I had just ordered a drink and was looking out at the empty Atlantic when the pretty Indonesian concierge came to my table. “I’m sure you know we have changed our course, since you are a sailor,” she said. Shaking my head sheepishly, I told her I hadn’t noticed.
“The captain got a call saying there was a sailboat in distress, and we’ve turned back to see if we can help,” she replied. That was all she knew.
By dinner that evening, the gossip was flying among our fellow passengers: it would take two hours to reach the sailboat, which was French and had three people aboard. There was a growing sense of excitement mixed with anxiety as we continued on our new course.
We had left Ft. Lauderdale five days earlier on the Holland American Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam, headed for Barcelona, and were two days out from Horta, in the Azores—the main reason my husband, Joe, and I were on this cruise. It had been five years since he’d stopped there for fuel and provisions while crossing the Atlantic in our 42ft Island Packet. I hadn’t been able to go with him then, and he was anxious for me to not only visit the island, but to help him find the name of our boat, Hope and Glory, painted on the seawall.
I was looking at the dessert menu when the ship shuddered to a halt. We all rushed to the portside deck outside the dining room. The daylight was fading quickly, but we could clearly see the sailboat bobbing around with its sails flapping wildly around the mast.
Soon, there was a flurry of activity at the lifeboat station, and we watched as a lifeboat was carefully launched into the sea, now heaving with 16-foot swells. By the time the two boats met, it was pitch dark, and the lifeboat was using a spotlight to find its way. I can only imagine how awestruck the stranded sailors must have been to see our huge cruise ship coming to rescue them. We later learned they had been expecting a freighter.
Eventually, the crew safely brought the rescued sailors back to Nieuw Amsterdam and pulled the lifeboat aboard. Passengers crowded around to catch a glimpse while the crew called to keep the gangway clear for the rescued men to go inside. At last, a bedraggled man emerged, carrying a small duffle over his shoulder, and sporting a mop of long tangled hair, a sun-burned face and red-rimmed eyes. He was hunched over, probably trying to avoid our curious stares as he walked through the phalanx of cheering passengers. Behind him came another man, older and heavier, who looked straight ahead as though the crowd didn’t exist. They disappeared into the ship, and we didn’t see them for the remainder of the trip.
Two days later the captain held a meeting to describe the details of the rescue for those who were interested. The Mayday call had come at 1830 hours, announcing that a French sailboat with at least two souls aboard had lost its steering approximately 540 miles east of Bermuda and had been adrift for four days. Apparently the crew of the 43-foot sailboat, Embla, had tried to repair the boat’s rudder using a hatch cover, but the repair had failed, and they had been drifting ever since. Nieuw Amsterdam had been the only other ship in the area, about 35 miles north-northeast, which is why it had been dispatch to rescue the two crew, men aged 29 and 61. Once they were aboard, the cruise staff completed a passport and security check as well as a medical examination before providing the men with food and a place to rest.
After his briefing, the captain took a few minutes to answer any further questions we might have.
“We heard there were three people aboard. Why didn’t a crewmember go aboard the yacht to be sure no one else was there?”
“I could not risk my officers going aboard the yacht.”
“Did you approach the yacht with arms?”
“We don’t carry arms on the Nieuw Amsterdam.”
“Did you consider not going to rescue Embla?”
“There are two rules at sea. 1) You help anyone in distress—after all you never know when it might be you. 2) If you find anything at sea, it’s yours.”
“What will happen to the yacht?”
“It will probably sink in the next storm.”
“Will this impact our arrival into Horta?”
“We lost four or five hours during the rescue. I’ve started up the third engine to make up the time.”
Nieuw Amsterdam arrived at Horta, Azores, four days later, right on schedule.