The meaning of ‘Fathom’

cornell-161001Sue Cornell
What an incredible week my husband Bob and I had aboard the 700-passenger m/v Adonia, the sole ship in Carnival Corp’s brand-new Fathom line. Fathom opens up a new category of travel: social impact travel, or “travel with a purpose.” We had the opportunity to participate in the maiden voyage/inaugural cruise to the Dominican Republic, a most memorable week for many reasons.

First – and no joke: What’s the difference between an “inaugural cruise” aboard a 592-foot vessel and a “shakedown cruise” on your own boat? Answer: Not much. In fact, the previous week, the Adonia, which entered service as Renaissance Cruises’ R-Eight in 2001, didn’t quite make the U.S. Coast Guard inspection, and was laid up for a few tweaks, pretty rare in the cruise industry.

I must admit that seeing an inspection with a failing grade didn’t instill a whole lot of confidence, particularly when my octogenarian parents called us with concern. They had seen the headline, “Fathom Fire Door Problems,” in the newspaper, and hoped that the story wasn’t about the ship Bob and I would be sailing on five days later. Fortunately, the replacement parts came in quickly, and she was ready for “Take 2” a week later.

Back to what Fathom is all about. We all know the word “fathom” refers to a nautical unit of measurement equal to six feet. But here we’re talking about the relatively new concept of vacationing while making a difference in the world.

Fathom’s weeklong cruises leave out of Miami, and alternate between the Dominican Republic (DR) and Cuba. On the DR sailings, passengers volunteer in “impact activities,” which fall into three categories: educational, environmental and economic development. The Cuba sailings focus on cultural immersion.

Passengers pick and choose from a menu of volunteer activities. Our journey included helping out at an organic chocolate factory run by a women’s cooperative, planting trees to help with local reforestation efforts, creating products from locally recycled paper to assist enterprising Dominican women, and teaching English to 8- to 11-year-olds.

There’s also assisting in water-filtration production, upgrading homes with concrete floors, and supporting adult English-language learning to bolster employment opportunities in the tourism industry.

Passengers don’t have to volunteer every day – or at all. There are also “experiences” (a synonym for “shore excursions”) such as ziplining, snorkeling by sailing catamaran, deepsea fishing, and just plain beaching it or hanging poolside, either on the ship or at Carnival’s newest port, the $85-million Amber Cove.

Onboard, you won’t find cutesy towel animals fashioned on your bed at night, gambling, or the nonstop evening entertainment found on many cruise ships. Instead, you’ll receive impact training for the activities before landing, Spanish lessons, programming on getting to know the country, storytelling workshops, impact workshops, local music, local food, and, my favorite, cocktail-making classes.

The hierarchy seen on other ships has been removed. Passengers may find themselves dancing with the head chef, or dining with the captain, or standing in the buffet line with the second-in-command. An “impact guide” meets with your “cohort” or “tribe,” which rendezvous periodically throughout the week.

Having been on other “voluntourism” trips, the jury in my mind is still out regarding whether Fathom truly does enough good. I’ve asked Fathom’s chieftain about the wisdom of introducing the carbon footprint of a cruise ship whose passengers are shuttled around an island by multiple buses for a few hours of volunteer work.  And I’ve suggested that future ships for humanitarian projects be sailing cruise ships along the lines of a Star Clipper, a Windstar, or a Le Ponant – with the addition of arrays of solar panels.

Like any other first-time cruise, there were a few logistical and communication issues, but the Fathom team was open to feedback to help them improve future sailings. After all, comments are part of giving back, as future “armies of volunteers” can be even more impactful.

Still, the activities are a good step on the ladder to becoming a more compassionate and philanthropic global citizen. The variety of activities was perfect, the size of the ship was ideal, the staff is wonderful, and the food was absolutely incredible.

By the numbers that first week: 50 water filters were produced, 2,400 trees were planted, nearly 650 students and community members interacted with English speakers, more than 200 pounds of cacao nibs were cleaned and 6,000 chocolate bars wrapped, nearly 500 sheets of paper were produced, and concrete floors were installed in two homes, which positively affected 20 people.

For those who’d like to experience volunteering in a less-developed country – without giving up creature comforts, and with like-minded people, this is a great way to go.

A resident of Killingworth, Conn., regular contributor Susan Cornell is an independently contracted writer, photographer, and marketing and public relations consultant. During the summer, she and her husband Bob “pretty much live at Brewers Pilots Point Marina” aboard their Nonsuch Halcyon.