The end of a long cruise always feels a bit unfair. It doesn’t seem right that tomorrow morning I’ll be unceremoniously dumped onto the pier in Yokohama, Japan. Over the past fifteen days I’ve become accustomed to my new social circle of nine friends and a couple thousand senior citizens. The new routines we’ve made feel normal and I’m not ready to give them up.
I’ve wanted to go on a transpacific cruise for a long time. Transatlantics are my favorite, but going across the pacific affords more sea days and brings me to my favorite continent. There are only one or two that leave each year, though, so it’s not as easy to schedule as a transatlantic.
Over the course of a few months I brought the cruise up with a bunch of friends. Ben Yu, Nick Gray, Jimmy Hayes, Doug Barber, and Dick Talens all agreed to come. Ben brought his friend Adrienne Tran, Nick brought Amit Gupta, Jimmy and Doug brought Jodi Ettenberg, and Dick brought Debra Romer.
Having met everyone but Debra, that gave us a crew of ten with me at the hub. Most others hadn’t met each other before. It’s a great testament to my friends that no matter what large group I combine them into, everyone seems to become best friends instantly.
From across the world we came together in Vancouver and boarded the boat two weeks ago. We had lunch together, got to know each other a bit, and then began to explore the ship. It didn’t take us long for us to find the empty conference room, hook up the microphone, and begin talking.
Nick and I held a mock seminar about sardines, answering softball questions with funny answers. An old man poked his head into the door, and he was quickly hustled into a seat, where he confusedly listened to me ramble about the ethics of eating sardines. He stayed for the whole seminar, and even applauded at the end. He did bolt pretty quickly, afterwards, though.
Nick, ever prepared for group activities, brought ten green bandannas, a bunch of trophies, some kites, masks, and a watercolor paint set. The green bandannas were handed out and rules were put into place. When asked about the bandanna, you must explain that you’re a member of the first ever cruise gang. If you are caught not wearing your bandanna, you must do ten pushups. If you are late, you do a pushup for each minute you’re late.
From what I understand, no cruise has more consecutive sea days than a transpacific. Our first nine days were all sea days, which are always my favorite.
I’d have to go back and look, but it seemed like every single day had a time zone change. So we had twenty-five hours to make a schedule every day. These extra-long days are my favorite luxury in the world. You stay up late, yet magically wake up early every day.
At ten, I’d make tea. I had my friend Jody from Tap Twice Tea make individual servings of all of his teas, and I shipped a water filter, pitcher, gaiwan, ten cups, and immersion heater ahead. Not everyone came every day, but those who did would sit around for an hour or so. By the end we were sitting on the back deck of the boat, which is an amazing time for morning tea.
We’d often work out after tea. Dick, co-founder of Fitocracy, started a Green Gang program called “Dick Training”, where he would take us to the gym and give us a routine to do.
By the time we finished training, we’d have lunch. The first few days were normal lunch, but very quickly we invented Business Lunch, or BLunch for short. Each person was assigned one day for their BLunch. They’d present their business, take questions about it, and then present the biggest problem they were working on. Then for the rest of the two hour lunch, there would be a dialog about how to solve the problem.
The quality of feedback and advice was the highest I’ve ever seen anywhere. I got tons of clarity on Sett, and from a third-party perspective, I thought that everyone else got phenomenal advice. This quickly became most people’s favorite part of the day.
After lunch, the three o’clock poker tournament began. They actually had three tournaments every day, but two were during BLunch, and I never wanted to miss it. I played eight times and won five of them, which says more about the competition than me.
Following the tournament, most of us would congregate in the wine lounge, where we never once drank wine. It was all about the comfy chairs, power plugs, and relative low traffic. Sometimes we’d work, sometimes we’d have long conversations notably absent of cell phone interruptions.
Dinner was at the formal dining room all but one time. Half the time was spent talking, and the other half was spent on increasingly intense games of Werewolf (also known as Mafia). I always order a ton of food on cruises, but I was routinely put to shame by other people at the table. Almost everyone was doing triple appetizers and double entrees every night.
From pretty early on, we dominated cruise life aboard the ship. The overwhelming majority loved us, but we did make a few enemies in people who thought we were too rowdy and not tuxedoed enough. There may have also been a complaint about a Green Gang member bringing watercolors to dinner and painting a lot of portraits.
We came up with a call-and-response gang salute, which I’d estimate was adopted by 20-25% of the passengers. They’d come up to us, hold out their forearm and say, “Cruise Hard!”. We’d cross our forearm with theirs, and say, “Cruise Life”. It’s very rare to walk anywhere on the ship without hearing chants follow us.
Near where we’d hang out all day was a large knitting group, so in a formal procession we proposed a peace treaty between “the two largest gangs on the ship”, and offered a combined salute of “Knit hard!” “Cruise hard!”.
Using Nick’s trophies, we began giving out awards. We’d walk single file into the dining room, Nick playing the harmonica, snaking around the tables. When we finally found our target, I’d yell, “Hear Ye, Hear Ye!” and begin a short speech about the recipient. We’d then ceremoniously pass the trophy from member to member and present it. Tears of joy were shed.
On our first night, we roped one random passenger into joining our procession. He was really great, so we awarded him the trophy the next day. He continued to join our procession on following days.
In order to communicate better, I built a quick webapp that would run on the intranet so that we could all chat from our phones and computers. Ben then took that and built a whole site around it with news, photos, information, and a gossip section. Gossip poured in from passengers.
We held a small meet and greet informational session, which sixteen passengers joined. We printed over one hundred newsletters and distributed them to passengers.
Describing the takeover wouldn’t be complete without a brief description of what happened at karaoke. Debra and I got there early to sing a Jay-Z and Beyonce song. Reactions were mixed and lukewarm. Then Doug, Jodi, and Jimmy each sang songs that blew the audience away. I tentatively put in “Baby Got Back”, sure my group would like it, but that the crowd wouldn’t.
When my song came on, Debra, Jimmy, and Doug faced away from the audience and began shaking their butts. Inspired, I knew that I had to go one hundred percent with Sir Mix-A-Lot’s classic. I gave it everything, running up to old ladies and singing to them, pointing, and dancing. My backup dancers also gave it 100% the entire time. The audience loved it. Then a couple songs later Jimmy and Doug belted out a Backstreet Boys song with full romance and emotion, bringing the audience to their knees once again.
For the rest of the cruise we had people coming up to us telling us how much they loved us at Karaoke.
Port days are always less exciting to me than the sea days. I love seeing new places, but the appeal of cruises is the magic of the isolation in the middle of the ocean. However, this cruise had four awesome days at port.
Our first stop was Petropavlovsk, Russia, which gave the impression that it wasn’t frequently visited by ships. Russia doesn’t allow independent travelers without visas, so we booked a custom tour through Sokol Tours. Our tour guide, Olga, was awesome. She took us to the fish market, where we sampled a bunch of caviar, and then to Partunka hot springs.
The springs were aesthetically amongst the least impressive I’ve seen, but the two pools were perfect temperatures. Better were the locals, a dozen or so Russian kids who were thrilled to encounter foreigners. They joked around with us, tried their English, listened to my Russian, and then took about a million photos with us. For me, that was the highlight of the tour.
Afterwards we were dropped off near the ship, but still had a few hours to go. We walked around a bit, saw a big hill with an amateur path running through it, and started climbing. When we reached the top we were rewarded with a really great birch forest, and a cliff extending more than a hundred feet from the ocean, looking over the bay and our ship. We took the long way back down, passing wild dogs and families strolling their kids around.
Our next port was Otaru, Japan. We hustled to a train station and headed for Noboribetsu. Todd and I first found Noboribetsu seven years ago when some fishermen on an overnight train recommended it to us. It’s a valley called “Hell Valley” painted all sorts of colors by its mineral-laden geysers. We hiked around, took pictures, and sat with our feet soaking in the foot bath for a while.
We could only stay for about three hours before heading back by train, but it was nice to walk around outside and soak in some Japanese culture.
Hakodate was less structured. We didn’t have anything in particular to do, so we wandered around a bit. We found a cool public foot bath being used by a salaryman, a worker, and a schoolgirl, which seemed to paint a perfect picture of Japan. We sat there, too, and marveled at how such a thing could never exist in an American city.
We then went on to a proper onsen, and soaked in some of the hottest tubs I’ve seen. Onsens were new to most of the group, but everyone really enjoyed them and didn’t seem to mind that our trip was quickly becoming onsen-centric.
And, finally, we reached Tokyo today. I got to rush everyone around to my favorite spots in Tokyo, and we tried a couple new things, too. We had sushi, soba, and weird Japanese snacks. We saw a temple, a park, and a few of us did Karaoke for an hour.
Thoughts on the Cruise
This cruise has felt like a strange wonderland that exists in a parallel universe to the one my normal life takes place in. Friendships were formed and deepened, and I feel like I got a lot of perspective on things thanks to my fellow travelers. One group of people said to us, “You guys are having a lot of fun, but it’s obvious you take life seriously.” I thought that summed the atmosphere of the trip well.
Maybe most encouraging is that everyone who went on the cruise not only wants to go again next year, but wants to do a longer one. We have our eyes on several 20-40 days cruises. At dinner tonight we talked about what we’d change, and everyone was motivated to structure it so that we got to share more knowledge with each other.
Older people seemed stunned that we liked cruising, but as I sat in absolute luxury surrounded by awesome peeople, while traveling across a huge chunk of the globe, I couldn’t fathom why more people aren’t doing this. Cruising is easily my favorite way to travel, and this was one of the best cruises I’ve been on.
Top photo is a group shot of all of us but Dick, taken by Nick. The other photo is a Russian Orthodox church in Petropavlovsk.
I’m in Tokyo now, about to start my weeklong train trip tomorrow. Feels great to be in Japan!