Adventure, Antarctica, M/S Explorer, Shipwreck

Shipwreck in Antarctica II

Part 2 – The muster room

When the captain told us to report to the muster room, he actually called it the “Penguin Lounge”. There was a little confusion about this – I later found that older maps of the Explorer called the lecture hall (muster room) the Penguin Lounge.

Our first day on the ship we had an emergency drill. That day we had been warned the alarm would be coming.  There was no confusion over locations, because crew members were at every juncture on the ship directing us the correct way to go. Despite having visited the lecture hall many times over the past 12 days, this time I found navigating my way around the ship confusing, and the crew members were not yet around to direct us.

The lecture hall was setup like a small theater. There were rows of seats that took of most of the room, and seating around the perimeter with tables. At the back of the room were narrow water-tight doors that led out to a deck at the rear of the ship and in the front left a stairway that lead down to the galley.

I took a seat at the edge of one of the rows closer to the back of the room. Roll was taken and all the passengers were accounted for. While we anxiously waited for updates one of the expedition staff tried to get people to tell jokes to help break the tension and take up the time as we waited to hear any news. I really wasn’t in the mood for any jokes. I had seen how quickly the ship was filling with water and I felt sure that we would need to abandon ship. The biggest concern I had was getting some boots. I also needed a hat, gloves, socks, and a life jacket.   I was told that the ship had a supply of spare waterproof boots.  We checked the storage bins under the seats lining the lecture hall, and I was able to get a life jacket, but there were no boots to be found.

Initially there were problems with us getting updates from the bridge. One of the expedition staff told us that he was hearing updates over his radio that should have been coming over the P.A. system. The captain then came and gave us an update in person that the ships pumps were on and he said that the water level was starting to go down. This was the the first hopeful news we received, but in that same update the captain warned us to keep our warm clothing close at hand and I developed an ache in my side from leaning against the list of the ship.

The overshoes I had carried up had been under water when the crew member at my cabin fished them out. I remember dumping the water out of them and putting them on. They were designed to go around my hiking boots, and were a couple inches too big all around my feet. I wasn’t able to cinch them tight enough to get them to stay on. I wanted some washcloths or hand towels that I could stuff the overshoes with to help the fit and add insulation, but was told that wasn’t possible since it would require going down to the galley. I ended up stuffing some napkins in the overshoes and put them on. This didn’t really help with the fit or warmth, but it did soak up some of the water.

After we had the update that the pumps were working, passengers with cabins on the first deck were told that they could go back to their cabins to gather their belongings together. Shortly after this I heard the captain yelling over Brad Rhees’ (our expedition leader) hand radio. Some of the passengers were trying to make their way down to cabins on the second deck.

Currently things were sounding more promising, but it took a sudden turn for the worse when we lost main power. The lights went out, and it was pitch black in the muster room.  I was surprised that there weren’t battery powered backup lights that would come on automatically. One of the other passengers told me the blackout happened when he was in his cabin getting his things together and he had to struggle along feeling his way back towards the muster room.

The backup generator was started, and the lights came back on, but the pumps only worked on main power. The ship continued to list more and more the lower decks filled with water.

Ships are supposed to have water-tight compartments, and it should have been possible to contain the damage and flooding to a single area of the ship – the area around my cabin. In fact, the captain gave us an update and in his Swedish accented English told us not to worry, and that there was “more water outside the ship than inside” so we would continue to float. I later heard that a retrofit made to the cabins to add a sprinkler system also added a drainage system which was one issue with not being able to contain the flooding. Another problem was the water making its way through the sewage system so that other cabins were filling with seawater that was pouring out of the toilets.

With the loss of main power we were adrift in the Bransfield Strait. The captain had brought us out of the ice pack so we were currently in open water, but the next updates we received were that an iceberg was coming towards the ship. Brad Rhees mentioned the katabatic winds coming of the iceberg causing our ship to list more to starboard. Some passengers were out on the rear observation deck having a smoke, and I stepped outside to check the conditions. There wasn’t a wind causing the ship to list; it was all due to the flooding going on below. There was an iceberg coming at us; we had no control over the ship’s movement; and we were taking on water.

There was a jolt as the iceberg hit the ship and a flurry of passengers went out on the rear deck to take a look.  There are some pictures that show the iceberg against the side of the ship, and some news reports later blamed that as a cause of our ship sinking, but I don’t think it had any real effect. The weather was calm, and it was just the iceberg and us slowly drifting into each other. Not a major collision.

Then all of the expedition staff seemed to disappear. I wanted to ask again about getting a pair of boots to be ready for the conditions outside, but did not see anyone in authority. Then we got an update from the captain over the P.A. system that we were starting to drift back into the pack ice. That would cause a problem with lowering the lifeboats. Lifeboats don’t float on ice. If you lower a lifeboat onto water it will float. If you lower a lifeboat onto ice it will fall on its side, dumping people out. We were also told that ships were coming to our rescue and were about six hours away.

Then staff were back. I remember a brief attempt at doing a roll call again, but it was too late. The captain came over the PA system, told us that we were drifting toward the pack ice, and called out “Abandon Ship, Abandon Ship, Abandon Ship”.

There was a rush to get out, but thankfully there wasn’t a panic. We had been dogged by bad weather for much of the trip, and some of our planned excursions had been canceled. The excursions we did do were often in difficult conditions.  I think all of this along with having been on the ship for 12 days gave everyone a sense of trust in the crew and helped to avoid a panic.

As we were filing out the rear of the muster room I saw Brad Rhees directing people to the lifeboats along the starboard (the lower) side of the ship. He was calling out asking if that was about half the people, then started sending people to the port (the higher) side of the ship. I was directed to the port side.

I had on my overshoes, and had to shuffle along because otherwise they would not stay on my feet. The deck was slick, and it was not easy moving given the tilt of the ship.

There were two lifeboats on each side of the ship. The first one we came to was filling up and there was a traffic jam and some shouting. That lifeboat had been filled to capacity, but we weren’t moving and loading the foreword lifeboat. The foreword lifeboat had two crew members on it trying to get the lifeboat’s engine started and they weren’t letting anyone aboard.

After standing there for about 10 minutes waiting to get on the lifeboat a passenger I knew told me there was space and to just get on the rear lifeboat with him. That was very tempting, but I didn’t want to be the cause of any trouble.  I told him I would wait for the other lifeboat.  It wasn’t easy waiting there. Things would get much worse once we were aboard the lifeboats.

Meanwhile the captain was making announcements that he wanted everyone off the ship “Now!”, and I could see him periodically stepping out from the bridge at the front of the ship to check on our progress. We had spent about 20 minutes waiting for the crew members to let us board the lifeboat.  They were still struggling with the engine, and it didn’t look like they were getting anywhere.  We did a count to make sure there would be enough room on the lifeboat, and the total was just a few people short of the listed capacity.  We would all fit if they would just let us get on the lifeboat and off the sinking ship.

I could see the captain was getting agitated that we were not yet off the ship. Finally he came out and yelled at the crew on the lifeboat waving his arms and telling them to GET THE PASSENGERS THE HELL OFF THE DAMN SHIP! Those weren’t his exact words, but it was definitely the tone of it. I thanked him for this after our rescue and he told me that sometimes you have to provide a little extra encouragement to get things done.

The crew gave up on starting the lifeboat’s engine.  They started letting the passengers on, and I climbed aboard.

… to be continued


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