Riding out rough seas

I sympathize with the cruise-ship captives, but suffering is relative

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By coincidence, I happened to be reading a novel called "The Lifeboat" by Charlotte Rogan at the same time that the Carnival Triumph cruise ship was being towed into port after five days adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.

A fire in the engine room disabled both the doomed fictional ocean liner in the book and the actual one in the news. Ms. Rogan's ship sank while crossing the Atlantic, killing most of those aboard and setting up the drama among the few who made it into the lifeboats. The protagonist, a young bride named Grace Winter, writes her recollections of the experience in a diary while in prison, where she awaits trial on charges of murder at sea.

The ordeal she recounts is harrowing and mesmerizing, a swirl of human foibles and natural elements working for and against survival. Having read it, I found myself completely lacking in sympathy for the Carnival passengers, as if I myself had spent three weeks tossed about in an open wooden boat, exposed to the elements with barely any food or fresh water and no contact with the outside world. The Triumph passengers, on the other hand, had received a shipment of sandwiches from another cruise ship, and they were sharing photos of their conditions on social media as news helicopters circled above. There was never any doubt of their rescue.

None of the Triumph's 4,200 passengers and crew died, although people reportedly were sleeping outside in the lifeboats covered by sheeting. Theirs was being called "the cruise ship from hell" because of the fetid conditions onboard. With the power out, backed-up sewage had seeped onto the decks, the food supply was down to buns and ketchup (Ms. Rogan's characters would have feasted on that) and the air conditioning was out. Nothing fatal, but still gross and disgusting, certainly not the fun vacation the paying guests expected.

The Triumph's defeat comes 13 months after the disaster of the Costa Concordia, another Carnival-linked ship, which crashed off the coast of Italy killing 32 of the 4,200 people on board. As of last month, crews were still working on the salvage operation.

Carnival said it will refund the Triumph passengers' money and give each of them $500 in compensation, but lawsuits are sure to follow. I'm tempted to suggest they all read "The Lifeboat" or the accounts from the Costa Concordia before calling their attorneys, but then who am I to judge?

I do have a little bit of first-hand experience with sewage stench at sea, and it's not pleasant.

In the fall of 2002, my family and I set off on a 100-day, round-the-world voyage with Semester at Sea, a program then operated by the University of Pittsburgh. There were about 500 college students, plus faculty and crew, on board the S.S. Universe Explorer, a former passenger ship converted into a floating university. I taught three English and writing courses, while my husband taught one class in human rights and also ship-schooled our daughter, then 12 years old.

From the moment we started moving out of Vancouver harbor, I knew I was in trouble. A wave of nausea rolled over me, and I spent the next three and half months fighting it off with varying degrees of success.

The very first night, when teachers were supposed to stand by their name cards to meet their students, I was hanging over the railing, retching. On the second day, I despaired of making it to the third. And on the fourth day, after I got a look at some of the student writing, I could no longer tell if it was the atrocious grammar or the ocean motion that was making me throw up.

I tried ginger pills and candy, the patch behind the ear, a wrist pressure bracelet and motion sickness drugs from the infirmary. Only the last of these helped, and then only a little. A couple of times it got so bad I had to get injections. The crew kept saying that I'd get my sea legs, but it never happened. The only time I felt normal was on land, but with 45 days in port and 55 at sea, the ratio was against me.

My sea-sickness wasn't related to choppy waters -- in fact, I did better in the one big storm we traversed than during the relatively smooth periods, where the slow undulating motion sent me running. I wound up having to cancel some classes due to nausea, but given the severity of my condition it's amazing I didn't miss more of them. Meanwhile, my husband and daughter never skipped a beat.

Near the end of the voyage, the toilet in our tiny room backed up. They moved us to another room across the hall, which was an improvement, but the stench travelled. The captain sent a fruit basket in apology, which was sweet, but I wasn't eating much anyway.

Looking back, I'm glad I didn't know what I was in for because I never would have gone. Tough as my days and nights at sea were, I will always be grateful for the opportunity to visit parts of the world I might never have seen otherwise.

Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and Cuba -- it was the trip of a lifetime, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Nor would my family.

No means of travel is completely without risk. But on balance, and within reason, taking your chances beats staying home. Things that go wrong make the best stories, as long as you live to tell about them.


Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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