Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 30, 2005

Right up until 5 a.m. on April 16, the homeward voyage of the Norwegian Dawn was the sort of nightmarish vacation tale you laugh about a week later, after the nausea wears off. The boat, a luxury cruiser nearly 1,000 feet long, was pitching and yawing through a nasty storm off the East Coast. Heavy rain, high wind and tornado-like vortexes, called mini-swirls, had roiled the ocean into 25-foot waves. The crew sealed off the outside decks. Everybody was inside worrying, trying to sleep or throwing up.

Then it got really ugly. The ship was slammed by what Norwegian Cruise Line later described as "a freak wave." It was a monster, as tall as a seven-story building. Two windows were smashed, 66 cabins were flooded, water was suddenly running down hallways. Among some passengers, fear turned into panic.

"I saw a couple with life preservers on and they were clinging to this stairwell on the eighth deck," says Roseanne Hughes, who was aboard with her boyfriend. "They were petrified. And I said to John, 'Oh, my God. We are going to die on this ship.' " Actually, nobody died on the ship, though four people were injured. But the vessel was damaged enough to force an unplanned side trip to South Carolina for repairs. Some passengers were shaken, others were furious and more than a few had questions. Like, why didn't the captain steer around that storm, or just wait in Miami until the weather improved? Why the big rush to get back to New York City?

It wasn't until the boat finally docked that the unlikely culprit emerged: "The Apprentice."

Yes, the reality TV show where contestants vie to join the Donald Trump empire. The boat, as Norwegian Cruise Line later acknowledged, was to serve as a backdrop for scenes in an upcoming episode.

"We would have loved to have had them, but obviously they weren't able to make it," Trump told the New York Post, which reported that NCL had spent $1 million for a corporate sponsorship/product placement deal in the show's fourth season. The plan had been to film aboard the Dawn on the 17th, though the delays ultimately wrecked that schedule.

Wait a minute , some passengers seethed. All this for a date with the Donald? Calls were made, lawyers retained. Last month, a group of passengers filed a lawsuit against NCL, alleging that the cruise line had jeopardized their lives and caused them lasting psychological trauma, and for what? So Trump could fire some lickspittle from the sun deck? As compensation, these passengers would like some cash -- $100 million in cash.

Officials at NCL aren't talking, since the matter is now in litigation. They won't say much about "The Apprentice," either, citing confidentiality agreements. (Apparently, Trump isn't similarly constrained.) But NCL pointed to the results of an investigation by the Bahamas Maritime Authority, released in mid-June. "There is no evidence that any real or perceived urgency to arrive at New York earlier was a factor in the handling of the ship," the report found, "or that Norwegian Cruise Line did anything but support the Captain's on-scene decisions."

Certainly, the storm was vicious but nothing the ship couldn't handle, says Ted Thompson, executive vice president of the International Council of Cruise Lines. The vessel is like a floating apartment building. As for that freak wave, well, those things can't be predicted, Thompson explains -- that's what makes them freaks. And you can't hold NCL liable for a danger that can't be foreseen.

Brett Rivkind, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, isn't buying the "freak wave" defense, nor is he persuaded by that report by the Bahamas Maritime Authority, a group he believes is overly cozy with the cruise lines. He'll put more stock in the results of a Coast Guard investigation, expected soon.

"They put people's lives at risk," he says of NCL. "Just because they didn't end up killing them doesn't let them off the hook."

At a glance, the case revolves around an extreme example of a familiar ordeal: the big bummer holiday. Who hasn't been there? The trip that goes so haywire you start thinking about revenge before you get home. But it's more complicated than that.

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