The last thing I wanted to do when I took my first cruise six years ago was make friends. In fact, the whole reason I’d even set foot on the Norwegian Breakaway in the first place was to get away from well-meaning pals who might be inclined to throw a party to mark my 50th birthday, an occasion I definitely did not feel needed celebrating.
I also had no real interest in cruising, despite having been a huge fan of The Love Boat as a teenager. (In hindsight, that may have had more to do with cruise director Julie McCoy’s can-do attitude and a crush on yeoman Gopher.) Rather, as I was looking to get out of town, someone pointed out that cruise ships left for exotic ports of call (or at least the Bahamas) only a few miles from my home. “Sounds good!” I said, booking myself into an aft-facing balcony for seven days as a solo explorer of the world.
Over the next week, I learned a few things about myself. One was that I really, really love cruising. “Richard,” said my best friend upon hearing this, “it’s eating, drinking and gambling. What, exactly, did you think you wouldn’t like about that?”
What I couldn’t have predicted was that at sea, I’d become a social butterfly. By the time I returned, I’d bonded with people over drinks and dinners, on deck chairs and beaches. I even let people who’d found out it was my birthday take me to a dinner at which off-key waiters serenade me.
At week’s end, as we were disembarking, I realized that I was really going to miss some of the people I’d met, assuming I’d never see them again. Oh, sure, there were the usual promises to keep in touch, but given that I’d lost contact with people I’d known for decades, what were the odds of ever crossing paths again with people I’d known for a week?
Since that first trip, cruising has become my vacation of choice… not to mention something of an obsession. And I’ve developed a group of “cruise friends” who are completely separate, for the most part, from my “real world” friends. We have dinner parties where we talk about nothing but our high-seas adventures. We try and plan future sailings together. We hang out in Facebook groups in which we lament the fact that the other people in our life just don’t “get” our love of cruising.
All of which got me to thinking about why it is that people become “cruise friends” more than they do, say, “Disney friends.” I’ve been to Walt Disney World dozens of times over the years, and I have people in my life who share my love for the Magic Kingdom. But they were friends long before we discovered our mutual love of the House of Mouse. I don’t have any friends whom I only know because I met them at Walt Disney World.
But I have quite a few friends who wouldn’t be in my life had we not crossed paths on a ship. The more immersed I’ve become in cruise culture — trust me, it’s a real thing — the more I’ve discovered this is fairly common.
So what’s behind this particular form of bonding? I’ve come to believe it’s because of the closed-loop nature of a cruise. Think of it this way: When you go to a place like Walt Disney World or Hawaii, the thousands of people who’ve chosen that particular time to go as well are all off doing their own thing with their own tribe each day. You might cross paths with faces which become familiar to you in the hotel lobby, but that’s likely to be the extent of your interactions.
On a cruise ship, however, every aspect of the trip is designed to foster interaction with your fellow travelers. From morning trivia to afternoon Bingo and late-night dance parties, it’s inevitable that you’re going to see at least some of the same faces. Unless you’re a complete introvert (or determined to avoid human contact for some other reason), you’ll eventually strike up a conversation in a bar, or an elevator, or while disembarking to go on a shore excursion.
Then there’s the automatic connection formed by your shared interest. The vast majority of people who go on a cruise wind up booking another. That being the case, why wouldn’t you want to travel with people you already know? Even as you read this, I’m in the process of planning a cruise for 2021 with my little “cruise family.”
Just like family, they know my quirks. They understand that there will be days when I go into complete hibernation mode, sitting in my stateroom or on its balcony, alternately napping and reading. They also “get” that there will be times I’ll wind up missing dinner plans because my favorite Lightning Links machine in the casino is running hot, and I can’t possibly walk away! (They’ll also swing by the machine I’m likely to play for hours at a time, seeing if I need them to bring me nourishment and making sure I hydrate.)
I mentioned earlier that my cruise friends and my “real world” friends exist in different spheres. That’s not to say that my cruise friends aren’t real friends, but rather that they occupy a completely different part of my life. My best friend, for example, would rather die than attend a dinner with my sea-faring brethren, as the only thing he enjoys about cruising is his ability to endlessly mock it.
“Did you have a nice time?” he’ll ask, insincerely, after I return from brunch with cruisers. “Did you discuss the fact that the Carnival Pompadour is now serving breakfast on the Taco Deck, but only between 7:05 and 7:07 a.m., and only if you’ve achieved the loyalty status of Pretty, Pretty Princess?”
Of course, the joke is on him, because we probably did discuss the newest restaurant opening on a cruise ship, debate the merits of the menu and synchronize our cruise countdown clocks so we’d know, to the minute, how long it would be until we could make a reservation.