September 2006



By Malcolm Knox
Life and death on the high seas

I am standing in the footprints of the eight men of interest. Behind me, as in the photograph, is the Darling Harbour passenger terminal, with its oddly prescient red “8”. Around me, people converge on the terminal, their dream holidays still inside their heads, ready to be unpacked on board.

I am standing where Mark Wilhelm stood in that photograph, taken on 23 September 2002. After posing, the eight men would check into cabins D176 and D182 on P&O’s Pacific Sky, then join the Sailaway party. Before the next sunrise, Dianne Brimble would be dead in D182.

The group’s dynamic is manifest in the photo. All but two are smiling. Five have criminal charges or convictions. Dragan Losic, slot mouth buried in black goatee, hands crossed over his groin, as beefily threatening as an extra in a gladiator movie, stands hogging the centre. A martial-arts instructor, Losic fancies himself as leader, ringmaster. He has 27 convictions, and has twice been jailed for drug offences. At his shoulder is the sidekick, Petar Pantic. Blond pretty-boy Pantic is, like Losic, a bikie. His hand rests on Losic’s shoulder in the photograph. It will remain there through the events of the cruise.

Crouching in the foreground are Losic’s camp followers: Luigi Vitale and Charlie Kambouris, who complete the foursome in cabin D176. Men of interest, but not much. In front, like a mascot, is Leo Silvestri: sleeveless T-shirt, gold chain, the cocky grin of a man who gazes into the mirror long enough to believe he’s still 20. The others in the group laugh. He seems the butt of a joke – as he would be later that night.

Computer bag slung over his shoulder, Ryan Kuchel looks out of place, the resident nerd: Bones. In a few hours he will take a slug of Fantasy and pass out in a cabin occupied by three young women, Kellie Davis, her sister Lisa and Tanya Power. Matthew Slade, grinning beside Losic, will be sleeping a couple of feet from where Dianne Brimble dies in cabin D182.

But it’s Wilhelm, the last of the four in D182, who arrests the eye: there’s something separate about him, in the group but not of the group. Arms folded to show off his gym biceps, he stands bent. Unsmiling, he looks tortured by the glare. At the Sailaway party, and after, he will be on Ecstasy, Fantasy, whatever. He has the grimace of someone who took Ecstasy last weekend: that hangover on the brink of tears, swimming in headache, disjointed, stomach full of birds. But he’s got a bagful of the stuff. When the sun goes down, he’ll be right again.

I am standing on the escalator where Dianne Brimble was photographed in a blue smock with her group, waving like a child on her first overnight excursion. Not the last picture of Dianne, but the last friendly one. The later shots will be taken with something else in mind, and we haven’t been allowed to see them. She’s suffered enough. Leo Silvestri said her death ruined his holiday. Leo, it ruined hers, too.

It’s not Dianne Brimble I’ve come here to think about. Dianne was a victim of exuberance, of a chain of events of which she lost control, and of callous indifference. The victim is rarely the mystery. It’s the perpetrators who force us to ask questions.

The Pacific Sun looms overhead like the 11-storey structure that it is. It has taken over P&O’s cheap-cruise schedule from the slightly smaller Pacific Sky. On its last cruises for P&O, the Sky (hardened cruisers drop the “Pacific”) had become something like a true-crime tour, with ghoulish passengers wanting to see cabin D182, where Dianne died, and D156, where Losic, Pantic and Wilhelm were flashing the last photos of her to general merriment.

The Sky seemed to carry a curse by the time it was retired from the P&O fleet and rebirthed in the Mediterranean, where it is now operated by the Spanish company Pullmantur as the Wonder Sky. In January 2002, Lorenzo Lombardo, a 21-year-old mechanic from Sydney, died from meningococcal disease contracted on the ship. In January 2005, a 24-year-old man was lost overboard near Brisbane. On 6 April this year, Kathryn Sheppard-Irwin, a 20-year-old Victorian, was killed in a jet-skiing collision off Penang during a Sky cruise.

The Sky is not the only Death Ship out there. The American website lists 26 other cruise deaths around the world since 2004, the causes ranging from unexplained falls overboard to suicide after gambling losses. This doesn’t include the assaults, thefts, child abuse, drug busts, medical malpractice, mutiny, epidemics and pirate attacks also listed on that helpful site. An FBI director told a US congressional inquiry this year that the bureau had opened 305 crime files on cruises since 2001. The US-based International Cruise Victims Organization catalogues pleasure-cruise crime, suffering and an unimaginable variety of mishaps, and lobbies for legal reform. Three months ago, Mark Brimble, Dianne’s admirable ex-husband, opened an Australian branch of the ICV.

The public response? Gwyn Topham, a journalist writing a book on “Cruise-Ship Babylon” to be published by Random House this year, writes that 159,000 Australians take a cruise each year – up from 116,000 in 2002 – and global passenger numbers are up 8 per cent annually in a $40 billion industry. Worldwide, around 11.7 million passengers will sail this year: a record.

Amid all the outrage and the shredding of P&O’s reputation in Australia, the company’s annual passenger numbers have doubled, in the four years since 2002, to about 100,000, and will rise further with the introduction of the 2000-berth Pacific Dawn next year. The Death Cruise company? Clearly something else is going on here.

Built in Sweden in 1986, the Pacific Sun (formerly the Jubilee) carries 1900 passengers and 670 crew members, and weighs 47,262 tonnes when fully loaded. Our cruise, Dash of Blue, promises hedonism without even the fig leaf of a stop in some port. We are going off Sydney for three nights … and stopping nowhere. I’ve paid $675 for my twin cabin and all food and entertainment. The ship leaves straight after work on Friday and docks in time to get back into the office on Monday morning. There is not a single spare berth.

Friday afternoon. Matronly P&O staff usher us through checkpoints in the terminal. There are none of the widely publicised sniffer dogs when my buddy Dan and I check in, but we pass through a metal detector and have our photos taken by a pinhole camera. We are issued with Cruise Cards, our onboard currency – all part of the convenience of “cashless cruising”.

Onboard, the ambience is three-and-a-half-star casino hotel: startling carpet, strong lighting, mirrors and brass. Most of the public entertainment is spread over levels eight to ten: two 500-seat restaurants (the Bordeaux Room and the Burgundy Room), three other eateries, five bars, two discos, two pools, a theatre, a casino, two child-care centres, a library. Our two-bunk cabin, on level five, is clean and well kept, and smells only slightly of cigarette smoke.

We go straight upstairs to the Lido level, with pool and outdoor bar. Pink Cosmopolitan mix is already churning in a slushie dispenser. The Sailaway party has a Melbourne Cup Day feel, with groups in funny uniforms and headgear: a netball tour in Jim Beam hats, a bunch with devil’s horns, another group decked out in customised Gilligan’s Island polar-fleece jackets – there’s Gilligan, the Skipper, too, a Millionaire and the rest. On their backs is the slogan “Over 40s and cruisin’ nowhere …”

We buy VBs (alcohol prices are nowhere near as extortionate as they could be) and stand on the deck to watch Sydney roll away, lights blazing in salute. I make conversation with Greg, an electrician from the Central Coast. Eventually Dianne Brimble comes up, as she will in nearly every conversation. “You’ve got to ask why,” Greg says, “with her daughter on board, she was in those guys’ cabin.”

“Maybe she was innocently paying a visit,” I say, trying to be pleasant.

“I’m not saying anything about the rights and wrongs,” Greg says, also trying to be pleasant. “But you’ve got to ask the question, that’s all. A mother of three. Why was she in their cabin?”

It won’t be the last time I hear that question asked.

There is something unavoidably salacious in the idea of cruising. Even Plato likened an unruly faction in a democracy to men “on a drunken pleasure cruise”. In Australia, of course, the unique rules of maritime life have deep roots. As Sian Rees detailed in her 2002 book The Floating Brothel, the Lady Julian brought salaciousness and 240 women into Sydney Harbour in the Second Fleet. Right through to the “Love Boat” scandal in the 1980s, when the Sydney prostitute Virginia Perger alleged that she entertained parliamentarians on the harbour, and the rumoured debauches on the late Rene Rivkin’s Dajoshadita, cruisers dangle the idea of a hermetic moral environment: what happens on board stays on board.

I’m going to state a position that disgusts me. Morally, it is the wrong view. It is this: I feel pity for Mark Wilhelm. Not Dragan Losic, not his vile bumboys, not their peanut gallery. But Wilhelm, the drugs guy, the man Dianne Brimble saw something in, the man who, according to the then 19-year-old Bobby-Jo Vial, was “in love with the world”. When he was on Ecstasy. So beguiling was Wilhelm’s loving kindness that Vial, recovering from a relationship breakdown, had sex with him on the cruise after Brimble’s death.

The working hypothesis I bring onto this boat is that Wilhelm did nothing wrong. How can I countenance such an idea? It’s simple. There is a great gap lying unexplained between the appalling revelations about P&O cruises and tonight’s reality, the 1900 filled berths. There is no way into that gap other than to enter the moral capsule of the cruise.

On the Sky there were many who thought that Wilhelm had done nothing wrong. Here’s the version: he flirted with a willing 42-year-old, shared drugs with her, had sex with her, and she died. Not his fault. He did nothing that she didn’t agree to.

His then friends believed this. So did the women who laughed at the gross photos taken of Brimble as she lay on the floor of D182, fucked and dying. And the P&O staff members who let Wilhelm, Silvestri, Slade and Kuchel collect their things from D182 the next day, and dispose of the evidence. The cruise director, Georgie Gillings, too, whose first priority was ensuring that the media would not “have a field day”. Even the police, when they boarded the ship in Vila, treated Wilhelm as little more than a victim of circumstances. Their investigation was slack; they laughed when Silvestri told them that he wouldn’t touch fat chicks. They, the police, danced in the disco.

In P&O land, in the world of cruise-bruise, Brimble was an accident waiting to happen. Not necessarily Wilhelm’s fault. And then there was P&O’s refusal – for four years – to reimburse Brimble’s family for her fare, because she’d died under the influence of drugs. The company relented only during the coronial inquest and media coverage.

Different rules apply here. By these rules, Dianne Brimble’s misfortune shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of a thousand other dream holidays. A bad scene, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Death came on the first night, after the Sailaway party. The excitement of first night is unique, loaded with an openness that, like a fresh flower, has to wilt. During the evacuation drill, people are too busy socialising to pay attention. As the steward is saying “In the unlikely event of abandon ship …” for the umpteenth time, an elderly lady is telling me how she’s finally got her daughters, both aged over 50, on a cruise. “I’ve been trying for years,” she says, before dipping her nose, like a wading bird, into her bulbous blue plastic Hurricane Glass (free with the $5 Sailaway Cocktail, the Opera House: vodka, pineapple juice, Midori).

At dinner in the Bordeaux Room, we’re in the Second Sitting for the five-course meal cooked by “our international chefs”. I’m seated next to Jan, who owns a 300-employee cleaning company on the Gold Coast. Jan is around 60, divorced, and has been on five cruises, including one in Hawaii and one in the Caribbean. She wants me to understand that she is only here, on this plebeian cruise, because she’s shouting a free trip to her long-serving office manager, a heavyset and keenly vivacious woman called Rita, and their friend, Vena, who owns a shadecloth-supply business.

We feel the sway as the Sun exits Sydney Harbour, heading into the open sea. Rita’s bubbliness deserts her and she excuses herself: “I need to chuck!” We won’t see her reappear until two nights later, the end of the cruise, hunched greenly at the roulette table, making up for lost time.

The talk steers itself to Brimble. “Never seen a group of men like them,” says Jan, ice clinking in her chardonnay. “But if I did, I’d never let them near me.”

We plough through damp spring rolls, a plate-dwarfing slice of “prime rib” the colour of decomposition, and a cold raspberry crème brûlée. Jan and Vena criticise the food: “The worst I’ve had on any cruise,” Jan says, and, to remind us that she’s slumming because of her own generosity, gives a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished roll of the eyes, “but I have been on some of the top-of-the-line ones, not P&O.”

P&O is owned by Carnival, the mass-market multinational known in the trade as Carnivore. In criticising the food, Jan is taking up a conversational theme that I’ll hear repeated for three days and nights. The more seasoned the passenger, the more there is to complain about.

After dinner, Jan and Vena won’t leave Brimble alone. “You know,” Jan confides, “we have a bit of experience dealing with men, but Rita – you saw her, she’s too friendly and naive for her own good.”

She pauses to let me make the connection: fat woman – too friendly – flattered by male attention – Brimble.

“You can imagine her going into a cabin with men,” Vena goes on, “just because she’s friendly, and then, you know, men can get out of hand, can’t they?”

Dan and I take our leave. It’s now 10.30 pm on the first night. In the Atlantis Showlounge, a Billy Joel impersonator is putting on his second ‘Piano Man’ show, for the Second Sitting people. There is a venue for every demographic, as the onboard guide has warned us: from the “spectacular emerald-themed décor and striking black and white checkerboard dance floor” of the Oz Nightclub to the “New Orleans style” Speak Easy piano bar and the “full Vegas-style experience” of the Casino. In the vestibules and corridors, muzak is pumped like bilge water. The Sun has a soundtrack, and that soundtrack is Classic Hits.

We spend some time in the Casino playing Ocean Poker, a card version of the pokies all around us. Shipboard card games tend to the elementary, to cater for novice players, and the croupiers offer helpful tutorials.

Into the wee hours, the boat is rocking – and rocking. No one’s gone to bed, unless forced to by seasickness. At this moment on Dianne Brimble’s cruise, for which she’d saved for two years, she was befriending the Ecstasy-buoyed Mark Wilhelm in the disco. I go to the Terraces on the Grove disco (‘70s music, rather than the doof of the Oz) and take part in what seems to be an indigenous shipboard dance: the freeform linedance where everyone moves in unison from one side of the floor to the other, the Pacific Ocean beating out its rhythm. It’s quite funny, even when a woman falls over and twists her ankle. Funnier still is my first sighting of a sniffer dog, a white labrador grinning at the dancers. P&O’s response to the Brimble death: security cameras, uniformed guards and a dog watching people falling around a dance floor.

Later still on that first night – in an hour, Dianne Brimble will wave off her chaperone, Gamu Chard, and ask Mark Wilhelm, “Where do you want to go now?” – I wander up to the top deck. Alone with the sea, I lean at the rail. I would only need to raise myself on tiptoes and tilt a little, and I’d slide down 11 storeys into an unforgiving sea, the twenty-fifth passenger overboard in the past three years. Some 30 nautical miles to our port side there is the glow of a city. Could I swim that far? Would it be the cold that gets me, or a shark? If I breaststroked, would the currents wrestle me down? Or would the sudden shock of being in the water, the lung-freezing terror, do me in more quickly? Would it be best to take my clothes off, for mobility, or keep them on, for warmth?

Just a tilt to extinguish me and my parcel of hopes. It’s a sobering sensation in the dark wind. The warmth, the noise, the Classic Hits, the manic friendly energy, are waiting just inside. This membrane of metal and paint between us and death seems awfully thin at times. The urge to give it our all, with our new friends, inside the boat, gains renewed urgency.

Unless Mark Wilhelm can convincingly tell the truth at the Brimble coronial inquest, where he is scheduled to appear in the coming months, we will never know for certain what happened on that September night. After dancing and flirting with Wilhelm and some of his friends, Dianne Brimble accompanies him willingly to D182, a four-bunk cabin where Leo Silvestri and Matthew Slade are already, apparently, sleeping. (Could they sleep through the racket? Boats do gently rock you. David Foster Wallace has observed that “people with insomnia of years’ standing report uninterrupted sleep of nine, ten, even eleven hours”. Apart from once nearly falling out of bed, I sleep well too.)

Wilhelm may offer Brimble gamma-hydroxybutyrate, or Fantasy, out of a shampoo bottle – “Have you ever felt horny? This will make you ten times hornier” is Kuchel’s version – or he may not. She may accept it, already drunk, liking this friendly man very much. Or, Wilhelm might have already spiked her drink in the disco, and she may only have come to D182 oblivious to its disinhibiting effects. Perhaps he will spike her drink in the cabin. Soon they will have sex. Wilhelm says she consented. She is not here to say. Someone will photograph them having sex.

Afterwards, someone will drape her body on Silvestri’s bunk to make it look as if they are having sex. Or, she will fellate him. Silvestri told the inquest he couldn’t remember, as he was under the influence of sleeping pills. Then, someone will push her onto the floor of D182, partly shave her pubic hair, and photograph her. For fun. She will have defecated on herself. While she lies there, and Silvestri and Slade cruise away on Temazepam dreams, Wilhelm will run down the corridor, naked but for his life jacket, eyes dilated and face stripped of its lines by Fantasy, Ecstasy, alcohol, who knows what else. He, Dragan Losic, Petar Pantic and Ryan Kuchel will go to D156 and show the photographs. Everyone will act as if the woman on the floor of D182 is hilarious.

By 8.30 am, Dianne Brimble will be dead. Wilhelm and Silvestri, panicking, will shower and dress her. Maybe they will discuss throwing her overboard. They will alert P&O staff when it is too late to save her. To “appease” them, passenger-services director Mervyn Armitage will let the men clear out their cabin. Wilhelm will remove his drugs and possibly throw them away, although the next night, while Brimble’s corpse is cooling on board, he will take more Ecstasy or Fantasy, and meet Bobby-Jo Vial and other women.

It’s hard enough to keep your stomach from rising when you think of those men’s behaviour. But – this is what comes back to me from what Jan said at dinner, what Greg said on deck, what others have said and will say – nobody wants to talk about the men’s behaviour. Their grossness, it seems, is taken as a constant. Boys will be boys. It’s Brimble who could have acted differently. It’s Rita who has to be careful of being too friendly. Somehow the onus to change behaviour, the focus, always falls on the woman.

The buffet breakfast is held over a four-hour stretch in the Outback bar. Hot and cold food is shovelled in and out of bain-maries, and – is it the hangover speaking or am I seasick? – it’s good. The 1900 passengers seem to be distributed in such a way that there are always one or two free seats at each table, so we meet plenty of new friends. A teenage boy who was smashed on bourbon last night, before we’d left Darling Harbour, is wandering with a towel around his waist. At the coffee dispenser, I hear a woman caw, “I’m still in my jarmies!” Sitting opposite me is Jaynie, about 40, from Coffs Harbour, on her first cruise: “I’m here with 14 old schoolfriends. We usually only get together at funerals now, so this was something different.” Then she is replaced by Rob and Gaby, lovers who live in different cities. “I love the open seas,” Rob says, smiling, “but Gaby [who’s silent and green] isn’t so keen. It’s her first cruise. We’re just trying to make the most of the time we have together.”

Everyone knows someone who has become cabin-bound. Conversationally, mal de mer is a reliable icebreaker. The lifts go not only up and down but also side to side. Staff bob up in white paper bodysuits and facemasks to swab vomit. They’re called the Hit Squad. It’s a rough cruise, and there’s a certain pride among those who are still having fun.

Fun in the Sun! Each day a four-page newsletter, the ‘Sun Daily’, lays out the agenda for the active cruiser. This morning, there’s a fully-gendered choice of earring-making or The Footy Show’s Greatest Hits at 10 am, as well as card games, table tennis, T-shirt painting and ballroom-dancing lessons. At 11 am there’s a trivia quiz; at 11.15 a choice of shuffleboard or the Australian Open Golf Championship, in which a putt-putt hole is set up around pot plants in a vestibule.

Later today, in the Atlantis Showroom, a place of such unspeakable awfulness in beaten copper and mythical motifs that I feel queasy thinking about it, there will be Seahorse Racing – contestants ride wooden horses and spectators place bets – followed by the shipboard perennial, Adults Snowball Jackpot Bingo. Dan and I participate wholeheartedly, and I know that this is hard to convey on dry land, but it is fun. It is fun because everyone else is having fun. Even the Bingo caller is funny. His banter is openly sexual: when a shaking woman comes on stage to receive her prize, he slings his arm around her and says, “Your hand is shaking, darling. Here, I can show you somewhere to put it.” It’s the type of thing that doesn’t sound good in a certain light, but at the time it is funny. I laugh. You have to be there.

Since the Romans, we judge civilisations by their entertainments. We do it within civilisations as well, classifying others by whether they like opera or football, Rules or Rugby, League or Union. Do they go to RSLs on a Saturday night, or to the symphony orchestra? There is always a snobbery – downwards, upwards – built into these judgements, and I’ve lost count of the number of people who, when I told them I was going on a P&O weekend cruise, exclaimed, “How ghastly! How are you going to bear it?” People who go on this kind of cruise are seen as white trash. They are white, mostly, and they belong to the age of cheap mass travel. It’s only since the ‘80s, and The Love Boat, that pleasure cruising, as opposed to cruise transportation, has become available to the hoi polloi. Forty years ago, the only people who could afford to fly in a Qantas 707 or take a pleasure cruise wore suits, ties, gloves and hats. Now, we wear trackie daks.

The Brimble case seems to have entrenched that kind of prurient, appalled-middle-class condemnation. One tribe stands on a hilltop poking a finger at the tribe below. (As if drink-spiking, sexual assault and the treatment of a woman as human rubbish could never happen on a university campus or among stockbrokers …) The pattern is numbingly predictable: something bad happens during a plebeian entertainment, and everyone puts on a sanctimonious face and blames, blames, blames. Media commentators pontificate. It’s a good way to stop anything changing. And nothing does change. Cruiseworld persists, under full steam, operating by its own rules. It ignores the sanctimony and goes on, fully booked. Tut-tut the white trash who go on these cruises, the animals who let Brimble die, and what do you achieve? Nothing.

Yes, the tickets are cheap and the food is mediocre and the entertainments are silly and the whole thing seems a thin excuse for a piss-up. But everyone here knows that. I – a fish out of water with my poor fashion choices, my book in hand, my shyness, my glasses (it’s a long time since I was told, “You must be brainy: you wear glasses”) – have rarely felt so welcome among strangers. This is not a discovery of the Golden Hearts of the Working Classes, but it just won’t do to ridicule Brimble’s death as What Happens When Trashy People Lose Control. It won’t do to mock cruisers. Mockery isn’t an adequate response. Somehow it feels that that mockery is part of the problem, one of the root causes of what happened to Dianne Brimble.

The reputation of P&O staff has suffered through the Brimble inquest. On 9 August, the NSW government said it would send undercover inspectors on P&O cruises to see whether bar staff were breaking the law against serving intoxicated persons. The Brimble inquest had heard that the more alcohol that was sold on the Sky, the more staff members were tipped.

Did I see staff serve intoxicated persons? Let me stop laughing. Well, I guess it could have been the swaying boat that caused so many patrons to fall over. (An ongoing joke after someone walked into a table, spilt their drink, bumped their head on a doorframe: “It’s not me, it’s the boat!”) I saw a guy pitching and rolling late one night; after being steadied by two security guards, he went straight back to the bar. Were intoxicated people served alcohol? Not between 4 am and 10 am, when the bars were closed. I checked. In the nightclubs, no drinks were served after the 4 am swill.

Come on. The no-serving-intoxicated-persons law is as obeyed as no-jaywalking laws, and it is no more disregarded on the Sun than in any bar or pub on any weekend. This is a three-night weekend cruise; one of its chief attractions is that only the captain has to drive. And believe it or not, cruisers can drink for three days without anything worse happening than the odd Technicolor yawn. (It was the boat!) I witness a first: the Toohey’s New breakfast, a tabletop metropolis of stubbies at 10.30 am. I hear Linda, a travel agent on a freebie, and her husband, Terry, say, “We haven’t been seasick because we’re disciplined with our drinking – we make sure we don’t start before lunchtime.” The only complaint I hear about alcohol comes from Jan, peeved that her three bottles of Yellowglen were confiscated while she was boarding.

P&O will be aware that the NSW government “undercover” inspectors are boarding, and will pay their fares. So this seems like another of the so-called reforms, like the sniffer dogs, enacted post-Brimble for PR. They’re akin to the shark-netting of Sydney’s beaches: they aim to discourage drug dealers and irresponsible staff from setting up a habitat. But they won’t actually stop anyone doing anything. That would be bad for business, and the regulatory response to Brimble has always borne business in mind.

Putting fear into P&O staff members seems superfluous, anyway: they appear to operate like any people working under a regime of terror. Most, aside from the senior shipping types, seem to be Thai or Indonesian, and frightened in the extreme. Our deck steward, a rake-like 50-year-old we nickname Attila the Hungry, skulks around like a man on his last warning. It’s a relief not to be inundated with professional smiles, although with gloomy Attila the balance is inverted so far that I feel obliged to wish him a nice day, to cheer him up.

Far from being irresponsible, most staff members seem paralysed by the rules. The shuffleboard tournament final is run by an American named Tina. The weather, as they sang of the SS Minnow, has started getting rough, and the giant ship is tossed. Dan and I are the only participants. Going through the motions of running the tournament properly, Tina announces that the first prize is a Pacific Sun stubby holder, and the second prize a Pacific Sun fridge magnet. Knowing my children’s fondness for fridge magnets, I dearly want to win it, so I ask Tina if we can switch the prizes. Their value is equal ($6.95, say the price stickers), so can’t we just make the magnet the first prize?

Tina looks at me as if she’s assessing whether to report my bizarre actions to her superior.

“No, sir.”

I explain how my shuffleboard form might be affected if I want the second prize more than the first.

“No, sir, we can’t do that.”

The result of the final is, for me, bittersweet.

Night two is formal night. Somehow word has got around (is there a secret chat room for cruisers?) that for one evening meal, men will wear suits and woman formal dresses. There is a photo of Dragan Losic, Petar Pantic and others in dinner suits. And I thought they were just being wankers.

Just about everyone on the boat, except Dan and me, is complying with the code. Some men wear tux and black tie. Faced with this disaster, we opt out of the Bordeaux Room and sit in the sports bar, Legends, which is also the chain-smokers’ haven. We watch football on a not-very-Big Screen while eight young men and seven women Of Middle-Eastern Appearance get together for drinks. It must be hard for them, in this floating whiteness. Old Australia afloat. Very possibly on the Sky in 2002, it wasn’t the eight men that stood out so much as Dianne Brimble and her family group of Pacific Islanders.

The group in Legends doesn’t seem to be doing it tough. In a group, everyone has an assigned role: here we have the alpha male and female, the sidekicks, the comic, the brains, the Gilligan, the Skipper, the Howells. Most of us have belonged to social groups where everyone has a set part; everyone is a character actor, not a fully rounded individual. Knowing your lines can offer safety as you pass through rites of passage, but eventually it constricts and torments. You want to be a real person, not a character actor. You grow up. I’ve been on boozy, druggy tours where I, as a character actor, and my friends become quite different from the sum of our parts. Emboldened by the strength of numbers, sucked into our roles, we tend towards excess. No doubt Mark Wilhelm was living up to some Gilliganish part as the Crazy Eckie Guy, just as Leo Silvestri was Thurston Howell III, the unwitting butt.

Could I, or anyone I know, have been Wilhelm? The divergences are matters of degree, not species. His behaviour isn’t so far from the potentials of ours that we don’t feel a chill of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God.

There are times on the third day when I sink into a kind of impatient ennui. The activities are more or less a reprise of yesterday’s. The swimming pools haven’t been filled, and we are kept indoors by bad weather (we salty types call it “inclement”). Where are we? Rumours sweep the boat, with an air of scandal, that we have been doing circles off Sydney. Though we are never within sight of land, it seems important to some cruisers that we go somewhere. But the captain wants to save fuel, they say. The crew are cutting corners by cancelling events such as the “lavish stage production” called ‘G’Day G’Day’, which has been called off due to the weather.

Veteran cruiser Sue complains over lunch that there aren’t enough activities. “I won’t be recommending this cruise to anyone. My last cruise, there were always fun photographers around taking your picture, and they’d have a belly-flop competition in the pool, and also a competition where they froze three T-shirts overnight and the winner was the one who could get his on first. That was fun.”

I’m wearing out my conversational lines. Yes, it’s my first cruise. Yes, I agree that the payouts at Bingo should have been higher. I agree that the cuisine at the Bordeaux Room is poor. And I’m annoyed that they don’t have a belly-flop or frozen-T-shirt competition. I know when every activity is on and know my way around every level of the ship. It’s the feeling, not unlike being a long-term hospital patient, that the rules of the institution are more important than the rules of life outside. I’m becoming a cruiser.

Sunday night. I’m not sure if I can make it through, except by putting myself in a blackjack trance at the Casino. But the last night, like the first night, has a special atmosphere. We enter Sydney Heads at 5 am tomorrow, and it’s a tradition that nobody sleeps on the last night. At dinner in the Bordeaux Room, our companions are up for it. Gina and Roz are twins from Sydney with hair that turns them from 5-foot-6 into 6-foot-5. Their cruising pal, Leanne, looks like their triplet, but isn’t. She’s on her fifteenth lifetime cruise, and proves to be a mother lode of experience.

“I went on my first cruise on the Fairstar when I was 21,” she says. “I went on that boat a virgin.”

“But you came off …” says Gina, prompting a laugh.

“I don’t know about that,” Leanne responds. She waves a finger and turns to me. “They called it, you know, ’Fairstar the Fun Ship’, but everyone called it ’Fairstar the Eff Ship’. You know? They had a jail on the Fairstar. Down below. That’s where they threw the boys who were misbehaving.”

Leanne had seen men thrown off cruises “for throwing deckchairs overboard, that kind of thing”, but had also been with Gina when they’d had their drinks spiked. “We went to a toilet and she was feeling really funny, even though she’d only had one.” Gina nods her head in corroboration. “For sure they’d slipped something in.”

With Leanne, I don’t need to guide the conversation towards the Brimble case. She has already set her course.

“On the Fair Princess I was invited into a cabin by some guys. We’d been dancing with them for a few days – there was nothing going on – and we were having a drink in the corridor. Three of them were in the cabin and the other was outside. It was pretty late and they started talking me into going in. I said no, and eventually they started calling me a, you know, a …” She mouths: slut. “Then they slammed the door from inside. Well, my thumb was in the frame and the door slammed right on it. I mean, it was my right thumb – I need that one!” She waggles her thumb to prove it.

Rather than raise a complaint against the men, Leanne was intent on having her injury fixed without ending up out of pocket. “My thumb was totally mangled. They held it together on the boat and it was operated on in Vila. It cost me $1800 and I pestered P&O until I got it back. That was satisfying. I got it all back. And the surgeon did a good job. I’ve got no feeling in it or anything,” she waggles it again, “but it looks okay.”

I ask Leanne why, after all this, she is so keen on cruising.

“I just love it,” she says. “From that first cruise I decided I wasn’t going to have kids, I just wanted to travel. Now I’m 38 and I take a cruise every year. I like it how everything you want is here on board, you’ve already paid for your meals and your entertainment, you don’t have to take taxis, you can just relax and meet people. Everything you want is here on board,” she repeats, by way of confirmation.

I can see the appeal, though for me it doesn’t quite stack up against having children. But I assume that, like most of us doing our spiel for strangers, she’s not telling the whole truth. I ask Leanne if she always feels safe, what with jails and thumbs and so on. On land, if she doesn’t like a man pestering her in a club, she can go home. On a boat, he can follow her; he knows where she lives.

“No, nothing can happen to you, because you’re all here on board,” she says. “A man isn’t going to do something, because he can’t get away. That makes me feel safer.”

But men did something to Dianne Brimble. And they did get away.

Leanne pauses to think. “Yeah, that was really sad how that happened. But it isn’t going to happen to me.”

Gina nods and eyes her twin, Roz. “Not us, either.”

The last night picks up, kicks along. I sit anaesthetised in the Casino, enjoying the personalities around the table. Everyone is laughing about an activity I missed in the Atlantis Showlounge, Marriage Game, in which a woman revealed that her husband sometimes wears her underpants and another couple said they’d had sex in the freezer at an office party. I laugh along with all of this; my amiability has returned, hauled back by the people on board. It’s all silly fun, yes, but the cruisers know that: if you don’t think they have a nose for cheesiness, you should hear what they said about the Rod Stewart impersonator.

I can’t last the night. Dan and I duck out for a five-hour sleep. On our way, we take a last turn around the ship, realising in a kind of panic that we might not have visited every bar. So, like a pair of ghosts, we sweep on a farewell tour through Legends, Smugglers, the Terrace, the Speak Easy, Oz, the Outback, the Lido, I can’t remember what else; a bar for every demographic, some faces familiar and others we’ve never seen. The security guards and their labrador finally have something to do: in the over-thirties disco, they pull apart two women who’ve got into in a slap-fight about a man. With a 65-35 female-male split on the ship, it was bound to get competitive sooner or later.

We stand in the dark wind, looking over the rail at the sea. That feeling from the first night returns: this thin membrane between us and the depthless night. The Pacific Sky – due to Dianne Brimble, Lorenzo Lombardo, Kathryn Sheppard-Irwin – was joked about as the “Death Ship”. But we’re all on Death Ships, whether run by P&O or your personal god. When you’re walking up to the gallows, sometimes all that remains is to laugh.

Walking back to my cabin, I hear, as I have heard every night, the odd female scream or yelp from behind closed doors. What’s happening? It’s not for me to know. There are closed doors everywhere. Life on board is no different from life in any suburb, life in any apartment block. Terrible things happen. Onboard a pleasure cruise, even a $200-a-night Dash of Blue, our proximity to strangers – in space, in purpose – is sharpened. We respond with the decency and amiability we have at hand. Somehow, on the Sky in 2002, in those cabins when those men showed around their pictures, early in the morning of a drunken night, that decency went missing. A human being was treated as garbage while everyone kept having fun.

The death of Dianne Brimble has taken the public imagination captive. I think this is because we fill in the unknowns in ways that correspond to our own experience. For my part, I can understand and even forgive some of what I imagine Mark Wilhelm did. Spirits run high, poor decisions are made. I feel nothing but sorrow for Brimble: whether she opted for drugs and sex or was coerced makes no difference to my opinion of her. She was entitled to have fun.

What I cannot get over is the ridicule: the taking of the photos, the shaving, the posing of her body. That has nothing to do with whether or not she was dead at the time. Even if Dianne Brimble had woken up at 7 am and returned to her cabin to sleep it off, there is no forgiving the recording and display of her unconscious body for laughs. That, to me, is the worst. And it is worse still because I have seen that such ridicule is not the norm on a P&O cruise. That is not how people are. The great majority of passengers are groups of women and groups of men, letting off steam yet treating each other with friendly respect. However much fun people are having afloat, the boundaries of acceptable behaviour don’t stretch to cruel and wanton ridicule. The rules are different, but not that different.

If there had been a Dianne Brimble on this ship, would I have known? How many of the 1900 would have known? The job of P&O is to give us a holiday, keep us going all night and all day. We’ll gladly come out of our shells. If we’re told that someone has died of a heart attack in a cabin, it’s not going to disrupt the mood on board, and may even spark it up. Death is surrounding us. Death is on the other side of that tinny membrane. We’re all on a Death Ship. Which goes some way to explaining why there is, on board, such an excess of Life.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, and has won three Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica, The Life and Bluebird.

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