Sunday, 27 July 2014

Part 9 The Azores and the Perfect Storm

Not everyone continued on the journey from Barbados, rumour had it that 8 people had decided to fly home from there and that included the widow of one poor chap who had died of a massive stroke. These things happen, statistically, particularly with the age demographic on our boat, there is every chance it would.  All the same very sad. Death by natural causes is one thing but the Grim Reaper hadn't finished with us yet, death by accident is something that can and should be avoided.
Five days at sea before arriving in the Azores was a long haul. We no longer had much to look forward too, instead of the weather getting better each day, it was slowly getting worse. For a couple of days it was still good enough for shorts and t-shirts, the time largely passed gazing out to sea looking for signs of life. Once again, hardly anything of note.
The sunsets were absolutely stunning.
Unblemished Sky 2014-02-07
The unblemished sky with not a vapour trail to be seen, the horizon free of any other living thing, no boats, no birds. Nothing.
Mid Atlantic 2014-02-07
It really is one huge wilderness out there. The stars at night absolutely fabulous.
After a few days though it became too cold for all but the hardy and the keen to remain outside. The outer decks looking rather sad with all the tables and chairs all stacked away.
Ponta Delgada 542014-02-13
Our ship was still in the grip of the Norovirus out break. It had been two weeks of restrictions but there had been ports of call that acted as distractions. Now people were starting to get more disgruntled than ever. There was a limit to what was felt to be sensible. Some things appeared to be plain stupid. Ok you don't lend books from the library or packs of cards in the card room because people have touched them, but why close the rooms themselves. What's the difference between the tables and chairs there and the ones in the bar ? In the shop they still had perfume testers you were free to try, isn't that a risk ? It would have helped if the ships management had given reasons as to why certain things happened but they never did. They were always very guarded with the truth. Each morning a daily announcement was made to tell us if there had been another outbreak during the night, more people were confined to their cabins, the restrictions were to stay. We were never told how many or in fact if they were passengers or crew. The only information we got was seeing the red plastic rubbish sacks placed outside the quarantined cabins. One person decided to walk the long corridors each day not only for exercise but to count the bags ! As many as 39 was the most on one day I seem to recall.
Discontent does tend to spread discontent, even if you are discontented with the moaners ! We had never joined this cruise for the standard of the boat or the entertainment it offered, but with hindsight, 5 days in one go is a long time with little to do. I was becoming a bit disenchanted with life on the ocean wave, started to feel institutionalised. The routine repetitive. Breakfast same time to avoid the queues, forget lunch, at last pre dinner drinks at evening fell. Always the same corridors leading to the same places. Dinner with the same people at the same time as the previous 5 weeks. We were lucky, our table companions were good but we had got to the stage we were re telling the same stories. The new game was to see who retold the most. We stopped being polite and listened , immediately someone started an old story their increased score was announced !
A day out from the island of Faial in the Azores we got some good news at last. As a storm had been forecast, the Captain had arranged to pick up speed and head to port early. We now had a full day on the island instead of the original half day. The weather in the UK had for weeks been appalling, widespread rain and flooding. Some parts were reminiscent of a war zone with troops deployed to place sandbags, homes under threat, emergency evacuations from flooded properties. It all sounded pretty grim. We had been lucky to have avoided it all...until now.
We arrived in Horta to a rather miserable day, the light and mist too poor to take photos which was a shame as there were quite a few Cory's Shearwaters just outside of the port.
Horta 2014-02-10
The weather varied during the day but at times the wind was incredibly strong. Claire and I had decided to take a taxi tour of the island but much of the higher ground was under cloud despite the wind.
Faial,Azores 2792014-02-10
From a birding prospective it was a waste although at one part of the island we did stand on the rocky beach watching the waves crashing on the rocks and the Shearwaters skimming majestically over the raging seas
Cory's Shearwater14-02-10
Overnight we sailed to Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel. I had organised a minibus tour here and there was room for 6 of our friends to join us. Again the weather was a bit bleak, the usual tourist spots shrouded in mist and rain. We had several beer or coffee stops to pass the day. We got the impression that at certain times of the year the Azores could be an absolute hot spot for migrating birds though, particularly those blown off course from the Americas. Out on the island we saw very few on that day but back in port for once there were hundreds, thousands even. The floating pontoons in the shelter of the harbour held mainly Yellow Legged Gulls but in amongst them there one or two different species including a couple of Glaucus Gulls. It didn't dawn on me until later, birds have more sense than humans. They were sheltering here because they knew what was about to happen.
So did we, but not to the extent of true reality.
By the time we had reached the Azores we were back in touch with the BBC World service news broadcasts. We were aware of what was happening at home, we were aware a huge storm was about to hit the UK. 
So did the Captain.
He set sail for home.
Friday 14th February 2014. Valentines Day. It started as a rather exhilarating experience watching the waves breaking at the back of the boat.
Marco Polo deck 7 2014-02-14
As the morning wore on it got worse. All the outside decks were closed, it was getting dangerous out there.
From deck 7 2014-02-14
A still photograph can't convey what it was like as the ship rose and fell in the huge waves.This poor piece of video gives a better indication if you care to look.

The ship was rolling around the place as the storm got stronger. Claire had remained in our cabin after breakfast whilst I had been watching what was happening at sea. News came back that an accident had occurred in the restaurant, windows had been smashed by a wave. People were hurt. We had been sat in there earlier and had seen the water hitting the glass next to our window seats. It had been a bit unnerving then. I returned to our cabin to find a rather nervous wife so I stayed with her.
I can't say I was frightened, it was most odd. I reassured Claire that we were perfectly safe but in the back of your mind you know that isn't 100% true.
My thoughts on the day were recorded on an email to my close family, this is what it read.

By the time you receive this we will have survived the current force 11 gales and huge waves out at the mouth of the English Channel. Things became extremely hairy,furniture flying around and people falling over which,especially for the elderly, is not something you want to happen. Announcements where made that those able should return to their cabins,those who couldn't should sit on the floor.
Having viewed the scene from deck 8 I am relieved to be in an inside cabin on deck 5 ( where Claire remained for the duration) as the  angle the boat lurches to is quite unnerving . I'm not sure how big the swell is but we appear to go up and down huge heights maybe up to 60 ,70 or even more feet. You begin to wonder how far the boat can go sideways before it fails to bob upright again.
You might have guessed that I am writing this over a period of time.We were told that things would get calmer at 2.00 pm but as I write at 3.15 things are just as bad and an announcement has been made that we are about to experience severe movement as the ship is turning around to face into the wind to allow a helicopter to land to make a critical medical evacuation. Our thoughts are not only with the person being evacuated but the crew of the helicopter who are flying in extremely dangerous conditions. Humour helps get you through these situations, Claire remarked she hoped the helicopter was not just for the captain as he's had enough !
Last night we were told that as compensation for our inconvenience everyone was to get £150 knocked off their bar bills and a 25% discount off their next cruise. The former is very welcome ,not sure we'll be using the discount though!!!
You have to laugh, there are many passengers who haven't run up a bar bill and they will struggle to spend it now as everything has closed down.
Now 4.15 and the helicopter has successfully completed the evacuation.... and we have to turn around again. I write this account sat on the floor wedged between our two single beds, Claire alongside me. Starting to get cabin fever now so as soon as possible I need some space ! Hope it's not in the sea.
4.25.  Another announcement, it seems there were two medical emergencies, the helicopter will return in 90 minutes for anther person so we have the same procedures to go through again.
Just popped upstairs to make sure a more elderly pair on our dinner table were OK as I suspected they might be separated and worried about each other. My guess was correct and I have now managed to get both reunited and back in their cabin. The public areas look like a war zone evacuation with people propping themselves up against upturned furniture and walls. Wonder if we'll make the news. Seems the evacuations were casualties of falling or moving objects. A dining room window broke allowing sea water to rush in..that's on deck 6.
Information isn't freely available. The T.V. no longer works so we have no idea of our position, or access to the  outdoor CCTV pictures from the bridge. They probably don't want to scare us !!!!
It's now 6.25. The helicopter returned at 5.30 and by 6.15 completed the operation. A friend who is on a higher deck and right at the back phoned and said the helicopter took 10  or 11 attempts to make the first lift and the operation looked incredibly difficult. They have a corner room with three large windows with views of the boat tossing around all over the place. Think we both prefer not to look !
It seems that both the injured people were victims of broken glass when the window in the restaurant caved in when hit by a big wave. Needless to say we shall by dining in our room tonight with the promise of a light snack delivered by the staff.  No way to dine on Valentine's night but hey ho better than swimming or getting airlifted off.
Both of us qetting fed up now !
Not sure if we should be praising the Captain for his skill or criticising his judgement for sailing when we had a safe berth in Ponta Delgada and the forecast predicted severe weather. Money talks as there is another cruise due to depart on Sunday but at what cost ?
It's now 10.15 pm.  TV was restored 90 minutes ago, helps to take your mind off our current situation but the BBC news doesn't suggest relief from the storm is imminent. We are told to stay in our cabins and a breakfast of sorts will be served. We will be totally exhausted by then..the noise of the ship as well as movement will allow little sleep. Strangely though,we don't feel seasick!
Just over 200 nautical miles to Tilbury and we are travelling at 17 knots. Wonder what the plan is? A hasty return ahead of schedule....hopefully. Looking forward to land no matter if it is wet.
8.15 am.... as expected, a sleepless night but we must have dropped off eventually. We are now only 60 miles from Tilbury and the weather has calmed. The BBC news confirmed an 85 year old man died following yesterday's accident. A couple of hours earlier we had been sat in a similar position to the unfortunate victim whilst having breakfast and the waves had been hitting the windows. There by the grace of as they say.
It's been a long journey,nearly 12,000 nautical miles and quite an adventure but we never expected to be extras in the remake of 'A Perfect Storm'

We emerged form our cabins after a delivered breakfast to share experiences and snippets of information we had picked up. The morning announcements over the public address system told us that there would be a limited entertainment programme but the good news was that the norovirus restrictions had now all been lifted. 
There was no mention that there had been a terrible accident, no mention of a fatality. No offer of condolences for the bereaved widow. Nothing, I was disgusted.
As usual the rumour mill gave exaggerated stories, perhaps several fatalities even, but the BBC news was at least to be believed. They reported a freak wave had hit the ship resulting of course in a freak accident.This information could come from no other source but our ship. Someone was trying to orchestrate a damage limitation programme starting with keeping the passengers sweet. That evening we took dinner in the self service bistro...the main restaurant didn't seem appropriate although I think part of it might have been open. We didn't set foot in there again. It was amazing how some people seemed to have the opposite view to me. The Captain had been heroic, he'd demonstrated incredible skill turning the boat around not once but twice in mountainous seas. Someone had organised a letter for those who wished to sign thanking him for his skill. I declined the opportunity. I had a difference of opinion as to who was to blame. Despite us being very close to home we still didn't arrive earlier than the planned 7.00am on Sunday the 16th of February. I guess there are lots of factors that dictate including availability of berths, tug boats, pilots etc. And of course the tides. All theses things have to be taken in to account by the Captain and if he is a few hours late arriving at the entrance of the Thames estuary it might mean a huge delay in docking. There were hundreds of people to consider who would be waiting to get on the next cruise. The expense of looking after them due to a delay would be catastrophic. I am convinced that these were the factors that determined we sail knowingly in to the storm. Purely financial. Similarly you couldn't start a cruise with norovirus restrictions in place. We had endured them for the maximum amount of time to make sure that they were clear.
We were one of the last to disembark the boat and one of the last people I spoke to was one of our table companions for the last 6 weeks. She was vitriolic in defence of the Captain and the unreliability of the weather forecasts. We went our separate ways probably both feeling somewhat miffed !
Anyway, there will in due course be a full accident investigation report and hopefully lessons will have been learnt. Somehow I'm not too sure though. To me it seems that money always will dictate. Had there been a 24 hour time window between cruise arrival and departure the Captain might have been in a position to decide to stay in Ponta Delgada for another 24 hours. Other cruise boats newly loaded with passengers certainly delayed sailing from Southampton on that fateful day because they didn't have the same pressures. 
We will see what the official report brings in due course.
The Marco Polo sailed on her next scheduled cruise a few minutes late on the evening of Sunday 16th of February. The directors of Cruise and Maritime were there to reassure the new embarking passengers that all the necessary repairs were done etc etc etc. Statements of their number one priority always being public safety went out to the media.
There had been no one to say anything to those on their way home.

1 comment:

  1. Jesus Dave,reading through that lot has made me realise how dangerous cruises can be.We ,ve been on about 7 now, round the med and caribbean!

    Will certainly stick to the big ships now though.....What an adventure you were involved in,expertly conveyed!!!