Gay and Robert Mahoney boarded Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas in Port Canaveral on Sept. 4 expecting a simple five-day cruise.
Instead, they spent 16 days at sea dodging Hurricane Irma on a ship that scrapped its itinerary of glitz, gambling and booze to run rescue and evacuation missions throughout the Caribbean.
“It has been an experience of a lifetime,” said Robert Mahoney, 52, who is from Ocala. “We went from just being on a pleasure cruise to becoming something like grief counselors.”
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On Tuesday, about two dozen of the hardcore guests — those who stuck with the vessel for its entire two-week run — will be returning to the port they left more than two weeks ago.
The trip was supposed to be a quick hop to Coco Cay and Nassau, leaving on a Monday and back by noon Friday — “before our kids even knew we were gone,” as one passenger put it.
But a few days into the voyage, it was clear Hurricane Irma had her own plans. As the storm developed into a Category 5 monster aiming at the Caribbean and Florida, the ship returned to Port Canaveral a day ahead of schedule and gave passengers the option of getting off or riding out the storm at sea.
About 70 people decided to take advantage of the luxury hurricane shelter at no extra cost.
“We were hearing that traffic was backed up and that it might be hard to find gas so we decided our best option was to stay on board,” Robert Mahoney explained.
The ship tucked in behind Cuba to wait out the storm with the plan of returning to port Sept. 10 — three days longer than the original itinerary.
But as news of extensive damage throughout the Caribbean began to surface, the Majesty of the Seas went into emergency mode. Royal Caribbean dispatched the ship to Puerto Rico, which it would use as its base of operations to begin picking up stranded people and pets in the Caribbean.
The company said it made sense to take advantage of the fact that it had fully provisioned, almost empty, ships at sea. The company said Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley “felt the right thing to do was put the ships to work to aid our neighbors in the Caribbean.”
Again, the original passengers had the option of disembarking in San Juan to go home. But many, including the Mahoneys, decided to stick with the boat. They were still getting “three hots and a cot,” as Robert Mahoney said, but gone were many of the amenities. Only one of the restaurants was open, the casino was shut down and the pool was closed at times. Most critically, for some, the booze quit flowing.
“Once they closed the bars, the drinkers left,” said Grady Franklin, 58-year-old retiree. “I think they were more worried about getting a drink than getting home.”
Even with the inevitable Gilligan’s Island references, the unexpected extension had its challenges. Guests had to do laundry to make their clothes stretch. They wondered how their cars parked back at the port had fared, and how their homes were weathering the prolonged absence and any damage Irma might have inflicted.
Over the next several days, the ship that had been dedicated to entertainment turned into one of service, shuttling tons of relief supplies to St. Thomas and St. Martin, and bringing hundreds of sometimes desperate and distraught evacuees back to Puerto Rico.
Some of the cruise ship passengers who had stuck with the ship found themselves undergoing a similar transformation.
David Taylor, a 58-year-old from North Carolina, said he felt like the best way to help the newly displaced people was simply to listen. One woman he met was traveling with four children who were going to be split up among relatives across the United States. Another older man he met was traveling alone and had lost everything to the storm.
“He had no family and nowhere to go,” Taylor said. “When we were leaving St. Martin he blew it a kiss … You really just don’t know what to do in those cases.”
But talking seemed like the best cure. Mahoney said it was amazing to see how people were transformed once they had a hot meal, a shower and a chance to vent.
“People got on this ship deflated, at their lowest of lows,” he said. “They got off with a smile on their face … It’s been a heart-warming experience.”
When the boat wasn’t teeming with evacuees, it was often a surreal and barren place. The Majesty can accommodate almost 3,000 guests and has 12 decks, three restaurants, two swimming pools, an art gallery and a video arcade.
“It’s like we have our own private yacht,” Mahoney said.
During the final leg of the trip — from Puerto Rico to Cape Canaveral — fewer than 30 guests will be on board.
As Gerard Montgomery and his wife sat in a near-empty restaurant on Friday with a huge buffet at their disposal, he said sometimes he felt a little guilty about enjoying an essentially free pleasure cruise due to other people’s hardships.
“Our only emergency is that we’re running out of wine,” he said of the bottles he had stashed in his cabin. “We’ve been relaxing on a mercy ship.”
For some, the cruise has been an eye-opener. Taylor said that hearing all the stories of loss made him aware of how tenuous and fragile life is.
“It made me realize I need a disaster plan. If something like this happens, what’s the first thing you’re going to grab?” he said. “In an instant, you can lose everything.”
Mahoney said he was so impressed that Miami-based Royal Caribbean halted its business to help those in need that he’s planning to apply for a job with the company.
“I already feel like I’m part of the crew,” he said.