Disconnected on the Transatlantic Crossing
My Week on the Queen Mary 2
There is something poetically lonely about crossing the North Atlantic, even when you’re on an ocean liner with 2,000 other passengers.
Several times a day, you find yourself pausing as you pass by a porthole or a window, just drawn in by the endless expanse of the sea.
I never expected to find myself onboard the Queen Mary 2, the last transatlantic ocean liner, “one of the few ships afloat today to have remnants of a class system on board.”
But when my best friend offered the chance to join him on the crossing as he returned home from two years posted abroad in a conflict zone, it was hard to say no. After all, how often in your life do you get the opporutnity to spend seven days traversing the Atlantic Ocean?
For me it held the added appeal of the opportunity to spend an entire week completed disconnected from the internet, an exercise this digital native had been wanting to try for some time.
And that’s how I found myself staring alternatively into the North Atlantic and my moleskine, glass of scotch in one hand, fountain pen in the other, connecting with a place and time I didn’t even know existed anymore.
To understand how absurd two twenty-nine-year-olds choosing to ride an oceanliner across the Atlantic was, you must understand the heritage of the Cunard Line and the Queen Mary 2.
The Cunard Line was one of the leading passenger lines at the golden age of transatlantic crossings. It eventually merged with the White Star Line, the operator of The Titanic, and lost 12 ships to submarines over the years, including the Lusitania. The threat of U-Boats and icebergs was omnipresent the entire journey.
The QM2 is a modern ship whose maiden voyage was in 2004. We were actually sailing on her 199th crossing, her next departure from New York City would be her historic 200th.
Sure, there are plenty of activities on board the Queen Mary 2; lectures, movies, dancing lessons, the world’s only planetarium at sea (narrated by Han Solo), and plenty of the normal activities done afloat. But this is the North Atlantic and even in June, sunbathing is done in at least a heavy sweater and while fifty-knot winds whip around you. But you’re not here for pool parties, you’re here to experience the crossing.
Yes, people attended the numerous activities, but there are so many moments where it is just you and the constantly churning Atlantic. Everywhere you looked there were people finding quiet corners to read, drink tea, and stare out into the endless expanse of the sea.
As Dwight Garner noted in the New York Times Travel section, the journey across the Atlantic is not a cruise, you are making a crossing.
On the crossing there are no stops, no tourist traps on-shore, nothing to breakup the vast gray expanse. You have purchased a ticket to a world that you’re not sure exists anywhere else anymore.
There is a strict dress code, one that prohibits ”worn denim” after 6pm and declares informal to be coat no tie. There are three formal night and you better believe that everyone else is wearing “a tuxedo, dinner jacket or dark suit…or formal national dress or military uniform.”
But for those who choose to make the crossing, for those of us who live regular lives that don’t involve multiple black tie dinners and balls in a week, this was our chance to experience a world that we had only imagined through Leo and Kate, if at all.
The thing about the Queen Mary 2, the thing about the crossing, the thing about taking seven days to transit on a ship what takes only six hours on a metal flying tube in the sky, is that everyone, everyone, has some reason that they wanted chose to make the crossing.
Some people really hate flying. Some were on their sixteenth crossing. Some were there because their 90-year-old father made them. Some were there because their dental hygenist had mentioned it to them. Some because their German wife talked them into it. Everyone had a story. The stories, and people who told them, were fascinating.
Dinner becomes the highlight of the day, what your entire day ends up being built around. The large Britannia dining room does two sittings an evening, at 6:30pm and 8:30pm. The later sitting attracts the guests that have the, uh, stamina to dine a little bit later and allows you to linger over wine and dessert if you end up lost in conversation.
There are up to eight people randomly assigned to a table. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up at a table with a cross-section of characters from all walks of life. We lucked out with our table, a fascinating mix of people and experiences from around America.
What kept us coming back night after night, were the conversations.
A conversation is an interesting paradigm. Initial coversations are almost always about biography. Who are you, where are you from, and there’s always enough to discuss common experiences (“Did you try the room service?” “What did you think of the show?”). And that’s enough to sustain you for one meal. But five or six dinners? You can’t just stick with biography. You move on and branch out. Share experiences. Tell stories. Share perspectives. Bridge divides.
Two people born in 1928 tell stories about what it was like to grow up in the Depression. Or to grow up in Youngstown, Ohio. To have worked on the Apollo Project. To be black in America. To be a professor. To have served your country. To be a parent. To be a grandparent. To have perspective shared from a life lived and passed on to strangers, who then become friends, who had yet to live those parts of their life was a unique gift.
To share those conversations while wearing a tuxedo, in a royal dining room whose floor swayed with the waves outside the windows…that was something truly special.
One of few other young people (there were basically six of us not with our parents) on the crossing told me that his table consisted of a Catholic Priest, a gay man from San Francisco, an African-American man who had just spent three years in Italy, a recent college graduate, and her mother. Even on the days when they decided to skip the main dinner, they still ate together. On the final day, he bought an absurdly expensive photograph of him and his table-mates. At the beginning of the trip I would’ve thought it silly. I went and bought one of my table as well.
Look, there are two ways that you can cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2. One is go to bed each night after dinner. The other is to close down the onboard casino every night with an 80-year-old Jewish lawyer who asks you at 3am to help him toss a blackjack dealer he doesn’t like overboard, bribe the in-house DJ to let you sing “I’m on a Boat” in front of a room full of horrified older guests in the nightclub, and spend the entire trip worried the German guests on the boat are U-Boat Captains. Guess which we chose?
In the process, I learned a few things about yourself. For instance, Aaron and I learned that we had the amazing ability to lose more money per game at Bingo then we did at Blackjack (and boy did I lose some money at blackjack).
I also learned that the human spirit’s thrist for adventure knows no age limits. Particularly once they kick you out of a casino.That’s how you can end up in the cafeteria at 3AM covertly drinking scotch from paper cups with a cast of characters straight out of Ocean’s Eleven. The eighty-year-old lawyer. The nurse. The young man on his sixteenth crossing before his fortieth birthday. The dentist. Swapping stories and dwelling on the same existential question, what kind of casino closes down at night?
Ah the internet. I bet most of you, particularly those who know me, are wondering how I survived without it for a full week. And to be honest, I made the conscious choice to disconnect (before I read Baratunde’s story in Fast Company) because the opportunities to do so are so very rare. I thought the choice would be made for me, since we were in the Middle of the ocean, but the ship had satellite internet that cost $0.75 a minute and I’m told is absurdly slow. But trust me, there’s a strange freedom in being disconnected in the middle of nowhere.
If you ever have the chance to do a crossing, I encourage you to take it. And if you’re an American, to take it from Southampton to New York. That final morning coming into New York Harbor at Nautical Twilight…watching the sunrise over Lower Manhattan…to pass by the Statue of Liberty…and dock in Brooklyn…to retrace at least a small part of the journey so many of our American ancetors took, is a treasured experience. Just keep an eye out for U-Boats and Icebergs.