Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cruising - In the Beginning

My mom got me interested in leisure cruising at the beginning of the fledgling industry. Not the port-of-call cruising made famous in the movies of the pre-World War II era, where ships sailed from New York to London or Honolulu to Hong Kong. Those transoceanic cruises may still exist today, but the world of cruising was forever altered by Knut Kloster and Ted Arison in Miami. Their first ship, a converted car ferry, the M/S Sunward, started an entire industry. 

The Port of Miami was a commercial port back then, before the basin cruise industry was created, revolutionizing more than just Miami or a way of vacationing. 

The Dodge Island passenger terminal construction project was well underway when I shipped a Volkswagen from Antwerp to the P&O dock at Pier 2 in 1965, but it would still be a year before Knut Kloster and Ted Arison, the original owners and founders of the Norwegian Caribbean Line, initiated their first cruises from the new Port of Miami. There was no terminal dedicated just for passenger ships then, just a working port that butted up against Bayfront Park and shared space with local charter deep-sea fishing boats and freighters of all shapes and sizes headed to and from ports all over the Caribbean. 

With the allure of the exotic, nearby Bahamas - which incidentally supplied almost all of the ships with waiters, maids, cooks and just about every non-officer position - Miami was the perfect place to initiate a three or four day leisure cruise. 

Miami had a huge para-mutual market that enticed tourist dollars during the "season," or winter months, from horse tracks such as Tropical Park, Hialeah, and Gulfstream, and the many dog tracks and Jai Alai frontons that tourists loved. But, while the glamorous hotels on Miami Beach may have had Sinatra or Sammy Davis, Jr, they didn't have gambling.

The new cruise ships picked up the missing piece as soon as they passed outside the twelve-mile U.S. territorial boundary headed on its easy going, laid back trip to Nassau or Freeport. Croupiers pulled the velvet covers off the roulette wheels and dealers broke open new decks of cards, and the one-arm bandits, the slot machines, were unlocked as soon as the ship cleared the imaginary line and the crowds poured in. 

A Chalks' seaplane takes off in front of the M/S Starward in Government Cut, Miami, 1969

Drinks were cheap - the cruise lines paid no alcohol taxes as they didn't buy it in the U.S. - and the food was outstanding. Word spread quickly and cruising began to find a dedicated following.

My mother was Executive Housekeeper for the Lindsey Hopkins Vocational School hotel, part of the Dade County school system in 1969. The school hotel was nationally renowned for the staff and students it produced, and Norwegian Caribbean Cruise Line approached Dade County Schools to have a hotel housekeeping instructor teach on-board classes to the ship’s staff about hotel housekeeping. 

That instructor on several cruises was my mom, accompanied by my dad, who dutifully inspected the quality of the bar stock. The photos they brought back had always been in the back of my mind, and when my wife and I finally got to take our first cruise some twenty years later, a three day weekend cruise to Nassau, also aboard an NCL ship, the M/S Sunward II, we were hooked. 

I still have the M/S Sunward's original ship's memento plate from my mom's teaching cruise mounted on the wall in my office.

The S/S Norway and us.

©  George Mindling 2017  All Rights Reserved
All photos by George Mindling © 2017

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How Can I Say It on Face-off book?

How innocent we were just a few short years ago when we cautiously signed up for Facebook, and how thrilled we were to see our very own images and comments on the Internet. Photographs of our families and friends were welcomed and enjoyed, so much so that we actually looked forward to logging on every chance we had to see if something new had been posted, or if someone had commented on one of our priceless posts. How proud we were to first endorse our political candidates, naively and blissfully thinking our Facebook friends felt the same way.

Facebook is now an unexpected, and often unwanted, display of the current state of rudeness and ignorance that dominates our popular American culture. In fact, there is no better medium to judge the current state of American callousness than the popular free Internet service used by just about anyone with a Personal Computer or a Smart Phone. If you have ever posted any political viewpoints or supported a political candidate on your Facebook page, you know what I'm writing about. It's rapidly becoming Face-Off book.

Just like the old CB radios, the lowest common denominators quickly rose to the top with personal insults and soon made it impossible to post a political or social view without someone wanting to pee on your pant leg. The first time it happens you can't help but be shocked. “Why am I being insulted, if not actually verbally assaulted by someone I thought was a friend?” The answer is easy: They never had Personal Effectiveness Training.

The company I retired from spent a considerable amount of time and money sending every employee to a PEP, or Personal Effectiveness Program so we would learn not to call our customers stupid. Customers have a nasty habit of throwing your products out in the street after a frustrated employee ignominiously calls them untrained or incompetent or even worse, an idiot. Company revenues always suffer from that response, no matter how accurate it may be.

That's how I ended up in the seventies in the Admiral Bimbo hotel in Atlanta with a roommate who drank a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka in just two days. We were sent to Atlanta from all over our region to attend the mandatory civility class to learn not to tell anyone to go stick it in their ear. I'm not sure how much my roomie absorbed, other than the 90 proof Smirnoff, - yes, in those days it was 90 proof - but I did my best to benefit from the course. I learned to listen carefully when confronted with people who were their own worst enemies, at least technically. I was once coached by a manager who advised me to get my point across without swinging a bat. She actually said a 2x4, but there are many who don't know what that is. 

The training helped me through the years with more than just irate customers who had inadvertently unplugged their own machines or created situations that were occasionally hazardous. I learned to suffer the sting of uninformed Khans who dared not lose face in front of their collective hordes. But I never expected the training to be as important as it is today, thanks mainly to Facebook.

After someone belligerently or insultingly contradicts something I post on Facebook, I go to that person's homepage to see where they stand politically or socially. Not surprisingly, many dumpers don't post their viewpoints on their own pages, but they don't hesitate a second to pollute your page to show you the errors of your ways. I call these types “snipers.” They shoot at you from unseen positions and you have no idea how they picked you as a target. After all, they're on your friends list, aren't they?

If on the other hand, the comment they post on my page is an intelligent, factual comment or viewpoint, I'll leave it up, and comment on their post. All too often though, the comment is at best inaccurate, at times irrelevant, and at worst, slanderous.

So, what's up? You didn't intend your personal beliefs or opinions to be posted in a sports bar full of rowdy customers upset their team just got the devil beat out of them, but face it, these are new times and, unfortunately that's what has happened. Your beliefs and opinions are no longer for just your friends. In reality, Facebook, and just about anything else on the Internet is as impersonal as texting. People who wouldn't insult you to your face have no reservations about discussing the error of your thinking in front of a room full of people they don't know. That “room” is rather big as it encompasses everyone who can see your Facebook account. You know, millions and millions of "friends."

Responding to a contradictory post is balanced on the question of how much you value your friend. If they really can't refrain from attacking you or others who comment on your positions, I simply delete them as friends. It's all self explanatory, isn't it? If they don't care about my feelings, why should I bother about theirs? Their statements show who they really are, not who they think they are. Or, you can indignantly defend yourself and argue your point. If you paid close attention to the PEP training, you can adeptly tell them to stick it in their ear and make them look forward to the experience. Arguing, though, is a waste of time. You aren't going to change anyone's mind. As William McAdoo said, "It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument." Here's where I think back to my PEP and wonder if it's even worth a response.

When someone posts offensive or incorrect responses on my page, I can't help but think they never heard President Abraham Lincoln's quote, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Sometimes I have to remember that myself.


Monday, March 14, 2016

Death of a One Design: the Clearwater Optimist Pram

One my first writing submissions was to Sailing World magazine in April, 1987, about the impending demise of the Clearwater Optimist Pram. Written after the last Clearwater Optimist Pram Association sanctioned regatta, held in Key Largo, it was my second submission to a sailing magazine. The mostly-a-rejection letter from editor Chris Hufstader was encouraging however, asking for a shorter, less detailed article and better, higher detailed black and white photos to be used in a later issue.  The article never happened [ed note: at least to the best of my knowledge.] 

A recent meeting with a youth sailing group in Port Charlotte led me to dig out my old files and the article about youth sailing was one of the files I found stuffed in an old envelope. Here is the original article, complete with the originally submitted photos. 


"They didn't invite prams!” my daughter wailed as she read the racing flyer for the 1985 Junior Orange Bowl Regatta. She had taken 2nd place in her age division the previous year in the Clearwater Optimist Pram class. This year, however, the event was only for International Optimist Dinghies.

The previous Jr. Orange Bowl regattas had separate competition for each class, the prams and the dinghies sailing for separate trophies. The regatta organizers, the Coral Reef Yacht Club, fearful of a small turnout in prams, elected to concentrate on the dinghy, called the IOD, [today universally called the "Opti"] and drop the pram altogether.

Two separate classes for the funny little 7 foot, spit-rigged, blunt-bow boat that has been familiar in Florida waters for many years? Yes, the Pram and the Dinghy are different boats, with separate USYRU governing bodies to sanction their respective events. Both classes are identified by the 0 with the over-struck I. The pram sail, however, is identified by it's affiliated club or group. LYC for Lauderdale Yacht Club, MYC for Miami Yacht Club, SSS for the Sarasota Sailing Squadron for example, followed by the assigned number. The IOD sails are all identified with a country's letters followed by the nationally assigned number.

International Optimist Dinghy, sailed by Josh Rosen and Clearwater Optimist Pram, sailed by Monica Mindling

The boats seem identical to the casual observer. In fact, many skippers can't tell a wooden IOD hull from a fiberglass pram hull when they are down-rigged and sitting side by side. Everyone is accustomed, however, to seeing the two boats built the other way around, as the IOD today is usually fiberglass and the traditional pram a varnished mahogany. Both are racing boats. Anyone who has ever attended one of the many youth regattas on the Florida circuit can attest to that fact. The pram, however, is facing a shorter schedule with fewer and fewer regattas. Why? What has happened and what is happening to the boat that started one of the most popular racing classes in the world? How did the odd predicament of two boats with the same insignia come about anyway?

The "Soapbox Derby" was directly responsible for the creation of the original pram. Optimist Club of Clearwater member Ernie Green had been promoting an idea of a "waterborne orange crate derby" as an alternative to the four wheeled, home-built creations that would more aptly suit Florida's climate and mostly flat terrain. Colonel Clifford McKay spoke to the club in August, 1947, suggesting a year-round activity to occupy the local boys and girls. With plenty of sailing water at it's disposal and a want for a project to combat juvenile delinquency (remember those days?), the Optimist Club of Clearwater found the answer. The timing was perfect. Local boat builder Clark Mills, who also designed the Windmill, another one-design, had the answer in a design that a father and son (or daughter) could build in the backyard and sail in a fleet of boats that were all built to the same specifications. The club quickly voted on adopting the pram as their youth project and the Clearwater Optimist pram was born. To build a fleet of boats was a task that would need help. Local merchants were asked to sponsor boats. For $75.00 a sponsor could have his trade name or store name painted on the side of the hull. No one was concerned about USYRU officials, who today would be gasping for air, when the fleet set sail with 29 boats boldly emblazoned with names of proud sponsors.
The last sanctioned COPCA regatta
A similar fleet soon was formed in nearby Dunedin. Col. McKay traveled Florida widely extolling the virtues of youth sailing. Ernie Green loaded prams in one of his moving vans and visited neighboring towns where youthful skippers put on sailing and racing demonstrations for interested parents and potential sponsors.

The Clearwater group was to suffer a major setback in April 1949 when a fire wiped out 20 of the 29 boats in it's fleet. An appeal was made over local radio station WTAN by Howard Hartley. The marvelous response from the people of Clearwater not only replaced the original 20 lost in the fire, but added 22 more! The launching ceremony was held July 2nd, 1949, and a new chapter in sailing was opened. The popularity of the pram spread quickly to Florida's east coast. The Miami Yacht Club started pram classes in 1951 that have been held twice a year, for 5 months each, ever since. The Lauderdale Yacht Club, Coconut Grove Sailing Club, Coral Reef Yacht Club, and the Biscayne Bay Club became involved and before long, regattas were sprouting up on both coasts. In Ft Myers, the Royal Palm Sailing Club, and further north, the St. Petersburg Yacht club. An interesting observation is that four of the mentioned clubs are members of SORC, the Southern Ocean Racing Conference.

The Clearwater Optimist Club was the sanctioning body for the class. Rule changes were voted on and generally accepted as proposed by club members. The popularity of the new, inexpensive boat was spread by several magazine articles extolling the virtues of the pram and the benefits of youth sailing. The Clearwater Optimist Prams even caught the eye of the City of Miami and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. The second Pram National Championship was held in the Miami Marine Stadium in 1970. Unlimited hydros do very well there because the wind-protected facility was designed for power boat racing, but it was a disaster for the prams. The preliminaries for the Nationals were sailed in Biscayne Bay, but the finals were sailed in the Marine Stadium. The young sailors simply sat in the protected waters and floated aimlessly in front of the grandstands. It was an one hundred boat float. First time sailing spectators were less than impressed. The pram, however, was firmly entrenched with the sailing groups that used them.

Back in 1954 Axel Damgaard, a Danish architect, introduced the pram to the Vordingborg Sailing Club of Denmark. Several were built according to the standard pram plans and it wasn't long until the boxy, hard chined little dinghy spread across sailing groups throughout Denmark. Olympic champion Paul Elvstrom became involved in 1957 and in 1959 the first regatta between Denmark and Norway took place. Sweden joined them in 1960 and a governing body was formed in Denmark to control the increasingly popular class. Regattas spread to Germany and England. An American delegation even competed in Denmark in 1964 and it was becoming more and more obvious an international body would be required to govern the burgeoning class. Viggo Jacobsen of Denmark became the first chairman of the International Optimist Dinghy Organization in 1965. The first International regatta held in the U.S. under IODA sanctioning was held in Miami in 1966.

However, several major changes were made to the original Clark Mills design in the migration to the International rules. First, the sail was slightly larger and the shape was altered to allow the use of two battens. There are no battens in the original Clearwater pram sail. The main sheet was no longer controlled from the end of the boom but from a center boom ratchet attachment, much as a Laser style versus the Force Five style of control. The dagger board was redesigned and the rudder was completely new. Instead of the pram's round inverted P shape, the IOD rudder now was a squarish, angled shape with the same width, top to bottom. The most important changes were made to the control the skipper had over running adjustments while under sail. The pram skipper could adjust sprit tension, down haul, vang, outhaul and even a jibe tensioner. The IOD skippers worked only the sheet. The changes to the hull were minimal, but enough that a properly built pram would fail to measure in against the stricter requirements of the IOD.

The American clubs were impressed with the speed the dinghies had over the prams and the fact the skippers could concentrate on racing tactics. Also, of course, it was a truly international class. As the lOD caught on with Florida skippers, many of the clubs began adding two classes to the youth regattas. Having separate starts over the same marked course for the prams and the 10D's. The Clearwater Optimist Club elected not to adopt the IOD rules and decided not to modify the pram to the new format as one factor was obvious; cost. The new IOD's with certificate were far more expensive than a pram, and they tended to be far harder to certify if home built. Trying to refit all of the current prams would not only be next to impossible, it might have killed the class altogether. The pram group suffered its second major setback as the IOD became more and more popular because of its international organization. By the middle of 1971, the pram group was for all practical purposes dormant. But enter Susan Bankston, of Largo, Florida. Susan's daughter, Debbie, became interested in pram sailing. It wasn't long until Sue became the spark-plug for the prams revival. Due to Sue's efforts, a real organizing body was founded specifically to govern the Clearwater Optimist Pram.

The Clearwater Optimist Pram Class Association, or COPCA, applied for USYRU membership. It scheduled four sanctioned events a year in addition to the multitude of individual club regattas. Each club had a delegate member in addition to the club officers. COPCA elected to tighten the rules, requiring rigid control of hull numbers and the Measurer's design rules. Strict rules were put in place to insure standardization by the boat builders. The pram class was designed to develop progressive sailors, not progressive constructors. Several well documented and publicized blatant admissions of cheating by some of the young skippers did the pram group no good. COPCA faced the problems by stiffening the signature over a COPCA stamp on strictly measured sails. The rules were still not as rigid as the IOD, but they solved the problems. At the 1978 Championships in Dunedin, Florida, Chief Measurer Fred Dinger noted that of 47 boats measured for specification tolerances, 23 boats, or 48% of the fleet, were rejectable to IOD tolerances. Judges and race committee members were enforcing the "no sculling, no rocking no ooching" rules with new enthusiasm and the protest committees became as proficient as anyone design class sailed anywhere. Most of the skippers were as knowledgeable of the rule book as the adult club members. As one protest committee member once told me after a particularly long drawn out protest, "Do you know what its like to be in a room full of twelve year old Ted Turners?"

The four events were the Florida State Championships, the Pram Nationals, The Pram Internationals, and the Clark Mills regatta. Several clubs became annual sponsors for these events and began a lasting association with the venerable pram. By the Early 80's, 60 boat pram fleets were again common. The Annual Miami Yacht Club December regatta in 1981 registered 103 boats, 60 in prams and 35 in IOD's, with the remainder in Laser M-rigs. The 1986 Nationals, sailed at Key Biscayne Yacht Club, had over fifty prams. That year was the current zenith as pram registration has gradually slipped backwards against the IOD.

Last year's (1987) Florida State championship had only 35 entrants. Today, the clubs that like to promote youth sailing are still using the wooden pram as a training boat but finding the competition is finer tuned and more visible in the IOD class. As one past US National champion in prams once remarked, "No one is interested in buying my pram, a championship boat, just because it is a pram."

While the COPCA pram regatta schedule seems to be full, missing a regatta isn't a traumatic event. Missing an IOD event is. Many parents find it hard to devote the time and money necessary to run the full IOD schedule, particularly if there is more than one skipper in the family. The pram group, while just as fervent in their support of their skippers, tend to make the outings a tailgate party rather than an event of Olympic importance. However, most of the IOD skippers still find prams to race when it comes time for the pram states and nationals. Almost all of the top IOD skippers have shelves filled with pram trophies. The age groups for the two classes are the same, eight through the year of the 15th birthday. COPCA has traditionally sponsored the fifteen to eighteen year olds in the Laser M rig, now switched officially to the Laser Radial, at the same regattas. Various groups pressure COPCA at times to change boats, depending on who sells what and when, and whether a particular boat favors a particular club, or even a particular skipper. 

Consistency has been COPCA's strong point, however, and maintaining the pram as the sanctioned design has been its strength as well as its weakness. In the last several years, traditional sites, dates and clubs have slipped away from COPCA. The Pram Nationals are no longer held at the Key Biscayne Yacht Club on Easter weekend. KBYC now hosts an IOD event that weekend instead. Coconut Grove Sailing Club has dropped the Clearwater prams altogether, even from their annual October youth regatta. New clubs are cautiously picking up the open dates. The newly revived youth group at the Royal Palm Sailing Club held the 1986 State Championships, and the Upper Keys Sailing Club of Key Largo, Fl, hosted the 1987 Nationals. At the Key Largo National event there were 22 prams and 7 Laser radials, a far cry from past Nationals. At the Key Biscayne regatta the week before there were 35 IOD's. The cost of traveling and staying on Florida's Gold Coast is not cheap, especially at the height of the season, and many parents are finding themselves making a choice between the pram and the IOD.

This isn't the first ebb the pram youth program has suffered. It has rebounded from inactivity as each successive group finds this inexpensive, safe and reliable little boat. It has withstood attacks from new designs, schedule changes, financial binds and rules changes. It will be around a long time to come. It would be interesting to survey the adult sailing population to see how many learned to sail in Clark Mill's little square boat
George Mindling
Chief Measurer, Clearwater Optimist Pram Class Association 1986-1987
Miami, FL

Monday, November 9, 2015

Half Full

I never really thought much about philosophy. Well, except that it doesn't pay very well. I've listened to many philosophical conversations over the years and decided a lot of people are really good at fooling other people. But, then again I'm a techie, and have been ever since the Air Force stuck a wrench in my hand back when I was eighteen and said, “Here, turn this.”

Philosophy has always seemed to be for those who had too much time on their hands, or an independent income that didn't rely on any particular skills or talent. I always laugh at pseudo-intellectual questions such as whether or not a tree falling in the woods really makes a noise if one of our arrogant, entitled humanoid species that coexists with everything else on this planet isn't around to hear it. That pretty much sums up my desire to engage in time-consuming, inconsequential exercises that keep me from going fishing.

Relationships? I have always treated other people pretty much the way they treat me. It seems to work, and I seem to be relatively happy for a 72-year-old white male who is supposed to be continually grumpy and upset about something or other. Well, from what I gather from television and the books I read at any rate. Apparently being happy at my age is like flagging yourself as being senile.

So, when the planned tour of the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile museum at the Cape Canaveral Air Force by our TAC Missileer Association earlier this year was canceled, I was disappointed but not discouraged. When the museum people offered to seat us in the press area for the launch of an Atlas V the same day as a substitute, I was thrilled.

When, just twenty-four hours before the scheduled event was to take place, the launch was scrubbed, I was once again disappointed, And, once again, when the staff at the museum came through and reinstated the original cape tour, I was once again thrilled. Our group spent two days touring both the Cape Kennedy Space Flight Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. We were among the fortunate few who get to tour the entire Cape, from our old pads at 21 and 22, to the Shuttle pads 39 A and B on the other side of the Banana River. With a little luck, I might get to see the launch after all, it was rescheduled to the following day when I would be visiting an old friend down in Vero Beach, some 80 miles south.

Some things are just not meant to be, a philosophical person may say, but I prefer to think we were just looking the wrong way when the Atlas V lifted slowly through the cloudless sky. We were ready, my friend and I, having set up lawn chairs under two huge shade trees, ready to watch the delayed show of immense power and technical skill. My friend's wife approached us as the scheduled time passed and asked why we were looking the wrong direction. Sure enough, moving to the other side of the tree, we could see the faint, disappearing contrail of the long departed missile as it headed down-range. Still, it was great to renew old friendships and catch up on old times. The missile was just anti-climatic.

The weather was great and it was time for me to head home after three days away. I had also managed to visit old friends in Orlando on the first day of my trip, and again on the evening of the second night when I met up with an old high-school friend for the first time in 55 years down in Cocoa Beach. Things just couldn't get much better.

Traffic was light as I headed across the state from Ft. Pierce toward home on Florida's west coast. The road is good, even after it drops to two lanes as it heads almost arrow-straight across the cattle country of Florida's mid-section. As I sped along, a flock of vultures gathered around some kind of road kill on the side of the road caught my eye. One of the birds in the flock was white. I slowed and at the first possible place, turned around and drove back to the congregation that included mostly Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures, or buzzards as everyone knows them, and two out-of-place Crested Caracaras. I got four photographs before they got apprehensive and flew off.

I was home within an hour, soon showered and fed, and before too long, back in the familiar grasp of my PC. Later in the day, I posted one of the Caracara photos on Facebook along with a comment I made about not seeing the launch. One of my friends commented I'm a “Glass is half-filled” kind of guy. Well, yes I guess that would sum up my philosophy, if I had one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Like a Rock

I carefully selected the old photographs I envisioned for our walk-in video, the background video accompanied by knock-your-socks-off music every corporation puts on the big screen at the beginning of every major corporate event. Or sometimes, as we have done in the past, played on the video playback units of the huge tour buses as we headed toward one of our special venues. 

While I thought the big tour buses would be a great way to show the video as the audience is basically captive, I found out at the 2009 Dayton reunion that wasn't always true as two old missilemen in front of me on the bus jabbered about a faded memory they shared from fifty years ago while my masterpiece played to the few who bothered to look up. I decided I would do it differently this year. I would make this one so dynamic they wouldn't even have to turn up their hearing aids. I was going to evoke memories that would bring tears to their eyes.

Visions of people wildly clapping, joyous at the marvelous integration of our nostalgic photographs from days gone by with the soul-stirring words and powerful guitar of Bob Seger's classic anthem, “Like a Rock,” flashed before me. This would be the third such video I've done for the TAC Missileers Association and my last, so I decided to keep it short and powerful. This video would have no Air Force anthems or bugle calls of Reveille. No, this would pluck the strings of everyone's heart as they saw themselves as we were some fifty years ago, standing tall as missilemen on combat duty in Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and Germany, overlaid by photographs from recent reunions showing us as we are now. Just over five minutes long, including every single unit's patch shown in chronological order with its own label, I knew I had a masterpiece. 

I pondered contacting the publisher of “Like a Rock,” or even Bob Seger himself to get permission to use the song, but decided it was far easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Besides, it was only going to be used once. I didn't plan on uploading the video so no one would know I'd used his music without permission. I rationalized he would allow using the song if he saw the video, so I wasn't worried. After testing the final video on my wife, who couldn't attend the upcoming TAC Missileer Reunion in Orlando because of her class schedule, really liked the video. I burned three copies to DVD as we used three buses the last time we visited an Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. I was ready, one for each bus. We had two tours scheduled at the nearby Cape Canaveral, but only Friday would we have all of our people together at one time.

There are two separate, distinct parts of the Cape. The civilian NASA part, which was our Thursday tour, houses the Kennedy Space Flight Center and includes the huge Vehicle Assembly Building, shuttle launch pads 39A and 39B and the Saturn V display hangar. The KSFC is located west of the Banana River. All other launch pads, such as the ones used for Apollo and Gemini, are on the east side of the river known as the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which we were scheduled to visit on Friday. The Air Force Station also houses the Air Force Space and Missile museum. Unfortunately, it is a military establishment and has been on security code Bravo since March. 

The museum was closed to the public and all tours were canceled, but only after our association had already reserved a tour. As a gesture of good will, the folks who run the AF Space and Missile Museum invited us to watch the launch of an Atlas V on Friday as their guests instead. Being invited to watch the launch of an Atlas V from the press area was a remarkable event for our group, the TAC Missileers Association. The consolation was as exciting as the scheduled tour as many of our association members have never seen a live launch.

Saturn V
Atlas V at pad 41
Pad 21 A & B Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
Our first bus trip on Thursday from the Embassy Suites on International Drive in Orlando to the Kennedy Space Fight Center didn't include all of our attendees as some elected to visit Mickey and his friends, or more productively, the Morse Museum of Art in Winter Park that houses the Tiffany collection. Only two buses made the trip, but it didn't matter, I lost two of the three video disks anyway. As long as I had all three for the trip on Friday to watch the Atlas V GPS IIF-11 launch from pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air force Station, my dream would be fulfilled.

Murphy was riding on our NASA bus on Thursday – yes, NASA runs its own tour buses around the Kennedy Space Flight Center as part of the admission ticket – and as we passed pad 41 off in the distance on the other side of the river – where we could see the Atlas being readied for launch – our bus driver casually mentioned it was an Atlas V mission scheduled for Friday that had been scrubbed.

After an agonizing night for our organizers and the marvelous people at the Space and Missile Museum, the original Cape tour was reinstated to compensate for the scrubbed launch. So, on Friday morning, armed with the only Walk-in DVD I could find, I was ready to show the video on each of the three buses in succession.

While many of the members had little connection with the one pad that was special to all the veterans from my particular system, the marvelous volunteer tour guides let us stop at Pad 21A and B, and get off the buses. Special memories from the early sixties swept through the few who knew the place, and as we all know, we'll never be back. As we pulled out of the Museum parking lot, I handed the DVD to the driver to play on the bus system. A great time for the video, you'd think, but cries of protest from two women in the front of the bus put a crushing end to my vision.

“Turn off that horrible music!” wailed one gray-haired woman even before the TAC Missileer logo rolled onto the display screen. A second woman immediately picked up the complaint, loudly protesting that the music I specifically selected to get everyone's attention was awful. The bus driver quickly stopped the video and that was that. I put away the DVD, disgusted that the two women who stopped the video weren't even missilemen. They outranked everyone on the bus: they were wives.

Saturday morning was filled with goodbyes and handshakes and promises to meet again in two years in Las Vegas. We know we won't all make it to the next reunion, our ranks get thinner every year. I started my truck and rolled south and thought about the video, “Like a Rock.” Yeah, we were like rocks back then. Young, smart – or dumb as rocks depending on your point of view – but we were the best. Well trained and dedicated to our beliefs. We did what we were trained to do, and we did it better than everyone else. Yes, we were rocks back then, but that was a long, long time ago. Way back before we got married or began wearing hearing aids.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Christmas Cruise - 2014 - Part Five: Days of Future Past

The International port-to-port cruisers made famous by Hollywood movies, the old sailings with movie stars like Bogart or Bacall from Hong Kong to Oahu or Tokyo, or Liverpool to New York, where tuxedos and at least one white dinner jacket were de rigueur, have been replaced by cruises that circle a small geographic area and return to the port of departure, like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Canaveral, Tampa, or Galveston, Texas. 

These basin type cruises usually require minimal formal dress, and while tuxedos have occasionally been seen, they certainly aren't required. From the cruises we've been on, it appears the women passengers certainly enjoy the opportunity to dress well and love being treated accordingly. Formal dining on today's cruises usually requires gentlemen wear a jacket and tie, but the jacket is no longer the white dinner jacket of days gone by. A sports jacket seems to meet the requirement, though most men wear suits. Most cruises have only one or two formal nights, almost always one called the Captain's night. Unless you choose one of NCL's cruises where the entire fleet has adopted the "Freestyle Dining" model. That is the new business model and it seems to be NCL's salvation.

According to the Economist, more than 40% of first-time cruisers today are under the age of 40. The cruise industry knows exactly what it is doing by tailoring shorter, introductory type cruises to the less demanding tastes that appeal to today's younger cruise passengers. They are the passengers of tomorrow who will eventually book a 7 or 10 day cruise sometime in the future. Hey, wanna climb a rock wall or drink all night to club music at ten dollars a drink? 

The piano lounges are slowly being replaced by sports bars. The younger, first time cruise customer being courted by cruise lines today apparently doesn't care as much about the formality of having the same dining room staff at every meal as it does about eating whenever they want at the open buffet, but of the top five reasons given by, the second most popular reason for cruisers aged 18 – 30 was the "money saving aspect of an all inclusive cruise, including food/drink/entertainment." Boy, are they in for a surprise!

For the segment of the industry's customer base that is fast fading into oblivion, us retired, middle class customers - we are called "wrinklies" by the cruise industry Рwho actually expect melted Gruyère cheese on our French Onion Soup for the price of passage, the days of quality dining included in the base passage, or ticket price, may be over. It isn't the menu that has changed as much as the caliber and quality of the food. What the cruise planners have done is force passengers to spend another $50 to $100 daily for dining, in addition to our passage, to have the taste and quality of food we would normally expect in the dining room.

Specialty restaurants cater to those who don't mind paying above and beyond the price of the cruise. The idea is apparently not only to lower food costs, but to also drive the traditional passenger to the extra cost specialty restaurants. On our ship, the Il Adagio restaurant charged an extra $15 extra per person for Risottos, pastas, and pizza; Le Bistro charged an additional $20 per person for beef fillet, escargot, lobster tails; and the specialty signature steakhouse, Cagney's, hits you with a $30 fee per person. You can sign up in advance for a dining package for $74 per guest for 4-day cruises that allows you to dine in the extra cost restaurants. Basically your passage, or ticket price only covers the break even point for the cruise companies, every penny you spend from the moment you board ship is profit. 

The fare for our four night cruise to the Bahamas was $1468 (Balcony, Norwegian deck), plus $203.92 in "Government" taxes, and $180 for bus fare to and from the Port of Miami, all paid to NCL. Add to that the travel insurance at $86.39 we bought separately and the bill just to get on the ship comes out to $1938.31. For four nights at sea, the cost came out to $484.58 a day for the two of us. Then came the on-board charges, where Ilse and I must be among the most frugal, or cheapest, cruisers of the entire cruise. Our bill, with a $25 credit, was an additional $127.67. It could have been higher, but I balk at $10 gin and tonics served in plastic cups and $6 Budweisers. We did have a couple of glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon at $10 each since we couldn't get to our confiscated wine. Oddly enough, a bottle of Heineken beer was only $5.25 while a Bud Light was $6.00.

The basin cruising industry created by Knut Kloster and Ted Arison in Miami has blossomed far beyond their expectations and has become a world-wide financial powerhouse, a business model that has been molded to fluctuating International markets. Arinson's original company, Carnival, owns Carnival line, Holland America, Princess Cruises, Seabourn, P&O Cruises, Cunard, Costa Cruises, Aida and Iberocruceros, each personalized for a specific segment of the market. Kloster has morphed into Norwegian Cruise Lines and currently owns Norwegian, Oceania, and Regent Seven Seas. NCL was known as "No Cash Left" only fifteen short years ago, but they currently have six ships in the construction pipeline.

NCL shed its high end lines, the Royal Viking and Royal Cruise lines amid a convoluted series of acquisitions and mergers that diluted reputations, and decided to compete with Carnival and Royal Caribbean in the downscale Caribbean market instead. As far as their executives are concerned, the current business model is full speed ahead. According to Cruise Market Watch, "The total world wide cruise industry is estimated at $39.6 billion – a 6.9% increase over 2014 – with 22.2 million annualized passengers carried – a 3.2% increase over 2014." Cruise Lines International Association, Inc., estimates "First-time passenger growth will be driven by the 95 million Millennial generation, based on population size and positive experiences cruising with their parents." 

While the Europeans were slow to understand the uniqueness of the Mediterranean, and even the North Sea, cruises and facilities that once mirrored the original cruises out of Miami have now matured into world class destinations on their own right. The European market has faltered somewhat in the last two years, but the strong U.S. market – 52 % of all cruise passengers are from the US – will soon have fierce competition. 

The Far East market is rapidly being exploited and cruise companies are adding cruise ships to rival the Caribbean and Alaskan cruises. The future star of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, the 4180 passenger Quantum of the Seas, due in May, 2015, will be permanently based in Shanghai and offer cruises for Chinese passengers to Korea and Japan. She joins the modest China Star, the first Chinese cruise ship introduced only three short years ago. Obviously, neither my wife nor I are in the passenger demographics targeted for these ships. The menus on the Chinese ships will not reflect the offerings found on the Caribbean cruises, and the on-board activities will be designed for that market. Our problem is we are not even in the demographics targeted for Caribbean cruises by today's marketing goals. 

Tell me about flying today. How do you feel about being charged for lunch, or even a bag of peanuts? How about paying for that extra blanket because your legs are freezing? How about leg room? Need a pillow? Are you treated like you were just a few years ago? How do you like the new attitudes of the flight attendants when they tell you, in so many words, to go fly yourself? The same business model has been applied to ship cruising, and if you decide to cruise, be ready to buy your peanuts. Lots of them. You may have cold knees as well. Cruise line executives have failed to see the difference between doing something because you have to and what you would do for fun, and the results just may startlingly similar. I personally feel the same distasteful revulsion for both, and that will keep me from cruising in the future. I won't spend my money cruising: I don't have to. 

 The difference is in the marketing, and Norwegian currently spends over $53 million a year in advertising, selling sandy beaches and tropical nights without telling you about the cost of peanuts. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, by the way, spent $82 million on advertising. Perhaps that's why they had two cruise ships at Coco Cay simultaneously.

San Pedro, California, 1989 
 I was sent to San Pedro, California in 1990 to survey the wiring of the M/S Royal Viking Star – which later became the Westward – after she arrived in port from Hawaii. She had been purchased by Norwegian Cruise Lines from Royal Viking and was being upgraded to standardize their computer systems and replace stand-alone cash registers with real-time, point-of-sale terminals. She was an upscale, high-end point to point ship that became a Caribbean basin cruiser. I didn't get to see the much of the passenger, "outside" ship, we ate in the crew dining room and spent our time on board checking cable runs and access panels.

Still, while the feeling of class and style was that is missing in today's mega-ships was apparent everywhere, I do enjoy the new style balcony staterooms and modern amenities of the new ships. And the quietness as well. The new ships are far quieter than the old ships. I would much rather pay for my cruise up front than be nickel and dimed to the point of frustration. Redefinition of the customer base has apparently excluded my wife and I, and all of us in that small, dwindling category of retired, middle income passengers, us "wrinklies" who look for quality and service at a fair price. Those days are long gone. Just like the S/S Norway. 

Nothing but a distant memory.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Christmas Cruise - 2014 - Part Four: Christmas in Freeport

I leaned on the balcony rail outside our state room in the chilly, overcast first light of morning as we slowly entered the channel into Freeport Harbor. Well, to me it was chilly, compared to the warm sunshine of the last two days. It must have been in the mid 60's, overcast with occasional rain showers just as it was the first time we visited Freeport back in November of 1989. And just like the first time, we decided not to go ashore, spending the day on-board instead.
Freeport - 2014 -  Freeport channel aboard the M/S Norwegian Sky
Ilse and I expected to have the ship to ourselves once again, but far fewer passengers went ashore than when we visited the private island at Great Stirrup Cay two days before. We assumed the stores in Freeport would be closed Christmas day, and apparently so did the majority of passengers as the public areas of the ship were full. Besides, not many wanted to suffer the drizzly weather. The stores and vendors who did open in Freeport were probably disappointed in the low turnout. Many of the Jitney drivers on the dock chatted among themselves waiting for passengers who didn't show up. 

Freeport, 1989, near the Emerald Seas, another basin cruiser pioneer.

Ilse and I took advantage of the of the empty jogging deck – almost all current cruise ships now have one – and walked our three miles before heading up to the exercise room for the stationary bikes. Every lap around the ship found more people sitting on the deck, some leaning on the rail, all glued to their laptops, tablets and smart-phones. 

A Bahamian vendor on shore had an Internet router running with no security. It didn't take long before the free WiFi was discovered and people began logging onto the Internet. Norwegian Cruise Lines offers WiFi service at any time on ship, but at 75 cents a minute, so by the time we finished our eighth lap, the dock side of the ship was beginning to get crowded. The signal was strongest on the dock side closest to the vendors store. We took advantage of the free access later as well, checking e-mail to make sure the world at home hadn't fallen apart. We spent the rest of the day reading and just strolling around the ship.

We weren't curious enough about Freeport to disembark the first time, and we certainly didn't have the spark to do it this time. The 12 mile ride to town is $5 a person if you use one of the jitneys, which today are mostly vans, and about $25 if you ride by yourselves. When taking a jitney, you have to wait until the driver has a full van. The round trip alone pretty much wipes out any savings from shopping in town, but it is too far to walk. Freeport and its beach suburb, Lucaya, form the second largest city in the Bahamas, and how it came about is worth a volume of its own. Freeport became an International tax free port in 1955 and has been a financial cornerstone of the Bahamian economy ever since. 

Jitneys waiting for customers, 2014
They will lose their tax free trade zone status in 2054, but until then, shoppers can take advantage of better prices than found in Nassau. Freeport and the island Grand Bahama has many sites we would like to have visited, but the weather wasn't inviting and we decided to spend Christmas on the boat.

Few vendors, and no restaurants open - Christmas day
The oil storage facility here has benefited from the canceled deep water port planned for Biscayne Bay in Florida, just south of Miami, in the early sixties. Due to action from the Miami Herald's Juanita Green and Lancelot Jones, one of only two Elliot Key residents, President Lyndon Johnson created Biscayne National Monument in 1968 and canceled plans for the eight-mile long deep water channel through pristine Biscayne Bay. Freeport offered the port facilities needed by the deep water oil tankers and containers ships, and has more big ships laying off shore than I've seen anywhere else in the Caribbean. Freeport even has dry-dock facilities.

The Jitneys wait for customers, 1989
If you want a thrill in cruising, stand on the starboard side, the right side, of a large ship as it exits the Freeport Channel and look down into the clear water as you sail past the rather close coral rock shore. I thought the exit from Aruba was tricky with a ninety degree right hand turn as we cleared the channel, but it wasn't as breath taking as simply sailing straight out of Freeport. The port pilots earn their money. Soon after clearing the channel, we changed clothes and headed to the dining room for our last meal of the cruise.

As the gods of cruising seem to pick odd times to smile on us, we met a senior staff officer in the hallway on our way to the dining room, and after the required but awkward courtesies and niceties, I mentioned the exit from Freeport as distinctly awe inspiring. He smiled and said it was indeed narrow, but not dangerous. I asked if the ninety degree exit from Aruba was the most worrisome and he answered, "Oh, no! The port we dislike the most is New York! That is one port the pilots really earn their money."   

If this view departing Freeport doesn't make your pulse race, you have ice in your veins
Once again, we suffered a terrible meal, or half of one. While Ilse's Salmon was done well and quite delicious, I sent my dinner of chicken cordon bleu back. Once again, the Maitre D stopped by our table, and this time picked up the tab for our two glasses of wine. 

This last meal showed another reason we don't like Freestyle dining. No one will ever again hear Dexter Poindexter's classic "Hot Hot Hot" played over the sound system as waiters do a Conga line through the dining room carrying Baked Alaska Flambe on their heads as the sitting comes to a close. In Freestyle dining, the sitting never closes because diners come and go, and the tradition of Baked Alaska as the final day of cruising desert falls by the wayside, another loss in the romance of cruising. This is our sixth cruise, and the only one without the joyous Caribbean cruising tradition, even if the real Flambe had been replaced last time by battery powered LEDs.   

Exiting Freeport Channel

[updated March 3rd, 2017]