Back in the spring of 1998, my ex-husband Byron and I went on a Caribbean cruise with our friends Thomas and Julie. Eleven-month-old Ethan stayed with Aunt Emily.
It was a budget cruise line, on a relatively small refitted military ship that seemed gigantic to me. It was rather spartan, but the entertainment was good and the food was phenomenal. It was a smaller group than you find on the larger lines, more relaxed and personal. You could actually get to know people, or at least recognize them--as we would find out later.
|Me (age 27) and Byron|
One of the stops was in Jamaica, where we took a raft ride down a lazy trickling stream surrounded by lush greenery. The rafts were propelled by wiry, sweaty young men with long poles.
|Thomas and Julie--I Suppose They Have the Matching Pic of Us|
The highlight of our trip was supposed to be the stingray excursion in Grand Cayman. We went out in a boat on the shallow water to a spot where a school of tame stingrays came for daily feedings. My heart pounded as I climbed down the ladder. I have an irrational fear of all fish, let alone fish whose sting can be fatal.
See that girl in the yellow bikini petting the stingray? No, that's not me. Are you crazy? See that other girl with both hands up, looking nervous? No, that's not me either.
Where was I? Back in the boat with the old ladies and the little kids. I'd made it about ten feet away from the boat. My legs almost went out from under me when I saw hordes of sting rays swirling around us. But it was all over when I stepped on one--almost, but it darted away, brushing against my foot with one velvety smooth wing. I would have drowned had the water not been waist deep. I spun around and tried to climb out of the water on an imaginary staircase. I might have even climbed over the nearest strangers in my scramble for the ladder.
So there I sat, woefully watching other people have the time of their lives while I berated myself for my cowardice. Byron tried to coax me out, but I wouldn't budge. He stayed out there until the guide shooed everyone back into the boat. He petted stingrays, swam with stingrays, and took lots of pictures of stingrays.
Just before we left, one of the guides lured one of the biggest rays over to the boat and held it while the tourists petted it. I watched one person after another take a turn, even the little kids and the old ladies. Just before it was time to head back, I forced myself down the steps and ran a trembling hand over the silky surface of that gentle sting ray. It wasn't gross or slimy at all. It felt like wet satin, and was not much thicker than satin at the wings.
As memorable as that experience was, it was nothing compared to what happened on the next stop. Each morning when we left for the excursions, the ship's staff would have us synchronize our watches to the latest time zone, and they would repeat the ship's departure time over and over. "Do NOT be late," they warned. "We will not wait for you, and you'll have to make your own travel arrangements to get to the next island or back home. It will not be cheap."
I shuddered at the thought of being left behind. No way I would ever let that happen. Usually, there was no worry anyway because if you went on an organized excursion, they brought everyone back to the ship in plenty of time.
But by the time we reached Cancun, we were running low on funds and decided to spend the day on our own. We did a bit of shopping and then lazed around at a famous bar whose name escapes me. The whole time, I kept eying my watch and getting more and more antsy as the 3:00 deadline approached.
Around 2:00, I insisted on heading back. "Relax. We have plenty of time," Byron said as he stopped and admired little trinkets in the street market. We bought a couple of things along the way and arrived back at the port by 2:30.
It took us a moment to notice that the port was empty. "This is the wrong place," I said.
Byron looked around. "No, this is where we docked this morning. I'm sure of it."
My heart started pounding, and my chest felt so tight that I could scarcely draw in a breath. "Wh-where's the ship?" I sputtered.
"I don't know," he said. He noticed some sort of guard hut at the water's edge, and we hurried over.
A uniformed officer spoke to us in Spanish.
"Where's the ship?" Byron asked.
"No hablo Inglés," he answered.
"The ship," I repeated, spreading my arms out wide and then pointing at the water. "Where is it?"
He pointed out to the horizon, where the ship was a tiny speck.
"What are we going to do?" I wailed, tears streaming.
"Un momento," the officer said, holding up one hand as he spoke into his radio.
A couple of minutes later, a tiny motorboat pulled up to the wooden dock, and the officer herded us over. He spoke to the driver and another officer, probably telling them about these foolish Americans who were too careless to get back to the boat before it embarked. The driver gestured to Byron, who clambered into the boat and held out a hand to me. I hesitated for a moment, but then the officer on the dock took my elbow and helped me down onto the bobbing boat.
I huddled next to Byron on the hard bench, my heart fluttering as we chased after the ship through the choppy water. Shouldn't we be wearing life jackets?
At last we pulled alongside the ship, so massive next to this toy motorboat. "How on earth will we get onboard?" I asked no one in particular.
Just then, a hatch swung open about halfway up the ship's hull, about 25-30 feet up. Next, a rope ladder unfurled down the side of the ship. No way!
Yes way. Our driver maneuvered the boat right up to the ship and pointed at the ladder, which moved up and down just like our boat, only not at the same time. I stood up on rubbery legs. "Wait!" I said, leaning to whisper in Byron's ear. "Do you think we need to pay them?"
"Vámanos," said the officer, taking my arm and nudging me toward the ladder.
I slung my shopping bag over my shoulder and grabbed a rung with both hands, my knuckles brushing against the cool metal. Holding my breath, I groped for a lower rung with one flip flop and then the other. I clung to the ladder for a moment, stock still against the solid, relatively stationary hull.
"Come on up. You'll be fine."
I looked up into the eyes of a man leaning casually out the hatch and reaching a hand down toward me. And then I saw some fellow passengers watching us from the deck railing, laughing and shouting and pointing.
I inched up that ladder and into the hatch, almost collapsing in relief when I stepped inside. But the man didn't even wait for Byron to make it up the ladder before commencing his lecture. I honestly didn't hear much of what he said but it was something about "Do you know how much money you cost us?" and "Did you not hear that we were departing at 3:00?"
As soon as I could get a word in edgewise, I said, "B-but I don't understand. It was only 2:30. They said 3:00."
He looked at me like I was crazy. "No-o. It's Three-forty-five now."
I looked at my watch. "No, it's 2:45."
"You forgot to set your watches back this morning," he said as he led us through the bowels of the ship, past twitching boilers and humming gears, to an elevator.
"No one told us to set our watches back," I said. "And I don't think it was in the bulletin. How were we supposed to-"
Byron took my arm. "Come on, Sarah."
"But we didn't forget. No one told us," I repeated.
"Just don't let it happen again." The man turned on his heel and walked away without a backward glance.
I leaned against the side of the elevator and sobbed.
"It's okay," Byron said. "We're fine. We didn't get left behind."
"I just need a n-nap," I said.
After a nap and a warm shower, I felt ready to face dinner. But I was not prepared for our reception up on deck. Some passengers laughed and slapped us on the back while others just pointed and whispered. "That's the couple who missed the boat!"
Over dinner, Thomas and Julie explained that at least two other couples had been late for the same reason; not all the groups had been informed about the time change. They'd had to let the gangplank back down twice. This was very lucky for us; without that delay the boat would have been out to sea.
For the rest of the trip, we were greeted like celebrities. After I'd had a good night's sleep, I had to admit that I rather enjoyed the attention.
I wonder if even the captain knew about us. If he did, he didn't say so.
So now you know what it feels like to miss the boat. May it never happen to you!