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The Fine Art of the Transatlantic Crossing

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Imagine having seven whole days to yourself. Away from the pressures of home, the noise of social media, the distractions of daily life. Seven days to reinvent yourself: to be whoever you want and to try new things and have new experiences.

A transatlantic crossing is the perfect opportunity. Personally, I love the idea of sailing 3,565 miles and going for the best part of a week without seeing land. I like the perspective the distance gives on the sheer vastness of the North Atlantic. I love the sense of occasion, too, as you cross the gangway and step into a refined world of elegant lounges, sweeping staircases and hatted bellmen in scarlet uniforms. The anticipation of the voyage to come is a real thrill.

I have never been nervous about doing a crossing. Some people worry they'll get bored. To me, it's always been the opposite: How can I fit everything in? I feel a sense of freedom out there on the ocean. But, a transatlantic crossing can bring many surprises, too.

Updated September 10, 2018

Tea with an Astronaut

You'll meet the most amazing people. On Cunard's Queen Mary 2, I went to a talk given by Dr. Robert Thirsk, an astronaut who has worked on the International Space Station. His talk was fascinating so I plucked up the courage to ask him afterward if he'd join me for a cup of tea. He did. "How's life onboard compare to life on the Space Station?" I asked him. "It's a little more rustic there," he replied. I kept having to pinch myself that I was in the middle of the Atlantic, drinking tea with a man who has walked in space.

One of the performers onboard was jazz legend Gregory Porter. I chatted with him over lunch and asked him if the voyage had inspired him in his songwriting. "People inspire me," he told me. "I'll probably create a song."

"And the sea -- I am inspired by the constant shifting and moving and everything around us. Early morning when the water's flat and the sun is hitting it -- it's really magical."

Shortly after this voyage, I learned that singer Ed Sheeran had also crossed the Atlantic by ship, holing up in his cabin to record songs for his new album. Being in the middle of the ocean, focuses the mind, it seems.

Everybody Has a Story

Fellow passengers, too, are intriguing. A crossing isn't just any old cruise; people do it for special reasons: birthdays, anniversaries, bucket list. I met one couple who had fallen in love in the 1990s on the QE2 and had conducted a transatlantic romance ever since. He used the ship as a commute to see her on the East Coast. "A week in comfort costs the same as a one-way flight in business class. I'm retired. I have time. So why not?" he told me.

The weather, too, bonds strangers. On one particularly lively evening, the ocean liner shimmying as it sliced through the waves, conversation in the restaurant occasionally was along the lines of, "When we went round Cape Horn…" and "Remember that crossing to St. Helena?"

Learning New Skills (Or Not)

There's no shortage of things to try during a crossing. And let's face it, you will probably never see most of these people again so making a fool of yourself isn't the end of the world. I hit the golf simulator, hacking my way around Pebble Beach in appalling style. I sang Abba's "Waterloo" very badly on a karaoke night. I tried to brush up my quickstep on the dance floor with one of the gentleman dance hosts, who advised me kindly to stop looking at my feet.

Some activities were genuinely inspiring; a wine tasting, for example, that made me determined to be more adventurous back home. I joined a choir on one occasion for a rousing Beatles sing-along. There was a talk on Titanic as we passed close to the liner's final resting place. On one crossing, I attended a very moving lecture by The Associated Press reporter Terry Waite, who had spent five years as a hostage in Beirut in the late 1980s. A talk by a very funny New York Times obituary writer, profiled in an HBO documentary called "Obit," had me in stitches. Where, at home, would I possibly have the opportunity to listen to people like this?

Family Fun

A transatlantic voyage can be a family affair, too. I was slightly nervous about keeping my two teenagers amused for seven days but they loved it, once they'd got over the trauma of just a few minutes of WiFi I allowed them each day. They put their phones away. My son went to drama classes. We wallowed in the spa and on a sunny day, played every deck game we could find. We did spinning classes together in the gym. We ate our way round the ship and made a point of doing the pub quiz most lunchtimes over pie and chips (we even came in first once, to my immense pride). And one afternoon, we went to a movie. Nothing unusual in any of these, but they were all things we would rarely find time to fit in back home.

Nights on the Town

One thing I love about all the crossings I've done is observing the gentle rhythm of life at sea. It's very different from flying directly between New York and London because it allows your body to adjust gradually to the time difference. A typical day would be breakfast and then a brisk walk around the deck, to commune with the waves and the sky, look for passing ships, see who was out jogging. Then a workout in the gym, to justify whatever indulgence was to come. Go to a talk. Lunch and a siesta, curled up with a book, glancing out every now and then at the waves. Another talk, or an activity. Then my favorite part, getting ready for dinner. Gin and tonics in the cabin, listening to music as the light fades outside, and then stepping out into the buzz of the ship, dressed to the nines, heading to wherever took our fancy for cocktails.

I love being on a ship that's full of music, and dancing, and the choices this brings. On a crossing you can become a flaneur, a person who strolls from one venue to another, observing society. In one single night on Queen Mary 2, I had cocktails in the Commodore Club, dinner in the Verandah and was just in time to catch some smooth jazz in the Chart Room before heading to the Midships Lounge for a martini and a virtuoso classical guitar performance. Later still, I dropped into the Queens Room, the ship's ballroom, where Big Band Night was in full swing and the dance floor was packed.

Communing with the Ocean

With all this activity, I suppose there could be a sense that you would lose touch with the ocean; after all, isn't there just waves and sky to look at for days on end? But this was never the case and I wasn't alone in my fascination; even on windy or cloudy days, people would wrap themselves in fleece blankets and settle back on a steamer chair to gaze at the ocean. I loved it. The height and color of the waves, from foaming, steely-gray mountains to an infinity of sparkling blue. One day, which veered between soaking rainshowers and dazzling sunshine, light would catch the white foam on top of each wave, throwing off a rainbow. There were soft, pink sunrises and fiery sunsets. One morning, off the Isles of Scilly, a pod of dolphins appeared and raced the ship for a while. I didn't meditate, as such, although some did, but I did find myself staring for what felt like hours at the water.

The most difficult thing about a transatlantic crossing is when it's all over. Land appears and for me, there's a sense of slight disappointment, as though a bubble is about to burst. The ship has become home and friendships have been struck up. Admittedly, there's a sense of happy decadence, too, which has to be left behind as reality bites. On the last crossing I did, several people were simply turning around and heading straight back to New York. Not such a bad idea.

Do you want to read more about ocean crossings?

Sue Bryant is an award-winning, London-based journalist who has specialised in cruising for 18 years. As well as contributing to Cruise Critic, she is Cruise Editor of The Sunday Times in London and also contributes to publications worldwide, among them Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Porthole, World of Cruising and Cruise Passenger (Australia). She has sailed on more than 100 ships and made three transatlantic crossings - a voyage of which she never tires.

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