Second update 7:30 Sunday
Not all festive cruises go according to plan. December may be a good time to see the beautiful icy Nordic landscapes, whales and the Northern Lights. MS Maud offers exceptionally good food, expedition talks and has a traditional Norwegian Christmas display, a Gingerbread Town, made by the Hurtigruten chefs. But as Kate Moore, one of our editorial team, found out, there are risks attached to a trip crossing the North Sea in midwinter. Even a decorative gingerbread town can be dangerous.
The ‘MS Maud’, with 266 passengers and 131 crew members, was travelling south from Bessaker when they received warnings that the approaching storm Pia would bring force 11 gales. The captain cancelled the stops of Loen & Stavanger in hope of beating the storm and getting back to Tilbury, Essex.
However, coming home down the North Sea, 260 kilometres off Denmark’s west coast and 350 kilometres off Britain’s east coast they met the full force of the storm with huge rolling seas. Around 4 pm Norwegian Time yesterday a strong wave hit the ship. As the ship pitched forward, the bridge took the full force of the wave. On deck 7 it broke the bridge windows, filling the bridge with a foot of water, drenching the bridge crew, and putting its steering and some electronics (including radar and navigation) out of action. There was an oil rig ahead, but moving at such a slow speed, the stabilisers initially retracted (with no manual override), leaving the ship rolling violently.
Preparing for the worst
In the severe storm, without propulsion, stabilisers and navigation, the captain sent out a mayday distress call. Passengers heard the frightening seven siren blasts of the emergency signal twice, and were ordered to go to muster stations and put on survival suits and wait. Fortunately lighting continued to function, but even so putting on a survival suits is not a simple operation, especially on a ship rolling violently. Probably the next most terrifying moment at muster station A came when, as the ship rolled, the festive “gingerbread town” made with chipboard, gingerbread and icing sugar, broke up and joined other debris and assembled passengers sliding around the floor as the ship lurched from side to side, with icing sugar from the display making the deck even more slippery. The prospect of having to take to life rafts in a force 11 gale was terrifying for passengers and crew alike. One crew member was seen clinging to a passenger and repeating prayers.
On higher decks, furniture, glasses and crockery were flung about. Secured tables broke away, and flew around with loose chairs, causing minor injuries. The crew were struggling to check the electronic muster register – in one case having lost their radio in the shifting debris they had to fetch a further radio and write on their hands and on sick bags the cabin numbers of those not present. On higher decks the crew were preparing lifeboats as deck 8, being higher, swayed violently. As the adage goes, “the more you pay, the more you sway”. Higher decks often being where the premium cabins are.
Help at hand
The first support vessel arrived after 40 minutes (fortunately there are a lot of ships in the North Sea), and the crew were working to restore propulsion and steering in the engine room (something they practice but never expect to have to do). After 2 hours the crew delivered water, and later the amazing kitchen staff had rustled up quality sandwiches with mustard and lettuce no less to the continual sounds of breaking crockery. After three hours sitting in survival suits with foam lifejackets around necks, passengers were allowed to open their evacuation suits – it gets quite hot. Thankfully we never lost lights or air conditioning.
Shortly after that there were three support ships trying to stabilise the ship. A tug was on its way. At 22.00, after six hours, some passengers were allowed back to their cabins (in complete disarray, with upturned tables, chairs and tea, coffee, cups, books strewn around), others were relocated. Apart from seasickness and some bruising, all (including those on the bridge when the wave broke the windows), had escaped unharmed.
The ship travelled very slowly, with steering controlled from the engine room. Overnight the crew had concentrated on holding the ship in a position to minimise pitching & rolling rather than make progress. The first attempt to get a tow line aboard at midnight failed, as did further attempts at 04.00. The seas were still wild. Finally they succeeded at around 10.00 am, and began the manoeuvre to turn the ship and tow to safe harbour at Bremerhaven in Germany. The crew continued to clear the loose debris whilst medics checked cabins and crew brought breakfast and clean towels and bed linen. Shortly after, the tow rope snapped. With the ship’s main engines now functioning the MS Maud was underway to Bremerhaven with a support vessel alongside.
A sort of normality returns
At 11.30 on Saturday things began to return to something like normal. The restaurant reopened and passengers began to eat to stabilise their stomachs. The flooded bridge remained sealed off, and at 14.30 the Captain could be seen with a laptop propped on a chair in an undamaged lounge area, watching for the oil rigs which dot the North Sea.
One has nothing but admiration for the crew in trying to feed us, keep us calm and safe and work in what are still very rough seas. That said, no doubt the post mortem will reveal procedural and structural changes to mitigate what one crew member described as his “first serious incident in my 20 years of sailing.”
At 16:20 on Saturday, the Maud finally berthed at Bremerhaven. One broken leg and many people bruised by falls and flying debris, but no deaths. It is understood three passengers were admitted to hospital in Germany.
Flights back to Heathrow were being organised. Counselling was being organised for crew members.
Here is Kate, unscathed and relieved, with the ship firmly tied to the quay.
At 4.00 am, Christmas Eve, Kate and her companion were safely on coaches bound for the airport. They arrived back in north Norfolk at 9:30pm, just in time for Christmas.