Rocking Rocking Rocking: Life on a 90 Passenger Ship

A view of the Santa Cruz II, taken from one of the rubber boats that took us to the various Galapagos Islands we explored.

My dad was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. After Basic Training, he and his fellow soldiers were loaded onto a ship and sent across the Atlantic to France.

Dad said the ship was full of teenagers who had never left the farm (I’m sure there were soldiers from cities.) The ship rocked and rolled… and everyone became seasick. Dad has described some really gross events, which I’m going to spare you. Their seasickness lasted for weeks.

Near the end of the trip, Dad remembers being on the deck at night by himself. An officer walked by and offered him an orange. Dad said it was the best thing he had ever eaten. I can only imagine how soothing that sweet fruit must have tasted. And he was able to keep it down.

My first experience of being on a ship was this past summer, on a monstrous cruise that took Bill and me from Helsinki, Finland to St. Petersburg, Russia. The ship was so huge  we couldn’t feel the waves at all. It felt like we were in a hotel.

But this ship is small, by cruising standards. It only holds 90 passengers.

I remember the first night, and lying on the bed. The boat rocked continually. If I sat up, I leaned to the left… then to the right. The closet doors were open and the shirts moved back on their hangers, then forward, as if drawn into the room by invisible hands. Going up and down the stairs, I held the banister tightly. To walk the corridors was to stumble and amble from one side to the other like a drunk.

When I first embarked, I thought — uh oh. I don’t know how this is going to go…

In fact, a day earlier, in Quito, Marty and I went to a pharmacy to buy seasickness medication. The pharmacist didn’t speak English, but we mimed a boat, then held our stomachs, then Marty said, “médecin.”

She asked us a question in Spanish… so we gave her Act Two.

Then she nodded, went to the back and returned with a packet of 20 pills. She told us the amount owed but we couldn’t understand her and the cash register didn’t have a customer-facing screen. I gave her a $20 bill. She repeated the amount so I gave her a $1… then another… then one more and she nodded her head and rang it up. She gave me Ecuadorian coins — still common for small change, despite Ecuador having converted to the U.S. Dollar in September, 2000.

Why were the waves so large? The full moon was part of it but the second — and more significant reason — was El Nino. This weather pattern is disrupting many countries and climates. According to Prof. Kris Karnauskus, head of the Oceans and Climate Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, no ecosystem is more profoundly affected by El Nino than the Galapagos Islands. (To read more, see Karnauskus’ essay here.)

Despite my initial fears, I adjusted to the continual rocking. It was substantial, hour in and hour out. When the swells grew, the rolling became a carnival ride. We’d laugh and hold a nearby railing till the big wave subsided.

And seasickness? The box of pills sat unopened on the shelf near the bed.

Not everyone on the ship was so lucky. I noticed a number of passengers with the tell-tale patch — it looks like a round Band-Aid — stuck behind their ear. A few people told me they took seasickness medication before bed each night. For those with more drastic reactions, a doctor and infirmary were on board.

The only close call was very early Thursday morning, about 4 AM when the ship’s rocking woke me up. It felt like my feet were going higher than my head… and then my head would move up, as if I was riding a see-saw. I could feel my innards moving into my chest, then down into my lower stomach. I remember thinking: yikes. My luck has run out. I took deep breaths, very slowly, and though the rocking continued my nausea went away. Soon I fell asleep and woke to calm waters.

The Santa Cruz II was the nicest ship I’ve ever seen. It’s brand new — with an air conditioning system (the Galapagos is hot and very humid) and gleaming wood everywhere. The chrome around the windows shone like slivers of mirror. The library was a huge room with leather sofas, chairs and coffee tables. A wall of glass on three sides provided incredible views of the aquamarine water and the islands of Galapagos.

The day we arrived we were taken out on boats made of inner-tube material that held approximately 18 people, plus a pilot who stood at the back and operated the engine and a rudder.

The red and gray life vests were doled out to us on the first day. We used them daily to get from the ship to the islands.

We had “wet landings” — the boats get close then everyone jumps into the water and wades ashore.

The beaches are loaded with many black iguanas. They aren’t afraid of people, and aren’t dangerous.

A dozen black iguanas sun themselves on the lava. The sunlight was so intense, it caused some of my photos to take on this sepia appearance.
A frigate with its distinctive forked tail. You can see the stormy conditions.

Dark clouds formed in the south and soon it started raining. By the time we boarded the boats for the return to the ship, the waves were really high. The men pulling them closer to shore for us to reboard lost their balance and were dunked; some passengers slipped and fell into the warm waters. As the front of the boat lifted, the boat filled with water. Everyone was laughing (… a few sourpusses expressed disapproval as they wrung out the front of their T shirts.) By the time we were back at the ship, we were soaked to the skin.

The ship had rows of shower heads about one foot from the ground for washing our feet as best we could. Then we dipped our shoes in a huge tub to remove sand then padded to our rooms. Unfortunately, we left behind trails of water and sand in the ship’s corridors.

But they were gone when we returned from dinner. While we stuffed our faces, the cleaning staff had swept and vacuumed every grain, including our rooms.

Was the purchase of seasickness pills a waste of money? Not at all — the first two days I kept them by the bed so I could take one the moment nausea hit. They were like an insurance policy I never had to use. That was worth every cent.

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