Drama on the High Seas

The trip was all going very well when unusually we were called back for a briefing after dinner one night. In fact in the earlier briefing that day, we had been told to get an early night as we had some early starts for our planned landings the next day (on what was to be our final day in South Georgia). Ever the obedient passengers, Peter and I were already in bed when the tannoy summoned us back to the lounge which we knew did not sound like it was to impart good news.

And it wasn’t. Unfortunately one of our Chinese passengers had had a heart attack when he had returned to the ship after a landing that day which had involved a bit of a hike (although we are not talking about anything too strenuous here). As a result, the captain had already turned the ship around and we were now hurtling full pelt back to the Falkland Islands which was due to take 2 days and 3 nights and it was very much hoped that the guy would survive the journey. It really made us realise that we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere when a ship going as fast as it possibly can still needs 2½ days to get to a hospital. As luck would have it though, one of the other Chinese passengers happened to be one of China’s leading heart surgeons so the guy was in good hands, the only problem being that the ship’s hospital wasn’t equipped sufficiently and so he couldn’t operate on board.

Drama on the High Seas indeed and for us a bit of a disappointment as we lost our final day of wildlife spotting in South Georgia and an opportunity to see another species of penguin, macaronis. To date we had literally seen only one macaroni penguin who had somehow rocked up at St Andrew’s Bay which was a king penguin colony. Rather than finding his way back to join his family and friends, he had obviously decided to hang out with the kings instead who didn’t seem to mind his intrusion. Still even if he wasn’t anxious to get back to his own kin, we would have loved to have had the opportunity to meet them, but alas it was not to be.

We therefore faced 4 consecutive days at sea while we went back to Stanley and then down to Antarctica to pick up our initial itinerary again as soon as possible. 4 sea days and an extra crossing of the famous Drake Passage but fortunately for us this was a pretty calm experience (apparently on the trip just before ours, the “Drake Shake” had been out in full force with dining furniture being turned upside down etc as the ship lurched from side to side). As always during the sea days there was a full program of lectures as well as other activities such as dance and art classes as well as dumpling making. In for a penny (or should that be a yuan!).

Almost as soon as we were notified about the ship’s turnaround, the Chinese whispers (literally Chinese whispers given we were on board a Chinese charter) began. Somehow the language barriers seemed to get broken down as the rumour mill cranked up to overdrive. We heard stories about the sick passenger making a quasi recovery within the next 24 hours and him promptly announcing that he was going to refuse to get off the boat at Stanley and was instead demanding that the captain turn the boat round again and continue with the original programme. Some said he wanted to continue to participate fully and do more landings and zodiac rides himself while others “heard” that he had agreed to stay on the ship in his cabin for the rest of the trip and would sign any sort of disclaimer put in front of him.

At first we had understood that he was a 62 year old male with no relevant medical history, but subsequent tales included the fact that apparently he had had a problem (maybe even a minor attack?) only 2 weeks before he had boarded the Ocean Atlantic and had been prescribed medication but had not been taking it since coming on board. This seemed to be put down to the fact that his wife hadn’t joined him on this part of the trip and while the cat was away, the mouse indeed seemed to be playing by not taking his pills and instead over eating (as indeed we all were), but (the gossip mongers noted further), he was eating an awful lot of eggs, bacon and ice cream (presumably separately but who really knows and nor did it really matter for the purposes of the over-heated rumour mill!).
Questions were asked (passenger to passenger only just to keep the gossipy chat alive) about why we were returning to Stanley and not pushing onto Antarctica and in particular to King George Island where there is an airport. It is here where anyone who does a flying/sailing cruise arrives by plane but these flights are highly weather dependent and do not always run to schedule. Presumably if we had sailed there, there was no guarantee that there would have been a proper flight connection for him and, more importantly, there are no medical facilities on King George Island. Obviously some people were more anxious to minimise disruption to their own trips of a lifetime rather than being too concerned about the passenger but ultimately we were all in it together.

Apparently once the captain radioed in the incident, he would then have been instructed by none other than British officials (given we were in South Georgian (and therefore British) waters when the incident happened) to proceed to Stanley. And you don’t want to upset the Brits after all! The fact that the passenger began to recover was neither here nor there; he remained a potential liability for the rest of the trip and we were unable to change course again. Apparently there are about 48 medical evacuations every season and at the time ours was in process, we understood that a French boat was also undertaking a medical evacuation too. Shame we couldn’t meet up to offload our passenger onto them although that would hardly have been practical in open waters!

L: The assembled crowd of “well wishers”; R: the British flag was raised as we approached Falkland Island waters

When we arrived at Stanley, the passenger was able to walk off the ship and get onto the hospital boat that had been sent out to meet our ship. A large number of passengers had turned out to watch him get off the boat (myself included). I wasn’t sure if the big turnout was to find out who he was, or to wish him well, or to make sure he got off the boat (given the earlier rumours) or, as in my case, it was something to see after 2 full days at sea when suddenly land was ahoy once more and there was more to see than rolling waves! A bit of excitement!

Post script: we subsequently heard that the passenger made a full recovery (again through the Chinese rumour mill). Let’s hope that piece of information was correct.

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