A shipboard (non)romance - or - Really, how was school today?

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2005

Juneau counselors Mary Bardone and Bill Platte got more than they bargained for when they signed on as two of three counselors on a ship for college students.

They soon found themselves bargaining with God for their lives and calming down traumatized youths.

Platte and Bardone, a husband and wife who run a counseling service in Juneau, were aboard the Explorer, the 590-foot floating campus that was damaged by a wave in the North Pacific on Jan. 26 as it sailed for Korea.

The Explorer is operated by the Institute for Shipboard Education of the University of Pittsburgh. It had about 990 people on board, among them 773 passengers including students, faculty and other staff.

The ship now sits in Honolulu as engineers assess the damage.

"Damaged by a wave" doesn't convey the event.

The wave, perhaps 50 feet high, flowed over the bow of the ship, smashed the windows in the bridge and poured water onto the electronic equipment that controls the engines.

"It's like dumping a bucket of water on your computer. At least the controls aren't going to work too well," said Cathy Light, assistant operations manager for the institute.

The U.S. Coast Guard said the ship for a short time operated on just one of its four engines and could do little more than keep the bow headed into heavy seas using emergency steering, according to an Associated Press report.

The seas had been bad since Jan. 19, the second day out of Vancouver, British Columbia, Bardone said by telephone Thursday from Honolulu.

Twenty-four-foot seas were common, and the wind blew at 40 to 50 mph all the time, she said. The boat heaved and made cracking sounds.

"Everyone was afraid the ship was going to crack apart," Bardone said.

The motion of waves pulled beds out of their wall attachments, Bardone said. A baby grand piano skittered back and forth across a room, losing its top and legs in the process. Televisions fell from their perches.

"The ship was pretty much a mess, and that was the second night out. Everyone was traumatized," Bardone said.

Few people slept the night before the big wave, which struck at 6 a.m., Bardone said. Passengers had been suffering sleeplessness, seasickness and homesickness.

After the big wave struck, passengers put on life vests and went up to the deck that held the lifeboats. In those seas, the little boats didn't instill hope.

"We were terrified," Bardone said. "There were kids crying and panicking, but there were also kids who thought this was a lark. But in general, people pulled together pretty well."

At one point, the crew separated the men from the women and children, just like in the movies.

"That was the next (step) to 'abandon ship,' " Bardone said.

About two-thirds of the passengers were female - great odds for a dance hall, but in that situation it sucked, a young man joked, Bardone said.

At 2 p.m. the passengers took off their life vests and returned to their rooms.

At the waves' worst that night, the ship rolled 45 degrees each way, Bardone said.

"One other wave and we could easily have gone over. It was definitely a moment you felt you might not make it through."

She and Platte were in their room, and they were awfully quiet. They prayed and offered to go to church if they lived.

"We were scared so much we couldn't talk. We knew this could be the end," Bardone said.

It took five days for the ship to reach Honolulu, with the weather getting better each day.

People who are traumatized want to get away from the scene of the trauma, but in this case they couldn't do so, Bardone said.

There were no e-mail or Internet services. Three days after the big wave, the ship's satellite phones worked, and students could call home briefly.

Honolulu is proving to be good medicine, Bardone said.

The institute expects to know early this week how long it will take to fix the electronic equipment.

The institute may fly the passengers to China, one of the stages on the itinerary, while the ship is being repaired, Light said. The overwhelming majority of the student body wants to continue, she said.

The itinerary on the three-and-a-half month trip included Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela and Florida.

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