Officiants Tale by Sean Rox

Can you find True Love on a Cruise Ship?

Yes you can, and it happens when you least expect it.  When Cassandra and I met we were in our 20’s and living a carefree lifestyle on the high seas.  We’d been working on cruise ships for years before our paths finally crossed on Carnival’s Ms. Holiday in 2001.  Our home port was Puerto Rico and our weekly routine involved stops at 7 beautiful Caribbean Islands.   Cassandra sold diamonds &  jewelry at the ships boutique.  I was the DJ, Ship Emcee, Volleyball Instructor and Wedding Specialist.   On formal nights key staff would be encouraged to dress up and allowed to visit the ship’s disco.

Cassandra got a little to close to the DJ booth one evening and a whirlwind romance ensued.  We kept this tryst a secret for months and would communicate via walkie talkie when we planned to “accidentally meet up” for meals,  laundry or late night strolls on the top deck. Our first date was on Virgin Gorda off the coast of Tortola.  On our dates we would  disembark separately to deter cruise ship gossip.  We met in a pre determined shop and then snuck off onto a boat that whisked us away to the Baths.   Our next rendezvous was at Stingray City in Grand Cayman.  Sneaky getaways to Playa Del Carmen,  St. Thomas, Dominica, St. Kitts and Barbados soon followed.

It almost fell apart as quickly as it started. Our ship went into dry dock for maintenance in Freeport. Carnival transferred me from the Caribbean to Los Angeles on my birthday and put me to work on the Ms Elation the next day.  After two weeks of  sailing from LA to Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, the assistant cruise director called me into his office.  He informed me that I was to stay on the Ms. Elation and he was having the rest of my belongings flown in from the Ms. Holiday. Knowing that meant I would probably never see Cassandra again, I explained my situation and refused to stay in LA.

I was in limbo for a few hours – packing my bags and  preparing to be fired.  Carnival had already flown in another DJ from Canada to take my position in the Caribbean.   Amazingly, Carnival didn’t fire me.   Instead, they gave me a promotion and flew me to Miami to rejoin Cassandra on the Holiday!  I’m always grateful to Carnival for that outcome.  A few weeks later that assistant cruise director in LA was promoted to Cruise Director and joined our ship in New Orleans.  The secret romance of Sean & Cassandra was soon out of the bag, but we didn’t care- we just felt  lucky to be together again.

 

Was leaving Cruise Ships Easy?

No it was not.  Cassandra worked on 10 month contracts and mine were only for 6.  The next contract is always around the corner and you get used to having a staff chef,  a cabin steward and a car free life.   Unmarried staff usually end up on separate ships on different seas. We were fortunate once, but we knew we’d be separated if we stayed on ships.   I had timed my contract to be back in Ocean City (OC), MD for the summer.  Carnival was flying Cassandra back to London a few weeks later. If you quit your contract, you have to pay for your own flights.  I helped Cassandra book a stopover in Baltimore before her flight home.

We spent two amazing weeks at the Ocean city beach.  It was the first time we’d ever had a night off of work together, driven a car or had a real roof over our heads. On the nights I was DJing at Fager’s Island she would visit me at work. Alas, when she returned to England we were at another crossroad.  Visa issues were complicating our relationship.  When Cassandra finally returned to the states, she wasn’t allowed to stay long.  Winter was approaching and she’d always wanted to visit Australia. We decided to apply for J1 student visas and find jobs down under.  A few weeks later, we joined the mile high club on a 20 hour flight to Sydney.

  How was the move to Australia?

It was challenging.  Our J1 Visa included discounted airfare, a work permit and a two night stay at a youth hostile.  The 12 hour time difference was exhausting but we hit the ground running.  We purchased Australian mobile phones when we landed and passed out our work resumes to every nice restaurant we saw.  Our youth hostile was chaotic.  We were on the top bunk of  a small room we shared with 3 random travelers. Multiple thefts were reported and  police frequented the lobby.  Jet lag hampered our housing search.  Our last morning, we reluctantly asked the front desk to stay for another night.  It was New Year’s Eve and even this dive was fully booked.  An hour later we were out on the streets with our suitcases. We checked every hostel, apartment and hotel we could find.  Nothing was available and the sun was beginning to set  There we were, exhausted and homeless on the streets of Sydney.

 

As desperation set in, hope arrived in the form of a tiny middle aged Asian woman.  We were slumped over our luggage on the stairs of yet another sold out traveler’s lodge when she greeted us in broken English with “You need room, follow me.”  Out of options we, grabbed our suitcases and chased
this tiny firefly and she darted quickly through the dark side streets and back alleys of downtown Sydney.  We finally emerged underneath a Pagoda that was pulsating with exotic Asian rhythms and an  intoxicating aroma of spices.  We tried to decipher Asian signs as we were led  past bustling shops and restaurants before marched  through a side door into a high rise apartment building.   As  the crowded elevator sped us towards the top, our tiny guide smiled at us and said “Welcome to Chinatown.”   We love Asian food, but this wasn’t the plan.  We followed the little old lady down a long corridor before she knocked on the last door.  She disappeared inside for a few moments and returned with a man. She said “This is Bill the Kiwi, you stay here now” and quickly put money in her pocket before buzzing back down the dimly lit corridor.

 

  New Year’s Eve with Bill the Kiwi

Bill was from New Zealand.  Aussies call New Zealanders Kiwis – its usually more playful than rude.  Bill  gave us the tour.  It was a three bedroom apartment over looking the Harbour and the Sydney bridge.  We appeared to have hit the jackpot as he promised us a bed for a fair price. Thirty  minutes later we were drinking Toohey’s New lagers and playing chess on the balcony with Bill the Kiwi and his eastern European girlfriend.  We had lucked our way into  front row seats for the most iconic fireworks display in the southern hemisphere. It was a surreal experience and our most unforgettable New Year’s Eve to date.

As the night went on, the apartment’s other residents returned from work.  We soon realized the remaining bedrooms were being rented by other European backpackers.  When the show finished, we asked which room was ours?  Bill the Kiwi’s girlfriend led us down the hallway and stopped at a closet door.  A pocket door slid open and exposed a mattress lying on the floor.  Our luggage needed to fit inside the closet and we could use the hallway bathroom.  We paid 100 Australian dollars  a week to live in that closet until one of Kiwi Bill’s proper bedrooms became available.

We got jobs at Wildfire overlooking the Sydney Opera House and Circular Quay.  Cassandra worked in the restaurant and I worked in the bar.  It was a celebrity hot spot and we got to see  Christopher Reeves (Superman) Jessica Alba, Usher, Pearl Jam and the cast of  Sex and the City.  We spent a month in Chinatown using our prime location to climb the Harbour Bridge, sail to the Taronga Zoo and see Orpheus in the Underworld at the Sydney Opera House.  Our favorite spot was a trendy pub district called The Rocks. We  joked that if we ever got married we’d  legally change our names and become “The Rox”.

After a month in Chinatown, we left downtown Sydney and moved to Manly Beach.  The beach was our natural habitat and we thrived in this picturesque surfing community.  Cassandra worked in a romantic  Italian restaurant and I bartended at an amazing spot called Out of Africa.  In our free time we hiked the Blue Mountains, visited some wineries and played beach volleyball.

 

    The Proposal

At the end of April my Australian Visa ran out and we flew back to the States.  We spent some time in San Francisco before moving to my hometown of Ocean City, MD.  That summer it was Cassandra’s turn for Visa issues.  It was right after 9/11 and US immigration had really tightened up – even for the Brits.  I came home one afternoon from the DVD store and found  Cassandra in tears.  She was  holding a letter from the US government.  She’d exhausted her Visa options and informed she would have to leave the United States for a very long time.

I knew our relationship might be in trouble if she was forced to return to England for a year.  I just stood there for a minute, holding my Blockbuster bag with Eminem’s 8 Mile DVD inside (Cassandra really wanted to see it and I thought I’d surprise her).

Instinctively, I took the 8 mile DVD out of the bag.  I dropped to one knee, presented her with the DVD and asked if she’d marry me.  Fortunately, she said yes.   Never in a million years would I have envisioned my wedding proposal being consummated with a Blockbuster DVD in lieu of a wedding ring.  We kept this secret to ourselves and did not tell a soul for nearly 15 years.

 The Secret Elopement

I needed to plan an epic elopement to make up for my sub par proposal.  I could only get three nights off from work and money was tight.  We booked an inexpensive elopement package through a Bed & Breakfast in Niagara Falls.  Our lone vehicle was an oversized wedding van that probably wouldn’t make the trip.  The next morning we rented a sedan.  It did not have a GPS.  We drove 12 hours in the rain to Niagara Falls and bought Cassandra’s wedding dress at a small shop along the way.

We spent three amazing nights in  Niagara Falls.  We stayed at the Rainbow House B & B on the American side.  We were married at Terrapin Point  on September 3rd. Our package included an officiant and a simple video.  They took a few pictures for us on our disposable camera. We strolled the falls before enjoying a romantic dinner at the Red Coach Inn.  Our last day we explored the Canadian side and rode the Maid of the Mist.  The drive home only took 10 hours and I made it to work that night.  We told people about our trip to the Falls but didn’t breathe a word about our secret marriage.

 

 

Meet the Parents

Four months after we were married it was time to meet Cassandra’s family.  We flew to England and I finally met her parents, sister, nephew and gran.  Before Cassandra  left to work on ships, her parents warned her not to marry a foreigner – especially a Yank.  I checked both boxes and needed to make a good first impression.

 Gran lived next door and invited me over for tea.  She had married a foreigner (a giant 6 foot 8  Canadian cowboy).  She made her tea with whiskey and we hit it off right away.  At 6 ‘2 and with my funny American accent, I reminded her of a smaller version of her late hubby.  After that I always wore my Stetson cowboy hat when we Skyped.

Our plan was to spend a few weeks with Cassandra’s family before flying to south east Asia. On our last night, I decided to pop the question to her Dad.  I told him I was planning on asking his daughter to marry me and asked for his blessing.  I was probably not his first choice but he did say yes.  The next day Cassandra and I were on a 13 hour flight to Bangkok, Thailand.

 

 Proposal #2:  “The Beach”

Southeast Asia was warm and cheap.  We spent  six weeks touring Thailand, Malaysia & Singapore. We  could live like royalty for $30 a day in Thailand.  A decent room with AC was $15/night   Thai women would stand on your back and massage you with their feet for  $5 an hour.  Lobster and coconut rice platters went for $6.  Little bottles of Red Bull were only twenty cents.

In Phuket we rode elephants through the jungle and enjoyed dinner on the June Bahtra junk. We explored  the Batu Caves and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. We celebrated my birthday over Singapore Slings at the Raffles Long Bar in Singapore. We witnessed  ancient temples in Penang and Thai kickboxing in Bangkok.  We soaked in the rejuvenating waters of  Krabi’s hot springs and Emerald Pool.  On the island of Sentosa took part in a brilliant night safari.  These were all amazing spots, but I needed the perfect spot for my second proposal- this time I had to get right.

A few months earlier we had watched a Leonardo DiCaprio film called The Beach.  The backdrop was amazing and I did a little research on the location.  It was filmed on a Thai island in the Andaman sea called Ko Phi Phi Le. The exact spot was Maya Bay.  We booked a boat trip and snorkeling excursion to the island.  The day before I snuck out and bought a  wedding band to surprise Cassandra with.  It was made of the finest wood and only cost me $5.  I made that choice because I had to carry it in my bathing suit and it would float if I lost it.

We met some cool Aussies on the boat named Brad & Mandy.  During our snorkeling session I was able to tell them my plan to pop the question before dinner.  They were pretty excited and volunteered to take some pics with our $20 disposable camera.   Once again Cassandra was surprised and once again she said yes.

The four of us celebrated that evening at the Tiger Discotheque on the Patong strip. A week later, Cassandra picked out a proper diamond at a Bangkok night market.  The price was amazing and when we had it appraised it was actually real!  (unlike the two “Rolexes” I got for $30 the same night :-  )

When we returned to England we told Cassandra’s family the big news.  My Yankee ways were starting to grow on them and they began plans for a traditional British wedding.

 

  The Royal Wedding

OK,  it wasn’t really a Royal wedding but we did feel special that week.  My small entourage of American  guests were treated regally from the moment they arrived. Our accommodations and rehearsal dinner were at the Pelham House in historic Lewes.  It was right across the street from the Castle. The wedding was at the Michelham Priory on May 6th.  Cassandra had about 200 guests  on her side and I had 12  on mine. It appeared the chapel was in danger of flipping on is side.

The Priory was gorgeous and we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day on the grounds after the ceremony. We had a large reception with dinner and dancing.  Cassandra and I brought a CD from the states with our favorite songs to play during the dinner ( a relaxing medley of Dave Matthews, Rusted Root, Michael Buble, All Saints, etc.)  Unknown to us, there had been a mix up in the limo that afternoon.  Cassandra’s Mum brought what she though was our CD to the DJ before dinner.  Little did she know she had accidentally picked up our after hours Club Rox mix instead.

The DJ invited everyone to be seated for dinner.  Then he made an announcement about how we brought a special CD all the way from America for the guests to enjoy during the meal.  He asks everyone to “sit back and relax” and puts in the disc.  A moment later  “I See You Baby, Shaking that Ass” blasts through this historic 700 year old monastery.  The look on everyone’s faces was priceless.  We’d had quite a bit of champagne and weren’t sure how to react – so we got up and did our first dance to “Shaking that Ass” by Groove Armada.  It was the not the first impression I had in mind for our British guests, but they had to admit I was  “bloody fun for a Yank”.  After that, someone went back in the limo for the correct CD and order was restored.

 

  The Honeymoon

The next morning we flew to the Swiss Alps for our Honeymoon.   We travelled through the country and crossed the Italian border into lake Como.  Zurich was a beautiful city.  Our favorite memories were learning to play an Alpine Horn in Lucerne, fondue tasting in Zermatt and a horse drawn carriage ride in St. Moritz.  It was a beautiful trip.  We had very little money at the time and were grateful Cassandra’s parents paid for the wedding and my parents sponsored the Honeymoon.

When we returned to the States we decided we needed to make a career change.  I was still a DJ and would  work as many weddings as I could.  On the side I would umpire baseball and referee high school basketball.  Cassandra was working in a nice hotel.  We decided to start a beach wedding business in Ocean City, MD.  There was no blueprint to follow at the time.   We literally created the business plan out of thin air.  We pooled together the last of our savings and bought a wedding van, 40 white chairs, some beach decorations and a nice camera.  I taught myself how to build a website and Cassandra went to school for photography.

Rox Beach Weddings

We named our primitive start up Rox Beach Weddings. We ran it from a tiny apartment with a parking lot view.  We joined the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and began pretending we knew what we were doing.  We booked our first beach wedding in 2006.  We’d set up decorations and chairs on the beach.  We’d put a sound system on a table and play the ceremony music.  I would officiate the weddings and Cassandra would take the pictures.  Eventually we became decent at our craft and began getting referrals.  We expanded our tiny infrastructure to include additional photographers, several DJs and a video team. We would still travel in the winter – anywhere we could find that was warm and cheap.   We spent one January in Brazil, Argentina & Uruguay.  The next in Egypt, Jordan & Israel.

In 2007 we produced the first Ocean City Bridal Show  and bought a white wedding limousine.  Business took off much quicker than we anticipated.  In 2008 alone we planned 212 weddings.  By 2013 we had already planned 1000 weddings.  Our 1000th couple won our Free Beach Wedding contest and made the local news.  It felt great giving back.  We look forward to celebrating our 2500th  wedding with another giveaway in the next few years.

Our busy season was April through October but we worked year round six days a week.  The DJ and Limo side of the business were year round and quite stressful.  We did not want to get burned out at a young age.  We decided to gradually scale back operations and develop a sustainable business model. We wanted time to travel and pursue new ventures. I had become a Volunteer Firefighter and Cassandra was volunteering at the Humane Society.  In the winter we were sponsoring and coaching a youth basketball team.  We adopted two beautiful cats named Zurich & Luxor.  As we sailed through our late thirties we were enjoying life and travelling to England and Europe  when we could.

We eventually sold the Limo and retired the DJ service.  We discontinued our reception packages and focused exclusively on beach weddings and photography.  Our dream was to incorporate Honeymoon Planning into our business model. We even  talked about writing a book.  We weren’t sure how it would work, but we knew we needed to keep travelling and take pictures to have a shot.  Our favorite show was the Amazing Race.  We sent in a few applications and auditioned in person.  To this day, we don’t believe a non-American has been a contestant.  I thought my British wife Cassandra could break that glass ceiling but it wasn’t meant to be.

 

We didn’t make The Amazing Race, now what?

We decided to roll the dice on becoming part time  honeymoon planners.  We took an online course to become certified travel planners.  The “certification” ended up being a waste of time and money, but we had to start somewhere.  We wanted to document the best wedding venues and honeymoon destinations that our budget would allow.

 

We shortened the length of our trips and used the savings to stay at better places.  We could usually get the information and pictures we needed with a three night stay in a great location.  Cruises were often ideal for covering ground.  We sailed the Iberian peninsula, cruised the Nile, navigated the Panama Canal and made an Equatorial crossing from Tahiti to Hawaii.

 

Our travels took us through Europe, the United Kingdom, Latin America, French Polynesia, the Caribbean, Mediterranean and the most iconic cities in North America.  We created a detailed itinerary for each trip and took lots of pictures.  We compiled  lists travel tips and document the best hotels and restaurants.  After each trip we’d write an article for our Ports of Call column in the Coconut Times.

Some of our highlights were scuba in Bora Bora,  spa treatments overlooking Neuschwanstein Castle, the Game of Thrones experience in Northern Ireland,  hiking through Petra, seeing the Egyptian Pyramids on a camel, Tango in Buenos Aires, sipping wine  above the Trevi Fountain, cycling through Copenhagen, white water rafting in Costa Rica, snowboarding in Innsbruck, stand up comedy on the Hollywood strip, March Madness in San Antonio, sampling Sherry & Tapas in Cadiz,  black light theatre in Prague,  Carnival in Rio,  surfing Waikiki, flying over the Grand Canyon, floating on the Dead Sea,  climbing Dunn’s River Falls, getting robbed by monkeys in Gibraltar and celebrating our 10 year anniversary at  Le Chateau Frontenac.

We’d been to 70 countries on six continents and had grand plans to see the world………

 

  “You Can’t go to Africa….. you’re Pregnant”

That’s what the nurse told us the day before a 17 hour flight to Africa.  Cassandra had been having tummy issues that week.  As a precaution, we went to the hospital for a few tests.  Not sure what they were testing for, but the results were Cassandra was having a baby.

The nurse insisted we come back for more tests later that week.  We flew to Africa instead.   We had a lot to talk about on the non-refundable flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg.  We had booked  a four night river safari on Botswana’s Zambezi Queen and a four night stay at the Tongabezi Lodge in Zambia.  The all inclusive dining was prepaid.  Cassandra had to turn down complimentary cocktails and wine.  I felt a bit guilty sipping  sundowners in front of her but was proud that she was taking motherhood seriously.

Our little girl never got to see Africa, but she experienced it in Mummy’s belly.   She got to hear hippos on the river, monkeys in the trees and elephants gallivanting in the mud.   She could feel Mummy tense up as a family of rhinos spotted us on a walking tour.  She could feel the rushing water of Victoria Falls as we waded across the Zambezi and into the Devil’s Pool.  She could fee the love at the Mandela House in Soweto.  A new Rox was on the way and were getting excited.

For Cassandra’s 40th birthday I had surprised her with a trip to Disney World.  She’d never been and I had booked the trip about a year in advance.  She’d wanted to go since she was a child in England. Her first visit was probably different than she had envisioned.  I’d booked a table at Cinderella’s Royal Table exactly 6 months in advance.  The castle was full of tiny toddlers dressed up as princesses that night.  The princesses would patiently visit each table for a photo.  We met all the Princesses.  Cassandra wore her tiara and would rise up next to each princess.  She looked beautiful at 40.  A six foot tall princess with a cute baby bump standing proudly next to Snow White, Jasmine & the Little Mermaid.  Changes were coming and we knew this would be our last trip for awhile.

Moorea Amarula Rox was born that summer.  We became first time parents in our early forties, absolutely clueless on how to raise a baby girl.

 

The Next Chapter

So far so good.  Moorea likes to travel and enjoys taking pictures.  Cruising is in her DNA and she has excellent sea legs.  Perhaps she’ll work on ships one day –  just like Mummy & Daddy.

We took her on the 20 hour round trip drive from Ocean City to Niagara Falls.  She’s been to England several times and is learning French so she can see Paris.  With the Covid Chaos. Were planning a semester abroad in England for Moorea’s kindergarten year.

We simplified our beach wedding business to Officiant & Photography services.  We finally published that travel book and a few others as well.  Getting on Amazon was quite a learning curve and I made plenty of costly mistakes.

We started a tiny non-profit called  Beach Bride Sea Turtle Rescue.  Covid has been a real setback but were doing the best we can.  Hopefully we can save at least one turtle and set a good example for our child.

We’re not sure what the future holds but hopefully travel will be a part of it.  We’re hoping to write a children’s book but our artistic abilities need some fine tuning.  In the meantime, we’ll keep helping couples plan beach weddings and taking pictures.  It’s a beautiful day at the beach, hope to see you there!

 

Sean Rox