Jams Are Fun: A Rough Day on the North Sea

My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred traveled far and wide, long before such a thing was fashionable. Late in life, Aunt Mildred set about to writing a memoir. The title: Jams Are Fun. It turns out that, after seeing so much of the world, Aunt Mildred realized that it’s not always the big museums, the fancy dinners, the castles, or the cathedrals that stick with you most. It’s those serendipitous moments when things go awry. And so, in the spirit of Aunt Mildred, this post is part of my “Jams Are Fun” series about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it…if only in retrospect. I wrote this a few years back, while working on our Northern European Cruise Ports guidebook, somewhere in the churning North Sea.

As I write this, my cruise ship is rocking violently to and fro. My mascot baboon — which my cabin steward cleverly made by folding a towel in a special way they must teach at cruise-ship steward school — is clinging to the ceiling in the corner of my room…having the ride of his short life. In addition to the slight but persistent listing to port, with the occasional, violent bob to starboard, every ten minutes or so the ship shudders and shakes as if the captain just accelerated over a speed bump.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I went to bed last night as we cruised out of the Sognefjord. Next stop: Norway’s other top fjord, Geiranger. But I awoke to news that, due to extremely high winds, they were cancelling the stop. And so, the captain turned this bucket around and headed back out of the Geirangerfjord.

The screaming winds managed to momentarily clear out some of the thick cloud cover we’ve been huddled under since entering Norwegian waters, shining a spotlight on wicked whitecaps all around us. The brief sun break also teased us with an enticing view of an idyllic Norwegian countryside of green forest, red cottages, and chalky gray cliffs. It was a Norway we would not actually visit, nor one we would see again for the rest of the day. This would be, in the parlance of the cruise industry, an unplanned and very turbulent “day at sea.”

As we navigated out of the fjord and into the North Sea, the seas grew dramatically rougher. All over the ship, subtle indicators popped up to hint that we were in for an even bumpier ride: Little plastic bags discreetly appeared in the hallways. All of the water was drained first from one swimming pool, then from the other, to keep it from sloshing out onto the deck. Precautions were being taken.

This was the first time I’d been on truly rough seas…and I was pleased to discover I was handling it relatively well. (My family lore includes the unfortunate tale of a friend who didn’t realize she was prone to violent seasickness until she boarded her honeymoon cruise to Bermuda — and spent the week hugging porcelain.) Maybe my 25 percent Norwegian DNA came with an iron stomach…and those sea bands don’t hurt, either.

In a bit of delicious serendipity, the afternoon’s scheduled entertainment was — I am not making this up — a troupe of Chinese acrobats. Now, I would pay any amount of money to see acrobats perform in these conditions. But this show? This show was free. As the time of the show drew near, morbid curiosity drew me down to the theater. But a polite notice explained that the show was postponed. Wise move, Chinese acrobats. So instead I strolled around the ship to survey the damage.

At this point, we’d left “rough” and entered “rodeo.” People were either green in the face or, like me, immune and chuckling at the absurdity of it all. Everyone — even seasoned crew — walked with the same unusual gait: first leaning a bit and plodding slowly to the right, then rushing with sudden urgency to the left, then slowly again to the right, and so on. I sat looking out a window for a while, watching through the fire-hose spray the mesmerizing rhythm of the railing as it teeter-tottered dramatically waaaay above, then waaaay below the horizon.

Curious, I made my way up to the top deck, and was surprised to find the door unlocked. I stepped outside and wandered around for a while — one hand in a death grip on the railing, the other in a death grip on my camera — feeling like the only person on the entire ship. Somewhere in the control room, I imagined someone watching surveillance feed of this idiot wandering around outside in the worst storm the ship had ever weathered…taking bets on when he’d be blown overboard.

As dinnertime approached, I wondered whether, like the Chinese acrobats, the main dining room staff would have come to their senses and just called the whole thing off. But dinner, much to my surprise and my delight, was on. I knew I was in for an entertaining night when I walked past a Dutch teenager who suddenly — and, apparently, with as much surprise to herself as to me — vomited a little bit into her hands.

Stumbling and careening to my table, I noticed that at least a third of my fellow diners had decided to skip it tonight. My waiter hustled awkwardly toward me — propelled by an unwanted inertia and briefly overshooting his target — to drop off the menu.

Now, I’m sure there was a good reason for the ship designers to locate the main dining room at the bottom-rear of the ship, directly above the engines — but on a rough night like this, it seemed like a cruel prank. Things were far worse down here than in my stateroom up on the eighth deck. The entire dining room tilted violently this way, then that. Every few minutes, the curtains slid themselves open and closed, as if possessed. At one point, a precarious angle sent plates and glasses cascading off tables. And periodically there was a deep, loud humming noise — as if the engines had been lifted out of contact with the sea, immediately followed by a sickening thud that shuddered the whole ship and rattled the wineglasses.

And then there were the diners. Those of us who had showed up for dinner tonight were, no mistaking it, here on purpose. We were not about to let this thing get the best of us. And yet, some of us must fall. The woman who sits at the table in front of me — who has this funny habit of staring off into space, which happens to be directly at me — began fanning herself with her menu. The sweet French lady at the next table got up after the first course and never came back.

Having grown up watching the movie Stand By Me, I kept envisioning a Lardass-at-the-pie-eating-contest chain reaction. So I made a game of it. Looking around, I tried to guess: Who would be the first to pull the trigger? Would it be the balding, bespectacled fellow who lifted his napkin to his lips for a suspiciously lingering moment after each bite? The young lady who kept coughing loudly, then swallowing and rolling her eyes? The little girl resting her head on the table? Or maybe…the American smart aleck at table 103, smugly pondering the suffering of others?

I think I psyched myself out, because suddenly I found it next to impossible to swallow. I wasn’t sick — just tired of proving I wasn’t. I decided that a violently swaying room full of gastrointestinal time bombs was not a smart place to be, and — like so many before me — politely excused myself.

Still hungry, I wandered up to forage at the 24-hour shipboard pizzeria. But, inexplicably, their lone variety tonight was topped with a less-than-appetizing combination of tuna fish, capers, and onions.

Oh, well — it’s bedtime anyway. If I don’t get physically tossed out of my bed, manhandled by Mother Nature while I sleep, I’ll wake up tomorrow in Bergen…and, hopefully, better weather. And if I’m lucky, maybe they’ll reschedule those Chinese acrobats.

(P.S. They did. And they were spectacular.)

13 Replies to “Jams Are Fun: A Rough Day on the North Sea”

  1. I was a passenger on a cargo ship sailing in the North Pacific in March, and the North Atlantic in April last year. I know what its like to tie your shoes in stages and have your dining room chair slide one way and another. I loved it. Love love love your writing and photography Cameron,

  2. This is very humorous! We were there in September of 2017. Experienced a wonderful trip in the Fjords & Bergen. It was coming home that was our “Jams are Fun” ! Euro Trains are wonderful & dependable unless there is a raging storm. Then all bets are off believe me. But that is on our blog,
    “Wandering Grandparents “ on Word Press. Our whole 2 month Trip is there.
    Don’t let Mother Nature get you down when traveling. There is nothing you can do but make Lemonade out of Lemons.

  3. Great narrative! I once crossed the English Channel, from Dover to Calais, in the “pre-Chunnel” days, in a similar storm. Decided that consuming a large English breakfast was the way to go, and it was! Arrived a bit shaken, but otherwise unscathed! Upon arrival in Paris the next day, read in the International Herald Tribune that a freighter had broken up and sunk in the Channel the previous day! Considered myself lucky to have survived our crossing!

  4. Recently disembarked a Viking Mediterranean cruise that had two port changed and one involuntary day at sea due to weather. This account made me laugh about the experience- and that’s part of travel to begin.

  5. I had a similar experience off the shores of Australia. We were warned as we boarded our catamaran that we would have some rough waters. It was the day we were to have a “free” lunch. I ask you who could eat anything while all around are speaking into those little white plastic bags? My friend Janie and I were the only two on Board who did not have to use the bags that day. We joined the crew as they made bets as to which passenger would be the next to need a bag. What a day. Pills and patches and wristbands did no good for their wearers.

  6. Reading this took me way way back to a three-week P&O sea voyage I took in 1967 from San Francisco to London. The first two weeks were calm, but during the last week we met with some rather foul weather. Unlike most of my fellow travelers, I never once got seasick.
    From London I took a train to Newcastle where I boarded a ship headed to Stavanger, Norway.
    While spending some time in the bar after we had left shore, fellow travelers warned me that this would be a very tough crossing, to which I responded rather braggingly that I had just spent three weeks at sea and had never once been seasick. Not more than five or ten minutes later I felt my face turn green so left the group abruptly looking for the nearest puke outlet.

  7. We took my mother on an Alaska cruise after my father died. She always wanted to go. He would never take her on a cruise. He always said he had one cruise in his lifetime on a destroyer coming back from Germany when he was in the service, and that was the last time he’d ever set foot on an ocean going vessel. The run up the outside passage to Juneau was rough. 12 foot seas. I was taking video of the cruise ship to our starboard running up with us and it bucked and dove, bow disappearing under a shower of spray. You can hear me utter “Holy Shit” on the video as I filmed the scene. We were all green that night and skipped dinner. My mother’s travel companion was a friend from church (Betty) who’s husband had passed away before they could take a planned Alaska Cruise, so since we had to have a cabin anyway, we invited her along. Betty was quite unaffected by the seas because she had suffered from vertigo for years and so what was one more pitch and roll to her? We had a good laugh when it all settled down, talking about how my dad and her husband must have been looking down on us from heaven laughing and saying “See? Now you know why I didn’t want to get on a ship again!”

  8. Reminded me of crossing the Atlantic on the QEII in December 1991. Waves up to our porthole, up and down, up and down, people throwing up everywhere. I have never felt more seasick, and had to see the onboard doctor to get shots. At that point, I didn’t care what it was that I was getting!; I just wanted to feel better! Thankfully, the crossing was just five days, and the last three I felt relief.

  9. As someone who is severely afflicted by motion sickness, this brought back unwanted memories of our 2005 sailing from Ushuaia to Antarctica through the unpredictable Ross Sea. Going down, the Captain remarked that he had never seen such calm seas. Returning was a different story. It was then we learned the successive stages of rough seas preparedness in the dining room. Misting the tablecloths being the first; the place settings are less likely to slide out of position. Going with paper plates being the penultimate step prior to closing the dining room and switching to carry-out. I learned this from my husband who has never been seasick.

    As far as the bands go, they only mitigate symptoms. I’ve experimented with a myriad of tablets purchased in multiple countries, even tried the patch. They all have their drawbacks, including withdrawal symptoms. Yet, I’m still traveling!

    I’m sure many are familiar with the peculiar gait during horrible high seas. I certainly did not, and do not, enjoy it. Great article Cameron, love your writing.

  10. Traveling the North Sea in fall of 1952, we experienced a very rough patch…being 9 years old, a city kid who had never been on an ocean liner before,…the seas were so stormy that even members of the crew were sick…each morning heading into the dining area, less and less fellow travelers showed up….I was fascinated by the views of the ocean….most likely too young to fear it all…just concerned my favorite cereal , Cheerios , were not on the menu !

  11. Read Cameron Hewitt’s blog on his trip and it kept me laughing. Like his writing and description of happenings.

  12. Recalls a Caribbean cruise with rough seas when I was in my 20s…we all still went to the disco and danced what we called “the Carnival Shuffle” as the ship rolled out from under our feet with each step.

  13. Great story, Cameron! Only re-enforces my vow of “never by sea!” And I love to travel. Air works for me! Sukie

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