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The couple who fell in love at first sight on a Cunard cruise ship

New Year’s Eve 1979. Marianna Pennucci clinked glasses with the man sitting across from her. Together they toasted the new decade, which suddenly seemed golden with possibility.

Marianna, a 32-year-old New York-based admin assistant, was vacationing aboard the Cunard Countess cruise ship. She’d boarded the gleaming vessel with a friend, excited to meander around the cobalt waters of the Caribbean, stopping off at idylls including Barbados and St Lucia.

And while the destinations were beautiful, the trip had taken an unexpected turn and Marianna’s focus wasn’t on the sunsets or the sandy beaches, but on the man sitting in front of her, who was grinning, slightly worse for wear after an evening spent toasting the advent of 1980.

This was Robert Knowles, a 27-year-old British-born ship’s photographer who’d grown up in the Caribbean and spent much of his adult life taking photos on cruise ships.

They’d only known each other a few days, but both Marianna and Robert felt a strong connection. The only issue was, she lived and worked in the United States and he lived and worked at sea. Neither of them was certain the connection would outlast the voyage, but they desperately wanted it to.

“If you had said to me, prior to December of 1979, something about love at first sight, which a lot of people talk about, I would have said, ‘Yeah, right. I’ll believe that when I see it,'” Marianna tells CNN Travel, recalling the events of decades ago.

“Well, I saw it. I experienced it. I think we had a connection right from the very beginning.”

On board encounter

Marianna boarded the Cunard Countess at the end of December 1979. She was vacationing with a good friend, Candace, and the two women had left New York early that morning.

Joining the ship in Puerto Rico, they felt tired and a bit disheveled. When, as they stepped on board, a man with a camera waved and asked them to smile for a photo, Marianna just laughed.

“Why would I want this particular moment documented?” she remembers thinking.

The man with the camera was Robert. He’d just transferred to the Countess from a stint on Cunard’s most famous ocean liner, the Queen Elizabeth 2.

The Countess offered a less regal, somewhat funkier, experience compared to the QE2. As Cunard historian Michael Gallagher puts it, the ship, which launched in 1976, was “very much the informal side of Cunard.”

“Passengers certainly knew they were on a Cunard ship thanks to famous livery and traditional service associated with the company but ‘zebra stripes’ dominated the original 1970s interiors and the onboard atmosphere was more relaxed,” Gallagher tells CNN Travel.

The design, he adds, was “hailed as innovative and trendy.”

Robert’s job was the same whatever the vessel. He worked on commission, wandering the ship armed with a Nikon camera and rolls of film, taking as many photos as he could.

When he worked the embarkation shift, he was usually on duty with another crew member.

“With our British banter, we thought it would be easy to cajole our weary looking travelers to give us wonderful smiles,” he says. “Sometimes it worked.”

He’d snapped shots of thousands of passengers over the past few years. But from the moment she boarded the ship, Marianna stood out to him.

There were some 800 people on board, but they both noticed each other amid the crowds of excited guests.

It was on New Year’s Eve, at an officer’s party, that Robert and Marianna properly introduced themselves.

Even over the noise of music and raucous crew partying, they both felt something special had begun.

“He smiled at me and there was an instant connection,” recalls Marianna.

“For the next five days when he had the time we would grab a drink or a few minutes to chat.”

A port stop at St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands formed the backdrop for their first proper date.

Robert asked Marianna if he’d like to have lunch with her during the stopover.

She agreed. They picked up a rented car and spent hours chatting together over food at Sparky’s, a pub on the harbor overlooking the water.

Back on board, the couple squeezed in conversations around Robert’s work schedule, which consisted of snapping shots of onboard events like the Captain’s cocktail hour and then developing the images in the on-board dark room.

The ship photographers also accompanied passengers on their port tours, snapping group photos and helping travelers — in the days before cell phones — capture their memories on film.

The strategy among crew, says Robert, was to work hard, but also enjoy beach and bar time. It was fun, he says, and he’s still in contact with many of his colleagues from his time working at sea.

“Theoretically, I guess the staff weren’t meant to fraternize with the passengers,” Robert says. “But as a photographer, you had full run of the ship, because that was your job to take pictures of the passengers.”

Whenever he could, he’d stop to speak to Marianna. The two spent a lot of time talking about family. Both came from families that were passionate about cooking — Marianna’s enjoyed the Italian recipes that had been passed down through generations, while Robert’s favourite meals were influenced by his childhood growing up in Jamaica.

“I think we shared the same goals and the same ideals and the same family values, which is important I think,” says Robert.

A romance cut short

Caught up in the fun and excitement of their unexpected encounter, Robert and Marianna tried to push to one side the knowledge that this budding relationship probably wouldn’t have chance to blossom beyond the cruise.

As the voyage drew to a close in Puerto Rico, the couple’s real lives started to inch back into frame.

Marianna was returning to New York, while Robert would remain on the Countess.

“If you’re ever in New York, please visit,” she told him as they said farewell.

“I will,” he promised.

On the plane journey home, Marianna’s mind raced as she considered what she had seemingly gained and lost in just seven days.

She remembers turning to Candace, the friend who’d been on the cruise with her.

“I always have to leave the good ones behind,” Marianna sighed.

“How come you always say that?” she recalls Candace replying. Marianna’s friend reassured her that it didn’t have to be that way.

After all, Candace had been witness to the relationship from the start.

“She was very supportive. She thought that he was sweet,” says Marianna. “She knew that I liked him, and she felt that he would make me happy.”

A New York reunion

Weeks passed and Marianna settled back into her life in Manhattan. In between work and socializing, she daydreamed about the man she’d met on the cruise.

Robert, meanwhile, had a new boss he didn’t really get on with. He also kept thinking about that New Year’s Eve voyage, and the promise he’d made to contact Marianna if he ever made it to New York.

February rolled around and Robert decided to go for it. What did he have to lose? He sent Marianna a telex — an early version of fax that allowed memos to be sent between offices — direct from the Cunard Countess to her Manhattan workplace.

“I’d like to come to New York and stay with you,” it read. “Maybe for two weeks.”

“It came right smack in the middle of the office, so the entire office knew that I was having this male visitor,” laughs Marianna. “That was awkward.”

But she didn’t think twice and telexed him back right away.

“By all means,” her response read.

On February 18, 1980 Robert landed at JFK airport.

Marianna waited at arrivals, her stomach in knots.

When he appeared, she almost didn’t recognize him — he looked heavier than she remembered, but it quickly transpired this was because he was wearing every shirt he owned, ill-prepared for the icy New York winter.

The first order of business was getting Robert a decent coat.

As the two wandered around the stores on Madison Avenue, the easy repartee that defined their on-board encounters was back.

They were both delighted to see one another.

“It was good, right from the start,” says Marianna.

“It just felt right, right away,” agrees Robert.

They spent the next three weeks together exploring Manhattan — sightseeing during the day, and spending evenings at the bars and restaurants in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood where Marianna had a studio apartment.

After three weeks, Robert temporarily flew to London to get his papers and some belongings.

He returned to New York on March 19, 1980.

“And he hasn’t left,” laughs Marianna. “We haven’t been apart since.”

Next steps

Robert was able to find work as a photographer in the city. The couple settled into a happy, comfortable routine and Sundays became the focal point after their busy work weeks.

“We would get up early and walk the streets,” recalls Marianna. “We went everywhere in New York.”

The certainty they’d both felt about their connection on the cruise was solidified over these weekend wanderings.

“I had made the decision to visit Marianna in NYC and soon after realized that I had found a person with whom I could spend my life with,” says Robert.

He didn’t hesitate about moving to the United States. He’d lived all over — from his childhood in Jamaica to boarding school years in the UK and his recent time at sea — and he felt more comfortable with Marianna than anywhere else.

“Finally I felt at home,” says Robert.

Within a year, they were married.

Marianna’s family welcomed Robert with open arms, hosting the couple for Sunday lunches and offering a home away from home for the British transplant.

“My life in the US was made all the richer by having a warm and welcoming new family,” says Robert.

Marianna, meanwhile, was unable to meet Robert’s family until 1982, as after their wedding the couple couldn’t leave the country until Robert’s citizenship was confirmed.

When they eventually made it to England and she met Robert’s parents, it was a great success.

“I was very, very fortunate that his family adopted me and welcomed me and without hesitation,” says Marianna.

The couple lived in New York for the next few years, continuing to enjoy their Manhattan life and summers spent traveling.

They welcomed a daughter, Kate, in 1986 and later moved up state to Westchester and more recently to Pennsylvania.

40 years of marriage

In April 2021, Robert and Marianna will celebrate their 40-year wedding anniversary.

New acquaintances still marvel when the couple tell the tale of how they met, while the couple are grateful a chance encounter led to so many years of happiness.

“I think we were both at a point in our lives where we were a little lonely. For me, it was the friends around me had started to get married, and I didn’t see that for myself to start with,” says Marianna.

As for Robert, working on ships left him with a nomadic lifestyle that hadn’t lent itself well to building lasting relationships.

“I felt like a rolling stone in a way, from early on. So, the chance to find something that was concrete and settling was good,” he says.

They’ve traveled a lot over the years, but despite cruise travel playing such a prominent role in their chance encounter, circumstances have never quite aligned to get them back at sea.

The couple always liked the idea of sailing on the Cunard Countess again, but the ship — which left Cunard in 1996 — has long since been decommissioned and dismantled.

Occasionally, Robert and Marianna find themselves reflecting on the role played by fate in their meeting.

Perhaps if she hadn’t taken the Cunard cruise, or Robert hadn’t become a ship’s photographer, they’d have never crossed paths?

But they’re both also aware chance can’t take all the credit. They both took a leap of faith that February in New York. After all, what if he’d never sent the telex, or she’d never invited him to stay in the first place?

“I’m so glad I made the choice,” says Robert.

“When it felt comfortable, we did all we could to keep it that way, so that it would last,” says Marianna.

“Sometimes you just have to take a chance and see where it takes you.”

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