Monday, January 31, 2005

SAS Email 2 - Hawaii

Wow where do I even begin… I guess the most important thing to inform everyone is that I’m completely fine and safe. I assume most of you heard on the news about the turbulent times this Semester at sea ship/voyage went through a few days ago, but obviously I’ve had no access to any national/international media outlets so I don’t know that the news reached all of you… after speaking to my mom about an hour ago, she told me to make sure this email was as detailed as possible to answer any questions people might have-

First off, while semester at sea might want the media to think we turned around because of rough weather, the truth is that it was pirates… I’m sure the real story will leak to the media once all the students get off the boat in a few hours and get to land, but I wanted ya’ll to hear it from me first. We were passing through the Pacific calmly when last Thursday night a series of pirate boats attempted to commandeer our ship around 3am. Luckily the crew was able to beat them back with these superstrength hoses all major ships are outfitted with, but the ship incurred a fair amount of damage and the majority of people onboard demanded we turn around and return to the closest land mass- Hawaii.

Haha, obviously I’m just playing… that was just to get a rise out of the few people who before I left told me I should be legitimately scared of pirates abducting our ship (you know who you are). The reality is that the entire first week and a half was filled with nonstop turbulence on the ship, which I think I detailed a fair amount in my last email. This came to an apex on the 27th, the night after I sent out that last email. We crossed the int’l date line and went from the 25th to 27th, then that night we went to sleep with the usual minor rocking and rolling. It was really strange for me cause I’m such a light sleeper, and I had a huge migraine that night (most of you know I get really mad migraines before huge storm fronts) so I took this prescription strength sleeping pill I got freshman year of college and maybe use twice a year. I woke up at 6am to find my room in shambles, my bed had slid about 3 feet to the other wall, my roommate Jaret’s bed was in the middle of the room, everything on the shelves was on the floor, my table stand had flipped over and was completely across the room against the front door, and it really looked like someone tried to tear our room apart. I couldn’t figure it out how I’d slept though it all, but I later realized that sleeping pill just knocked me out. Apparently around 3am everyone went out into the halls cause the turbulence was so bad, everyone but me, and Jaret got locked outside the room in his boxers and no matter how loudly he pounded the door I wasn’t waking up so he had the crew let him back in…

Anyway, I wake up around 6am to find the room a total mess and the boat is truly rocking. I realize there’s no way I’ll fall back asleep and that these waves are even bigger than the 40 footers we’d been encountering the past week… it turns out we were caught between two huge pressure fronts and the wind/waves combined from each side to create somewhat of a super-wave area I guess… Around 6:20am “the voice” came over the PA system and told everyone to put on their life-jackets and remain in their rooms, but he didn’t say it in a calm manner whatsoever like he usually does with the daily announcements. He sounded panicked, scared, and completely out-of-breath. At that point people started to truly feel something was wrong, even I was thinking “Holy shit this is the real deal.” Ten minutes later he came back on and told everyone to get to the 5th floor or higher, and then true fear broke out in most everyone. I went to put on the requisite long sleeves and pants, and grabbed at my sweatpants (most comfortable) but decided not to wear them and opted for my only pair of light khakis because I truly thought to myself I might be swimming today if this boat goes down, so I should put on my lightest items of clothing (that’s how serious it was). A few guys had been congregating in my room to watch the waves out of our porthole, and before walking outside we all agreed that we had to put on a very confident front because there were about to be 450 petrified girls around us. We walked outside to find a sea of orange lifejackets, with girls crying and peoples faces looking as morbid as ever.
In most areas the women and children were put in one space with the men around/behind them in case we had to be evacuated to lifeboats (“women and children first… seems real fair), but I was kind of assigned to wait at the top of the stairs and help people up. For the next 6 hours from 7am-1pm we basically sat in the same area, (I was at the top of the stairs on the 6th floor) and rock-and-rolled as the ship swayed from side to side. When big waves hit you’d literally watch 20 people slide across the floor and crash against the lower side of the ship, then they’d go sliding back the other way and you’d grab em to make sure they didn’t get away. You had to hold on to walls, poles, or each other for support. After that initial feeling of fear when the announcements to go upstairs came though and then an hour of the rocking, I, as well as most people, felt confident that we were gonna pull through it all. Our captain is this AMAZING guy named Buzz, he’s probably in his early 60’s, and every single one of us felt completely secure with… if it was anyone but him I’m sure the sentiments on the ship would have been really different. The crew was amazing too, a few were praying by themselves in corners and saying in 25 years of working on ships they’d never been through anything like this, but most were walking around with smiles, passing out food and water to students. You could hear the sounds of crashing broken glass from the dining room every time a big wave hit, but after a few hours even that became normal. We had to stay upstairs in whatever area we were placed in for what seemed like forever. In my area we eventually just started playing games like the movie game or trivia to pass the time. In other areas on the boat they got into a circle holding hands and this kid I know started reading passages from the Tony Robbins book to crying girls, hahahhaha. Over time the waves subsided somewhat, and we returned to our rooms feeling we’d survived something miraculous. When everyone came back upstairs around 3pm, you could see people were in shock. They were quiet, had blank looks on their faces, everyone was writing in their journals, discussing with each other what we’d gone through, and the only person who wanted to play a game was immediately shot down when her friend goes “Are you crazy! Of all the times to play Battleship, you want to play now?!” haha…later that night during a community wide meeting we found out what had happened to us-
We were in 120 mph hour winds, and a 55-60+ ft wave approached the ship and hit us head on. The captain’s bridge is on the 6th floor, and this monster wave completely covered the bridge and was so powerful it shattered all the glass protecting the bridge and flooded the area. All electrical navigational and controlling equipment for the boat was knocked out at 6:19am, that why “the voice” made that immediate and panicked announcement. We lost all power to the engines, so we basically were a sitting duck getting pounded by the waves. Eventually partial power to one of the engines was restored, and the captain was able to navigate us away from the storm somewhat. Glass was broken throughout the ship, the library looked like a bomb had gone off in it, several people had broken bones and one concussion, my public speaking teacher actually fell and cracked a rib which partially deflated her lung!, a lot of students had various bruises from being tossed around, tables and chairs were broken everyone, the grand piano in our student union was flipped over, and probably the most scary aspect is that many of the TV’s on most peoples’ top shelves flew off and were broken. When we returned to our room, our TV had flown off the shelf, landed on Jaret’s bed where he’d been sleeping only hours before (it could have easily landed on him earlier), and was shattered on the floor.
The executive decision was made by Captain Buzz that we didn’t have the fuel supply and more notably that the ship was too badly damaged with a lot of indeterminable damage to continue battling the remaining storms ahead on the way to Japan/Korea. We decided to turn around and head for the closest land, which was a naval base at Midway Island. Then they realized Midway couldn’t accommodate a full 1000 person ship, so we changed course to Honolulu, Hawaii, which is where we arrived at 3 hours ago. Internet was just restored on the ship, which is why I can write to you now. One of the craziest parts is that the ship was steered over 1000 miles from the point where we turned around to here via a hand-held compass!!! We didn’t have electrical equipment, so they used a handheld compass, AND the rudder lost electrical power so they had a series of guys in the engine room that would push the rudder to change the direction of the ship!
So now we’re in Hawaii, ecstatic to see land after 15 days away… when we turned around we crossed back over the int’l date line again, thus going back in time, so we had the 25th, 27th, 26th, 27th, 28th in that order. The way I figured it, we’re some of the only people to have ever gone “Back to the Future”, which is pretty damn cool. The ship-wide joke is that we did the 27th twice cause the first time was so crappy, and now all we know is that we’re definitely missing out on Korea and Japan (most people are REALLY upset about missing Japan, it was supposed to be one of the highlights of the trip… I’m somewhat disappointed in that too, but we’re lucky to be alive for one and secondly this trip is still amazing in it’s itinerary even without those two locations). They’re going to assess the ship’s damage while we’re in port here for the next 4-5 days, and then hopefully we’ll continue the trip with Shanghai, China as our next port.
It’s amazing what the power of optimism and hope can do to people. The entire shipboard community has been so positive throughout, immediately after the waves of the storm subsided a mass of students were upstairs helping in the cleanup effort, we always give Captain Buzz a huge ovation when he talks to us, and two nights after “The Storm” we had a big dance in our union and even though there was no alcohol served that night, most people went and had a blast. At one point Captain Buzz showed up so they put on the Jamiroqai song that Napoleon Dynamite solo dances too at the end of the movie…. And Captain Buzz went crazy dancing in the middle of this huge circle of cheering students for bout 5 mins, it was definitely one of the funniest and best things I’ve ever seen. This morning I woke up and went upstairs to find a beautiful sunny day with a temperature around the high 70’s. Literally I felt like I was on a different boat, everyone in sunglasses and bathing suits, eating outside with an amazingly positive vibe. The vibe until today was great too, but today I felt like I was on a tropical Carnival cruise instead of the Semester at Sea feeling I’ve grown accustomed to over the last two weeks. Everyone cheered as we pulled into the port, and we’re all ecstatic to touch land and explore Hawaii.
I just wanna thank everyone who sent me caring emails and thought about me during this whole dilemma. About 25 students are leaving the trip because of what happened, but I look at this as an amazing experience that I’m fortunate to have gone through. This may not have been the itinerary I signed up for, and I desperately wish I could have seen South Korea and Japan, but even without touching land this trip has already changed my life. When you really have to fear for your life, especially in such a confined community, you truly see how amazingly people come together and evaluate the value of your personal faith. After that initial moment of panic when I realized the gravity of the situation, a settling calm overcame me and it was completely based on this inexplicable feeling that G-d didn’t want me to die in that way. Like I said before, I didn’t doubt that I might have to swim in the middle of the Pacific, and I didn’t doubt the minute possibility that the entire ship might go down along with tons of people in it, but I knew deep down that it just wasn’t my time. And if I happened to be wrong, and it was my time, then I was okay with that…. I wish I could explain it to you, but it was an experience that connected me with this ethereal feeling, and that feeling brought about inner peace and acceptance. I realized it’s true that every day should be a good day to die, and I don’t mean that in a pessimistic way, but that we should live every moment fully so that if we were to die at that instant we’d never look back wishing we enjoyed the moment more. It’s a Buddhist belief that the only constant in our lives is suffering, but we can get outside that suffering if we let ourselves die to all our desires and attachments. On the surface this sounds terrible, but if you think about it for a moment in a non-westernized “me-me-me” attitude, it’s truly beautiful. If we live our lives attached to our surroundings and desires, we live life fearing death because it will remove us from these attachments we depend on for our happiness… but if we simply let ourselves die to those attachments, there is no more fear of death, and there is nothing left to do but LIVE and immerse ourselves in our experiences and emotions to connect with them on even greater levels.
So the trip goes on, now with each of us on the ship adding so much more value to the things we’ll see and do, greatly anticipating the touch of solid ground beneath our feet and the chance to visit cultures outside of our tightly-knit shipboard community. I hope this email finds everyone having a wonderful and safe semester or day, and I can’t wait to hear from all of you.

Be safe and stay classy,

PS: I’ve posted most of the pictures that I’ve taken on my Webshots address so if you want you can check those out at-

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