Updated: Feb 14
If you are a contemporary cruiser you probably think that ‘booze cruise’ describes that time you took the Fiesta party boat in Cozumel and ended up dancing the Macarena on a table before falling gracelessly overboard. Well, it does that too! But there have been other ‘booze cruises’ in history, some of whom have had much more influence on the development of the cruise concept than your drunken little escapade.
On January 17, 1920 the National Prohibition Act (aka the Volstead Act) went into effect in the United States. The temperance movement had won a decades-long battle and banned the sale of alcohol in the US in an attempt to ameliorate alcoholism, poverty and other societal issues. A number of involuntarily sober minds immediately went about trying to find loopholes in the act and soon found an obvious one. The ban was only in effect within US territory, up to 3 nautical miles from the coastline. Get yourself on a ship and sail out to 3.1 nautical miles from shore and every hour would be ‘happy hour’.
But before we dive into that story, add some Roaring Twenties soundscape to your reading experience by starting this playlist.
To many shipping companies, the Prohibition was a godsend. America was going through a period of Anti-immigrant sentiment and clamping down on immigration – the Immigration Act of 1917 (aka the Asiatic Barred Zone Act) had decimated Asian immigration numbers into the US and the next big reform, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 to curb European immigration, was already in the works. Scores of passenger ships, previously busy ferrying immigrants to the New World, were either out of a steady gig or soon to be out of a one. But the advent of Prohibition opened up an entirely new shipping niche almost overnight.
By 1920 cruise operations had been running out of North America for close to 30 years. The biggest market was the Caribbean where close to 40 different brands were operating regular or seasonal cruising operations out of US/Canadian ports. Almost all of them were shipping companies, running cruises as a sideline business - designated cruise lines were still a rarity. By far the biggest player here was the ‘Great White Fleet’ – the tourism branch of the United Fruit Company with its massive fleet of cargo liners (read Going Bananas). The rest of the lineup consisted of other North American companies, small-time Caribbean operators or European shipping companies, like P&O, Cunard or HAPAG. This traffic did not really have any centralized or dedicated hub - Miami was a sleepy little whistle-stop of barely 30.000 inhabitants on the Florida East Coast Railway and still very far away from becoming the ‘cruise capital’ of the world. Instead cruise traffic was much more spread out among major North American ports with existing overseas liner traffic. Second-biggest market was the Pacific with cruise operations to Pacific Mexico, Hawaii or Alaska from West Coast ports. The third and most localized operation was centered on Bermuda where a handful of operators were running cruises to Bermuda out of US and Canadian East Coast ports, possibly as early as 1890 but that is hard to say for sure. With only one port of call on an itinerary, the fine line between cruise operation and ferry service becomes very blurry.
The booze cruises were a very unique by-product of the Roaring Twenties – not only in the sense that it took a Prohibition event for them to come about, but in the way they caught on with the public despite being against the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. In 1920 Warren G. Harding ran a successful presidential campaign on the promise of ‘Return to Normalcy’ after the recent misery of World War I and the Spanish Flu combined, but America did not return to anything resembling pre-WWI status quo. Instead it entered into an unprecedented period of economic prosperity that turned it into a dominant power in world industry and finance and brought with it a host of sociological, technological and cultural changes; middle class emergence, mass consumerism, first-wave feminism, racial movement, electric revolution, mass mobility (mass tourism, for that matter), mass media development, celebrity culture et cetera. The Twenties would end up one of the most transformative decades in modern American history and the generations that came of age in this heady mix of societal change, technological marvel and endless possibilities were not about to let a bunch of stuffy, rural puritans control their fate or dictate their wants and desires. The future was bright, money was abundant, the sky was the limit – let’s play! Hence, not the odd few, but indeed the vast majority of them were eager to defy prohibition and booze cruising provided the perfect way to do so – while certainly disreputable with the ‘dry crowd’, it was not technically illegal and so became a defiant but safe way to tell Uncle Sam exactly where to stick his Volstead Act (and get a buzz on).
Shipping companies quickly dispatched their superfluous liners to North American ports, obviously not their finest or newest ships (those remained on the high-profile Transoceanic service) but rather their has-beens and old buckets - the ones on their second life, after years of commissioned war duty perhaps, but still fit enough to pass US health and safety inspections. After all, as long as the bars were well-stocked and comfy, most booze cruise guests couldn't care less about what the rest of the ship was like. These ships would have had the traditional 3-tiered class structure typical of transoceanic immigrant vessels; First class, Second class and Steerage (‘Tourist Class’ would not replace Second Class and Steerage until the 1930’s) but that probably suited the operators nicely as it gave them a chance to diversify their offerings and widen their customer base. Unlike its European countermarket which was very much dominated by aristocracy and societal elites, American cruise tourism was much more egalitarian and open to everyone who could afford the fare. And in general, cruise fares were kept low because the name of the game was to get as many people onboard as possible and let bar revenues make up for the rest.
American shipping companies found themselves at a disadvantage; as US-flagged vessels technically constituted American territory, they could not serve alcohol onboard. However, operators soon found their way around this pesky provision by re-registering their fleets in open registry abroad, e.g. in Panama or Liberia. That is the reason why we have the ‘flag of convenience’ business practice of cruise ships today (although these days it is lower operational costs and lax regulation driving the practice, rather than the lure of alcohol).
Meanwhile, itinerary planners went to work crafting new itineraries, that only served one purpose: get the ship outside the 3-mile limit so the bars could be opened. The most basic of booze cruises did not even require a destination – they would just sail outside the 3-mile limit and float about until guests started passing out in drunken stupors. The onboard activities program (if one existed) likely only listed one event: PARTY! If you are now imagining a stylish crowd of dapper Sheiks and free-spirited Flappers, toasting suavely and vigorously Charleston’ing away in a picture-perfect Art Deco ballroom, I am afraid you are over-romanticizing it. This type of cruises would have had a considerably grittier and more sordid vibe – as if a sleazy gin joint from the wrong side of the tracks had been launched out to sea after midnight. These cheap and cheerful ‘cruises to nowhere’ did not have to be long – in fact it was better if they were not. Courting a hard-drinking party crowd quickly turns into a game of diminishing returns for the operator when money starts to run low and hangovers start to accumulate, especially when most of your clientele is broad American middle-class. Best to keep it to 1 or 2 nights and then cruise back to shore to pick up the next load of thirsty cruisers. Needless to say, these ‘bottom of the barrel cruises’ appealed primarily to the hardcore drinkers and were operated by companies with little to no concerns about brand values or public image.
For guests with a little more disposable income and a little more concern about their image in respectable society, a ‘destination cruise’ was more well-regarded. After all, it gave you an opportunity to at least pretend that the destination was equally or more interesting to you than binge drinking. Similarly, the companies operating these cruises were the ones slightly more concerned with looking the part of a ‘respectable company’ running cruises of ‘discovery’, rather than ‘debauchery’. The most basic of those were the ones that just took you to one destination outside the 3-mile limit, preferably one with a good party scene, so as to not spoil the experience with prolonged periods of sobriety. Needless to say, the Bahamas (Nassau) and Cuba (Havana) ranked at the top of that list. Both were within an overnight sail from southern US ports, hosted an emerging tourism infrastructure and were more than happy to serve up alcohol to cruise guests at all times of day. On the Pacific side, Ensenada, Cabo San Lucas and other ports of the Baja California peninsula experienced a similar boom in ‘booze tourism’ by ship.
There were longer booze cruises too, though not necessarily more wide-ranging. Booze cruises to the Caribbean were available from New York and other ports on the Eastern Seaboard too. They did not necessarily feature more than one port either but because of the 3-day sail from New York to Nassau (4 to Havana), they could easily turn into 8-10 day cruises with just a couple days spent in one port. But as long as the bars were open, people took the excessive time at sea in stride. Northeners had other options too – Bermuda was an enticing destination with delightful subtropical climate and free-flowing alcohol. It was still a lot of time at sea as it took between 2-3 days to reach Bermuda out of New York, but it was popular nonetheless. Yet another option for Northeners was to take a shorter booze cruise to neighboring Canada. While Canada also had a Prohibition period, it was over by the early twenties and Canada quickly became a popular US tourist destination for legal alcohol consumption. However, the Canadian booze cruise option never really gained the same popularity as the Caribbean ones, presumably due to Canada’s lack of tropical climate and cheap cocktails. There were also cheap overseas cruises from the US to the Mediterranean during the time period, though they were probably more like regular cruises with the added benefit of alcohol consumption, than they were ‘booze cruises’ by nature.
These longer cruises were obviously more expensive than your average booze cruise and consequently catered more to the upper-middle and upper classes of American society. These were guests for whom the serving of alcohol onboard certainly qualified as an ‘added bonus’, but would not have been the prime motivator for their holiday choice. To you or I, they would have felt more like ‘real cruises’ than poorly disguised excuses to drink at sea – yes, the bars were undoubtedly livelier at night but the rest of the experience featured varied activities programs, a refined atmosphere and the feel of a decent quality leisure product. These were the cruises that increased interest in cruising as a mainstream holiday option during the 20’s and 30’s – thousands and thousands of Americans went to sea in pursuit of a good time with alcohol, only to find that they enjoyed it so much, they would return – even when alcohol was no longer a factor in the decision. That is how Prohibition helped cultivate the interest in cruising from mainland USA in the interwar period.
Booze cruise traffic quickly grew to staggering proportions. North American ports would see multiple departures a day from dozens of different operators, reaching a climax over the weekend. Entire flotillas of cruise ships could be seen departing the ports in the afternoons and taking up anchorage off Nassau, Ensenada or Hamilton (because most of these did not have the pier space to dock all these ships), like some looming armada, waiting to storm ashore and capture all the alcohol to the tunes of Ragtime and Happy Harlem Swing. Being a popular destination for booze cruises was as much a curse as a blessing. Yes, there was tourism revenue in it - a LOT of it – but overtourism soon became an issue. And not just plain overtourism, but drunk and disorderly overtourism. Public disturbances were the least of a destination’s worries; Alcohol smuggling, corruption, organized crime and the entire seedy underworld of Prohibition invaded the popular destinations and robbed them of revenue, safety and national self-reliance. Just like in mainland USA, crime clung to Prohibition like a wet rag and would eventually become one of the primary reasons why Prohibition was abandoned.
The first harbinger of doom for the booze cruise concept came in October of 1929 with the onset of the Great Depression – overnight countless Americans lost their fortunes and gained a whole slew of new worries, beyond where to secure their next drink. Booze cruising took a big blow to volume, but did not go down. The second blow came on 5 December, 1933 when prohibition was repealed with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment. Americans could once again drink on mainland USA. Still, booze cruises did not disappear overnight – they remained cheap and cheerful holiday options for a while until finally petering out in the late 1930’s. Many lower tier operators simply disbanded and sold off or repurposed their ships. Established shipping companies eliminated the shortest, cheapest and most alcohol-infused itineraries from their roster and focused on pushing the still-viable ships into regular leisure cruising – the demand for which was now on the rise due to people’s positive experiences with holidays at sea. But a lot of cruise ships were simply consigned to the scrap heap – hopelessly worn out by a decade of relentless back-to-back, short-duration cruises with minimal mainte-nance and of thousands of drunken guests spoiling their interiors for years.
There is a good case to be argued that the Prohibition Era produced the first version of an industrialized middle-class cruise market. There had been middle-class cruises before this, but as short-lived exceptions to the rule. By virtue of price alone, cruising had been an upper-class pursuit for most of its existence. But the Prohibition Era produced a decade-long period where even middle-class Americans could take to the seas for a reasonably priced holiday, where shipping companies worked out the winning formula for mainstream cruising and where cruise destinations bordering North America got their first taste of what riches mainstream cruising could bring them if they catered to it. It was potentially the ideal set-up for the formation of a ‘proper’ cruise industry (as opposed to a shipping industry doing cruises on the side). All the market indicators pointed to the viability of a mainstream, year-round, US-based cruise market, even without alcohol as the primary drive – all it would have taken was for one company to take the next logical step of forming a designated cruise company with a winning mainstream formula and we could have had an established cruise industry 30 years before we actually did. But alas, the Great Depression and World War II got in the way and ultimately the stars did not align again for the cruise industry until the mid-1960’s when the industry that we know today got its start.
As the US booze cruise adventure waned, elsewhere in the world Germany was making headway with a different mainstream cruise concept for everyone – one not fueled by alcohol, but by ideology. But that’s a story for a different time.
Authors note: Maybe you noticed, maybe you didn’t, but this article is almost devoid of specifics and examples from the history of booze cruises, at least in comparison to other of my articles in the same series. That is not to say that I made the whole thing up, but rather that I pieced it together from scant references and sources without much detail. There does not seem to be much detailed documentation around for the ‘booze cruises’ of the 1930’s – even historical books devoted to the Prohibition Era rarely manage more than a ‘Oh yeah! And there were ‘booze cruises’ too..’ mention of it. I should know; I just sat through a 5 hr PBS special on Prohibition with nary a single mention of booze cruises. Therefore, this account of the phenomenon is deliberately kept as a very general recounting of the phenomenon. By the same token; if you, dear Reader, know the perfect place/source for specific information on the subject, please get in touch with me and share. Thanks for reading!
This is the tenth article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.