Saturday 18th February 2017
Friday 1st July 2016 – My vacation was over and I had an early morning flight to take me to my new floating home. I was up, showered and dressed before first light and soon eagerly awaiting depositing my large item of luggage at the check-in desk at Charles de Gaulle airport. Instead of being booked on a direct flight, work had put me on one changing in New York, with a 5 hour plus layover to clear immigration etc.
The flight went very smoothly and a couple of movies later, I was back on American soil once more. As I disembarked from the aeroplane, I was given a bright orange and black striped paper wallet with the tickets for the next flight inside and the words FAST TRACK emblazoned on the front.
As I reached the large serpentine snaking queue in the huge passport control hall, I was swiftly ushered to one side and shown to a line where I would be next to be seen. WOW! Now this was service. I felt rather guilty as I still had hours before my connecting flight, but as I glanced back at the length of the seemingly miles long queue, I decided that maybe they were right and I might miss my onward connection if I were to wait patiently at the back of the assembled masses.
Before being able to give it any more thought, I was called forward for my turn to try and enter the US. I was subjected to the usual battery of probing questions, but instead of being asked to place various digits on the luminous green finger scanning screen whilst the guy stamped my passport, I was asked to wait to the side, while my Border Officer called for back up.
Next thing, I was being swiftly led away to a small dingy immigration interrogation room out the back, by a couple of uniformed guards, where I was told to wait with an assortment of other suspicious looking individuals, until my name was called.
Before long I was asked to join a very serious looking gentleman at his desk where he typed stuff into his computer and printed out some official looking documents to put inside a paper jacket along with all my forms and certificate of employment etc. Now the first time I’d gone to join the ship, I’d just breezed through border control like every other time I’d been to the States, but despite having the correct visa stuck into my passport pages, this was definitely not going so smoothly.
Before I had time to worry too much about my impeding deportation, I was called forward again to see a different operative who began making phone calls to verify all of my documents and then grilled me on ship life, what I did onboard and why the hell I wanted to work on a floating boat seven days a week for a nine month stretch. Just as I was about to agree that yes it did seem kind of crazy and could he please send me back to where I’d come from, he produced his large official stamp, duly christened yet another page in my passport and gave me back my papers before sending me on my way. Relief! I was in!
After retrieving my luggage from the carousel, I was invited to bypass another huge line of people, these ones waiting to clear customs. Thankful that the sneaky sniffer beagles had avoided detecting the secret stash of chocolate inside my bag, I gave away my blue customs form at the head of my special fast track lane, before handing my baggage over again, ready to join me at my destination.
From there I went directly to security check in, where once again my magic orange piece of paper was like a golden ticket, whisking me past the repressed crowds waiting to remove their belts, shoes and cellphones, before going through the metal detectors. In my VIP aisle I waltzed straight through, and for the first time in my life wasn’t held up by a plethora of morons in front of me who’d failed to remove the laptop from their case, left sharp objects in their carry on, or omitted to put their liquids in a clear plastic sealed bag.
Suddenly I was plane-side once more and only minutes from my gate. But when I checked my watch, there was still nearly 5 hours to kill before my flight took off. Even allowing for getting detained at the border counter, my special voucher had sped me from one aeroplane to another in little over 25 minutes. Surely a record.
I found somewhere to plug in my phone (which is no longer mobile as it pretty much needs to be constantly hooked up to a wall mounted plug socket to work), grabbed a few snacks, and settled down to surf the Internet unadulteratedly for the final time before it was back to shitty yet expensive ship wifi.
Finally, some four and a half hours and five million web pages later, and it was time to board my flight. After such an early start and an eight hour transatlantic journey, I was feeling pretty tired and my eyes had gone square from so much internet surfing. Settled down into my seat at the rear of the aircraft, I was soon asleep, long before the air hostesses had begun their life jacket and oxygen mask demonstrations. As we’d be flying nearly entirely over land and as I also did life jacket putting on displays for a living, my body voted that sleep was definitely the priority and I could exempt myself from this little performance.
I awoke probably only a short time later, as the plane began to pull back from the gate. We made our way to the runway, where we joined the queue of other airlines all waiting excitedly in the dark, to surge off down the smooth concrete path and into the air, much in the same way that very early in the morning, bunches of exuberant young racehorses wait in turn to set off for a canter at the bottom of Warren Hill polytrack, back in Newmarket.
Before we got to the front of the line, the clouds burst open, showering us in deluges of rain. It just kept coming. Gallons and gallons of liquid poured out of the sky and after about 30 minutes of torrential rain we were sent back to the gate. The heavens hadn’t just opened, they’d emptied every last pipe, reservoir and puddle onto us and the airport now resembled a swimming pool. With too many planes grounded on the tarmac, there were not enough spaces at the gates to allow everyone to disembark and it was a further 2 hours before we were able to return to a slot by the terminal.
Having been held captive for a considerable amount of time, we were invited to temporarily get off the plane to stretch our legs or similar inside the main building, but told not to stray too far as we’d hopefully be taking off later that night, as soon as the storm had subsided. I truly hoped so, as I had a boat to catch in the morning!
I remained in my seat, but it swiftly became clear however that we wouldn’t be going anywhere that evening. With a flying time of six and a half hours ahead of us, and already having been held up for getting close to four hours, the crew were going to be over their permited working restrictions and with no new crew available, the flight was cancelled.
It was now 10pm in the evening and I was thousands of miles from where I’d been due to arrive and check in at the airport hotel sometime around 11pm. The idea being to get some much needed sleep before a busy following day attending saftey briefings, orientations, uniform collecting and general new crew sign on duties. Onto Plan B then…
JFK airport was teeming with discontented, displaced people all yelling into cellphones trying to hastily rearrange travel plans, apologise to colleagues, friends and loved ones, or just rant to the speaking clock. With all flights temporarily suspended, there were people EVERYWHERE. Somehow amidst the chaos I managed to find the American Airlines help desk and joined the back of the queue some 12 miles away!!
I’m not kidding, the line was of epic proportions. Not only could I not see the help desk from the back of the queue, but I was in an entirely different suburb of New York to where it originated. Sadly the powers of my magical orange and black voucher had run dry and I would be forced to sit (or rather stand) this one out like everybody else. Oh and have I mentioned? This was the Friday night on the weekend of July 4th.
Now spending the Friday night before Independence Day in New York would normally be my idea of fun, but an extra long day (6 hours time difference included), shuffling forward barely millimeters at a time in a seemingly endless queue, in the early hours of the morning, in a busy airport full of irate fourth of July weekend passengers, was not the scene that your imagination would conjure up if somebody said to you “Weekend in NYC!”.
I had a telephone number for the travel assistance people provided by NCL, so called them from the queue, before being abruptly cut off before I could make any real headway, due to insufficient funds for making or receiving long distance roaming calls. I sent an email instead. And waited. As I waited I suddenly noticed another guy queuing on the opposite leg of the serpentine to me that also had the same NCL headed “What to do in case of travel problems” letter.
“Hello!” I ventured. “Do you work for Norwegian?” I enquired. “Oh YES!” came back the response. “I’m supposed to be joining a ship tomorrow, but my flight got cancelled and I can’t use my phone as it’s not set up to work in the USA.”
We quickly found out that by an amazing coincidence, not only were we both supposed to join the same ship in the morning, but that we both also worked as casino dealers. We’d even been on the same abandoned flight that never left New York. Supankar, as my new friend and colleague was named, had had a much more arduous journey than me though, as he’d already taken 3 flights to get this far from his home in India.
As the queue shuffled morbidly along we were temporarily parted before being reunited again as we made our separate ways further along the slow snaking line. After 5 soul destroying hours trudging minisculey ever closer to the desk, we’d met yet more stranded crew members, including two transferring from the Breakaway in New York to the Escape down in Florida, and even some from other cruise lines. I’d shared and eaten all the contraband chocolate in my bag well before 3am and some ingenious souls had even set up a tent by the side of desk to wait out their torment in comfort.
By now we’d been advised that there were no longer any hotels in the area with space, so the smartest and seemingly only option was to stay put. And wait…
We did our best to keep our spirits high, but both Supankar and I were starting to get increasingly worried that not only were we going to miss the scheduled departure of the ship, but that nobody onboard would know what had happened to us and that they would just assume that we’d gone AWOL.
Thankfully I knew a crew member already onboard the ship so sent them a message via social media, begging them to please go and inform the casino manager that both Supankar and I were together, still on route and would join the ship whenever and wherever we could. All I had to do now was pray that they logged on and received the message before the ship left port…
I topped up my phone once more and tried the travel assistance people again. They had received my email and were aware of the issues that we were having but they were struggling to come up with alternatives. There was one seat left on a flight out of JFK first thing in the morning that should get to the ship just before its scheduled departure, but as it was on a commercial flight not usually used by the company, they’d have to get special dispensation from head office to approve the cost. And it was now 4am on Saturday morning on the weekend of the Fourth of July…
By 5am I was only metres from the help desk. The weary staff that had being doing their best all night to reschedule people on alternative flights had gone home and been replaced by a fresh bunch of recruits who I’m sure were delighted to turn up for work on a Saturday morning to be greeted by hoards of disgruntled flyers. Just then my phone rang. I was informed that the only seat left out of JFK pretty much all day was now mine. The shoreside office had given them the OK to book it and I could now finally leave the line, head straight to my new check-in point to collect the tickets and I’d better hurry as the flight was leaving shortly.
After virtually 7 gruelling hours of queuing, and just before reaching the summit, I was released from the purgatory. For all the queuing I’d skipped earlier on in the day, I’d certainly made up for it in spades now. You can’t beat karma folks.
However my euphoria was short lived as I realised that I would have to leave my new friend Supankar. I felt awful. He had no phone and would now be stranded alone in New York. The travel people had said that they were still working on his plight and asked me to ask him to switch his phone on so that they could contact him once they’d made the necessary arrangements. I told them that his phone didn’t work and that email would be best, but there was little more I could do with the battery about to die on my own phone and my new flight leaving so soon.
We said our goodbyes and I wished him luck for his journey. At least he hopefully get a chance to sleep in a hotel later that day as with a sea day following embarkation day, he wouldn’t be able to catch up to the ship until at least Monday now. But I still felt hugely guilty as I left the queue and turned and walked away. We might have only just met but we’d bonded in our shared suffering.
With a twenty minute delay to my new flight it was really going to be down to the wire whether I would make the ship before it left port. I knew from Google that it would be over 25 minutes in a cab from airport and didn’t really have any energy left to come up with an alternative plan if the ship wasn’t still there when I eventually arrived.
I was shattered. I’d now been awake and travelling for over 30 hours but I was too overwrought and too over tired to actually sleep. Finally, after what seemed like the longest of fights, the plane touched down. The journey was nearly over. With the aircraft packed to the rafters, there was no quick way to get off and I had another tense wait at the baggage reclaim belt to collect my luggage. Weighed down by my bags, I hurried out of the automatic glass doors as quickly as I could and tried to find the correct location for the taxi rank outside the terminal.
I found the queue, joined the back of yet another line and soon had a cheerful cabby helping cram my belongings into his trunk. I gave him the address of the port location and asked him to step on it!
It was a beautiful sunny day and my driver pointed out all the local highlights, including the home of the Seahawks, the very first ever Starbucks and of course the iconic Space Needle. Yes ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I’d finally made it to Seattle, right on the West Coast of America in the state of Washington, but the only sight I was really interested in seeing was one of the Norwegian Jewel, still docked and still with gangway down.
The Space Needle
As we reached the water’s edge, there she was. Stationary. The Jewel. Beautifully straining against the ropes tethering her to the long pier. Glittering in the sunshine against the shimmering water. I’d made it!! My new home for the next nine months. Or so I thought…
The gorgeous sparkling Jewel.