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Rescue at Sea: A Cruise Line's unexpected stop

Adventure on the High Seas: Cruise-Aid for Life and Liberty

by Shannon Caldwell

The 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 ship’s windows as the sun sank behind them.

Although you couldn’t 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 ship’s motion while pouring wine and balancing that much weight during less than smooth sailing.

Suddenly, 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 hadn’t 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 hadn’t, 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.

Squid attacking boatThe 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 didn’t 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.

Clearly, many people felt this sudden movement. You could hear diners debating the same curiosity at their tables as to who felt it and who didn’t. 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 ship.

We were well out to sea so the officers weren’t 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.

Rescue in action on dark seas. Photo credit: Susan Breslow Not 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?

By 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 didn’t 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.

As 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?

Dinners 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.

As promised, at 8 a.m. the Captain’s 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.

Our 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 they were.

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.

Should you take a cruise on Holland America, there’s no guarantee you’ll 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 ship’s captain keeping everyone entertained, amused and up to speed every day with all that’s going on, to the in-depth involvement and efforts made by Holland America to respect the environment on both land and sea.

Read more about the Holland America 10-Day Mediterranean Cruise.

Click here for another perspective on the Mediterranean Cruise rescue by fellow passenger and travel journalist Susan Breslow.