on the High Seas: Cruise-Aid for Life and Liberty
evening on our Holland Cruise Line ship started out like most. The second seating for dinner on was well underway with most waiting for their main course, third cocktails
already half empty. The sound of 1,000 people in conversation hummed throughout
the room. Dusk was settling in over the higher-than-usual choppy seas, clearly
visible through the ships windows as the sun sank behind them.
you couldnt feel the motion of the ship while seated (due to outriggers
extended to keep the ship steady) you could see the servers straining to keep
their balance as they hoisted large silver platters above their shoulders with
one hand. I was amazed at how well they mastered the ships motion while
pouring wine and balancing that much weight during less than smooth sailing.
a shout from my mother, who was seated at my left, Wow,
did you feel that? The guest to her left said she did too and wondered aloud
what it was. What did you feel? I asked. I hadnt felt a thing
nor had the passengers sitting to my right. The energy in the room changed immediately
with a higher pitch as passengers became excited about what just happened. Since
some had felt the ship jerk and some hadnt, everyone began to debate if
it was real or imagined. After all, the seas were a bit rougher than most nights
before and many were sipping some sort of spirits.
first thing that came to mind was a huge squid encompassing the ship with its
gigantic tentacles but as an old monster movie buff I have a tendency to go there
when weird things happen. While the thought amused and scared me, I quickly
dismissed such a scenario.
Fellow journalists across the table, Jack
and Erica, insisted they felt the ship make a sharp and sudden turn, as if to avoid
something. If that were the case, I wondered, then why didnt anyone fall
off their chair but more importantly, why did some passengers feel it while others
felt nothing, especially sitting at the same table? We questioned if perhaps it
was just a giant wave or some other anomaly. With everyone all dolled up the thought
then crossed my mind about Poseidon
which then had me scouting the room
for any possible exit signs.
many people felt this sudden movement. You could hear diners debating the same
curiosity at their tables as to who felt it and who didnt. The non-believers
were light-heartedly accusing the believers of partaking in too much drink. Then
finally, the Captain silenced the buzz when he came on the loud speaker to announce
what had happened. In his soothing and calming voice, he shared that two of his
officers had seen something unusual in the water, which appeared to be two men
in a tiny rowboat in the distant dusk, flagging down this huge Holland America
We were well out to sea so the
officers werent sure of what this could be. In an effort to be sure the
captain decided to turn the ship around towards the rowboat to check it out in
case there were people who needed help. That humanity got him a standing ovation.
As it turns out, the two men turned out to be eight young Algerian men in their
20s, all huddled together in a tiny rowboat with a burned out motor, one set of
oars, no water, no food, no blankets and a foot of water up to their shins with
barely any life left in them. Their tiny boat was sinking.
knowing if they were terrorists or if they had any illnesses or disease, the Captain
cautiously sent a rescue boat to meet the tiny vessel. When they arrived they
found the young men in dire condition; one close to death from an infected machete
wound, which he apparently received as he tried to escape his country. Others
were completely exhausted and dehydrated, so badly in fact that one more night
at sea would have surely been the end for some of them. But what they were doing
so far out to sea in a rowboat seemed to be the question of the night?
now, everyone had jumped up from their seats, hanging over the starboard deck
railing to get a glimpse or take a picture of all the action. I was amazed the
ship didnt fall over with so many people all on one side at once. Hundreds
of dinners were sitting under metal covers to keep them warm while looky-loos
were enthralled in this tragically unfolding event. Finally, the rescue team started
to tug the rowboat back to the ship.
it got closer you could see these young men in frail condition, each now covered
in his own ship blanket, which the captain ordered delivered, shivering and looking
near death. As they were escorted aboard, one by one, the dinner crowd wandered
back to their tables, the room loudly abuzz with curiosity and excitement. Everyone
wanted to know who they were and what were they doing at sea in a rowboat. Where
were they heading? What would make them risk life and limb? Was this a well-planned pirate plot designed for passenger entertainment? Who were the actors?
were finally served but surely not as fresh or hot as they once were but no one
seemed to mind. After all, a refugee rescue at sea is not something you see every
day in person. That alone superseded any complaints of cold dinners and empty
glasses. At last, at the end of dinner, the captain again gave us an update that
all the young men had been given food, water, medical attention, blankets and
put into rooms to rest for the night. He did assure us that they were in the process
of learning more and that the refugees would be guarded throughout the night,
just in case, and that he would provide more information the next
day. Everyone waited with anticipation.
promised, at 8 a.m. the Captains familiar and engaging voice permeated the
entire ship with a refugee update. It seems these eight young men had so little,
with no hope of a future in their war-torn, violent country of Algeria, that they
decided to escape in search of a better life, risking their lives to row ninety
miles to Italy, where they hoped a far better existence would be waiting for them
than the one they were leaving. Little did they know or understand that the Mediterranean
is no place for the likes of a 16-foot rowboat, a mere snack for the high seas.
With currents pulling them out to sea they quickly lost their way, ran out of
water, and were left with nearly the same demise from which they were trying to
escape. They were lucky that the Westerdam just happened to be in the right place
at the right time, and that two sharp officers noticed their little flailing arms in-between the 10-foot sea swells only minutes before nightfall.
Lucky indeed! Some even wondered out loud if divine intervention was at work.
When we arrived at our next destination
the morning after, which ironically was Italy; the young men were turned over
to Italian immigration authorities who were then obliged to return them back to
Algeria. What became of these young men, who simply wanted a safer and happier
life, is unknown.
Appreciation for Freedom Renewed
What is known though is this
this experience reinforced for many of us on the ship how lucky we were to live
in a free country; how lucky we were to be on such a beautiful ship on such an
extraordinary cruise. We were reminded not to take our freedom for granted. Every
day thereafter seemed heightened with more appreciation of each country we visited,
its beauty, the wonderful weather. Each day thereafter strangers on board became
connected by this unique experience at sea, sharing stories of other great adventures.
But most of all, no matter from which country they came, all agreed on how blessed
The dichotomy between the
little 16-foot rowboat along side the 60-ton Westerdam will forever be seared
into my brain as hundreds of well-dressed cruisers looked on as these poor, unfortunate
young men with nothing, young men who simply wanted nothing more than freedom,
a privilege and a gift we live every day.
you take a cruise on Holland America, theres no guarantee youll end
up being part of a rescue operation for stranded refugees but I can assure you
that your experience on Holland Cruise Lines will be like no other. The suites
are wonderful and kept immaculately clean daily (be sure to request one with a
balcony for sipping champagne and watching sunset sails); the service at every
turn is impeccable from your friendly room steward to the ships captain
keeping everyone entertained, amused and up to speed every day with all thats
going on, to the in-depth involvement and efforts made by Holland America to respect
the environment on both land and sea.
more about the Holland
America 10-Day Mediterranean Cruise.
here for another perspective on the Mediterranean Cruise rescue by fellow
passenger and travel journalist Susan Breslow.