Su Lum: Slumming
November 16, 2010
When my friend Hilary Burgess and I returned from our western Mexican cruise last Saturday, everyone wanted to know if we had been on that ship, the Carnival Splendor, which, following a fire in the engine room, had been stranded for 72 hours without electricity, air conditioning, stoves to cook their abundant food supply and, for part of that time, no toilets working. Yowza.
No, we were on a nearby Holland America cruise (the Oosterdam, a boat half the size), traveling much the same route, and heard most about it from the crew (“My waffle man told me.”). With about 4,500 passengers and crew on board, it would take hundreds of buses to bus them out and get through customs, so they ended up being pushed (or pulled) by a couple of tug boats to San Diego. I’m sure everyone kissed the ground when they got there.
When we docked on our return to San Diego we were parked right alongside the Carnival Splendor, which had by then been emptied of people, and we had a lot of questions in our minds about the lack of sufficient backup generators and the nature of the fire that could bring a ship that size to a screeching halt in the middle of the ocean. Humma humma. And a big whew that we hadn’t been on it.
At about the same time that we heard about the stranded Splendor, our captain announced over the ship’s loudspeaker – really a soft speaker since, if you were in your room, you had to dash and open the door to hear it – that a male passenger was having a medical emergency and we were headed, full steam, for Cabo San Lucas, where he could receive hospital attention.
Full steam ahead meant 23 miles per hour and a day away, not exactly a sprint and, while we appreciated getting the information, it raised more questions than it answered. Had the guy had a heart attack or did he have cholera? Was this the kind of speedy rescue we could expect if we were struck down mid-trip?
Cabo was third on our itinerary of three stops – Mazatlan was first, then Puerto Vallerta, then Cabo – but Cabo was apparently the nearest. Lord love the cruise ships but they are lousy in the map department.
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Cabo was a “tender” port, meaning that, instead of docking, passengers had to be taken in on small boats called tenders. We were at anchor for more than an hour but I never saw the rescue tender, though the captain came on again to say that the stricken man had been safely delivered (and, later, we were told that he was stabilized). It turned out a woman in the rescue area had fainted and had been taken away as well.
At 9 on the last night, the captain again got on the horn to inform us that a woman was badly in need of medical attention and that a helicopter would be arriving at 9:30 to pick her up. Helicopter! We were only seven hours away from San Diego, so it must be really serious – and it was good to know there were options other than chugging away at 23 mph to the nearest dock.
Our room was at the back of the ship and we shivered out on the veranda (it was cold that far north) and finally, at about 10 p.m., the helicopter came loudly clattering into view, very close to our back porch, and proceeded to circle the ship for the next half-hour. The Oosterdam slowed down, but never stopped. The helicopter by then had a large searchlight turned on, shining a large circle of light on the sea.
Hilary turned on the room’s TV, where one of the channels showed the front of the boat filmed by a fixed camera. As soon as the chopper would pass us aft, we’d dash into the room, where we could see blips of light as the helicopter passed the front of the ship.
This went on for some time, and then a blurry shape appeared on the black and white snowy screen (it was like early moonwalk footage) and we could see the dark blob of the doors open and a sling of some sort thrown out and raised while the helicopter hovered. It was fast and the sling was swinging madly. More circling, then another sling (the spouse? Doctor?) was dropped and raised, and the helicopter zoomed off into the night.
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