I have never believed in ghosts or for that matter any kind of spooky goings on, but my brief time aboard the SeaEscape ship, Scandinavian Sky gave me cause to reflect.
I was working out of the Port of West Palm Beach Florida aboard a ship called The Viking Princess. I had an arrangement with a second radio operator which allowed me to take two weeks off each month. The Princess was owned by Crown Cruise Lines and the management would loan me out from time to time as a relief operator aboard other ships in the large fleet of Cruise Liners operating out of southern Florida.
Under American maritime regulations there is a law called The Jones Act, which states that any foreign flag vessel operating out of an American seaport must make at least one trip to a foreign port each month. At that time there was also a rule that said that you must carry a radio operator on all voyages into international waters. This is no longer true since the age of satellites and computers have made the traditional position of radio officer obsolete.
The Scandinavian Sky was sailing out of the Port of Tampa and making monthly trips to Cancun Mexico. I was signed on as Chief Radio Officer for one of these trips. My second was a gentleman from Scandinavia by the name of Bo Carlson. The voyage from Tampa to Cancun was routine. We had approximately 800 passengers aboard and a crew of about 500 which was a mix of Filipinos and a collection of sailors from several Central American countries, The captain was German and a first mate from Scotland. Needless to say there was a language problem aboard.
We anchored just inside of the Island called Isla Mujer about 5 miles from Cancun. The passengers were lightered ashore on a collection of Mexican passenger vessels. The waters in the narrow passage between Isla Mujer and Cancun are too shallow for a liner the size of the Scandinavian Sky to get close enough to shore to discharge passengers directly.
By late afternoon all of the passengers were back aboard. The anchor was raised and we were underway back to Tampa. Bo took the first watch and I took a nap in preparation for assuming my duties at midnight. I got up at the proper time and was just getting into my uniform when I heard a series of blasts from the ship's whistle. This is the emergency call. It means that all hands must man their stations. I reported to the bridge immediately and received my orders directly from the captain. He told me that there was a fire in the engine room and asked me to transmit an SOS immediately. I prepared the message and broadcast it using Morse code on 500 KHz. (the international distress frequency) I was much relieved when the Miami Coast Guard Group answered after my first transmission. I advised them of our latitude and longitude and gave them a statement of our situation. After signing clear with them I received acknowledgements from several other stations within the immediate area. The procedure was repeated on VHF channel 16 with equally good results.
By this time approximately one hour had passed. The bridge was still unable to confirm that all personnel were clear of the engine room, a condition which must be met before sealing it off and flooding the compartments with carbon dioxide gas. Unfortunately this delay gave the fire, which was being fed by diesel fuel under pressure, an opportunity to build to a major inferno. Bo and I were discussing our next move when the lights went out. A quick check confirmed that that this was the situation throughout the ship A vision of 800 passengers in blacked out passageways flashed through my head. We waited impatiently for the emergency generator to come on line but this was not to be. Now our only communications with the outside world was dependant on our emergency batteries. Fire crews and hoses were also useless without power.
Several other ships were beginning to appear out of the darkness and we were able to converse with them by using our walkie talkies and the vhf radios on the bridge which automatically switch to batteries under emergency conditions.
Fortunately the bridge had been able to actuate the carbon dioxide system before the power failed. This extinguished the main fire, but secondary fires were now breaking out throughout the ship because of the extreme heat that had built up during the delay. One of the other cruise ships nearby was raking our starboard side with fire hoses to cool our hull which was by this time much too hot to touch.
I was gratified to learn that the cabin boys and the entertainers had come to the aid of the passengers. Using their personal flashlights and their knowledge of the ship they had managed to collect them all on the top deck and get them into their life jackets. The cruise director with a bull horn was doing his best to maintain a level of calm even though he had little factual information about what was going on below . I later received some criticism for not keeping everyone more informed throughout the emergency, but truthfully the situation was changing so fast that I had little confidence in the information that was being passed to me.
I established radio contact with the company home office and kept them advised of our circumstance as best I could throughout the night .
In the midst of it all the ship's medical officer reported a heart attack and requested an evacuation helicopter. I passed the word to U.S. Coast Guard Miami and they dispatched a helicopter with a tanker to refuel it as it flew across the Gulf of Mexico. The rescue was successful and the victim was evacuated. No mean feat, considering the fact it was in the middle of the night and we were well beyond the helicopter's operating range.. I was appalled to learn much later that the receiving hospital found the heart attack victim was faking. I do not know what happened to him after the deception was discovered.
When daylight finally broke I counted 7 ships all within a mile of our location. Three of the ships were from the Mexican Navy; one of them was standing by to take us in tow but we were having a problem getting a line to them. Finally we tied a number of life jackets along one of the ship's mooring lines and allowed it to drift far enough away from our hull to be picked up. In the meantime our engineers had managed to get our emergency generator running.
Secondary fires were still breaking out but the ships crew were now able to fight them using whatever pumps remained operable. The last flare-up occurred in the ship's casino since it was located near the stack which ducted large quantities of the heat upward from the engine room. It was brought under control rapidly but the salt water and smoke damage to the formerly elegant room was unbelievable.
By now the media had heard of our problem and all were clamoring to get an exclusive story. Reporters were trying to contact me via high seas radiotelephone, Connie Chung was calling my wife back in West Palm Beach. And the home office publicity department had gone into damage control mode. To placate our passengers they asked me to allow each one to have a free high seas radio call home. The shear thought of a task of that magnitude gave me a headache. Finally we arrived at a compromise and I agreed to have each of the 800 passengers prepare a message in writing and allow me to personally pass it on to their family. This worked fairly well , after I talked one of the typists in the home office into putting on headphones and transcribing the messages while I read them one at a time. The messages were then passed on by someone in the office. All of my communications was carried out through WOM, AT&T's high seas single sideband voice station in Miami.
I n an attempt to anticipate a major problem I placed radio calls to the various hotels In Cancun and was shocked when I was unable to book even one reservation . It was tourist season and they were all full. The problem of feeding and providing toilet facilities to 800 passengers without sufficient electrical power was too difficult to anticipate. Our emergency generators were simply not up to the job The problem was finally solved when we were able to charter two jet liners from Miami and again engage the fleet of Mexican shore boats that we originally used to take the passengers ashore when we first arrived. Finally they were gone and I was able to relax. Now the only problem we had was how to get the disabled ship back home.
By now the Mexican navy had returned us to our anchorage near Isla Mujer. I watched in disbelief while the captain dropped the anchor. How was he planning to bring it back aboard without power? Several days later when we were finally ready to be towed his plan became clear. Since all crew members were still aboard there was plenty of muscle power. He called about a hundred crew members to the foredeck and wrapped several turns of line around the anchor capstan and the crew picked up the line and simply marched toward the stern . After repeating this procedure many times the anchor was secured safely in place and we were able to get underway .
suddenly I realized I was tired and seriously in need of some sleep. I returned tot my quarters and found I had no water so I convinced two of the sailors to assist me in transporting a garbage can full of it from the ships swimming pool. . I parked it outside my room and use it as needed. While we were moving this rather heavy load up three flights of stairs one of the sailors said to me in Spanish "Tenemos fantasmis abordo" (we have ghosts aboard) I was not sure what he was referring to but I could not get him to elaborate. I later learned that many of the sailors had reported strange occurrences about the ship over a period of time. "Just superstition "I told myself.
Two weeks later I returned to my old job back aboard the Viking Princess. Television coverage had elevated me to celebrity status among the crew and I was forced to relate my story many times. It was good to be back among the familiar faces and old friends that I knew so well. I had experienced enough high adventure to last me for a while.
Previously I had developed a friendly relationship with one of the entertainers . Her name was Petra. She was billed as the ships psychic and gave readings to passengers on board. She met me as I came up the gangway and drew me aside. She said " I heard about your adventure aboard the Scandinavian Sky". I nodded and smiled "Promise me one thing please" she said. " Never sail that ship again. It is doomed." She explained to me how she saw a spirit deep in the dark hold of the ship. It was somehow involved with a coil of rope that was stored there and it had caused trouble in the past and would no doubt bring about a major disaster at sometime in the future. Needless to say I was a bit skeptical but her serious manner and sincere confidentiality bothered me. Again I shrugged it off .
SeaEscape repaired the ship and rather than returning it to service sold it to another company. Four months later she went down off the coast of Norway with all hands.
As I read the account in the newspaper a sort of cold shiver crept over me--. Hmmmm.