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  • Mike Defede

What I Learned from Being on a Sinking Ship

I’m not a cruise fan. Maybe I could have been, but everything I owned ended up in the bottom of the Mediterranean. That kind of spoiled it for me.

Those hours after the ship’s hull was punctured were a blur but are full of lessons about people and leaders during a crisis. For context, the Sea Diamond ran into a reef a few hundred meters from Santorini. My wife and I were on deck on a cloudless, beautiful day. Two people below deck died which we didn’t learn till the next day.

Lesson 1: The people at the top may not see the danger As we stood out on the top deck, the whole boat suddenly shuddered. Amanda asked, “Did we hit something?”

“No, I think they dropped anchor,” I said in disbelief. I was really wrong.

Within a minute or so, the boat was listing. Without thought, our fellow cruisers ran to see what was happening. Picture the boat’s port side lurching to the water and everyone crowding over the railing to look down. That’s a bunch of weight on the wrong side. It reminded me of the stories in 2004 with the tsunami. Thousands saw the water get sucked out to sea and walked out to the beach, only to be overwhelmed by the coming wave.

Hitting a reef was so unexpected and the passengers so ill prepared that the initial moments to salvage anything were lost. In fact, the human surge to the port side actually made things worse. While the lower decks were rapidly filling, people at the top took pictures oblivious to what was to come.

Lesson 2: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face

If you have been on a cruise, you know all about muster stations. It’s an emergency drill to show everyone where to go in case of emergency. Well... muster stations don’t work when a ship is listing heavily to one side. Everyone has to “muster” on starboard. Worse, the lifeboats become useless. Simply, when the ship is angled, you can’t easily lower any of the boats on the starboard side and the boats are completely unreachable on the port side. Without the lifeboats, a whole new plan had to be designed on the fly.

A few feet from us an officer was screaming in Greek at the crew who only spoke Filipino. Their frantic gestures made it clear they didn’t know how to lower the lifeboats with the ship listing so badly. After minutes, one of the lower crew members ran off and came back with two large planks. He figured he could use them as levers to lift the boats. It was harrowing for those folks, mainly elderly, that got into the boats. The makeshift system caused the boats to drop 10-20 feet in jerky movement eliciting screams and white knuckles, but no major injuries.

Next time - Leaders emerge, we get rescued, and the captain goes to jail.

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