This is a drill
Our latest voyage hadn’t officially gotten under way and already I was distinctly warm under the collar. And not because of the Caribbean swelter.
It was an hour to departure and there we were, shuffling along amid an orange-hued horde all jostling for a few square feet of their own on the promenade deck. It was like trying to jockey for position in the New Year Sales – or so we’ve heard; we still have drinks in our hands and confetti in our hair when those nightmares get started.
The crowd was all elbows and whispered warnings of, “Bump into me again and you’ll need that life jacket,” and “Shut your sniveling progeny up or I’ll give her something to cry about!” I’ve watched Treadwell morph into a succubus when her proximity is thus impinged upon, and it isn’t a pretty sight.
I refer, of course, to the miserable practice of the lifeboat drill before every sailing. Not so much an amusing anachronism as an endurance test of the most irritating kind, especially for those who have sailed often enough to recite the spiel in their sleep.
Now, before we get inundated with hate mail shouting righteous protests of indignation, let us first say that lifeboat drills are an annoying but absolute necessity – for anyone who has never sailed before.
As regards passengers like ourselves, for whom trotting along the gangway is as natural as tottering up the stairs to bed, drills in their current form are a most heinous and odious occasion, not only a waste of time that we expect to spend luxuriating, but a crime against sea-faring humanity. Lifeboat drill? We’d rather face the dentist’s drill. At least we come out of that with fresh breath and a smile.
Take the usual scene: at the sound of “seven short blasts followed by one long blast of the ship’s horn or whistle,” everyone exits from their cabin en masse carrying their life-jackets. The resulting scrum becomes the cue for bug-eyed consternation on the part of new cruisers who insist on putting the damned things on, while long tie-up straps straggle along the floor behind them in a manner that threatens to trip us up and knock the lime off the rim of our cocktail.
This long, dolorous procession in orange winds down multiple flights of stairs in slow-motion until everyone arrives at their muster station, either on the promenade deck underneath the lifeboats, or in one of the lounges (which we were originally in favour of until we realised the bar was closed).
There is then the laborious process of ‘roll call’ as passengers are checked off by cabin number. “Cabin 1097? Cabin 1097? Mr and Mrs Smith? 1097? Hello? Mic check – one, two, three, testing. Can you hear me? Cabin 1097, are you here?” And on it goes, like a bad, repetitive dream that you can’t wake up from.
All the while, addled passengers wander around confusing the number count, treading on people’s toes and generally behaving like an unhinged nuisance. Kids cry, parents glower, drunks complain loudly about having to leave their bucket of Budweiser behind, and the monotonous voice on the tannoy keeps up a steady stream of crackling, miserable, indecipherable mutterings, the only information we can glean from them being, “See the world, they told me. It’ll be fun, they told me….”
It is tantamount to torture and strikes us, ultimately, as a colossal waste of time. There simply has to be a better way to familiarise everyone with the relevant basics. So here’s what we suggest:
Muster starts by requiring everyone to STAY in their cabins. That’s right. No traipsing about, tripping over stray lifejacket tapes and making all the toddlers lose their minds. Stay put. Switch the TV on and listen to the instructions from the Bridge.
The same staff that mill around on the lifeboat deck will then knock on cabin doors, take names and check that each guest over the age of five knows where their lifeboat station is. And there’s a forfeit: Anyone who doesn’t know where their station is gets kicked off the ship. No excuses, no second chances, no “I didn’t know I had to.” One strike, you’re out, no refund. Not one single person would fail.
Of course, the benefit of staying in your cabin means, as well as avoiding all that dreadful mucking about on the prom deck, you can sit back with a gin and tonic at your leisure, ideally on the veranda and with some sort of nibbly bits purveyed by the cabin steward.
We’re pretty certain that, in the event of an actual evacuation being called, even rookie cruisers could navigate their way to the appointed gathering spot without having ‘practiced’ it beforehand. For one thing, you can be damn sure people WILL be paying attention and, for all those who have enjoyed a few dozen – or more – cruises in the past, finding their way to the right location is practically second nature.
The crew would be much happier, too. We only get to complain about it each time we’re cruising; they have to do it every week. Imagine having to suffer a new pack of lifejacketed fools every seven days, and you start to realise how truly, barkingly mad the process is.
So, cruise lines, are you paying attention? Stop faffing about with all that pretend nonsense and come up with a practical way to make sure everyone knows what to do in the highly unlikely event of the lifeboats actually being needed.
Either that or set up a free mini seafood buffet in each one, with crab claws and oysters on the half shell. Add a little champagne and some live music and who knows – lifeboat drills could be party central. With us at the front of the queue!