CARIBBEAN SEA – Jill Whelan was having a hot flash, and the timing couldn’t have been worse.
Whelan, the actress best known for playing sweet little Vicki Stubing on “The Love Boat,” was just a few minutes away from officiating the wedding of 1,443 couples aboard the Regal Princess cruise ship with her on-screen father, Gavin MacLeod, who played the formidable Captain Merrill Stubing.
Behind the scenes, the story line was playing out just like an episode of “The Love Boat,” complete with a menopausal twist! When I happened across Whelan complaining of hot flashes, I sprang into action and did what any rabid “Love Boat” fan would do: I held a cold can of Diet Coke to Vicki Stubing’s, I mean Whelan’s, warm forehead, fanned her, told her she looked gorgeous, and that everything would be OK. I had just met her two minutes prior, but I’d like to think that my kindly actions gave her the inspiration she needed to push ahead. Shortly after our encounter, Whelan and MacLeod led the couples in a renewal of their vows on Deck Five under the blazing Caribbean sun. She did a smashing job.
This was February 2020, and the “Love Boat”-themed Valentine’s week cruise ended up being my last big trip of the year. I was aboard the Regal Princess to report on the big wedding, which was part of the largest multi-location vow renewal ceremony ever recorded (weddings simultaneously took place on three Princess ships). But can I be honest? I was really on this ship because as a childhood fan of “The Love Boat,” I wanted to be a part of it all.
When the ship left port from Fort Lauderdale on Feb. 9, COVID-19 seemed like a far-away danger. Precautions on the ship consisted of elbow-bumping, hand washing, and hand sanitizer. Toilet paper shortages were a month away, and, well, I was on “The Love Boat.” Or at least the closest thing to “The Love Boat” in 2020.
I had no idea that on the day I boarded, another Princess cruise, this one off the coast of Japan, had reported that 66 passengers tested positive for coronavirus. I was too consumed with preparing for my own cruise to pay attention, and once onboard the ship, my thoughts turned to love, exciting and new. A few weeks later the world as we knew it would be changed forever. The cruise industry had vanished.
In my mind, that Regal Princess voyage is now, and will probably always be, surrounded by the warm, sunny glow of a more innocent time when we all felt safer and more confident. Whether you love cruising or despise the notion of it, I can guarantee that if you were on that ship, at that particular moment in time, you would come away with the same sentimental appreciation.
COVID-19 is the reason why this story has lived in my notebook for nearly a year. Writing about a cruise in 2020 felt counterintuitive and uncomfortable. But when I look back at my limited travel last year, it’s “The Love Boat” cruise that sticks with me. It was my favorite 2020 adventure, and it deserved a life outside of my notebook.
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For those too young to remember, “The Love Boat” was a Saturday night staple during the 10 seasons it ran on ABC from 1977 to 1986. There were always three concurrent story lines through each of the hourlong episodes. The passenger list consisted of faded Hollywood stars, sitcom actors with shows to promote, or those who were in-between gigs. The roster was incredible, from Carol Channing to Andy Warhol, everybody went on a cruise, especially Charo.
“The Love Boat” was also responsible for changing the way that people looked at the cruise industry. Prior to the show, cruises were primarily the domain of, as the old saying goes, the newlywed and nearly dead. But watching Hulk Hogan, Tony Danza, and Lola Falana sip cocktails on the Lido Deck made the idea of cruising sexy.
“We definitely changed the industry,” MacLeod told me. “Before ‘The Love Boat’ average folks didn’t think ‘I’m going to take my family on a cruise for vacation this year.’ It really changed the dynamic. People watched the show and realized that a cruises had a lot to offer.”
The cruise industry, and the ships themselves, have changed dramatically since the show’s run. The Pacific Princess, the ship that served as the backdrop for the TV show, could accommodate 670 passengers. The Regal Princess could accommodate 3,560 passengers, and by today’s standards is not considered a large ship.
One thing that has not changed is affection for the show. It doesn’t matter that “The Love Boat” sailed into the sunset in 35 years ago, couples that were on the ship to renew their vows could still tick off their favorite “Love Boat” episodes without missing a beat.
One of the ship’s officers who grew up in Italy saw ”The Love Boat” as a boy and immediately decided, at 10 years of age, that he wanted to work on a cruise ship for a living. He could recount the story in vivid detail.
A second ceremony was held for those who missed the first, and after the vows, passengers had an opportunity to have their photo taken with MacLeod and Whelan. The line snaked through the ship’s atrium and the session went on longer than an hour, with the then 89-year-old MacLeod grinning through the whole afternoon, enthusiastically talking to fans. There was so much affection for these characters that it truly felt like a love boat.
“We still watch, and when we heard about this, we booked pretty quickly,” said Desiree Dyck, who stood in line for more than an hour with her husband, Carey, to get a photo with MacLeod and Whelan.
MacLeod, who is as personable as you’d hope (in real life he’s more Murray Slaughter than Merrill Stubing), can spin a yarn like nobody’s business, and confessed that initially he was not interested in jumping back into television so soon after the end of “The Mary Tyler Moore” show. Luckily producer Aaron Spelling and “The Love Boat” script convinced him otherwise.
Wherever he walked on the Regal Princess, fans flocked to MacLeod as if he were Zac Efron.
Whelan, who joined the cast at age 11, was slightly luckier when it came to onboard fans. Now 54, she no longer looks like the same chipmunk-cheeked, feathered hair-wearing teenager of the 1980s. It was only when she strolled the ship in full makeup and heels that she was recognized.
Given that she joined the cast of the show so young, and that some of the story lines were, by 1980s broadcast television standards, occasionally racy, I wondered how much she understood about what was happening around her.
“I had my school work, and everything else that I had to do,” she said. “I read my lines and learned what I had to say, and that was about it. The show was on late and my parents didn’t let me stay up and watch it.”
This may be a good time to rejoin the “Love Boat” plot twist of Whelan’s pre-ceremony hot flash. And yes, before you ask, I have permission to write about her hot flashes. Just before that record-breaking wedding ceremony, I met Whelan at one of the ship’s bars. Initially I didn’t recognize her, or the friend she was sitting with. They were looking at me oddly, and I realized it was because I was swaying a bit too enthusiastically to the music coming from a band playing nearby.
She introduced herself, and I apologized profusely for not recognizing her. In another “Love Boat”-worthy plot twist, I learned that the friend she was traveling with, Heather Farley, happened to be from my hometown. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I had grown up in a city, but I’m from a small town in north central Massachusetts called Athol. What on earth were the chances that Jill Whelan’s best friend and travel companion was from my small hometown, and I met her for first time in the Caribbean?
After quickly realizing that the three of us shared the same wicked sense of humor and sarcastic perspective (that’s a polite way of saying that we’re all catty), we spent the remainder of the cruise together. We started crashing parties, singing karaoke, and dancing late into the night. On Feb. 14, with our husbands all at home, we celebrated Valentine’s Day (renamed Palentime’s Day for our purposes) with roses and too much champagne. Looking back on it now, it was probably — no, definitely — the most fun I had in 2020.
Our friendship ended up being more than a shipboard fling. Through the pandemic, the three of us kept in touch with incessant texting and Zoom cocktail parties. At the end of the year we all agreed that 2020 was terrible, but something good had come of it: We found each other on “The Love Boat.”