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The Death Of A Sea Salesman

The Orator of the Seas is silent. John Maxtone-Graham, who entertained cruisers with ship stories on whatever line would hire him, died of old age last week. He was 85.

We met him once, on the Celebrity Eclipse. It was both our good fortuneand our misfortune … to have met him at all, and to have met him only once. He was a delightful speaker who captivated us enough during his lecture in the ship’s theater that we wanted to interview him.

Off the stage, he was just as delightful.

We are among hundreds, perhaps thousands, who met this delightful man. Many of us have one of his books, signed with a personal message, because that’s what he did. He Maxtone-Grahamwrote 30 books, maybe more. It seemed that his first was his favorite, The Only Way To Cross (1972), perhaps because of all things cruising that he was passionate about, nothing compared to being on a ship crossing the ocean. He refused to call them cruises because they weren’t, they were “crossings,” and the fewer stops the better.

“Ships were meant to be at sea,” he said. “Draw a line from A to B. That's what cruise ships were for, to carry immigrants from A to B.”

He was born in New Jersey, lived in New York and spoke with a British accent, having been raised on both sides of the Atlantic by his Scottish father and American mother. A former stage manager on Broadway, he graduated from Brown, served with the Marines in Korea, worked on Broadway as a stage manager and became an author, lecturer and maritime historian.

He became a writer by accident when asked to author a book about ships that cross the ocean, a trip he first made at the age of six months. His two sons became writers, one for The Simpsons, the other for Beavis and Butthead.

Maxtone-Graham’s books – more eloquent than the works of his offspring — will be his legacy, but to us he was more captivating and spell-binding as an orator.

“I play it like a piano,” he said. “I know what works and what doesn't work”

Some people went on ships if they knew Maxtone-Graham be speaking. We didn’t. We just lucked out. He was 81 at the time, and it was appropriate that the Eclipse was “crossing” from Miami to Southampton. It was his kind of cruise, although there probably wasn’t a cruise that wasn’t.

He was often asked to name his favourite ship.

“The one I’m on,” he would say.

We thought it was ironic that his passing came during the height of Cunard’s 175th anniversary celebrations. Morever, he died as the Queen Mary 2 was “crossing” the Atlantic in a recreation of the famous cruise line’s first Transatlantic voyage, on July 4, 1840. It would have been even more ironic if he’d been able to be on the ship this month…if he’d passed away on board…if they’d buried him at sea.

From our one meeting, we think John Maxtone-Graham would’ve found that a fitting crossing to the after-life, for the Orator of the Seas.

In the news…

• Keel laying ceremony for new Princess ship going to China in 2017
• Spain's cruise visitors January to May up 6 per cent over last year
• NTSB looking for flight-seeing accounts from Alaska passengers

Today at portsandbows.com: Oceania's new early-booking promotion

Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas
14 nights
October 9, 2015
Barcelona, Crete, Ashdod, Suez Canal (cruising), Petra, Dubai
Inside: $533
Cost per day: $38

Cruise Eyes on all things Titanic

This being Titanic Weekend, here are three little stories you may not have heard or read…

* * * * *

Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless technology that is everywhere today, was supposed to be on the Titanic, 100 years ago tomorrow. His technology was in use on many ships by 1912 so he and his wife and infant son were invited to make the Titanic's maiden voyage.

However, urgent business in New York meant Marconi had to be there earlier, so he sailed on the Lusitania, which left five days before the Titanic. His wife and four-year-old son were still booked to follow him to New York on the Titanic, until a fever ruled out travel for the youngster. Had they been on board, it's unlikely Marconi would have been in a lifeboat, occupied mostly by women and children.

The irony was not lost on historians, in particular the erudite John Maxtone-Graham, frequently a guest presenter on cruise ships and author of Titanic Tragedy, published last month:

"If not for Marconi, there would have been no survivors. His invention saved 710 people, and if he'd been on the Titanic, it wouldn't have saved him."

* * * * *

The Titanic was the largest, more luxurious ship on the seas at the time of its fateful maiden voyage.

How much have times changed in 100 years?

Given that the "size" of a ship is usually measured by how many passengers it can carry, today's equivalent of the Titanic would be two Royal Caribbean ships, Rhapsody of the Seas and Vision of the Seas, each with a capacity of 2,435 passengers — identical to the Titanic. All but two of Royal Caribbean's other 20 ships carry more people than the Titanic. Only four of Carnival's 24 ships carry fewer…and seven of 16 in the Princess fleet.

In actual size, the Titanic's tonnage (volume of the ship) was 46,328 GRT (Gross Register Tonnage). The tonnage of the two biggest cruise ships of today are Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas is 225,282 GT (Gross Tonnage, the new measure for volume, from the hull in). Titanic was 882.5 feet long; today's two giants are 1,181 feet long. Titanic had nine decks. Oasis and Allure have 16. Titanic was 240 feet, top to bottom. The other two are 310 feet, top to bottom.

You could accommodate more than twice as many passengers on the Royal Caribbean behemoths.

* * * * *

One of the passengers on the Azamara Journey that will cruise to the exact spot, and at the exact time, of the Titanic's sinking is the great-granddaughter of one of the victims and earlier this week was part of an oh-oh moment on CNN.

Sharon Willing, whose great-grandfather Herbert Chaffee put his pregnant wife in the last lifeboat to leave, was being interviewed by CNN anchor Suzanne Malveaux. Towards the end of the interview, Malveaux asked her guest about something purposefully left behind in the cold waters of the Atlantic by her great-grandmother.

"Really?" said the astonished descendant. "What was it?"

"A jewel," said the flustered Malveaux, who appeared to be the victim of a sloppy researcher. "That's what we were told by your family."

"I didn't know that," Sharon Willing replied.

Days later, porting in Halifax en route to the site, she was interviewed by local media and asked the inevitable question about the moment she'll be at the scene where a man she never knew had perished.

"I would like to say hello and goodbye…right there," she told the Chronicle Herald's Lois Legge. "I just want to see him, and I think I will.


Carnival Splendor
7 nights
June 3, 2012
Long Beach (return): Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta
Inside:  $629
Cost per day: $89

Maritime Author Cruise Ship Authority

John Maxtone-Graham was 40 when he became, quite by accident, a writer. Today he has two sons who “followed” in those footsteps.

“One is producer and writer for The Simpsons,” he says. “In the trailer from one show, more people have seen his name than have seen mine in all the [24]books I have written. My other son is a writer, too…for Beavis and Butthead!”

Their father writes mostly books, mostly about maritime life, mostly about ships. He does that between assignments on cruise ships, where he is an engaging guest lecturer, a circumstance that dovetails nicely with selling books, which he has been doing since writing “The Only Way To Cross” in 1972.

“I had never written before when I was asked to write this book about ships that cross the ocean,” he recalls. “I said yes in a nanosecond. They asked me to write 20 pages about a ship. I did a year of research and I handed in the book…late. It wasn’t lumped in with other books and it turned out to be the bible of crossings. It came to me out of nowhere, and it changed my life completely.”

John has written books about cruise ships and/or ocean liners called France, Norway, Queen Mary 2, Normandie and others. He has written about the histories of polar exploration and cruising. He has written Violet Jessup’s account of being a Titanic survivor.

Next up is his own Titanic book, appropriately timed for fall release, just months ahead of the 100th anniversary (April 2012) of the great ship’s sinking.

“The Titanic is inexhaustible,” he explains. “When someone says the word ‘Titanic’ silence falls over the room. People don’t want to hear the marine experts because they can’t convey it to laymen. There’s too much technical data. They want someone who can link the social with the mechanical.”

His book is called Titanic Tragedy. He will sell it, as he does all his books, on board his cruises. He makes it a souvenir for passengers, personalizing his signing for everyone “who crossed with me in the [season] of [year].” While he takes the details, his wife Mary takes the orders.

The books are not cheap. Ours was $50, the price of a personalized memento of the cruise, including shipping. That’s what makes it special for passengers, and it also minimizes the loss of sales through re-selling his book. Who wants to buy a book inscribed with “To Bob and Nancy”?

You can find an un-personalized, used, library copy of a book re-reprinted many times for a dollar, but you can also buy a new one online for $99. That makes his autographed copies a deal. Ours just arrived, so we haven’t read it yet. Maxtone-Graham says the Titanic Tragedy will be $24.95.

If we enjoy this as much as we enjoyed him, count us in!

Catch This Cruise Lecturer When You Can

One of the most fascinating people we have met on a cruise ship is a Jersey-born Brit who has the ability to captivate an audience with a one-man show that looks good enough to be on Broadway. By the way, a “Jersey-born Brit” is someone who has a British accent despite his origins in New Jersey.

In John Maxtone-Graham’s case, it’s been that way for 82 years, many of his formative ones spent in England after the stock market crashed the year he was born.

“I had a Scottish father and an American mother,” he says. “In England, I was a half-breed.”

On that first Atlantic crossing — to him the proper identity of what many call Transatlantic cruising — little John was six months old. In eight decades since, he has made hundreds of crossings, many of them as a guest lecturer on cruise ships, primarily for Norwegian, Princess, Cunard and Celebrity.

On the Celebrity Eclipse for its 14-day “crossing” this spring, there were eight opportunities to meet him, not including the times he could be found in line at the buffet or sitting in a comfortable chair somewhere on the ship, reading or playing cards. He’s always anxious to meet people because, you see, he’s an author and the more people he meets the more books he sells.

The same goes for the more people he entertains, which he does with the skill of a master, especially when Titanic is the subject.

“I play it like a piano,” he says. “I know what works and what doesn’t work. Always, the Titanic works. It’s a magical performance that works so well.”

Between his first and his most-recent Atlantic crossings, Maxtone-Graham graduated from Brown, served with the Marines in Korea, worked on Broadway as a stage manager and became an author, lecturer and maritime historian. For anybody with a modicum of interest in sea-faring vessels, especially the Titanic, he is a must-see and passengers have been known to pick their cruises according to his schedule.

He and his wife, Mary, spend seven months a year on cruise ships, returning home to New York long enough to attend to the necessary personal matters.

“We plan ‘windows’ of three for four weeks, time to see the tax man, the doctor and the dentist,” says Maxtone-Graham. “I’m stressed the minute I get home.”

As a lecturer, he is highly entertaining, informative and opinionated. At times, he is funny. He seems to know something about every ship that crossed the ocean, and he’s not afraid to tell you what he thinks of today’s cruise ships, even if it seems to cross the line with cruise companies that utilize his services.

As a lecturer, he will invoke the story of the Titanic at least once.

“Only once was there resistance to my talking about the Titanic,” Maxtone-Graham adds. “It was in the Caribbean, on a Costa ship I believe. The hotel manager said nobody was going to talk about the Titanic — ‘Not on my ship!’ — and when I reminded him there were no icebergs here, he kindly relented.”

As a writer, John Maxtone-Graham is…well, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.

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