I rush over to a security person to see if we’re in the right place. “The Pat-riots guy?” he says. He pronounces “Pat” like “Pat the Bunny.” Turns out we are. But so are the toddlers and the elderly. The embarrassing truth is that the Gronk ship was underbooked. Out of the 2,400 tickets Sixthman tried to sell, roughly 700 were bought. Norwegian Cruise Line then sold the remaining rooms to unsuspecting cruisers. (I heard rumors that ESPN later ran a segment called “Gronk Ruined My Vacation.” I couldn’t find the clip but that sounds about right.) “The Gronks aren’t going to make any money off this,” says a Sixthman mole I met on the boat. “It sold horribly. It was a massive failure.”
A Sixthman PR person declined to confirm or deny any ticket-sales figures, while Gronk’s public relations man, Jerry Shandrew, declined to comment on whether the Patriots star made or lost money. Shandrew, though, did make the technically true point that “the ship was sold out,” followed by the more dubious point that “everybody had a good time.”
What the Gronk cruisers lack in numbers they make up for in feverish devotion. At the port we meet Rob from West Roxbury, a solo-traveling middle-aged guy with a buzz cut and aviators, who confides to everyone within earshot that he has blown his last nickel on the trip. “I don’t even have a job,” he says. “I shouldn’t be doing this. What a way to go out.” He seemed at first to be under the influence of something powerful but was, in fact, just obsessed with Gronkowski. He spent the weekend wearing Day-Glo spandex and a drawstring backpack full of limited-edition “Gronk Flakes” cereal.
Charlie and I board the vessel, drop our bags off in our sad, windowless stateroom, and park ourselves at a bar located in a central area called the Atrium. Classiness-wise, the Norwegian Pearl falls somewhere between a honking Carnival-style shit show and one of those smooth Viking River Cruises boats they advertise before Downton Abbey. On the one hand, the Pearl features 13 separate watering holes, a Twin River–quality casino, and a louche club/bowling alley. On the other hand, guests can choose from several white-tablecloth restaurants and attend chapel the next morning. At the Atrium bar a similar dichotomy is at work. Older couples sip white wine and stare at a reeflike Dale Chihuly sculpture while Charlie tries to talk me into buying us all-you-can-drink booze packages.
He does the math: Three days of drinking at $59 per day + 18 percent gratuity and a “beverage service charge” equals unlimited wine and beer products for $209. At roughly $9 for each à la carte Bud Light Lime, the deal becomes worthwhile only if you can slug more than 23 green aluminum bottles of flavored beer over the course of 65 hours at sea. Charlie points out I’ve consumed two BLLs since boarding the Pearl and tells me at my current rate I’m just throwing dollar bills into the Atlantic Ocean. We buy the packages.
The plan is to sit at the Atrium bar until the first piece of official programming, a 5:45 p.m. photo shoot with Gronk. We make friends. There is Andrew, a stocky golf-playing Connecticut transplant who lives in Fort Lauderdale and seems to subsist on mimosas and bloodys, no matter the time of day. There is Paul from Davis Square, who wears a Julian Edelman jersey and blares air-horn noises at people using an app on his phone. There is Jodi/Jodie/Jody, an innocent non-Gronker who didn’t realize what she’d signed up for and now finds herself trapped on a party boat with her French husband and horrified French in-laws.
As we kill time, Andrew clues us into some of the Norwegian Pearl’s unfortunate history. A few months ago during an EDM cruise, a woman fell overboard and died. Concerts were canceled; the ship sailed back to Miami. Further research revealed that three years earlier—also aboard the Pearl—a woman died on a 311 cruise and was stashed inside an onboard morgue until debarkation. The Gronk Cruise may be less popular than other celebrity cruises, but at least no one died.
At 5:30 p.m. we ascend to a 13th-floor lounge for the photo op, where a massive queue has formed. At the door a smiling blond man hands us each a plastic shot glass filled with a cloudy tequila-and-something cocktail. Behind us in line is a group of four New England women whose accents carom off the walls of the ship, foretelling their presence wherever they go. And they go everywhere. One member will play Family Feud against the Gronks. Another will play flip cup against the Gronks. Still another will ask Gronk during a Q & A session to choose among Jennifer Lawrence, Mila Kunis, and Kate Upton in the age-old parlor game: “Fuck, Marry, Kill?” Gronk’s persistently drunken entourage—the “Hype Crew”—answers for him: “Bang ’em all!”
Pauline, the matriarch, manages a radio station in Salem. Her daughter, Madison, works in Foxboro for the Kraft family. There is also Jennifer, a cousin, and Mel, a friend. I ask them how they ended up here.
Jennifer: “I saw it and jokingly tagged them the minute I saw it on Facebook.”
Pauline: “Gronk, I would have to say, is my favorite player. Because I like the teddy-bear, party-but-nice persona that he has.”
Jennifer: “He’s not gross.”
Pauline: “My joke is: He’s a big redwood that I’d love to climb. But I can’t say that because I’m old enough to be his mother. But I give my daughter permission to say that.”
Madison: “I would climb the redwood.”
Speaking of redwood-climbing, Gronk was conspicuously lacking in female companionship during the cruise. Charlie brought this up several times. Last year Gronk was said to be dating former Patriots cheerleader Camille Kostek. Before that, he was “linked” to an adult-film professional named Bibi Jones. It’s unclear what went down, but she knew him well enough to disclose in a 2013 interview that “he’s obsessed with the music group LMFAO.… He is still constantly doing the Party Rock.” In any case, bedroom Gronk is perhaps best known for sexual exploits that never occurred, thanks to fan-fiction author Lacey Noonan’s novels A Gronking to Remember and A Gronking to Remember 2: Chad Goes Deep in the Neutral Zone.
Eventually we reach the threshold to a makeshift photo studio. Visible to us is the massive rectangular prism that is Gronk’s silhouette. The moment has arrived: Gronk, dressed in aquamarine tones, is wider than the two of us put together. It doesn’t help us on the tough-guy front that I’m wearing a Hawaiian shirt and that Charlie refuses to remove his fedora. Impressively, despite posing for 602 of these, Gronk never stops grinning. After the shoot, Charlie tells Gronk he knows a high school classmate of his. Gronk nods in recognition and tells him to relay the message that he “destroys” him at hockey. That’s the most one-on-one contact I’ll get until we meet again the next day in a public restroom on a place called “Gronk’s Island.”
On the way back to our stateroom we run into the uncomprehending elderly woman from the port. She tells me she’s since learned what a “Gronk” is. We make tentative plans to play bingo.