Daniel Rubin: On a cruise during the worst of Sandy

Schwenksville couple rode out roiling ocean, but wish they had other options.

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There are people who love cruises, and people like Jim Hoser who see them as floating penal colonies.

"I'm too restless," says the scuba instructor from Schwenksville.

His girlfriend is a cruise person. "The greatest thing for her," he says, "is getting all dressed up, having dinner, ordering room service, and not having to do any of the work herself."

A few months ago, Janice Kench persuaded Hoser to accompany her on a favorite ship, Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas. They'd sail on a Sunday, from Bayonne, N.J., to Bermuda, and be home a week later.

If I said their departure was scheduled for Oct. 28, that might not do the day justice. How about the Sunday of Sandy?

"Everyone knew a hurricane was coming," says Hoser, 65, a Kenny Rogers look-alike. "Everyone knew a super hurricane was coming."

All week, his girlfriend had checked with the cruise line to see whether the trip was still on. No refunds were offered for those who didn't want to travel. Hoser, who paid nearly $2,000 for a stateroom, clambered aboard.

Sunday night was rocky, as Sandy, still 500 miles away, was agitating storm waves. They ate dinner and took in a comedy and jazz show as the ship hugged the coast south. "People on stage were wobbling," he says. "Others kept running down the aisles to the bathrooms." Hoser went to bed wearing a patch to counter seasickness, but couldn't sleep through the howling winds and waves that swept over his sixth-floor balcony.

They woke up in three inches of water. Sandy had shot seawater under the sliding-glass door of their room, swamping their suitcases, which they had left on the floor.

Hoser says 90 cabins wound up with flooded carpets Monday, the worst day. Windows broke. Public areas were closed. Food service was almost nonexistent for breakfast and lunch, he says, and lines at customer service overwhelmed the crew, whom he called outstanding.

Just how bad the trip was varies, according to what you read. Most accounts on cruisecritic.com, a travel-industry web magazine, described a couple of days of hell on the seas. Other passengers said complaints were overblown. Dan Askin, the site's senior editor, says, "The whole thing was a mess. Cruise ships have the distinct advantage of being able to move to avoid storms. But the unprecedented size of Sandy meant it was almost impossible to escape the storm's tendrils."

You can sense what it was like to cruise through Sandy from a YouTube video posted by H.L. Ross, who was shooting the churning sea from his ninth-floor cabin. Stomach-turning.

"OK, this is our vacation ...," he says as the camera rolls. "Really enjoying ourselves."

Hoser said that was his tone, too, on the first couple days. "I kept saying, 'This is really fun.' " But after the ship steamed east and the waters calmed, he started to believe those words, even if his clothes, from T-shirts to formal wear, were moldy.

Royal Caribbean's spokeswoman, Cynthia Martinez, told me the line's captains and officers are highly experienced storm navigators. While the wind and rain did cause some water damage, she said, "we attempted to accommodate the guests in affected staterooms as best as possible, and we appreciated their patience and understanding."

Hoser's a realist. He spent six years in a wheelchair in the 1980s. He knows people suffered far worse during Sandy than he did. He just wishes he'd had options, like postponing the trip or getting reimbursed for what was ruined. Like his car.

He'd left his 1984 Mercedes 300SD in the port's lot. After taking on 31/2 feet of water, the vehicle was not salvageable. He had to pay $137 for parking and $638 for towing and a ride back to Schwenksville.

He'd bought the car a week earlier for $7,300 from a dealer in Texas. I asked him what he liked about the car. He smiled and said, "It had no rust."

 


See video of the storm at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6mNjj4j3ag.

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or on Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin.