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World Cruise 1996

1996 was the single most memorable year of my life and the first three months were almost outside the realm of reality. I worked as Cruise Sales Manager on the Sagafjord through the 1995 Christmas cruise, and was scheduled to go on leave afterwards for six weeks. I had planned to have a relaxing winter, including a few weeks visiting friends in Switzerland. Just prior to the end of the cruise Meredith, the other CSM, resigned suddenly, leaving us scrambling to fill the position for the world cruise. I could not merely extend my contract, as I had flights and arrangements for Switzerland in January. I agreed to stay on a few extra days and train Yvonne, the social hostess, to fill in as CSM until I could rejoin the ship in February. To add to the turmoil, the last day of the cruise we got word from the Cunard home office that our beloved Sagafjord would be retired the following September. I was heartsick. I spent the first two days of the world cruise with Yvonne, frantically trying to cram weeks of training into 48 hours, so she could fill in until I returned, then I flew home from St. Thomas.

In February I flew to Jakarta, Indonesia and boarded the Sagafjord for the last two months of her final world cruise. Yvonne had done a great job keeping things under control, but she was relieved to see me again. I was immediately inundated with catch-up work and the first few days flew by. I vaguely remember Bangkok and Hong Kong and that quite a few passengers were sick with some type of flu. From Hong Kong we sailed out into the South China Sea, headed for Kota Kinabalu.

Monday, February 26, I was at my desk about 10 in the morning, when the lights went out. That wasn't unusual on an old ship, but when they didn't come back on right away I walked over to the pursers office and asked if they had heard anything. No, they hadn't, but the fire alarm for the engine room was on. I suggested they call the bridge and when they did, we were told there was a fire in the engine room.

Soon Captain Tore Lura made an announcement about the fire and requested all crew to go to their fire stations. Many of the passengers also donned their life jackets and headed to the lifeboats, though they were not required to do so. Meanwhile, in the depths of the ship, the fire was raging. After about three hours the fire appeared to be contained, but the heat was so intense it self-combusted and started burning again on its own. After five hours of fighting fire, and with only a few minutes of water left, the fire was finally brought under control permanently. However, much of the engine room was destroyed. The Sagafjord was left stranded in the South China Sea, over 200 miles from the nearest land, with no power, no lights, no air-conditioning, no running water, and no flushing toilets!

Distress signals went out and we were told it would be at least two days before tugboats could reach us from Manila. On board the atmosphere was remarkable and there was an extraordinary spirit of cooperation among passengers, staff, and crew alike. Passengers in suites offered couches and floors to guests who had inside cabins. Crew were stationed around the ship with flashlights and people helped each other find their way through eerie, darkened corridors. Time stood still for the next four days. We all knew instinctively that this was the end of our ship and we relished the last hours together on board. We never dined in our beautiful dining room again, but the chefs prepared sumptuous feasts for us out on the open deck. Even without power, freezers kept things cold for the four days and we enjoyed barbeques of steaks and lobster, hot dogs and hamburgers, and had lots of ice cream for dessert.

It was interesting to see how these people, used to luxury and fine living, dealt with hardship. Most of them handled the stress surprisingly well and were upbeat about the situation. With no running water, we learned to wash sparingly with bottled water. Unfortunately, bottled water did not suffice for flushing toilets, and after a couple days the odor from cabins was definitely noticeable. This was made worse because quite a few of the passengers had a flu bug, of which diarrhea was one of the main symptoms! Ouch. Many people, passengers and crew, slept out on the open decks - some even slept in the empty swimming pool. Our lovely Sagafjord looked like a homeless shelter!

After two days of drifting helplessly, we were relieved to see two tugs arrive from Manila. They were able to hook up a power connection to supply the ship with electricity. They also got the water running so we could shower again - delightful - and flush the toilets - very necessary! It took two days to tow us into Subik Bay near Manila. During that time we were informed officially that it was the end of the line for the grand lady and guests had three options; they could fly home, or they could finish their cruise on either the QE2 or the Royal Viking Sun. We organized an interview process in the theater to get the essential details from all the guests.

In the meantime, my boss in New York asked me to accompany 80 passengers to the RV Sun to finish the world cruise there. In addition to packing personal belongings, I had to tie up loose ends with cruise sales and try to prepare my office materials for eventual shipping to somewhere. I didn't really want to believe I would never see my little office again and it was hard to decide how to sort things for someone else to pack up later.

Four days after the fire we pulled into Subik Bay and left our beloved ship for the last time. We were bused into Manila and put up in the best hotels. The Peninsula Hotel, which took a large number of our guests, said they had a one-day world record for hotel laundry use, as Sagafjord passengers sent volumes of dirty and wrinkled clothes to be washed or dry cleaned, compliments of Cunard. The telephone bill must have been outrageous, as Cunard also allowed people to make unlimited phone calls from their rooms. We were all glad to relax again with modern comforts like air-conditioning, hot showers, flushing toilets, and electric lights.

However, we couldn't let down long; it was off on a flight to Taipei to join the Royal Viking Sun. As we boarded the ship, it was a welcome sight to see a familiar face, Jan, the Chief Purser, who I knew from Vistafjord. We soon settled in to our new home to finish our world cruise. Captain Ole Harsheim invited us all for cocktails the first evening and welcomed us to the "Number One Ship in the World" where we were now safe. What happened on Sagafjord would not be possible on this modern ship, as the Sun has two engine rooms and if there were a fire in one, the other would still be able to run the ship properly. We have nothing to worry about -nothing could happen to us here! It sounded a bit arrogant, but we were just glad to have a home again.

The next month was one of the most difficult of my life and I have blocked out many of the details from my memory. Oh, there was nothing wrong with the ship. It was not without reason that the Sun had been named the number one ship in the world. It was a beautiful vessel. The food was good. The service was good. The staff were friendly. There was just one minor problem. On the Sagafjord the staff knew our passengers: what they liked and what they didn't like. We catered to them and pampered them and they were family. The Sagafjord was their home over three months out of the year. But on the Sun, this best ship in the world, nobody knew them - nobody knew how important they were! Of course, there was also some tension between the Sun regulars and the newcomers, often referred to as "the orphans". The result was that many of the Sagafjord passengers were not happy on the Sun and since I was their Cunard representative, much of the unhappiness was vented at me. I had to send countless telexes to the home office on behalf of disgruntled guests. They were unhappy with their cabins, or the closet space, or the layout of the ship. I listened to their complaints, tried to comfort them or mollify them, but it was not fun. It wasn't long before I was praying to get off that ship.

I felt sorry for the crew on the Sun. Most of them tried so hard to make the "orphans" feel welcome, but I'm afraid they had a thankless job. Admittedly, there were a few on the staff that made the situation worse, and were legitimately the targets of criticism from Sagafjord passengers, but most of the problem just came down to the fact that on the best ship in the world, these guests weren't known as they had been on their "own" ship.

A few particular incidents do stand out. Eleanor had cruised many times on Sagafjord, but she was so upset on the Sun that she refused to come out of her cabin. She was in her 80's and not particularly a pleasant woman anyway, but when she was unhappy she was positively unbearable. I called her in her cabin several times trying to sort things out for her, but she demanded to be flown home. I told her we could certainly arrange to have her fly home from Bangkok and I would let her know the details. Just before she hung up she said, "I have one more question. Do you screw!?" I was flabbergasted. A few days later all guests had to have a photo taken for a Vietnam visa and Eleanor refused to leave her cabin. The purser asked if I could think of any way to coax her out and I volunteered to take the camera to her cabin and take the photo. I called to see if she would let me and she agreed. When I went to the cabin the stewardess informed me that Eleanor was sitting on the bed without a stitch of clothes on! I asked if she would mind going in and putting something on her, which she did. I entered the cabin and Eleanor was sitting on the edge of a bed, wearing only a t-shirt. I grimaced, took the photo, said, "Thank you," and left. I was not sorry to see her leave us in Bangkok.

A source of irritation to many of the Sagafjord guests involved passengers who had booked their world cruise with Regency Cruise Line. When that company went bankrupt, Cunard accepted over a hundred of them to complete their cruise on Sagafjord - at a much lower rate than our own passengers had paid. One of those couples was particularly obnoxious and they soon became known as "The Hat and the Voice", because of the unique hats he always wore, even inside, and her loud, grating voice, which could be heard throughout the ship. After the fire, the Regency refugees were not given the option of the Sun, only the QE2 or home. But the Hat and the Voice put up such a protest and threatened to go to the press and to sue Cunard, that they were allowed to join the Sun. However, they refused to fly (though they took a shore excursion which involved flying around Thailand), and they demanded to be taken to the Sun by private boat, which Cunard arranged and paid for. On the Sun they were given an inside cabin, in accordance with their original booking, but immediately they started badgering the concierge to upgrade them. I discussed it in depth with the concierge and he agreed not to upgrade them under any circumstances. A few days later one of our guests came to me and sarcastically said, "Thanks for the new neighbors." I asked what he meant and he told me the Hat and the Voice had been upgraded to an outside cabin next to Sagafjord passengers who had paid three times as much for their cruise. Arghh.

Another incident involved a couple who were stirring up trouble and trying to get other passengers to join a class-action lawsuit against Cunard. Soon after boarding the Sun they came to me and claimed all their luggage had been ruined in the move from Sagafjord. They showed it to me and there were a few scratches, but nothing I would have called, "ruined". However, I got authorization from the company to buy them four replacement pieces. As it turned out, it was not easy to find acceptable luggage in Madras, India and I spent the entire day with the port agent going from store to store looking for the right thing. Tired and hot, I finally returned to the ship with some rather flowery suitcases, but the best we could find. When the couple saw the luggage they exclaimed, "Kent, how could you . . .?" I had had enough by that point and let them know it. Of course, then I apologized for being short with them and we went to their cabin and talked quite awhile to patch things up. I was still disgusted with them though. In later years we became "best friends" on other sailings. Oh, and by the way, a few short weeks after that incident they were more than happy to have their flowery luggage!

There were a few bright spots on the cruise. Long-time cruise friends Jay & Carol Mann had brought their daughter on board Sagafjord and they ended up on the Sun with me. Mary-Lou and I became best friends and were virtually inseparable. We explored Singapore together and climbed all over Sentosa Island. We had a wonderful time in Saigon, shopping in the markets and checking out all the little shops. In the Indian Ocean we had spectacular sunsets and a perfectly glassy sea. We would go out on the bow of the ship to enjoy the ambience and I would tell her my latest problems. It was good to have a sympathetic ear.

Also, Vicki Scotts, a restaurant manager on the QE2, joined the Sun in Kenya to learn the cruise sales position and take over for Jan on the Sun. Vicks was an energetic Aussie and we hit it off immediately and enjoyed productive hours of training as well as socializing.

It was the Thursday before Easter and we were sailing in the Red Sea, headed for Aqaba, Jordan, where we were all planning on taking a tour to Petra. Petra was once a great city in a deep canyon, accessible only by a narrow, deep passage cut through the red rock. It is now uninhabited, but the remains of the buildings cut out of the magnificent red rock canyon walls are wonderful to behold.

The evening before was magic on the Red Sea. A full moon illuminated the water brightly and lights twinkled on the distant shoreline as the ship made its way into the Strait of Tiran, between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. On board it was Skald night, and there was a special party for past passengers. On the Sun they had a tradition on Skald night where passengers at each table would raise their glasses of aquavit in a toast and sing, "Skal, skal, skal skal," "Skal, skal skal skal." Then with a great shout they would finish with one more, "Skal!" They would try to outdo each other in volume and gusto. As the toasts finally faded, passengers made their way to the show room where a passenger choir was to perform. Shortly after the show started, I peeked in to hear arousing version of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean," and I decided I did not need to subject myself to that for 45 minutes.

As I turned from the door, there was a huge jolt and the ship lurched to one side then the other, before settling into a sickening list to starboard. I caught myself to keep from falling, but on stage the entire choir went down like dominoes. I went outside to see what we had hit, thinking it was perhaps a boat. The ship was making a large circle to the left. The Royal Viking Sun had hit a coral reef!

I went up to my cabin right away and changed clothes, got my money, put on a life vest and headed for the deck and the lifeboats. The Captain came on the p.a. system and instructed passengers to go directly to the lifeboats, without going to their cabins first. When I got to the boats, there were not enough life jackets on the deck. Some of the crew and I raced up six decks to get more jackets out of the storage area and brought them down to the waiting passengers.

Since we had over a hundred German passengers on board, the Hotel Director asked me to go up to the bridge and translate announcements into German. I spent the whole night on the bridge. Passengers were instructed to stay at the lifeboats for several hours, before finally being allowed into the dining room and hallways, where they spent the rest of the night in chairs or on the floor. The situation was too risky to allow them back to their cabins.

Lots of water had poured into the ship through a gash in the hull and an announcement was made warning all crew to leave the lower decks, as water flooded into their cabins. Fortunately, someone thought quickly enough to shut down the power, just before water flooded the high-power electric room. A flood in that room with the power still on could have resulted in a major disaster. So, for the second time in a month, we were floating helplessly at sea with no power or lights. I thought this couldn't happen on the Royal Viking Sun! Oddly, even without power we had both fresh water and flushing toilets the whole time.

One other heroic effort saved us from going down. As water poured in, one of the watertight doors stuck open. An English officer risked his own life to go under water and manually close the door to prevent the water from conquering the entire ship.

The ship floated helplessly in the wind. We sent out distress calls and had offers of help from all over, but in the meantime I could see a shadow in the water off in the distance. Over time the shadow took shape in the moonlight as a shipwreck on a reef, and we were being blown right toward it. Captain Harsheim radioed a nearby cruise ship, Renaissance V, and asked them to attach a rope and just pull us away from the reef, but they refused! We were dangerously close to being moored on the reef, when the wind suddenly changed directions and the Sun came to a standstill inches away. Shortly after, the wind picked up again, but from the north, which blew us parallel to the reef and away from it. Soon after we passed the end of that reef, the wind resumed its original direction. Divine intervention.

Throughout the night the ship bumped lightly into other reefs as well as the shore and each time the Captain announced that the bump was merely the anchor hitting ground. It was unlikely that many of the passengers ever did find out how precarious our situation really was throughout that night. I curled up on the floor in the corner of the bridge and snoozed occasionally between announcements. It was increasingly clear that the world cruise on the RV Sun had come to an end. There was a major hole in the forward hull and it would take months to repair it.

We awoke to bright sunshine on Good Friday and a tug towed us backwards into Sharm el Sheik, Egypt. Pulling us forward would have forced too much water into the ship and forced it down. Passengers were finally allowed to return to their cabins at 7:00 am, but not to rest; they had to pack all their belongings and be prepared to disembark the same evening! We also had to interview all the passengers and ask which airport they wished to use for their flight home. This was just like on Sagafjord, so I organized the interviews and took charge as if it were my own ship. It worked, and we faxed all the information to Cunard in Southampton and New York. Cunard had to arrange for all passengers to be put up in hotels until we could get them flights, and then use a combination of charter and scheduled flights to fly them to their homes around the world. Considering it was Easter weekend and Cunard offices around the world were closed, this was no small feat. However, Cunard made emergency calls to employees at home and soon they were in full action.

We arrived in Sharm el Sheikh early evening and made plans to land our passengers. The tour office staff and I went ashore on the first tender to make arrangements for luggage, all of which had to be brought ashore before any passengers could disembark. We were met shore side by aggressive reporters, who we tried to rebuff, as they were definitely a hindrance to our operation. Fortunately, our local tour operators, Abercrombie & Kent, were superb and we all set to work.

Onboard, the disembarkation was more chaotic. The sun was setting lower and lower and we still had not seen the first load of luggage from the ship. We got A&K to bring floodlights to the pier and it was dark before the first luggage arrived. It took a long time to get all the luggage lined up on the pier, then as passengers came ashore they had to identify all their cases and see that the baggage made it to the same coach they boarded. What a mess.

We put British and other European passengers on buses directly to the airport for a charter flight to Cairo, where they stayed in hotels until further flights could be arranged. For other guests, buses went to nine different hotels in Sharm el Sheikh. To avoid "class envy" we did not tell people what hotel they were headed for -we did not want people being picky about the bed they would sleep in that night! It was well after midnight when we got the last passengers off the pier and after 3:00 am before the last rooms were finally settled. By the time I got back to the ship I was so tired I was about to pass out, but it wasn't over yet.

Saturday we were up early. We gathered 40 staff to go ashore so we could have representatives at each hotel. Peter (Hotel Director), Bronwyn (Tour Office Manager), the doctor, the nurse, and I went around to all nine hotels checking for special problems. Actually, eight of the nine hotels were really fantastic and the ninth wasn't bad. One five-star hotel was in the final stages of construction, but they opened early to accommodate our guests. Sharm el Sheikh is in the southern Sinai Peninsula, in absolute desert, with sparkling waters in the bay and jagged mountains on the distant horizon. We couldn't help thinking this would be a great port of call under other circumstances, but we still had work to do.

The first of two charter flights went out late Saturday night. Somehow I ended up behind the airport counter assigning seats and checking passengers off the manifest. With only ten first-class seats and thirteen business-class seats it was tricky, but we got everyone aboard without a major war breaking out. Easter Sunday morning we got the last of the guests, as well as 85 crew, off on the second charter. With the passengers gone, we could breathe a little easier, but tensions were beginning to build with the Egyptians.

The authorities put the ship under arrest for damaging their coral reef and put both Captain Harsheim and another officer on notice they would not leave Egypt until all was settled. There had been gross negligence and the Egyptians were going to play it for all it was worth. They wanted $23 million from Cunard! That amount was outrageous, but they had a case; when we hit the reef, the only officer on the bridge was a junior officer who had been on board a month. We had cruised through the dangerous Strait of Tiran at full speed, with no local pilot, and only a junior officer at the helm!

The tension came to a head the morning after the last passengers left. The Sun was tied to a tugboat in the bay, in order to provide electricity to the ship. A violent storm came up overnight and broke the Sun loose from the tugboat. By morning, the wind had blown the ship out of the bay into the open sea. We awoke to find ourselves surrounded by the Egyptian Navy with guns aimed at us from all directions! To think we could run away with a damaged ship was ludicrous, but the Egyptians weren't taking any chances. Somehow the situation was diffused and the Sun was pulled back into port.

The last big crew movement out of Sharm el Sheikh consisted of two buses on an overnight trip to Cairo airport. It was a relief to board the buses and leave the Royal Viking Sun behind. The buses drove to the port gates, only to be held up for over an hour by officials waiting for their bribe. The whole time we had been in Sharm el Sheikh there were massive bribes paid regularly. I hate the concept of bribes, but in this backwards, third-world country, it's the only way to get business done. It's really hard to imagine the Egyptians once ruled the world! We were finally allowed to go and we headed out into the desert. The drivers kept stopping frequently for rest stops, which made us nervous considering the shortness of time to make our flights. Our driver was sympathetic to our concerns, but the driver in the first bus wasn't concerned at all. To make matters worse, the other driver started drinking vodka out of a bottle he had hidden under his seat!

As the night progressed, we watched the bus in front of us start to weave perceptibly. Most of the crew on our bus were fast asleep, but I was wide-awake, anticipating yet another problem. The first bus pulled away from us at high speed, so we didn't see them for a while, but then we came up on them, parked on the shoulder, and all the crew were outside the bus with their luggage! The cruise director had asked one of the girls to tell the driver she had to go to the bathroom, so when he stopped they grabbed the keys and all of them got off the bus. There was no way we were going to let that driver take us into Cairo, and none of us wanted to take the liability of driving, so we had no choice but to all go in one bus. I crawled up on top of our bus with another crewmember and we strapped the luggage on top and all crammed inside for a crowded ride on to the airport.

With the delays, six of the crew missed their flights, but we managed to get them on later flights. I boarded a British Airways flight to London and was pleased to be upgraded to club class. The personnel director for Cunard, who was on the bus with us, had seen me in action the previous few days and he offered to let me go visit friends in Switzerland for a couple weeks and then fly me home from there. So, from Heathrow airport in London I called my friends in Switzerland and said, "Put a cheese quiche in the oven. I'll be in Zurich in two hours!" After so much excitement a few weeks rest was just what the doctor ordered.

Looking back at the events of that year, I'm not sure why I took charge in so many situations, except that in emergencies, positions and titles don't always mean much. From Sagafjord to Sun to bus ride, it was clear what needed to be done, so I jumped in with both feet and just did it. In September of that year I celebrated my 40th birthday at an itinerary-planning summit for Cunard Line. While there, the Senior Vice President for Cunard honored me for "significant contributions to Cunard in extraordinary situations."


In the end, Cunard paid Egypt a couple million dollars to free the ship and the officers, but considerably less than the $23 million the Egyptians had demanded.

The Royal Viking Sun was towed backwards to Malta for an extensive refit.

Captain Ole Harsheim lost his captain's license.

Cunard was the first company in history to operate three world cruises simultaneously. Of the three, only the QE2 completed her cruise.

After minimum repairs to the Sagafjord's engines in Subik Bay, the ship headed for dry dock in Singapore. At the same location where we had the fire, there was a distress call from a Turkish freighter and the Sagafjord rescued the 26 seamen. The freighter sank.

The Hat and the Voice insisted on being put on another ship to get back to the US. I never did hear if they made it and decided I didn't really care.

Vicki Scotts called our boss, Gloria, from Sharm el Sheikh on Easter and said she'd like to go to the QE2 next. Gloria said that would be fine and asked if she didn't like it on the Sun! She knew nothing of the accident.

Cunard's personnel director instructed my boss to pay me an extra month's salary, which was a nice bit of compensation for all the drama of those two months.

I decided to stay on land for a while.

Kent Kauffman, March 2004


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