I Spent 24 Hours On a Booze Cruise, and I Never Want to Do It Again
Being on a ferry that sails from Sweden to Finland with bottomless wine on tap and all-you-can-eat prawns sounds like a dream. But is it, really?
All photos by Hampus Andersson
This article originally appeared on VICE Sweden
Although I was born and raised in Sweden, I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never set foot on a Baltic booze cruise. These unbelievably popular party ships sail around the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland, and offer tax free shopping and unlimited drinks and food for the duration of the trip. For 510 Swedish krona (£45), you're set for a full day and night. For only 280 kroner (£25), you won't get the all-you-can-eat-and-drink option, but you can use the hours on board to stock up on every litre of tax-free liquor you're able to carry home. That means a great deal to Swedes and Fins, since alcohol in both countries is expensive and sales are restricted.
According to Visit Stockholm, 11 million people travel around the Baltic Sea every year, many of them on a booze cruise. The idea of being trapped in a confined space with a bunch of drunk strangers has never really appealed to me, but everyone I know is obsessed with these ferries. To find out why, I booked a ferry from Stockholm to Turku, in Finland, and back – a 23 hour weekend return during which I would never have to leave the boat, let alone set foot in Finland.
I board the ferry at 7PM on a Friday evening after work. My fellow travellers are young couples and families with small children, but the majority are groups of drunk mates. One thing they all have in common, however, is their level of excitement. I feel like I’ve turned up late and sober to a house party and will need to work hard to be able to share in the general sense of euphoria.
After a long walk through the ship's corridors, I find my sparsely decorated, windowless cabin. In a poorly considered attempt to trick my mind into thinking there’s daylight streaming in, the room's designer hung a mirror where, in any other room where humans are expected to spend some time, there would be a window. The mirror is framed with some actual curtains.
After I've settled in, it’s time to go exploring. My first stop is a fairly obvious one – the all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet. It would frankly be silly of me not to start this trip by inhaling all the prawns and wine I can get my hands on.
The lighting in the spacious dining room is absolutely migraine inducing. I scamper to the buffet, but before I manage to reach it, a staff member ushers me to a table. I'm squeezed in between four separate groups of sesh lads – one of which is obstructed from view by the impressive wall of empty beer glasses they've managed to build between them and me.
When I finally reach the buffet, I notice that I shouldn't have hoped for any Swedish or Finnish delicacies – on offer is a mildly confusing but interesting mix of international dishes, such as lamb stew and Pad Thai. I pile a little bit of everything on my plate, fill my glass with wine from a tap and head back to my seat.
While I'm trying to eat, a guy next to me starts dipping into his extensive repertoire of drunken chants. The lyrics are simple but effective – he mostly just repeats the words “Go Sweden” about 20 times – so it's easy for other guests to join in. Many do.
After moving on to several ear-shattering renditions of popular Swedish folk songs, he finishes by proudly mooning everyone in his vicinity. Finally, a reluctant member of staff walks over to tell him off, and on that note, his set is done.
Two hours into exploring exactly how much unidentifiable free wine I can drink, I notice that other passengers are starting to move towards the back of the ship. There, I soon discover, is the beating heart of this godless vessel – its nightclub.
The venue is massive, with two floors and a stage where a band is playing a medley of inoffensive feel-good tunes. Groups of friends have gathered around in small circles to dance, but you can sense the tension – they're only warming up.
Soon, a spontaneous conga line breaks out, and as a crowd starts to gather in front of the stage, it's time for me to get up from my seat too. I'm just in time for the night's headliners, Swedish DJ duo Rebecca & Fiona. From the cheers, screams and hands put up in the air without the duo specifically having to ask for it, it's clear that this is what the night has been leading up to.
The crowd is one hundred percent into all of this, occasionally splashing cheap beer and wine on each other, and me. And then, I hear a call I haven't heard in a long time, which brings me right back to any dance floor and festival field I've spent time on during the noughties – a spontaneous choir of dudes bellows Seven Nation Army's refrain. It's stuck in my head for the rest of the trip.
When the party ends a few hours later, most guests carry themselves back to the restaurant to further test the limits of the all-you-can-eat buffet. I order a pizza, but when it's finished, I realise that I'm more or less alone in the dining hall – most people have headed to their cabins. I decide to do the same.
Hours later, I wake up because the ship is shifting and shaking to the point that I'm preparing to accept my impending death. My whole room seems to wobble, but since it's pitch dark in this miserable pit, it's hard to tell what's going on exactly. I leap for the door, marked by a sliver of light underneath it, and shakily crawl out of my room. I quickly regain my balance and walk further down the corridor, where I find a door leading out on to a balcony.
For the first time since I got on it, I'm breathing fresh air and I'm reminded that this ship is actually sailing through the outside world. I take it all in – the sea, the birds cutting through the grey, Nordic sky and a few of my countrymen holding on to the railing, looking like shit.
It turns out that it's just afternoon, and all that shaking was the ship on its journey back to Sweden. I feel a tinge of sadness that I won't see any of Finland, but I'm well aware that experiencing what another country has to offer – or even just getting from A to B – isn't the point of a party cruise.
This second half of the trip is fairly bleak. It's quiet, and the people who are up and about seem anxious and very hungover. We still have still six hours to kill before we're back in Stockholm. What are we supposed to do now?
I head back to the club. It’s not completely deserted but it's boring as hell – there are some kids running around doing cartwheels on stage, and a group of teens who seem just old enough to drink, lying defeated on a few sofas in a corner.
The next two hours are eventless, sad and unbearably long. By now, my fellow travellers have bought all the tax free booze, cigarettes and snus they could ever want – and then some. In the end, most of them shuffle back to the club and, for lack of anything better to do, just sit there.
Watch: VICE UK's 15th Birthday Party
At 4PM the staff try to get some semblance of a party started again, by having a dance group put on a show on stage. But the second the dancers walk off, apathy strikes again. With a couple of more hours to go, I head back to my cabin, get into bed and peer into the darkness until it's announced through the speakers that we've reached Stockholm.
We all gather by the exit – if there's any excitement in the air now, it's because we're finally able to get the fuck off this ship.
Reeking of yesterday’s spilled beer on the subway home, I'm thinking I completely understand why so many people pay to get shit-faced on these ferries. Bottomless drinking, eating and partying while out on international waters is a glorious experience. It's just that there's no escaping your boredom and your hangover, the next day. At that point, you're quite literally lost at sea.