My First Cruise Was Almost My Last: The Dumbest Thing I Ever Did on Vacation

My first cruise was memorable for all kinds of reasons. It was the first vacation I took with my now-wife. It was my introduction to what has become a lifelong love affair with cruising. And it was the scene of what is likely the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.

This monumentally stupid act was so moronic, to this day I don’t know what surprises me more: that I lived to tell the tale or that the travel partner who witnessed it eventually married me anyway (maybe because of my display of near-fatal stupidity, she trusted that any mistake would be short-lived).

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The upcoming MSC Seaside. This week’s announcement triggered a memory of my inauspicious cruising debut. (MSC)

I was reminded of the whole story this week, when MSC unveiled details of its super-modern new ship, the MSC Seaside, which is debuting in 2017. This large, beautiful vessel is a far cry from the MSC ship on which I took my first cruise: the MSC Melody, which had already been sailing for 20 years when I boarded it in Genoa, Italy a decade ago.

Melody was a small, sturdy ship with few frills (the gym was smaller than some living rooms I’d been in). But because it was my first cruise, I had nothing to compare it to, so I liked it just fine. And as it ferried us on its Mediterranean itinerary, I became entranced with the notion of sailing the open seas to parts unknown, just like seafaring explorers of old — except that I got to have bars, lots of food, and towels folded into little animal shapes. Sure beats scurvy.

But one night when we were at sea, the idyllic voyage literally hit some rough waters. We ran into a major sea storm that kicked up swells so big, the waves seemed to have waves. And our ship was being tossed around as if it were a toy.

When the storm hit, Tracey, my travel companion, and I were in our stateroom. As it was an interior cabin with no windows, the extent of the storm raging outside was merely a figment of our imaginations. But I wanted to experience it. 

“I’m going up to the deck,” I announced.

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The MSC Melody in the calm before the storm. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)

“What? Are you crazy?” Tracey asked me (for what turned out to be the first of many, many times she’s had to ask it during our time together). 

“I want to see the waves,” I responded matter-of-factly. I put on my shoes and headed for the door, ending any further discussion.  “I’ll be back in a minute.”

I was in such a hurry to see the Display of Nature’s Wrath that I barely noticed the look of concern that Tracey, who unlike me was already an experienced cruiser, was giving me. 

So to recap, I was going to go on deck.

At night. 

During a vicious storm.

Alone.

In the middle of the Mediterranean.

Related: How Not to Die on a Cruise

This story could have and should have ended with the words: “…and he was never heard from again.” With the way the ship was being tossed around, hanging out on the deck was a dangerous proposition. My 200-pound frame was no mach for the winds and sweeping waves that night; if I’d gotten anyway near the railing, I could have easily been swept out to sea, with not even a painted Wilson volleyball around to help me. I would have left poor Tracey to explain to my parents (whom I don’t believe she’d met at the time) what had happened — and to everyone else why she was dating such a dumbass.

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This is what I imagine the storm looked like. (Photo: Thinkstock)

None of this, of course, was going through my mind as I walked through the quiet ship (I guess everyone was safely ensconced n their cabins where they belonged — or the casino). As I approached the upper deck, I was giddy with anticipation. I went to push open the doors ready to witness the stormy seascape. 

And then… nothing. The door wouldn’t budge. I tried again, but the door would not give.

Then two things occurred to me: 1.) The door was locked and 2.) It’s locked because the crew knows people like me would accidentally kill themselves by trying to go on deck during this rager of a storm.

It was then that I was hit by a wave of embarrassment bigger than the waves whose clutches I’d escaped. You know how you see a laughably obvious sign —  "Don’t attempt this without a professional"; “Caution: Coffee is Hot”; “Warning: Ice is Slippery” — and you wonder, “What idiot was that sign for?” Well, I was that idiot, the kind of person whom cruise lines must spend valuable time and considerable training to protect from themselves. It was not a good feeling.

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Can a dunce cap be used as a floatation device? (Photo: Thinkstock)

“There are always people that defy logic,” said my pal and cruise expert Stewart “The Cruise Guy” Chiron when I told him the story. “Evidently, you already knew it wasn’t a smart move and it was confirmed by the locked door.“

The thing is, I didn’t know it wasn’t a smart move at the time. I sincerely thought going on deck to see a storm was a good idea. I can’t blame it on the alcohol; I was stone sober at the time. I usually pride myself on being a smart guy, but as I stood at that locked door, it occurred to me that it takes only a momentary lapse for us self-described smart guys to become instant candidates for the Darwin Award.

When I finally returned to the cabin, Tracey asked, “So… how was the storm?”

“It was locked,” I told her, “because I’m ‘That Idiot.’” And I went to bed.

WATCH: Cruise Safety

One thing this video neglected to cover: “Don’t go topside by yourself at night during big storms at sea.” (Scripps Ulive)

So it was a happy ending. I did not end up on the news, or worse yet, as fish food. I went on to survive that cruise and many others. And my humiliating bout with stupidity encouraged me to be even more careful in avoiding “vacation brain” — when the life-saving hyper-vigilance in which I lived my life in New York City took a temporary leave that dark and stormy night.

“Make sure to keep your wits about you,” Chiron reminds me about cruising (Because, as a recovering “vacation brain” sufferer, I need constant reminding). “Keep your wits about you.”

So should I ever find myself on MSC’s new ship, I will think about the night. I will silently thank the crew of the now-retired MSC Melody for saving me from my own stupidity. And I will seriously consider walking around the whole cruise with my life-jacket on. Because like big storms at sea, you never know when “vacation brain” is going to strike.

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