The Best Laid Plans
As world travelers for the past 20 years, we scheduled what we thought would be one of our last cruises. We booked back-to-back sailings on Azamara’s Quest from Shanghai to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to Singapore. We added three nights in Shanghai before the cruise and a single night in Singapore to allow us to visit the Sky Park at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. This booking anticipated 33 days of luxury, while living out of suitcases.
Quest arrives in Shanghai March 14, 2012 at dawn.
The first cruise was magnificent with stops and excursions in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, arriving in Hong Kong 12 days later. The second cruise left Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor for Manila, then several stops in Indonesia including Bali and Komodo before our scheduled arrival in Singapore 17 days later.
On setting sail in Hong Kong, the captain announced that we were headed for heavy weather and rough seas as soon as we entered open water. The South China Sea around the Philippines is notorious for generating typhoons, although the captain said we would be in a monsoon, the less severe class of storms as described in the Far East. We survived a rough 38-hour ride into Manila, arriving in time for a day and a half of excursions into the city and surrounding area.
The Quest set sail for Indonesia Thursday, March 29 at 1:00pm. This itinerary was the first of its kind for the Quest. For this reason, it was designated a Presidential Cruise, and featured the company CEO, Larry Pimentel, who was expected to be aboard. He missed the sailing due to illness in the family. The ship’s captain, Leif Karlsson, was accompanied by his wife for this trial itinerary.
Leaving Manila, Manila Bay and the South China Sea were beautifully calm with water that was glassy, causing only slight ripples as the ship progressed. In Manila Bay we spotted a large school of dolphins doing what dolphins do. At breakfast the following morning from the Windows Café on deck 9 we saw large numbers of flying fish gliding away from the ship by the dozens. We were on a busy shipping lane, as cargo ships of all varieties were moving in both directions along our route.
Twenty hours out of Manila, Friday, March 30, we were about 180 nautical miles from our first port of call in Malaysia.
Scarcely a ripple on the glassy South China Sea
The Emergency Begins: Friday, March 30, 2012, 7:45pm
Cruising without a care eight degrees above the equator in the South China Sea, our group of six was finishing dinner in the main dining room on deck five in the stern of the ship. Others were dining or lounging elsewhere on the ship’s stern around 7:45pm when we all heard: “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo” and instructions for designated crew to assemble on deck three aft, port side”.
This message was code for some kind of emergency aboard the ship. The captain left his dinner party immediately and hustled out of the dining room. I had left the dining room only minutes earlier, and was in our cabin, 6004, one of the most forward cabins on the ship. Within moments of arriving in the cabin, I heard the same message. Shortly after this announcement the cabin lights went out. In total darkness I fumbled to open the cabin door and saw emergency lighting along the passageways. This was clearly not a drill, and my only response was classic sailor from my early days: “Oh! S%&*”.
A few moments later, with only emergency lighting throughout the ship’s corridors and meeting areas, the captain came on the intercom for the first time and announced that there was a fire in one of the ship’s engine rooms, and that all passengers should proceed immediately to their muster stations. The engine rooms are in the stern of the ship below the main dining room on deck 5 and the Windows Cafe on deck 9 above, where most of the guests and crew were gathered.
Smoke started entering the dining room shortly after the captain left. It was sufficiently serious that many of the passengers wet their dinner napkins and covered their nose and mouth to breathe. As most all folks were in the stern of the ship, they would all need to move forward to areas free of smoke. The ship is fully equipped with fire doors throughout all meeting areas and passageways. These doors were closed to isolate a fire, and minimize smoke from traveling throughout the ship.
All muster areas inside the ship are on deck five: forward in the Cabaret Theater (1 below), aft in the Discovery Dining Room (2 below), and the Mosaic Lounge and Casino in the middle of the ship (3 below). These middle areas have open, but fully covered decks on both port and starboard sides immediately below the lifeboats.
Coming from the smoke filled dining room and breathing through a wet napkin, it was tempting for many to go forward and out onto the open decks, rather than to remain inside the ship. Secondary assembly points are not part of the standard emergency drill. This created an added level of concern for those whose muster station was the smoke-filled dining room.
Panic among the 600 guests was near the surface, and selected individuals were responding with clear anxiety. One young lady was reluctant to go into the enclosed theater in the bow on deck 5, preferring to remain with the lifeboats on the open area on one side of the ship. Her concern was for access to fresh air, the lifeboats, and the ocean. I responded that the air in the theater was perfectly clear, unlike some of the air toward the stern of the ship where the fire was located.
With possibly 300 passengers in the theater, we settled into an anxious waiting period, not knowing what to expect next. Shipboard fires can be extremely dangerous, particularly when all power is off. The captain made his second announcement possibly ten minutes after we were all settled into our muster stations. He indicated the fire was under control, but because of smoke in much of the ship’s stern, we would need to remain at our stations until further notice.
Stern of Quest showing Dining Room (square port holes on deck 5) and engine
rooms located below dining room.
For well over an hour the passengers were fed drinks, mostly water, and regular announcements. One near-panic creator appeared when many passengers formed a line in the theater for entry to a single toilet behind the stage. The ship’s toilet facilities are all vacuum operated. They do not flush without power, do not drain with gravity, and fill to the brim with continued use. After the first 20 folks visited this single toilet it was beyond serviceable, and other facilities were needed. As this was immediately after the evening meal for many, access to working facilities was an essential service, and none were available in the theater.
Following this one-toilet episode, individuals under stress were escorted one at a time to their darkened cabins to use their own facilities. This process required many escorts with flashlights, plus climbing and descending up to three flights of stairs for relief. Nobody ever questioned the value received. and their movement throughout the forward parts of the ship offered assurance that the ship was still nicely habitable in the forward sections.
Subsequent announcements, all from the captain, told us the fire was completely out, but from of an abundance of caution, the crew was making certain there were no additional fires, and all remained secure. Eventually he reported that all four of the ship’s main diesel-electric engines were out of commission. He assured us that everything would be done to restore power as soon as possible. This announcement confirmed our status as another cruise ship adrift in the vast South China Sea.
After what seemed like an eternity, probably two-plus hours, the cruise director started calling selected staff to assembly points within the ship. As these groups were called, the ship’s staff slowly disappeared from the muster stations. Presumably these groups are planning to re-establish all essential shipboard services. After an additional period of calm and the lowering of stress levels, the passengers were released from their muster stations. They were allowed to return to their cabins, go elsewhere on the ship, or remain in their muster stations as they wished.
There was no service of any kind in any of the cabins as it was nearing 11:00pm. Virtually all returned to their cabins where there was a bed, separation from others, and some privacy. The cabins had no lighting, no air conditioning, and no shipboard ventilation. The vacuum operated toilets did not work, and only gravity fed water was available from the sink and shower. Fresh water and a small basket of fruit were provided in each cabin each day, but these may have been used. The elevators did not work, requiring all hands to use the stairways to go up or down decks.
As the ship was dead in the water, the only ventilation throughout the ship was for those cabins with balconies, decks 6, 7, and 8.. Interior cabins and those with only port holes had no ventilation beyond opening the cabin door. Because the ship was fully air conditioned until it lost power, many of the rooms were still somewhat comfortable. As the night wore on, all cabins became increasingly uncomfortable.
A large number of folks, both passengers and crew in the stern of the ship, found their cabins to be uninhabitable. Many of them elected to spend what remained of the first night on the open decks of the ship. Slowly the well-padded lounge chairs were filled, and the over-stuffed chairs from meeting spaces within the ship began to appear on the open decks.
Sleeping on deck 5 mid-ships
The Long Weekend: March 31 – April 1, 2012
The first sign of good news arrived at about 6:00am the next morning, Saturday, March 31. One engine was started, and was producing enough power to operate the toilets throughout the ship. This offered significant personal relief for all the folks on the ship, but little more as there was no lighting in the cabins’ toilets, other than through each cabin’s inside or outside doors or windows.
The other good news was breakfast that would be served in the Windows Café on deck 9 for all passengers at 7:00am as regularly scheduled. Cereal, fresh fruit, cold cuts, and cold drinks were available in abundance.
The bad news was a more complete assessment of the widespread damage caused by the fire. Damage to the ship’s electrical system caused major problems in the kitchen for cooking and refrigeration. It was reported that one crew member was seriously injured through smoke inhalation, and four others were being treated in the medical facility.
Around noon another parcel of relief was offered via an official letter to all guests aboard. Azamara offered to completely refund the costs paid for the cruise, and transportation booked through their companion travel agency, Choice Air, or through private travel arrangements. In addition, the process of evacuation and return to civilization would provide the best hotel accommodations available and $150.00 per person per diem per day until air travel was provided to ones’ home. The final offer was full credit for another cruise of equal value during the coming year. Conversations with other guests provided almost unanimous agreement that such arrangements were more than adequate, and supported the notion that Azamara was providing luxury compensation for the cruise’s serious loss of value.
Cruise director discussing Azamara compensation the day after the fire
With this generous offer of compensation, and hope for the restoration of shipboard services, the passengers prepared to enjoy the balance of the journey aboard the Quest insofar as that was possible. As a bonus value, all the ship’s bars and lounges offered free soft and hard drinks, including an unlimited supply of wines and liquors. The deck chairs on both sides of decks five and nine were subsequently filled with mostly contented passengers for the balance of the turmoil. Any timetable for the restoration of other essential services was speculative.
The South China Sea has been notorious for pirate activity for many decades with reports on a regular basis of ships that are attacked. We were clearly in survival mode, and lacked any resources for fending off pirates. There was never any public announcement that pirates operated in these waters, information that might well have pushed the panicky passengers from controlled anxiety to taking matters into their own hands.
We were assured that our circumstances were reported to many authorities, and that assistance was coming by sea from the Philippines. Shipboard staff and personnel from the home office in Miami were making hotel and travel arrangements as needed to return the 600 guests to their homes. This detailed process was begun the day after the fire.
Early Saturday evening the captain announced that a second engine had been repaired and was started successfully. With this additional power, full lighting was available within the ship and all cabins. The two working engines were both on the starboard side of the ship. Proceeding with an abundance of caution, the captain announced that they would try to move the ship using the starboard screw, and if successful they would determine how much forward headway they could achieve. After determining this, they could then calculate how long it would take to reach the nearest port with a hospital. That port was Sandakan, Sabah, Malasia. At a speed of 6 knots per hour, we should arrive at Sandakan at about 9:30pm the following evening, Sunday, April 1.
Shipboard ventilation was partially re-established for those with balconies and doors propped open into the passageways. Those without balconies were still without ventilation, and their cabins were approaching oppressive levels of heat. Most of these folks elected to sleep outside on padded lounge chairs, or other combinations of multiple chairs. Many slept on the deck with padding as could be conveniently gathered. Life jackets doubled as pillows, while cover in the tropical climate was generally not needed.
Saturday evening and all day Sunday, April 1 were spent finding comfortable resting places. The ship’s outside doors on deck five were propped open, and ventilation through these openings made them very comfortable. With a speed of 6 knots, a slight breeze was available near the outside railings, and eventually the railings were lined with folks in lounges and chairs absorbing the cooling tropical air.
Several hours before landfall, two patrol boats arrived to accompany us into Sandakan. All hands on board were elated to see landfall in Malasia, and they monitored our progress in every detail. The passengers’ bags had all been packed under miserable conditions. We were told early in the evening that luggage tags would soon be sent to our cabins to identify our individual destinations in Sandakan. It was almost 11:00pm before such tags actually arrived. This waiting time was spent primarily on deck watching folks on the dock, and anticipating the next steps in the process which can’t be adequately rehearsed.
We arrived in Sandakan as calculated. Docking in port was a tedious job, as operation of the ship’s engines, screws, and rudders had all been performed “manually” when underway. The ship was docked “dead-stick” without any screws, rudders, or thrusters. Tugs carefully nudged the ship into its final position in Sandakan. Azamara’s little lady, the Quest, had found a secure resting place for the beginning of an essential restoration.
The first person to leave the ship was the crew member who suffered from severe smoke inhalation. An ambulance was waiting on the dock, and he was transferred almost immediately.
Preparing detailed plans for hotel rooms in Sandakan, trucks to carry hundreds of bags to the appropriate hotels, and strategically loading the passengers, busses, and trucks was a monumental task. It started about 11:00pm Sunday night. Many hotels were needed to house all 600 passengers, and screw-ups were almost inevitable. Very few were encountered.
One hotel with questionable credentials created a stir for several passengers assigned to stay there, and reportedly a few asked to be returned to the ship. Immediately prior to our departure from the ship, it was announced that air conditioning in the ship had been restored, and was in operation.
Another hotel was the Sabah, named after the province or state in Malasia. It was a luxury hotel located well above the main city. It was comparable to most resorts around the world. More than two bus-loads of passengers were assigned to that hotel, although other hotels also received high marks.
Sabah hotel pool area
Monday, April 2, 2012
While we were expecting to spend only one night in Sandakan, arranging flights out of Sandakan was problematic. Azamara’s CEO was scheduled to arrive in Sandakan, and two nights were required to make the appropriate departure arrangements. With this additional day in Sandakan tours were provided called “Sandakan Highlights” and “Orangutans”. The usual busses were scheduled for all those participating.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Day three in Sandakan was departure day with all passengers heading for Singapore. Arriving in busses at the airport, Azamara’s CEO addressed each busload of passengers. He expressed his regrets for the shipboard incident, and assured us that everything would be done to fulfill their promises. He also offered some suggestions for dealing with the 600 passengers, baggage, and airport which was far too small for such a crowd.
Sandakan’s open-air airport provided one direct flight to Singapore on Dragon Air. A select few qualified for this service. Most passengers were flown on Royal Brunei Airlines through Brunei with connecting flights on into Singapore. Most of us had never heard of Brunei, or its sultan, reported to be one of the richest men in the world. The airplane we boarded in Brunei was virtually new, with brilliantly clad stewardesses to attend us en-route.
We arrived in Singapore Tuesday, April 3, where our busses and luggage were all waiting to transfer most of us to either the Swiss Hotel or the Fairmont Singapore. These luxury hotels are a short walk from Singapore’s city center and Marina Bay.
Azamara set up a hospitality desk on the fourth level of the adjoining conference center, and executive offices for handling the many hotel and travel arrangements required by all passengers. Before leaving the ship, all passengers had chosen one of four options available for the return home. Some were content to remain in Singapore till their regularly scheduled return flight. Others made arrangements for post-cruise vacations to Bali or elsewhere. Still others elected to make flight arrangements home earlier than previously scheduled.
Return to Luxury
Over 90% of the Quest’s passengers were housed in a luxury hotel complex which included the Swiss Hotel, the Fairmont Singapore with north and south towers, and its mall and convention center which ties the hotels together across the first four floors. Marketplace Square is a below street-level addition of shops with dozens of eating establishments available to all hotel guests without leaving the premises. The hotels’ location is an easy walk to Singapore’s central business district, Marina Bay, and the Singapore River.
Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Sky Park pool, 56th floor
Consistent with Azamara’s demonstrated style, a banquet hall was reserved for all guests for two consecutive evenings. Arriving guests were offered the usual red or white wine included with lunch and dinner aboard the Quest. Three rows of catered food were set up buffet style with the additional dessert tables. Eating, drinking, and sharing our experiences with each other was the catalyst for most of the interactions. Each gathering included a few announcements appropriate for the occasion by Azamara’s shipboard and home office personnel.
Dinner buffet for Azamara’s passengers two evenings in Singapore
On arriving home after a full week in Singapore, and three days before our expected arrival, we discovered our accounts showed a credit refund for the cost of our cruise. While a few loose ends need to be gathered in, there is no question that Azamara Club Cruises is a class operation. Dealing with these dedicated and hard-working folks under the most trying of circumstances is great testimony to the human spirit.
No doubt remains that most all the Quest’s passengers will be scouring Azamara’s scheduled sailings for the coming year, a bonus for our pain and continued suffering.
We are eagerly planning our next Azamara Club Cruise which features suffering in style. Somebody has to do it!!!