Cruising With Class

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   February 21, 2019

My closest experience to living a dream come true was being hired to teach on board a cruise ship converted into a “floating university,” and sailing with it twice around the world. I had long fantasized that, one day, travel and education would be combined in ways like this – but to become part of such an adventure myself was more than I could ever have hoped for.

It happened in the 1960s, and came about almost by accident. I had not even known of the existence of this program, (now called “Semester at Sea”) which was then trying to recruit faculty for its first voyage – but although it was late in the hiring season, I was unusually well-qualified for such a position, having already travelled widely, taught for several years, and earned a Berkeley PhD. in History.

The intense nature of the experience makes it very hard to capture in a few words. It involved hundreds of American college-age students, a diverse corps of faculty, and two different ships of the Holland-America line, the “Seven Seas,” and then the “Ryndam.” In successive years, I went on two 3 ½ month round-the-world voyages, and, in between, was employed as “’Academic Coordinator” at the “land campus,” Chapman College – a small Christian school, in Orange, California – where I helped to organize the next voyage.

On board, I served not only as an Associate Professor of History, but also as a tour-leader, advisor (e.g. to a Poetry Group), and entertainer (writing and performing songs about the trip in occasional “talent shows” – a role I particularly enjoyed).

The routes varied, but, on my two voyages, they happened to be the same (which made things a little easier the second time around): We sailed from New York across the Atlantic to Lisbon, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and around much of the Mediterranean, visiting Barcelona, Marseilles, Rome, Athens, Istanbul, and Alexandria. Then we went through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea, and across the Indian Ocean to what was then still called Bombay. Next came Colombo, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Osaka, and finally homeward, across the Pacific, to Honolulu and San Pedro.

And it really was a school, with textbooks (and a library), assignments, tests, grades, and credits, which were transferable to other schools. We generally had classes while at sea, and educational excursions, sometimes lasting several days, when in port. E.g., in Egypt we saw the Pyramids, then traveled by train along the Nile down to Luxor.

Free time was allowed, but it was always important to be back by the specified “on-ship time.” (Students who were late had to forfeit time in the next port.)

We did have “Chaplains,” of various faiths, but the conservative Christian nature of the sponsoring College required an attempt to impose rigid moral standards, particularly concerning alcohol and drugs. Officially we were a “dry ship,” but of course, the same rules could not be enforced at times when students were free and unsupervised in port.

Was there trouble? Of course, although incidents of students being sent home for misbehavior tended to be hushed up. One teacher that I know of was dismissed in mid-voyage for some offense connected with his being gay.

Did people get seasick? Some, when the seas got rough. I never did. But I remember a time when the ship swayed so unexpectedly that my entire class was swept across the room. (Fortunately, nobody was hurt. But we did have a ship’s doctor, and two nurses – also a dentist, for whom I was once very thankful, when he was able to repair a cracked dental plate.)

What about the food? It was pretty good, and I learned to appreciate some unfamiliar fare, such as the Indonesian rice-dish “Nasi Goreng.” On the “Seven Seas,” we had menus, and meals served by waiters, but on the “Ryndam,” it was all buffet-style.

And the ports? My own favorite was Lisbon – partly because it was the first, after that long Atlantic “shakedown.” But I also acquired a particular liking for Portugal, even though it was then still ruled by the grim dictator Salazar. One appealing feature: although they had bullfights, they didn’t kill the bull.

I liked Malaysia too, partly because it provided such a relatively tranquil contrast, after the chaos of India.

And who can forget the spectacular beauty of sailing into Hong Kong?

As for my ship-mates – well, I’d better not get into that here – because I married one of them.


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