Ugly Duckling

The S.S. Universe Explorer didn’t exactly fit my image of a cruise ship. Arriving at the port of Miami on the bus from the airport, I looked out at a skyline dominated by multi-deck cruise liners, palatial floating hotels that do the seven-ports-in-seven-days-shopping-eating-drinking-and-gambling jaunts around the Caribbean and coastal Mexico. Sandwiched between two of these colossuses, like a little ugly duckling trying to hide from sight, was our ship, the Universe Explorer.

The second in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/



Built and launched at Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1957, it had already had a long and eventful life, and more nautical miles on it than its glamorous neighbors. It had sailed under seven different names—Brasil, Monarch Sun, Enchanted Seas, Queen of Bermuda, Canada Star, Liberté, and Island Sun—and had been registered in the Netherlands Antilles and Panama. SAS took it over in 1996, renaming it the Universe Explorer, after its previous ship, the SS Universe, broke down on a round-the-world voyage. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the Universe’s engines started failing, slowing the ship’s speed, and leaving faculty, staff and students adrift for almost a week. The captain placed water cannon on deck to deter pirates, and eventually the ship limped into Singapore. The main lesson learned was that regular maintenance is a good idea. Our itinerary included an extended 10-day stay in Hong Kong for the ship to go into dry dock, have a thorough mechanical overhaul, oil change and lube or whatever you need to do to keep an aging cruise ship sailing. Of course, we had to make it across two oceans first.

We checked into our cabin. At first, it looked spacious enough, but by the time we had spread out our luggage—several suitcases, boxes and plastic storage containers—it felt cramped. Cabins were allocated on a seniority basis with faculty who had done previous voyages claiming the larger ones, some with two or three portholes. At least our one-porthole cabin was on an upper deck where the swell would not be felt as strongly as in the student cabins on the lower decks. We stashed as much as we could fit under the bed, and placed a printer, files, books and a VCR on a narrow counter alongside the 12-inch TV connected to the ship’s cable system. Stephanie planned to make quilts during the voyage, so our luggage included a sewing machine and several boxes of fabric.

This cabin was to be my office for the next 105 days. There was no table, so I placed a sheet of hard cardboard across two boxes of fabric to serve as a desk. Our main concern was how to secure everything when the seas got rough. We had packed 20 feet of rope and bungee cords, and spent an hour developing a routine to lash down moveable objects. We were warned that the 10-day passage from Havana across the Southern Caribbean into the Atlantic to Salvador (Brazil) could be choppy. Ahead lay the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa, where the waters of the Atlantic and Indian oceans swirl together. Just thinking about it made me want to reach for the Dramamine.

The Universe Explorer sat at dock in Miami, overshadowed by its larger cousins, for two days. I spent most of the time in meetings. Meetings to introduce the faculty. Meetings on residence life. On safety and security. On medical services. On computer services. On grading policies. On field trips. On the core global studies course. SAS had set up a small floating campus, with classrooms, audio and video equipment, a student union, a bookstore, a library, a computer lab; there were staff for residence life, field programs, recreation, student activities, financial aid. For those two days, and a smooth 14-hour passage to Nassau, we got to know each other and became used to uncrowded decks, hallways and stairways, short lines in the cafeteria, and open space outside the confines of our cabin.

Next week: A little bit of Britain in the tropics