Part 1 – Discovering we are sinking
I was a passenger on the M/S Explorer during its last voyage. On November 22nd, 2007 The Explorer struck ice, puncturing a hole in the ship at my cabin. This occurred on the 12th day of what was supposed to be a 19 day trip.
November 22nd started off overcast and dreary. We took Zodiacs for a tour around Elephant Island. It was incredible that Shackleton’s men spent 4 months waiting to be rescued on that tiny strip of unprotected rock. Currently the only residents were chinstrap penguins. Later that day the sky cleared, the sun came out, and the beauty was incredible. That night at about 10:30pm I was taking pictures of the sunset.
It was the first time on the trip it had been clear enough to actually see the sunset, and I was up on the top deck facing into the bitter cold wind to take pictures as the sun dipped below the horizon. I could take a couple of pictures, then I would have to turn away from the wind or hunker down to let my face and fingers thaw a little before taking more shots.
So far we had visited the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Elephant Island. The next morning we were supposed to set foot on Antarctica for the first time. During our evening briefing the captain warned us that we would be going through heavy ice to reach Antarctica and that it would be a noisy night. A fellow passenger who worked for the travel company told me he felt sorry for people on the third deck (the lowest deck), because they wouldn’t get any sleep due to the banging of the ice against the ship. My cabin, cabin 314, was on the third deck. It was going to be a rough night.
We had been through pack ice before, but nothing that had prompted the captain to give such a strong warning. My cabin was located right at the water line, with about 4 feet of the cabin below water, and the rest above. I shared my cabin with two other passengers. Thomas from Switzerland was in the upper bunk (above the water line) I was in the lower bunk, and Huang from China was in the single bed on the other side of the cabin. Between our beds was a dresser, and above the dresser our porthole that had been locked down with a steel cover. From my lower bunk I could not only hear the sound of ice banging and scraping against the hull of the ship, I could feel the vibrations of the impact through the wall and the cold radiating through the hull of the ship.
I was looking forward to setting foot on Antarctica, and wanted to make sure I was rested and ready to go the next day. I couldn’t let the banging of the ice keep me up all night, so for the first time on the trip I decided to use earplugs I had brought just in case my roommates were loud snorers. It was the first time I would use earplugs on the trip, and there couldn’t have been a worse night to use them.
After taking pictures of the sunset I headed down to my cabin, sorted through the pictures I had taken that day copying them to an external hard drive on my laptop, put my camera equipment away in the dresser, put the laptop on top of the dresser, put in my earplugs and tried to go to sleep.
The head of my bed was against the hull of the ship, and there was a small gap between the bed and the wall with just enough room for my fingers to fit in. So I lay there on my belly, fingers slipped into that gap, and I could feel the vibrations of the ice scraping along the hull and the chill radiating through the wall as the ship was getting knocked around.
Then there was a bang followed by what sounded like a creaky door in a haunted house swinging open and closed. The wall of my cabin flexed and my fingers were being smashed in that tiny gap between the head of my bed and the wall! At first I couldn’t remove my fingers, but then the pressure eased up and I got my fingers back still intact. At the time I didn’t realize what had really happened – that our ship was now taking on water and beginning to sink. With the warnings about it being a rough night and that we would be banged around a lot, I thought the wall flexing was just the ship absorbing the shock of going through the ice. My main thought was what a stupid design to have a gap like that between the bed and wall, and how glad I was that I still had my fingers.
I shifted positions moving my fingers away from the wall and again tried to go to sleep. A few minutes passed, then I heard the sound of running water. I remember being puzzled by it – it sounded like someone had left a tap running, or like what you might hear in an apartment building when someone in another apartment flushes the toilet.
I should point out that my cabin was the furthest one back on the 3rd deck. There was a cabin on one side of us, but we were at the end of the hall. Beyond my cabin was a sealed water-tight emergency door, and on the other side of that access to the engine room. It was always very noisy in my cabin from the sound of the engines. Also we were 12 days into our trip, and I had not heard the sound of running water before.
I thought my earplugs might be blocking the deeper noise from the engines so I could finally hear the sound of running that had actually always been there – but it just didn’t make sense to me. Then I faintly heard Thomas in the bunk of above me call my name. Then heard him call my name a second time. That’s when it hit home. The bang; the running water; THERE’S A LEAK!
I rip out my earplugs and try to turn on my reading light, but it won’t come on. Meanwhile Thomas is telling me he hears water. His reading light also doesn’t work, and mine is all wet. I put my hand against the wall of the cabin where my fingers had been just a little while earlier, and ice-cold water is pouring down the cabin wall. I tell Thomas “We’ve got a leak!”, and fumble for the alarm located above the dresser and start pressing it. Thomas reaches down and presses it was well.
Meanwhile Huang in the bed on the other side of the cabin tries his reading light which also doesn’t work, but he has a master switch by his bed to control the overhead lights, and those come on. We are shocked to see that our cabin is already flooded with about 1½ feet of water. I glance at the dresser where I had stored my camera equipment, and the bottom three drawers with my cameras and lenses are already under water. Huang, also a photographer, had stored his camera equipment in a camera bag on the floor of the cabin and it’s under water as well. The equipment is flooded, so no sense trying to rescue it – just get out!
I’m the first to the cabin door. I was concerned it would be difficult to open the door with the water pressing against it, but at this side of the cabin the water is shallower – the ship was listing to starboard and it’s deeper at the other side of the cabin that at the door. I manage to open the door and step into the hallway.
I’ve been asked was it surreal. Well, up to now had been hard cold reality and just reacting to the situation at hand, but the moment of stepping into the hallway is definitely surreal. Water is pooling up in the hallway just outside my cabin. It’s close to midnight. My roommates and I are up reacting to the situation, but there is nobody else in sight. All that is visible in the dim light of the hallway is the empty stairway leading up to the 2nd and 1st decks, and it is dead quiet.
Then the cabin next to ours opens. And things become a blur. We work to get people out of the cabins next to ours. Someone runs up the steps yelling that we’re sinking. The crew comes down responding to the alarm. I’m barefoot in my thermal shirt and long underwear, and I run back into my cabin knee-deep in water to grab my jacket and pants. I see my laptop on top of the dresser and think it’s too big to take, but I grab my portable hard drive and shove it in the pocket of my jacket. The freezing water I’m standing in is taking its toll though and while I desperately want to find my boots I can’t handle the cold water anymore and rush back out of my cabin shivering.
The water is now past the stairs in the hallway. It’s deepest in my cabin and by the water tight door at the end of the hallway. I put on my pants, but I’m still shivering from being in the water. Crew members are in my cabin trying to find the source of the leak and clearing space. One of them stops to taste the water confirming it’s seawater (wasn’t it obvious?) and radios up to the Captain. The Captain later told me that he could tell by the tone of the call that this was a serious situation.
I’m still barefoot, and there are three or four crew members in my room. I don’t want to get in their way, but ask them to please get my boots, which are underwater. One of them looks around briefly, but can’t find them. He hands me my overshoes that are designed to be warn over my boots to make them waterproof. Then the ship alarm sounds. The Captain comes over the loudspeaker telling people that this is not a drill. Grab your warm clothing and report to the muster station.
I wish I could grab my warm clothing, or my life jacket, and, while it didn’t cross my mind at the time, later wished that I had grabbed my wallet. My cabin is full of crew members, and they are frantically searching my room, and moving things out of the way trying to find the source of the leak. The water is getting deeper, and there’s no chance for me to get anything else. I join the rest of the passengers making my way barefoot and wet up to the muster station on the top deck of the ship.