The Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica is one of the most dangerous stretches of ocean in the world. Circumpolar winds and currents are unimpeded by land masses as they whorl around the bottom of the planet. The latitudes south of 50⁰ are known as the Furious Fifties. At the Drake Passage, all that force is squeezed through it's narrowest ocean channel.
Our ship, the Viking Polaris, is brand new, 665 feet long (over two football fields) and has a class 6 icebreaking hull plus every modern safety feature. We sailed northward to deliver our broken leg patient to land and Usuaia, Argentina. As we went, the sea became very rough and the ship was rolling, pitching and rocking. By dinnertime, walking was difficult for regular people and nearly impossible for unsteady Dad. Occasionally a loud reverberating deep WHACK shook the whole ship as a larger wave pounded into the hull on the windward side.
We wobbled our way to our stateroom. I was happy that I wasn't feeling sick, like I'd been on the passage out. Still, it was so rough I put a barf bag by my bed and climbed in early, hoping to wake in smoother waters. The rolling was almost a spiral at times, making me light, then heavy in my bed and threatening to toss me out. Sailor's hammocks began to make sense. I widened my sleeping stance for stability and tried to doze.
About half an hour later, 10:40, there was a huge juddering impact, the biggest WHACK of all whacks, and the whole ship jumped sideways. Our heavy little coffee table tipped over sideways with a crack. Our drinking glasses fell over on the desk. Loose things fell to the floor. Floor things shifted. My mattress skewed on the box spring. Things maybe cracked elsewhere in the ship.
I sprang up and secured anything I could find. Put drinking glasses and vase in the trash can with a pillow. Shoved loose things into drawers. Righted the heavy table and moved it where it wouldn't crash through the floor-to-ceiling window. The ship slowed or stopped, but still rocked in wind and waves. About then there was an announcement on the intercom. "This is not a drill. Code Delta on deck two."
Shit. I got dressed, ready to be ready, no idea what a Code Delta meant. Dad watched me bustle and dress, asked me about it, but didn't join in. Just too much effort, I guess. And for what? We didn't know. Were we going back to sleep, or about to abandon ship, into tiny boats in the raging waters? I got back in bed to rest up for whatever was ahead.
Another announcement. Code Alpha. Waiting. Then announcements trickled in. Remain in place. The ship had been hit by a rogue wave. Stateroom windows had broken. The ship was still safe. Then a door to door roll call. Then onward, maybe slower, and later learned we had turned off-weather.
I slept fitfully and when I roused it was morning and we were in the calmer waters of the Beagle Channel, an ocean fjord protected from the winds of the Furious Fifties. The sun was up. The day progressed.
Details emerged. The general swell at the time was 20-22 feet, a man with sailing experience told me, and not a steady, even swell from a single direction, but a chaotic multi-direction swell he called "potato water". The wind was blowing at strong gale force, with gusts of hurricane strength. The rogue wave that hit the ship was estimated at 45-50 feet. The wave caved in at least six floor-to-ceiling windows on Deck 2. Interior walls shredded and torn out. Rooms, floors and carpets flooded. Some injuries. But no one washed away.
Krista and Gary were asleep in bed on the windward side of Deck 2 when the wave exploded into their stateroom. Water, glass, deafening noise and grey darkness. The force of the water pushed their world into chaos. They were left soaking, cold and barely clothed amid broken furnishings and the wreckage of the walls, the dark water and wind roaring outside. Gary could see into the next stateroom in one direction and into at least two more in the other. The door was blocked with debris. They shouted to each other, realizing they might be about to die.
Fairly quickly crewmembers were at the door, getting the debris cleared enough that they could wriggle out. Nothing but minor scrapes. But all their belongings were "gone". No one's quite sure what washed away and what was merely inaccessible, as crew sealed the damaged zone and no one was going in, for safety reasons and until an investigation is complete. Oddly, Glenn's phone--in a waterproof case--was found floating in the hallway.
Jeff and Susan were in bed. She was asleep and he was watching TV when the water pounded in. Their bed swept upward. Walls tilted sideways. Everything shifted. In the gloom and roar, everything settled in a wet, unruly heap. Jeff was still on the bed, and had to pull out a broken shaft to use as a prop to keep more debris from falling on them. The bed continued to shift and it took long moments to realize it was a man pushing from below, still on his own bed, which had somehow slid beneath theirs from an adjoining stateroom.
Again, crewmembers arrived fairly quickly and were able to extract all three of them. Jeff remembers telling a crewmember not to pull out the prop, lest it all collapse on them. Susan remembered nothing until she awakened in the medical center. Later, he had a forehead gash stitched up and several impressive lumps on his balding head. She wore a gauze wrap around her forehead and over her grey hair for the rest of the trip.
Naked people were dried and given clothes. Alternate accommodations were found. One couple were given shoes, but others only socks. Fellow passengers shared sweaters and sundries with those affected. A Scottish couple were handed a bag of salvageable items from their room, a mostly empty grocery size bag, which they later said contained nothing important. They were also promised shoes that night, but still had none later the next day. So the Viking response was somewhat scattered.
Passports, wallets, papers, cameras, phones and computers were missing of course, these important touchpoints of travel; whether salvageable or not remains unknown. There hasn't been a report of how many people were affected. Some were not in their rooms but still lost possessions. Others were out of the immediate zone, but were affected by water damage.
The ship limped to port in Ushuaia. Those in need of medical help were removed from the ship, including the woman whose broken leg had caused our early return. It was announced that the ship was too damaged to be able to carry out our alternate fjord cruise. Two mornings later the captain announced that a passenger had died as a result of the wave incident. We held a minute of silence.
For the rest, just details. I can only imagine the logistics of official inquiries, company inquiries, insurance, national and international issues, maritime reports, plus the challenge of getting nearly 400 passengers and much of the crew returned at sudden notice from Ushuaia, which is still a relatively remote area. And all our hotels changed. Buses arranged, etcetera. Egad.
Most of us are keeping our original flights home. Viking has been keeping us housed and entertained in the meantime. I'll write about all that later, I guess.
For now, know that the Antarctica trip my dad and I had hoped for did not go as planned. But you may have already heard that on the news.