Sunday, November 25, 2007

Watching the sunrise from a lifeboat, Posted by Robert Paisola

During Friday's sinking of the MS Explorer in the waters of the Antarctic Ocean, the worst moment for Canadian passenger Cheryl Beck came with the captain's cry, "Abandon ship!"
"He repeated it several times," she told the Star last night from Chile's Punta Arenas, the southernmost city on Earth. "Up until that moment it hadn't really sunk in yet, and that's when it did. It really did."

Cheryl, 40, and her husband, Robert, 41, had known the ship was hitting ice that night and had felt the jolting.

But the Edmonton couple, who work for the Alberta government, were in bed and falling asleep some time early Friday morning when they heard the call for all passengers to report to the ship's lecture room.

Soon, they would find themselves in a lifeboat, soaking wet and shivering as waves washed over them and the lifeboat began to take on water. It was so crowded in their boat that some passengers were standing.

However, one of the stricken ship's Zodiacs quickly pulled alongisde and rescued the overflow of passengers from their lifeboat.

After about four hours bobbing in the grey night of the Antarctic summer, they were rescued, this time permanently, by the Norwegian cruise ship, Nord Norge. Capt. Arnvid Hansen later told Associated Press he had steamed 4 1/2 hours "full ahead" to rescue the ship before the weather could close in.

"We have to work together with the forces of nature, not against them," said the captain.

By last night, the Becks, along with other passengers and crew members, had survived rescue at sea, a night at a Chilean military base on King George Island, roughly 800 kilometres south of Chile's southern tip, and a lift from that island to the mainland in a military Hercules.

"In the end, it was quite an adventure," Cheryl Beck said. "If it's true I have nine lives, then one of my lives is used up."

Partly the thrill of adventure and partly fascination with early 20th-century explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton sent the couple on a cruise that focused on the exploits of the lengendary Antarctic adventurer and that was called the "Spirit of Shackleton."

According to Cheryl Beck, "it was a dream of ours" to join this modern-day expedition to Antarctica, run by Toronto-based G.A.P. Adventures.

Peter d'Angelo, a retired engineer from San Francisco, and his wife, Lynne, a dietitian, also dreamed about tracing Shackleton's path through Antarctica.

"They promised an adventure but I don't think they ever intended to make it this good," he told the Star last night from Punta Arenas. He said the site where the Explorer went down off King George Island wasn't that far from where Shackleton was trapped in the ice during his most famous expedition from 1914-1916.

D'Angelo was in his cabin on the starboard side early Friday when he heard a noise, like a ladder striking the ship. Quickly, his cabin began to fill with water and he hit the emergency button in his room to start the alarm. (Another passenger also alerted the crew.) Then, he and his wife pushed their belongings up onto the bed.

It is believed the ship hit ice. Early reports said it had a hole the size of a fist in its starboard bulkhead below the waterline. But d'Angelo speculates the ship sank because the ice hit an existing stress fracture. And he also believes that water got into the plumbing system, flooding the entire ship and causing it to sink.

The Explorer listed to starboard and a few hours after the accident, slipped beneath the Antarctic waters.

From the lifeboats, d'Angelo said he and his wife watched the sun come up at 3:41 a.m.
"It wasn't a bad sunrise," he said. "Not bad at all." After the Nord Norge took the ship's passengers and crew to King George Island, the Chilean military cared for them overnight Friday.
Most lost all their possessions, including clothing and camera equipment. Of the 154 passengers and crew, the Hercules carried out 77 last night. The rest will be brought out today, depending on weather.
At Punta Arenas last night, airport manager Juan Carlos Oneto greeted each passenger at the terminal with a boisterous, "Bienvenidos a Chile."

They were then taken to two local hotels where they had dinner and were given clothes and supplies.

Cheryl Beck said she and her husband plan to continue their vacation, although final plans haven't been worked out.

Other passengers have made similar decisions. The company is trying to accommodate the passengers, whether in bringing them home or in helping them with other vaction plans.
Today in Punta Arenas, company officials will take the first batch of passengers ferried in last night out shopping to replace lost items.

"The company was great," said d'Angelo. "We were all very calm because we had practised emergency drills and we did exactly what we practised. "He said that four lifeboats and four Zodiacs were deployed by the crew. D'Angelo also credited the lack of panic with the fact that, before leaving the ship, passengers were told that rescue vessels were not far away.

As well, he said a helicopter circled the lifeboats about 1 1/2 hours after they hit the water, reassuring everybody.

"We didn't feel at risk," he said.

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