The Freewinds cruise ship is a grand cathedral for Scientology, and houses the Flag Ship Service Organization (FSSO) (Westbrook, 91). The Freewinds hosts one of the most powerful organizations in the western-born religion. The 440-foot vessel is based in the Caribbean and is where veteran scientologists go to achieve the highest available level of “Operating Thetan,” OT VIII. (One’s level of Operating Thetan is essentially one’s ranking in the religion, or how much progress one has made through auditing sessions.) The ship also provides all services up to that level and is open to any Scientologist who is interested. Preparatory and on board counseling costs between fifteen and thirty thousand dollars, and an additional one thousand dollars per week for accommodations (Palmer, “What Happens”).
The Freewinds is a vessel that provides a distraction-free environment for those looking to work on their spiritual self-development. In 2008, the ship was completely refurbished for future voyages (Church, “All Are Welcome”). The Freewinds website, run by the Church of Scientology, states that “[The Freewinds’] position at sea is designed to provide an aesthetic, distraction-free environment off the crossroads of everyday life.” The facilitators aboard the Freewinds try and give the Scientologists being audited and lectured to the best experience possible as they finally reach the top of the “Bridge,” which is a metaphor used by the Church of Scientology to describe their believers’ advancement in the religion. They boast in their video on the same website about all of the luxuries on board, like the five-star restaurant “Horizon” (Church, “All Are Welcome”).
In the end, OT VIIIs have learned enough to finally realize the goal of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that they become like him. At this point, they are poised to function like bodhisattvas, which is to say as embodiments of the “end phenomena” of pilgrimage up the Bridge (Westbrook, 91). Returning home around the world, they can bear witness to the efficacy of Hubbard’s technologies, encouraging less prestigious Scientologists in their communities to likewise walk in Hubbard’s footsteps (Westbrook, 91).
There has been some controversy that has arisen due to events that allegedly took place on the Freewinds. In 2008, the ship had a blue asbestos leak. The Freewinds was under seal at Curacao after asbestos fibers were found. There was suspicion that passengers may have come in contact with blue asbestos fibers, which was very bad news. Even brief exposure to asbestos can lead to mesothelioma (Gibb, “Bad Drug”).
Although not confirmed, one ex-Scientologist woman claims to have been kept on the ship against her will for 12 years. She says that the Church of Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, sent her to the ship when she was 18 to prevent her mother from taking her away from the religion. Her mother publicly denounced Scientology after her ex husband committed suicide, who had blamed the church for fleecing him of his fortune (Cannane, “Woman ‘Imprisoned'”).
– Donald Holley, 2018
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Church of Scientology International, “All Are Welcome!” Freewinds – Flag Ship Service Organization. June 25 2018. https://www.freewinds.org/#slide2.
Palmer, Brian. “What Happens on a Scientology Cruise?” Slate Magazine, December 1, 2011.
Westbrook, Donald A. “Walking in Ron’s Footsteps: ‘Pilgrimage’ Sites of the Church of Scientology,” in NVMEN, the Academic Study of Religion, and the IAHR: Past, Present and Prospects, edited by Tim Jensen, 71-94. Leiden: Brill, 2016.