Ship's voyage starts, ends with trouble
SOUTH CHINA SEA - It's just past noon on our first day of riding the following seas. It is hot, there is no air-conditioning on the ship yet, but other than that, the day seems relatively normal.
On the pool deck, people are in the water to get a cool dip, others are playing bridge, 500 Rummy and, I think, Canasta. The beer is flowing and the mood is festival.
How cool is that?
I am among 1,000 people aboard the stricken Azamara Quest, a cruise ship disabled in the South China Sea late last week by a fire in the engine room. We are adrift in waters south of the Philippines.
Five crew members were reportedly injured, one of them seriously, before the fire was put out. None of the 590 passengers was hurt.
Capt. Leif Karlsson just gave us another briefing on the progress of getting underway but that will not happen for a while 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.
The nearest port is Sandakan, Malaysia, where Karlsson expects to go but no time table is set as yet. There is need to get the injured crew member to hospital and that is the nearest port. There is no helicopter pad on this boat as it is relatively small compared to other cruise ships.
The captain gave the microphone to Russ, the ship's activities director, who said activities planned for today would still take place. There will be a barbeque outside this evening for dinner with musical accompaniment; I just hope that it's not the harpist.
Upstairs in the computer lab, I try to get online to send a story to the Pioneer, my home paper and employer. The technician explained the server had suffered some heat problems and needed to be cooled down before gaining Internet access. I had to send again when it was Saturday morning in Bemidji.
The ship is allowing people to call home on the only telephone line now open and the queue is a major obstacle. We have been assured that our families have been notified and that's good enough for me, but others need to hear a familiar voice or calm a nervous relative.
As an aside, because we were going to a Muslim country, I did not bring my press credentials or business cards.
Previously, I mentioned being in media in Jordan, while in the desert at Wadi Rum and the driver of the Land Rover seemed just a bit too interested in what I did.
It taught me two things: don't talk about work and don't argue with a guy in the desert where there are no discernible roads.
On the ship, I'm told to talk to guest relations for information to report. I breathlessly walked down six flights, where I was told they could not help me.
The only way I could begin to establish my status as a reporter was to tell them to Google me. People laugh, but it really does work.
To convince someone to talk, I say that I was actually doing a service for the rest of the world by telling them how grateful the passengers are to the captain and crew.
"Thank you," they respond, adding they would be in touch with more information.
My updates are still coming via the public address system. I guess they were not impressed with an arts and entertainment writer.
And then I climb six flights up again in the stifling heat. In addition to no air conditioning, the elevator service has not been restored.
In his latest update, the captain said the plan circling above was likely the Coast Guard checking on our status.
It flies low and slow and I am tempted to wave.
Schools of fish are swimming alongside the ship, jumping up out of the water, perhaps to catch some invisible, to our eyes, food. Dolphins are dancing off to the side to provide some entertainment or perhaps just 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.
It is now 2 p.m. Our steward came into the room with a written message from the captain and the news is not good. Because of the extensive damage to the ship, our cruise is to be canceled.
Arrangements are being made to get us to the original final port for the ship, 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 and the company president was scheduled to tour with us. His wife's father had a medical emergency and they chose to stay home with him. That was a good choice for if he had to get off the ship in a hurry to get back home, he would be sitting here with the rest of us as there is still no propulsion.
We are disappointed because we looked forward to the trip for a long time but sure that we would do it again with the same cruise lines.
It is serendipity that just yesterday we 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 for the accommodations, the food and the caring staff.
Today, there is not a high enough rating to give these focused and professional people.