On Tuesday, November 5, I was returning with a group from an early evening hike above Darwin Lake on the west coast of Isabela Island, the largest of the Galapagos, when our naturalist guide got an emergency call to return to our ship, the new 99-passenger Celebrity Flora. She was told that Flora’s sister ship, Celebrity Xpedition, which was also in the Galapagos, was in trouble and needed our help. No other information was available and once back on Flora, most guests went on about their evening. For me, that meant joining new friends for dinner under the stars on the top deck.
We cruised for a little over two hours up the coast of Isabela, as sun turned to night, finally slowing to a stop at Punta Vicente Roca, a beautiful spot for bird-spotting and geological formations, where Xpedition had run aground and was now listing close to shore by the rocks.
As we approached it was pitch black out, save for the lights of Xpedition and a handful of other smaller ships that had arrived in response to the maritime distress signal. I could hardly sit still and we all kept zipping back and forth to the side of the ship in an effort to figure out what was going on. Soon enough, spotlights were cast on choppy seas and Xpedition’s people—some 90 passengers, crew and staff in all—began appearing on tenders out of the darkness and heading toward our ship.
I had never witnessed or been part of a cruise ship rescue before. But what unfolded over the next 24 hours was unexpectedly inspiring, reminding me that good humans are everywhere and cruise ship rescues don’t have to be a disaster.
A speedy rescue
We made fast friends with the new passengers folding into our group and learned that they’d been stranded for less than four hours—a notably fast rescue by any standard. Most of them had been out on excursions when things went south. “We could see that the stern was in the rocks and it was clear that we weren’t going back on the boat,” said Sacha Pytka, a passenger from Xpedition. She and the rest of the passengers remained on tenders for about 45 minutes, while the boat’s crew worked fast along with the rising tide to try and dislodge the ship from the rocks. By then, the smaller ships that arrived before us took them aboard, where they waited for roughly another two and a half hours before transferring to our boat.
Even after people were all safely aboard Flora, the tenders began appearing with luggage in tow, each of which had been packed and collected cabin-by-cabin by the staff of Xpedition. “It was pretty fast and everyone was really professional,” Pytka said.
The other thing that came fast was a detailed compensation plan. Everyone awoke the next morning to letters of apology for the incident and disruption to our cruise. For guests of Xpedition, Celebrity offered a 100 percent refund on the cruise and airfare, plus a 100 percent credit toward a future cruise. Guests of Flora were offered a refund of two cruise days and a two-day credit toward a future cruise.
The calm but rapid response
It was hard to believe Flora’s captain, Vladimir Armas, when he told me that he’d never taken part in a cruise ship rescue before, because the effort was so well-orchestrated. Everyone seemed prepared and knew what to do. Guests were transferred carefully between boats of all sizes (which is more treacherous than it sounds), and there was hardly a kerfuffle felt by Flora’s original guests.
Flora’s hotel director Andrea Muegge could be seen talking to the new arrivals. Her staff placed blankets, towels, and cookies on makeshift bedding arrangements—everything from couches and chairs in the lounge to cabanas and chaise lounges on the outer decks. “For me, the most important thing is to relieve the stress of the passengers, to give them comfort,” she said.
Meanwhile, the captain and crew had moved on to orchestrating the rescue of the actual Xpedition. They zipped tow ropes back and forth in the dark, pulled the ship from the rocks in just hours, and towed her through the night to Punta Espinoza. No one on Flora could feel a thing. We didn’t even realize what was happening until someone said, “Hey, I think we’re towing the ship!”
At 6:40 a.m. the next morning, captain Armas announced over the PA system that they had successfully towed the ship to Punta Espinoza on the north coast of Isabela, where we were now at anchor. They had brought aboard all 46 passengers and 44 crew with no casualties or injuries (though I had seen a handful of minor injuries). He emphatically thanked “all my crew, all my crew” for their great work.
I’d witnessed the crew and staff on Flora work with gusto, even after a full day. And now, with many of them operating on only scant hours of sleep, they were still bustling about to tend to a guest count that had nearly doubled. Guides were helping guests with luggage and preparing them for their disembarkation that evening. Cristian Rebolledo, fleet executive chef of the Galápagos and head of the kitchen on Flora, told me the night before that his entire kitchen staff had volunteered to start early the next morning to help with breakfast prep. My fellow Flora passengers jumped in, too, and I think it’s because we would only hope that others would do the same for us.
Xpedition’s passengers had seen their trip come to an abrupt end, as they were scheduled to disembark and return home by Wednesday evening. Just before they did, Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, arrived on Flora to address the Xpedition passengers.
“We will be with you as you tender into town,” she said. “We have an entire team waiting for you to take care of everything and to make sure that your next couple of days are as comfortable as possible.”
I spoke with her about the crew and its response, and she stressed the importance of being trained and prepared. But then she added: “The thing that’s really special here is that everybody knows what they need to be doing—but they go so many steps further.”
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