Is today a B-day?

My three courses were all at the maximum enrolment of 35 students. This had less to do with the punchy copy I wrote for the catalog than with the fact that almost 100 students--about one in six—were communication majors. Dean Koehler had told me SAS normally hired two faculty members in communication but decided to go with one for this voyage. That may have been a miscalculation.

The eighth 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/

One drawback of traveling east around the world is that the working day keeps starting earlier, at least until you hit the International Date line in the Pacific when, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, it was going to be April 29th, then April 29th all over again (both were scheduled class days, so there was no rest for the faculty). Along the way, there were 21 time changes. As a late addition to the faculty, I had no choice on schedule, and two of my three classes began at 8:00 a.m. That meant constantly setting the clock forward and getting one hour less sleep. The first time change came on the third day of classes. There was no system for announcing changes well in advance, because the ship might change course to avoid bad weather and not pass into a new time zone. You had to rely on the daily shipboard newsletter called the Dean’s Memo, which came out late in the day. The night before the first time change I asked the administrative office to make an announcement over the PA system. A straw poll of students the next morning indicated that at least one third of the class would have missed if it hadn’t been for the announcement. I resigned myself to a routine of time changes and lost sleep. Later, in the Indian Ocean, the ship made a speedy passage across two time zones in a 24-hour period. The captain was happy to be running ahead of schedule. His sentiments were not shared by those of us whose working day started at 6:00 a.m.

After a week or so at sea, your sense of time and space seems to drift away. Perhaps it’s the rolling of the ship, and the endless horizon. After we left Havana on January 25, we followed the northern coast of Cuba, then passed north of Haiti before cutting south through the passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. We took a southeasterly course, staying on the western, more sheltered side of the Leeward and Windward islands before heading out into the choppier seas of the Atlantic beyond Barbados. Then we again turned southeast, passing Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana and the Amazon estuary in northeast Brazil.   

It became difficult to remember (without checking the calendar) which day of the week it was. On board the Universe Explorer, there were no days of the week and certainly no weekends. An A day was followed by a B day, then another A day, another B day. You soon started talking that way. “Your first assignment is due in class on B9, etc., etc.”

The announcements over the ship’s PA system were delivered by the Assistant Executive Dean, often tongue-in-cheek in the style of Radar O’Reilly’s in M*A*S*H. “A10 at 21:00 hours in the Union, the Tacky Tourist Dance. Be there or be square.” Of course, there was serious business too. With 700-plus people on a ship, safety is important, so there were special announcements for emergencies—from the standard Code Blue (medical) to MOB (man overboard). A couple of years earlier, a student attempting to re-enact the Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslett bow scene from the 1997 movie Titanic took a dive into the Red Sea at night in the fog. Another student saw him fall and threw life preservers over the side to mark the area. A cruise ship does not turn on a dime, so it was 40 minutes before the Universe Explorer made it back to the area marked by the preservers. Miraculously, the student was rescued.

The captain, an imposing Swede with the unforgettable name of Anders Andersson, delivered serious safety lectures. After leaving each port, we had a lifeboat drill, required under international maritime law. The rules were strict: you had to wear a life jacket, long pants and a shirt, a hat and close-toed shoes (because of the risk of sunburn in an open boat). Andersson marched up and down the deck inspecting faculty and students, quietly pointing out irregularities in dress code. At six feet five, in his white captain’s uniform, he cut an imposing figure.

Stephanie and I were in the first group of faculty and staff invited to dinner with Captain Andersson. It was an elegant affair, with white table cloths, wine, waiters, and excellent food. We were seated next to the Polish chief engineer, who had interesting tales of growing up in the communist era and working in the shipyards of Gdansk—the birthplace of the Solidarity movement under Lech Walesa. It was an international group of officers, including a Canadian, Venezuelan, Taiwanese and Ukrainian. Most of the crew were Filipino, with a few from the Caribbean; our cabin steward, Glenford, was from Jamaica.


We crossed the Equator, with appropriate pomp, circumstance and nonsense, a couple of days before arriving in Salvador (Brazil). I joined students and faculty in going through the time-honored ritual.  King Neptune, a.k.a. business faculty member Jim Barry, sporting a painted face, robes and crown, and his court (a scurvy crew of faculty and staff members) assembled on the aft deck by the swimming pool. I lined up to be doused with a sticky mixture of flour and salt water; by tradition, the dousing is with fish gut, but SAS residence staff were concerned about the unintended social impact of warm bodies stinking of fish. Then I climbed down into the pool where a crew member blasted me with a hose to wash off the gooey stuff.  I climbed out, kissed a dead fish (previously kissed by several hundred others), then proceeded to the court to be proclaimed a “citizen of the sea.”


More than 100 people (including three faculty, and some of my students) went for an additional ritual that did not wash away: they had their heads completely shaved. I was just getting to know the names of some of my students. Now I had a bunch of almost indistinguishable cone-heads.


Next week: The favelas of Salvador, Brazil