Six short blasts of the ship’s horn and one long one sent all 1700 guests aboard the MSC Symphonia scuttling for their cabins. Life jackets were stowed in the tops of all the cupboards and had to be carried quickly to the muster points on deck 6. There we were shown by agitated crew members how to put them over our heads, fasten them in front and tighten the belt. We looked around in consternation, aware of the lashing rain and apparent gale-force winds outside on the open deck.
This was my first taste of cruising. We had opted to go on a four-night sail from Durban to the Portuguese island of Bazaruto to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. But a cyclone in the Mozambique channel had caused the weather at our port of departure to be foul, and now out of harbour, doing our regulation safety drill, we were getting a very convincing first-hand experience of what it might be like to be caught in a tropical storm.
We were thus relieved, on entering the theatre and being addressed by our Cruise Director, that the ship’s captain had taken the decision not to head for Bazaruto but instead to sail in a southerly direction for Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape coast. Naturally, some people were disappointed; a couple on their honeymoon were devastated because they had just that morning taken off from Port Elizabeth airport to fly to Durban! But, judging from the amount of passengers who sustained seasickness, this was a good leadership decision. By the evening of the second day, we were sailing into clear skies and enjoying calm sea conditions – the kind the brochure had promised us!
My grandparents sailed on a ship from England to South Africa soon after they got married. They took my mother and aunt to England on a ship when the girls were around ten and twelve years old, and they continued to sail on P&O liners well into their retirement years. I have a vague memory of seeing them off on the SS Chusan around 1967, and even being allowed on board until the decks were cleared for sailing.
Now, 45 years later, I was on my first cruise! Like my mother as a young girl, I especially enjoyed the ice-cream on board. There is nothing quite like eating rich Italian ice-cream from a crisp cone, sweet drips cascading between paper serviette and fingers, while the sun shines from a summery sky and the wooden deck is warm underfoot. I indulged in this treat daily, in spite of my increasing waistline, simply because I wanted to relish the moment. Afterwards, with the sweetness of rum and raisin in my mouth, I would lean on the wooden rail, watch the foamy waves breaking against the side of the ship, and wonder in amazement at how wide the ocean is, and how awesome it must have seemed to the early Portuguese, Dutch and English sailors who came to these waters.
We spent four nights on the ship altogether, taking in the shows and enjoying the delicious food on board. When the time came for passengers to disembark at Port Elizabeth for optional excursions on land, we stayed where we were, enjoying the slightly less crowded decks and watching the comings and goings of container ships in the port. We also took the opportunity to have studio portraits done with the ship’s photographer, and to go for a luxurious massage at the health spa. As others had told us before our cruise, being on board ship is like being in an enormous resort with night clubs and piano bars, coffee shops and grills, even a library and a medical centre, so there is always lots to do when you’re not in your cabin catching up on rest.
I mention rest because it was what we much needed, and we slept like babies in spite of the rolling of the ship and the chatter and laughter of late-night party-goers in the corridor. Luckily, the life-jackets never had to be used because the weather remained stable for the rest of our trip. All in all, I can say that I found cruising to be a very comfortable and manageable form of holiday for me as a visually-impaired person, and one that we will definitely consider doing again, perhaps in the Mediterranean or Norway next time!
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