On October 4, 1980, the aurora borealis danced above the stricken cruise ship as the elderly passengers crawled out of bed and made their way to the upper deck after the captain announced that there was a fire in the engine room. Almost everyone aboard, in the inhospitable Gulf of Alaska, one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world, was of retirement age or older.
Later, Muriel Marvinney explained how she and her friend Agnes Lilard came to be aboard: "Our families are wonderful. We're both fortunate that our children and grandchildren live nearby and visit us. But, loving as our children are, and with all the dear friends both Ag and I have, there is a kind of invisible barrier for us as widows. You're always fifth wheel at social gatherings....When we broached the idea of our taking 'a slow boat to China,' our children were all for it. The more we thought about it, the more exciting the idea seemed. All summer we pored over brochures like a couple of kids."
The boat they chose, as so many other retirement folks chose, was the intimate-sized cruise ship the Prinsendam, otherwise known (in a nod to the popular TV show The Love Boat) by the affectionate nickname The Old Codger Boat.
The small Prinsendam (only 427 feet long, about the size of the flagship of Alaska's ferry system), did not have a very auspicious start. She was built in 1973 as the smallest of Holland America's fleet of cruise ships, and just before her inaugural cruise a fire started in the barrom and spread to the electrical wiring, burning out of control for an hour and a half.
On the night of her final cruise, seven years later, the fire started in the engine room. The reaction by the crew was belated and inadequate. The captain, unaware of a large time lapse between when the fire began and when his instructions were followed, assumed that there was no great danger and didn't immediately send out an SOS, assuming that their onbaord fire suppression methods would handle the blaze. However, he did send out a preliminary message that they had a situation that might escalate to an emergency.
The Coast Guard and all shipping in the area immediately went on alert. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard was hundreds of miles away from where the Prinsendam was located out in the perpetually storm-harassed Gulf. If the elderly passengers were forced to take to the lifeboats it would be hours before the rescue heliccopters and cutters could reach them.
At first the passengers thought it was only a minor fire that would be taken care of soon, and they good-naturedly joked and chatted on the dark deck in their eclectic night attire, some of them in wheelchairs. The crew passed out drinks and snacks and opened the gift shop to offer sweaters to any who needed them. The ship's entertainers, including a man who later come to fame as the musician known as Yanni, played music for them and they happily sang along.
In the early hours of the morning, still assuming that everything was going to turn out all right, the captain allowed the passengers to come back inside to get warm. He also agreed to allow the crew to open up the dining room. Unfortunately, this caused the fire to re-ignite and abruptly blaze out of control.
Hours before daylight, the captain sent off an SOS and announced that they were abandoning ship.
Until then the dead, unlit cruise ship, its electricity lost to the fire, had been wallowing gently in five foot swells with a gentle ten mph wind blowing. As the night progressed into dawn, the winds and seas began to rise.
In addition, the smoky Prinsendam was starting to list as the fire blew out porthole windows and the growing swells sloshed water into the ship through these many openings.
There were difficulties with getting the lifeboats loaded and lowered. Without electricity, they had to be lowered manually. One of the largest lifeboats got fouled in its lines and was abandoned, hanging at an angle. Another lifeboat was nearly lowered on top of another. None of them had power and the elderly passengers, crammed in so tightly they couldn't move, couldn't push their boats away from the steel sides of the ship as the waves ground and slammed them into it.
But finally they were free, bobbing about in their small boats in the vast Gulf of Alaska under a murky dawn sky with, in front of them, the cinematic vision of their cruise ship pouring smoke out her portholes and listing into the growing seas.
The captain, twenty-five crewmembers, and fifteen passengers remained on the stricken cruise ship. But by then Coast Guard and Air Force planes and helicopters were beginning to arrive. They managed to drop firefighting equipment and experts onto the liner, but after several different attempts to contain, let alone put out, the fire failed they had to admit defeat.
By the most astonishing good fortune, the oil tanker Williamsburg, fully loaded with Prudhoe Bay crude from the pipeline terminal in Valdez, arrived on the scene. Riding low in the water, it was the ideal platform in those conditions for getting the hundreds of passengers out of the lifeboats to a safe haven, especially as weather conditions continued to deteriorate. The only problem was the passengers would have to climb 40-foot rope ladders to get aboard the giant tanker.
After having been wedged into the lifeboats and wallowing around in heaving seas, some of the elderly passengers (including those who were wheelchair-bound, suffering from cancer, epilepsy, having a malarial relapse) were in no shape to attempt this feat. That didn't stop some from gallantly giving it a go. They made it to the top, but, knowing how bad storms in the Gulf could get--and knowing they were about to be struck by the remnants of a typhoon--the rescuers realized they had to speed things up.
Thus began one of the most amazing sea rescues of all time as Coast Guard helicopters hoisted the passengers, between ten and fifteen per load, aboard and then transferred them to the tanker. The elderly passengers, at this point some of them suffering from hypothermia, dehydration, and severe sea sickness, had to crawl into the steel basket, cling for dear life, and be hauled through the cold, windy air, swinging above the growing waves, to the side of the helicopter where they were dragged inside.
It took the rescuers, sometimes racing away with a load of passengers to Yakutat to re-fuel, from 9am to 6pm to transfer 380 Prinsendam refugees to the tanker. The Coast Guard cutter Boutwell had 80 passengers on board. Included in the rescued were the captain, crew, and passengers who had been left on the now completely abandoned and severely listing cruise ship.
By now the remnants of the typhoon were lashing the Gulf with thirty-five foot seas and forty knot winds. The rescuers decided it was time to head for harbor. Shortly afterwards they realized that some Air Force personnel (rescue divers who had been lowered to help get passengers out of the lifeboats and into the basket) and twenty passengers were missing. Night closed in as the storm struck in full force.
Conditions made it unsafe for the helicopters and planes to continue searching for the missing lifeboat. Instead, the Coast Guard cutter Boutwell turned back and began a search they were afraid would end in disappointment and tragedy. At 1am, to their amazement, they found the lost lifeboat and managed to get everyone safely aboard.
What was it like for those alone in the small vessel, at the mercy of towering seas, icy, spray-filled winds, worried that they might have been forgotten and abandoned? Many of the elderly passengers said they were at peace, despite their physical misery, with the idea that it might end here in this unforeseen adventure. They prayed to be rescued, but they knew that whatever happened they'd experienced long, full lives.
Muriel Marvinney recalled, "From all over the [lifeboat] voices joined in repeating the prayer Jesus taught us. In spite of the Babel of so many languages--English, Dutch, French, German--we were all one at that moment."
Incredibly, despite the conditions and the elderliness and frailty of many of the passengers, not a single person was lost as the cruise ship Prinsendam sank through 9,000 feet of cold water to settle on the floor of the Gulf of Alaska, 225 miles offshore. The Coast Guard attributed this, modest about their own part in the rescue, to the patience, endurance, and good will of the passengers. They believed that it was because they were elderly, because they had learned the wisdom not to panic and instead to quietly fall in line with the rescuers' orders, that one of the greatest maritime rescues of all time was pulled off without loss of life.
Note: Many of the details come from the book Burning Cold by H. Paul Jeffries. For those interested in reading it, be aware that while it has a wealth of detail, the author goes on awkward tangents and the book probably could have used more editing.
This blog post is for retired USN Chief, Melanie. Thank you for reminding me to write it.
I've been fortunate that for most of my life I haven't had to deal with environmental allergies. Food allergies, yes, by the gross, but usually spring presented no difficulties for me, let alone horrors. Until this year.
When I look in the mirror I see red, weeping eyes, a red, peeling nose and the expression of someone reading the latest Stephen King horror novel.
But maybe that's not surprising, since Alaska has been struck by a freakish wave of pollen that is shattering world records. Fairbanks, alone, recorded pollen levels twenty times above what is considered high. (A count of 4,000 was recorded. Anything above a pollen count of 175 is considered high.)
The experts are telling us that it's going to get worse before it gets better, and they're warning that "people without allergies will suffer, too." We are told to expect a prolonged period of very high pollen readings.
Unfortunately for me, I didn't know this pollen wave would be statewide, rather than restricting itself to Up North as it usually does. Since I can't drink the water out of our faucet (it's rich in tannins and I'm tannin sensitive), I collect rainwater to drink.
It wasn't until after I turned into a faucet myself, particularly in the nose region, that I realized I'd imbibed a good amount of pollen with my water. The next day this was visibly obvious by the pollen scum that encircled the interior of the rainwater barrel. Now, although I live in one of the rainiest corners of the globe, I'm having gallon jugs of distilled water mailed out on a floatplane.
Allergy tips: My sister suffers from environmental allergies all the time, since she lives in Florida where something is always pollenating, and she's found that drinking coffee can help. This sometimes helps me (though it's a tannin, plus, if you have a sinus infection it will make the symptoms worse), and so does horseradish mustard.
I can remember only one other year when we had extreme pollen, back in my early twenties. The pollen coated the beaches and our dogs became very sick. One of our older dogs died from it, and remembering that has made me try to keep my cat, Katya, inside as much as possible. As it is, she's a mirror of my own misery, with streaming eyes and nose and constant kitty sneezes.
The thing I remember most about that year was when we were in my dad's thirty-two foot troller/workboat on a trip to Ketchikan to stock up on groceries. As we entered the final stretch of our journey, and were heading for one of the boat harbors to moor at, we saw the sky turn a strange, dirty yellow. To the north, behind us and heading our way, was a wall of this dirty yellow fog that obscured everything, like a desert sandstorm.
We barely made it into the harbor and tied up when the wall of pollen struck. We closed every door and porthole and waited it out, watching it move on down the Narrows. Neither my dad nor I was too badly affected, as I remember. Things have certainly changed.
The curious thing is, I don't remember this incident being announced as record breaking, so what we have now must be many times worse. And it's true, I've never seen so much pollen speckling our decks or floating in a swirling scum on the waters that our floathouses rest on.
The constant allergies and sinus issues have taken it out of all of us--two-legged and four-legged allergy sufferers alike--and we're hoping it's over with soon. All we can do is hunker down and wait it out.
A couple of years ago a woman I'd just met was fascinated with our way of life and she asked me, "So where do you go to buy your eggs?"
I said, "We cross the strait."
She looked blank. "Really? I was expecting something more epic."
I realized she'd misheard. "The strait," I said, emphasizing it.
She laughed then, because her brother had just been regaling her with hair-raising tales of his own frightening experiences on the strait in question. "I thought you said 'the street'! Oh, okay, crossing the strait to get eggs is plenty epic."
Maybe not epic, but it was expensive. Considering how much fuel cost, and how much fuel it took to cross the strait both ways, if all we did was buy a dozen eggs, which, according to my last receipt, cost $4.29, they'd probably be the most expensive eggs in America.
Which was why we hadn't made this simply a grocery run, we'd arranged to pick up my mom's antique rocker from the barge line, and then bought gas and propane. With those tasks behind us, we idled past the city float in our sixteen foot Boston Whaler and turned the corner to the creek that, at this tide, would allow us to drive the skiff right up to the store's parking lot.
We passed houses that sat right on the water with evergreen trees shading them from the sun. The large, boxy orange store sat just across the street from where we'd lived for a time when I was very young, when my dad worked for the logging company that had been based in Thorne Bay. My only childhood memories of regular TV viewing in Alaska are from when we lived here. The creek we traveled up was where I'd learned to swim.
My dad drew the skiff up to the gravel incline just below the store's parking lot and I jumped out with the bow line. The current from the creek was strong so I tied the line to a chunk of rusty metal poking out of the landfill.
When I hiked to the top, I got a surprise. The parking lot was paved! It had always been bare dirt before this. It reminded me of the surprise we'd gotten several years ago when the town's roads had been paved.
On the side of the store that faced away from the sun, preserving it, was a long sign that said Thorne Bay Market. I liked to look at it whenever we visited, since it brought back memories of my uncle, Lance, painting it. He's an artist who's had showings of his art in galleries in Ketchikan.
I grabbed a cart off the covered, wood porch, and pushed it inside, going over my plan of attack in my mind. I'd head for the tiny produce section first, to the right of the door, and then circle around the entire store, dodging down abbreviated aisles, before winding up back at one of the two cash registers.
Although we'd made good time getting the rocker and fuel, we were past the high tide mark. The changing of the tide could affect the weather on the strait, plus we wanted to get to the house before the tide went out. Nobody wanted to haul the rocker or the groceries up the beach.
Fortunately, I had the store pretty much to myself, only needing to dodge a few lackadaisical shoppers who hadn't bargained for a NASCAR cart burning up the aisles. I tossed the items from my mom's short list into the top of the cart and my items in the bottom.
The store, though small, had everything on our list, including lighter fluid for the barbecue. It even had specialty items, like a few gluten free offerings, and diabetic-safe ice cream. They also had a small "Cost-Co style" section where you could buy industrial-sized items for fairly cheap.
This small store had such good prices, in fact, that people from communities all over Prince of Wales Island (where Thorne Bay was located), some fifty or more miles away, and on the other side of a mountain range, drove to buy their groceries here rather than at the stores in their own communities.
The only thing the store had a problem with was keeping fresh produce on hand. We called that part of the store Shangri La, since, as soon as you took the lettuce, carrots, and so-on out of the artificially cool environment they began to wilt, shrivel, and age rapidly, just like the characters in the book Lost Horizon who could stay young and fresh forever as long as they stayed in Shangri La.
At the cash register the girl deftly separated my order from my mom's and the guy from the other cash register came over, since no one else was in the store, and asked: "Boxes or bags?"
"Boxes," I said. "And please try to equal out the heavy items with the light." Sometimes the boxers put all the heavy items in one box, which made hauling them out of the skiff not a lot of fun. They usually offered to put the boxes in large plastic bags for the "skiff shoppers" but they forgot this time and I didn't worry about it, since we had the tarp from the barge line to protect the boxes from rain or spray.
When everything was rung up and paid for--over a hundred and fifty dollars for two boxes of groceries and some cleaning supplies--the two of them kindly hauled the boxes to the skiff for me, leaving the store, with the door wide open, completely empty. All I had to carry was a bag with some chips and drinks for my dad and me to partake of, fortifying us for the trip back across the strait.
I got in the skiff and they handed me the boxes. I thanked them, very glad I hadn't had to haul them myself. The young guy had handled the two heaviest boxes as if they were nothing at all. They waved off my thanks and wished us a good trip back across the strait.
We arranged the boxes around the rocking chair, tucking them under the tarp. Then we used lines, tied permanently to the skiff's rails for this very purpose, to lash down the rocker and groceries so they couldn't move, no matter how rough the strait was.
And by now we were more than a little concerned. It was blowing a good twenty-plus mph in Thorne Bay. We kept reassuring each other that this didn't necessarily mean anything. Because of the long, winding passage into Thorne Bay, the weather out on the strait could be entirely different from what was happening in here.
On the other hand, the tide had changed, and the strait was nothing if not mercurial and uncooperative. One time my dad had been forced to spend the night on an uninhabited floathouse porch when the strait was too rough for him to cross, and he hadn't wanted to waste the fuel running back into Thorne Bay. I had no urge to repeat his experience.
We headed back out into the winding passage, skimming past serene floathouses, munching our chips and sipping our beverages, and hoped that when we turned that final corner and got a glimpse of the strait that we wouldn't see whitecaps.
And then, there it was: the strait.
"Yay!" I pumped my fist. "Look at that!" My dad grinned in relief. The strait looked even better than when we'd crossed it! However, the day had cooled and completely clouded over. Grey curtains of rain obscured both the southern and northern ends of the strait. Odds were good we'd get wet before we got home. At least there was no traffic to impede us as my dad turned up the throttle and we set out across the easy waves, pointing the bow toward the trip of the peninsula where we lived. We had the entire, lonely strait, to ourselves.
On a previous trip, when we'd gone to pick up a freezer from the barge line, we'd been on an intersect course with an enormous cruise ship plowing up the strait. Rather than let it pass and have to deal with its massive wake, afraid it would damage the freezer, my dad had gunned the throttle and we'd nipped across the cruise ship's towering, cliff-like bow. We were so close we could look up into the observation lounge at the wide-eyed tourists. I was pretty sure the captain was not one of our biggest admirers at that moment, but we did get the freezer safely home without damage.
And on this day we managed the same with my mom's antique rocker.
A special thanks to my readers who hung in there to read "the rest of the story," despite delays due to my bad signal. And a special hello to two Welsh ladies in the Caribbean. Thanks for tuning in!