Adrenaline Rush in Darwin’s World

Here is a narrative of a unique experience I had in the Galapagos Islands in March 2020. I hope you enjoy it far more than I did.

Let me begin by stating emphatically that I am a birder (birdwatcher), not a sailor. I have never taken a sailing class. My greatest nautical achievement until the day of the following incident was having avoided getting brained by swinging booms, and the largest vehicle of any kind I had driven was a 26-foot U-Haul truck. Once. A very long time ago.

On March 9, in the Pacific Ocean about 600 miles west of Ecuador, our 145-ton, 111-foot cruise ship Rock & Roll (not its real name) dropped anchor at lunchtime in a bay off uninhabited Española Island. Here is a photo of our ship a few days earlier, off the northwest coast of Isabela Island.

Already anchored in the bay were three other cruise ships: the Forever (not its real name), aboard which April and I had cruised in the Galapagos in November 2018, the sister ship to the vessel my daughter, Jessica, and I were aboard on this trip; the much larger (1,065 ton, 164-foot) National Geographic Islander; and a third vessel, a catamaran whose name I could not read.

After lunch on this day, Jessica and I were relaxing in our cabin when we heard a single ear-splitting air horn blast, followed moments later by a second one. Through our glass balcony doors

we glimpsed the huge Islander, waaaaay too close. Stepping onto the balcony we could see that our ship was rapidly closing on the Islander, broadside.

Passengers and crew members had gathered on several decks of the Islander, watching our ship intently.

Three members of the Islander’s crew had crowded into the bow of their ship. They began pointing toward the front of our ship and yelling to us, “Run to your bridge and alert the captain that he needs to change course immediately!”

Jessica remained on the balcony while I ran out of our cabin, through the passageway to the outer deck, and forward to the bridge, which was on the same level as our cabin. I found the bridge totally vacant—no captain or crew members—and no one in authority anywhere in sight. I snapped the shot below through the open door on the Islander­ side of the bridge and noted that those crew members previously on the bow had scattered off the deck.

I realized with horror that the Islander was now only a stone’s throw away from our ship and that we were getting closer to them.

It was abundantly clear to me that no crew member was going to reach the bridge before impact, so I did what I thought was the only sensible thing to do—I pretty much commandeered the Rock & Roll. I spun the chest-to-knee-high, vertically mounted stainless steel wheel, similar to the one shown below, counterclockwise as far as it would go, away from the Islander.

Then I pushed what clearly was the throttle all the way forward.

The engines roared to life far behind and below me. The ship began vibrating. For what seemed like an eternity, our ship continued to move closer to the Islander. When I had first entered the bridge, all I had been able see of the Islander was her bow. By half a minute after I had hit the throttle, her bow was out of sight, behind us and hopefully, I thought, considerably farther away. From my position on the bridge I could see only forward and to the sides, through the open doors. Not a thing behind me was visible because the bridge had no rear-view mirrors, and the wall behind me extended the entire width of the bridge.

When I was quite sure we had moved far enough away to be out of danger of collision, I cut back on the throttle. Just about then the captain came running in, literally. I stepped back, away from the console, and he took over; we exchanged no words. I slipped off the bridge and returned to our cabin. Later I learned that the stern of our ship had cleared the bow of the Islander by a mere 10 yards, which is crazy close for ships that size.

Shaking like a leaf from the adrenaline produced during my time on the bridge, I told Jessica what had just transpired. She had remained on the balcony until she had heard people running through the passageway adjacent to our cabin. When she had opened the door, she had seen the cruise manager and several crew members running toward the bridge. Then everything had quieted down.

Being the Murphy after whom Murphy’s Law must have been named, I anticipated either being arrested or at a minimum being ejected from the rest of the cruise for what I had done.

Anticlimactically, nothing happened. No explanation was given over the public address system. Everything returned to the way it had been before the incident.

Later that afternoon I engaged in a brief conversation with the Spanish-speaking captain through my interpreter, our excellent naturalist David Páez, the only person among the crew who spoke fluent English (he had been an exchange student in North Carolina). The captain assured me that “of course” there would be no punishment, that he was not angry at me at all, and that he was grateful for the action I had taken. Indirectly I learned that basically I had saved the ship and the cruise for everyone on both ships. The captain told me that I was his mejor amigo. Every time we saw each other during the rest of the cruise, he smiled and called out, “Mejor amigo!

After returning home I learned that the damage from a collision between ships of that size very likely would have been substantial, especially to our ship, which weighed only one-seventh that of the Islander, and that both ships probably would have required a 675-mile voyage, possibly under tow and out of profitable service, to Guayaquil, on the mainland, for a structural damage inspection.

I do not know how many of the passengers and crew members even now are aware of what happened that afternoon. It was not a topic of conversation in my presence during the remainder of the cruise. After returning to my home, I called the company that owns the Rock & Roll, requesting an explanation about what had caused our ship to be adrift. The agent who took my call told me that everyone in the headquarters offices had already heard about it. He put me in touch with their sales executive, who promised to pass my inquiry on to management and assured me that they would contact me soon. (During this coronavirus-dominated period, “soon” probably means “mañana,” and rightly so, because performing a postmortem on this incident is not critical.)

That’s my story. I have so many questions: What happened that cast us adrift? Why was no one on the bridge? Why did no crew member rush to the bridge after the two air horn blasts from the Islander? Was the entire crew below deck and out of earshot? Is that normal on ships?

For the moment, I assume that the captain had dropped anchor, had waited to confirm that the ship was not moving, and had then left the bridge for lunch below with the crew, after which time the anchor had slipped. But I would very much like to hear that confirmed by the company itself.

Who says birding isn’t exciting?!

Bill Murphy
Fishers, Indiana USA