Was the Antarctic tour boat rescue slowed by running out of pre-paid sat phone minutes?

Nat Geo crew to the rescue

Nat Geo crew to the rescue with sat phone

Eighty-eight travellers spent a fortune going to Antarctica to see penguins, only to have huge nauseating waves knock out some of the ship’s power and leaving it bobbing in a horrific storm. A nearby boat run by National Geographic came to the rescue, but was the situation made worse because the cruise ship ran out of pre-paid satellite phone minutes?

That’s what one poster on the website of Antarctic explorer and flimmaker  Jon Bowermaster says. Amy Gitnick says she was a passenger on the National Geographic Explorer ship, which wasn’t “passing by,” as has been reported, but called by radio. When you think of it, what are the chances two ships would pass close enough in the massive Drake Passage? Gitnick says the National Geographic crew used a rocket to shoot over a line to the disabled ship to send over a satellite phone because their own had run out of pre-paid minutes.

“We were told that the waves broke off some railing on the Clelia II which broke the window onto the bridge. Apparently that doused electrical equipment dealing with navigation and the engines. They spent about half an hour bringing up back up systems, during which times they were going slowly, but recovered their engines later that day. The Explorer had not passed the Clelia II – we were going a slightly different track to minimize wave impact and re-routed upon recevining calls from the Clelia II via VFS radio. Apparently the Clelia II has Iridium [satellite] phones on a pre-paid plan and the plan ran out of minutes and so they needed another phone line to reactivate their account. The Explorer has several extra satellite phones onboard and offered to lent the Clelia one of their extras. The Explorer used a rocket launch type thing to send a line across (it took three attempts to get the line onto their deck) and then the phone was sent over via that line.”

The Clelia II called for rescue help, which arrived from the Chilean Navy. I couldn’t find Gitnick to confirm her account, but it does describe what seems to be happening in the video shot by fellow passengers. I reached out to the ship’s operator, Travel Dynamics International, but didn’t hear back yet. The official press release from the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators says only that “was able to provide valuable assistance in restoring Clelia II’s communications.” They note that ship still had working, though slow, engines. It’s not as if the Clelia II was about to sink; if it looked dire the NatGeo crew could’ve called in help themselves.

The Clelia II passengers paid between $8,500 to $16,00 each for the cruise part of the trip. In the Antarctic range, that’s almost a bargain. The National Geographic trip cost $10,000 – $19,000 per person, but they also help support Oceanites. But I’d still be kinda pissed if I found out that they hadn’t pre-paid for a more air time on their sat phone in this dangerous area.

The waves that disabled the CLELIA II, if not offiically rogue waves, were certainly off the reservation. A day after leaving Antarctica (where apparently they did successfully see penguins), the boat hit 100 mph winds and 30-40 foot waves. Former Philadelphia Daily News columnist called his paper to say he  thought he was going to die and that “they’d never find the bodies. You couldn’t even think about putting out lifeboats in that sea.”

Initial reports said Polar Cruises ran the ship, which they were quick to point out wasn’t true (though they do sell trips on Clelia II). They boast that “Clelia II complies with the latest international and U.S. Coast Guard safety regulations and is outfitted with the most current navigational and communications technology as well as with retractable fin stabilizers for smooth sailing, an ice-strengthened hull and a fleet of Zodiacs. Clelia II is staffed by 60 European officers and crew.” I guess a European crew is a selling point? That doesn’t match with the official reports that the crew of 77 was mainly Phillipino. Do they switch crews?

Many passengers bought tickets through Overseas Adventure Travels and on message boards some intended to take the same ship out soon.

Bowermaster notes that at its peak (before the global financial crisis) Antarctica saw 40,000 tourists a year. The numbers and relative ease of buying tickets make it seem not so exotic, but it’s still dangerous.

At least the passengers got to see those penguins. Though, it’s worth noting you can see them without the high seas drama in South Africa, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

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