Semester at Sea ship narrowly averts disaster

By on February 9, 2005

When Quinnipiac juniors Peter Gallay, Chelsea Van Vleet, and Geoffrey Read set out from Vancouver on their spring 2005 Semester at Sea, little did they know that a few days later they would be fighting for their lives.

The three students, along with about 990 other passengers: 681 other college students from around the world, 113 faculty members, and 196 crew members, left Vancouver, Canada on Jan. 18, and set sail for the first two stops on their journey, Korea and China.

Peter Gallay, a 21-year old media production major, described the first night on board as a time to mingle and to practice some important emergency procedures.

“We held a life jacket drill where we had to get our life jackets and proceed to our life boats,” Gallay said. “It was pretty funny to us when they were giving the instructions over the intercom and one of the instructions ended with ‘if you hear this it does not mean abandon ship!’ Like, who would do that?”

He did not realize at the time just how important that drill would prove to.

Just a day after departing, the ship hit tumultuous waters in the Pacific Ocean.

“As soon as we hit the Pacific Ocean the ship began to rock, roll, and bounce,” Gallay said. “It was like a $15,000 roller coaster that never stopped. I felt so seasick, and the storm got so bad that they closed the outside of the ship so that we all had to stay inside.”

The bad weather continued as the week progressed, an occurrence that Semester at Sea has not experienced in a number of years. Some of the crew noted the course the boat was traveling because, in other years, they had taken a different route.

Gallay, who set up a Web site [www.PTG127.com] to keep friends and family updated on his travels, kept a detailed travel log about his adventures. On Jan. 24 he wrote:

“We were informed today that we hit a bunch of storms and saw waves that were 40 ft. along with winds that reached 100.3 mph. A lot of people became concerned but the captain said that we’re doing OK. Whether we get to Korea on time is another issue. Hopefully if we come upon some clear weather soon we will be able to stay the course otherwise we may be in jeopardy of falling a bit behind. It’s nice to know that the captain expects for us to start to smooth out.”

Upon crossing the international dateline on Jan. 27, the ship began to rock violently back and forth once again, hurling furniture across the students’ cabins and sending bookshelves, safes, and electronics crashing to the ground. Gallay’s roommate was thrown from his bed.

The captain came onto the loudspeaker ordering all the passengers to move up to the higher decks so as to keep everyone above the water line.

“We all sat together tightly in tiny hallways not knowing what was going on,” Gallay said. “Many people were hyperventilating and getting worked up. The only thing we knew was that the waves were continuously pounding our ship and we were rolling really far to each side. We seriously thought that we might have to abandon ship.”

The crew members brought out provisions for the students.

“We ended up staying on Deck 5 until about 1 p.m., a full 7 hours with nothing,” Gallay said. “They broke out food like bread, fruit, candy, and water to help take care of us and it was very much a bonding experience as we passed everything from person to person down the hallway of people.”

It was not until the ship’s captain addressed the passengers that the students discovered the full extent of what had just occurred.

“Eventually Captain Radican again came over the loudspeaker and informed us that this storm ‘snuck up on us’ and that a wave had been high enough to hit the bridge (where the ship is steered from) and it knocked out a window, soaking everything in water.” Gallay recounted. “All the water ended up wrecking the navigation controls.”

As students frantically tried to reach relatives at home and stay calm amidst swirling rumors about the experience, the Coast Guard came to the Explorer’s rescue, dispatching ships and aircraft from stations in both Honolulu and Alaska..

The 591 foot Explorer was stranded about 650 miles south of Adak, an island in the Aleutian chain and about 1,600 miles from Honolulu with only the use of one of its four engines. Two crew members were injured by the wave crashing through the ship’s windows.

At 10 p.m. that night a merchant marine ship guided the damaged vessel safely to port to be repaired and refueled in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“The somber mood quickly changed with everyone becoming excited about hitting land,” Gallay said. “[The day we landed] was a beautiful, sunny day that was warm and breezy which allowed many people to lounge out on the decks.”

The students’ 100-day journey is currently delayed indefinitely. While in port, passengers are commencing with classes and enjoying some time on land. Although no further arrangements have yet been decided, there is speculation about either flying to China, where the ship could meet the students, or canceling the remainder of the semester altogether. The ship was scheduled to stop in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and Venezuela.

Semester at Sea is a global comparative study-abroad program for undergraduate students, according to Paul Watson, director of enrollment management for the Institute for Shipboard Education. The program is academically sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh.

For updates on the MV Explorer’s progress visit Peter Gallay’s Web site www.PTG127.com or the official Semester at Sea Web site www.helpinghandweb.org.

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