Cruisin’ with Mr Covid

Cruising usually gets the eye-roll treatment from Puffinry, but Larry the Cat has an interest, so there. Mrs B and I seized the opportunity for a change of scenery. At certain points in your life rites of passage crop up, and booking a Saga cruise is one of them: you wait. We have been on quite a few voyages but Saga remained an unlikely prospect as it is normally so damned expensive. The catchment is over fifties, but in truth the average age on our jolly was 73. There are plenty of advantages to be gained. For the really halt and ancient, Saga will provide travel insurance unlikely to be secured elsewhere. They will also pick you up and take you home from your cruise. The package was all-inclusive, give or take. You need to be double-jabbed and negative-tested before you leave the house, and re-tested on arrival at the cruise terminal. Not a deal-breaker to Les Vulnérables. The cruise lines are only just emerging blinking into a hostile world of protocols and constraints. They bet the farm on Boris unlocking on Freedom Day –  and lost. Our cruise was intended to be nice little trip up to Scotland with a few port days with tempting excursions. We booked to visit Loch Ness and, crucially, the Old Pulteney distillery. Krankenfurter put the block on that with some characteristic mealy-mouthed abuse. McBitch. Saga re-routed to the Isles of Scilly. Game back on. The price of the sailing was within our range because it was a first venture in 450 days or so. Not exactly a shake-down, but one to verify protocols. Priced accordingly and Mrs B doesn’t miss those.

The ship was the brand new Spirit of Dementia Discovery. Smallish complement of passengers at 999, balcony with every cabin. A lot of single cabins to accommodate the rich widows who outlast we feeble men. The full booking was Saga’s other big problem. Banking on Boris pressing the button on the promised day the company now found itself re-constrained to sail with only half its passenger complement. People were bumped off the cruise on a last-booked first-out basis. Mrs B was in like Flynn weeks ago, so we were safe.

The drill was to test yourself at home on the morning of departure. It was the first time I’ve had to shove the stick up my hooter and although I’m quite stoical about these unpleasantnesses I thought it was rather nasty. Probably the scar tissue from a botched deviated septum op. Anyway, we passed whatever it thought it was testing. The chauffeur arrived early and we were offski. Nice Jag. Masks on, I’m afraid. Did I mention Tilbury? Well, that’s where the ship had been berthed all these months. Our driver had already been to the port so he knew the ropes. Luggage off-loaded and into the once-imposing but now rather decrepit-looking terminal. Of course, there had to be a festival of murals and other nonsense celebrating the “iconic” arrival of the Windrush in 1947. Tilbury is mentioned by St Bede and the Domesday Book, and Good Queen Bess reviewed her troops there: but no – the bloody Windrush is when our history began. Registration involved proof of jabbage and an insurance certificate. Once aboard we ran the usual gauntlet of welcoming crew. They were all pleased to see us because they had been practising on each other for weeks. They were all fully and permanently masked. I know how contentious  the soggy cloth issue is, but it’s the deal: no mask, no cruise – they won’t even allow the exempt on board. At least we could remove the wretched things on deck and when seated in a bar or restaurant: the crew were stuck with them. To the cabin where a bottle of English bubbly awaited us – Balfour Hush Heath Estate. I was for immediate quaffing sitting out on the balcony, but Mrs B vetoed that and in fact we brought it home. This has happened before. Our only responsibility was to attend the muster drill which we contrived to miss by a cock-up in our understanding of the process. Anyway, no one noticed and in fact there was a sign on our door stating “checked”. Up to the grill for some grub. The days of self-service buffets are over, possibly never to return. There was also handwashing to be done at the restaurant entrance. There have always been a lot of sanitising and handwashing on cruise ships against the dreaded norovirus, so that aspect wasn’t really different at all. On to a show. My routine is to pick out the best-looking chorus girl and watch her. It’s a small ship so it can’t and doesn’t compete with its larger sisters in terms of scale of productions. The audience was spaced-out, but not in a good way.

Next morning I tried the full English but found it underwhelming. To be fair, the food improved from then onwards to reach a very high standard. Included in the price are the three speciality restaurants, Coast to Coast, East to West and The Club, a diner designed in consultation with Jools Holland. No, I can’t help there. I couldn’t see any influence, myself, apart from the presence of a piano. Nice earner and doubtless a few gigs for Mr H and his band. We went ashore in Portsmouth for a trip round the bay. There is enough history lying around the place to, er, sink a battleship. Like the Mary Rose. Our skipper was an old boy with a glorious Isle of Wight accent who managed to recite his jokes for all the world as though it was the first time he’d thought of them. I don’t know whether anyone has written an imagined account of Henry VIII standing, or more likely, sitting, on Southsea Castle to watch the Mary Rose pummel the French, but how did he take the loss before his very eyes? Distraught? Furious? That was certainly another day when there was something wrong with our bloody ships. Leaving the boat with a hallowed “Thanks for staying with us to the end” ringing in our ears we were met by a ship’s crew member who handed round Werther’s toffees. I couldn’t make up my mind as to whether this was simply a recognition of the market Saga aims at, or an unsubtle mickey-take. Either way, a Werther’s isn’t to be spurned.

Next day it was Portland’s turn to play mein host. We decided we couldn’t really be bothered with any of the trips and remained on board to explore the ship. The usual trimmings – gym, sauna, pool. Nevertheless, the thing to do when the drinks are free is to avail yourself of them. Hardly a riotous wrinkly booze cruise, but the Whitstable Bay pale ale slipped down a treat. There are a handful of cruise ships that have been billeted there for months which we could see in the mist, but closest to us was a Chinese COSCO ship bearing the components of windmills. Whenever they deliver a consignment in the west they open up a new coal-fired power station at home. Getting out of Portland has its problems as our Ancient Mariner knows full well. Here’s the drill:

“Portland race is caused by the very strong south-going streams from both sides of the Bill meeting the east- and west-going streams off the bill, and its violence is increased by the sudden decrease in depth off the bill and inequalities of the bottom on Portland ledge.”

We must have made short work of it as we popped up in the Isles of Scilly the next day. The weather was wonderful and the Isles looked like a Mediterranean treat – white sand, blue water. We were brought ashore by local tenders, to use which we had to pass a ludicrous “step test” and have our tickets suitably stamped. Honestly, the requirement was to take a step over a square taped on the deck measuring no more than a foot. Now, there were some very old and wobbly people on board and a few might have struggled, but in general most people were able to succeed in this less than Bear Grylls challenge. We walked up to Tresco Gardens, a riot of exoticism and greenery. On the way we’d been kept waiting by an arriving helicopter. Definitely a good way to travel. We saw more red squirrels than I’ve ever seen cumulatively in my life. I suppose they get a pass. Wally the Walrus also turned up on St Marys to puncture a few more dinghies. He’s in the wrong place. I noticed on another cruise line’s shore excursions for the Isles this real gem: a visit to Harold Wilson’s grave. I wonder if pipe smoke emerges for the pilgrims to admire? Come to think of it, wily old Harold wielded the pipe in public to show his people-person credentials, but in private moved swiftly to spark up expensive cigars. Mightily impressed by the Scillies – on a sunny day, at least. The 90s documentary An Island Parish can still be found on YouTube.

I’ll skip the food bits with a nod to their excellent quality. Nevertheless, I should mention in passing that Mrs B became embroiled in The Great Cheese Debate. She posted a few pictures on Facebook and for some reason a lively thread started up on her mention of the cheese board, which is my choice for dessert if I bother at all. Certain people refused to believe that a cheese selection existed on the ship. I don’t know why – I had the stuff. Mrs B even posted a picture of a cheese trolley which was criticised as being an old picture until someone pointed out the Covid markings on the floor. Comment sections, eh? Like a bear pit and not at all conducted with the civility of GP. As for on-board entertainment, with audience restrictions you could watch the shows on television in your cabin if you were bothered. We weren’t. We sailed east overnight to Falmouth. The captain had the devil of a job easing us into a tight spot by an RFA ship undergoing work. As  we were the largest cruise ship to tie up there the captain could only use high tides. There was about nine feet of water below us. When cruise ships dock there are nearly always winners and losers in terms of the view. Our luck on the port side was an overview of a massive bottle recycling plant complete with that sound when lorries tip up the empties. This was going to be a two-excursion stop for us. First we were picked up by a coach and taken on a two-hour meander round the countryside. We stopped briefly at St Michael’s Mount and saw a lot of Poldarkery dotted about. With only a brief turn-round we were then taken to the harbour where we boarded another excursion boat, skippered by a young man with an equally fascinating Cornish accent. Long may these regional variations last. We chugged along to the river Helford and poked about there as far as the tide would allow, seeing Frenchman’s Creek, “Manderley”, and even Roger Taylor, drummer of Queen’s house: a son of Truro, he does a lot of much-appreciated local charity work. On our return leg the skipper hugged the coastline until we approached the notorious August Rock marked by numerous buoys. On the outward leg the captain had commented drily that a yacht sailing inside the buoys “must know what ee’s doing”. Sure enough, there it was, tilted over and stuck. It was attended by small boats with small drafts, but we were instructed by the approaching  lifeboat to ensure no danger to life. Our captain was of course already doing this. When the inshore lifeboat arrived we were released and proceeded. Exciting stuff. We all needed a Werther’s to calm down. There was a choice of Original or sugar-free: what sorcery is this?

The following day was a sea day for the passage back to Tilbury. I like sea days best. It is meant to be a life on the ocean wave, after all. On board we had a team from Their suitably blue tabards bore the legend “looking out for whales and dolphins”. We went up high on the ship to join them. They hadn’t had much luck, and we were certainly fortunate being present when they did at last spot a pod of bottlenose dolphins in the glassy seas. There is no doubt that the sight and presence of these creatures energise the spirit and I’m not surprised that Douglas Adams chose dolphins as suitable exemplars of masters of the universe. The team went into overdrive of enthusiasm. The sharing of facts and info became intense, gushing forth like a burst main. Leaving them to their note-swapping we went off for fish and chips on the lido deck. Later for dinner we went to the fish restaurant Coast to Coast and repeated the dose, but with Dover sole for me and lobster for Mrs B. Then it was time for packing.

We tied up in Tilbury at 0800 the following morning. Unhurried breakfast and then off to baggage reclaim and a rendezvous with our chauffeur. A Merc this time. Our driver turned out to be quite a lad. He owns his company and had been headhunted by Saga who need literally hundreds of vehicles available to provide the pick-up service. Our man was fairly buoyed up with the contract: look us up on google, he said: we’re at the top. Well, we did, AWS-like, and uncovered a very strange tale, reported in the Mirror. This lad had been the centre of a contested will case. He had apparently been left property and monies by a drunk who spent all his days in Wetherspoon’s. He used to become rather unmanageable and only our man would regularly pick him up: the other taxis refused. A will was made out to our driver shortly before the chap died. The will was contested by a “partner” who claimed to have been a carer and to be the real beneficiary. It came to court and our man lost, and had to pick up most of the costs. The implication was that he had stood over the geezer in Spoons while a will was scrawled out when the chap was inebriated. Sounds like one of the old Wednesday Plays from years ago.

So there we are. Pretty enjoyable trip, I’d say, and a real tonic. The entire Saga senior management had been on board and held a Q&A session. Seems it cost Saga in the region of £150m to lay up their ships. Cruise lines are bricking it at the thought of covid outbreaks, news of which would be lapped up by the media. I had the doubtful privilege of being reminded to put a mask on by no less than the company CEO. I have never got into a routine of wearing them, so the new normal will simply be my old normal. Bring it on.

© text & images Bassman 2021

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