My wife, Ginny, and I are cruise addicts. We love the sea and have been fortunate enough to meet some fascinating people throughout our years of cruising the Caribbean. "Allen" and the Captain were the most striking -- and electrifying -- of all.
Our two-week cruise aboard the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's M/S Sun Viking had been booked early in May. From that time on all we could think about were two glorious weeks at sea soaking up the sun, enjoying gourmet meals, dancing the night away and visiting some of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean.
After a short flight from National Airport on July 26, we found Miami hot and quiet. Not a trace of impending danger. Crossing the bridge leading into the Port of Miami we caught sight of the gleaming vessel that would be our home for the next two weeks. We quickly boarded, changed into something more casual, and proceeded to the muster station on deck for the lifeboat drill, compulsory for all passengers on ships leaving American ports. l
The ship eased slowly from the pier, and a colorful shower of confetti and streamers fell against the pale blue sky, filling us with a sense of excitement and adventure. We could not know then how much of an adventure it would turn out to be.
After the boat drill we had our first encounter with the Captain. He addressed us over the intercom. His voice was warm and gentle as he welcomed all aboard, casually noting this was the hurricane season but adding that, in all his 25 years at sea, he had never encountered a storm.
For the first time, Ginny and I wondered to ourselves what would happen if a hurricane caught us at sea. As quickly as the thought entered our minds, it was gone. After all, hurricanes were something you read about, or saw films of on the 11 o'clock news.
The Sun Viking slipped quietly toward the open sea warmed by a sunny sky and a balmy breeze, bound for eight ports that stretched as far away as La Guaira, the port city of Caracas, Venezuela. Our first week we relaxed and slowly turned a golden bronze. Aboard ship it was a continuous round of dining, entertainment, relaxation, meeting new friends and dancing 'til dawn while our days in port were filled with shopping, sightseeing and lazy days on the beach.It was everything we had hoped for.
The Captain's daily messages from the bridge quickly became the comic highlights of the trip. Everyone looked forward to the now familiar, "Moshi, moshi, this is the bridge." (We later learned that "moshi, moshi" was Japanese for "hello," a holdover from the time he spent serving on an oriental ship.) From there he would launch into a song, recite an original poem, or deliver a succession of jokes about the cruise. He'd put his own words to popular tunes, wake you softly each morning to the strains of "Happy Birthday" to no one in particular, or serenade you with "Good Night Irene" as you settled in for a good night's sleep. His dry sense of humor reminded us so much of Victor Borge.
Captain Kasper Skjerve had a lot more going for him than his humor. Surviving the sinking of two ships during World War II, he came up through the ranks to earn his Master's certificate in 1952 and a promotion to captain in 1956. Now he was the master of the M/S Sun Viking. And when it came to his ship he was all business, something we would all be thankful for in the coming days.
Sunday, Aug. 3, was a peaceful day in La Guaira. Most passengers were ashore on tours. Since Ginny and I had toured Caracas and visited the Macuto resort area on previous trips, we decided to stay on board, enjoy the sun and the swimming pool, and take advantage of the day's shipboard activities.
Excerpt from the Ship and Shore News Bulletin aboard the M/S Sun Viking: "Sunday, August 3, 1980, La Guaira, Venezuela. Miami, Upi -- tropical storm allen, first of the atlantic caribbean hurricane season, formed in mid atlantic friday night and headed westward with top WINDS OF 40 MILES PER HOUR."
We didn't pay much attention. It was a beautiful day with a bright sun blazing in a clear blue sky. Besides, much stronger winds had whipped through Washington in recent months. The sea was calm as we set sail that night. A magnificent morning greeted us in Aruba, so we joined a couple we had met earlier in the week, Neil and Eve Turnball from Lancashire, England, and set out for a relaxing day of sunning and swimming at the Sheraton Hotel's beach and pool.
Since we were sailing for Port Antonio, Jamaica, at 5:30, we reluctantly headed back to the ship at the last minute, only to find that the Captain had decided we were staying in port another day.The latest reports now indicated that Allen was a full-fledged hurricane heading in the same direction that we were. Allen had already swept across the island of St. Lucia, tearing the roof from a hospital, causing a number of deaths, and was now gaining strength and speed. It was building into the Caribbean's worst storm.
In Aruba the sun still shone brightly on a calm sea. We all looked forward to another day on its magnificent beaches. But the next morning was a sharp contrast. The wind velocity had increased and what had been a tranquil sea was now pounding against the shore.
Allen was now the object of everyone's attention . . . and concern. Its destructive path was being plotted on a big map for all to see, and reports of its devastation swept through the ship. Armed with the latest weather reports from Miami, Captain Skjerve made a decision. Our planned stops at Jamaica and Haiti would be canceled and we would race at top speed for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
The Captain warned us that once we cleared the harbor, the stabilizers would be pulled in and the combination of speed and high seas would make it pretty rough. The ship began to pitch and roll as we left the harbor, and soon Aruba was just a speck on the horizon. The ship was buffeted on all sides, and we were warned to stay off the decks because they were now slippery and dangerous. The pounding intensified.
At the height of all this, Captain Skjerve's voice came over the intercom singing, "I'm a Rhinestone Captain," substituting lyrics that suited our current situation to the Glen Campbell hit. He was amazing. And when we heard him singing, we knew he had everything under control. Our Rhinestone Captain was pushing full tilt toward Santo Domingo.
We all speculated that that position would be an ideal spot to maneuver from. If the storm turned and headed back toward us, we could make an end run around the northeastern tip of the Dominican Republic and then head northwest, using Cuba's land mass as a buffer from the storm until we could make our final run up to Miami.
Ginny and I had been coming down with something the last few days, so the bouncing around didn't help any. The hurricane party planned for that night was a dismal failure for lack of attendance. The dining room was deserted. We finally decided to go to bed. One thing we never had was a problem sleeping aboard ship. Its motion, regardless of how bad, would lull us to sleep.
But during the night people slammed against the cabin walls as they made their way down the corridors. And I don't know how many times we were lifted and dropped back on the bed as the ship plunged forward.
By noon the next day, everything was back to normal. The sky was clear, the water calm. Arriving in Santo Domingo we could see no physical evidence that the storm had hit, but we were told that we'd have to leave the harbor before dark because Allen had ripped the buoy that marked the harbor entrance from its mooring.
When we docked, Neil, Eve, Ginny and I hopped into a cab and headed for the old city of Santo Domingo to make the most of our brief stay. We had a wonderful time, and it wasn't until later that we learned the horrible death toll that Allen had inflicted upon the Caribbean: Haiti, 220 dead at last count; St. Lucia, 16; Dominican Republic, 3; Jamaica, 8; Guadeloupe, 1; Cuba, 3.
Suddenly we realized how very lucky we were. I felt a chill at the thought of an 18,000-ton ship being pounded by high seas and winds that were clocked up to 185 miles per hour. Thanks to the skill and experience of Captain Skjerve, we never found out what it would be like.
A Rhinestone Captain? No way! When it came to matching wits and skill with Allen, Captain Skjerve was a rare gem.