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Mayday Call in Alaska

<i> Strachan is a San Juan Capistrano free-lance writer</i>

“Attention all passengers! This is Captain Menke speaking. We regret that we must inconvenience you. However, we have received a Mayday call and must respond. As we have joined the search, we are now under the orders of the Coast Guard. It is too soon to know how long our arrival in Vancouver will be delayed. We will keep you informed as progress is made. I repeat. . . .”

We were enjoying breakfast aboard the Holland America cruise liner Rotterdam on a summer day in 1984 when the public address system blared forth that message. It got our attention real fast. Our imaginations ran the gamut: perhaps someone had fallen overboard, or maybe a liner, such as ours, had gone down with hundreds of passengers aboard.

It was a rainy, overcast day with the sea churning--so much so that our portholes had been secured with extra-thick steel plates. We were out in the open sea with land nowhere to be seen.

How could they possibly locate any survivors under such severe conditions? The outlook wasn’t very bright. I’m sure that many prayers were being offered for the safety of those adrift.

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We had left Sitka the previous evening and were on our last leg in open water, headed for Vancouver and scheduled to arrive at 7 a.m. the next morning. Life aboard the ship settled down noticeably as we anxiously awaited further news.

The next announcement was not encouraging. It appeared that a 91-foot cruise ship with 26 people aboard had taken on water so rapidly that all hands had to abandon ship. There had been only one Mayday call (the international signal used by ships and aircraft in distress), so no radio fix could be made on their position.

The Coast Guard had only a general idea of their location from the course they were known to be taking. When we saw the size of the waves and the overcast skies and realized that the survivors were in tiny rubber rafts, we couldn’t help feeling it was going to be a case of sifting through the hay to find the needle.

Captain Menke spoke on the P.A. system frequently to advise the 1,100 passengers of the progress being made and of our status. He explained that while we were on search, we were under the orders of the U.S. Coast Guard and only they could release us from that duty. It could be a matter of hours--or days.

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We had almost finished our lunch when a stir went through the dining room: the survivors had been spotted! It seemed like a miracle under the circumstances. Everyone raced to the decks, with most stopping briefly to get cameras and binoculars.

There they were in two rubber Zodiac rafts--rowing as hard as they could to reach the Rotterdam, but making very little, if any, progress.

They were bobbing up and down and, half the time, disappearing from view into the troughs of what later were described as 25- to 35-foot waves, accompanied by a 55-knot wind.

But there were only 20 in those two rafts. Where were the others? Were they in a third raft, having been separated, or worse, had they gone down?

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Unfortunately, the sea was so rough that it was virtually impossible to lower the lifeboats from our ship to assist them. Almost everyone, it seemed, was thinking out loud: “Why don’t they . . . . ?” or “Couldn’t they . . . . ?”

At the same time, however, we all realized that experienced men with cooler heads than ours were doing everything possible to save these people. The threat of those fragile rafts being capsized was very real. At the same time, there was grave concern for the missing six.

Suddenly the air was filled with that familiar chopping noise of a slashing helicopter wing. Sure enough, around our bow came a large, two-winged Canadian Coast Guard helicopter. Relief, at last.

The helicopter hovered high above the two rafts and lowered a basket with a crewman aboard to calm the survivors and supervise the pickups.

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At the same time, the crewman also separated the two rafts. The reason for this became quite evident in a few moments when a U.S. Coast Guard single-wing helicopter came in low off our bow. In fact, he came in so low we all feared the down-blast would capsize the second raft.

Though the survivors were drenched by the water, the blast actually flattened out the waves and made the recovery easier. Five of the survivors were rescued and taken to the nearest hospital.

About that time, a search plane flew by and a second rescue ship came into view, though neither was needed now. Then the second U.S. Coast Guard helicopter came in to pick up the remaining five passengers from the second raft. All the while the Canadian helicopter was busily picking up the 10 people in the other Zodiac.

Then, almost like a master of ceremonies closing a show, the Canadian pilot blew the raft toward the Rotterdam and, hovering and facing us, picked up his crew member, who gave us a big wave before disappearing into the safety of the helicopter. They, too, headed for the hospital as a great cheer went up from the Rotterdam’s spectators. Soon after, our ship received its release from the Coast Guard and headed full steam towards Vancouver.

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The details of this lifesaving venture soon emerged. There had been, in fact, only 20 aboard the cruise ship. The ship had taken on water so rapidly that the survivors had to jump overboard to save themselves, then clamber into the rubber Zodiacs.

After about four hours of drifting, a flare that the survivors had fired was spotted by the crew of the Rotterdam. Captain Menke headed toward them and, at the same time, radioed for assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard.

The lives of 20 very fortunate people had been saved through the international cooperative effort of dedicated, expert men of the sea, and the daring heroism of the airmen of two nations.

We arrived in Vancouver at 9:30 a.m., or about 2 1/2 hours late. The very efficient crew of the Rotterdam disembarked the passengers, loaded supplies, cleaned ship, boarded the new passengers, and met their scheduled departure time of 7 o’clock that evening, once again headed for Alaska.

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