Pride of the Ocean cruise arriving in Ketchikan, Alaska
PART 1: ANTICIPATION
When I told friends I’d be going on my first ocean cruise, many of them asked me straightaway, “Have you read that David Foster Wallace essay about cruises?”
I had not read that David Foster Wallace essay, but had heard of it, and the title seemed to say it all: “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again.”
Now really, how bad could a cruise be? Especially the one I’d be going on, the floating LGBT film fest “Pride of the Ocean”? Granted, I had my concerns; I envisioned prefabricated cultural “experiences” on board the ship, punctuated by a brief stop on land to buy overpriced souvenirs from jammed tourist stores.
But I also imagined myself and my boyfriend, Noah, living it up at a week-long LGBT party on a gigantic boat, with films, comedy, food, fun folks, cocktails, more movies, mingling with filmmakers, swimming, chance encounters and happy surprises.
Is there anything in that last sentence that sounds like something you would never want to do again?
PART 2: DEPARTURE
Come cruise day, my boyfriend and I walked from my apartment to the embarkation point on the Hudson River. We were going on the “Pride” cruise from New York to Bermuda; other “Pride” itineraries throughout the year include Seattle-to-Alaska, Miami-to-Caribbean, and around the Hawaiian Islands.
From the pier, the ship looked, well, titanic. And it is. The Norwegian Cruise Lines Breakaway accommodates 4,000 passengers and 1,650 crewmembers; our “Pride” group was about 60 people, a cozy tribe within the continent of the cruise ship. (Other “Pride” groups number from about 50 to 200 people.)
Noah and I got settled in our cabin and, as the ship set sail, made it up to the deck, where we watched the New York City skyline shimmer in the golden afternoon light and then diminish into a dot. We really were leaving it all behind.
Now it was time to drink. At the opening “Pride” party, we got sufficiently lubricated on Cape Cods and met some of our fellow cruise-goers, who were also lubricating themselves. Among their number were filmmakers whose creations we’d be seeing in the coming days.
PART 3: MOVIES
Movies are why the “Pride” cruise exists. Festival director John Scagliotti is one of the godfathers of queer film; he directed the documentaries Before Stonewall and After Stonewall, and now programs queer and bear film festivals in Vermont. (He’s also working on a new film called Before Homosexuals.)
On the program for the week was a diverse selection of fiction and documentary films, shorts and features; filmmakers and even some film subjects were on the cruise to present their films and take workshops on archival footage and other topics.
I’m a big fan of documentary shorts, and I especially enjoyed Carlease Burke’s warm-hearted Signing Funny, about a Long Beach comedy showcase with a sign-language interpreter and more than a few deaf audience members and comics. Christopher Baum’s slyly intelligent Role Play follows BDSM porn actor and dom Master Avery (Interior. Leather Bar) as he considers transitioning to mainstream film. Ewan Duarte artfully charts his own gender transition in Change Over Time. And Seyi Adebanjo’s Oya beautifully documents the director’s journey as a gender-nonconforming person back to their native Nigeria.
A cruise ship is not the first venue I would have thought of for a film festival. But it fostered just the sort of community of LGBT filmmakers and filmgoers that John Scagliotti was aiming for. The constant, captivating vista of sea and sky erased, for me, the mundane concerns of home and work. The creative environment of films and their makers filled my mind back up.
PART 4: DIVERSIONS
“Pride” participants can take advantage of all the plentiful entertainments on board; if this many diversions were constantly available to every group of 4,000 people, no one would ever get to where they were going.
There’s a ropes course, a climbing wall, a gym, a spa, water slides, nightly performances from a “Second City” improv comedy troupe, musicals and magic shows, a hilarious “Perfect Couples” game show, “Friends of Dorothy” gatherings for LGBT passengers, karaoke contests, casinos, poker games, live music, and shuffleboard (much harder than I would have thought, if I had thought of it at all).
That’s saying nothing of the 29 eateries and 22 bars on board. None of these restaurants will be featured in the Michelin Guide, but the food was consistently good or better, and it was a hoot to dine out for every meal and not worry about the tab.
Noah and I did it all, just about. Some of it was pretty bad—the Rock of Ages musical was unwatchable—but the rest of it was a blast once we surrendered to the sheer inexhaustible volume of it all.
We never lacked for company. The “Pride” organizers skillfully shuffled people up at the group dinners, so within a few days we had gotten to know almost everyone at least a bit. I gabbed with, among others, a comedian, a teacher, a writer, several filmmakers, and the subject of Andrea Meyerson’s poignant Letter to Anita, about one woman’s reconciliation with Anita Bryant, the anti-gay crusader of the 1970s.
By the time we docked in Bermuda, the “Pride” group was its own little community.
PART 5: LAND
When we arrived in Bermuda for a two-day stop, I was reluctant to get off the ship. I was so enamored of the palace of delights that was the Breakaway that I doubted the islands could be any better.
At first glimpse, I worried maybe I was right. The dockyards and the commercial district of Hamilton, the capital, are so manicured that they feel like a film set. But attractions like the National Museum of Bermuda, and, further out, the Crystal & Fantasy Caves are worthwhile side-trips.
The real attraction here is the water. Among the beaches Noah and I visited, Elbow Beach, a scenic 45-minute bus ride from the dockyards, was as idyllic a spot as I’ve been to in several years.
A “Pride” snorkeling trip cemented some of the friendships we were making, and further expanded our circle. I chatted with Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop, who was featured in one of the films being screened on the cruise. He was warm and funny and just a touch bawdy as he talked about his travels.
As we sat there on the deck of the snorkeling boat, drinks in hands, surrounded by the bluest water and our bare chests warmed by the sun, time seemed to stop. It was a sublime moment, and I wondered why I’d ever hesitated getting off the cruise ship.
And yet, like all moments, that one had to pass.
PART 6: RETURN
The ship’s return voyage from Bermuda was faster than the one on the way there. I saw the rapid churn of water in the ship’s wake, and it put me in mind of the cares that awaited me back on land. I fantasized about becoming a stowaway.
That was not to be. Instead, I indulged in shipboard entertainments. Noah and I saw a second “Second City” improv performance, in which one of the actors, a sleight, bearded guy of about 30, outed himself. Besides “Pride” group participants, there were enough other LGBT people among the passengers and crew that the whole cruise seemed to have a pink tint. What’s more, “Pride” being the gayest group on board created a stronger connection among us.
Being a sucker for classic disco, I was delighted by the 70s dance party, and—what can I say, I’m easy—I couldn’t resist the seductions of the 80s dance party either.
Dancing out on the deck, under the open sky, in view of the ship’s iconic funnels, and in the company of new friends I’d made, I couldn’t help but smile.
PART 7: AFTERWORD
After my return I read David Foster Wallace’s essay, in which he refers to the “professional smiles” and the enforced fun of cruises, and the dread of death that the ocean inspired in him.
I feel you, DFW! Standing out on the deck at night, how could I not have seen a great black impenetrable wall rising out of the ocean before me, or a giant wave rearing up and turning the ship on its end? How could anyone not think of the Titanic, or the Pequod, or consider the elemental, even existential, force of the ocean?
I had those visions. But I also had another. Me and Noah, sated on food and drink, standing in side-by-side giant plastic pods about to be thrust down into purple and pink water slides, and deposited at the bottom with a rush and a laugh.