Curse of the cruise: undercover cellist Imelda Depp on the nightmare cruise

- 26 July 2013

Spoiler: the ship doesn’t sink. But that’s about the only thing that doesn’t go wrong in undercover cellist Imelda Depp’s tale of travelling woe

It was in a cheerful mood that my string quartet departed for a series of concerts on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. We arrived on board a few hours prior to the passengers to discover that the ship was crawling with people in biohazard suits spraying chemicals. ‘We had a few cases of norovirus on the cruise that just finished,’ the ship’s cruise director explained, ‘so this is just a precaution.’

‘If it’s just a precaution, why are they dressed like that?’

‘Oh, you know, health and safety.’


After a fairly standard crossing over the Bay of Biscay ‒ during which I got so spectacularly seasick that the ship’s doctor injected me with something that made me sleep for almost 24 hours ‒ we arrived in the first port of Lisbon. We weren’t due to give our first concert until the following night, so we enjoyed a lovely relaxing day there, returning to rehearse as the ship left for its next destination that evening. At this point, the captain made an announcement via the ship’s intercom.

‘Unfortunately, we seem to have a few gremlins in our machinery. He he! We’re having a few technical problems. Engineers are on their way as I speak, but I’m afraid it looks as if we’ll have to stay overnight in Lisbon. Have a lovely evening!’

The following morning I was nursing my inevitable hangover with a large fry-up when our viola player approached the table. ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news first?’ he asked.

‘Let’s have the good news,’ I said.

‘I haven’t been exploding from both ends all night.’

‘Ok ‒ and the bad news?’

‘David has.’

Yes, our first violin had fallen victim to the dreaded virus, and had been quarantined for 48 hours. We were still stuck in Lisbon. Furthermore, our concert that evening was expected to go ahead as scheduled. There was nothing else for it ‒ we went to the computer room, got on to IMSLP, printed off lots of trio music and hoped for the best.

It was set to be a decent enough concert ‒ there wasn’t anything that at least one of us hadn’t played before. It all went well until we got to the final movement of the final piece, when our violinist started losing the plot. The presto spiralled faster and faster, her playing getting more and more frenetic. We took our bows and she walked serenely off stage smiling beautifully, then made a mad dash for the nearest toilet. Still clutching her violin, she proceeded to vomit uncontrollably, thus earning herself a 48-hour quarantine of her own.

It was at this point that the ship broke down again. As a result of this delay, several of the best ports were going to have to be cancelled, including Malta.

The following day, David returned from quarantine a pale shadow of his former self. When we told him that another trio concert was on the cards for that evening, he looked as if he was going to cry into his chicken soup. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, the captain came over the intercom again:

‘I’m afraid ladies and gentlemen we’re going to have to stay here a little while longer as our gremlins continue to trouble us. He he! It’s actually a different problem this time.’

He then gave an explanation that probably would have required an engineering degree to understand ‒ that is, if you could hear it above the boos and hisses of the passengers. The evening’s concert got a lukewarm reception, which was remarkably good seeing as we were sight reading.

The following day all four of us were out of quarantine and were able to play repertoire that we actually knew! During a break from rehearsal we went outside for some sea air only to be greeted by the sight of an old man wandering around on deck covered from head to toe in vomit. It was very impressive. Of course the other passengers were pretending he wasn’t there, and the bar staff had been instructed not to go anywhere near sick passengers for fear of contaminating drinks. This meant that the only people who were able and willing to help him until the medical team arrived were us, which gave me plenty of scope for considering why on earth I’d ever thought it was a good idea to play the cello for a living. I mean, I could have been a refuse collector or an abattoir worker. Then, of course, it was time for another announcement from the captain:

‘Believe it or not ladies and gentlemen, we appear to have broken down again. I expect you all have lots of questions. Believe me, I have many questions myself. As it stands, it looks as if we may be unable to continue with the cruise.’

This time the passengers staged what can only be described as a full-scale riot. You’ve no idea how terrifying 500 rioting OAPs are until you’ve witnessed it. At one point I thought that the security guards were going to have to use pepper spray.

In the end, all of the passengers were given a full refund, and the company chartered flights to get everybody home. I was very happy about the whole thing, as being flown home meant that I didn’t have to deal with the Bay of Biscay a second time. My colleagues however swore never to set foot on a cruise ship ever again.

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