Azamara Quest: In Japanese waters

By Arnie Weissman

Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann is sailing onboard the Azamara Quest from Hong Kong to Osaka, Japan, and reporting back. His latest report, from Nagasaki, follows:  

15:58 pm, local time: Azamara Quest is calling in Nagasaki, Japan, and Cruise Director Russ Grieve is in his cabin watching CNN. He sees a report that an 8.9 magnitude earthquake has occurred off the northeast coast of Japan, and that a tsunami warning has been issued. He immediately phones hotel director Philip Herbert and reports what he heard. Herbert immediately call Captain Carl Smith, who is in his office.

16:00: Smith calls Miami and wakes up his Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. “DPA” — Designated Person Ashore — using his personal quad-band cell phone. (Azamara is owned by RCCL.) Japanese law forbids satellite Internet links or telephone communication from ships within its territorial waters, which Smith realizes is going to complicate communications significantly. He cannot use the Internet to gather information firsthand.

He first tells the DPA that the ship is safe, no one is injured and the Quest is not in imminent danger. However, he says, the ship is in Nagasaki, in the southwest of Japan, and there’s been an earthquake and a tsunami off the northeast coast of the country. He reported that, although onboard navigation systems (channels which remain open regardless of local regulations) were operational, he had no other means to get information and that web tools were unavailable.

16:05: Smith tells the ship’s safety officer and third in command of the ship, Christos Dekatris, that he will not be getting off in Nagasaki to begin his leave as planned. He asks him to instead sit in the captain’s office and watch CNN and report developments. As it turns out, Tokyo airport is closed, and Dekatris would not have been able to leave Nagasaki that evening in any case.

16:05: The DPA begins waking up RCCL’s emergency response team, which includes shoreside managers in Miami, London and Asia as well as deployment officers, public relations personnel and marine and hotel operations senior management. The DPA asks them to be fully prepared for a conference call with the ship at 16:45.

16:10: The captain asks Japanese authorities for permission to turn on his satellite communications system. The request is denied, but he is given permission to turn them on nine miles from the port rather than waiting until he’s in international waters.
16:45: Smith provides the emergency response team with information about the ship’s precise geographic location. Others on the call report about tsunami forecasts that are available online. The team focuses on the question of whether to sail or remain alongshore in Nagasaki. Remaining in port, where the water is relatively shallow, is rejected in favor of getting into deeper water quickly.

The team also discusses whether the ship should plan to continue to its next port of call, Osaka, which it would reach in 38 hours. Among the concerns are whether that city had been affected by the quake and whether it would be appropriate to call at a port in a country which may be in mourning.

It is decided they do not have enough information, and they defer a decision. They will review the question in another call later in the evening. The public relations team says it will prepare communications to get the word out, through various Internet outlets, that the Quest is safe, including Facebook and Twitter, and to alert travel agents so that friends and family of passengers will be reassured.

17:42: The last passenger who went ashore in Nagasaki returns to the ship.

17:45: Smith gets on the public address system. He asks for everyone’s attention, and explains that a strong earthquake has struck in northeast Japan and that a 10-meter tsunami is anticipated. He reassures the passengers that they are in one of the safest, sheltered bays on the other side of the country, but that he would like to get to deep water quickly. He reports that he understands that passengers are concerned that their loved ones might be worried about them, and explains the communications plan to get the word out that they are okay.

“Our thoughts go out to our loved ones who are worried about us and those who have suffered loss of family members in the region,” he says before signing off.

17:49: Smith gets on the public address system again and asks all crew with cabins on Deck 3 that have portholes to return to their cabins and make sure that their deadlights are secured (deadlights are solid steel hinged covers which completely cover portholes). He explains that this is simply a precaution and that he does not anticipate that there will be any problems.

He further asks that all crew in the bar and food areas to make sure that their items are secure. Again, he explains that this is simply a precaution, but that it’s better to have everything done before any need might arise.

17:54: The ship’s engines are started and the Quest begins to pull away from the pier, six minutes ahead of scheduled sailing. In the interest of time, the captain has opted not to have a local pilot on the bridge to assist in navigation out of Nagasaki. (Pilots are not required in this port.)

18:28: The ship is in deep water. The captain phones his wife to tell her he and the ship are safe.

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