Wednesday, February 27, 2008

ETA Cruise - Friday at Sea

Days at sea on a cruise ship provide a chance to rest, enjoy the ship’s activities, and hang out with new friends. We had a long, leisurely breakfast being joined at first by Skip Cherryholmes and later by Jerry and Tami Butler. One of the differences between bluegrass cruising and attending festivals or concerts lies in the opportunity to come to know bluegrass performers in new and different ways. Jerry and Tami Butler had moved from mere bluegrass acquaintances to friends over the past several months as we grew to know and appreciate each other. On the other hand, members of the Cherryholmes family have been much harder to get to know.

Bluegrass fans know the story of how the Cherryholmes family, grieving after the loss of the oldest daughter, attended a bluegrass festival, were moved by the music, and moved to the desert to learn to play bluegrass under the tutelage of their mother Sandy Leigh, who has a background in music education. Over time the kids learned instruments and the family began to appear at festivals, first playing at their campsite, then at open mic sessions, and finally as paid performers. Over the next few years their skills increased rapidly and they moved to headliner status, being named Entertainers of the Year at IBMA with Cia Cherryholmes, now the oldest, winning awards as both a banjo player and a singer. Their story is remarkable, but has not been accomplished without very hard work and a good deal of sacrifice. They are a close knit, focused family, not easy to know although always friendly and approachable at their merchandise table. The bluegrass cruise gave us, and others, a chance to come to know them in a much more personal way. Watching eighteen year old Skip, developing as a first rate guitar player, ride the FlowrRider, or seeing Molly Kate, nearly sixteen, clowning with other teen agers opened doors otherwise hard to penetrate. While trying to respect their privacy, we still had opportunities to chat at a more personal level with all members of the family and to appreciate their skill, hard work, and talent at a much deeper level. We also heard more about the plans and aspirations they have for the future. We’ll certainly follow their progress with greater attention and affection in the future.

Every way you look at it Liberty of the Seas is a major operation. Billed as the biggest (cruise) ship afloat, Liberty of the Seas is 1111.876 feet long (338.9 meters) and weighs in at a hefty 154,407 tons. She is 126.64 feet wide and draws a maximum of 29 feet. With this much size, she carries up to 4300 passengers served by a crew of 1400 people coming from 65 countries and cost $800,000,000 to build. During a one week cruise, she can desalinate 233,000 gallons of fresh water a day, and at full speed consumes 11,312 kg of fuel per hour. Each week the food and beverage staff prepares 105,000 meals, 60,000 appetizers, 84,000 main courses, and 90,000 deserts. 85,000 eggs are prepared and consumed weekly. All these superlatives should not be allowed to mask the true value of what actually gets served up on a Royal Caribbean cruise. Every day, despite the fact that the ship was filled with over 4000 passengers including 1200 kids on spring break, the ship was kept spotless and odor free. Crew members, wherever we encountered them, smiled and said hello. When there were problems, and there were a few, the staff at guest relations did their best to solve them. Twice when we had problems the crew member dealing with us had sufficient authority to solve the problem in our favor, even though it cost the cruise company money. In every aspect of shipboard life, our comfort and pleasure seemed to be important to the crew. An entrée not prepared to your liking at dinner? Send it back for another portion or a different choice. Want another one? Order it. Not able to make a choice of deserts? Have ‘em both. Hungry at midnight? Stop at Sorrento’s on the Promenade deck for a slice of Pizza. Want coffee at 4:30 AM? Go to the Promenade Café and there it is. While Royal Caribbean is a corporation operating to make a profit, it achieves its goal through delivering quality.

There were a couple of exceptions to this passenger’s always right and anything a passenger wants approach. Passengers had to pay extra for water and carbonated drinks. We could buy, on the first day out, a bottomless carbonated beverage container for $48.00. This seemed a lot, but people who really like to drink Coke regretted not having bought it soon enough. Even at meals, Coke was a premium item along with specialty coffee drinks. As far as we could tell, there isn’t a single water fountain on the Liberty of the Seas. Water ordered any place but at meals cost extra. You could go to your cabin and draw water from the tap, or obtain ice water at the Café Promenade, but cold water wasn’t available otherwise. As ceaseless activity is encouraged by the cruise line, this seems excessive. The other exception revolves around smoking. Ship rhetoric declares the Liberty of the Seas to be “essentially smoke free.” Then it claims there are certain places (e.g. “smoking in many of our lounges and on open air decks starboard side”) where smoking is permitted. Since the odor of smoke insinuates itself into places not designated as smoking areas, the policy effectively means people may smoke nearly everywhere. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that there was some confusion about which decks permitted smoking and the fact that cigarette disposal was available on the port rather than starboard side. Effectively, unless the cruise line is both willing to enforce its policy and provides powerful ventilation systems in the places where smoking is permitted, there is no anti-smoking policy at all. These days, even on a cruise like this, smokers are in the minority, but the power of the odor they create prevails. It was nearly impossible to go from stern to aft without walking through areas where smoking was permitted. Because crew members are reluctant to confront passengers about their behavior, this problem will continue to prevail.

Galley Tour

On Friday afternoon at 4:00 PM, after packing our luggage and preparing to put it out in the hall for early delivery to the luggage carousel, we presented ourselves at the doors of the Rembrandt dining room with about 30 other passengers. The head chef divided us into three groups and we were given a tour of the kitchen (ship talk = galley) facilities. At four in the afternoon, with dinner to be served in less than two hours, the place was nearly empty and spotless. Stainless steel prep tables gleamed, ovens blinked at a variety of temperatures, and huge soup pots steamed as the soup stocks simmered. At one table a cook had about two hundred sugar free Key Lime pies laid out and was garnishing each with a berry topping. For some reason, three of the most obnoxious passengers on the cruise decided to take this tour. All were apparently restaurant guys, and they talked loudly, opened pots, tasted covered items, ignored the chef giving us a tour, and generally soured this truly interesting presentation. One man took out a covered plate of food. Where he obtained this and who gave him permission remains a mystery. The chef told us that any food remaining for as long as four hours after preparation is destroyed. There is virtually no waste and the ship arrives in port with an empty larder. It is only stocked with fresh food purchased by ship’s agents in Miami. Passengers can be confident that food on Royal Caribbean ships is clean, fresh, and prepared under sanitary conditions. Furthermore, at the entrances to all eating places, in every bathroom, and at other convenient locations hand washing stations dispense anti-bacterial hand sanitizer which everyone (crew and passengers) is encouraged to use frequently. Our final dinner on board tasted even better after this visit as we said farewell to our wait staff and presented them with their tip envelopes. A word about tipping might be in order here. The cruise line suggests a standard for tips, which might seem excessive, but consider. Dinner, for instance, with all its courses is roughly equivalent to a $40.00 dinner in pretty good restaurant. This makes $3.50 a day per person not excessive, especially since the wait staff also works on rotation in other places where they are not tipped. Similarly, the cabin attendant’s suggested tip of $3.50 per day seems more than reasonable.

Three Levels of Dining Rooms

Final Cocktail Party - Jayme Booher and Friends

Staff Captain Henrik Loy and Steve Wallach
The last day’s activities started with a 5:00 o’clock cocktail party in the Sphinx. It gave Steve Wallach a chance to talk to us about debarkation the next day and for all of us to meet together once more informally. After dinner we re-assembled for our final cruise activity, the talent show and band scramble. Lorraine Jordan had been put in charge of organizing this event, and she did a superb job. She had been rushing around recruiting singers and musicians to pick and sing in the talent show. Little did I understand that each person stepping up would have a great backup band. Imagine singing a song with Josh Goforth, Phil Leadbetter, Ben Greene, Beth Lawrence, B.J. Cherryholmes, and Jerry Butler behind you. These guys could make Hilary Clinton sound like a bluegrass singer. Each person or group came up and either sang with the backup band, presented a duet, or in one case performed as a full family band. This group came from Alaska for the ETA bluegrass cruise. Josh Goforth accompanied Lorraine Jordan’s nephew on a jazzy version of Over the Rainbow.

Family Band from Alaska

Some Kind of Back-Up Band
The Yankees and the Rebels
Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Ross Nickerson

Alan Munde
Next up was Ross Nickerson and Alan Munde. Nickerson has combined his bluegrass banjo cruise with the ETA cruise and ran a parallel instructional program daytimes. I stopped in for part of one session and saw several banjo students working with Ross on song kick-offs. On several occasions we jammed with some of Nickerson’s students, who all seemed to be having a great time. His web site is filled with useful information and learning opportunities for banjo pickers, while more information about him can be found here. Alan Munde, recognized in Pete Wernick and Bill Keith’s book Masters of the Five String Banjo has recently retired from his college teaching job and was on Ross’s faculty. I had never heard either play, and it was a real treat as both played virtuoso pieces in the half hour allotted to them.
Band Scramble
You Identify the Members in Each Band

The Band Scramble provides members of all the performing bands to really show their chops as bluegrass pickers. Bands perform using well rehearsed and carefully developed songs, often taken from their CDs. They rarely perform in off the cuff fashion, and it’s important for them to be polished and professional sounding. In a band scramble, members of all the bands are mixed up with no more than two pickers from the same band playing together. Each band is given two songs and two minutes to decide who will kick off the song, who will play breaks, sing lead, sing which harmony, and so-on. They must also come up with a name for their bands. The songs they were given were bluegrass standards that any good parking lot picker knows. Notwithstanding this, each band performed with professional skill, making each song stand alone and showing what bluegrass is truly all about. This is a great idea and shows what good professional musicians can do when forced to meld their skills and work with people they’ve seldom, if ever, picked with before. Great stuff!

Bradley Walker and Jim in Schooner Bar

Tim Graves, Steve Wallach and Jim

Debbie Gulley Sings with Jim

Steve and Steve Watch Debbie

The Bluegrass part of the ETA cruise was over…but wait! Many of the group repaired to the Schooner Lounge where for the past couple of nights the bluegrass crowd had, with the acquiescence of the resident piano genius, sung to his accompaniment. Bradley Walker and Steve Gulley both sang. Debbie Gulley, Steve’s wife who sings at Renfro Valley, did a great Patsy Kline song, and Josh Goforth sang while accompanying himself on the piano. Jim, the pianist, worked with each to find the right songs in the best key to showcase their voices from within his own repertoire. This all culminated with Steve Wallach sitting down at the piano and playing a couple of his own compositions, including one song he had written for Josh Grogan. We had no idea of his great skill in this area. We headed for bed shortly after midnight, knowing that tomorrow would be long and that we’d start tired. It was and we did, but the cruise had been a success for us. I’ll be writing an account of the debarkation procedures and a final assessment later in the week.

Josh Goforth Tickles the Keys

Steve Wallach's Last Refrain