Part one in a three part series….
As he leant over to the customs officer James exclaimed in a high-pitched voice “Ovation of the Seas – It’s the ship of our dreams!”
In April this year 13 young adults on the autism spectrum and their peer mentors embarked on Code Blue for Autism’s maiden adventure Chill Ahoy – Social Skills on the Seas. Aged 18-26, a group of Chill program participants, known to us at Code Blue as Chillies, departed Circular Quay for an 8-night cruise to Noumea and Vanuatu. What could possibly go wrong?
Our first day started early choreographing group check-in at Brisbane Airport with anxious Chillies, tearful parents and the Code Blue Team prepped like astronauts on a manned mission to the great unknown. We had boarding passes, contact lists, passports, copies of passports, medication schedules, laminated luggage tags, daily care plans, What’sApp groups, sunscreen and Lomotil. We bused from Sydney Airport to Circular Quay and looked in awe at the sheer size of the vessel. It was a floating city.
After checking in luggage, going through customs and having our cabin allocations confirmed we boarded and were marshalled to an all-you-can-eat bistro the size of a Westfield food court and were asked to await the compulsory emergency evacuation training. The arrival of crew wearing life jackets and the shrill sounding of lifeboat alarms rattled the troops to varying degrees with nervous questions ranging from “If the ship’s not going to sink, why do have to practice escaping?” to “Do they have toilets on lifeboats?” and “I’m not going into a lifeboat without Lucy… LUCY!!!!”
Mentors helped the Chillies settle into their cabins with a group plan to meet in the bistro on the 15th floor for dinner at 6:00pm. The mentors escorted the gang up to Windjammers (nautically themed bistro on the 15th floor) and by the time my husband Michael, Nick our senior facilitator and I arrived at the restaurant we were thrilled to see our group of 18 Chillies and mentors seated around three large tables chatting, eating, laughing and reading activity lists. For the Chillies, the cruise was the culmination of several terms of the Chill Program building confidence, making friends, practising conversation skills and finding their voice. It was perfect to see smiling happy faces, enormous plates of food with bottomless sodas, bubbling conversation with only occasional statistics on WIFI strength and download speeds.
Michael and I stepped out of the restaurant onto the stern viewing platform to catch a glimpse of the Harbour Bridge as we set started to move away from Circular Quay. We took a few happy snaps, and made our way back into the restaurant to re-join the group to find our three tables were fenced off with crime scene tape and two crew members in HAZMAT suits were mopping up a sea of vomit and not a Chillie or mentor in sight. Other diners in the area were looking shaken and it transpired that one of our boys had added a bunch of bird’s eye chillies (chillies for a Chillie!!) to his meal and upon biting down felt the need to evacuate his stomach immediately.
We found our group in a less prominent position in the restaurant minus a Chillie and mentor who were down below cleaning up. The team were completely unphased and our chilli eating Chillie was back at the bistro within minutes, plate stacked high and ready for dessert. We spent the remainder of the evening at Windjammers draining the soda machines, making plans from the improbable range of on-ship activities for the following day and taking happy snaps of the Opera House and it drifted past.
The first day of Chill Ahoy was exhilarating and exhausting. We started at 7:00am with nervous farewell jitters at Brisbane airport and by 7:00pm were sailing through Sydney heads. With activities planned, full stomachs and aching feet, Chillies, mentors and supervisors retired to their cabins for our first night at sea. Planes, buses, luggage and boats all navigated successfully day one. But after transforming a family restaurant into an episode of NCIS in a few minutes, we would have to remain alert, but not alarmed.
Code Blue For Autism / Chill Program