A few days is all it takes for most people to get to know each other. When those people are a bunch of bearded dudes on a cruise ship, the process is expedited.
For instance, two Wednesdays ago, the members of Beard Team USA were strangers shaking hands, reading nametags, and complimenting each other’s manes. But four days worth of schmoozing and boozing later, eight of us were packed rump-to-rump, stache-to-beard in the tiny aft deck “adults only” hot tub, spoiling people’s parting views of the magnificent frosted mountains around Skagway.
It didn’t take much. Aside from the more obvious shared qualities, most of us Beard Teamers onboard are also twenty- or early thirty-somethings with somewhat unconventional lifestyles and a penchant for being inebriated. There are plenty of “older” fellows on the Team, but they’re all probably too busy with real jobs, families, and other normal trappings to take a cruise in the middle of May.
And then there’s a couple of bears, but they’re not competing; to them, appreciating flocks of wooly old men doesn’t really require a contest.
Thus, on top of all the compelling conversation, whether it’s losing money we don’t have in the casino, sharing an epic, frigid glacier-viewing smoke on the Lido Deck, or helping mold each other’s moustaches with hairdryers and Aqua Net, the bonds have come fairly easy.
The transnational ties, however, have taken longer to tighten. While we North American Beard Team youngsters (and a handful of oldsters) are a clear coagulation, the Belgians and Germans - of whom there are, respectively, about several and 20 - have mostly stuck with themselves and their wives.
And we’re easy to tell apart. The Americans tend to be younger, more pierced and inked, dressed in different, but mostly inexpensive, ways, and to rock unruly beards and moustaches that just grow the way they grow.
Meanwhile, the Germans - there are three regional clubs of them on board - tend to be much older and go around in matching windbreakers made special for the trip, fine blue dinner jackets, or vests adorned with victory pins from past facial hair events and, of course, the breathtaking expertly whirled and twirled moustaches and freestyle partial and full beards that have earned most of them titles in their categories. And in Ketchikan, three of the Pforzheim fellows added to their uniform hats shaped like the face of a bear.
Some of the Germans even have trading cards. They’re homemade; old glossy victory photos on one side, grower stats on the back. According to his, Geerhardt Knapp, the 74-year-old originator of the full beard freestyle, is a two-time superweltmeister - a super world champion.
So basically, we Americans are casual, young, and silly; the Germans are fancy, old, and extremely serious. Captain Phil speaks German and knows most of them somewhat personally; but for us, other than doing photos together or passing each other around the ship, we’ve been pretty distant from one another all week.
Or at least we had been. But then there was the free beer.
In Juneau, Captain Phil did not have to push too hard to organize a group trip to the Alaskan Brewing Company. As we’d all been together walking around the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier, and the state’s number one brewhouse was on the way back to town, we rounded up a bunch of minivan cabs to get us all there.
I thought our cab was the first to arrive, but when we entered the lobby, some Germans were already there, sample glasses in hand. Perhaps noticing my surprise, the stocky, musketeer-sporting Reinhardt explained in his raspy voice, “We have a reputation to defend.”
At the Alaskan Brewery, the samples are as delicious as they are free, so it’s difficult to say who maintained or dishonored whose alcoholic standing. What was clear was that, within sixty minutes and untold quaffs of freshly tapped amber, smoked porter, IPA, and several other fantastic brews, all of the over-40 beardsmen present - be they American, Canadian, Belgian, or bear-hatted German - were at last united, clinking glasses and sharing mutually unintelligible sentences, all in the name of God’s greatest gift to men-kind, beards and beer.
Of course, we’ve rarely spoken since. But luckily, no shortage of breweries and bars awaits us in Anchorage.