From The Category of Be Careful What You Wish For!

Sapphire Princess NY Times AP Joe Sharkey wrote an interesting article entitled Growing Rebellion on the High Seas for today’s (December 16, 2007) Sunday NY Times Travel Bug column in the Business Section. It’s basically about how cruiseship passengers have become much more adressive in expressing their unhappiness when things don’t go as scheduled. This even seems to be the case when bad weather causes course adjustments and skipped ports of call.

A similar incident occurred last month aboard the Sapphire Princess, a 2,600-passenger cruise ship on a 16-night voyage with scheduled stops in Singapore, Shanghai and other Asian ports. Two late-season typhoons severely disrupted the trip, canceling port calls in Vietnam, at Okinawa and at Taipei, Taiwan.

Unhappy passengers rushed to Internet stations to tell the world. Some were “claiming they were on the verge of mutiny,” The Sunday Mail reported while the ship was still at sea.

This article resonated with me. Back when I was in college I was captain of the New Bedford / Cuttyhunk ferry Alert during summer breaks. Cuttyhunk is a fairly remote tourist destination with at that time an 1 1/2 hour ferryboat ride being the main way of getting on or off. Summer Sundays were always very busy and more often than not we had to make 2 trips to meet the demand.

Alert One Sunday in August 1980, we had an uneventful trip out in the morning but as we lay along the dock the weather starting turning. It became clear pretty quickly that despite having two fully booked trips scheduled, there was no way we were going to be able to make more than one with a summer Northeaster developing.

We now had to figure out a way to consolidate the two trips to one. Most of the regulars appreciated the significance of the changing weather and respected our suggestion that they should delay a day. While many decided to return home and wait out the storm, there were remained more passengers that “needed” to get off the island that afternoon than the US Coast Guard would allow the vessel to take.

First of all there would be no compromises: I could not and would not leave the dock with more than what the vessel’s certificate of inspection would allow. Our first strategy was to clearly communicate this to everyone. We then asked passengers from the first scheduled trip to consider giving up their spots and informed all passengers that this was going to be a very uncomfortable and miserable experience and strongly encouraged them to wait a day. This reduced the numbers but we still had a few too many. After several individual conversations and “negotiations,” we were able to get the number down to our legal carrying capacity and prepared the vessel for the trip.

The first sign that this was going to be a challenge was that we had tremendous difficulty even getting the Alert off the dock. The wind was blowing out of the Northeast pressing us hard against our berth. We attempted to back down on a forward spring line to get out bow off the dock but the wind was too strong. Our only alternative was to get the stern off the dock with an aft spring line, back down directly into the wind after the vessel was perpendicular to the dock and when we got far enough off it, go full ahead hard left into the channel. Success, we were underway.

Once past the breakwater, the seas were larger than normal but easily handled by the Alert. As we passed Penikese Island to the west, Nashawena to the east and approached the bell buoy #7, things began to get much more challenging.

Cuttyhunk Island is located at the Western end of Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. It is a relatively shallow body of water with prevailing winds are out of the southwest. When the weather comes out of the Northeast, the seas can build very quickly and are generally steep and close together. This day was no exception.

Just as we passed the #7 bell buoy and adjusted our course to New Bedford, the weather intensified. We were riding down one wave and before we could recover the next one rose up causing green water to come crashing through the pilothouse windows. One fifth the way into the trip with significant seas and wind on the vessel’s nose, there was no way to return to Cuttyhunk without putting the vessel and passengers at significant risk. We proceeded under reduced power, jockeying the vessel in order to ride the waves in the most efficient and safest manner. What normally took 1 1/2 hours took over 3 hours on this day. Besides some broken glass, a few minor electronics water-damaged and a lot of seasick passengers, we all survived this ordeal in whole.

The next day it was interesting to learn that one of the passengers who fought hardest (and was most obnoxious) about getting onto the single Sunday ferry, despite our repeated warnings, had threatened to sue because of the trauma he experienced during the trip. Of course this was nonsense but it served as a valuable lesson about human nature to a 20 year college student / captain.

This video is dedicated to passengers who don’t appreciate the professionalism of mariners around the world who put their safety first and foremost. Be careful what you wish for!

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Peter A. Mello

Father, son. Lifelong mariner, student of leadership, photographer. Professional creative placemaker.

3 thoughts on “From The Category of Be Careful What You Wish For!”

  1. Capt. Darrin,
    Thanks for visiting and commenting. I agree with you wholeheartedly about having the courage and confidence to make “the call.” This can be one of the most challenging yet important parts of a captain’s job. Leadership can at times be a lonely exercise.

  2. Though the majority of my life on the ocean was on board yachts, I have had to make the “call” in regards to weather and safety issues. I have become very unpopular. Even on a large motoryacht, it can seem quite small with unreasonable owners and guests.
    I have been thanked and praised for my skill and safety concerns as well.
    My point here is know your boat and really know the weather.

    Most of all have courage to make the “call”.

    Capt. Darrin Ret.

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