Cruising to Alaska

Article excerpt

A serpentine queue of passengers waited more or less patiently to embark on the Ballantyne Pier in Vancouver. Behind me an elderly couple who had just flown in from Australia, were beginning visibly to wilt. Their airplane had landed at the Vancouver Airport only three hours before. The dawdling at the pier was a creation of 9-11. Security had been increased since the terrorist attack on the New York World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001, and though it seems bizarre to think that a couple of terrorists armed with exacto knives could commandeer a cruise ship, the authorities in the Port of Vancouver were taking no chances. None of the passengers that I could see fitted the terrorist profile. They were mostly middle-aged, and tending to overweight. Perhaps some might have passed for superannuated IRA terrorists, but none resembled a dark-visaged, lean and hungry Hamas operative. This was a segment of the First World middle class, on holiday, setting out on a cruise to Alaska and back.

Cruising has been the growth industry of the last two decades. The QE2 was a pioneer, but since she was launched, the Cunard Line has become a subsidiary of one of the big conglomerates which dominate the cruise industry, Carnival Cruises, head-quartered in Miami, and, as I write, salivating for Princess Cruises, owned by P & O. The cruise ships have grown into great behemoths which would dwarf most of the elegant ocean liners which crossed the Atlantic between the two World Wars, and for a couple decades after World War II was over, before the Boeing 747 finally put them out of business. The M.S. Norwegian Wind which was to take us to Alaska and back weighted in at 50,760 gross tons and has a maximum speed of 21 knots. The new Queen Mary, which is being built for Cunard in a French shipyard, will be 150,000 tons and should be capable of 30 knots. She will be a self-contained city afloat, too large to pass through the Panama Canal comfortably, much less the Suez Canal. In the dying years of the great ocean li ners which took passengers across the Atlantic Ocean, Cunard Lines advertised its Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth with the slogan, 'Getting There is Half the Fun!' For the new Queen Mary, a better slogan would be 'Getting Nowhere is All the Fun!'

The attraction of Alaska for cruises goes back a hundred years. The Canadian Pacific Railway began steamship service to Alaska over a century ago. The little CPR 'Princess' coastal liners that served Alaska and the British Columbia coast are only a fond memory now, but they were the trailblazers of the 'Inside Passage' between Vancouver Island and the mainland, north to the Alaska Panhandle. They made the run before radar and sonar in waters that were poorly charted, and they paid a price for it. A mere six and a half months after Canadian Pacific took over the Alaska route in 1901, one of its vessels was wrecked off Douglas Island south of Juneau, the capital of Alaska, with the loss of forty-two lives. Worse was to come. In 1918, the Princess Sophia, 2320 gross tons, left Skagway in a snowstorm and headed down the long fjord misleadingly named the Lynn Canal, blowing her whistle steadily and measuring the minutes and seconds it took for the echo to return. It was the standard method of the day for estimatin g the distance from the land, but it was less than accurate, particularly in a storm. Halfway between Skagway and Juneau, the Sophia slammed into the Vanderbilt reef, which was marked only by a single bell buoy, invisible at night. She was lost with all her passengers. In 1952, another Canadian Pacific ship on an Alaskan cruise, the Princess Kathleen, collided with Shelter Island not far from the Vanderbilt Reef, and sank, though this time no passengers were lost. Modem cruise ships nowadays casually pass close by these perils of the sea, now well marked, and defanged by twenty-first century navigational aids. But the Lynn Canal can still be dangerous: in 1995, the Star Princess struck a rock near Juneau and had to limp to Portland, Oregon, for repairs. …