A Tale of One Cruise and Two Holidays

As the leaves in our neighbourhood began to display their autumnal splendour, my wife and I decided to treat our daughter and granddaughters [ 10 and 8] to a winter holiday.

Due to Air New Zealand’s pernicious pricing during school holidays, the thoughts of Fiji/Samoa/Rarotonga were quickly dispelled. We happened upon a 9-day Pacific cruise visiting 4 islands. Noumea, Lifou, Vanuatu and Mystery Island. Along with 4 days at sea.

We were very excited. 4 tropical islands, sun, snorkelling, and sundowners. What could possibly go wrong?   The first 2 sea days were easy to fill. The girls were so excited doing what little ones do. Swimming, water slides, organized activities, ‘free’ soft drinks. For the adults, ‘People watching’ became the number one form of entertainment.

This pastime became turbo-charged when visiting the buffet on deck 11. It was an education in human biological and behavioural science. Around 40% of the passengers appeared to be carrying out an experiment to see how far their skin would stretch without exploding. [Think Monty Python’s Mr Creosote.

Our fellow travellers totally put their shoulders to the task. Cholesterol, diabetes be damned. Free tucker, dig in. On ‘Doughnut Day, ‘it wasn’t unusual to see plates of small pyramids of doughnuts waddling off to a nearby table.  I don’t want to appear ‘holier than thou ‘here, as my poison is of the liquid variety.

On that front, we had pre-purchased a ‘drinks package ‘, which worked well. I didn’t indulge in cocktails, but they seemed very popular. The ‘skin stretchers’ seemed very keen on one called ‘Toblerone’ with chocolate syrup running down the inside of the glass and then a thick white mass “globbed” into the glass.   2 days of people watching and waterslides behind us, we arrived in Noumea.

We took a tour around the capital of the New Caledonia archipelago on a little train, which the ‘grandees’ were very excited about. It is a picturesque place with palm trees swaying and smiling locals.  We enjoyed a beautiful barbecued meats and fresh salads lunch and then back on board at 4:00 p.m.   We sailed through the night to our next stop, Lifou Island. We awoke to a gorgeous-looking place.

We were full of expectations until the captain informed us that the winds were gusting too strongly to use our tenders, so the island visit had to be abandoned. To his credit, he had forewarned us of this possibility the night before. Fair enough, disappointing, but safety is paramount on the high seas.  So, off to Vanuatu and happily, there was a wharf available for berthing.

We had not booked anything in Vanuatu, so took a punt on a local man to show us his island. What a treat that was! Turtles in a breeding programme, then a “cool off” in the hills in a waterhole/waterfall. Before he took us to his village, we enjoyed a lovely seaside bistro-style lunch with burgers, calamari, and other beautifully prepared food.

His village was an education for the girls and provided them with a valuable lesson in how fortunate they are. The locals were so friendly and happy. A real joy. We made a mental note to return.

As we were cruising out of Port Vila, the Captain announced that due to high winds again, disembarking at Mystery Island would not be possible. Bad news: snorkelling was cancelled.  The good news was that we would be able to revisit Lifou Island and spend the day there.

Fantastic News!  But wait.   Two hours into the cruise to Lifou, the now harassed-sounding Captain informed us that he had received a May Day alert from an ocean-going rower who had capsized 400 nautical miles north of our current position.

The Law of the Sea requires vessels to respond. He mentioned that there was a glimmer of hope as there were a number of vessels closer to the stricken rower, and we may be called off and still get to Lifou Island.

The Law of the Sea clearly didn’t apply to those vessels closer to the emergency, so our promised day on Lifou was not to be, as our ship cruised further away from our holiday destinations and closer to a stranded rower waiting for rescue in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

We awoke 8 hours later to a small jet circling our ship, and on the port side of the ship was a tiny red upturned hull with a naked rower straddling it, hanging on for dear life. [ Hopefully, no splinters]! Lines were thrown, and eventually, he was brought aboard.

“Fun Fact” as an aside: evidently, it is common for ocean rowers to row naked because they are constantly wet, so any clothing chaffs badly.

So, what is left?   A life saved, and two island visits missed. I understand that a Pacific cruise is at the mercy of the weather, and I understand the responsibility of the captain to respect the ‘Law of the Sea’ and the sanctity of human life.  However, some form of contrition and thanks over the PA the next day from our newly acquired passenger would have been endearing and appreciated.

Our two sea days home turned into four, and to add insult to injury, we had to weather (pun intended) a 12-hour storm, cancelling, for safety reasons, some of the onboard entertainment. I must applaud the captain and all the onboard staff. They were fantastic fun, cheerful and ever so obliging.

Back into the lee of NZ, we finished the cruise with a smooth sail to end our journey, four hours late due to the heroic rescue of a capsized rower and heavy seas.

Television crews were interviewing the rower as we disembarked. Incredulous, we asked ourselves and each other, “How come he got off the ship before us”?

What else could possibly go wrong?

Story & images contributed by Roger Burley

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