Weather: Bah Humbug

Editor's note: This story is from the Cruise Critic Archives. Content was up to date at time of publication.

"At the Captain's Table" is Cruise Critic's original series of stories penned by Joyce Gleeson-Adamidis. Joyce knows the ins and outs of life onboard -- both as a cruise ship staff member and as the wife of Celebrity Cruises' venerable Captain Adamidis -- and offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on issues facing cruisers and the cruise industry.

Weather: Bah Humbug

The Captain did this on purpose.
The Captain does not know his job.
The Captain cannot run a ship.
The Captain is directly responsible for ruining my cruise. He did not have to hit that storm.
The Captain has no idea how to read a weather forecast.
The Captain is just a driver.

"Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi!" as Ricky Ricardo would say. When your cruise is going perfectly just as you planned it, the Captain is your best friend. The minute a storm hits, he becomes the universal target. Someone must be blamed. Who better than the Captain?

Bad weather happens all year around. But it particularly impacts cruising because, of course, a ship at sea is a moving vessel! While the nicest thing about weather onboard is that on deck, you can feel the sea breeze on your face, there are other signs, too. At sea you will hear a variety of sounds: engines humming, a creaking as the ship flexes, and the opening and closing of doors restless with the motion of the vessel. You will feel vibrations as the waves and winds meet the ship. The ship is full of surprises, and at times the surprises are more dramatic than you might want.

And not only during hurricane season.

Captain Adamidis was at the helm on a Christmas/New Year's around-the-horn South America sailing of Celebrity Mercury from Rio de Janeiro to Valparaiso. Trouble began on a hot, humid day in Buenos Aires. The skies were gorgeously dark blue and cloudless. As the day went on, however, a dark shadow crept ever so quietly over the city. An eerie calm enveloped it. As we were about to sail, an hour and a half late due to the tardy arrival of provisions, the winds picked up slightly. The Captain wanted to get under way. Ultimately we pulled away from the dock and headed down the River Plata.

This is always a tricky passage because the River Plata, which connects Buenos Aires to the Atlantic Ocean, requires a long journey -- some 11 - 13 hours. Because it is filled with mud it is also quite shallow, and though it's several miles wide, the channel through which ships can pass is very narrow. That means that there is only one "path" all vessels can follow -- the ship's progress is timed by port authorities, requiring it to be at appointed designated areas in order to move alongside, allowing other vessels to pass. Any delay from this procedure can cause hours of delay for traffic on the entire river. No two ships can pass at the same time, so it is crucial to be on time. Navigational skills are heightened: Vigilance, at its highest degree, is critical.

The evening activities onboard Mercury were in full swing. First-seating dinner was being served, and the early show was onstage. There were couples dancing, children playing and typical musical clanging inside the casino. Outside it was pitch-black. I could see no lights from the city. There was nary a star in the sky. On the bridge, all was silent, except for the bleeping of faxes and computers. The only lights were curtained in order not to produce glare on the forward windows. The bridge officers and the Captain were in deep concentration because of the precise navigational skills required to get through the river.

Suddenly the ship slowly started to turn. The turn gained momentum. Like a slow-motion movie, the ship started to list more, objects began to slide off desks, furniture was moving and shifting, glass bottles from the bars toppled and shattered. We were at approximately 19 degrees with an increasing list.

Personally I enjoy a fast storm and a bit of wind. But this was eerily different.

Everyone completely forgot what they had learned at the life boat drill held just the previous day. Remember? "Remain calm, sit and wait for instructions from the bridge." Some members of the crew got their life jackets and were at their designated positions in minutes; others tried to stop people from running. I put my toddler son on the floor in our stateroom and placed pillows around him. Then I told my parents and cabin steward (onboard for the first time) to sit on the floor and wait.

Panic was breeding chaos. The ship righted and listed a little to the opposite side. Then we could hear the anchors being dropped in place.

On the bridge were the sailor, the river pilot, other officers and the Master (another name for the Captain). In seconds, the Captain assessed the situation; he sent his officers to help those in need as he commanded his ship with the sailor. The sailor told the Captain he could hardly hold the 71,000-ton vessel any longer against the power of the wind. Safety is priority. Lights from an anchored vessel appeared ahead. Checking gauges on the severity of the wind, the Captain was simultaneously working on keeping within the confines of the path and checking to see if there was room where the other ship was anchored. Luckily, ahead was an anchorage area where cargo ships were partially unloaded to decrease their draft before entering the shallower upriver channel. The sailor, under precise instructions from the Master, turned the ship, guided it in next to the freighter, faced the vessel into the wind and dropped anchor. Fifteen minutes later, the Captain made an announcement, updating passengers on what had occurred. He told them that winds had suddenly gained speed from 25 knots to 109 knots, sending the ship nearly vertical from port side in one minute (a dreaded event for any Captain). He took control, saving the ship, passengers and crew. In the calm following, people were able to gather their wits and the crew could clean up the damage.

My husband had made the announcement that we were safe. It was time to move on. I left the Captain's quarters to see what was happening and also to give help where I could -- and what I heard curled my perfectly straight hair. Most of the passengers did not know I was the Master's wife and many offered their opinions freely. One woman demanded that I sign a petition to get the Captain and half the crew removed. She became forceful. When I tried to walk away she grabbed my arm and told me I was too young to know anything about ships. I took her hand off my arm and said, "Ma'am, I will not sign, I will not be privy to an illegal act of mutiny. The ship is safe, we are alive and continuing on our trip. Just so you know, I have been on 1,200 cruises and so I do know what ships are all about." I left her with her mouth dangling close to the floor.

One of the oddest experiences resulting from this traumatic event was the rumor-mongering.

A man I had met with the Captain the day before the storm approached me with a barrage of insults towards my husband. Another man told me that he was talking to the Captain while we were listing. I corrected him and told him that the Captain had been on the bridge from the moment we had left Buenos Aires. I was then told there was no way I would know that.

I overhead a teenager telling his family that we almost capsized. He claimed an officer told him that. At that moment I knew that the myths, rumors or the slang, "scuttlebutt," were spreading faster than accuracy. I knew I had to try to present accuracy when and where possible, and I knew it wouldn't be easy. And the truth was? A ship can go aground but cannot capsize in a meter of water. We were in a meter of water many times. Mud could be felt along the bottom of the ship.

Another interesting observation came from a crew member who had been on deck and fought the wind to get back inside. He looked up and thought he saw a tornado. He was not certain that it was but the wind looked like it was going in a circular motion as the ship listed. Later, the Captain told him that he could have seen that conformation because the outside lights would have helped outline it. From the total blackness on the bridge, it would be impossible to identify. The gauges only show wind speed. It does not matter what you call the storm; it is what you do in it that counts.

In the end, the reports of damage via the rumor mill were quite shocking when you compared them with the truth. For instance:

I heard reports of heart attacks and of deaths from a fall. There were no fatalities on the cruise. An inebriated man did fall and hit his head. The wound bled profusely as all scalp wounds do. Thirteen sutures later, he was almost good as new. A crew member broke a finger and a very few others had some scratches and bruises.

Folks said that 2,000 bottles of liquor broke -- 100 was the actual figure.

No, 10,000 plates did not break -- though 5,000 did!

From the casino, passengers were reporting that all the one-armed bandits (slot machines) had flipped over; in truth, some chairs overturned and chips spilled. The casino was closed until the chips could be collected.

Another false one: The gym was nearly destroyed as all equipment was up-ended. In fact, just one table holding fliers had to be uprighted.

Children were rumored to be suffering psychological problems -- and yet when the parents collected their children in the Fun Factory, they were sitting on the floor. Some were singing, some coloring. The Youth Counselors were unruffled and professional while keeping the children busy. Some of the young passengers did not understand the fuss and were calm. They owned parents who were loudly claiming they wanted immediate compensation for the future psychological attention their little ones would need for years and possibly forever.

Every passenger I overheard increased the wind gauge numbers higher and higher. The Captain announced a wind speed of 109 knots, and from then on the passengers gradually inflated it to hurricane level at 150 knots. Because I had implicit trust in the men in charge of the vessel, I was in a unique position. The thousands of other passengers were fearful and critical and vocal -- understandably so. When the Captain sounds the All Clear, however, it means just that. The sailor on duty was able to hold the ship under the instruction of the Master.

The ship held 3,000 crew and passengers. Nearly that number of stories of the previous events circulated, all seemingly unique. This is natural; we all had our own experiences and reacted to them. But among the thousands on board, fewer than 100 kept the pot stirred. The majority wanted to simply get on with the trip. The instigators could and would not let go of the bone of contention they carried throughout the ship. Self-graduated in ship handling during a storm, they held forth on what should have been done. According to Maritime Law, everything was logged, documented and handled correctly. Those who disagreed were free to do so.

As Walt Whitman wrote, "O Captain, my Captain, the fearful trip is done ..." What of the Captain, with his fears, dislikes and his opinions? You trust him in fair weather; why not in foul? It is in that challenge that he can prove his abilities. You, as a passenger, have a role to play in your own safety. The Captain does not have time or inclination to instruct you to sit down and remain calm during a storm. This information was clearly given at the lifeboat drill. Every cabin has the instructions printed on the door as a constant reminder of your responsibilities. Bad weather is a strong possibility on land and sea. You have every right to expect the Captain to cope with that condition. He does not enjoy it. It is his life too. He will do everything to protect all lives onboard.

Every one of the 12 Captains I have worked with has had the same reaction about bad weather. It is a horror that must be dealt with. Equal to -- if not greater than -- the challenge of holding a ship steady and reacting to the unexpected is the challenge of dealing with the fear and anger of the passengers afterwards.

Yes, he runs the ship, but he is on guard at all times, prepared for any scenario to unfold. He is a policeman, fireman, diplomat, mayor and the man with whom the buck stops. In this case, our Captain had many years of experience at sea. He had saved a burning vessel and it continued to sail. He has prevented suicides, saved men gone overboard, found stowaways and pulled vessels out of harm's way.

The Cable News Network (CNN) reported the next day that "Argentina experienced a meteorological phenomenon" -- a squall line hit. By definition, when individual thunderstorms organize into a continuous line of convection, a squall line is developed. It can be more than 100 miles long and often forms 50 to 150 miles ahead of advancing cold fronts. When racing, a squall line can blast the affected area with rain and hail, driven by wind gusts higher than 60 mph. Tornadoes add to the destructive power of the squall line. This happened. It hit the shoreline killing up to 10 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. We know. We were there.

For 90 percent of the ship's passengers, the Captain was considered a hero. We arrived safely, had the adventure of a lifetime and were a never-ending source of stories about it. Several months later, a letter arrived that put a much-needed smile back on our faces. Thank you Mr. Art, Mrs. Alice and Leon Wierzbicki who wrote: "I know that we don't know each other, but I would like to thank your husband and you for a great Christmas and New Year cruise. We sailed on that voyage, we loved it, even if we encountered some bad measures. We thank you for a great trip and great sailing. ..."

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