The year was 1983 in Los Angeles and friends of my parents wanted to show us the ship which they had taken a cruise on. We drove to the Port of Los Angeles where the Sitmar cruise line ship Fairsea was disembarking passengers from a cruise to Mexico. These were the days when people could still visit ships in-port simply by boarding. Something unthinkable twenty years later.
The Fairsea was formerly the Cunard steamer Carinthia built in 1956. She was a classic late model trans-Atlantic ocean liner which had made the transition to excursion cruises. Converted at considerable expense the Fairsea’s itineraries ranged from Alaska in the summer to Mexico and the Panama Canal in the winter months. She carried up to 1,050 passengers with a full load. Her white hull and superstructure was topped by a tan funnel with the lines signature V on the side.
That day the Fairsea was docked near the Pacific Princess, famous from her role in The Love Boat which was enjoying the peak of its success and ratings on TV. The ships could be seen from the freeway as we approached the port and it was the first time I felt what has become a familiar tingle of excitement when first spotting a ship. The Love Boat was a show the humor of which I only half understood at age 9 but it had already made the idea of taking a cruise. So seeing these ships poised for another week at sea was unforgettable.
We simply walked onboard only having to explain we were visiting and to ask what time the ship was due to set sail. My parents friends immediately lead us down corridors which were being ransacked by crew members trying to prepare for the next cruise. We arrived at what had been their cabin where their polite by faintly confused cabin steward greeted them and tried to work around them as he stripped the bedding and cleaned. Years later I would come to realize precisely what turn-around days were like for a ship's crew and cringe thinking about how it must have been in those years when they also had to contend with blissfully ignorant visitors intruding on their work.
Fortunately we didn’t bother the steward more than a few minutes and our guides took us on to tour the rest of the ship. We proceeded through the ship's stores which were closed. The stores were at a cross-roads along which there were four glass walled cubes. The wares for sale were arranged in highly efficient, compact shelves and spaces. The stores were not large by any means but one didn’t feel cramped despite that. From the ship's stores we found an entrance to a lounge in the front of the ship. It was decorated in faux wood panel finish, leather chairs and lighting that would have been the pride of 1970s basement family rooms. This lounge along the main deck, aft of the bow cranes and topside crew area for lines and such. There was actually a bartender on duty and passengers both from the one that has just ended and that about to begin were sipping drinks. The adults sat around, our friends go so far as to order a drink while they talked about their cruise. For my part, climbing up to peer out the windows looking over the service area on the bow was far more interesting.
We did not linger too long in the lounge before our guides took us up another deck to a hatch which lead to thin space along the front of the ship's superstructure, maybe two or three decks below the bridge. It overlooked the same service space on the bow I had been watching from the lounge. The door was somewhat balky and the the comment was made that it would be great if door got stuck and we weren’t found until after the ship had departed. That idea horrified me at the time, I was a creature who liked his comforts at home. We moved onto the promenade deck and finally began to work our way up to the highest of the three pool decks along the stern of the ship. I can remember the wood railings and how they were hot from the sun. The second of the two pool decks immediately grabbed my attention for the small video game arcade which was inside the lounge looking out on the space. It was closed of course and suddenly the idea of being stranded on the ship ceased being as alarming as before.
The pools were interesting as they were exceptionally deep with nets across them. They were empty while in port of course. The edges of the pools were designed also to prevent heavy seas from spilling water everywhere. There were crew members serving drinks and a considerable number of people milling around. Even so there was not a crowded feeling to the ship. The bustle of the crew and passengers crossing paths had purpose and energy.
It was not long after we finally reached the aft-most pool that the first calls for visitors to go ashore began on the ship's public address system. With no especially great hurry we made our way off the ship, by which time I was already asking when my family could take a cruise. The rest of the afternoon was spent at a shopping center called Ports-O-Call Village not far from the port itself. That night as we ate dinner at one of the restaurants we saw the Fairsea departing followed shortly by the legendary Pacific Princess with a massive tail of string confetti hanging from her promenade deck to the water. Our guides commented that the crew of Fairsea joked that the Pacific Princess followed her everyplace and if they ever ran into trouble there was no cause to worry their shadow would be along shortly after.
Some months later on a trip with the YMCA summer camp, I would tour the nearby Queen Mary in Long Beach. By that time I was sketching ship designs in notebooks at school and dreaming of playing video games in the arcade I had seen. Re-runs of The Love Boat, even if it were on another line, became almost tangible in my mind as each show would leave me injecting myself into the images, dreaming of a cruise. It would take another sixteen years before I would take a cruise but the seed was planted that year on that classic old ship.