We had high expectations of Azamara and for the most part, we still do. This was a much anticipated trip for us as we had been looking forward to seeing a part of the world that we would otherwise not likely see. We had also heard much about the President's cruise. It took effort to get so much vacation time and to travel so far from Canada. In the end, this ill-fated 17 day voyage would turn out to be an ordeal that lasted 5 days.
At embarkation, we were met with a note with disappointing news - that the president would not be on board due to family illness, but that the planned activities would proceed... except that one of the ports had been rained out. True to fashion, Azamara had arranged an alternative port with similar activities. Bravo.
The captain warmly welcomed us onboard and the sail out of Hong Kong was magnificent. However, he warned of rough seas for the next 24 hours. He did not exaggerate. The ship did have medication on board for those who needed it (almost everyone). We were soon to experience MONSOON MONDAY with winds over 40 knots, no rain. Barf bags were put out in all elevators and at every turn on the stairs. There were two notable wave events on TERRIBLE TUESDAY -- the first at 4 am where everyone on board woke up to a loud bang. The seas were still rough and we thought nothing more of it. The second came around 4 pm. Seas were still very rough and doors to the outside were locked. This was fortunate as we were hit by an enormous wave tilting the ship at least 45 degrees -- our bed slid all the way across the room and back. We later learned that both large waves likely washed over the top of the ship! The seas finally calmed after 24 hours -- in time for supper Tuesday evening.
We arrived in Manila WEDNESDAY - WHEW. Along with the usual excursions, we were treated to a great party that evening at Fort Santiago -- we got to sample local food and entertainment. We heard that Azamara threw a big picnic party for their crew as many had family in the area. We also got to experience some of Manila's infamous TRAFFIC on THURSDAY. We left Manila Thurssday afternoon in calm seas but heavy rain -- unusually wet for the dry season.
Day 5 started off as the first real day of rest and relaxation. Skies were clear and seas were calm. All that came to an end just after 8 pm. We were in the main dining room when we heard a scared-sounding voice announce "bravo bravo bravo" level 1 (I think). The captain was also in the dining room at the time and he took off at a run. Our server admitted that the bravo code meant we were now into FIRE FRIDAY. The power went off a few minutes later. Some urged that we return to our rooms to get our life jackets but we were already in our Muster Station and so stayed put... though none of us could eat. We could smell smoke and then see it thickening near the entrance to the dining room. We evacuated to an alternate Muster Station -- all the while holding up water-soaked napkins over our face. We were eventually given life jackets (though Muster Station A never handed out life jackets) and a head count was done. Throughout all this, the captain came on with announcements to keep us updated. The passengers were remarkably calm through all of this. The scariest point for me was when we heard that they were starting a second staging area to control the situation. Fortunately, this did not mean that the fire was out of control and we never heard the order to abandon ship. Without power, we learned that the toilets stopped flushing and so started overflowing in the areas around the muster stations. We were finally allowed to go back to our rooms around midnight - some could sleep, most did not.
SATURDAY at SEA -- drifting without a breeze, oblivious to potential pirate threats in the Sulu Sea. It was HOT without the air conditioning. The crew were amazing -- they had cleaned up all the litter left out after the muster station and were walking up the stairs carrying food to the ninth floor for breakfast... anything that did not need cooking. The captain informed us that of the 4 engines, one was seriously damaged in the fire. They were able to bring one engine up to power the toilets and were working on the other two. We also found out that 5 crew members had been hurt, one seriously. The second engine came up that evening (allowing propulsion though still not AC) and we celebrated with a BBQ dinner followed by dance party -- the crew were trying! Many passengers and crew slept under the stars as it was truly too hot to sleep down below.
SALVATION SUNDAY (April fool's day) was yet another very hot day, but we were on the move and that generate a breeze. The pool was a saving grace for cooling off. The spa was closed -- no big loss as the waters of the Thalassatherapy pool were heated to temperatures more appropriate for making soup than to be therapeutic. The Philippine Coast Guard and Navy had joined us some time the night before -- no signs of the dreaded pirates. With only 1 engine for propulsion, we were limping at 6 knots heading for Sandakan. We arrived in port around 10 pm -- the ordeal would soon be over.
The crew was amazing. Kudos for making the best of a terrible situation -- keeping the ship tidy, getting food and drinks going, starting on repairs. The passengers should also be commended -- they were able to stay calm, in large part because they had great confidence in Azamara to handle the situation.
In times of crisis, the other important thing is communications -- clear, concise, unambiguous. Although the captain was great during the night of the fire, more regular updates could have been given on Saturday and Sunday, even if it was to say that not much had changed. We were given a letter detailing our travel options once we arrived in Sandakan, as well as details of our compensation. Unfortunately, this letter had to be handed back to indicate our choices. The writing style of the letter (paragraph form) led to some confusion. The very generous compensation as detailed in list form that appears on this website is much clearer and less ambiguous (http://boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1611795). The guest relations crew responsible for moving us from ship to hotels in Sandakan had a huge job with limited time in terrible working conditions (aka very HOT). Having said that, they should not have made time line announcements they could not keep (ie put your new luggage tags on by 7:30). They should have made annuncements saying that the tags are delayed, please hang on until 10 pm - stay in cooler places rather than wait in the very hot rooms. For our group of 5, they were unable to keep our group together even though they kept asking for that kind of information -- ie are you traveling with any others. After getting us into hotels in Sandakan, the next administrative hurdle was to get us on flights to Singapore. Once again, they failed to keep our group together, adding to the stress level of the group. Although I got my letter on Monday night saying that I was to get on the 6:30 am shuttle to leave for the airport, others in my group did not get their letter until 6:00 am on Tuesday, which only gave 30 minutes to get ready to leave. Stress! We know that a crisis team flew in from Miami. Ironically, the one that we met at the airport did not seem all that great at working in a crisis/stressful situation as they were easily flustered -- telling one of my party that he was not listed to fly out with the rest of us when he was on the list. In the end, our group managed to stay together and we were able to salvage the remainder of our vacation time. The experience in Singapore has been very positive. We were put up at the Fairmont hotel with a very generous $150/person/day per diem to the end of the cruise Apr 12 (9 nights). The hotel was great and we got to see Singapore in quite some depth -- we strongly recommend a trip to the zoo, as well as trying out all the amazing local dishes. We will hopefully be back to explore Indonesia with Azamara -- our original reason for going on this cruise.