I stuffed my passport inside my clothes and thought, if worse comes to worst, when they find my body they'll know who it is.
Really. That's what I thought as I quickly put on my warmest clothes and rain gear, grabbed my life jacket from under the mattress and hurried to the top deck of the ferry. And I wasn't alone. The next day I talked to a number of people who had similar thoughts.
The Navimag Ferry Hits a ?
It was 3:00 am on January 31st, 2011, the last night of our Navimag sailing between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. The “last night” party had more or less wrapped up and most of us were in our bunks. Something had woken me about 10 minutes earlier and I was just lying there, waiting for more sleep, when the ship hit for the first time. It was a massive jolt as the huge vessel traveling at 10+ knots hit something. It hit hard! The something was immovable! The shock was so strong that it felt like it was right beside me. Then a series of shuddering type hits and another large one.
It all happened very quickly and I was already out of bed and in a semi-panic asking “what's happening?” before the last hit. Maude-Ann, the nurse in the other lower bunk put on her calm, nurse's demeanor and assured me that everything was alright. Then the voice came over the loud speaker advising us to stay in our cabins as they checked the ship.
But less than a minute later the voice came on again. This time we were told to put on our life jackets and go to the meeting place on the top deck. There were meeting places on every level – why would they send all 200 of us to the top which was the smallest?
In our tiny cabin the four of us scrambled into bad weather gear while I translated the announcement for our French cabin-mate.
There was confusion. We had no idea what had happened. We hit something. What had we hit? Were we going to be in life rafts in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night? But there was also focus. What did we need? My day pack had everything. But my passport was most important and I stuffed that into my clothing.
A Collective Sigh of Relief
Despite the gravity of the situation, people acted calmly and efficiently. The crew did their job well. It wasn't long after we were on the top deck that we learned that we would not be evacuated and we could go back to bed.
Yes, there was relief. But bed? How could we sleep with the adrenalin that was rushing through our bodies. Most of us went to the cafeteria and deconstructed the incident. We were totally confused. What about the safety equipment? Who was responsible? What did we hit? People talked of iceburgs, rocks, and then…
The first person I heard it from was a truck driver who had been sleeping in his truck and was thrown out of bed by the crash. We had hit an island. I confess that I didn't really believe him. An island? How can a boat that has taken this course hundreds of times hit an island?
Yet, the next morning after a restless night of listening and analyzing every sound the ship made, we learned that it was indeed an island.
And, because it was an island, there was a big divide in the passengers. There were those who had not been scared by the episode and those of us who had been terrified. Those on the island side of the ship new that we were a few meters from land. The rest of us could see nothing but ocean.
Disembarking 20 Hours Late
The next morning we received a brief statement from the ship's Captain followed by a more in-depth briefing. Yes, the ship had hit an island. It had lost the use of an engine and would be continuing on with just the one at a rate of about 7 knots. The marine authorities would be arriving to assess the situation that day.
People had all sorts of questions but most understood that an explanation as to what happened could not be given until an investigation had been completed. The focus of the discussion was on logistics. What about hotel/hostel reservations? Could we stay the night on the boat? Would there be meals?
In the end we arrived in Peurto Natales about 14 hours late. Because it was midnight, we disembarked 22 hours late. But, as was said in the briefing: “the good news is that we are not on lifeboats”.
Because we couldn't get the full story in the briefing, bits and pieces of fact and fiction were shared over the course of the next couple of days. Yes, the next couple of days for, as we hiked Torres del Paine, we met many ship mates along the way. I include these rumor/truths for those who were on the ship. I stress that none of this is confirmed but I have only included points from people who I consider to be reliable:
- The two who were on the bridge at the time of the incident were drug and alcohol tested and put in quarantine.
- They found a large quantity of water on first inspection of the ship then realized that it was fresh water so didn't consider us in danger.
- The captain had thought of putting us on the island but then decided that this wasn't necessary.
- There was a hole in the ship just below the cargo deck. If it had been 60cm higher we would have been in trouble.
- The hole was big enough to drive a small car through but the Captain dealt with it quickly. (This seems crazy but it was only 2nd hand (not third or more) and my source was good.)
- The First Captain was fired.
- The Captain was credited with handling the situation very well.
As of the writing of this post, a Google search produces nothing official on this event nor are there details on the Navimag and Maritime Authority sites. The Navimag site says that ferries have been canceled due to a “force-majeure” – a carefully selected term. The Chilean Maritime Authority site produces nothing for a search on Navimag.
There were a number of things I found interesting about the incident:
- After a moment of panic, people truly were calm as they handled what most thought was a crisis.
- The crew managed the situation well.
- Most people seemed concerned for the crew and the impact that this would have on their livelihood.
- I heard no one mention compensation for the delay or anything else.
- Most people rolled with the situation well.
Despite everything, I would highly recommend the Navimag experience for solo travelers.