Wheeling by Sea - Forward Ability Support

Wheeling by Sea

By Trevor Robinson

Around December every year my wife and I transcribe significant events onto the following years’ calendar. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries and holidays are meticulously transcribed, with updated years. It was during this perennial task that, to my horror, I that discovered that I was turning 60.

It was decided that a cruise would be the ideal method to celebrate my milestone. I was less enthusiastic. To quote my infectious disease doctor, cruise ships are incubators for germs and disease. But hey, I was up for the challenge.

I suspect every cruise line has a form or medical questionnaire for wheelchair users to complete before sailing. Essentially, the form asks about your level of mobility and the dimensions of wheelchair. Nothing too onerous.

Travel insurance for wheelchair users is another matter, and worthy of an article by itself. Suffice to say, its highly likely that unless you shop around, your insurance premium could cost you as much as the cruise itself.

Boarding a cruise ship is organised chaos, with 2,500 passengers (and their luggage) all wanting to board the ship at the same time. I was pleasantly surprised that wheelchair passengers are given special access with assistance boarding.

Image via Trevor Robinson

My trepidation on accessibility centred on the cabin. How accessible would it be? Answer… barely. My commode just fitted over the toilet. But none of the taps were mixers. Navigation space was tight. Reaching the hand-held shower head and toiletry shelves was nigh impossible. The bed was extremely low. We asked the cabin attendant if he could raise the bed, resulting in a doona being placed above the mattress. And the ramp to access the balcony could have been used by NASA to launch rockets. Overall, little effort was made by this cruise line to accommodate wheelchair passengers.

Similar accessibility issues pervaded this ship in general. Of the dozen automatic doors on the ship, only one worked. Of the seven lifts, one never worked, and two others worked intermittently. While all the staircases operated 24/7, it seemed like all 2,500 passengers took a lazy pill and needed to take a lift.

The attention to service for wheelchair passengers by staff couldn’t be faulted. Food staff, whether at the restaurants or buffet, were very attentive to my needs.

Our cruise stopped off at four ports. One was a tender disembarkation, so I stayed on the ship while my group went onshore. However, disembarkation at the other three ports was problematic, as the gangplank was steep (+30°).

The disembarkation at the end of the cruise was a repeat in reverse of embarkation. Most cruise lines want all passengers off the ship by no later than 10:30am.

To summarise cruising in Australia I have five suggestions.

  1. Pick your cruise line carefully. Budget cruise lines usually have a low attention to detail regarding accessibility and good old fashion ship-wide maintenance.
  2. Pick your date. Avoid if you can school holidays, public holidays.
  3. Pick your cabin. Wheelchair cabins are generally next to a lift and staircase which experience heavy foot traffic and can be very noisy.
  4. Cruising is not ideal for the independent traveller. If you wanted a cabin to yourself, you would need to pay for all the berths for that cabin.
  5. Cruising not ideal for those using sling transfers. However, if you can afford a large stateroom, then space to navigate additional mobility devices may not be a problem.

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