Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Five Years After The Day That Never Happened

Today is the fifth anniversary of one of the most memorable days of my life. It happened in the middle of the night, in the cold, remote expanses of the North Pacific, over 650 miles from the nearest piece of dry land - and even that was nothing more than a rocky outcropping on the Aleutian Archipelago.

I was a part of the Semester at Sea Spring 2005 voyage. We had departed from Vancouver, bound for Pusan, Korea about a week before and were met by rough seas almost immediately after passing around Vancouver Island and into the Pacific Ocean. Our ship was a converted cruise liner - a 590 footer ranking among the fastest passenger vessels in the world. But you can only go so fast when attempting to navigate 20 foot swells.

Despite the size of the ship, she pitched and rolled enough to make about two-thirds of the 700 passengers on-board sea sick in one capacity or another. I was one of the lucky ones who wasn't really bothered by all the side-to-side motion, but no one was immune to the effects of the ocean entirely. Eating meant having to hold onto your plate and glass almost constantly, lest it slide off the table. Showering necessitated two hands on the wall for the majority of the time. Even walking down the hall was precarious dance, as you were spilled from one side to the other despite your best efforts to lean against the swell.

There were some rough nights. Up in the bow of the ship, in a large room where most of the students congregated for a Global Studies class each morning, there was a grand piano bolted to the floor. One morning we awoke to find that it had smashed under its own weight when the ship met a particularly large wave head-on.

But through it all, the morale on the ship remained high. There were about 600 college students from all over the country (and from various parts of the world) on-board, all with an incredible trip ahead of us. We were scheduled to sail to Japan after Korea and from there to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and Venezuela before returning back to the U.S. via Fort Lauderdale. Suffices to say that it didn't all go as planned.

Winter in the North Pacific is not a friendly season. Storm systems have the freedom to build and roam without the inconvenience of bumping into a land mass and sacrificing most of their energy. On that fateful night, we were caught between three of these systems in one of the most remote places on the planet.

We had just crossed the International Date Line, placing us roughly equidistantly from Hawaii, Japan and the Aleutian Islands. It would be difficult to find a location among the major shipping lanes of the world that was further from a major landmass.

I woke at about 12:30 AM in whatever time zone we were in when my bed came unhooked from the wall and began sliding back and forth across our cabin. Pretty much everything in our room was in motion, including the heavy, squat nightstand between the two beds. This piece of furniture, designed not to tip over had done just that, smashing alternatively into the door to our room and the wall that contained our porthole. After a week of vicious seas we were conditioned to take this type of inconvenience in stride, but both my roommate Jeff and I knew that this was beyond the pale. We had experienced 25 foot swells in short stints but these had to be at least 30 feet or more and didn't appear to be subsiding.

After an hour or so of sloshing back and forth, we heard the voice of our Captain come over the loud speaker and inform us that the ship was going to be making a turn in order to face the storm system we were encountering head on. What we didn't know at the time was that it didn't much matter which way he turned the ship.

A more couple hours - and countless shifts port and starboard - later there was another, very similar message. We were on the third deck, but every time the ship banked towards our side, our porthole would plunge beneath the waterline, creating an eerie swallowing sound. If anything, conditions were getting worse.

Finally, at about 4 in the morning, we heard the Dean of Students, Kenn Gaither come over the loudspeaker. In what can only be described as a desperately panicked voice, he said "EVERYONE. PLEASE REMAIN. CALM."


At this point, it still seemed like a trivial aggravation. What we couldn't have known was that he had been up in the bridge of the ship - where the Captain navigates from - when a rogue wave at least 50 feet high smashed two of the windows, shorting out all of their controls and disabling two of the vessel's three engines.

Blissfully unaware of what was going on and bleary-eyed from a lack of sleep, we piled into the corridors of the ship, orange life vests securely fastened. I hadn't processed the idea that we were in grave danger just yet. I think we all possess a natural human instinct that tells us everything is going to turn out fine when we are thrust into an emergency. But I looked down the hallway and saw girls crying and guys with bleak expressions on their faces.

We stayed in the hallway waiting for the Dean to tell us we could go back into our cabins, restlessly shifting and slipping from wall to wall, listening to the sounds of various items crashing about our berths. Only, that's not what happened next.

Around six in the morning, we were told to proceed to the fifth deck - the one that contained the life boat stations. As Gaither gave the instructions, he assigned separate locations for the males and females. Kind of like they did on the Titanic.

The gravity of the situation didn't really hit me until I reached the fifth deck and saw a Filipino crew member crying hysterically. This guy, even if he hadn't been on this particular ship for long, had experience on the open seas and was surrounded by others who had even more. If he thought this was bad, then apparently, it was.

The entirety of a seven-level ship's passengers aren't meant to fit into one of those levels. As such, we were packed in throughout, all sitting on the floor since anything that could pass for a seat would quickly tip over should you be foolish enough to try to sit on it. I ended up on a swath of tile adjacent to one of the boat's cafeterias. There were probably 50-75 other people in the same general area, all helplessly sliding from one wall to another each time the ship pitched. There was a steel door to a kitchen right behind me and with every roll from side-to-side, what sounded like the majority of the cookware inside came skidding across the tile floor and slammed into that door in a deafening cacophony of crashes and clangs.

What I can't sufficiently convey in this post was the relentless, terrifying and inescapable pitch of the ship. The picture on top of this post was taken on that day and isn't doctored. We all have experienced the G-force sensation of getting pushed to one side far enough where you feel like you are going to fall over, but this happened every 15 or 20 seconds for 10 or 12 hours straight. After a while I lost the nagging fear that this next wave was the one that was going to turn the M.V. Explorer upside down in 45 degree waters well beyond the reach of even the most perfectly executed rescue plan. But I never fully dismissed it as a possibility.

Out there, 12 hours away from the nearest cargo vessel, 10,000 feet from the bottom of the ocean and 650 miles from land, most of the people on that boat found a way to ignore that fact that we were staring down an inevitable demise should we capsize. For whatever reason, I thought that if the worst case scenario of the ship sinking unfolded, I'd survive somehow. I'd just swim out, break a window if I had to, kick to the surface, cling to some debris and wait to be rescued. Of course, there was no way anyone could have made it out of the ship and even if they did, they would have been stranded in frigid water in massive swells hours away from anyone who could have possibly been of assistance.

I know this sounds pretty far-fetched. But it actually happened. Look:

You don't have to watch that whole episode of Storm Stories to know how this tale ends. Instead of one of the most catastrophic losses of life in modern maritime history, we made it out relatively unscathed. An elderly woman broke her hip and a crew member fractured his arm, but no one was seriously hurt. The ship was forced to limp back to Hawaii, but for a while it looked like we might have to stop at Midway Island to refuel first.

It was "the day that never happened" partially because it still seems surreal but mostly due to the fact that we reversed course and again crossed the International Date Line, isolating that chaotic 12 hour stretch into a sort of bubble of time unto its own.

We missed out on visiting Korea and Japan but in exchange, we stayed in Hawaii for 10 days and Semester at Sea arranged for us to fly chartered jets from Honolulu to Shanghai to Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City before rendezvousing with the M.V. Explorer on the Me Kong River and resuming the rest of the trip as planned.

Before they leave this earth, most people will encounter a true life or death situation in which they come to terms with the fact that this might actually be it. But most of those predicaments end as quickly as then begin instead of being protracted out over half of a day. It was as if we were all involved in an extended hostage situation with Poseidon as our captor and no one with a means of advocating for our release.

It wasn't until we were docked in Hawaii (or maybe it was on a subway in Hong Kong) that I allowed myself to process how close we all came to dying that day. Although I understand it now, I still think back to my friend Dave sarcastically reading out of a Tony Robbins book to make people laugh when we were sliding across the floor. I still vividly remember the crew emerging from the kitchen amidst the sliding plates and utensils with metal bins of french toast to feed the passengers when the swells were at their largest (how they prepared a meal under those conditions I will never know). And the fact that we reconvened our shipboard poker game as soon as the worst had passed, but had to keep our chips in paper cups since they wouldn't have stayed on the table.

I don't think about the events of that day nearly as much as I used to, but every time the anniversary rolls around and I talk to other people that were on the ship, the memories are as real and as vivid as anything else I have experienced in my time on Earth. Unfortunately, the most traumatic events of our lives leave the most indelible marks.

Truthfully, it was during those 100 days of Semester at Sea that I realized that I was halfway decent at writing. I sent periodic letters to my close friends and family but soon started getting email replies from people other than the original recipients telling me how much they've been enjoying my dispatches from halfway around the world. I quickly realized that, if the topic was right, I might be able to write something people enjoyed reading.

That one specific harrowing experience and the balance of the 100 days of that trip altered my life in ways that are still taking shape. I know that I've cheated death and enjoy a disbelieving sort of laugh every time I think about it. I feel like I have a deeper understanding of the world than most people who haven't visited 9 countries in 100 days.

Our Global Studies professor, Robert Fessler gave a speech at the end of the trip that won't go down as one of the great ones of all time. However it's one of the best I've ever heard because it struck the perfect notes while explaining why traveling is enriching on a personal level. He talked about how shared experiences bond people and how being removed from your element forces you to think differently. And thinking differently is what makes life interesting. He made the same "fishbowl" analogy that David Foster Wallace did when he made the his only graduation address at Kenyon College later that year.

From a transcript of Fessler's speech:
"Shangai isn't just a word anymore, it's a place. Cape Town. It all comes back. How could you have possibly imagined back in December that you would spend the rest of your life getting chills whenever you thought of the words "put on your life jackets and get into the hall right now!", with the steady haunting moan of a fog horn in the background. Who else will ever understand that? To you, the world is never going to be the same again."


  1. I still remember staring at my computer at the Internet Train on Via Zannoni in Florence, seeing this story break over major newswires; I simultaneously received e-mails from you and Kev letting us know you were safe. Two major feelings surfaced for me: shock and pride.

    Great piece Jay. Keep typing.

  2. That's flat out insane. I'm speechless

  3. Hell of a story and very well written.

    I missed this when it happened as at the exact same time I was deployed in the Med/Middle East on a sub. We had one incident where we thought for a moment we wouldn't surface again, but it was an isolated five minutes of terror rather than a drawn out 12 hours of terror.

  4. Fackface-

    This story will now always remind me of 2 things:
    1. My ex girlfriend
    2. Another year has passed since we've known each other.

    Seems like it's been longer than 12 months, doesn't it?

  5. I'm not going to lie. I'm honestly shocked that a cruise ship couldnt handle seas like that. Those things are huge. I figured they might be somewhat built to handle seas like that, since their decks are so high from the water. I've been on cutters where the bridge is 40 ft above water level and we would just be like, "oh shit!" as a wave comes at eye level and crashes into the bridge windows and you feel the whole structure of the boat flexing. No real point but, you would think that they would build those suckers stronger, no?

    Very well told story, though.

  6. This was a great read, man, great piece of writing.

  7. Jimmy - Thanks for your service to the country, man. I would have trouble being on a submarine for any extended period of time. The tight spaces and the fact that you are so far underwater would get to me. Although it probably beats being on the front lines.

    Schiff - It's been a long year, buddy.

    Fred - That ship was built to sail in the Mediterranean so I don't think seaworthiness was their first concern. Needless to say, the Spring voyage of Semester at Sea doesn't leave from Vancouver in January anymore.

  8. Thanks, Jay for the post! I also remember vividly, every detail of those days. You remember the same details I do. I was the IT manager on the ship, and having my wife and daughters with me added a *whole* new dimension to the experience.

    Happy Wave Day!

  9. Matt - Thanks for stopping by. My computer crashed on the ship and you might have been the person I brought it to.

    I can only imagine what it felt like to have your family on the ship. Hopefully they weren't too distraught throughout the process. Most of us had the opposite problem - being completely isolated from our families - since all the communications were down.

  10. Jay,
    This is one of my absolute favorite stories of yours for all the obvious reasons--high drama and a happy ending.

    I recall having a parallel realization to yours--holy crap my brother is stuck in a tiny boat in the middle of ocean!! Somehow the idea of sailing across the Pacific had seemed quite routine up until that point on our end too.

    My retelling of the story always ends with your playing a round of golf in Maui while waiting on ship repair--seemingly coming full circle from that harrowing experience.

  11. I remember that Dutch and I were on Kauai and got a phone call from your Mom at 4AM because she wanted to tell us what was happening before we heard it on the national news. Never did I think you weren't all going to be fine. Entertaining a thought like that was not in the realm of my comprehension. My biggest regret was that we had to leave Honolulu the day before you limped into port as I so wanted to give you a gigantic hug and let you know everything would be OK. And it was. Keep writing Buddy!

  12. What do you mean my speech "wasn't one of the great ones of all time"?? (Just kidding)

    Isn't it strange how an experience so intense and so personal is shared...vividly and forever...by over seven hundred people.

    Very nice piece of writing.

    Robert Fessler

  13. Never did I think that you wouldn't be okay, although I had several worrisome days and sleepless nights until I heard your voice again as the ship was pulling into Honolulu.

    In spite of that harrowing experience, I will never regret encouraging you to embark on that journey.


  14. The ship was meant for the Mediterrean but was in the Pacific Ocean; sounds like the ship was reserved by the braintrust at SUNY.

  15. That was very well written Jay. It was crazy to read about that and see it again five years later. Thank you. Hope you and everyone else is doing well.

    Keith S. Waddill
    Spring '05

  16. Nicely written my dear. Thanks for putting this up for all to see. Hope you are very well and better for the wear 5 years later...debatable if I am. I do know I met some of my best friends that spring- you included of course.


  17. Great writing. I'm not sure I even know who wrote this, but I was also on that voyage. I remember the details just as vividly and couldn't help but chuckle and smile while reading this, remembering the great experiences of those 100 days. Thanks for bringing me back in time by 5 years.

    Mike Green

  18. Jody Tompson2/12/10, 5:31 PM

    Great rendition. I was a faculty member in Spring 2009 and a few of my colleagues were on your voyage. We all know professors are prone to embellish their stories, but the version I heard was even more dire: the 1 remaining engine was insufficient to provide much propulsion. So the ship was essentially adrift! A heroic crew member used a satellite phone to call the Scandavian company that manufactured the engines. He was instructed how to "jump start" them, and succeeded in getting them running again. This should be a movie....who wants a role!?? :)

    Jody Tompson

  19. Hi Jay -

    Thanks for putting into words what so many of us felt. I too think of that day less often, but the memories are just as vivid as ever. Keep on writing - look forward to reading more from you.

    All the best,