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Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

It was just after midnight on the 12th day of a cruise to Antarctica when Eli Charne felt a giant lurch followed by a bang and the sound of gurgling.

He knew there was trouble when he reached out and felt icy water running down the sides of his cabin.

Lying on their bunks in the darkness, he and his two cabin mates struggled to figure out what had happened. When they switched on the lights in Room 314, all three gasped. "There was 1 1/2 feet of water on the floor," said Charne of Irvine. "I rushed out the cabin door, and by then the ship was listing badly. There was nobody in the hallway, just darkness and water. I thought I was on a ghost ship. It was very surreal."

In fact, it was the Titanic-like sinking of the first cruise ship built to ply the frigid waters off the Earth's southernmost shores. Like the Titanic, the red-hulled Explorer struck an iceberg -- on Nov. 23 -- and went down. Unlike its famous predecessor, however, the ship's 154 passengers and crew members were rescued by a Norwegian liner after spending five hours in lifeboats bobbing among the icebergs.

"It's amazing that we all survived," Charne said. "I'm very happy about that."

Charne, 38, had dreamed of visiting Antarctica for much of his life. Last year, the bachelor with a taste for exotic locations quit his job as a software engineer to become a full-time travel and nature photographer. In August, he booked the Explorer cruise with G.A.P. Adventures, a Canadian travel company, leaving Nov. 8.

The first leg of the journey was beautiful, Charne said. They stopped at several points around the Falkland Islands, about 300 miles east of Argentina, where he took more than 10,000 photos. But the night before they were to land in Antarctica, the excursion's luck changed.

Passengers had been told to expect lots of noise as the ship plowed through a field of ice. In anticipation, Charne put on earplugs. He had not quite drifted off to sleep when he felt the ominous shudder.

At first, he thought the Explorer's engine had coughed. Then he touched a bulkhead and knew there was trouble. An iceberg, he later learned, had punched a fist-size hole in the hull next to their cabin.

Before rushing out the door, Charne grabbed a parka, a pair of ski pants and the external hard drive of his computer containing the digital photos he had taken on the trip. He left behind everything else, including his cellphone, boots, warm clothing and $10,000 worth of photographic gear.

Led by crew members, Charne and his cabin mates made their way to the upper decks, where they gathered with other passengers.

"They did a roll call and everyone was there," he said. "People were trying to tell jokes, but I wasn't in the mood for jokes. I was very tense; I had seen the water rising."

An hour later, they abandoned ship. Divided into four groups, the passengers were lowered into lifeboats, each containing more than 30 people.

"I didn't have gloves or a hat," Charne said. "I was freezing cold."

He was freezing cold for the next five hours as passengers and crew members bobbed in the southern Atlantic Ocean. He was agonizingly seasick, his insides churned by the swells.

Most of the time he was too weak to move.

"Those hours were awful," he said. "My hands were freezing, my feet were freezing, my head was freezing. It was very cramped, and I couldn't straighten up. I was having difficulty breathing and thought it might be the end."

Three hours into the ordeal, a helicopter appeared, providing hope. A man on his lifeboat got down on his knees and proposed marriage to his girlfriend. Then the Norwegian liner Nordnorge arrived and took them aboard.

Charne had to climb a rope ladder to get onto the ship. He managed two steps but couldn't move any farther. Rescuers pulled him aboard. He landed on his knees, which still hurt, he said. But he didn't mind the pain because he was glad to be alive.

The survivors were taken to a Chilean military base at King George Island, a few hours away, where they slept on cots in the gym. The next day, they were airlifted about 660 miles to Punta Arenas in southern Chile, where they spent two nights in a hotel before flying to Buenos Aires and then home.

Sitting in the living room of his cluttered three-bedroom house, surrounded by relics and photographs from previous adventures in places such as Africa, Peru and Israel, Charne is philosophical about his scrape with death.

"I think it's changed my views about what's important," he said, holding one of the Explorer's orange life jackets on his arm.

Eventually, he said, he will display it on a wall as a reminder of where he's been.

In the end, the photographer explained, "None of the things we had really mattered. What really mattered was that we were alive and the relationships we formed."

He remains in contact with some of his fellow survivors and expects to remain so for life.

The cruise company sent him a refund check, but Charne said it isn't enough to pay for his lost camera equipment, so he's consulting an attorney.

Although he plans to spend more time "smelling the coffee," Charne hasn't lost the travel bug.

"I still want to see Antarctica," he insisted. There's only one addendum. "I think I'd like to go somewhere warmer first."

david.haldane@latimes.com

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