I'm sending out an SOS. It's my in-laws' 50th anniversary, and they're making the entire family go on a cruise. Can I ever so politely beg off?
-MICHAEL FROM CALIFORNIA
Let me put this in nautical terms for you: Nay. You cannot. Get your landlubbing butt on that cruise ship, and stand in line at the waffle buffet like a man.
Yes, cruises today have their problems (occasional faulty plumbing, onboard productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals), but consider yourself lucky that you weren’t out to sea in the past. Voyages in previous centuries were smelly, sickly, violent affairs.
Consider the Mayflower. The onboard meals teemed with so many weevils and maggots, some Pilgrims ate in the dark so they couldn’t see their food. The meals that didn’t squirm weren’t much more appealing. The Mayflower staple was hardtack, a tooth-cracking bread-like substance nicknamed “sheet iron.” There was also salt pork and moldy cheese. The delicacy?
Whatever the pilgrims managed to wolf down often came right back up. The sailors mocked the queasy pilgrim passengers as “glib-glabbety puke stockings.”
The 132 passengers were stuffed into a single cabin meant to hold 30 people. But at least they had a ceiling. The sailors on Christopher Columbus’s ship often slept on the deck because they couldn’t tolerate the cramped living quarters and the smell of putrid food and feces. Which meant there were nights filled with rain, winds, and waves so fierce they had to tie themselves down. Consider that when you complain that your Carnival Cruise pillow isn’t fluffy enough.
In years past, ships weren’t just uncomfortable—their crews were often downright cruel.
The Dutch Navy was the master of keelhauling. Here, you’d tie a rope around a disobedient sailor, toss him overboard, and drag him under the ship’s barnacle-covered bottom. If the sailor didn’t drown, he’d emerge with severe cuts or, sometimes, a missing head.
The British Royal Navy was a particularly creative punisher. Naughty sailors might have to run the gauntlet (get beaten while walking between two rows of sailors) or be subjected to the cat-o’-nine-tails, a splayed whip.
A 1702 account by a Frenchman imprisoned aboard a British ship details frequent lashings, which were remedied by rubbing salt and vinegar into his wounds.
And that’s assuming you were still alive and not felled by scurvy, which killed thousands over the centuries, including 80 percent of Magellan’s crew in a 1520 voyage. Historian and Vanderbilt professor Jonathan Lamb describes scurvy’s symptoms thusly: “Skin black as ink, ulcers, difficult respiration, rictus of the limbs, teeth falling out and, perhaps most revolting of all, a strange plethora of gum tissue sprouting out of the mouth, which immediately rotted and lent the victim’s breath an abominable odour.”
So-called luxury cruises were pretty miserable by today’s standards as well. Take the Titanic. Even before it bumped the iceberg, the famed steamship was a dreary affair. No sightseeing jaunts in Jamaica, no entertainment save for the eight-piece band. As maritime historian Charles Weeks told The New York Times, “The average person today would be bored to tears on the Titanic.”
There was but a single swimming pool, and it was tiny (14 by 30 feet). The gym was primitive (though it did have an electric camel, which sounds cool). And only 39 first-class suites had private facilities. Everyone else had to share. Third class had just two bathtubs for 700 people. The moral: Jack Dawson is lucky that Rose apparently lacked any sense of smell.
In other words, stop whining and get in the conga line.