Dozens of dolphins. Maybe even a hundred. Jumping like the greatest Sea World show in history. But we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, on an 11-day TransAtlantic cruise from Miami to Barcelona on NCL’s Epic.
“They weren’t just having fun,” said our captain, Frank Juliussen. “They knew something.”
And Capt. Juliussen has been at sea long enough to pay attention to what the dolphins were doing.
“They were coming up for air, and for food, because they knew a storm was coming,” he said.
A storm was indeed coming, and perhaps only the dolphins knew just how bad it was going to be. A short, quick storm might just churn up the ocean for a few hours, or a day or so. But a longer storm was scatter their food supply, and the dolphins knew – for this storm that was brewing – they needed to stock up.
Capt. Juliussen knew we were headed into a storm. But there wasn’t much he could do differently. We had already changed course once on this cruise, to rush an ill passenger to Bermuda – hundreds of miles out of our way – for evacuation and treatment. Now we were speeding along at nearly 25 m.p.h. – full speed, and almost fast enough to tow a water skier – trying to make up the lost time. We had to be in Funchal, in Portugal’s Madeira Islands, by Sunday morning for refueling.
“We were lucky to be now on a more northerly course,” the captain noted. “On our original course, the storm was even more intense.”
But the storm that we encountered was bad enough. Many crew members would remember as the worst in their careers.
The winds and the swells built up all day. By the evening, the winds would be howling at more than 60 m.p.h. They were hitting the east-bound ship from the north at nearly a right angle. Capt. Juliussen kept trying to move the ship away from a full broadside encounter with the winds.
“You have to take what the storm will give you, and be kind to the ship,” he said. “You have to try and go with it a bit. You can’t fight it full-on.”
Few passengers slept that first night, as the winds and the waves battered the massive ship. The seas pitched and rolled. The winds increased; some gusts exceeded hurricane strength of about 75 m.p.h. Seas were 30 feet or more at the height of the storm.
“Our concern was the waves were high enough on our port side to be hitting the lifeboats,” the captain explained. The lifeboats are on deck seven. At times, looking out the windows on Deck 5 was like being in an aquarium; they were completely under water.
During the next day the ship’s crew tried to keep up business as usual. But occasionally, during the worst moments, plates would go flying, glasses would shatter and people would bang into walls like drunks on a bender. Most passengers remained in their cabins; the outside decks were deserted.
The storm kept up all that day and night, and into the next.
“It was getting bigger and more intense than was forecast,” said Capt. Juliussen. The weary captain spent, at one point, 22 hours during one 24-hour stretch on the bridge. “It was affecting a wider area, and lasting longer.”
The captain finally made a welcome announcement on the ship’s public address system on the morning of the storm’s third day: “This misery should end by this evening.”
That was great news, but a bit optimistic, as the storm – while clearly dying down that evening – was still raging until after midnight. By morning, at last, all was calm. The ocean was like a big lake.
“We were never in any real danger,” the captain assured us. “It was well within the ship’s capabilities to handle even a storm that severe.”
That seemed hard to believe, after the harrowing adventure we had been through. But it must have been true; we were still on schedule to arrive in Funchal the next day.
The Norwegian Epic was, in my mind, now a great answer to the following trivia question: What weighs 155,000 tons, is made of steel, and floats?
April 28, 2013