Braille Monitor                                                                                 March 2006

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News from the Cruise

by Barbara Pierce

The Costa Mediterranea
The Costa Mediterranea

Last summer the Colorado affiliate placed a notice in the Monitor Miniatures column notifying members that the NFB of Colorado was organizing a one-week cruise of the western Caribbean the second week of January. Ninety Monitor readers, mostly residents of cities in which January is a delightful month to miss, signed up for this week of fun in the sun. The morning we left I waded through snow to empty the garbage, wearing sandals for the flight that would carry my husband and me to board the ship in Ft. Lauderdale. The experience convinced me that warm weather and soft breezes were exactly what the doctor had ordered.

We found Florida experiencing the coldest weekend of the winter, but even at that the sun was shining and parakeets were noisy in the trees. As we would notice throughout the trip, hurricane Wilma’s passage was painfully obvious in the greater Ft. Lauderdale area.
By early Sunday afternoon, January 8, the Federation group and about 2,500 others had converged on pier nineteen for embarkation on the Costa Mediterranea. Too many blind people had come onboard for the crew to smother us with unwanted attention, which was a relief. But my observation was that those who wanted information or directions could get them with relative ease. It would have been helpful to have some of the flood of printed information handed to us every evening available in Braille, but our travel agent, the Cruise Shop of Boulder, Colorado, had prepared Braille invitations to a cocktail party for us on Thursday, and Braille lists of those in our group were available from Diane McGeorge and Julie Deden.

I suspected a possible cloud in our blue sky at dinner the first evening, however. Julie Deden, who is the director of the Colorado Center for the Blind, was seated at my dinner table. She commented that the ship’s cruise director had called her cabin to enquire if she was the leader of our group. Julie assured him that she was not, that we had no leader, but she asked anyway if he had a problem. He explained that some of our group had signed up for tours that were dangerous, and he wanted someone to persuade them to change their plans. Julie asked if he had discussed the matter with the people who had made the choices he did not approve of, and he admitted that he had not. She explained that all the blind people in our group were responsible adults and knew perfectly well what they could and could not do. She assured him that he should deal with these folks individually and let them make up their own minds, just as he did with all other passengers. The call ended on that note, but I remember thinking that we had probably not heard the end of the matter.

Our first port of call was Key West, which apparently contained no dangerous tour destinations. At least I heard of no problems on Monday, but Tuesday was a different matter. Wilma had destroyed the piers that the cruise ships have always used in Cozumel, Mexico, so those going ashore Tuesday morning had to board tenders to be ferried to the island. Bob and I were already seated in the tender when a group of eight Federationists filed past us with the cheerful announcement that they were going snorkeling despite the warnings of the cruise director. As it turned out, that is exactly what they did, though for a while the outcome was in doubt.

Cruise lines contract with tour operators in the various ports to provide optional activities on land. When the eight Federationists reached the dock where the boat carrying the would-be snorkelers to a nearby reef was tied up, they were told by a representative of the tour operator that they could not board. Then the discussion began. The eight Federationists were Jim Gashel and Betsy Zaborowski, John and Cindy Paré, Kevan and Bridget Worley, and Kim and Rick Williams—not a group to take such an announcement lying down. The tour representative told them that it was the tour company’s responsibility to be sure that everyone going snorkeling was fit and able to do what would be required. The Federationists asked if they had closely questioned all the other tour participants. The answer was yes. Then Betsy Zaborowski turned to an obviously sympathetic bystander and asked if she had been cleared as fit and able. She promptly said that she was diabetic and could not swim but that no one had questioned her.

Despite pointing out that Jim Gashel had brought his own snorkeling gear and was obviously an experienced snorkeler, and regardless of their logical arguments, it looked as if the dockside staff were going to refuse to let the blind members of the tour and their spouses board the boat. Then the group thought to mention that the National Federation of the Blind had already sued Carnival Cruise Lines for discrimination and won. (Carnival owns Costa.) They said that we would not hesitate to sue again if necessary, and they pointed out that the cruise line would not appreciate the tour vendor that caused the repetition of such a headache.

The tour company representatives had refused until then to summon the general manager, but at the mention of a lawsuit they could suddenly not wait for him to arrive and take over. As soon as he understood the problem, he ruled that the Federation Eight would have to sign waivers before boarding as protection for the tour company. Since every other tour participant had already signed the waiver, the group agreed immediately to do the same. And that was the end of the trouble.

Bridget Worley signs the waiver.
Bridget Worley signs the waiver.

The Mexican personnel on the boat had never had a problem with the idea of having blind snorkelers aboard. Those passengers who had been annoyed at the delay made it clear that they were angry with the company, not eight people who had paid to snorkel and were being prevented from joining the group. Once they got into the water, everyone had fun, though the experienced snorkelers reported that the tour was pretty tame. Needless to say, the blind people had no problems and were delighted and relieved to have resolved the matter successfully.

Wearing snorkeling gear, Kevan Worley and Kim Williams descend steps to the water.
Wearing snorkeling gear, Kevan Worley and Kim Williams descend steps to the water.

Thursday the ship docked in Jamaica, and passengers streamed eagerly ashore to climb Dunns Falls and meet the dolphins. The falls seem to be a creation of Mother Nature enhanced by human effort. Water fell several hundred feet over boulders down to sea level. As hundreds of tourists prove every day, it is possible to climb up the boulders from the beach to the top. A number of Federationists took the opportunity to make the climb. They used their canes and were assisted by excellent guides, who seemed completely calm at the prospect of guiding blind tourists up the falls. Others of us took the coward’s way out by climbing the steps beside the falls.

Many of us also seized the opportunity to meet a dolphin. To do so, we stood in knee-deep sea water in a small pool. Calypso was on duty to meet tourists the day we were there. She is six years old and about five feet long. To please her handler, she demonstrated the sound she makes when using her sonar, and she also demonstrated several of the 3,000 sounds she can produce through her blowhole. Earlier that morning she had jumped twelve feet out of the water. A dolphin’s hide is incredibly sleek and soft. In order to ensure that no one would inadvertently damage Calypso’s skin, the staff insisted on taping all rings. Then she swam past us so that we could reach out to touch her. Finally she swam up to pose with each of us as our pictures were taken. The entire encounter was a remarkable experience.

Ray and Diane McGeorge are pictured with Dunns Falls in the background.
Ray and Diane McGeorge are pictured with Dunns Falls in the background.

We spent most of Friday on Grand Cayman, where inshore the waters were shallow and filled with coral reefs, wrecks of old ships, and fantastic sea life. Where the cruise ships anchored, their prows were in fifty-five feet of water, but the bottom under their sterns was six thousand feet below. Many of our group visited and fed members of the sting ray population that lived on nearby sandbars.

When we raised anchor Friday evening, we turned for home, a route that took us out into the Atlantic and moderate Atlantic swells. The result was that all day Saturday we would all have been hard put to walk a straight line, and many resorted to motion sickness pills and patches and those remarkable bracelets that seem to keep the nausea at bay.

Calypso the dolphin greets Barbara Pierce.
Calypso the dolphin greets Barbara Pierce.

Saturday at sea was a difficult day for the NFB group. Not only was the air cool and often filled with drizzle, but early that evening Kathy Sebranek, a longtime member of the Wisconsin affiliate, died. She and her husband Larry had had a difficult week. Kathy had not been well, but her doctor gave permission for her to travel and, they all hoped, enjoy the warmth of Caribbean weather and Federation friends. But during the week she was not able to leave her cabin much, and by Friday she was in the ship’s infirmary. The doctor made arrangements for her to go directly to a Ft. Lauderdale hospital for tests as soon as we docked, but sadly she did not make it back to port. Larry was surrounded by loving friends, and we all ached for his loss.

The Mediterranea was a fine ship for a Caribbean cruise. It had all the amenities of today’s finest floating hotels. The staff were courteous and helpful, but not oppressively so. Who knows whether or not they learned much about the competence of blind people from our presence, but at least they did not manage to stand in our way of having a good time and enjoying our time together. A week away from the telephone and email spent in Caribbean sunshine among Federation friends is a recipe to cheer and shorten any North American winter.

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