Everybody Has a Story: Trip to cruise ship was one wild ride

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It was the quest for a cheap vacation that led to my wife, Shelley, and me climbing a rope ladder slapping against the side of a moving cruise ship like Captain Jack (and Jill?) Sparrow.

Back in 1990, we were struggling newlyweds looking for a cheap getaway.

On the geologic time scale, this was the pre-Expediazoic era (the period before the existence of online travel sites), so, taking the advice of a friend, we met with a travel agent named Ziggy — a name which admittedly should have immediately given us pause. He did, by the way, have a last name but it looked like the bottom line on a physician's eye test chart and was, at least to me, unpronounceable.

We told Ziggy we were looking for a grand vacation at a cost slightly more than staying home, and he began shuffling through invoices, airline tickets, food wrappers and handwritten notes that littered his desk. "Aha!" he shouted, and held up a Princess Cruises flier announcing discounted last-minute voyages to Mexico.

There was more good news — an airline fare war had erupted and flights between California's Bay Area (where we lived) and Los Angeles (where the ship was) could be had for as little as $29, or just slightly more than what airlines now charge to hurl your $300 Vera Wang wheeled duffle into the baggage compartment. Most of the cheap tickets had been snapped up, but Ziggy somehow found two empty seats on a Pan American flight.

The Dawn Princess was to sail from the Port of San Pedro at 5 p.m. We arrived at San Francisco Airport two hours before our 11 a.m. flight. Around 10:30 a.m., a Pan Am agent announced that our flight was overbooked, and any passenger willing to relinquish their seat would receive guaranteed reservations on the next flight to Los Angeles, plus a free ticket to any U.S. city served by Pan Am. Exciting destinations beckoned — New York! Chicago! Wichita! Since the 1 p.m. departure would still get us to the ship before sailing time, we turned in our tickets.

I reckon it was about 12:30 p.m. when we began to panic. Our airplane that was supposed to leave in a half-hour hadn't even arrived. Then came the announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, the aircraft is en route after being delayed in Mexico City by a snowstorm." I didn't even know it snowed in Mexico City.

The plane finally arrived around 2:25 p.m., and in what seemed like aviation's version of a clown car, an impossibly long stream of passengers shuffled off the plane as we anxiously waited to board. We lifted off just after 3 p.m. and arrived in L.A. an hour later. We quickly collected our luggage and ran outside to a taxi, a yellow Chevrolet with so many dents that it appeared to have been shot out of a cannon. It was T-minus 35 minutes until sailing time.

Shelley and I leaned forward in our seats, hoping that might make the cab go faster. When we arrived at the dock at precisely 5 p.m., we breathed a sign of relief; the Dawn Princess was still there. We tipped the driver, grabbed our luggage, and raced into the terminal, where a fellow with a walkie-talkie and a blank name tag intercepted us. "I'm sorry, the ship has sailed."

I pointed to the huge vessel just outside. "Isn't that it right there?"

His response was drowned out by the blasting of the ship's horn, perhaps the loudest noise I've ever heard. When the ear-splitting blare stopped, he was still talking, saying something about us flying to meet the ship at its next port. "Or, I can see if there's a water taxi available to take you to the ship," he added.

Figuring the second taxi had to be better than the first, we agreed. After making a quick phone call, Mr. No Name drove us to the water taxi docked at the far end of the channel. It looked like a floating collection of spare parts.

We hopped aboard and motored out toward the moving 600-foot ocean liner. Our small boat moved closer and closer to the giant ship until nearly resting against its hull. About 20 feet up, crew members looked down from a large open doorway. They winched down a rope with what looked to be a noose on the end. "Criminy, they're going to winch us up by our necks!" I thought.

The water taxi's captain, noticing the alarmed look on my face, explained, "That's to haul up the luggage."

After the suitcases were lifted aboard, the noose was again lowered, along with a rope ladder that thrashed about in the wind. One at a time, we tightened the looped rope under our arms and began the climbing the ladder. I was halfway up when a crew member below shouted, "The rope will prevent you from getting sucked underneath the ship if you fall in the water!" Thanks for that.

As we stumbled through the doorway into the ship's galley, the Italian crew shouted, "Benvenuti!" which must mean either "welcome!" or "imbeciles!" But we were safely aboard, and we had our free airline vouchers! In fact, we still have them, as Pan American went out of business before we were able to use them.

It was, however, an amazing adventure. To quote Captain Jack Sparrow, "I regret nothing, ever!"

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