It's clear from the start that
a trip through the Inside
Passage aboard the Universe
Explorer is not your everyday
photos by Robert W. Bone
AT SEA, GULF OF ALASKA ---
Captain Donal Ryan was seated at the cruise director's desk when
the telephone rang.
|Passengers aboard the SS Universe Explorer
get awesome views of Alaska's majesty, including
"Hello -- Wing Chong Chinese
Restaurant!" answered Ryan, glancing at me with a twinkle in his
eye. "What you want? No, Meredith is delivering take-out. You
call back later. Good-bye!
"I have absolutely no idea who that
was," he smiles. "Now, where were we?"
Ryan, 41, is an Irishman, a bachelor,
and master of the Universe -- the Universe Explorer, that is --
a ship that doubles as a floating classroom for "Semester at
Sea" undergraduates during the academic year and as an
educational Alaskan cruise for all ages during the summer
months. The nearly half-century-old vessel is operated by World
|Two people paddle a canoe through the
peaceful town of Wrangel.
In an enterprise that usually means
tuxedos, butlers, and lavish showrooms, Ryan and other crew
members seem to pride themselves as much on their informality
and good cheer as they do on delivering serious lectures in
Alaskana. The captain's own brand of fun was put to the test
when a young blonde woman dressed in crisp whites, showed up at
"Well now, I wondered who answered that
phone!" she said. "I'm just looking for my boss lady!"
The caller turned out to be Cathy
Myrick, who was not only the assistant to the cruise director,
but also the daughter of World Explorer's vice president, Dennis
Myrick. The ensuing laughter appeared genuine.
To most passengers, the cruise director
is merely a cheerful hostess and entertainer. Indeed, Meredith
Miller (Cathy's "boss lady") is seldom sitting by the phone. She
seems always to be on stage, sometimes literally, sometimes
figuratively. If you ask Miller how she can perpetually be in
such bubbly good humor, she will reply:
"Life's too short to be cranky," she
laughed. Then a pause. "I think it drove my ex-husband nuts!"
Miller was a dancer until arthritis invaded
her knees. She believes she is one of only three
African-American cruise directors on the high seas. She oversees
a staff of 47, including Cathy Myrick.
The Universe Explorer is quite a
different kind of cruise ship, although veteran cruisers often
think she looks familiar. They may be right, since she has had
nine different names during her long lifetime.
It is generally acknowledged that her
passengers have more opportunities to learn about Alaska than on
dozens of other cruises that ply the Inside Passage. The
non-traditional voyage lasts two weeks, instead of one, and
usually visits around 11 ports, also a large number.
Not that the ship doesn't have some of
the same frou-frou that is often made fun of on cruises --
costume parties, bingo games, and demonstrations of essential
talents like napkin folding. Nevertheless, it forgoes the big
Broadway show numbers, but still provides interesting musical
entertainment, some of it slightly more high brow than on other
In any case, when the Universe Explorer
noses up to an Alaskan tidewater glacier, passengers can find
out just about everything there is to know about that wall of
ice. The same goes for wildlife -- whales, bears, seals, and sea
otters, as well large numbers of bird species -- that may be
observed along the way.
One disappointment: The ship's ancient
public address system cannot be heard in the staterooms, only on
the decks, in contrast to other ships which pipe important
announcements in via one of the cabin TV channels.
"From cruise to cruise, the passengers'
interests are different, and we are constantly changing our
programs," cruise director Miller said. "Last cruise we had a
large number of bird-watchers on board, so we changed things
around to help them more. On our first cruise this season, we
had a guest lecturer in astronomy, and he set up a calling queue
for folks interested in waking up to see the Northern Lights."
History is a popular subject, both on
board and in the 40 ship-sponsored shore excursions. If you have
the desire and the stamina, the ship will even help you hike
part of the famous Gold Rush "Trail of '98" at Skagway.
My wife and I chose an expensive but
ultimately thrilling bicycle excursion, riding from the top of
the White Pass in adjacent British Columbia down, down, down for
18 miles into Skagway. The soft whirr of rubber tires rolling on
the pavement was only interrupted by the sounds of nearby birds
and scores of waterfalls that poured down beside the road. The
backdrop to all of this was some majestic snow-capped mountain
For Captain Ryan, the SS Universe
Explorer is not all fun and games, and he is not so much the
ever-present glad-hander passengers are accustomed to seeing on
more palatial vessels.
"I asked for this ship because I like
its personality," Ryan explained. "I worked once for one of
those big, new ships. Didn't like it. Too impersonal," he
declared. "And with all that high technology, if something
breaks down, they've got to bring in a technical expert in from
Outer Mongolia or somewhere to fix it.
"Here we just take a bigger hammer and
keep hittin' it till it works right!" he said.
"In the years when they built ships like
this, they were made with a great deal of reserve in them. Newer
ships are built to more narrow parameters, and they're not as
Ryan likes the intricacies of navigating
the Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska, which demand genuine
talent traversing the tricky currents between the islands and
"During the Semester at Sea, we were
leaving the Yangtze River when a sudden fog rolled in, and there
were no anchorages available. We had to make our way between
hundreds of other craft, some with no radios, using only our
radar and navigation skills, constantly taking care of hundreds
of minor problems which, if left untended, could have become
major problems," Ryan said.
Meredith Miller said her own major
problem has to do with the airlines -- lost luggage.
"But we eventually manage to get the
passengers and their suitcases together. Meanwhile we try to
find things to help them out. That's why I always keep new tooth
brushes and other emergency supplies in my office!" She laughed