Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from dozens of other magazines, including Slate.
(Editor’s note: No compendium of cruise stories would be complete—or even worth its weight in bingo chips—without David Foster Wallace’s account of his week on the MV Zenith. Alas, the 1996 Harper’s masterpiece is not in a downloadable format, but the PDF is here.)
Gravy Boat: My Week on the High Seas With Paula Deen and Friends
Caity Weaver • Gawker • February 2013
A seven-day cruise with the controversial “downtrodden millionaire.”
Everyone on the boat is racist and nice. Including me.
The non-Deen cruisers are racist. The amiable mother of a former Miss Virginia is racist and has a tenuous grasp of the concept of slavery: “Don’t I see [Paula] walking around with a black fella? He’s her bodyguard or something? That right there shows she’s not racist.” The urbane gay couple visiting from Los Angeles is racist: “Filipinos are pushy,” one of them explains shortly after telling me he is “not okay with” Deen.
The Deen cruisers are racist, dismissing out of hand the notion that Paula’s use of the n-word was somehow offensive to black people.
I am racist, because I get upset at the black people in our group for not acting like I think black people should act on the Paula Deen cruise (i.e. frosty and indignant; or at the very least incredulous).
Lost at Sea
Jon Ronson • Guardian • November 2011
An investigation into the disappearance of a 24-year-old British activity director from the Disney Wonder opens the strange and insular world of cruise employees, who vanish mysteriously at alarming rates.
It’s a beautiful, clear night outside on deck 4. Ahead of us are the lights of another cruise ship. A few days later—when we reach Puerto Vallarta—I spot it again. It’s called the Carnival Spirit. Forty-three people have vanished from Carnival cruises since 2000. Theirs is the worst record of all cruise companies. There have been 171 disappearances in total, across all cruise lines, since 2000. Rebecca is Disney’s first. A few days ago, Rebecca’s father emailed me: “Would like to inform you the number of people missing this year has just gone up to 17. A guy has gone missing in the Gulf of Mexico. The Carnival Conquest.” By the time I get off this ship, the figure will have gone up to 19.
Joe Hagan • New York • December 2012
After losing a presidential election, 600 National Review subscribers hit the Caribbean.
After two days, I was finding the National Review cruisers to be generally courteous and warm, old-fashioned and good-mannered, and responsive to good manners, too. In prolonged conversation, none felt it appropriate to ask what I did for a living. When I did reveal I was from New York Magazine—from the bluest city in the country—I was first met with quizzical stares but then cordial acceptance. The non-Beltway cruisers were particularly curious about the man they would come to refer to as “the mole.” A few took the opportunity to grouse to me about their liberal children, who seemed to bring them genuine disappointment and confusion. Others simply enjoyed talking to somebody under 50. I would come to enjoy my conversations with a 90-year-old named Dick from Connecticut, a veteran of World War II, who would call me to his poolside table for help on the New York Times crossword. “A Palestinian political party that’s not Hamas or Hezbollah,” Dick asked.
“That’s it!” he wheezed. “I always joke that it rhymes with fatwa!”
Another Night to Remember
Bryan Burrough • Vanity Fair • May 2012
The sinking of the Costa Concordia.
It was 9:42. Many of the passengers were at dinner, hundreds of them in the vast Milano Restaurant alone. A Schenectady, New York, couple, Brian Aho and Joan Fleser, along with their 18-year-old daughter, Alana, had just been served eggplant-and-feta appetizers when Aho felt the ship shudder.
“Joan and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, ‘That’s not normal,’ ” recalls Aho. “Then there was a bang bang bang bang. Then there was just a great big groaning sound.”
“I immediately felt the ship list severely to port,” Fleser says. “Dishes went flying. Waiters went flying all over. Glasses were flying. Exactly like the scene in Titanic.”
“I took the first bite of my eggplant and feta,” Aho says, “and I literally had to chase the plate across the table.”
Scripting on the Lido Deck
Steve Silberman • Wired • October 2013
On board the Perl Whirl 2000, a conference of hard-coding geeks on a luxury cruise ship.
At dinner that first night, I met my companions at the wizards’ table: Larry and Gloria Wall; Tom Christiansen; Tim Bray, Lauren Wood, and their 11-month-old, Sean; and a soft-spoken young programmer named Chris. With the exception of meals, Larry spent most of the cruise holed up in his cabin, proofreading the Camel Book, emerging for special events in fluorescent tuxedos snatched up at a going-out-of-business sale.
The expertise at the table was multidisciplinary. Larry, Gloria, and Tom had done graduate work in languages and linguistics as well as computer science. Tim is one of the editors of the XML spec, and he also managed the software development team of the New Oxford English Dictionary Project at the University of Waterloo. Lauren, a heavyweight geek in her own right, holds a PhD in theoretical physics. The conversational tone was established from the start: a finely honed, teasing banter that roamed hungrily over a broad range of interests. There was speculation as to why so many gifted programmers and mathematicians are also musicians; discussion of The Economist ‘s use of the typographically redundant “dot.com”; and debate about whether the gliding tones in Cantonese are audible in singing. The one thing the wizards didn’t talk about much over dinner was Perl.
A Sea Story
William Langewiesche • Atlantic • May 2004
The Estonia was carrying 989 passengers when it sank in 30-foot seas on its way across the Baltic in September 1994. More than 850 perish.
Survival in the water was a desperate affair. The night was rent with the cries of invisible victims pleading for help, growing weak with the cold, moaning, going silent, and losing the fight to stay alive. Nothing could be done for them. Those without life vests simply slipped away. Those with life vests died on the surface, alone among the waves. Many who found their way to life rafts could not get in. Many who got in were then washed out, and had to get in all over again. Some did not succeed. Some did succeed, only to die once inside. The horror aboard the life rafts was compounded by anonymity and confusion. Twenty-two life rafts were occupied. They were not the protective cocoons one might imagine but flimsy assemblies of inflated tubes, half collapsed, that were flipped repeatedly by the breaking waves, flushed with frigid water, and often indistinguishable from the pandemonium of the sea.
All Aboard the SS Kid Rock
Drew Magary • GQ • June 2013
An eyewitness report from the Chillin’ the Most Cruise.
By the time I get up to the pool deck to watch Rock’s opening show, the party has started without me. There are enormous sunburned men with motion-sickness patches behind their ears shouting out, “I’m on a boat, motherfucker!” Two women are carrying around an inflatable man with a giant dong sticking out. There are games of flip cup and cornhole in progress. There are joints being fired up all over the place. There are buckets upon buckets of cold ones dotting the deck. There are drunk wives being dragged out of the crowd by their loving husbands. And there are people frolicking in the three hot tubs near the stage. A few of the bathers got into the tubs fully clothed, then began removing their wardrobe piece by wet piece.