Some years ago on this day, I had been enjoying a cruise to the Antarctic. Dragging along my sister and mother to experience one of the few remaining frontiers. My Dad wouldn’t come…“boats sink”.
Following the adventures of Shackleton, we had left Ushuaia in Argentina on the MS Explorer. Then sailed to the Falkland Islands and experienced the pleasures of South Georgia and other Islands. I remember the comment “Below 40 degrees, there is no law, but below 50 degrees, there is no God.”
I was sitting at the bar, drinking with crew-members as the time approached midnight heading into the 23 November 2007. My sister headed out for a smoke. Shortly coming running back in with the plea “There’s water at the bottom of the stairs, shall we tell Mum?”
“Fuck yes.” Moving to the doors, where flights of stairs lead down to our triple cabin in the base of the boat. I yelled back at the crew, “there’s water down there”, to which I got little response.
My sister and I made our way down the stairs to where water covered the starboard, a few inches deep. Our cabin was on the port side, we entered, woke mum and started to pack our gear.
The speaker comes on. “Captain here, Captain here, this is not a drill, this is not a drill.” “I will be calling muster, I will be calling muster.”
Over the next hour the Captain came back a few times. “Captain here, Captain here, we have the flooding under control, but I have issued a Mayday as a precaution. “We have had responses from Virginia Station and Roma Base.” I remember thinking Virginia is Washington, Roma is Italy. Isn’t there someone a bit closer? He did advise there were ships only 10 hours away.
“Captain here, Captain here, we have the flooding under control, the ships responding to our mayday are heading to us, but we will not need to abandon ship. The only concern would be if ice comes up against the boat as I would not long be able to launch lifeboats. But we have the flood under control’
A pause “Abandon Ship, Abandon Ship, Abandon Ship!”
That was an “oh fuck” moment.
The confusion of moving to the lifeboats, the safety briefing was a distance two-week-old memory. The boat had lost power, making the launch of the lifeboats difficult. I jumped in and helped the crew-member release the boat hook, a large, 18-inch heavy device. It flew into the air and came down directly at my head. It brush my hair and in hindsight was glad that the lifeboat was at the bottom of the 2m swell.
The engine in the lifeboat didn’t start and we started to drift under the forward lifeboat. An oar was broken pushing our way away from the ship and another lifeboat. With the numbers in the open timber, lifeboat rowing wasn’t really an option. Though we lucked out and ended up undertow by one of the Zodiacs.
It was a pity the crewman had never towed anything, as he proceeded to tow us under wave after wave. We were thankful when the Captain had got off the ship an ended up in the Zodiac towing us.
We spent some five hours in that open timber lifeboat. As we waited for the rescue ships the Captain told us were come to appear. One of our guides, experienced on the ice checked out the icebergs. And advised the Captain they were not stable enough for us to land on.
We knew we were close to King George Island, near the Antarctic Peninsula, being the itinerary for the day ahead. I had pulled the planned itinerary off the noticeboard on the way off the ship. It’s a pity when I was told to drop my backpack, I didn’t get my camera, phone or wallet out, but that’s life.
During those hours, the darkness started turning to light and a hum appeared in the sky. A helicopter had come out from the Chilean Air Force Base to check on us. To this day half the people in the boats didn’t see the helicopter.
A small dot in the horizon over an hour turned into two rescue ships, MS NordNorge and National Geographic Endeavour.
Getting rescued included moving from the timber lifeboat, into the Zodiac. Which then nosed into the side of the ship and a climb up a rope ladder. I was the last out of the Zodiac besides the driver. I climbed up the rope ladder, to the access which was 5-6 foot above the Zodiac. Sleep deprived and cold, almost seen me end up wet. A slip of the hands on the ladder and I was back down on the Zodiac apron. The second time was more successful.
If you are going to be rescued, do it in style. The MS NordNorge was a top of the line cruise liner. Satellite phone coverage allowed me to give Dad a call. It went something like, Dad we are ok. What do you mean? The boat sunk but we are ok. When? I am still wet, but we are all ok. We might not be able to talk for a few days, but we are ok.
Dad got off the phone and rings my other sister. He denies it but was reported as saying your brother is drunk. A quick web search of the international news soon told the story.
After some great hospitality from the ship and its passengers, the call was made to transfer us to land, where we were heading that day anyway. This occurred in a gale force wind. The MS NordNorge lifeboats, enclosed and modern were a pleasure. Wearing full emersion suits, the transfer was substantially more comfortable than the previous lifeboat.
My sister took the step off the lifeboat, to have a camera pushed into her face and asked, “what’s it like to be on land?” The response of “I don’t know”, might not have been what was expected.
The passengers and crew were then moved to various locations for the afternoon and evening. We ended up in a “hotel” at the Chilean Air Force Base, think one star, set up for scientists and visitors. That evening on the 6 pm news, we saw for the first time footage of the boat on its side, taken from the helicopters on the National Geographic Explorer.
At 5 am the next morning, I awoke and headed out to the lounge area. Here I meet the two helicopter pilots that had flow out when we were in the lifeboat. They started to apologise for not being able to do anything to help us, they were only equipped to rescue one person at a time not 155. I reject their apologies and thanked them. Their presence in the air was the first recognition I have had that help was on its way, outside the work of the Captain.
All morning we had no idea of what was happening. We were told that the only way out was via a C-130 Hercules and that they would fly 3-4 hours down from Chile, but it was only safe to land one time in two.
The first time we knew something was happening when many more of our shipmates arrived from other accommodation. A plane was on its way.
We all gathered outside and after a while, a C-130 Hercules appeared in the sky and overflew the airport. It then flew off into the distance. 20mins later the feeling was today wasn’t our lucky day and that it wouldn’t be back, only a few minutes later to has the bird fly over the bay and land on the hillside ice runway.
Not really knowing what to expect, the door opened and off got a General, some reporters, and a customs official. The General told us he had been sent down by his President to get us back safely. Lucky all our passports had been kept by the purser and he had got them off.
Landing back into Punta Arenas we were met by the red carpet, the world press, and the Governor. The Australian Counsel General greeted us and started what can only be described as incredible support and assistance. A motorcade with police lined streets, leading us back to a hotel where again the world’s press was working on their exclusives.
We gathered in the dining room for a briefing and a meal. I asked about getting a drink at the bar and they said we would have to pay for them. No money, no wallet, and a thirst saw me walk to the bar, order some drinks and book them back to my room. It wasn’t a room bill I ever intended to pay for.
By the time I had got back to my seat, I think I had shouted everyone in the room a drink. Later that night I even shared a bottle of red with a CNN reporter, I wasn’t going to be interviewed but was happy to have a drink.
The second planeload came into town and we were slowly being sent home on any flight they could find. We were moved to Santiago again finding ourselves in a hotel, this one at the airport. We invited any of the crew and staff we found back to the hotel, to charge up to the room. I hope the bill was high.
Eleven years on and the night is still fresh in the mind. I haven’t got back but it is unfinished business and I have watched the return of many of the passengers and crew. Next time I might not tick the adventure box.
Check up on my blog where I reflect about this life-changing experience.