Friday, June 8, 2007
Shipwrecked off the Alaska coast
It all started when I was snuggled up under my quilt, sound asleep, at about 1:15 a.m. on Monday, May 14. I was aboard the cruise ship Empress of the North, only a day into the seven-day cruise on Alaska's Inside Passage that I had given myself for my 65th birthday. I had drifted asleep that night with thoughts of all I had already seen and done a train ride on the Yukon railroad, a flight-seeing trip over several large glaciers, large numbers of humpback whales swimming right around our vessel, literally thousands of stellar sea lions hauled out on the shores we were passing. And I couldn't wait for the next morning, when we'd be in Glacier Bay. Everyone said this would be one of our trip's highlights. Little did I know!
A loud thump
I was awakened by a very loud thump, accompanied by a ferocious jolt of the ship. I jumped out of bed and went out to my room's verandah, where all I could see was water. We were clearly not moving at all. I ventured out into the hall in my jammies, where other passengers were already milling about, asking each other what had just happened. Someone said maybe we had hit one of those humpback whales we'd recently seen swimming around the boat. Someone else said maybe we'd hit an iceberg. Another person suggested perhaps there had been an earthquake. In fact, we had hit a rock and surrounding reef that was evidently charted and could be easily seen on any boat's radar screen.
After a few minutes, the captain's voice came over the loudspeaker system, saying something like, "This is your captain speaking. We have run aground and are currently assessing the situation. Do not panic; everything is under control; you are not in any danger. Please return to your cabins and await further instructions." A few more minutes passed, and the captain came on the loudspeaker again. "At this time, I am asking everyone to please get dressed, get their life preservers, and report to their muster stations." (We had had an emergency drill the day before, right after we arrived on the ship, when we were given information about the location of life preservers, how to put them on, and where our muster stations were.)
As I was dressing, I could feel the first little pit of fear forming in my tummy. For some reason, which I still can't understand, I grabbed a water bottle but left behind my personal identification, my credit cards, and all my cash. I also didn't take my camera or my cell phone. I would later come to regret that I had left all these items behind!
My muster station was the ship's large dining room. It soon was filled with passengers, all dressed in their warmest coats and carrying their life preservers. After a while, the captain came on the loudspeaker again and very calmly said, "Don't panic, but I must tell you that the ship is taking on water. But I can assure you that we are in no danger of sinking and everyone will be okay. The water is contained in special compartments at the bottom of the ship, and the only thing that you will notice is that the ship will start to list to one side as the weight of the water inside the boat increases." Sure enough, the ship's floor started developing a distinct slope, and we could hear glassware in the kitchen start to slide off shelves and hit the floor. At this point, the little pit of fear in my tummy grew bigger.
After this, though, I never felt any fear again. It was an adventure. The captain said he had decided to evacuate the ship as a precautionary measure. I, along with about 20 other passengers, was helped aboard a small fishing boat, one of the first boats that answered the "mayday" call from the cruise ship. The two fishermen on the boat apologized for the mess on the boat (it was indeed messy!) but kindly offered us coffee and fruit from their kitchen area. They were carrying a load of halibut they had just caught, and thus their boat had a nice, fishy smell to it. They took us a short distance to a tugboat and helped us move onto it from their boat.
In the tugboat's pilot house
They were stuffing people into all the tugboat's nooks and crannies, so I volunteered to go up to the pilot house, which ended up being one of the highlights of the adventure. I was there for several hours, and was privy to all the communications going on among the tugboat captain, the cruise ship captain, the Coast Guard cutters and helicopters, and the other assorted boats that were in the area taking on other passengers. It was very clear that everyone was focused on keeping all 206 passengers and 75 crew members safe, and were trying their hardest to figure out how best to do that. After all the passengers and some of the crew had been evacuated from the cruise ship, I saw it heading off, under its own steam, to Juneau.
A large Alaska state ferry, which was about four hours away, had been dispatched to the scene. Once it arrived, all of the passengers — who at the time were on about six or eight smaller boats — were transferred to the ferry. .
Safe aboard the ferry
Once aboard the ferry, things became quite comfortable. Passengers gave up their comfy chairs (and even some of their beds) so our passengers had places to sit, or sleep if they wanted. Cups of coffee and hot chocolate were handed out. So were blankets. It was announced that we could go to the cafeteria and have anything we wanted to eat or drink, without charge. Later in the morning (about 10 hours after our ship hit the rock) we arrived in Juneau, the place where our cruise had started only two days before!
The cruise line, Majestic America Line, bused us all to the Juneau Convention Center, and arranged for everyone to get back to Seattle that day on three different airplanes, one of which they chartered. They put us up at the Doubletree at Seatac for the night, and helped everyone rearrange their connections home. I was on the last of the planes leaving Juneau, and arrived at the Doubletree at about 1 a.m., so it had been about 24 hours between the time I left my bed on the cruise ship and the time I gratefully settled into a bed in Seattle.
Reunion with suitcases
And the belongings that I had left behind in my cruise-ship cabin? As I mentioned, the disabled ship went back to Juneau. At some point, a group of crew members was evidently dispatched to go from room to room, and pack up everything from each room into whatever suitcases they found there. We were all reunited with our suitcases the next morning at the Doubletree. All of our belongings were in a jumble, and I was happy to find my purse (containing I.D., cash and credit cards) tucked into one of my suitcases. Some things were missing, however. One of the passengers got the clothes that had been hanging in one of his room's closets but not in the other. Another person got her glasses, but not the book that they had been sitting on top of. Someone else didn't get the suitcase that had been under her bed. The only important thing I didn't get back was my passport, which was with a pile of papers on my desk that somehow got left behind. The cruiseline staff took our lists of missing items and promised they would find everything and mail it to us.
Cruise line pays up
I understand that each passenger will receive a full refund for the cruise, and will have the opportunity to go on another cruise free. The cruise line also gave each passenger $100 when we arrived in Juneau to cover incidental expenses until we got our belongings. Who can complain?
Everyone has asked me if I will ever go on a cruise again? The answer is, "Of course!" I had a great time, and can't wait to go back to Alaska and see everything I missed. Everyone who helped us along the way was extremely kind and considerate. I always felt safe and cared about. If the cruise line had been able to patch up the holes in their ship with bubble gum, I would have jumped right back on and continued the cruise!
Lori Stokes lived on Heald Road in Carlisle from 1967 to 1992. She now lives in Friday Harbor, Washington.
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito