THE film Titanic reminds me of an experience 30 years ago. I was returning home with my girlfriend from the West Indies aboard a Spanish cruise liner named the Montserrat. We had spent a year doing VSO in Jamaica and decided that the luxury of a Caribbean cruise would provide a suitable period of readjustment from the rigours of teaching in a secondary school in Jamaica to the comforts of normal life back in England.
The ship set sail from Kingston and quickly developed engine trouble. Undeterred, she limped into the repair yards of Curacao in the Dutch Antilles. The unfortunate passengers meanwhile were treated to a week's unscheduled leave to roam the island whilst major repairs took place on the engine.
We then set off with renewed confidence across the Caribbean, collected the main consignment of passengers at Caracas and headed across the Atlantic for home. We began to enjoy the carefree delights of life at sea even winning a small prize in the fancy dress competition as a Spanish muledriver ensemble. I was the mule.
Three or four days into the voyage however, the passengers awoke to the eerie and unmistakable sound of silence - the engines had failed again and this time for real. The ship was an old converted wartime cruiser equipped with a special electronic pump balancing system which served to maintain the ship on an even keel. This fact had gone unreported in the travel literature. The absence of any power meant that she began to list noticeably. Food and water was rationed because the lifts were no longer working. Each day the weather deteriorated and the waves grew bigger.
The officers gave us nothing but bland assurances of progress on the engine repairs. Meanwhile the crew set in for a long haul by fishing nonchalantly off the stern of the ship. The passengers grew steadily more anxious and truculent as the weather deteriorated and the list got worse. Some passengers in the third class compartments even began to mutiny and were only pacified at gun point by the captain.
A week later the sister ship, the Begona, appeared one evening, circling us throughout the night with the music and laughter of another fancy dress evening drifting tantalisingly across the expanse of water between us.
Our ship was evacuated safely the next day. All passengers were dressed in full official lifesaving gear as we were transferred in the Begona's lifeboats. The move called for courage and timing as each vessel moved to the ocean's movements at a different frequency. The boats were side by side one second and 20ft apart the next. However all passengers were taken off safely by the crew and the Begona set sail for Spain and then on to Southampton.
I had anticipated problems on disembarking due to a dock strike at Southampton and had fortunately loaded all my belongings in the cabin at Kingston. My luggage had been transferred to the Begona with me. Other passengers were less lucky. Their luggage stayed in the Montserrat's hold as she was towed back to Curacao for repairs. Unfortunately she caught fire and sank before she reached the repair yard.
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