The Ship's Shape

It ain't majestic, but it floats

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and its fifteen-year-old Majesty of the Seas could use a little good news.

The Miami-based company has been under assault lately. On January 20 the Los Angeles Times reported the world's second-largest cruise ship firm had apparently tried to bury reports of 200-plus rapes, batteries, and other sexual assaults on its ships. On February 5 Royal Caribbean Chairman Richard D. Fain announced that financial problems lay ahead. Shares plummeted five percent.

Her Majesty has had issues too.

Her majesty on a windy day
Tamara Lush
Her majesty on a windy day

In December 2002, 37 passengers were forced to disembark in Key West after developing a flulike virus. That same month 1400 passengers had to spend a cold, rainy night on CocoCay, the company's privately owned island in the Bahamas, because of rough seas. In March 2004 a 29-year-old cabin steward named Symon Dias went missing from the ship somewhere between the Bahamas and Key West. His body was never found, and his parents accused the cruise ship company of waiting to tell the Coast Guard about his disappearance. Another woman, Kimberley Dean Edwards, boarded the Majesty in October 2004 to celebrate her 40th birthday. Three days into the cruise, Edwards said that a drunk passenger followed her into a bathroom and groped her.

In just the past six months, anonymous passengers have complained on a cruise review Website that the bathrooms "stank like urine" and that "the entire ship is looking very tired."

So what did the cruise geniuses do to counter this? They spent $40 million refurbishing the ship, then offered New Times, other local media, and about 1,200-plus travel agents and their guests an all-expense-paid, free, two-night trip to celebrate the "relaunch" from the Port of Miami. (The company spent a fortune — a similar, three-night cruise is about $300 per person, excluding booze. You do the math.)

The minute my companion and I boarded the ship, company spokespeople and smiling staff courted us with trays of free champagne. And there were gifts in the rooms — balsamic vinaigrette, steak sauce, a cookbook of ship recipes, and, inexplicably, an ice cream scoop embossed with the company's logo, a blue anchor.

Then there were karaoke, Vegaslike shows, and endless buffets. During the first night, a massive barbecue was held aboard the pool deck, complete with ice sculptures and a Broward County DJ named Richie Rich.

The hard sell came at 9:00 a.m. the first morning. Called Common Ground, the hour-and-a-half-long program in the Chorus Line theater urged travel agents to "ride the wave," that is, sell three- and four-night cruises to the "time-starved consumer."

Though you couldn't feel even a hint of moving water, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president for sales Lisa Bauer unleashed a wave of propaganda on the crowd. Among the new offerings, she said, were six ships in Europe, a Valentine's Day special sale, trans-fat-free food, and new bedding in the cabins.

"Did you guys all get a good night's sleep on those fabulous beds?" raved the perky blond. Everyone applauded. I guess that's normal, to applaud sleep. Or beds. Or whatever.

Bauer didn't mention the recent bad news. If Royal Caribbean is concerned about rapes or share price, she didn't show it. I guess that makes sense. Crimes happen on every ship, not just those belonging to Royal Caribbean; industry bigwigs told a U.S. House Committee that between 2003 and 2005, 178 cruise passengers reported being sexually assaulted, and another 24 disappeared.

Of course there's no way to know the real numbers. The ships are registered in other countries, don't pay much in the way of U.S. taxes, and don't need to adhere to U.S. laws. Recently Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, proposed a bill that would require the cruise companies to notify the Department of Homeland Security within four hours of a crime, or face a $250,000 fine.

After the pep-rallylike sales meeting, the company's public relations crew held a mimosa-fueled press conference for los periodistas. In a circular lounge on the ship's fourteenth floor, a dozen journalists drank and snacked on salmon sandwiches while chatting with two company execs. In the distance, CocoCay, a tiny spit of an island in The Bahamas, interrupted the glittering blue Atlantic Ocean.

A writer from El Nuevo Herald who was wearing wacky round-framed sunglasses purred when she talked about the ship's gleaming new bathrooms (which smelled clean and not like piss). "Verrrry nice," she said. "Somehow, it looks, I don't know. Fresher."

The two executives — one tall and thin, the other, shorter and stocky; both European — beamed and nodded. They started using cruise speak, talking about "soft furnishings" — commonly known as bedspreads, pillows, and carpets.

Just then, a Jamaican waitress standing nearby spilled a trayful of mimosas. The tall, fluted glasses tumbled in slow motion onto a gold-colored carpet — making a fizzy noise on the way down. The reporters looked alternately embarrassed for the waitress and sad over the spilled champagne.

Not to worry; it wasn't like booze was in short supply on this voyage. Alcohol flows freely on every cruise, and it's often at the root of many of the assaults and disappearances. Probably the most infamous disappearance-after-drinking case aboard a cruise ship in recent years happened on one of Royal Caribbean's other vessels. In July 2005, Connecticut attorney George Allen Smith IV boarded the Brilliance of the Seas in Europe for a honeymoon cruise with his new bride. After a night of gambling and drinking absinthe, the 26-year-old Smith disappeared. His body was never found, and his family has blasted Royal Caribbean. Smith's case also spurred Representative Shays to sponsor his legislation on reporting crime aboard the ships.

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