The Slow Boat to Europe

regattaMid-Atlantic Ridge, March 28, 9 a.m. — My stateroom TV displays an icon of our ship on the Atlantic Ocean. Six days after leaving Miami, we have crossed the Mid-Atlantic Ridge en route to Funchal, capital of Portugal’s Madeira Islands, where we will make landfall nine days after departing south Florida.

“I am looking for a piece of land,” my Romanian room steward says jokingly. We have seen nothing but blue ocean since leaving the Port of Miami. A storm is brewing 700 miles north, with gale-force winds churning sky and sea. The procession of whitecaps extending to the horizon is a result of that storm, Captain Jahn Rye tells me on the bridge later in the day.

Our ship, Oceania Cruises’ Regatta, pitches and rolls only slightly, rocking us to sleep at night like babes in cradles. It was another story in November when Regatta, en route from Lisbon to Fort Lauderdale, encountered the tail end of a hurricane to battle 85 mph gusts and torrential downpours that flooded balconies and left water standing in some staterooms.

Some of the passengers who endured that journey — courageous souls, no less — returned to cross again on our cruise. “We’re just hooked on crossings,” one of them confides to me as we peer out at the ocean from the ship’s stern.

There is something magical about a crossing. “It’s a great way to decompress,” says Jay, a public relations executive from Boca Raton, Florida. Nick, the British casino manager, says a crossing is more of a vacation than a regular cruise. There’s certainly no rush to disembark in ports each day.

“Going ashore today?” I jokingly ask a dining room steward on our sixth day at sea. “Yes,” he replies, “on the lifeboat tour.”

Fortunately, we do not appear to be destined for the Titanic’s fate. Even so, I had been worried that the sea god Neptune would taunt us with giant swells that would toss our ship like a someone juggling a hot potato. Apparently, the crew had been concerned too — airplane-style barf bags are placed in the elevator landings throughout the ship. Thankfully, none were put to use on our crossing. Our sea was serene.Oceanview Cabin

Into The Abyss

On the first full day of our cruise, I watched on my stateroom television as Regatta charted a course between the Berry Islands and Great Abaco in the Bahamas. Alongside Eleuthera, the map showed no land ahead of the ship until Europe. The shading of the ocean changed from light blue to dark blue, and it appeared that we were sailing off the edge of the earth.

The night before, on the upper deck, a few passengers had watched Miami’s receding skyline, and one said aloud what I had been thinking, “Say good-bye to land.”

On the second full day at sea, we enter the Sargasso Sea and in front of it, the ominous-sounding Nares Deep. Just north of us is Bermuda. Should we fear sailing through the Bermuda Triangle, a region of sea reputed to have swallowed ships? Andrew, the assistant dining room manager, has no fear, but he says he once worked with a Bulgarian who removed all his money from his safe and slept with it whenever the ship rounded Cape Horn. Some places are legendary among superstitious sailors.

Later that evening, at a cocktail reception in the Regatta Lounge, our Norwegian captain takes the stage, “I’m a little seasick,” he says to a round of laughter. And then, “we’re crossing the Atlantic to Europe. Well, at least, that is our aim.” More laughter. “The next two days look good,” a moment’s pause, “so enjoy it while you can.”

While he jokes about it, Captain Jahn Rye is confident that we will have good weather. He charted the route to Funchal a week before departure, studying weather patterns and currents. “I try to avoid low pressure systems,” he tells me on the bridge as he points to a chart to show me the storms north of us. “Normally, I like to stay south of the low pressure, because the winds blow counterclockwise around it.” Not only do we avoid the storm, he says, but also the tailwind gives us a push as we’re headed toward Europe.

Soothing SeaThe Library

On Deck 9 just past noon, the Regatta Orchestra is performing. Two gentleman dance hosts tap their toes to the rhythm, and one takes to the dance floor with a lady from Montreal. There is a spring in her step as she walks away after the dance, and her mood seems to underscore the collective mood on the ship. Dispersed around the pool deck, everyone appears relaxed, happy and content.

With a capacity of 684, our ship is only half full. There are more crew than passengers. We pass our days leisurely. Some sit with their noses in books from Regatta’s excellent library on Deck 9. A former librarian gushes that the library is one of the best she’s ever seen — land or sea. More than 1,500 volumes were added the week before our sailing. The books are new, the pages crisp.

Other passengers wrap themselves in cashmere blankets or cover themselves with over-sized towels to lounge in teak recliners on pool deck. Some are napping in their staterooms. The restless seek activity: fitness programs, enrichment lectures, cooking demonstrations, ping pong, bingo, arts & crafts, computer classes, movies, games, high tea — and at 5 p.m. today, a champagne tasting in the Martini Bar on Deck 5.The Grand Dining Room

Nearly all activity takes place on Deck 5, and that is one of the attractions of this small ship. On Regatta, you’re never more than a few minutes’ away from one end of the ship to the other. Small on size, Regatta is not small on offerings. The five open-seating dining venues include the Grand Dining Room, Waves Grill and the Terrace Cafe on deck 9, and two specialty restaurants, Polo Grill, a steakhouse, and Toscana, an Italian restaurant, where a polite request will get you a few chunks of aged Parmesan cheese before your meal. While both specialty restaurants require reservations, neither require that you pay an additional dining fee.Tapas Terrace

Traveling solo, I sat for dinner, frequently, at the Terrace Cafe. Each evening the area was transformed to Tapas on the Terrace. While the selection and quality of food was outstanding (as was all food prepared by Chef Stephane Leday), the real attraction here was the sea and the sunset.

I also dined with others in the Grand Dining Room and learned that my traveling companions were a diverse lot. One man had been on the ship for 42 days straight. A family from San Diego was using the ship to get to Europe, where they planned to tour for eight weeks before returning home on Queen Mary 2. A retired couple from Richmond was doing the same. “We could have flown to Europe for less money,” one of them said, “but this is such a pleasant way to get to Europe.” We would all arrive across the Atlantic without jet lag, as we traversed the half-dozen times zones by moving our clocks ahead one hour on six nights of our cruise.

The World Is Not Flat

Barcelona, Spain, April 3, 6 a.m. — Regatta docks at the Port of Barcelona. Our good captain has achieved his aim (although we never doubted he would miss). Some passengers are staying on board to continue Regatta’s sailing to the Greek Isles.

Nearby our ship, at the end of Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla, is a statue commemorating Christopher Columbus’ return to Spain following his crossing of the Atlantic during a time when popular legend held that the world was flat. Sail to the edge, then fall into an abyss inhabited by sea monsters and mythical creatures of lore.

Facing the sea, the explorer points the way for the masses. Many went to the new land. On this bright April morning, nearly 350 of us have returned to the native continent of our forebears, traveling as they did to America: crossing the Atlantic by ship.

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