On vacation from Bemidji, adrift in South China SeaPATT RALL: It’s 8 a.m. Saturday in the South China Sea. Leif Karlsson, captain of our stricken cruise ship on its maiden voyage for this route, speaks into the microphone as we drift in the waters south of the Philippines.
By: Patt Rall, Bemidji Pioneer
ABOARD THE AZAMARA QUEST, South China Sea — It’s 8 a.m. Saturday. Leif Karlsson, captain of our stricken cruise ship on its maiden voyage for this route, speaks into the microphone as we drift in the waters south of the Philippines.
“Ladies and gentlemen — and this is for the crew as well — good morning,” he says. “We are slowly getting our power back, the toilets are now working, the showers are on but there is no hot water.
“We are not in a traffic lane and far from any land. We are coordinating with Miami, and I want you to know that you are absolutely safe.”
Cheering comes from the 1,000 people aboard the paralyzed ship, where a fire broke out in the engine room on Friday.
We had boarded on Monday for a 17-day voyage through the South China Sea. By now — already having navigated through a monsoon before the fire hit — we’ve come to trust Capt. Karlsson and appreciate his Finnish accent.
“Starting this evening and until tomorrow night, we will be sailing through a monsoon with gales and high seas,” Karlsson had warned us on Monday. “But I have decided that we will continue our journey slowly and get to our next port a bit late but safe.”
He advised we take seasickness pills and stay calm. We struggled to walk in rough seas that bounced the ship around, and the following day found many in line waiting to get their allotment from the ship’s doctor. Many older passengers chose to stay put.
After the monsoon, we arrived in our first stop, Manila, a busy city, crowded with city buses, cars and “jeepneys” — military jeeps retrofitted for passenger use. The next scheduled stop was Sandakan, Malaysia.
Passengers received instructions to report to designated muster stations about 8:10 p.m. Friday. Some were on the deck waiting for the cabaret to open for a classical concert by pianist Tomono Kawamura. Others were still eating in the main dining room — women in stiletto heels with cocktail dresses, men with jackets and ties, and some in casual clothes or the robes supplied by the ship. We listened to the announcements by the crew.
Then came the news of a fire in one of the main propulsion engines. Fire crew members rushed to extinguish the blaze. The smoke damage was so extensive that the engine room crew could not get in to assess the damage.
The fire was put out but five crew members were reportedly injured, one of them seriously. None of the 590 passengers was hurt. Capt. Karlsson gives us a briefing, saying we could not get underway yet as the engine has not cooled down to the level where it is safe to start it. His calm, grandfatherly demeanor has proven to be just the right salve that we need right now.
Karlsson tells us we’re going to Sandakan, the nearest port, but says no timetable is set. That is the nearest port, and the injured crew member must get to a hospital. There is no helipad on this boat, as it is relatively small compared to other cruise ships.
No one panics or speaks in highly pitched voices. Instead, everyone stays calm and waits for more information. The crew distributes life vests, water, ice cups, soda and instructions to hydrate because of the extreme heat.
I climb six flights of stairs in the stifling heat. In addition to no air conditioning, the elevator service has not been restored.
The captain says a plane circling above was likely the Coast Guard checking on us. It flies low and slow, and I am tempted to wave. Schools of fish swim alongside the ship; dolphins are dancing to the side, perhaps curious about this floating object.
Our dead-in-the-water stance also brings some freighters close enough to see the people on the decks looking over. They continue to go by after a good view, but it is comforting to know that there are other ships ready to help us should the need arise.
We spent an unpleasantly hot evening waiting for permission to return to dark cabins as the crew accounted for each passenger.
And at 10:10 a.m. Saturday, we are still adrift. Capt. Karlsson tells us he hopes to start a propulsion engine soon. Our families have been contacted, along with major media outlets.
Arrangements are being made to get us to the original final port of Singapore.
We can stay there until a flight home is secured or stay at a hotel in Singapore at Azamara’s expense. We will get a full refund for this cruise and a certificate for another cruise with Azamara Club Cruises.
This cruise was the maiden voyage for this itinerary. The company president was scheduled to tour with us, but his wife’s father had a medical emergency, and they stayed home.
It is serendipity that we had just received a message from guest relations asking if there was anything they could do to make this voyage better. I was ready to give them a five-star rating.
Today, there is not a high enough rating to give these focused and professional people.
Patt Rall is a columnist for the Bemidji Pioneer, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.