n May 2022, we took a seven-day transatlantic cruise from Southampton, England to New York City. This cruise is and the only way I know of to transport a dog between North America and Europe without flying.
We were nervous about being allowed to board the ship because of Covid protocols. The cruise line required a negative test to board, and if we tested positive, there wasn’t another crossing with an available kennel for Skutull until December 2023. We did not want to fly with him again, so the stakes for testing positive felt high.
We took our tests in the basement of a travel agency that was located down the Kensington High Street, close to the apartment we lived in during January. The hour between taking the test and waiting for our results was agonizing, but as we walked through Hyde Park attempting to distract ourselves, we received an email that both of our tests were negative—we were clear to cruise!
The boarding procedure for the ship was chaotic, to say the least. Even though there is room for 20 animals on the ship and most crossing have full kennels, none of the employees seemed to know what we were supposed to do. Some told us to wait in a lounge, others said we had to checkin first. We ended up sitting in an area by the information desk until Oliver, the ship’s kennel master, came and gave us proper instructions.
I knew the pets would be in tight quarters during the crossing and assumed that people would only bring well-socialized dogs on board, so I was slightly surprised and mortified when a giant American bulldog started lunging at the leash toward other dogs. The owner took the dog to the corner of the terminal, where he barked constantly with a red rocket for at least an hour. I’m not sure how large this dog actually was, but I looked up how big american bulls dogs can get. Wikipedia said males can weight up to 130 pounds, and I would not be surprised if this dog was near the upper end of that spectrum. He was one of the larger dogs I’ve ever been in close quarters with.
Since there would be no vets onboard the ship, I was a nervous about Skutull being in close quarters with this dog.
Skutull made friends with a smaller dog in the terminal named Timmy. We talked with his owner. She told us she had sold her house and belongings and was moving to the US. I noticed she looked nervous, but I figured it was the stress of boarding. I know I looked nervous, too.
Soon the lounge was full of pets. There were 18 animals in total on our crossing, two fewer than max capacity because Skutull and the giant American bulldog each required two kennels. Oliver and his assistant, Aldrin, rounded us up and escorted the caravan of pets onto the ship, where we immediately had to ride the elevator to the top deck of the ship and leave our pets in their kennels.
Skutull is kennel trained and typically likes going inside of kennels, but he was not happy about this situation. All of the dogs were barking. It was difficult to leave him in there. Of course, his kennel was also next to the aggressive American bulldog.
We found out during pet orientation later that night that Timmy and his mom were not allowed to board. Other pet owners heard different versions of a similar story, and while I’m not sure what the true facts are, something was wrong with her Covid documentation and she was sent home. I felt so bad for her and Timmy. That was our worst nightmare and it was horrifying to see it become someone’s reality. I wish we would have known when we were in the lounge because we could have taken Timmy across the ocean and she could have flown and met us.
Over the course of the next week, we took Skutull in and out of his kennel dozens of times. The only time pets were allowed to exit their kennel was when their owners took them out. Each day there were approximately eight hours spread throughout the day where we could visit Skutull.
We, along with about 80% of the other pet parents, spent as much time with our companions as we could. The pet facilities on board were small, bordering on inadequate. Outside of the kennel room, the only places where pets were allowed was a ~100 foot stretch of outdoor deck the width of a hallway where all of the dogs had to do their potty business (it did not smell great!) and a 10x15 foot indoor lounge.
One of the unexpected joys of our crossing was that we spent a lot of time with the other pet parents in the lounge with nothing to do but talk with each other. To be honest, this was refreshing. As a society, we are typically so glued to our devices and anti-social that experiences like this have become rare.
We were all different ages from different walks of life and countries, but we had one thing in common—a shared frustration with how few options there are to safely travel with pets. We bonded over our love for our pets and our willingness to spend a week jammed into a tiny lounge on a rocking ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to avoid putting them under a plane like a piece of luggage.
“Some of our friends decided to join us when we told them we were doing this cruise,” one of the other pet parents told us. His name was Butch and he was moving back to his home state of Florida to be near his kids since it had been difficult to see them during the pandemic. He continued, “We told them they could come, but this isn’t vacation for us. I told them, if we test positive, you’re taking Gracie [their dog] across! We’ve already had to wait a year to get a spot.”
A guy with two sweet chocolate labs said that he’d been on the waiting list for a long time and booked the cruise last-minute when kennel spots became available because of a cancellation. He was continuing on to Seattle where he’d wait for his partner for a few months until they could coordinate the rest of their move.
Skutull made many dog friends on the cruise. Bindi was probably his best friend. She was an Australian shepard the same age as him. Her parents were Don and Patricia, a father-daughter combo who were moving back to the U.S. after eight years abroad. Don got me excited about digging my guitar out of storage when we got home and let me come to their room to play one of his Taylor’s he’d brought onboard. We spent a lot of time with them and have kept in contact after the cruise.
Skutull had a complicated relationship with a golden retriever named Humphry. In many ways, they were similar dogs—energetic, playful, social, etc. They were good buds most of the time, but Humphry did have eyes for Skutull and would occasionally try to hump him, which Skutull was not a fan of. Humphry was a good boy and knew he shouldn’t do it, so most of the time he would just stand next to Skutull and dry hump the air. Humphry’s parents were Lewis and Sophie, a British couple about our age who were crossing the Atlantic to travel North America in a van with Humphry. We’ve also kept up with them and have enjoyed following their journey on Instagram.
Most of the dogs suffered from various stress-related ailments during the crossing. Cooper, a cute King Charles Spaniel, pooped himself multiple times per day in his kennel and was throwing up blood. Many of the dogs had their own bouts with diarrhea and anxiety. On one of the last days of the cruise, the dogs were allowed onto a larger outdoor deck for a couple hours to run around. As we huddled ourselves together to take a group photo, one of the chocolate labs squatted and had explosive diarrhea, leaving a giant puddle in the middle of the picture.
When we were out on the open deck, which hadn’t been used by anyone else the entire crossing, I wondered why we weren’t allowed out there for a few hours every day so that our dogs could exercise. Then as we were walking by one of the doors that led inside the ship, a stuffy middle-aged man in a snazzy blue blazer opened the door, took one step onto the deck, paused and observed the dogs running around, exclaimed, “My god, this is a nightmare” in a British accent, then turned around and went back inside. I guess it’s people like him who are the reason why pets are jammed into a tiny area at the back of the ship. It was more common though that other guests onboard would hear about the pet area and would come stare at us in the pet lounge through the outdoor window like a zoo display.
I have to take the time to applaud the owner of the American bulldog (whose name I learned was Walter near the end of the journey) because he was extremely cautious and made sure to keep Walter away from the other animals. Walter did lunge at Skutull and Bindi twice through the glass window of the lounge, but other than that, they typically stayed outside all the way to the end of the boardwalk. It was actually kinda funny how quickly Walter and his dad could clear a room. We were not the only pet parents afraid of Walter being in close quarters with our furry children, so when they were on the move, we’d call to each other like monkeys screaming about incoming danger that “the bulldog is coming!”
“This is one of the best groups I’ve had,” Oliver told me near the end of the crossing.
“What makes our group so good?” I asked.
“Everyone knows their dogs and spends a lot of time up here. Even Walter’s owner is very responsible. Usually when there’s an aggressive dog, people take them into the lounge anyway and let dog fights happen. German shepherds are the worst because when you break it up, they’ll turn on you.”
The camaraderie and responsibility of our group is something I’m extremely grateful for. The crossing was already challenging enough physically and emotionally, I can’t imagine what it would have been like if all the owners weren't so responsible and thoughtful.
I also have to give Skutull props for how well he handled the difficult crossing. If he could talk, I think he’d describe the cruise as the worst experience of his life, bordering on inhumane torture, but he coped as well or better than all of the other animals. Though he was disgustingly grimy by the end of the journey, he and Bindi were the only dogs that didn’t have at least one accident in their kennel. He was pretty pathetic every time we made him go back in his kennel, but he did listen and decided to give us frequent guilt trips instead of fighting it.
On the other hand, there was a young English bulldog named Scooby who was quite the character. Whenever he was in the lounge, he never stopped moving and served as our free entertainment. That dog did the goofiest stuff and was sweet, except when he needed to go back into his kennel. It took both Oliver and Aldrin armed with welders gloves to wrestle him in.
The food on the cruise was surprisingly good. It wasn’t so good that I’d pay to eat it if I wasn’t trapped onboard the ship with no other options, but it was several solid steps above airplane food. We ate at the fancy restaurant onboard every night and made friends with our waiters, Alex and Ronald. They’d serve other tables in the area, then stop by and chat with us. I think they liked us because we were at least 30 years younger than the average person onboard. Oliver told us that the cruise line won’t tell you this, but there is typically at least one passenger that dies onboard the ship each crossing.
Two of the seven nights at sea were technically black tie events with strict dress codes, but we didn’t have clothes that fancy with us. We’d been traveling for over a year and didn’t have room in our suitcases to accomodate dress codes. On those nights, we snuck into the restaurant in the backdoor and Alex and Ronald didn’t mind. We didn’t feel too bad about it because we still wore nice clothes and we weren’t the only ones underdressed.
On the first gala night with a black tie dress code, I entered the restaurant and walked by a table full of old British people. I heard one of the women say, “Wow, isn’t it lovely how everyone is dressed up?” Then their gaze fell upon me walking by and one of the gentlemen exclaimed, “Well, almost everyone.” Lewis (Humphry’s dad) told us that he was kicked out of the pub onboard because he was wearing sandals. We’ve eaten at several three-michilen star restaurants and the cruise ship had both a stricter dress code and enforcement, which I was not prepared for.
In many ways, us pet people were the rebels of the cruise. The ship we were on was named the Queen Mary II, which is the decendent of the Titanic. The vast majority of the people on the cruise had chosen this transatlantic crossing as their vacation because they wanted to experience what it would have been like to be an upper class patron on the Titanic one hundred years earlier. They came excited to dress up in jewelery and a different set of expensive clothes each night. They wanted to be waited on by servants. In contrast, the pet people were grungy, young, and in many ways, probably spoiled their fun. I did feel a little bad about it, but I also didn’t feel like we had much other choice.
We were prepared both for the cruise to be difficult for Skutull and to feel like outcasts amongst the demographic onboard the ship, but one thing we were surprised to discover is that almost all of the crew was from the Philippines. It didn’t take long for us to figure out why this was the case.
“I get paid $750 per month,” an anonymous employee told me, “We are onboard the ship ten months straight and then get to go back home once per year for two months.” The Philippines, being a seafaring island nation with a large population that knows English, makes a good place to hire cheap labor.
Shelby and I honestly became quite uncomfortable with this situation by the end of the crossing. The staff had to wear fancy attire that made them look a lot like 19th-century English servants. And I have to say, if the staff were black instead of Filipino, the situation would have been very clearly inappropriate and looked like you’d time traveled to a pre-Civil War plantation in the South. I guess technically the members of the crew had chosen to be there of their own free will because they thought the economic benefit was worth the difficult lifestyle, but at times the way some of the other cruisers treated the crew like “the help” made the situation seem more racist and verging on indentured servitude.
Since I’d taken off work all of April to travel Scotland with Shelby and Skutull, I was excited when the person from the cruise company sold us on their new, high speed wifi available throughout the journey. She said it was fast enough to stream video. So I thought, awesome, I’ll have plenty of down time to work on the ship!
I forked out $400 for Shelby and I to each have an internet connection throughout the journey, thinking that it’d be worth not having to take another week off work. I was sorely mistaken. Throughout the crossing, the internet on my premium package (which was the highest of the three speeds for sale) was hardly quick enough to send an email, let alone stream video. I mean, I should have been skeptical that high-speed internet was possible in the middle of the ocean, but I had taken the lady’s word for it.
I was not the only person upset by the internet. In fact, I had to wait an hour in line behind other people experiencing internet issues just to see if I was doing something wrong. When I told the lady at the desk that the internet was slow, she chastised me like a child, “Well we are in the middle of the ocean, sir. You should take this opportunity to disconnect.”
I guess she had a point that there is something romantic and refreshing about not having an internet connection, but I wasn’t upset by the reality that fast internet wasn’t possible at sea. In fact, I had originally planned to take that week off work and only reordered my schedule after the cruise salesperson told me how great the internet was.
At first, the crew onboard told everyone that they were having technical difficulties and that the speed would improve soon, but a few days in it became clear to me they were lying. I stood in line another hour and asked the woman at the front desk for a refund since I clearly didn’t have internet speed fast enough to stream video.
“We are unable to offer refunds for the internet as you’ve already been using it,” the lady at the desk told me.
I told her that I’m a software engineer and that I wouldn’t have paid for the internet in the first place if they hadn’t sold it to me as “fast enough to stream video.” She said she’d send a message to her manager and that they’d contact me about a partial refund, but I never heard from them. I sent Cunard support an email (which took almost 10 minutes to send on the slow wifi) and also never heard back.
The lack of internet ended up not being a big issue. My work was understanding of our situation and after we spent eight hours per day with Skutull in the lounge and ate three sit-down meals, there was almost no time left in the day to work anyway.
We hit a storm in the middle of the Atlantic and experienced what our captain described as “moderate 3-4 meter swells.” Not that it matters that much how deep the sea is below you if you were to sink, but there were spots on our journey map after we crossed over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (the longest mountain range in the world) that said the bottom was ~5,000 meters deep! I wonder what creatures lurk down there!
The ship we were on was quite large and designed specifically for for deep sea voyages, which is why I was surprised by how much the ship moved in 3-4 meter swells (~12-16 feet). Shelby and I got up early and went to the fitness center that morning, which was located at the front of the ship. The entire bow moved up and down the full 3-4 meters as it plowed through each swell. We made it about fifteen minutes before we both felt sick, then fled to the back of the ship where there wasn’t as much movement.
I asked Oliver how bad that storm was compared to the worst that he’d ever experienced.
“This is nothing,” he told me, “Sometimes we can’t even take the pets outside because it’s too dangerous. They have to go to the bathroom on the ground in the kennel room one at a time.”
“How high do the swells get?”
“I’m not sure in feet, but they crash into deck seven where the restaurants are.”
I looked up how high a standard deck on a cruise ship is and discovered that it’s approximately ten feet, making the swells upwards of 70 feet! I can’t even imagine what that would feel like. Everyone must have to do room service for food because there’s no way plates and cups would stay in place riding up and down 70-foot waves. People were already sick in our moderate 3-4 meter swells.
“When do those storms normally happen?” I asked.
“The most common is November through January.”
So if you’re reading this and considering a winter transatlantic crossing, consider this your warning!
We saw a decent amount of wildlife, including dolphins more than once. On the night of Friday 13th, we passed by the Titanic sink site in heavy fog. It was so dense, I had a difficult time seeing the water from our room on deck six. I left with a new appreciation for how it would have been easy to hit an iceberg in weather like that before radar was invented.
Our seven-day journey across the Atlantic was not torturously slow, but it certainly didn’t fly by. We were counting down the days and hours until we could have Skutull with us all the time again.
On our last day, we coasted past the Statue of Liberty early in the morning and docked in Brooklyn. I was giddy to be done with the crossing, but also sad that all of our friends from the pet community onboard were scattering different directions. I hope we can stay in contact with at least a few of them.
My first step off the ship was as close to a Hallelujah moment as I’ve ever had. I know Skutull felt the same way. I’m pretty sure he has nightmares about being jammed inside that kennel in the windowless room of the ship, not knowing when or if we’d ever come back.
I wrote last year about my experience reverse migrating to where my ancestors lived in Germany hundreds of years ago, so it was interesting to live the opposite experience and see what a very luxurious version of the journey they had to make to immigrate to the States was like.
I have to say, I don’t know if I would have been tough enough to survive two months underneath the deck of a tiny ship with nothing but dried and rotting food for sustenance. And crossing the Atlantic was just the start of their adventure. They made landfall in a country where they didn’t speak the language or understand the laws. They had to journey many more miles by foot to find unclaimed land, then they had to build a house with their own hands before winter and start a farm to feed themselves.
That absolutely blows my mind. I feel like I’m taking a risk when I publish a story online, so I can’t imagine the pressure and trauma that came with immigrating to the Americas. I wonder if their lives in Europe were truly challenging enough to drive them to risk their family’s lives or if they didn’t understand the full extent and repercussions of what they were attempting until it was too late to turn back.