Tuesday, December 11, 2007

First Person Account of Ship Sinking in Antarctica

I received the attached letter from a friend (hat tip to Miss Phyllis). I have no idea about the source or veracity but most of it sounds believable. Who knew toilets could sink a ship?

Dear Family and Friends,

Yesterday (Tuesday) when we went through immigration in San Francisco, the immigration agent asked us the usual question: occupation, what did you likebest/least about your trip? To the former we replied retired/dietitian. To the latter we replied: the ship sank/we're alive. Suddenly this lethargic civil servant woke up. He wanted to hear all about what happened.

Before I go on, you must understand one thing. While we went through the same experience, shoulder to shoulder and often hand in hand, we have different feelings about it. Indeed, everyone who went through it with us has their own unique and personal feelings. While I was cold, wet, shivering, and throwing up, it never occurred to me that I could die. Lynne however was thinking about: what if the weather suddenly changed, if we hit ice or took a big wave and were swamped, if we would capsize. Therefore, in writing this I can only write for myself. Whatever I write is filtered through my perceptions which could be quite different for Lynne.

Thursday night we were tired. Instead of watching the 9:15 movie we showered and were in bed by 10:00. I fitfully tried to go to sleep. We were going through brash ice - little pieces of ice. Since we were on the third deck, as low as you could go, half our cabin was below the waterline. I could hear the pieces of brash ice scraping against the hull, which was only a single hull. Once and a while a more sold piece would strike. I finally fell asleep.

About 12:30 I was roused by what sounded like the gang plank slapping against the hull. Then I heard what sounded like water pouring down a drain. In my sleep I was thinking to wake Lynne and ask her about the sound. I didn't remember hearing it before. I touched the bulkhead. It was dry. I put my hand on the floor.

From half asleep I went to full awake. I bolted up and pushed the emergency button and woke Lynne. I threw on some clothes. We pulled the suitcases out from under the bed; I took my laptop out from the low drawer it was in. The water continued coming in. I decided I should move things up to the second deck. I started with my laptop.

The people in the next cabin had also notified the ship. By the time I stuck my head out of the cabin a crew man was coming down. A few minutes later he was followed by the captain. The captain was a solidly built, forty-ish Swede. When he came down the stairs his comment (in English) was: "My god; We're sinking." The alarm sounded.

When I returned to the cabin I quickly opened up the drawers of the nightstand between our two beds. I scooped out my wallet, the recently filled 2 gigabyte memory from my camera, the backup flash drive with my journal on it and Lynne's hand cream. I tossed clothes and camera into the suitcase and took them up to the second deck.

By the time I returned to the cabin, the boat was listing and the water was ankle deep in one end of the cabin. I picked up one of my tennis shoes and put it on a stool. I watched the other float under the bed. It floated back out and I grabbed it. The word came down: "get warm clothes." I grabbed some of our clothes that were on the bed. Lynne had gone up to our muster station in her night gown carrying our Wellington's (high rubber boots) and some clothes. I also grabbed our Gore-Tex jackets and fleece liners and made my way to our muster station in the lecture hall.

When everyone was assembled in the lecture hall they took roll. Periodically the captain would come on the intercom and tell us what was happening. We knew that a mayday had been sent, and that there were two ship coming but they were 10 and 6 hours away. At first there was hope the leak could be fixed. Then the mood in the lecture hall became somber and quiet. At the end of hour one the captain lowered the lifeboats into position. At the end of hour two the captain said that we were coming into ice. The lifeboats could not be lowered in the ice. Therefore, he decided to abandon ship. Then we heard those words that no one on a ship ever wants to hear the captain utter: "abandon ship; abandon ship; abandon ship."

At 2:30 in the morning we quietly filed out of the lecture hall. There was no crying; there was no pushing; there was no panic. One of the staff members directed us to the port (left) or starboard (right) side to go the life boats. Initially we went to the port side. When the word went out that they needed 8 people on the starboard side we went there. I didn't appreciate how much the ship was listing, perhaps 30 degrees, until I had to walk down across the fantail.

I was the last one into number one life boat. It was at this point that I was most anxious. I felt that once I was in the lifeboat I would be safe. However, there was only enough room for my feet! I stepped in, sat on the gunwale for a moment, and then wiggled my bottom onto the seat, my back against the hull. There was a problem with the engine, but it got started.

They lowered us away. Once in the water we pushed away from the ship. Our boat was overloaded! Fortunately the seas were relatively calm and there was no wind. We were very far south where it gets dark very late and light very early. It was not dark out, but twilight. Fortunately we had zodiacs - rubber boats with outboard motors. While the electric generators had stopped working we had emergency power so they were able to use it to run the winches to lower the zodiacs. After a while they off loaded people from our lifeboat to a zodiac.

Once in the lifeboat Lynne and I sat huddled together. While the Gore-Tex jackets kept our topsides dry, our bottoms were wet and there was water in our Wellingtons. There was little talking in the boat. People were somber and cold. The only sound was from the two cylinder engine and an occasional order from the first mate, who was in charge of our boat.

At 3:41 I watched the sun rise. It was a small, round, golden orb that came out of a gray sea and disappeared into a gray sky.

Several times I threw up as the result of the fumes from the engine that I was sitting next to and the motion of the lifeboat. At times I started to shiver, sometimes violently. The though of hyperthermia crossed my mind, but I knew from my Boy Scout training that as long as my upper body was dry and warm I was okay. Through out this my mind was a blank, thinking on the cold, listening to the engine, always concerned that it would stall.

After about two hours in the boat the first mate told us that the rescue ship was about 2 hours away. (The first mate had a radio.) About an hour after that a helicopter flew over head and circled us. Even thought we knew that people around the world knew exactly where we were, our spirits were greatly lifted. Somewhere between hour four and five someone spotted a
glint of light in the distance. Soon after that we could see it was a ship bearing down on us.

We got not one, but two rescue ships: the National Geographic's Endeavor, and the Nordnorge. The former ship was small, the size of the Explorer; the latter ship could hold 600 passengers though there were only 229 on board. ( DrC's note: You can see a picture of the Nordnorge at cruztalking.blogspot.com, the other DrC's blog.)

What a wonderful sight it was when the Nordnorge removed the covers from its gigantic lifeboat and lowered their lifeboat down to us. After four or five hours we were stiff. Hands reached out to us and help us into Nordnorge lifeboat. When everyone was transferred we were raised up to the forth deck. When we went into the ship we were greeted by a crew member giving each of us a blanket. We were sent up to the seventh deck were we were given a hot drink and then pointed in the direction of the lounges. The call went out over the ship's intercom for clothes. Soon the couches and chairs in the lounge were covered with wet clothes that we exchanged for dry ones donated to us. Both the ship and the passengers of the Nordnorse were unbelievably generous. From large deck to ceiling windows of the seventh deck lounge we could watch our ship as it listed. (Unlike the pictures you have probably seen, there was no ice surrounding the ship - that happened later.)

We were served breakfast and lunch on the Nordnorse. The Nordnorse tried to offload us at the Chilean Frei Base. Due to the weather, blowing snow and high seas, it couldn't. We had to wait offshore several hours before we could finally be landed.

Why did the boat sink? While it is true that there was a hole in the hull, the water tight doors were shut. The compartment where our cabin was should have filled up with water, but the boat should have continued to float. My understanding was that the problem was with the toilets. The water went into the toilets and then into the holding tank. When the holding tank
filled up the water backed up into the other cabins thus bypassing the watertight doors.

Why was this not another Titanic? Relatively speaking we had good weather and a calm sea. The captain launched the lifeboats at the right time. We had the zodiacs. We were all fit people: there were no children or infirmed. We were used to being out on the sea in the cold. We had good leadership. We were dressed for the cold. And, above all, we were lucky.

This had been a truly amazing week. I could go on and on. How wonderful the Chilean government was. What it was like flying in a C130 (a military cargo plane) where our knees were intertwined with the knees of the person opposite us. How helpful Debbie, the US Consul from Santiago was. How well we were treated by GAP, the company that ran the tour. What it was like to give interviews to the world press. How basically everything we brought with us is now 1500 meters under the sea. Above all we are thankful to have the most important thing of all, our lives. We appreciate all the e-mails you have sent as they have brought us comfort and support.

Your friend