Fathom’s passengers focus on volunteering and cultural exchange. Can this shake up an entire industry?

By Molly Young
September 12, 2016
Fathom Cruise
Fathom’s Adonia cruise ship.
| Credit: Courtesy of Fathom

They say that creativity thrives on constraints. And not many situations are more constrained—more inescapable and impregnable—than a ship on the open seas. So as a thought experiment, the idea of a weeklong cruise thrilled me. As a reality, well, I’m an unmarried 29-year-old New Yorker who works at a start-up. My dossier places me miles outside the average cruise-taking demographic.

The indifference of millennials like me toward cruising is not lost on industry executives, who are starting to see a market ripe for—you guessed it—disruption. Among these leaders is Tara Russell, president of a new venture called Fathom. The cruise line is a tiny subsidiary of the behemoth Carnival Corporation, and its fleet consists of one ship, the 704-passenger Adonia, which alternates seven-day voyages to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. But what is a small initiative now could have, if it succeeds, very large implications for an industry looking for its next customer base. Instead of casinos, comedians, and show tunes, Fathom offers guests opportunities to build water filtration systems, tutor children, and meet local artists. “Impact travel” is the brand’s stated purpose, and some of the goals include equipping more than 15,000 homes with ceramic water filters and planting 20,000 trees per year. Passengers volunteer at a women’s cooperative and cacao farm. Courtesy of Fathom

“We don’t think of it as a cruise,” Russell explained to me aboard Fathom’s second-ever journey to the Dominican Republic, putting air quotes around the word, “but as a travel experience that happens on a cruise.” As we tucked in to Dominican dishes at the ship’s Ocean Grill restaurant, I noticed that Russell, who possesses impressive social-enterprise credentials, spoke about Fathom with the kind of vocabulary that a tech CEO might use to talk about a product in beta. “Everything is so not fully baked yet,” she cheerfully admitted. Still, this trip was version 1.0 of what Russell intends to grow into a category of its own. Every detail has been carefully considered, from the paintings by a Cuban-American artist that hang on the restaurant walls to the Adonia itself, which is a refitted P&O vessel. “Building a new cruise ship takes three years and costs hundreds of millions of dollars,” Russell pointed out. “We found it much more appealing to repurpose an underused asset.”

The impact portion of the trip started as soon as the ship left Miami. Passengers were divided into groups and assigned a guide to facilitate activities and lead icebreaker games. My group included an auto mechanic from Jackson, Mississippi, two Germans, a teenager from Tennessee, a retired couple from New Jersey, and a graphic designer from Brooklyn—not your typical cruise crowd. Our guide, Ricardo, was originally from Colombia. “I feel I am working for travelers, not for tourists,” he explained at the first of three meetings, flattering the group’s collective ego.

It wasn’t your typical cruise atmosphere. Over the three days and some 960 miles of smooth sailing to Puerto Plata—where the volunteering officially began—I wandered around the ship, snapping pictures of murals printed with WHAT STARTS HERE CAN CHANGE EVERYTHING and REMEMBER THIS MOMENT AND JUMP IN. I curled up in a sunny library stocked with volumes by Michael Pollan and Eckhart Tolle. I grew accustomed to the sight of oiled sun-worshippers lying out on the pool deck, sipping piña coladas while reading the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. Something about the nautical setting lent an appealing dignity to solitude. I was perfectly comfortable eating alone with a book. But all I had to do for company was look up for 10 seconds and make eye contact with someone (literally, anyone) and I had a buddy. This cruise was the opposite of reality television: everyone really is there to make friends. Amber Cove, Carnival's port in the Dominican Republic. Mike Morgan/Courtesy of Fathom

At 7:25 a.m. on the day we slid into Puerto Plata, passengers assembled in a lounge, ready to volunteer. We were sunblocked and prepared to do some good. My activity was Recycled Paper and Crafts Entrepreneurship; others had signed up to pour concrete floors in homes or assist with English lessons.

We funneled out to Amber Cove, a sparkling $85 million port opened by Carnival last fall. The coffee shops and manicured greenery of the compound gave it the vibe of an upscale mall. But—lest anyone forget why we were there—over 40 percent of Dominicans live below the poverty line. My group of about two dozen filed in to a bus and drove 20 minutes to a recycling plant in a low-income neighborhood where a group of Dominican women have formed a small association that makes crafts from recycled paper to sell. Upon arrival, the employees thanked us, with much applause. We then participated in 20-minute rotations through craft stations: gluing coasters, sewing pot holders, pouring candles infused with insect repellent, sifting paper pulp through molds, and chatting with locals the whole way through. In total I poured 18 candles, made three coasters, sewed one-third of a pot holder, produced one lumpy sheet of recycled paper, and generally got in everyone's way. After an hour, there was a snack break, during which I talked to fellow passengers. “It’s very emotional, seeing the struggles that people go through,” a woman shared as she unwrapped a sponge cake. “But it’s good to be here,” she added. “It’s good that you’re doing this.”

“Er, thank you?” I replied. (Or: “Ditto?”) I found myself unsure of how to deliver a socially appropriate response. By lunchtime the cruise group had separated into clusters: some were Instagramming, some were buying souvenirs, some were planning to go ziplining or snorkeling (Fathom also offers more traditional shore excursions). On the bus ride back we answered survey questions: What did we most enjoy about today’s activity? What was the most significant thing we achieved today? Our Fathom group leader, who had accompanied us on the ground, shared stats: we made 157 sheets of paper and 300 candles. Not too shabby. Fathom cruisers plant trees at a nursery as part of a reforestation project in the Dominican Republic. Jeff Berlin/Courtesy of Fathom

Later, after I’d cleaned cacao nibs at a women’s collective and planted tree seedlings, I realized that the sheer metrics of the volunteering—the number of students tutored, the weight of cacao nibs cleaned—was not the point. It is, after all, hardly a stretch to conclude that each of the partnering organizations might have had a more productive morning without being interrupted by dozens of untrained volunteers. Instead, the activities seemed to function as a volunteering gateway drug for people who wouldn’t normally spend their vacation digging holes in a mountainside for the sake of rain-forest replenishment.

And the activities were possibly even a gateway to people, like me, who wouldn’t normally cruise. On Fathom, you will watch Winslow Homer sunsets and eat breakfasts of gemlike tropical fruits. But you may also witness a preteen boy’s first epiphany about global inequality over said breakfast: “We are just miles away from people who are starving and we’re eating at a buffet,” one kid announced to his family, with a look that can only be described as “dawning clarity.” When it comes to souvenirs, that’s worth more than a T-shirt.

fathom.org; seven-night cruises from $499.