The stoical Brits who refuse to let a weekend of hurricane-force winds, towering waves and flying debris on a Saga luxury cruise ship in the Bay of Biscay put them off their cruises – or negronis!
- Passengers on board a Saga Cruise during Storm Ciaran were not put off cruises
Carol Lake wasn’t unduly concerned when fellow passengers began talking about an impending storm. A seasoned cruiser, she has been on at least two nautical adventures a year since turning 60 three years ago.
She wasn’t even too bothered when one of the officers aboard Saga’s luxury cruise ship Spirit of Discovery mentioned at dinner in the Grand Dining Room that the crew had been closely monitoring the weather for several days. ‘I’ve got sturdy sea legs,’ is how she puts it, talking to the Mail about the ordeal.
The words Carol, a radio presenter in Staffordshire, scribbled in her diary that evening ten days ago feel portentous, to say the least. ‘Storm Ciaran is raging through the Channel, ferries and cruise ships are not going anywhere, we still have a massive storm brewing for the Bay of Biscay, 100mph winds, so we need to see what the captain says,’ she wrote.
‘It’s put the mockers on the mood, the ship suddenly feels like the Titanic.’
Of course, Saga’s cruise ship didn’t sink and, launched with great fanfare – and a bottle of English sparkling wine – by Queen Camilla four years ago, it is now on its way to the Caribbean on another adventure.
But tales of the tumultous homeward journey from a two-week tour of the Canary Islands have certainly captured headlines this week.
So just what did unfold last weekend on Saga’s first purpose-built cruise ship, designed to rival the world’s best boutique hotels?
Just what did unfold last weekend on Saga’s first purpose-built cruise ship, designed to rival the world’s best boutique hotels?
Carol Lake has nothing but praise for the crew, who were themselves terrified as waves estimated at up to 45ft high pounded the ship and wind speeds hit 81mph
Certainly it was not the conclusion to the dream holiday (costing upwards of £4,000 a head) that any of the passengers were expecting when they set off from Portsmouth on October 24. At 774ft long, the 58,250-ton ship boasts ten decks and can accommodate 999 passengers across 554 cabins, each with their own private balcony and butler service.
But, as events were to prove, all the money in the world cannot guarantee a smooth crossing when the weather takes such a dire turn.
First, passengers were told that a scheduled stop in Gran Canaria was cancelled. The ship then headed to the port of A Coruna, on the northwest tip of Spain, to ‘get ahead of the storm’ – only to find it had been closed due to the adverse weather conditions.
It was at this point that the decision to sail into the Bay of Biscay appears to have been made. The ferocity of what was to come is charted in Carol’s diary, a habit she has had since she was nine years old. ‘Didn’t sleep, the wind howled and the sea was ferocious as the ship just rocked and rolled,’ she writes on Friday morning before setting off for breakfast.
By lunchtime that day the restaurants and bars on the upper decks had closed, so Carol returned to the Grand Dining Room for lunch – Ardennes pate, melon soup and sirloin steak.
Over the course of the day, Carol notes the mounting waves and increasing sway of the vessel. She even packed a ‘grab bag’ containing medication, her passport and other essentials fearing they might have to abandon ship. ‘I’m very Girl Guide oriented,’ she says.
It wasn’t just Carol’s table on the slide; the pristine dining room was turned upside down in the melee and diners flung to the floor as the ship’s safety systems triggered a sudden halt that sent the ship reeling violently to one side
After a stormy night, it was approaching 12.30pm last Saturday when the drama escalated to alarming levels
From this you might think Carol was beginning to panic. But she girded her sea legs and headed to the bar for a pre-dinner negroni with maraschino cherries before settling back into her favourite corner of the dining room (table 53) with a glass of Hush Heath sparkling wine.
READ MORE: Saga passengers left screaming for their lives when 30ft waves crashed into side of their cruise ship will sue for millions if they aren’t offered proper compensation
Richard Reynolds, 60, who travelled with his wife Jayne (pictured on baord before hitting the storm) on The Spirit of Discovery cruise ship were left fearing for their lives during the cruise when they were caught in the middle of a terrifying tempest in the Bay of Biscay
After a stormy night, it was approaching 12.30pm last Saturday when the drama escalated to alarming levels. Carol, seated again at her favourite port-side spot, had just finished her pea and mint soup and moved on to turkey a la king when it happened. ‘My glass of Hush Heath, just out of the corner of my eye, started to slide to the right,’ she says. ‘I started to reach out but there was an almighty crash and thump and the table fell to the right.’
It wasn’t just Carol’s table on the slide; the pristine dining room was turned upside down in the melee and diners flung to the floor as the ship’s safety systems triggered a sudden halt that sent the ship reeling violently to one side.
The result was a trail of destruction as cutlery, china, food and furniture went flying. ‘It was like a disaster zone,’ says Carol, who was thrown back by the impact, bashing her head on the wall. ‘There was a lot of screaming. I could see people on the floor. The first thing that went through my mind was: ‘Am I cut? Am I hurt badly? Is anyone else hurt badly?’
Thankfully, even though her wrist was trapped between two tables, Carol wasn’t seriously hurt, but others weren’t so lucky.
Eight ambulances were waiting to greet the cruise ship when it finally docked in Portsmouth on Monday evening, with some 100 of the ship’s 1,000 guests injured. Carol has nothing but praise for the crew, who were themselves terrified as waves estimated at up to 45ft high pounded the ship and wind speeds hit 81mph.
‘One waiter bought me some water, another raced and covered me with two tablecloths,’ she says. A shaking young waitress stood crying as she told Carol she had never seen anything like it. The pair then sat on the floor hugging as the dining area became a medical triage centre for the wounded.
Queasy travellers might imagine things couldn’t get worse. But the ship was still hundreds of miles from home and bearing the brunt of the storm.
Carol was rolled back to her cabin in a wheelchair. ‘I looked out of the window at one stage and thought ‘this is like a horror movie’. I just thought this is it, this is the end. I’ve had a really good life, I’ve got good friends, I’ve done the majority of things on my bucket list.
‘What upset me was Reggie, my Persian cat, and the thought he was going to be orphaned.’ The only way she could calm herself down as the waves lashed the vessel was by watching Strictly Come Dancing on her iPad. ‘I’m more Dawn French than Darcy Bussell, but I thought it would keep the noise of the wind out,’ she tells me. ‘There was nothing else to do. I wanted to give Reggie a hug and thought I might never do that again, so instead I watched Strictly — with a bottle of Hush Heath.’
Her diary entry, however, is more pointed. ‘I want to go home, this is frightening,’ she penned. ‘I have put together a proper grab bag because I am convinced we will end up in the life rafts, although what use they will be in such dreadful seas, so far from land and no other boat or ship in the Bay of Biscay, I don’t know.’
Such sentiments were far from unique. Annette Dowling, 68, who was on board with husband Ray, 80, is tearful as she recalls the drama of a cruise she was sure she would never return from.
Retired investments worker Peter Sawyer, 76, from Christchurch, Dorset – who was travelling with his wife Jean and two friends to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary – were also on deck six, sitting in The Club Bar, when the ship suddenly stopped
As Carol was being thrown around the ship’s dining room, the retirees, from a village near Welshpool in Mid Wales, were sitting on deck six, watching the tempestuous sea from a starboard window, when a towering column of water swept towards them. ‘I wanted to photograph the sea which looked very dramatic at that stage,’ says Annette. ‘Within an hour it went from quite dramatic to terrifying – the swell, the spray, wind and waves and then I saw this wave form and a white sheet of spray coming towards us.
‘I said to my husband: ‘Look at this’ and he leant forward and said: ‘Wow’, and, as he spoke, it hit the window, the ship lurched and there was a tremendous crash. The man sitting behind us did a 360-degree somersault in his chair and ended up in a doorway groaning.’
Next came the captain over the Tannoy: ‘All crew minimise movement. Code Alpha’ – a signal the couple now know indicates a medical emergency.
‘The sea was crazy,’ says Annette. ‘Then there was another big lurch, a crash from downstairs and passengers were screaming. There was another call for a stretcher party. That’s when the ship stopped and there was an announcement from the captain asking crew to check the ship for damage.
‘We realised we were sitting underneath the lifeboats but, with hindsight, there is no way they could have launched them,’ says Annette. ‘Ray had a compass open on his phone and at one stage the ship was facing back the way we had come.’
The sea was so rough that Annette admits they both thought ‘this is it’ – although neither admitted this to the other until the ship finally reached Portsmouth.
Having wobbled back to their cabin — they both use walking sticks – the couple’s tale of the ensuing hours are enough to make the sturdiest traveller quail.
Eight ambulances were waiting to greet the cruise ship when it finally docked in Portsmouth on Monday evening, with some 100 of the ship’s 1,000 guests injured
‘We truly thought that was our last day,’ says a tearful Annette. ‘We got into our cabin and put the life jackets on so we knew what to do with them, we opened the safe, got the passports. I was planning our evacuation route. I put all money and passports in a money bag and put it on. I was assessing what we were wearing in case we went into the water.
‘Every time the ship lurched, the noise was deafening, all your senses were on high alert, your whole body tensed. If you threw yourself on the bed, you rolled out. So we sat on two big heavy chairs which moved from the bed, across the carpet to the patio door with us on them.
‘The bedside cabinet fell over three times; we wedged everything along one wall and just had to sit there with everything crashing around, broken glass on the floor. The afternoon and evening of Saturday were punctuated by Code Alpha calls over the Tannoy.’
There was one lifeline – an emergency room service rolled into action as staff, with dogged determination, delivered food on paper plates to passengers. ‘I ate one piece of broccoli and the peas went all over the floor,’ says Annette.
The night brought no respite. ‘Ray didn’t sleep at all. We just lay on the bed with the life jackets beside us before getting back into the chairs,’ says Annette.
Retired investments worker Peter Sawyer, 76, from Christchurch, Dorset – who was travelling with his wife Jean and two friends to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary – were also on deck six, sitting in The Club Bar, when the ship suddenly stopped.
The ship was in the middle of the sea when Storm Ciaran hit
The result was a trail of destruction as cutlery, china, food and furniture went flying
‘We were considering going to lunch when this wave hit the windows… and that was the beginning of the chaos. My friend and I were thrown to the floor, tables were coming over, drinks and glass all over the floor. He had a bump on the head but I had soft landing because I landed on him. When we got back to our cabin, the drawers were out, clothes were all over the floor, furniture had turned over, glasses smashed. I was calm to a certain extent, but I did have to reassure my wife that everything would be okay.’
READ MORE: Inside battered Saga cruise ship where passengers screamed for their lives and wrote final messages to loved ones as it was ravaged by storms and 30ft waves while crossing the Bay of Biscay
A passenger on board the Saga cruise ship that was battered by storms revealed people on board were screaming for their lives as 30ft waves battered the windows
Richard Redfern, 60, a former firefighter and military veteran from Gloucester, spent £19,000 on tickets for himself, his wife Jayne and his elderly parents only for his mother to get injured during the stormy crossing. ‘My mum is 84 and pretty unsteady anyway and the storm knocked her out of bed.
‘She bumped her head and banged her elbow which at first we thought was broken. It wasn’t but she was kept in the medical centre for two days before that got swamped. She witnessed somebody being resuscitated by three members of staff,’ he says.
‘There was screaming and the staff were helping loads of people. Then over the Tannoy there was ‘Code Alpha to medi areas’, which meant stretchers everywhere.
‘The whole experience was horrendous. People were screaming for their lives, things were banging and crashing around us and people thought they were going to die.’
It was not until Monday morning that the waves began to subside and Carol ventured out for breakfast. ‘Staff must have spent all night cleaning up because I walked into the dining room and you wouldn’t have known anything had happened,’ she says.
Such was the show-must-go-on spirit that, by Monday, entertainment was back on. And as the ship pulled back into Portsmouth a night early to allow the injured to be removed first, a music and dance show was in full swing in its 444-seat Playhouse Theatre.
There was even a happy ending for Annette and Ray who were able to celebrate their 21st wedding anniversary on their final day.
‘We opened the cabin door and the crew had put an anniversary banner on the wall and decorated our bed with towels made into swans and a heart made out of chocolates. It was so touching. They were just such a nice crew.’
Remarkably, none of the passengers the Mail spoke to has been deterred from travels at sea, even though questions have been asked as to why the ship sailed into such a perilous sitation.
Carol is not alone in praising the staff for how they dealt with the situation. ‘I take my tiara off to them, I really do, they put their uniforms on and got on with it.’
Nigel Blanks, CEO of Saga Cruises, wrote a letter to passengers before they disembarked. In a statement he said: ‘We have apologised to all our guests who experienced such difficult weather conditions; we know that this was a very distressing experience for them.
‘We operate to the highest health and safety protocols and every decision was made based on advice from the ship’s Master and forecasts from our dedicated marine meteorologists.
‘We did everything we could at all times to keep our guests as safe as possible and to support them through the storm, including expert medical attention for those injured. I want to thank our guests for their patience and understanding and all our crew, who went over and above to care for everyone onboard.’
Several passengers yesterday reported being offered compensation and counselling by Saga.
But the Dowlings surely won’t be the only ones resolved not to cross the Bay of Biscay again.
‘We had a very similar cruise booked for January,’ confides Annette. ‘But we’ve exchanged our two-week Canaries cruise for ten days going around the British Isles.’
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