Azamara Quest: After quake, complications at sea

By Arnie Weissmann

Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann was sailing on the Azamara Quest in Japanese waters when northeastern Japan was hit with an earthquake and tsunami. His report on how those events impacted the bridge crew’s decision-making continues.  

About three hours after a devastating earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan on Friday, the Azamara Quest set sail from Nagasaki, heading for the port of Osaka and the relative safety of deep water.

The ship was on the western side of the nation’s southernmost island, Kyushu, sheltered from the forecasted path of a 33-foot high tsunami created by the quake. But a conflux of shifting circumstances, shaped and reshaped by both nature and man, were to make the next 24 hours exceptionally demanding for the ship’s officers and crew.

As reported in my last dispatch, even before Capt. Carl Smith set sail Friday afternoon, he and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s emergency response team in Miami had discussed in a conference call whether the ship should even go to Osaka. (RCCL owns Azamara.)

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, information was sketchy, and it was unknown to what extent Osaka might have been affected. There was also the question of the propriety of bringing tourists to a port in a country that was experiencing a national emergency and might be in a period of mourning. It was decided then that the ship should nonetheless plot a course for Osaka, with the understanding the question would be revisited as more information became available.

To get there, Capt. Smith had a choice whether to go north through the Inland Sea of Japan or south between Kyushu and the chain of islands that includes Yakushima. Both routes were approximately the same distance. He asked his navigator, Yiannis Tsolakis, to begin to explore options, while he went to his office and pored over emails sent by the emergency response team in Miami.

RCCL had forwarded links to websites with relevant information and tsunami-related forecasts — its speed, heights and estimated time of arrival around the entire Pacific Rim. He confirmed that the wave no longer was a threat to the ship.

The captain had also put in requests for guidance from Japanese authorities and RCCL’s port agent in Osaka, but had not yet received replies.

Smith and Tsolakis were aware that the fishing season in the Inland Sea had started earlier than usual, and portions were closed to ship traffic (individual fishing boats and commercial fleets had priority in the area). Additionally, the water was generally shallower through the Inland Sea. These two factors led the officers to shift their focus to the southern route.

Because Japanese law forbids the use of satellite communications within its territorial waters, they looked at routes that would take them at least six miles from any Japanese islands. Otherwise, they would be forced to close contact with Miami and would have no access to the Internet for news and information. (Japan claims many small, uninhabited islands off its coast, and the outermost chains of these extend its territorial waters considerably.)

Looking at the depth of the ocean along the southern route, they noticed an area where there was a sharp seabed gradient rise from a depth of 1400 meters to 100 meters. Normally, 100 meters is a comfortable depth for the ship, but relatively sudden changes in depth can amplify a tsunami wave significantly. Although the tsunami created by the quake was no longer a danger in those waters, Smith was concerned about the possibility of aftershocks and the formation of new tsunamis. He and Tsolakis plotted a course that skirted the gradient rise and kept them in deeper water.

At 11 p.m. — about five hours after setting sail — Smith phoned into Miami for a scheduled call that included not only the emergency response team, but a broad group including representatives from every department of the company, as well as captains of other RCCL ships in the Pacific. It was 9 a.m. in Miami.

The purpose of the call was primarily to exchange information about the impact of the quake and tsunami on vessels in the fleet. While ships from all RCCL brands were discussed, including Celebrity and Royal Caribbean International, the Quest was the priority topic of the call. Again, the decision of whether to call at Osaka was deferred, and another call was scheduled for 1 a.m. (11 a.m. in Miami).

By the time of the second phone call, factors were lining up against calling in Osaka. In addition to the question of propriety, it was discovered that Japanese authorities were closing most ports.

Even if Osaka were open (or reopened) by the time the Quest arrived, there was another mitigating factor. The team had learned that Tokyo’s airports were closed, and passengers were being brought to Osaka’s airport as an alternative.

The bullet train between the two cities had been shut down, so motorcoaches were being mobilized to transfer people between the two cities. This raised concerns that if the Quest arrived in Osaka, there might be no coaches available for shore excursions, and there was a question of whether even public transportation would be available as an option.

The question of transportation was especially acute for Osaka because most of the area’s points of interest are actually in nearby Kyoto.

Further, a travel advisory had been issued for Japan by the U.S. State Department, which had to be taken into consideration. (At this point, there had been no mention in the media of confirmed damage to the nuclear power stations.)

The decision was made to cancel the Osaka port call.

There were many requirements that would need to be satisfied by a port for it to be considered. The top priority was that it be in a sheltered position from the effects of any possible aftershocks.

It had to be within an area that would allow the ship to reach the port and stay there for a long enough so guests could go ashore and have a satisfactory experience. It would need to have suitable berths for passenger operations, and those berths would have to be available coinciding with the ship’s arrival. Motorcoaches would have to be available.

RCCL, like other cruise lines, requires land-based legal representation at its ports of call to assist with entry and departure formalities, which further narrowed the possibilities. To reach the next port would likely take another day, so wherever they chose, attractions would need to be open on a Sunday.

And, Smith knew, there were other cruise ships in the area facing the same or similar issues, and there could possibly be competition for any available space in the most desirable ports.

Given that, locally, it was in the wee hours of a weekend morning, just 10 hours after a national catastrophe began to unfold, it was unlikely that the appropriate Japanese port officials and RCCL agents would be easy to reach. It was highly improbable that an alternative port would be decided upon that night.

There was one final factor that would, it turned out, have the greatest impact on where the Quest would go next. The ship had entered Japan on Thursday in Kagoshima, and entry visas were stamped in guests’ passports.

But because the Quest had left Nagasaki for Osaka, the expectation was that the ship would call next at a domestic destination. As a consequence, passengers had not officially departed Japan. Before the Quest could call at a foreign port, the ship would need to return to a Japanese port to have the passports processed by Japan’s immigration officials.

There were several possible ports where, theoretically, this could be done. After weighing the options, the decision was made to go back to Nagasaki. At about 1:45 a.m., Capt. Smith ordered the ship to be turned 180 degrees and return to the port from which it had just sailed seven hours earlier.

Concurrently, RCCL team members in Miami began exploring other possibilities for port calls. These included Jeju Island, Inchon and Busan in South Korea (Busan was the next scheduled call after Osaka), as well as several ports along the northwest coast of Japan. An early arrival in the ship’s final port, Shanghai, was also an option.

While information was gathered, everyone involved knew no decision could be made until it was ascertained when and where the ship would clear Japanese immigration.

The mood of passengers was also on Capt. Smith’s mind. Earlier, he had asked hotel director Philip Herbert to mingle with passengers and try to assess their mood. Herbert reported that the prevailing feeling was that guests trusted the judgment of the Quest’s officers.

At around 3 a.m., Smith awakened another officer to come to the bridge. He checked to see if any important emails had come in and returned to the bridge to review and approve a new northbound voyage plan for the vessel.

Once this was done, he put First Officer Divo Bosolt to the task of preparing possible itinerary options for the next five days using a range of speeds and times, then went to his cabin around 4 a.m. He ordered coffee to be delivered at 8:15 a.m., turned out the light and went to sleep.

Shortly after he awoke four hours later, he was told that Nagasaki’s port was closed and would not open to process passports.

The next choice was Fukuoka, one of the few ports that had not been closed — it has one of the most sheltered bays in the country. He was told that he could make a “technical” stop there: Immigration officers would board the ship and process the passports, but passengers could not get off the ship.

For a brief period it seemed that everything was falling into place to allow the ship to call at Jeju Island that night. As he steamed at 18 knots towards Fukuoka, he saw the Queen Mary 2 pass, headed in the opposite direction.

Soon after, Smith received a second, disappointing call. The port would not have a suitable berth available until 10 a.m. the next morning. He was within a few hours of the port, but would have to wait almost a day to go alongshore. He slowed the Quest to a crawl.

Now that the operations team in Miami had a firm timeline to work with, it and the captain agreed that Busan seemed the best choice as the next port of call. Smith would steam there quickly after immigration was finished, so that the ship could arrive early enough for passengers to have dinner off the ship, if they chose. In addition, he worked to secure a local folkloric group to board the ship to perform for passengers who wished to stay aboard.

All that morning, as soon as any information had been confirmed, Smith would get on the public address system and inform guests. At noon, he was finally at a point where he felt he could leave the bridge and assess the passengers’ mood for himself.

As he mingled among the guests, he found that while many people were disappointed to be missing Kyoto, there was a general understanding that events were beyond anyone’s control. A number of people told the captain that they appreciated the level of communications he had maintained.

* * *

The next morning, through the efforts of the Quest’s staff, I was granted permission to leave the ship in Fukuoka. I had originally intended to stay with the ship only as far as Osaka, and had a flight out of Tokyo that evening.

My interest in sailing this particular itinerary with the Quest was tied to Azamara Club Cruises’ new emphasis on destinations. To me, this itinerary was especially attractive because it called on ports that, with one exception, I had never been to before.

And the cruise line certainly delivered interesting port calls, as detailed in my previous dispatches on Hong Kong, Gulangyu and Kagoshima.

I’ll be filing my last destination dispatch, on Nagasaki, on Tuesday.

During the pre-earthquake portion of the cruise, I came to appreciate the high service levels on the Quest. It’s dangerous to point out specific staff for praise, because so many more than I’m going to mention also drew my attention with their cheerfulness and assistance. I can only say: You know who you are, and thank you.

But there are a few I would like to mention by name. The staff that took care of my stateroom — Ravin, Mohammed and Jorge — were outstanding. Their good humor brightened every day and their diligence exceeded my expectations.

Ryan, the IT officer, was very responsive to my various communications needs, and made sure I was able to report, through these dispatches, what was going on despite sometimes skittish satellite connections.

The hotel director, Philip Herbert, displayed endless patience in answering my questions and helping make sure I could get off in Fukuoka (the two may be related — I think I may have exhausted him by that point in the cruise) and, importantly, acting as my liaison and advocate to have as much access to the bridge to observe what was going on after the cruise took unexpected turns (literally and figuratively) following the earthquake.

And I am grateful for the opportunity to spend as much time as I did with Capt. Carl Smith. The fact is that I would have appreciated Capt. Smith’s communications skills and insights even without the unusual access I had.

Prior to the earthquake, he was giving thorough and entertaining talks over the public address system about various aspects of the cruise. (I thought that if he weren’t captain, he’d make a great cruise director.) He had a high profile among guests, and his pride in his seamanship and desire to share his knowledge was evident not only in his P.A. announcements, but in, for instance, his taking time to give a public demonstration of how a sextant works during one of the days at sea.

After the earthquake, I was able to see, first hand, his dedication to his passengers, crew and ship, and his genuine sympathy for the people of Japan. Despite the bureaucratic difficulties attendant to the post-quake situation, he displayed understanding for the situation the Japanese were in, and was remarkably patient and steady in nature.

I saw several instances in which he took extra time to mentor the more junior officers. His trust in his officers was evident, and their respect for him was clear.

Referring to his employees, Azamara CEO Larry Pimentel told me that “software trumps hardware” every time. I was impressed with the ship itself, but I now have a much greater appreciation for just exactly what Pimentel meant by that.

1 thought on “Azamara Quest: After quake, complications at sea”

  1. Very riveting account of the drama at sea surrounding Japan in the wake of the earthquake by the captain and crew of the Azamara Quest. On top of that an excellent review of the ship pre-earthquake. Valuable piece of writing. Thanks for this.

Leave a Comment