Waves toss Antarctic cruise ship, smash bridge window, flood electronics

Heavy seas battered an Antarctic cruise ship for 36 hours, shattering a bridge window, knocking out electronic equipment and causing a minor injury to a crewmember.

The 290-foot Clelia II was crossing the Drake Passage when it sailed into heavy weather Dec. 7, 2010. The Malta-flagged ship had just completed a 10-day cruise of Antarctica with 88 passengers and 77 crew when it encountered 50-knot winds and 23- to 26-foot seas.

A wave crashed through a window on the bridge, said Fred DeSousa, director of the vessel’s tour operator, Travel Dynamics International in New York. The seawater damaged electronic engine controls and communications equipment, which failed as a result.

Rolling of the vessel knocked passengers around and damaged furniture. The voyage was frightening but no one panicked, said passenger Frank Dougherty, a retired newspaperman from Philadelphia.

“I was thrown across my cabin and broke a table,” Dougherty said. “It was too dangerous to go out on deck so we stayed in our cabins.”

The Antarctic adventure cruise ship Clelia II was damaged in severe weather while going through the Drake Passage. The ship, carrying 88 passengers and 77 crew, was buffeted by 50-knot winds and seas greater than 20 feet. (Photo courtesy Travel Dynamics International)

Clelia II was about 130 nm northwest of the South Shetland Islands and 320 nm south of Cape Horn when the problems started. The height of the wave that smashed the bridge window is unknown.

“The ship’s electronic engine controls were damaged, and also the satellite communications system,” DeSousa said. “The damaged engine controls contributed to the roll (of the vessel), but was quickly corrected.”

DeSousa said that the damaged bridge window was “easily covered with plywood” by the crew. One crewmember suffered bruises. More details on the injury were not available.

DeSousa said the ship never lost propulsion or steering, nor did its heating or electrical system fail. He said the master, Idar Petersen, never needed to sound the general alarm or call for crew and passengers to don life jackets.

The Chilean navy, which has maritime rescue responsibility for that zone of the Southern Ocean, said three nearby vessels were placed on alert should the cruise ship need help. They were the U.S.-flagged icebreaker/research vessel Laurence M. Gould, the Chilean navy tug ATF Lautaro and cruise ship National Geographic Explorer.

The only assistance that Clelia II requested was for Explorer to provide satellite phones.

“There was no panic or urgency with the passengers,” DeSousa said. “We just wanted to get a satellite phone because the one we had was water-damaged and the backup phone failed, hence the reason that the National Geographic Explorer was called.”

Explorer transferred two Iridium satellite phones and chargers to the cruise ship in watertight bags, said Patty Disken-Cahill, a spokeswoman for Explorer‘s operator, Lindblad Expeditions in New York.

NG Explorer used a line gun to fire a line to Clelia II,” she said. “It took three tries. … Once NG Explorer was given the word that no other assistance was needed, it went on its way.”

Laurence M. Gould and ATF Lautaro proceeded to their destinations without needing to render assistance, and the weather eased.

Dougherty said the passengers were thankful the seas had calmed, and the captain took care of them.

“About 20 hours after the incident we got out of the cabin and the captain opened the bar — free drinks the whole time back to Ushuaia,” Dougherty said, referring to the port in Argentina.

He credited the captain’s skills as a mariner and his cool head for everyone’s safe return. “Capt. Petersen employed a technique worthy of Chuck Yeager to reassure his crewmembers and American tourists while battling the elements for control of his ship,” Dougherty said.

During the ordeal, the soft-spoken Danish captain never raised his voice or expressed uncertainty.

Dougherty said: “Idar Petersen had the •right stuff’ — he got us back.”

Once the problem with the electronic engine controls had been rectified, Clelia II proceeded to Ushuaia at a normal speed to disembark passengers and for inspection and repairs. Electric wires and the bridge window were replaced, and the ship passed inspection Dec. 24, DeSousa said.

He said Clelia II would resume sailing in January.

Clelia II is operated by Helios Shipping Ltd., of Piraeus, Greece. The company didn’t reply to a request for comment.

John Snyder

By Professional Mariner Staff