“We are safely away and you can now enjoy a ...”
There was a pause, as if the cruise director was having trouble choosing what, exactly, he should call what was about to happen. Finally he said, “ ... a carefree environment”.
Permission had been granted. Now buttocks could swing from side to side without restriction, and breasts — finally released from the prison of blouse and brassiere — burst into the open, to be caressed by soft tropical breezes.
We were on a boat. Nearly 2000 nudists living the “anti-textile” dream. Not that some of them weren’t almost nude before the cruise director gave the all clear.
A skeletal man in his 80s wandered around the ship wearing only a fluorescent thong, his loose skin draped around his bones in cascades that looked like freckled frosting, and a gigantic, barrel-chested man — he looked like he’d eaten an actual barrel — lumbered around the lido deck on an industrial-strength cane wearing only a loincloth.
How did I end up here?
I’m not a seagoing individual and had never cruised before. I grew up in Kansas, which, translated into Australian, is like growing up in Alice Springs; smack in the middle of the continent, as far away from the ocean as you can get. And even though I now live in Los Angeles, I don’t visit the ocean often.
So it was unusual in more ways than one when I found myself booked on a Holland America cruise ship destined to ply the waters of the Caribbean. A quick internet search of cruise ship disasters presented a catalogue of Somali pirates, septic system failures, norovirus outbreaks, and photos of the Costa Concordia laying on its side.
Why, I wondered, do people go on these things? What’s the appeal?
There are jazz cruises, country music cruises, floating financial seminars, Ink or Swim tattoo cruises, Star Trek-themed voyages and numerous religious excursions like the Book of Mormon Lands package. There is, essentially, a cruise for every lifestyle.
Because I was researching a book on nudism, I chose to go on what was called The Big Nude Boat. It was exactly as advertised: Nudists running amok on a luxury liner.
They were everywhere. On the decks, in the shops, playing ping pong, guzzling cocktails by the pool and grazing the all-you-can-eat buffets. It wasn’t unusual to get on an elevator and find yourself squeezing in with six or seven totally naked people.
All the usual activities you might find on a cruise ship, the cooking classes, the fitness centre, the casino, the movie theatre, the discos and dance halls and bars, were filled with naked people.
Even the dining room where dinner attire was required, had a few naked people who stubbornly refused to put on clothes. And, before you freak out, I should note that people sat on towels.
That topless woman playing black jack in the casino, the older man drinking a cappuccino in the espresso bar, that young couple sharing popcorn in the movie theatre, they’re sitting on towels. A nude cruise is a skidmark-free zone.
So what kind of people do a naked cruise?
On my first night, I was sitting at the Ocean Bar when I overheard a man, a silver-haired smoothie, complain loudly that there were too many old people on the cruise.
“I’m guessing the median age is 65,” he said. He was 62.
When old people complain that there are too many old people, then you really know there are too many old people.
Most of the passengers were retirees and most of them were American. Which is to say that there were a lot of overweight people strutting around in their birthday suits. They did so unselfconsciously, they weren’t ashamed of their bodies.
However, I also met a Harvard professor, a radiologist, a tool salesman, scientists, doctors, lawyers and people serving in the armed forces.
And of course not everyone was fat and saggy. There was a large LGBT contingent who were on the healthy end of the body mass index, and there were some actual bona fide young people, trim and tattooed men and women in their 20s who clung together as if the naked retirees were harbingers of some sort of terrifying apocalypse. It may explain while they consumed copious amounts of alcohol.
Mark Haskell Smith is the author of Naked at Lunch: Adventures of a Reluctant Nudist published by Nero.