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Carnival Miracle “Coming In Late”
A close encounter in hurricane season

by Michael Schuman

Word started filtering through the Carnival Miracle on the fourth day of a seven-day cruise, the way rumors of imminent firings spread through an office building. A hurricane was brewing, and it might cross our path.

My family, consisting of my wife, our two daughters ages 12 and 14, and I had scheduled our cruise for early July specifically to avoid peak hurricane season. But nature doesn’t care about dates.

On Thursday, the fifth day of our cruise, we returned to our cabin after a stop in Belize where we found a piece of intra-ship mail. It read, partly: “We have been closely monitoring the progress of Hurricane Dennis… We want you to be aware that there is a chance that we might not be able to return to Tampa on Sunday.”

That was the first official word. In response, we heard a few of our fellow passengers pondering the possibility of missing connecting flights, but Sunday was far away and tomorrow was another stop at another port, Cozumel. And anyway, nature can be as temperamental as a housecat.

At Carnival headquarters in Miami about that same time, Public Relations Manager Vance Gulliksen and members of Carnival’s purchasing, marketing, guest relations, air & sea, and administrative departments were meeting in a command center.

According to Gulliksen, “We work closely with every department in order to gather information to notify the media, who will notify consumers about rerouting ships or ships’ delays. Virtually every department (at Carnival) is involved. People are working around the clock reading airline schedules. We make plans to charter buses. For example, one cruise that was supposed to dock in Tampa docked in Port Canaveral, so we chartered buses to take passengers from Port Canaveral to Tampa.”

Gulliksen added, “We want to give (cruise passengers) as much notice as feasible considering the unpredictability of the storm. All signs that day pointed to a weekend arrival of Hurricane Dennis.”

Two days later, on Saturday, the day before we were scheduled to dock we received another piece of ship mail. It read, “We want to update you on our plans for returning to Tampa tomorrow. We will continue to navigate the ship at a safe distance from Hurricane Dennis and follow behind the storm as it proceeds in a Northwesterly (sic) direction toward the U.S. Gulf Coast. Based on the current path and speed of the storm, we are now expecting to dock in Tampa at approximately 2:00 PM on Sunday.”

Along with it was a list of airlines. As we walked through the ship cruising somewhere in the western Caribbean we witnessed a sudden surge in cell phone calls to airlines and rental car agencies.

At Carnival headquarters in Miami, the numerous Carnival staffs were again meeting. But this being a weekend, much of the decision making was done via conference calls.

Gulliksen said the cruise line’s staff had met a few more times since Thursday. Over the last two days Gulliksen noted, “We monitored the weather. We looked at government advisories. We talked to local officials. We want to give (both passengers on the present cruise and those booked on the next one) advance notice if they want to reschedule or look at different scenarios, like coming in on Monday or flying out of a port of call earlier. These are people on summer vacation and some might want to call work and say they’ll be coming in a day late because of the storm.”

Since the Carnival Miracle was now scheduled to dock at 2 p.m. the next day, instead of the original time of 8:30 a.m., we decided to sleep in. We woke up about 9:15 Sunday morning, sailing on the fringes of Hurricane Dennis. We felt movement, but not like the typical rolling and pitching one associates with ocean travel. The motion we felt was similar to airplane turbulence, or a drive along a bumpy road -- up and down, up and down, up and down. Since my family and I had taken the seasickness drug Bonine prior to our contact with Dennis we feel no symptoms of mal d’sea.

Not so for others. At breakfast we chatted with a young man who had gotten married two days earlier in Cozumel. His wife was in their cabin, seasick. At lunch we sat with a couple who, like us, specifically chose to cruise in July to avoid peak hurricane season. As we were dining, we heard the voice of Cruise Director Mark Hawkins on the public address system announcing that we would not dock at 2 p.m. as hoped. The new goal was to be dockside at 4 p.m.. As Hawkins announced those words, a murmur of groans from those nearby invaded our ears.

There is a lot to consider, said Gulliksen, when arranging for docking after a storm. Behind the scenes conference calls continued at Carnival headquarters throughout Sunday. Gulliksen said, “It’s not just a matter of guiding the ship in. We have to check the port to see if the channels are open, and it has to be cleared by the Coast Guard and port officials. We have to know if the draft of the channel is compromised, because sediment can get turned up (during a storm). There could be electrical wires in the way, as a result of (utility) poles that may have gotten blown down. We have to make sure the gangways are working properly, the computer systems are working, that the roads leading into the port are not blocked.”

Back at our room was another piece of ship mail, titled, “Coming In Late.” It read, “We know you were ready to get home… Believe us when we tell you we would rather be there, too… But that doesn’t mean we can’t still have a great day!” 

Listed on the mail were ten extra activities the crew had scheduled to keep us entertained. These included trivia contests, karaoke, bingo, live jazz and a bonus afternoon performance by the singer and comedian we had seen perform the previous evening. Expecting to dock at 4 o’clock, we decided to settle our bill at the purser’s station. As we waited in line, we once again heard the voice of Mark Hawkins, this time informing us that the estimated docking time was rescheduled for 8 p.m.

The mutterings of the assembled passengers were loud. Cell phones were out in abundance. Most passengers accepted the fact that there is not much one can do about a head-on collision with an ornery hurricane. But at times the scene got ugly. A man in a sport shirt groused to a purser that if he doesn’t catch his 7:36 flight he is going to have to buy four new tickets and he is “p***ed about it.” A man in a black golf shirt grumbled to someone on his cell phone, “Looks like I will be sleeping at the airport tonight.”

As for us, we had driven to Tampa and our car was parked in a garage across from the dock so connecting flights were not a problem.

We decided to grab an early dinner. The main dining room, the Bacchus Lounge, was closed so we headed for the informality of the Lido deck buffets. The place was teeming with diners, and we chowed down on deli food and desserts.

About 7:30 we again heard Mark Hawkins inform us that our ship has been sailing towards Tampa for a half hour and should pull into dockside at about 11 p.m. With time to kill, we headed to the teen-centric Mad Hatters Lounge to hear the best in karaoke. The best of karaoke was not so hot; of four teenagers who took the mike, we heard perhaps one that could hold a note. Lord knows what Simon Cowell would have said.

We retired to our cabin, flicked on the television and watched the last ten minutes of a 1960s-era Flintstones cartoon on the Boomerang cable channel as we packed our bags. At five minutes to nine, we were in the hallway and ready to go. There was not much to do other than head to the Atrium and wait. My daughters played cards. As for the grown ups, we waited. And waited. And waited and waited.

A wide range of humanity joined us, and the scene evoked perhaps the great hall at Ellis Island, circa 1910. This modern day version of huddled masses waiting for their ship to dock included a man twirling his wife’s blonde hair as she rested her arms on a suitcase; a college-age blonde with a pony tail wearing red, candy-striped shorts and a sweatshirt and looking as bored as a cab driver in Pittsburgh; a family of June and Ward Cleaver clones passing the time reading silently; a couple sitting babbling into their cell phones; and hundreds of others who like us had one thing in common: we were dying to get off the ship.

And about 30 minutes to midnight, the Carnival Miracle docked in Tampa.

The energy emitted by the collective sighs of relief could have powered the state of Rhode Island.

Copyright © 2006, Michael Schuman
Photo Courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines

Information: Carnival Cruise Lines, 3655 N.W. 87th Avenue, Miami, FL 33178-2428,
(800) 227-6482, (305) 599-2600

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