Disney movie until the singing Romanian returns. She violently stabs the CD player with her stubby paws then jabs a probing finger underneath and pops my Joni loose. She then grips the treasured recording and flings it across the room. “Nobody sings in my room but me – do you understand?” It was as if ‘Satan of the Sea’ was vacationing aboard and had unleashed his self-absorbed evil mistress to wreak havoc.
After porting in Cartagena, I hooked up with comics Dave Buck and Dave Evans for lunch, and we decide to exit the ship for a short walk around the duty-free terminal. Eventually, we agree on a set of colorful lawn chairs amongst a ripe botanical setting just out of reach of a dog-size iguana, to continue our daily bouts of show biz recollections.
Moments pass when we hear screams coming from near the shoreline. A nude black figure emerges, runs manically towards us, then begs for protection, disappears beyond the foliage, runs back into the sea, grabs a discarded piece of soiled white linen, dips in sea water, wraps it around his lower body, then sprints across a field of broken coral and shells, bleached white from unforgiving sunshine. Close behind in pursuit is a scruffy irate sea-worthy individual swinging a splintered oar.
From a tree-lined area a security guard burst forward and quickly intervenes, but the assailant keeps moving forward. Out comes the firearm. The man then drops the oar, reaches down and picks up a small boulder and threatens to heave at the suspect, when more uniformed security arrives. While this is happening four other men surface by sea in a small craft then attempt to dock along the shoreline. Assault rifles come out. Fortunately, the sea urchins kept their distance. After much yelling and fearful wailing, a story evolves, courtesy the assailant.
It seems the men, according to him, had plans to kill him for stealing a pair of shoes, and he startled them by jumping overboard. Where it went from there is anybody’s guess.
Security told us if you commit theft or any personal offense, vigilantes strip you of your clothing, bound your hands, tie you to a heavy stone and drop both into heavy seas. This is Colombia where frontier justice rules. I asked security if the story sounded reasonable. He looks back at me and says, “drugs.”
I’ve often thought about the Panama Canal and the significant history it plays in our lives.
I was jilted from a pleasant night’s sleep by the’ port of entry’ bell, the one I hear every time we enter a harbor or are about to dock. I knew we’d soon be in the Panama Canal Zone sometime after seven in the morning. I was up, ready with the camera and lens.
As I cleared the fifth deck, I could see a somewhat overcast horizon disguising a trail of long-boats partially hidden in a steamy fog. The first lock of entry lay far in the distance, plenty of time to test the palate with another round of recently thawed cantaloupe, canned peach doused in yogurt, and a bowl of raisin bran. Talk about repetition.
The Panama Canal was built in 1914 and ships of any nationality may utilize the facility, avoiding the necessity to sail the enormous 8000-mile voyage around the bottom of South America. The lock at Gatun raises the ship in three stages to a height of 85 feet above sea level. The chamber itself is 1000 feet long and over 100 feet wide. Each vessel crossing the canal uses 52 million gallons of water for operation in the locks, and interestingly, no pumps are used. All movement of water is by gravity.
Passengers along the upper deck had already staked positions. These were old folks with huge VCR camcorders. I saw one old veteran of cruising stand front and centre just past 7 a.m. with camera half-cocked on his shoulder, his face a perfect shade of ‘heat stroke red’, water spurting from every region of his aging torso. I reminded him it would be near seven hours before we enter the locks. He says to me, “I’m not moving.” I get it!
After a bit of jousting, I remembered the private crew enclave a flight up, off limits to passengers with an unobstructed view. I almost forgot I had both passenger and crew status. The area would prove invaluable in capturing a variety of photos. “Hey, it’s the piano player who plays with that whack-job from the lounge. Come on up,” an officer says. Never doubt the allure of an artist, even when pay stinks.
When the sun finally shed the thick cloud cover, it struck with a vengeance. Those hearty early risers were seen passing camcorders from wife to husband back into a camera bag. You’d have to be one determined tourist to weather seven hours of slow-moving sea traffic, flesh-nibbling mosquitos, persistent downpours and eventual hallucinations.
After capturing a few compelling images, I returned to a deck chair. From then on, every time Panama appeared on our itinerary, I’d warn passengers we were nearing the ‘Root Canal.'
St. Vincent will forever hold a special place in my heart.
Of all my cruise ship visits to various islands, the people of St. Vincent were the most endearing. They smiled, aided, and spoke easily with tourists.
I sensed something unique was happening when I began walking through the grounds of the capital, Kingstown, past the town center through adjoining neighborhoods. I sensed a spirit of contentment and joy in the islanders that seemed to elude a few other nations I’d visited.
During my walkabout, I could see far above the trees a tower (Assumption Cathedral) attached to an ancient church which appeared more fortress than religious. I zig-zag across town through an old grave yard, down cobblestone streets until arriving beneath the artful structure. St. Mary’s Cathedral and Catholic School built in 1823.
Once there, I enter and walk freely through the stone-cut hallways past a water fountain draped in long green sheaves of tropical flowering and at the heart, a statue of the Virgin Mary. Through an open window and beneath the exterior back walls, a rather foul looking stream flowed carrying plastic bags, empty jugs, and degrees of trash.
Primed for recess, the quiet would soon be broken by the fever pitch of exuberant school children at play. It was that cacophony of screams and yelps, thundering feet and slamming gates that created natural excitement and drew me near. Camera time!
As I circle back to the front gates, I witness the joyful sounds. It looks as if there were a hundred six and seven-year-olds, arms beating like honey bees, never colliding yet caught in harmonious motion.
I raise my camera and inattention ceases as the young ones step forward, grip the cast-iron gate and face the lens. Then more children begin to gather and squeeze side by side. Everyone suddenly wants to be in the picture. Their generous smiles and enthusiasm were contagious.
I can get a read on a nation by observing the interaction between children. It’s that vibrance and explosive energy that kids exude when they are all about themselves and free of adult strictures. I saw the opposite in Dominica. An oppressive cloud hung low over the kids as they headed to school or went about daily chores. No laughter, heads down.
Before departing St. Mary’s, I introduced myself to their teacher, collected her address and promised to forward a few prints on my return to Canada. Back in Toronto I printed several 11x14s and posted and a month or so later received a beautiful letter signed by students and teacher.
Back to the Midnight Lounge.
Throughout our nightly get-togethers, the crowds were always a blast. I’d usually start the evening with a Jelly Roll Morton or a Scott Joplin piece before ‘Sea Princess’ began her ruthless sales pitch. This is back when CDs were a prized treasure and sold at $20 a pop U.S.
‘Sea Princess’ was fully aware of ‘cash in hand’ and warned me not peddle my wares. She insisted the room was hers and she called the shots. I ignored!
After her banishment from the ship’s gift shop, the constant complaining, irrational behavior and a husband so out of control the crew debated feeding him to sharks but paused when it was mentioned sharks are an endangered species, I began to ignore her.
I’ve played some ‘bat insane’ gigs in my life, but none topped this for the level of disrespect, ugliness and constant source of gossip. Yes, gossip.
Brits loved the weirdness. In fact, they’d report of their daily encounters with the couple. The best was the trip sighting at the pyramids of Tulum.
As told by the Brits, the spouse arrives early morning to board a bus with sixty other passengers; he dressed as Lawrence of Arabia. Then ‘Sea Princess’ shows, pauses and advises everyone she forgot her sunglasses. Twenty-minutes pass and folks are pissed. She returns, no apology and takes a seat near an outside window.
Upon arrival at Tulum, ‘Sea Princess’ looks off in the distance at the pyramids and says, “How nice, I’m going to the gift shop.” Bored silly, she locates a hammock out back and falls asleep. A few hours pass when the ship’s touring residents board a return bus and leave her behind. The husband ignores.
I’m back for the 5:30 set and the Brits are dying to tell me what happened, and the fact return cab fare was $75 US.
‘Sea Princess’ arrives. I ask her, “how was your day?” In broken Romanian she responds, “It was breathlessly beautiful, I see the pyramids and learn the history, so much.” I then ask, “how much was cab fare back?” She explodes! “Who tells such lies?” Priceless.
Keep in mind a ship this size is basically a floating hotel where folks get plenty drunk and pair off. The crew was forbidden to commit adultery. Yet the top electrical engineer in his mid-fifties with five children couldn’t resist Barbie, a young Brit hired to look after toddlers.
Barbie was all of eighteen. She tramped around wearing a Barbie backpack and groomed her hair to look like a Barbie doll. She was a prime catch for the unattached or a long-married man in search of young prey.
Barbie totally frustrated the show-band musicians, most serving ten-month contracts who could have used some attention from the pixie. She played aloof and innocent until it was noticed she was becoming near invisible. In fact, all evidence of her was erased until she was spotted entertaining children during a thunder storm.
The ship’s crew were first to know of the affair, but the relationship did not play well with the commanding officer who had both tossed and forbidden to ever come near the Sundream or any affiliated vessel.
The second episode
For me, cruising was all about photography and music. Music from lands afar. That stop-over where instruments seem to play themselves and trinket bearers beat you to a pulp. That’s what travel is all about.
On the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama, I encounter the Kuna Indians. The Kuna enjoy a certain amount of cultural autonomy from mainland Panama and survive trading bright molas; crafted appliqués, and farming and fishing. I photographed the women and a small patch of islands they called home and exhibited in Contact Photography Month, May of 1999.
Along the way, I bought a pair of swim goggles - snorkeled and spent the latter part of the tour floating above the water near the Cayman Islands, Grenada and Cozumel. Blue fish, barracuda, parrot fish, slow dancing squid and thousands of other aquatic species below surface dominated my off hours.
The gig is what it was. I don’t think I could have handled the six or seven night a week show lounge. Rehearsals were booked every day. There were rare moments away from the ship. Once you were sanctioned crew you were treated as such. Few liberties and around the clock demands.
I know singers and players who love the life. They leave for open water and never come home. The pay is satisfactory and accommodations these days more than adequate.
Would I do it again? Doubt it! My wife promised me she’d never allow me to leave her behind. She kept recalling the loneliness and the 118 centimetres of snow that fell mid-January 1999 and the National Guard and the fact I should have been watching the white stuff pile up with her. She reminds me the only reason she let me go was the supposed contractual agreement between all parties that she’d be allowed to join me for two weeks. The ‘Sea Princess and prince ‘not-so-charming’ nixed that end of the deal.
Back home and those Kuna Indians of San Blas return.
The morning of my departure I waited for an airport limo, and at the start of my journey, I notice a pile of yellow coloured magazines resting curbside across my street before dawn. I take a closer look and see they were National Geographics. I sort through and pick those dated as far back as the early seventies and store in my home office.
The evening of my return after hugs and kisses and tears I flipped the light on in my office and recognize the stack of collectibles I’d rescued and start flipping through the pile when a cover story appears from the early seventies on the Kuna Indians of Panama. Then a moment of melancholy.
I positioned my desk-lamp not only to read the chapter but review the images. Then my heart began to race. The women, the many women I bartered to photograph, those portraits; these were their mothers. I could see the striking resemblances, and it was chilling. I knew I’d never return but deep in those negatives was the lineage of persons dating back to indigenous rule who were carrying on with their traditions and I was there to momentarily savour their culture, meet their children and canoe to a distant island. Women ruled, few men around.
Honestly, through all the chaos and mishaps and silliness there is something attractive and seductive being confined to a big ship. Responsibilities stay home or wither on open water. The days are loaded with sunshine; books are an especially great read and the places you often go are charming.
Sometimes all of this is just enough to call it ‘the good life’. As comic Andy Rudge used to say to me in the morning, “How goes it, Sea Billy?”
It took me two weeks to chase anxiety from my head. The following months I’d have a recurring dream I was trapped in that cruise ship filing cabinet, and the temperature was near 100 degrees. I’d get out of bed and walk outside and sit on the back porch and gaze at the moon and stars and talk myself down. Then one day it was magically gone. It was also February!