Across the Pacific to Nuku Hiva (or perhaps not!)

(28th Jan – 6th Feb)

This run of sea days didn’t start well for me. I visit the gym each day in an effort to waste a few of the enormous number of calories that you inevitable consume on a cruise (it takes a will stronger than mine not to do so) and though I don’t exert myself as much as in my younger days, I ricked my knee whilst on the running machine. Annoyingly, I now have to rest it for a few days and watch what I eat. Fingers crossed on that!

On the Columbus, we see more of the captain than on any other ship we have been on. He is often seen at all times throughout the day and evenings at various locations around the ship, chatting amiably to passengers and crew alike, noticeably keeping an eye on things. It keeps the crew on their toes and displays good leadership to all onboard. I think, unlike the captain of the Costa Concordia, this captain will be the last to leave a sinking ship, not the first. As an example of how tight a ship he runs, on the 31st we had our third life-boat drill of the voyage.

It was in the afternoon that I managed to get online to discover that Sarah and Lee had exchanged contracts on their new house and had started to move in. A great relief for them as it was looking quite likely that their chain would fall apart at the last minute. I think moving on the coldest day of the year so far was the least of their worries! It has been difficult keeping up with family news and uploading blogs as WiFi is pretty poor out in the Pacific. The speed is very slow and is quite random, but then I guess seabirds, turtles and flying fish don’t have much use for the technology. On a positive note, I am back in the gym, fighting the flab, though the running machine is being avoided.

Quite appropriately we crossed the Equator on the 1st of February. This is not much of an event when flying, but on board a cruise ship it is an excuse for frivolities. On other ships we have been on there has been a party, preceded by a short ceremony where King Neptune (a suitably costumed crew member) welcomes everybody to his kingdom and it is usually finished by an extremely long ‘conga’ around the various outside and inside decks. Columbus does it differently, Neptune still takes centre stage but he has supporting characters; pirates, mermaids and doctors. Crew members (4) who have yet to cross this line on the globe are held prisoner by the pirates and then subjected to a trial where amusing trumped-up charges are brought. After being found guilty they are required to kiss an enormous fish (fresh from the kitchen), before being placed on the operating table where their punishment was to be covered in; eggs, ice cubes, baked beans, flour and lastly milk. Suitably humiliated they are then dumped into one of the ship’s swimming pools. Afterwards, it had to be emptied, cleaned and refilled, it took most of the day. A very funny way to mark what I suppose is an important landmark in the careers of the unfortunate participants.

As we have been making our way around the globe every few days or so, we have been regularly putting the clock back one hour. So far we have done this 10 times, surprisingly though we gain an extra hour in bed, the following morning we always seem to sleep soundly until our 8am alarm, no matter what time we retire. We have an internal cabin, so when the lights are off, it is quite pitch black and coupled with the gentle (so far) motion of the ship there is no clue for our internal clock to gauge the time, particularly as we hear no sounds other than an occasional random creak as the ship flexes against the swell. However, on the 2nd February, we had to put the clocks back 1/2 an hour. Sue had no problem with this, but I was startled when the alarm went off and just couldn’t wake myself up until later in the morning and after several cups of coffee. Just as confusing was a win by England against Ireland, in Ireland, by a 12-point margin! Now, who saw that coming?

On the 4th we should have woken to a breakfast, anchored off the small French Polynesian island of Nuku Hiva, but it was not to be. Unknown to the passengers, at 12.30am the ship had received a distress call from the yacht Chismosa out of San Francisco. She had lost her mast, there was an injured person on board and she was running out of fuel in a location way off the normal shipping lanes. Columbus was the only ship remotely nearby with appropriate facilities to accomplish a rescue. This meant reversing our course and steaming for 10 hours to meet up with the stricken vessel. We passengers slept on, blithely unaware of the drama unfolding. As Sue and I made our way to breakfast, we heard rumours from others that we were still at sea and not anchored off the island as expected.

Venturing on deck it soon became apparent what was going on as we watched one of the ship’s tenders launch and head off in the direction of a little white speck in the distance. The Columbus was now progressing in ‘dead slow’ towards the gradually recognisable shape of a sea vessel. I returned to the cabin for a camera and binoculars, through which I could see three people on her deck, the mast clearly missing, the shrouds obviously cut or snapped and the safety rail mangled. I could see one old gentleman with cuts and bruises to one arm sitting quietly in the cockpit coiling ropes, with a younger man at the helm attempting to steer the craft towards the Cruiser and a young woman sitting on the cabin roof looking relieved. The tender didn’t attempt to board the craft or attach a rope to tow but remained just a few metres away until the Columbus came very close. The yacht had some power and was motored in a growing swell to the small lower deck where the port pilots get on and off the ship. Once alongside, ropes were attached and crew members boarded her.

Lots of discussions took place before barrels of fuel oil were seen to be poured into the yacht’s fuel tank. This took quite a while as the swell meant that the liquid swilled around in the funnel, threatening to spill out over the deck and into the sea. With that task accomplished, crew members were seen to be checking all parts of the boat, I would guess that was to check how sea-worthy the craft was. I don’t believe our captain was going to allow her to motor on to the nearest port if she wasn’t. Eventually, all seemed to be in place and everyone satisfied and she was released from her shackles and gently motored aft followed by the shepherding tender. The danger was over for the time being, with a full fuel tank and the injury, not so life-threatening as first rumoured, they stood as good a chance as any at making it to safety.

This was not the end of the excitement. Our tender boat still had to be lifted back on board and this proved not so straightforward in a growing swell. Five times they attempted to hook themselves onto the lifting gear without success. In one attempt they managed to successfully engage the two hooks and lift themselves clear of the sea only for the cabling to twist with the motion of the ship and they had to return to the water. On each attempt, they had to back away from the ship and then make another run into the lifting zone. It took well over an hour before the craft was safely stored back in its cradle. I think its crew were mightily relieved, though they still had to face the captain, who watched every attempt from his perch on the side of the bridge. I think they may be experiencing some practice lifts when we next make port (when and wherever that is).

As if this incident wasn’t already an exciting enough diversion, as the yacht was approaching the Columbus, with the tender some twenty metres away, I spotted a shape looming up from the deep blue depths to the rear of the tender. As it neared the surface I could see that it was a huge shark, probably inquisitive as to what was happening above and came to have a look. Perhaps in the hope of a tit-bit or two? It was easily half the size of the tender and had a huge head. Its upper surface was spotted like a leopard, so I am guessing it could have been a leopard shark. As it hit the surface I grabbed my camera and snapped it just as it dived under the boat, but snapped it again as it appeared on the other side. Unfortunately, the photos won’t appear in the blog until I return home as only those taken on my mobile will Bluetooth to the tablet I use to write this blog.

Why the yacht lost its mast I have no idea, but it is usually down to poor seamanship or lack of sufficient maintenance. As we have met no poor sea conditions on route, it was suggested by one passenger that it may have been a freak wave. I guess we passengers will never know. However, the effect of this incident is quite profound. The tiny island of Nuku Hiva has taken a big hit to its economy with the loss of our visit and with only 2000 inhabitants, our 1200-passenger ship would have contributed quite a bit. Also, we were disembarking an injured cabin steward who was to return home via the tiny island airstrip, he will now have to wait until Tahiti. Not to mention that some unfortunate insurance company is going to take a big hit in compensating a cruise ship deviating from its course and schedule for over 10 hours.

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