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Cruise: Lectures

All Hams on Deck

More than just talking heads, speakers entertain, educate

September 14, 1997|ANTHONY DAY | Day is former editor of The Times' editorial pages

In the cruise ship business they're still talking about that 1993 article in McCall's Magazine. The fifth item on a list of 22 "Things You Can Get Free" read:

"You and your mate or companion can take a free luxury cruise on most major ships if you can teach a craft, hobby or subject in which you have expertise.

"A few hours of at-sea time conducting watercolor, jewelry-making, needlepoint, astrology, handwriting analysis, bridge or finance classes will do it. If you have a proficiency to offer, call the entertainment offices at any of the major cruise lines for information."

The cruise lines were swamped with inquiries, some from people totally inappropriate for the job and whom the cruise lines never would have contacted themselves.

But McCall's got the main story right. Cruise lines are constantly searching for cruise ship lecturers, although many companies prefer to find and recruit their own.

The lecture as a form of amusement has emerged because cruise lines think that passengers need to be ceaselessly entertained. On short three-day cruises they can party. Popping around the Caribbean, they can visit an island a day. But on longer cruises, with more days at sea, passengers are thought to require various forms of amusement.

During the first half of the 19th century, passengers passed the time by playing cards and participating in spelling bees and quizzes. But the launching of the Great Eastern in 1858 marked the beginning of entertainment designed for cruise ships. The 692-foot vessel, built for the England-to-India run (and powered by two paddle wheels, two screw propellers and sails on six masts), introduced the first deck game: shuffleboard.

The launching of the great ocean liners in the early 1900s brought with it another popular shipboard game: deck tennis. And just before World War I, swimming pools became the fashion on deck, at about the same time bands began playing for dancing and ship passengers began dressing for costume balls.

Sure, reading was still a popular pastime. In 1933, W. Somerset Maugham brought out a splendid 1,688-page book, "Traveller's Library." On its cover a handsome steamship cleaves the waves. Inside are novels, short stories, essays and poems by writers of the time.


But the concentration on shipboard entertainment took on its modern hue only when jet airplanes in effect destroyed the business of ships as point-to-point transportation and created, in the middle 1950s, the concept of ships for leisure cruising.

Some passengers still read on cruise ships. And some are amused by the astrologers and craftspeople McCall's wrote about. But serious learning aboard modern cruise ships usually comes in the form of lectures delivered by experts in various fields.

One morning on a recent transatlantic crossing on the QE2, passengers were offered three lectures on foreign affairs as part of the Cunard World University Program. Two were by former American ambassadors abroad. One talked about his own career, which included experiences in Jordan, Mali, Congo and Greece. The other discussed the future of the European Union.

Typically the lecturer gets free passage for himself or herself and a spouse or companion. Other forms of payment vary by cruise line and lecturer.

When the late Charles Kuralt sailed on Cunard, he received a penthouse cabin, round-trip air fare and a fee. Most cruise line lecturers aren't treated that well. But, then, most speakers aren't Charles Kuralt.

My own experience is more typical. A few years ago, while I was a senior correspondent for The Times, I was recruited--based upon a recommendation by another newspaperman who also had lectured about newspapers on a leisurely 11-day cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage on Cunard's Sagafjord (now under different ownership as the Saga Rose). My wife and I paid our air fare to Vancouver and home from Anchorage. We paid for our drinks and wine on the ship. At the end of the cruise we paid the tips, as suggested by Cunard. And we paid for shore excursions at the several stops the ship made: a bus trip to a glacier, a look at salmon runs, several town tours.

But the rest was gloriously free. We had a modest outside cabin with a porthole. My duties were not onerous. I gave two one-hour lectures and was interviewed for an hour on the ship's radio.

And as you are expected to do, I made myself available to talk with the other passengers. I was pleasantly surprised that people who had attended the talks sent notes to our cabin with questions, which I answered as best I could. One pleasant German couple sent us a Christmas card.

Former Times music critic Martin Bernheimer has been lecturing on classical music for years at sea, first for Cunard and currently for Crystal Cruises.

"My wife says that as soon as I board a ship I change my personality and my cruise personality takes over. I find myself talking with people I would never dream of talking to on land," he said.

Each cruise line has its own method of getting speakers and other entertainment.

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