A life on the ocean waves

 Standing in the wheel house of the cruise ship Liberty one gets a glimpse both of the responsibility and romance of being its captain. What impresses is the size of the wheelhouse and by extension, the size of the ship. It is a beautiful room in which to work, filled with light and a panoramic view of the sea and Cayman beyond that, through the floor to ceiling windows curving all around.
   Numerous ocean charts fill glass cases; Cayman is an almost imperceptible dot within the Caribbean Sea, surrounded by a mass of swirling lines denoting routes, tides, currents depths and all the other information needed for navigation.
   The captain and his three officers talk quietly in Italian while they consult a screen.
   For Captain Gianpaolo Casula this is the last day he stands in this room in command; later in the day he will welcome a former student of his aboard as captain and when they dock in Ocho Rios the next day he will leave the ship for the last time as its captain and return a passenger, his 50 year career at sea over.
   While Casula is philosophical on his impending retirement, there is also a touch of defiance about what he sees as ageism. “Age is a question of mind over matter, if you don’t mind it doesn’t matter. Now I am 68 and that is my limit. I consider that a discrimination. I am fit to work. Age is a number, if you feel good and look good and bright in your brain it does not matter.”
   He started working for Carnival as a 1st officer in 1976 when they only had two ships, the Mardi Gras and the Carnivale; he came to Cayman first on the Mardi Gras in 1976.
   Asking him what changes he had seen to Cayman in that time elicits an unexpected reply in his Italian-accented English.
   “I never had the pleasure of seeing the island, when a ship is at anchorage a captain cannot leave the ship and go ashore.”
   This leads onto a discussion about a terminal, and Cayman’s lack of one compared to other Caribbean islands.
“It’s difficult but more it’s uncomfortable for the passengers – they are waiting in line to come aboard, if it’s sunny they get too hot or if it rains they get wet.” He goes on. “It is bad for the older passengers and those in wheelchairs. When the ship is in the terminal passengers don’t wait in line and guests can enjoy getting on and off in their own time.”
   Responsibility
Casula’s concern is for his passengers which is not surprising for a man who has responsibility for 4,000 of them 24 hours a day. “You have the life of 4,000 people. They are all in your hands,” he says. “You are the captain of the ship – nobody is going to tell you what to do. The decision you are going to make is the result of all the experiences you have had in your life. My grandfather was a captain like me and he told me if you are going to do my job you must learn from the experience of your mistakes. He was a wise man.”
   And the experiences have been many,  “I’ve been involved in storms, hurricanes, typhoons, monsoons, a man overboard, refugees and many stowaways. One we once found hiding under the captain’s bed.”
   The most frightening of that list for a land lubber is the storms. He explains that every ocean in the world has its own challenges and of course within the Caribbean it is the hurricanes.
   “You cannot change the weather you have to adjust to it. To face a hurricane you reduce your speed, maintain your bow against the waves and keep the ship in the safe semi circle of the hurricane.”
   He had his worst experience in 1988 on a voyage from Los Angeles to Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. He had no prior warning of a storm before leaving port and they were caught up in it for 32 hours and had a blackout. Passengers sued saying he should not have left port in bad weather but the case was finally dismissed after 10 years as it was determined he had not been given adequate notice of the storm.
Storms are bad but the biggest fear for a captain is fire breaking out. “Fire is the most dangerous enemy to a ship as it can get out of control,” Casula says.
Changes in cruise ships
He has seen many changes over the years both in ship technology and in the cruise ship experience.
“It used to be only very wealthy people could cruise, in these days it was luxury and glamour. There were big liners doing the Atlantic crossing, some living in rich luxury with the others living not so beautiful.” But Carnival changed that. “Nowadays everyone gets the same treatment, you see the same shows, eat the same food, only the cabins are different; some are more luxurious. The Liberty is a floating resort which anyone of any age and class can enjoy.” He thinks that Caribbean cruising is in good shape as people want the sun and in the Caribbean you can cruise year round. He also says the islands keep improving in what they offer.  Looking out at Cayman Casula observes: “Compared to other islands in the Caribbean it looks well maintained and they take care of tourists.”
   
The other reason cruising will survive, he says, is because it is good value for money. “For say 100 dollars (US) a day you get all the food you want, entertainment, we take you everywhere no renting a car and you are in a safe environment. You have everything.”
   He went to sea originally because of his grandfather. Brought up on the Tirrenian sea coast in Italy, his grandfather would return from voyages telling stories of his adventures with photos of far off ports.
   It was no wonder that a fascinated young Casula wanted to become a captain too. “I love the job, the possibility to travel around the world and expand my horizons, hear different language, meet different people who are living in this world.” He adds with wry smile: “I don’t like people telling me what to do so I love being captain.”
   Dreamworld
   There is another side to life on board that makes it very attractive.
   “You are away from the worries of ordinary life because people are on holiday. It is like a dream world working with people who are on holiday.”
   But there is, as with everything in this world, a price to pay and for many seamen the sacrifice is family life.
   “Living on the land is beautiful – you have family and friends, as a seaman you stay away from problems of life in return you give up the pleasure of your family because you are always away – the ship is going to become your wife and the crew your ship board family.”
   He has no children and only married at 57. He met his wife when she was a passenger. He puts down his divorce after ten years to being too set in his ways, but over his long career he has observed that marriages sometimes do not survive a sailing career. “It needs a strong lady who can do everything. It does not work many times and they break up.”
   And for him it has also come to a break up “After 50 years to leave this work – for me it is like leaving my family.”
   Walking down the corridors of the ship with him as I leave he is greeted constantly by crew and passengers alike, a monarch of his own floating kingdom. From tomorrow his life will change, but he looks on this new experience as just another horizon. “Now I am going to travel myself in the ocean of retirement. Life is a journey, not a destination.”