Photo: Bill King
Photo: Bill King

A Musician's Log At Sea

For most of us, we first heard of the coronavirus through the quarantining of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama in February 2020. Over the month, 700 people were infected and 14 died accounting for half the known reported cases outside of mainland China. By May more than 40 cruise ships were down with the virus. The vessels became floating petri dishes, several refused docking privileges. This also marked the beginning of the decimation of the hospitality and entertainment industry.

This got me thinking of the better times at sea – cocktails by noon, breezy nights, casinos, extravagant entertainment and day and night access to a sumptuous buffet and my brief experience. I have written about my seaworthy experiences in the past but thought, there’s more to share here.

It has been twenty-one years since I accepted a gig on a cruise ship. It was DJ Larry Green who was working for a booking agency at the time who asked if I would like to serve nine weeks cruising the Caribbean and working with a lounge singer. I was guaranteed both passenger and crew status and allowed to mingle with passengers and top brass with few restrictions. The pay? Always questionable. Larry spoke mostly of his cut.

I weighed the expectations and possibilities and decided any opportunity to dock at twenty-something islands with two Nikon camera bodies strapped by my side, too hard to resist. I was also in a deep reading phase and envisioned collapsing in a deck chair, near a warm inviting breeze, solitude, and hundreds of miles of ocean before me, nirvana. I brought with me books of purpose. I knew when sailing near Panama and Colombia it would be Gabriel Garcia Marquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in his Labyrinth. I also knew the moment we departed for Santa Domingo it was Hemingway’s, A Farewell to Arms. Over the 64 days, Nabokov’s Lolita, and a few other collected short stories would burn through my inner self every expendable moment.

By night I would play the Midnight Lounge to a jovial cast of British travellers. Oh, those Brits have a grand sense of humour. We laughed, exchanged stories and family history. The first weeks of sailing it was all Brits, all of the time – Christmas, the arrival of the insufferable Americans and irritable Canadians. Where else would one meet up with Stan and Walt? That is Stan Klees and Walt Grealis of RPM Magazine. Neither man ever left the ship for shore, choosing to follow a formal itinerary. Noontime – poolside and away from the sun. Evenings. Tuxedos, dinner, and show. We are arriving in the port of Havana – forbidden earth and I ask Walt, “Want to join me for a walk around old Havana?” Walt – “Why? We never leave the ship.”

Walt and Stan camped a level above the assiduous trivia game players. It was poolside trivia rocking the lunch crowd. A mix of three nations all vying for the same elusive crown. The Americans never won – the Canadians complained a lot. That left the Brits victors. The game questions were mostly centred around dates concerning British battles, conquests, and relevant history. A near-riot ensues. Then magic. This guy comes up to me and asks, “Are you Bill King from that Beaches Jazz Festival?” I admit to that. “Well, I’m fireman Doug from the Beaches and this game is rigged.” Doug bitches, complains, and throws fits until a bit of Canadian history is allowed in play. Bingo – Doug goes off. “Bill, I’ve got the winning hand. Nobody knows this shit like me.” With score sheets turned in – Doug racks up sixteen out of twenty – an unremarkable-looking Brit – eighteen. Doug goes psycho. He then complains to the ship’s entertainment director and walks him over to me. “Why is Bill allowed to sit with us passengers? I paid good money to be here. Please remove him.” I was asked to abandon the pool deck. I met up with Doug later that day and asked him why he did such a horrible thing and his response, “I don’t like all the noise that event brings to my neighbourhood. Besides, I got fucked again in trivia.”

Then there was Tommy Sands an ex merchant marine and his wife who every two weeks re-upped and paid to ride the rippling waves, ballroom dance and gamble.  England, a cold fog-shrouded wintry mess. The southern hemisphere province of stable temperatures, palm trees, high humidity, and a constant soothing night wind.

I kept a journal all 64 days at sea. In memory of better times here are four entries excerpted from sixty-four.

November 21, 1998

Montego Bay

After we land in Montego Bay and walk just past immigration, as seen through a yellow plastic covering suffocating the windows, I witness heat curl then rise from the airport tarmac. I was here two summers before and knew full well what to expect. Everything inside is all business, no condiments or refreshments. My lounge singing sidekick and I are escorted to one side while a travel agent arranges transportation to the MS Sundream cruise ship. Forty-five minutes pass before we are collected and taken to our port of entry. The ride a quick ten-minute jaunt.

I was a bit surprised to find the Sundream not as awesome a spectacle as when I first witness the breathtaking dimensions of Song of America and Veedam in Hamilton Harbor in The Royal Naval Dockyards in Bermuda. The Sundream was one of the vintage British cruise ships sailing the Caribbean and Mediterranean, built in 1970 carrying 1038 passengers. British holidaymakers cherished the inexpensive air and sea packages.  There is something quite charming about the rustic wood floors surrounded by massive steel girders circling the fifth deck I quickly adopt as my outdoor living quarters. Hell, the view is spectacular.  At this level, I can invite a persistent breeze to combat any taunting emotions.

Day one was the most difficult. As I climb the ramp to register with the crew purser, I suffer bouts of apprehension. I question myself over and over, wondering if I had made a hasty decision or should have given the offer further consideration. All I could visualize was my partner Kristine’s tears and the heartbreak, the imminent loneliness the both of us would have to endure the next sixty-four days. I convinced myself that once we sail, I would occupy myself with exploring the remarkable islands, find the significant cultural landmarks; the people and music, then photograph, read and write of my adventure.

The descent to the underbelly from the main floor above brought great consternation. This is where my quarters were located. As the attendant led me through tight corridors, down wrought iron stairs past rolls of aluminum foil and bottled water, I was overcome by the scent of diesel fumes near where room H96 soon came into view. On first look, the door of H96 looked like an entrance to a storage bin possibly lined with canned goods and disinfectants. When the purser twists the room key and the door pops ajar my pulse hesitates and all breathing ceases. I look back at her with pupils wide as egg yolks and ask, “Are you sure you don’t have a cabin with at least a window or space for one person?”

By now I was prepared to abandon ship. The mind pleaded with me to turn and head home and not endure sixty-four long and tortuous days in space designed for storing cartons of Spam. The cramped seven by twelve-foot compartment came with no window, a tight bathroom, four safe lockers, a double bunk, a small desk and two chairs. I must exert extra caution with every move. There is always something protruding capable of puncturing my head. I refused to give up. I seek out the head purser and plead for another room, something with a view, maybe a bit more personality. Though polite, she reminds me the room was a permanent residence for the house pianist. It was then I realize where I stood in rank aboard the ship. I resign myself to the best method of dealing with the unknown. Patience - lots of patience.

Lounge singer and I came easy to our first encounter in the Midnight Lounge. First set was a cocktail party for officers and invited travel agents from seven-thirty to eight-thirty - dinner in between. The singer joined me for the second show, which seemed to move by swiftly.

Later in my metal cage, I feel enormous despair, homesickness, melancholy, heartache, and just about every possible mournful impulse, not excluding possibly the worst, anxiety near panic. My metallic room was both physically and emotionally suffocating. I slept little that night, mostly focused on the voyage towards Santa Domingo.

November 23

Santa Domingo

Day three, I awoke in Santa Domingo harbor to sunshine and renewed hope. Only forty-five passengers chose to embark for a tour of Diego Columbus’s palace, Independence Square, and tourist shopping district. There was little use for a bus since the old fortress was directly across Aveneda Del Puerto.  Still, seven hundred and fifty people chose to stay aboard fearing the bite of a malaria-infected mosquito or some other unspecified parasite.

Hurricane George[BK1]  had recently struck the Dominican Republic with ferocity, killing about three thousand islanders. Landslides transported layers of mud thick with uprooted trees burying everything in their path, including islanders. The evidence of its wrath was to be seen street by street. I felt sorry for those who chose to view Santa Domingo from the bridge of the deck. It is a thoroughly engaging place whose history is of great significance. Shrines to Christopher Columbus and other Spanish conquerors or invaders, are seen everywhere. There is something haunting and uncomfortable about standing in the first land of entry for the Europeans.

After a brisk walk through the town square we are then guided to a rum bar-trinket shop. This is where I encounter a quintet of young teenage boys panhandling for money. Their pleas seemed sincere and passionate. I gave one boy a U.S. dollar, then another promptly arrives, then another, then another, and another. I eventually call for a truce, and rethought my method of public charity, to only be further stalked by the most persistent of the gang who insists I relieve him of a wooden ashtray as a sign of my gratitude. With little firmness or conviction, I part with a fourth dollar. Then another young man arrives with a well tarnished shoe box lodged under his right armpit, “Let me polish your shoes, I’m a professional,” he says. I repeat my answer over and over. “Look at them, they’re tennis shoes and don’t take a shine.” I thought he understood, but without hesitation he plunges to his knees, spits in hands, then begins lathering my right shoe with a miniature homemade brush covering the surface with a homemade concoction.  Before I could respond both left and right shoes were bathed in the innocuous liquid. I was trapped but not yet compromised. “Give me twenty US dollars, I’m a professional,” the young boy insists.  I looked down at him like a bank manager to an applicant with no prior credit history. “Why should I give you twenty dollars for something I never asked for? Here’s a dollar.”

“Give me fifteen dollars,” he insists. “You get nothing young man,” I say. He turns away and pretends to not hear. “Give me ten.” I say, “A dollar, one dollar.” I walk away. He then drops in front of an elderly woman of West Indian descent and begins lathering the tops of her black shoes in a white paste. She tries every plea to get rid of him, but eventually offers a dollar settlement, which he gladly accepts then turns his attention back at me. I say, “Here’s your dollar if you still want.” He takes it and moves on. We were then carted into a bus and driven to another shopping area crammed with both Haitian art, spices in whiskey bottles, rum, jewelry and other five and ten cent items. I made my only purchase, a twenty by thirty painting Haitian style.

December 7

At Sea

I mostly spent the day catching up on the writing and ignoring the persistent downpour. I began reading where I had left off in One Hundred Years of Solitude, a most welcome change after deciphering every sentence in The Englishman’s Boy, although a feat in writing, it began to wear the brain down. Heading towards Cuba Thursday, already planning to visit Hemingway’s home. Farewell to Arms still lingers in my heart. Oh, how I love the prose.

Played longer hours today to noisy passengers. Was quite tired. Musically I am holding up well. The piano is lovely. I periodically touch up the tuning. Spoke with the departing ship’s Captain Romero for a minute. I really appreciate him. He will be leaving for grander duties to a competitor. The notice did not sit well with his bosses, who stripped him of his ship after twenty-five years absent any words of gratitude. The captain is hanging about with his wife until departing later this week.

December 18

Cartagena, Colombia

When I first read the itinerary, Cartagena stood high on my list as one of the top three sights I most anticipated. It was Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonderful books depicting every aspect of Colombian life; The General in His Labyrinth, the story of Simon Bolivar’s last days, The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor lost at sea off the coast of Cartagena, which fed my curiosity and romantic sense of adventure.

I awoke to bright sunny skies after another night of turbulent weather. We docked at another industrial port a few kilometres beyond Independence Square, the heart of downtown Cartagena. My usual breakfast buffet in residence awaited poolside. I dispensed with the mesh of substances and walked the humid streets to a duty-free area next to a cab stand. I was immediately greeted by several cabbies all bidding to be my tour guide and driver. The two-hour price started at $40US, a figure I quickly walked away from. Next up a fellow named Alfonso offered me a three-hour tour for thirty dollars. After much pleading and a bit of psychological coercion I agreed.

The first order of the day, locating a telephone to call Kris. Alfonso drove me to a communications center across town. A female assistant came up with some bullshit story about codes being changed so I could no longer use my international card. We abandoned this site and moved along to an emerald store where Al conned a woman into trying to connect me with Canada. I was encouraged to view the various gems and coaxed to shop while she poked away at the digits. With similar results and all but disillusioned by the seemingly impossible task, I decided to forge ahead with my limited time, which was eroding while in pursuit. As we departed a large black woman with a bowl of fruit on her head cornered me offering herself for a photo. The price one dollar. This was not the splendid cultural portraits of San Blas Island but more along the lines of an impromptu mall photo opt, a less than alert tourist could be suckered into. I must admit her exuberance compelled me to raise the lens barrel. After two inane shots, she asks for the money. I opened my wallet, rummaged for a dollar bill with only five’s facing outward. I withdrew one and asked for change. Of course, no one has change so she grabbed, tucked it away and gave me an appreciative gesture for the donation. I was pissed. During the ride from the mall to old Cartagena I spoke few words. Alfonso sensed I was not amused and tried to deflect my thoughts from the premeditated stunt to his night classes in English. I thought to myself “Me no givie until you ask forgivie.” No more family vendors or smiling fruit baskets or emerald stores.

A stroll around the old city into Simon Bolivar’s homemade my day. I stood in deep history under the tall coolness of a splendid mango lined street inside a courtyard. Everything from the wooden beams, ceramic tiles, stone floors and colorful walls gave off a sweet fragrance. A most gratifying experience. The rest of the brief tour included walks through a monastery and church, down colorful lanes with lovely stores past licensed vendors out to the main square where a crowd of a couple hundred had gathered in front of a social welfare office waiting for their subsistence allowance. I was beginning to feel Alfonso’s presence a nuisance. I have difficulty concentrating when someone is moving me about at a pace of their choosing. Decent photos just do not come easy.

I bartered Al into shortening the tour by an hour and returned to the ship. After dickering over price, we agreed, and I parted with the $30US and another lesson learned. Once onboard, I hooked up with British comics Dave Buck and Dave Evans for lunch. We decide to exit the ship for a short walk around the duty-free terminal. Eventually, we settle in colourful lawn chairs amongst a ripe botanical setting and lizards the size of dogs. Moments passed when we heard a voice scream along the ocean bank just below. Suddenly, a nude black man emerges, runs towards us and pleads for protection. He then disappears over the bank and back into the ocean grabs a discarded piece of soiled linen, rinses in seawater, wraps around his lower body, then sprints across a field of broken coral and shells bleached white by unforgiving sunshine.  In close pursuit, an irate individual swinging a splintered oar. A security guard quickly intervenes, but the assailant keeps moving forward. He then drops the oar and lifts a small boulder and heaves at the semi-naked man just as more uniformed security arrive from the tropical forest. While this was happening four other men arrive by sea in a small craft then attempt to dock along the shoreline. Fortunately, as menacing as they were, they keep their distance. After much yelling and fearful wailing, a story evolves. It seems the men had plans to kill the young man for stealing a pair of shoes, before he jumped overboard. Where it went from there, is anybody’s guess. One of the first things the Colombian gangs do is strip you of your clothing. This was all about frontier justice. I ask one of the armed guards where this was going. He said the man would have been dead if they hadn’t intervened and most likely a cocaine deal gone bad or robbery.

What a night! We endured the most dreadful quakes. The winds were fearsome the waves swelled then thrash the sides of the ship. It was near impossible standing. The glassware around the lounge bar slid all around the cubicle crashing into the liqueurs and rows of whisky. Nailed to the floor, the piano heaved and swayed under my fingertips. The main show in the South Pacific was cancelled after portions of the staging came crashing downward. Hold on tight.

January 20, 1999

Cozumel

I rent a disfigured bike and ride out beyond the cruise ships. At roads end two trucks with armed soldiers. I avoid eye contact. The bike thing was big on agenda after meeting one of the show entertainers who brought along his mountain bike. He did share the dangers of biking through the nearby Yucatan trails. Fortunately, he wore long pants. From all directions venomous pissed off snakes, dive-bombed him from all directions.

 I pull over, extract a snorkel and mask and dive in. I was impatient to peer below and leaped in like a five-year-old kid in a candy store. Holy shit, I land in fifty feet of water. It was a bit shocking at first until the sights revealed themselves. It is beyond description. The beauty and abundance of tropical life far surpassed what I had seen in Grand Cayman. A neatly choreographed party of twenty-odd squid floated by hesitate and spin backside and all change colours simultaneously. Two barracuda’s idle nearby, teeth as big as bear claws. Bluefish, Parrot fish - the next pit stops the same. Then it came to the finale. I board a craft and witness the largest fish of my snorkelling adventures all crowded around the boat. I dove right in the middle of the pack. What a thrill. They bounced off me like I was in a petting zoo. The driver gave us tortillas to feed them with. I crumbled in my hand and released in small portions. The fish were maniacal. They would circle and joust for a position like hungry pigeons. One took my finger in his mouth. It was a feeding frenzy. Time passed quickly as I floated from one area to another. The current at stop A and B carried us far from the craft. At times it was exhausting trying to swim and grab hold of the craft.

How can a final week aboard the M.S. Sundream, come without another night from hell? A third generator broke down the ship now running on four out of seven. A diver was even flown in from Vancouver to access the safety, clean the propeller, and certify the ship was in sound working order. There was a crack in the hull. We spoke a week earlier in Havana harbour at a time when toxic oil dotted the seascape and floating above, dead fishing and cargo vessels. “Down below the ship’s hull and the sludge above is thriving marine life.” On this occasion, his assessment, dry dock the sucker at once. Too many structural problems. Safety boats should all be replaced. With that confident bit of news, we begin the evening in the Midnight Lounge with minimal air circulating. As the evening wears on the room becomes an open oven. People begin flocking to the upper decks to revive their lungs. At show's end, I head back to my cell to find the room slightly short of purgatory. It was one of the most dreadful, intolerable experiences of my life. Let us give a big round of applause and welcome back my favourite room companion, Mr. Anxiety.

I bust out of the room to the fifth deck around midnight, rest for a while, and return below. The same scenario repeats accept this time I take a blanket with me. After an hour I return, put a pair of long pants, grab a pillow and stumble in search of a solitary area to sleep. I first unfold a deck chair, spread all the comforts out and around and wrap myself for sleep beneath a cooling breeze. As soon as I begin to drift, I am awakened and quickly dosed in a mist of water from above and the roar of a water hose. Looking upward I notice a crew member hosing the tenders dangling above. Off I go in near shock. I then drag a chair to the back of deck five behind the lounge and wrap myself again. In between whiffs of sweet air, a nasty taste of diesel expellant stings my nostrils. Off I go again. This time back to the cabin. As soon as I enter, I turn around and dart back to where I was originally, this time settling on the far side of the ship. It is now three-thirty a.m. and I am a walking zombie. I unfurl the blankets, arrange the pillow, and snugly wrap myself in Mexican fabric. Five o’clock rolls around and I feel a gush of water cover me. As I am about to stick my neck out, I notice in the distance the barrel of a water hose pointed my direction. Here we go again. The dude is hosing down the deck and I am in the line of fire. Off I go back to my cabin, this time I pass out until eight. Lord help me.

Honestly, entertainers find a level of security working the ships. I learned to enjoy the freedom and carefree schedule. Having passenger status far surpassed that of the crew. I could move about freely. Not the same for those in the show sector – the entertainers who traveled about the ship setting up sound systems and playing poolside or near a buffet table were always employed prisoners. The same for those locked into cabaret. The routine played out much the same day today. The only interruption – the change of passengers. The various countries of origin.

Lastly. I made friends with a pool of ship photographers. The ones meeting and greeting as you get on and off ship with camera and that ever-present life preserver. Or nightly, as you entered the dining hall in your best tuxedo and snapped that ritual memory. The poor guys lived three to a room two levels below me in dreadful quarters. We took a liking to each other and the top photographer would process my daily shoots and leave the negatives in a mail slot for me. Late-night I would return to my room, flick on the lightbox, pull out my eyepiece and examine the many sights, the people, and the events of the day. Cut the strips and place in plastic sleeves. It was something to live for – those rarified moments. As Tommy Sands said to me before my departure, “I’ve been living on the sea all of my life. When I returned home and married my wife and we returned to the sea. Now, I pay to never leave both women behind. The sea being my first wife.”

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