Royal Caribbean’s ‘Smartship’ Avoids a Titanic Situation


“It’s the most technologically advanced cruise ship in the world,” the Royal Caribbean sales agent told me over the phone when I booked a trip aboard the Anthem of the Seas, the cruise line’s flashy new megaship, reported to be the third-largest cruise vessel ever built. “It’s what we call a ‘smartship.’ ”

There’s a joke to be made here about the ship’s meteorological technology (and the humans tasked with using it) — as by now most people reading this are likely to know that the Anthem of the Seas sailed directly into a dangerous Atlantic winter storm, one that reportedly produced Category 5 hurricane winds and seas, on Sunday, Feb. 7 — but I’ll leave it to others to make the joke.

That aside, when compared with other modern cruise ships, there are a number of unique bells and whistles that do make the Anthem of the Seas stand out in the crowd. Among the notable features it boasts: RipCord by iFly, billed by Royal Caribbean as “the world’s first flight simulator at sea,” offering guests the opportunity to experience zero gravity. The North Star, a glass pod that rises high above the ship to provide enhanced views of the ocean and the tropical locales where the ship ports. Virtual balconies, 80-inch, floor-to-ceiling high-definition televisions in the interior staterooms that display a live feed of ocean outside, guaranteeing that every stateroom comes equipped with at least some sort of view. The Bionic Bar, where cocktails are prepared by “futuristic mixologists,” that is, a pair of robotic arms. Voom, which Royal Caribbean touts is “the fastest Internet at sea.” The Royal iQ app, which allows passengers to do things like book and modify reservations, manage an activity calendar, plan shore excursions, and the like. And the FlowRider, a 40-foot-long surfing simulator situated next to a 30-foot-high rock-climbing wall.

And so it came to be that on Saturday, Feb. 6, I boarded the Anthem of the Seas at the Cape Liberty cruise port in Bayonne, N.J. Seeing the monstrous ship for the first time in person is sort of awe-inspiring. It’s essentially a floating small city, after all, complete with at least 16 places to dine, many of which are full-fledged restaurants; a fairly comprehensive casino, chock-full of slot machines and table games; a shopping mall — including the “Royal Esplanade” and “The Via” — featuring retail spaces from the likes of Michael Kors, Bulgari, Armani, Bobbi Brown and Tom Ford, to name a few; a multiuse activity center (the “SeaPlex”) where passengers can play basketball, roller skate, ride bumper cars and play Xbox, Ping-Pong and foosball; a Broadway-size theater (the Royal Theater); a well-appointed spa and gym; and, of course, accommodations for approximately 4,500 guests and 1,500 crew members.

Once I was onboard, it took me a while to find my stateroom on Deck 13; the ship is labyrinthine, as one would expect. I passed a number of framed posters hanging on the walls of the deck’s hallways that featured motivational sayings. (These would later serve as landmarks to help me find my way to my room.) “Courage can face any situation,” read one. “Don’t believe in your fears” and “Connect to your strength & get out of your comfort zone,” read another.

The irony of being greeted by these motivational posters was lost on me at the time. Things were so much more innocent then.

I spent most of the rest of the first day exploring the Anthem of the Seas and planning what I would do during my time on the ship, using the Royal iQ app to check out options and make reservations. I was going to dive headfirst into the ship’s many amenities on the following day, or so I had thought.

The seas had been rough from the get-go on Day 2. At breakfast I noted that the servers, veterans of working at sea, were at times having trouble walking and maintaining their balance. But it wasn’t until I walked into the ship’s solarium just before 3 p.m. on Sunday that I began to worry that something was seriously amiss. There I saw that the water in the pools and hot tubs housed within was spilling all over the place because of the ship’s rocking back and forth. Passengers stood sort of frozen inside the hot tubs, seemingly confused about what was happening or what to do — as Jacuzzi jets shot water straight into the air, the hot tubs no longer contained enough water to cover them. At this point, I went back to my room and did my best to secure everything and anything that was fragile or could get thrown around by the storm. I forgot about two cocktail glasses on a shelf in my bathroom, and it didn’t take long for them to come crashing down on the hard tile, spraying glass across the floor of my bathroom and, because the bathroom door had been flung open, much of my stateroom. Not long after that, my virtual balcony gave out, no longer affording me a view of what was going on outside in the ocean. Frankly, I’m glad that it did; it’s probably best that I didn’t have a view during this ordeal.

There were two things that happened during the storm that made me begin to believe that my life was in jeopardy. The first involved a tilt of the ship that came so hard and so fast that I was completely knocked off my bed and onto the floor. It gave me some insight into how extreme the winds and seas we’d encountered were at the time. For a colossal ship like the Anthem of the Seas to get jerked around like that, well, it said something.

The second was when the Anthem of the Seas remained in a tilted, roughly 45-degree position (this is known as “listing”) for a lengthy stretch of time (estimates vary; it seemed like an hour to me, but it was probably really 20 or 25 minutes). I’m no nautical expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m knowledgeable enough about ships to know that any sea vessel listing for an extended period of time is a ship that is in potential danger, especially a top-heavy ship like the Anthem of the Seas. All that weight — tons upon tons — hanging at an incline runs the risk of capsizing a ship because of the duress placed on it by its own heft, which means it could then potentially sink.

These events triggered a pair of thoughts in my mind. The first being, how could I possibly survive? I had plotted how I’d get to the highest point on the ship, as well as where to procure some form of flotation device. The second thing I began contemplating was composing farewell messages to the people I love, as well as apology notes to people I have let down. The ship’s vaunted Voom Wi-Fi was somehow holding steady during the storm, presenting the opportunity to send some emails or perhaps post a blanket statement to social media. I also contemplated writing a sweeping goodbye note on paper and sealing in the Ziploc bag I had packed my toothbrush and toothpaste in, hoping that it might float to the surface and be discovered by rescue crews.

At the same time, there was part of me that couldn’t stop thinking about the absurdity and surrealness of it all. Like, who dies at sea anymore? This is 2016, after all, an era in which we build giant, floating sea fortresses and have apps on our phones that can predict when it’s going to rain down to the minute. This is not the 1700s. Was this really how I was going to go, dying at sea while on assignment for The New York Times to write a travel story about a splashy (pun intended) cruise ship? Was I going to be Titanic’d without ever having drawn any French girls in my life?

The more I thought about the Titanic, the more I became convinced that perhaps the Anthem of the Seas was destined to become the 21st century’s version of it. I began to think that the law of averages was coming into play, that it had been far too long — the Titanic’s sinking was over 100 years ago, remember — since a hyped, hubris-laden monstrosity of a luxury cruise liner went down at sea, sending thousands of souls to perish in a watery grave. The world was overdue for this sort of tragedy.

Thankfully, the ship remained afloat. The wind and the seas eventually calmed and we survived the storm. It was a harrowing afternoon and night, but the ship made it through, and miraculously only a handful of passengers were injured, none of them seriously. In an announcement the next morning, the Anthem of the Seas Captain Claus Andersen called it “one of my worst days at sea.” It was a sentiment likely shared by all 6,000 people on the ship.

On the morning after, I ventured out of my stateroom for the first time post-storm. Crew members were scurrying around doing their best to return a sense of normalcy to the ship, cleaning up debris, sweeping up broken glass. I made my way to the Windjammer Marketplace, the ship’s huge, buffet-style food pavilion to get some breakfast. To my surprise the staff had managed to get it up and running almost flawlessly. Had it not been for me and my fellow traumatized passengers walking around looking as if we’d all just emerged from a bomb shelter after an air raid, the whole scene would have probably appeared fairly normal to an outsider unaware of what had taken place the previous day.

While that entire Monday was off, for obvious reasons — the whole ship seemed overcome with a palpable vibe of anxiety — the next two days felt, well, pretty close to ordinary. Most of the ship’s elaborate calling cards like the RipCord, FlowRider and North Star had been rendered inoperable by the storm, and all the pools and hot tubs had been emptied by the ship’s hours of side-to-side rocking and were never refilled, but that didn’t stop people from getting out to do things and have fun. They played bingo, attended comedy shows, took Zumba classes, slow-danced to cheesy love songs played by cover bands — they did all the types of things people do on cruises.

Aside from the Voom Wi-Fi and the Royal iQ app, the one elaborate amenity unique to the Anthem of the Seas that remained functional after the storm was the Bionic Bar. Called “the Robot Bar” by some passengers, the Bionic Bar looks like something straight out of an ’80s sci-fi comedy in the vein of “Back to the Future” or “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” films that made no attempt to hide the fact that they were goofing on “The Future” for laughs. Attended by two robotic arms that mix cocktails amid an array of flashing lights and thumping techno music, patrons sit a few feet away from the bar and order from a menu of available drinks, many of them coming in bright neon colors that evoked thoughts of nuclear waste, on a tablet computer. The list of “Bionic Signature” drinks included a Fembot, a Cybertail and a Mnemonic Madness. Among the “Bionic Classics” were a Sex on the Beach, a Long Island IceTea and a Green Lagoon.

A friend I had made on the ship met me for drinks there one night after the storm and we sadly couldn’t bring ourselves to order more than one drink each, agreeing that the cocktails in our first round were, well, kind of terrible. Score one for human bartenders; your jobs are safe for now.

The morning I departed the ship after our early return to Bayonne — the trip was cut short after the storm — was a quiet one. Before walking out of my stateroom one last time, I turned to take a photograph of it, the 178-square-foot space where I’d had something of a come-to-Jesus moment. I walked down the long hallway past the same framed posters featuring motivational sayings that I’d passed when I boarded the ship. The irony of their presence was not lost on me this time.

As I walked through the cruise terminal I was greeted by smiling employees welcoming me back to land. Once outside, there were news crews set up all around intent on interviewing passengers coming off the boat. I bypassed them and bee-lined to a car service S.U.V. to begin my journey home. As the vehicle inched its way toward Manhattan in morning rush-hour traffic, the Anthem of the Seas began to fade from view behind me.

After spending a few minutes answering questions from my driver about my experience, I peered out the window at the passing New Jersey scenery. Suddenly there, on my right, a futuristic looking structure caught my eye. It was the Liberty Science Center, and draped along the side of the museum was a large banner promoting, of all things, a Titanic artifact exhibition. I couldn’t help but imagine how, if things had gone another unfortunate way, 22nd-century citizens attending an Anthem of the Seas exhibit might have gawked at items encased in glass that I had left behind on the ship.

Before stepping foot on the Anthem of the Seas a few days before, perusing the Titanic exhibit would have been something that would have interested me. After this week, however, not so much.


Source: The New York Times

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