Crippled Carnival Splendor Adrift – A View from Inside and Outside – Part I

Carnival Splendor. Cabo San Lucas. Photo (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

November 11, 2010

Dry Land, California – Be careful what you wish for. Carnival Cruise Lines’ senior cruise director John Heald posted the following on his Facebook page at 5:40 Sunday evening just after the Carnival Splendor had set sail:

John Heald so after a long long day we finally set sail. I am hoping for an incident free cruise but……..since being here I cant remember one where something or nsomeone strange hasnt happened. Lets see what this cruise brings. Hope you will join me here and on the blog for another brilliant cruise

Let me say right off the bat that I was not aboard the Carnival Splendor when she experienced an engine fire that left her dead in the water on Monday. But I was on that ship three months ago.

This past August marked my second voyage on Carnival’s 2-year-old cruise ship Splendor. And since I’ve sailed on Splendor twice now, I feel a certain amount of attachment towards her. (On this last trip I was very upset to see where some knucklehead had scratched “F***” into the door of one of the ship’s elevators.I felt like they had done that to my house). I was blessed that we were able to make it to all of our scheduled ports with no detours. Out of six cruises, I’ve been diverted four times. So I can empathize a little bit with passengers on those trips when something forces the ship to change plans.

Her Mexican Riviera itinerary has Splendor departing from Long Beach Sunday afternoon and arriving in Puerto Vallarta on Wednesday morning, cruising for two days to get there. Leaving PV, she calls on Mazatlan on Thursday, and then over to Cabo San Lucas on Friday. The return home takes a little over a day and a half.

I truly enjoy cruising. But after the second day at sea, my camera and I start to get antsy. Not that there aren’t a ton of things to do on board. There are. Between all the meals and shows and food and movies and food and contests and food and classes and… there is something to keep you occupied from the time you wake up until the wee hours of the morning. It’s just that my Nikon and I are ready to get off the ship and see more than the 13-deck ocean liner we’ve been sailing on for the last two days. Don’t get me wrong; I thank God I am able to take cruises like this, and Splendor really is a magnificent ship. Carnival Splendor. Mazatlan. Photo (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

My first cruise was a weekender to Ensenada, Baja California. This was way back in 1984. High winds damaged the only tug boat they had in the harbor so our ship, the Azure Seas, could not be brought to the dock. Needless to say we could not get off the ship. I was disappointed because the day before we left, a well-traveled businessman had given me a list of restaurants he recommended. And I absolutely had to visit Hussong’s. As a consolation, the captain announced that drinks would be on the ship, er, on the house for that day. What did the ship do instead of anchoring off a port we couldn’t go in to? We sailed back toward San Pedro, slowly zig-zagging our way up the coast.

Churning somewhere nearby in the Atlantic during a very active 1995 hurricane season, Hurricane Opal disrupted my third cruise. Carnival Festivale was supposed to call on St. Thomas and four other southern Caribbean islands. Almost the entire schedule was changed. Instead of St. Thomas, we stopped at St. Croix. Because of the storm, power was out on the island but we made port there anyway. I guess because of the power outage, store owners had some down time and we were able to enjoy some nice conversation with a few idle Crucians. Instead of St. Maarten, we docked in St. Lucia. Ah, St. Lucia. Another island I’d like to spend more time on. Soufriere. The Pitons. But I digress.

When I sailed on the Splendor last year, we were racing a storm that was powerful enough to warrant a detour; we lost PV and were instead given Ensenada. Initially I was upset; I had been to Ensenada already (yes, the Azure Seas made it there on my ’86 trip) so I was in a been-there-done-that frame of mind. I hadn’t been to PV before nor had I been that far south in Mexico. But I did understand that on the seas you are at the mercy of the seas. Sometimes the weather is fair, sometimes it rains. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.

Carnival calls themselves the “Fun Ships”. Obviously not many people are having fun now. You have heard the reports; engine room fire takes the engines out, stuck in foreign waters, no power, no elevators, no hot water, no refrigeration, no air conditioning, no hot food, and, until recently, no flushing toilets. Some people freak out when power goes out in their own homes for a couple of hours. Can you imagine what it must be like to be cooped up in a house without power or hot water or refrigeration with 3,000 of your (now very close) friends? Oh, and since Splendor has no power other than emergency power, she can’t control her stabilizers, which help minimize the ship’s rolling motion at sea. So a lot of passengers are getting seasick. There are reports (erroneous, it turns out) of numerous barf bags in the corridors. Which, obviously, smell.

And don’t forget; the crew is facing the same conditions as the guests. Only most of them have smaller cabins than the guests.

Let’s break it down a bit more: You save for a year or more to take this cruise. You get your vacation time approved by the boss. If you are travelling with family and/or friends, you finally find a time when all of you can make the trip. And, you may be celebrating a special event like a honeymoon or a birthday. Now you make travel arrangements to get to Long Beach, which may include air and/or car and/or hotel. The stars have aligned and you arrive on board to begin your highly anticipated, fun-filled seven-day excursion. Fourteen hours into your voyage, a fire breaks out in the engine room and, just like the Splendor itself, your vacation comes to a halt.

What do you do? If you are like most of us, you can’t re-do this trip again as soon as Splendor is repaired. You might have to wait a year or more – if you can ever make this trip again at all. Your whole week is lost. Your whole vacation, at least the shipboard part, is ruined. You won’t have another 25th anniversary or 50th birthday. This special time is something you can’t get back.

Update – November 15, 2010: John Heald, Carnival’s senior cruise director, is able to post updates to his blog again. He has posted a candid report of his (and Splendor’s) experience which he called “Smoke on the Water”. Here are Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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