Essential
Experience
50

The Ocean

October 4, 2011
It was evening and the vastness of the horizon, the inky night sky and endless sapphire waters made me think, 'this must be what eternity looks like.'
The Ocean The vast ocean.

He went to sea, to see the sea … yes, I did indeed.

My first 24 years were spent growing or struggling up in the “smoke” as we used to colloquially call it – London. The expectancy of the ‘60s developed into the dreariness of the ‘70s and, after some tough familial experiences, I graduated from University College London with a Bachelor of Science degree in Experimental Psychology (about as useful as an ash tray on a motor bike!). My heart was in entertainment, however (I discovered a talent for singing almost overnight at the age of 16) and I longed to be involved in theatre or in the leisure business. After a couple of years working in various (and some dubious) theatrical productions, I found myself in a Christmas show in Glasgow, of all places, in the dead of winter 1983.

I’m sure you get the picture. Twenty-four years of questionable weather, a challenging family situation with a single mother raising three boys, career confusion … then suddenly fate, being what it is, plucked me from this world and transported me to the world of cruising and to what has become my greatest love – the ocean.

It wasn’t exactly that dramatic, but it was quick. I auditioned and interviewed for a position as Assistant Cruise Director for P&O Princess Cruises in London in March 1984.One month later, I found myself basking in California sunshine in Pasadena rehearsing seven production shows. You can imagine how exciting and life-changing an experience this was for a naïve young man who, with the exception of a few desultory weekend trips to the British “seaside” with an umbrella, had never travelled very much at all.

Now life was starting to change.  I was suddenly in the world of “Starsky and Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels” and … “The Love Boat.”  Early ‘80s California … heaven!  But the best was yet to come – my first meeting with the ocean.

I boarded the original Love Boat, Pacific Princess, in Acapulco on May 3, 1984, and I will never forget that first departure. Resplendent in my new blue blazer and white pants, I leaned against the railing and watched as Pacific Princess glided away from picturesque Acapulco Bay. It was evening and the vastness of the horizon, the inky night sky and endless sapphire waters made me think, this must be what eternity looks like. Just imagine how I felt. At last, I had found my home and my calling. I spent the next six years working on all of the Princess ships, never tiring of the chattering gulls, the scent of sea spray, the light upon the water at different times of day and the opportunity to meet so many different people brought together by this love of traveling by sea. My life literally changed.

Every journey has a departure point, that moment when you leave the embrace of the familiar and venture toward the unknown. On land, the significance of a departure often passes without notice, weighed down by the draining effects of crowded airports and highway traffic.

Rai and his mother, Jo Jo, aboard Island Princess in Vancouver, 1984.

Not so for journeys that begin at sea. They never fail to fill me with a sense of joy and grand occasion about the majesty of the Earth and the geographic – and personal – voyage to come.

After almost 28 years at Princess, I remain as transfixed by the incredible power and beauty of the Earth’s oceans every time I am fortunate enough to sail onboard, as I was as a young man on his first sea adventure.

I think of myself as a quintessential example of someone who ran away to sea … and stayed.

My sojourn at sea lasted until 1989 when I was asked to work ashore at the Princess Cruises headquarters in Century City, Los Angeles. Despite my reluctance to leave the sea, I was excited by the prospect of joining the corporate side of a burgeoning business. There were new ships coming and I knew I would have the chance to return to the sea many times in the future.

When I think about the many sailings I have taken since starting my shore-based job, the moments that are most profound to me are when the ship is surrounded by water with no shore in sight, no land ahead.

On transatlantic crossings, for example, there is a point where the safety of the home port is further away than the destination ahead. It’s the legendary point of no return, the dividing line between past and future. Whenever I reach that point, all those sayings about living in the moment come to mind and I realize this – finally – is it.

I find a quiet spot to stand on deck and gaze at the wilderness of sea and sky. The ocean stills. There are no sounds but the pulse of sea along stern. I realize even my friends the gulls, who have accompanied the ship since port, have abandoned ship, for they must keep shore within the range of their wings.

For now, the glittering sea is my home. I realize how cathartic it is to stand along the balcony, walk the promenade deck or sit quietly on a steamer chair and fall into this state of serenity. I am truly away.

A gorgeous sunset at sea.

I feel a kinship with my fellow travelers. My mind drifts and I wonder if the great explorers, the merchant ship captains and immigrants to the New World, feared or favored their points of no return.

Yet every cruise, every journey must come to an end. As exhilarating as it has been, arrivals are beautiful, too.

I have my favorites. The view of the Golden Gate Bridge on the approach to San Francisco is one. The subdued sunlight reflects on the water, enveloping the bridge and the hillside city at its base in an almost tangible glow.

Istanbul is another. The Aegean Sea cascades through the Dardanelles, which funnel into the Sea of Marmara, which connects to the Bosporus and beyond. These saltwater passageways pass through ancient and modern, east and west, reminding me that the water – Earth is almost 71 percent water­­ – connects us all.

My home port of Los Angeles may not rank as one of the most beautiful to visit, but it always brings a rush of happiness as I will soon reunite with family and friends.

Still, before long, I am called to return. As months on land pass by I will be sitting at my desk, phone pinned to ear, eyes scanning email, and find myself dreaming about revisiting the sea – the momentous, magnificent open sea.  I have been honoured and fortunate to have grown up with Princess and my current position enables me to visit our ships often. Despite the challenges of overseeing the operations of 16 ships and planning for our two new ships in 2013 and 2014, I will never tire of the excitement of sailing on a magnificent ship at sea.

I choose to end with a quote from my friend John Maxtone Graham, a world-renowned maritime historian who, with his wife, Mary, spends many days of the year at sea with Princess regaling passengers with a plethora of nautical anecdotes and dramatisations of famous moments in maritime history.

Rai recently on the bridge of Island Princess with Captain Bommarco, left, and Gavin MacLeod, aka "Captain Stubing."

Perhaps the perfect moment of every Atlantic crossing materializes a day or two out of New York or Florida. Cares detached firmly ashore, one is cocooned in a marvelous mid-ocean limbo, rejoicing in a splendidly comfortable and perfect conveyance. The bow rises and falls as day follows languorous day. Ocean breezes caress the decks, there is bouillon at eleven and tea at four, in-between indulgences for the three stupendous dining room meals. There are books to absorb, siestas to surrender to, films and shows to enjoy and, perhaps most rewarding of all, genial fellow passengers with stories and reminiscences to share. Happily, Europe is still several days away.

I have always felt that no adventure awaiting me there ever outweighs the delights of our passage achieving landfall. Perhaps that word says it all – land equates with a fall or lowering of spirits; I disembark with unfailing regret.

In this, our final story, we pay tribute to the ocean – the ultimate essential experience.

Do it … run away to sea … now!

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