I was a guest on the Azamara Quest in Japanese waters when the largest Japanese earthquake ever recorded struck off the northeast coast March 11, triggering a tsunami and a sequence of events that would lead to a nuclear power nightmare.
The ship was calling in Nagasaki, on the western coast of Kyushu, Japan's southernmost island. Guests were on shore excursions or, like myself, exploring the city independently when the quake occurred. Here is the timeline of events from the moment the crew became aware of the quake until we were safely at sea:
15:58, local time:Cruise Director Russ Grieve is in his cabin watching CNN. He sees a report that a 9.0 magnitude earthquake has occurred off the northeast coast of Japan, and that a tsunami warning has been issued. He immediately calls hotel director Philip Herbert and reports what he heard. Herbert calls Capt. Carl Smith, who is in his office.
16:00: Smith phones Miami and wakes up his Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. "DPA" -- Designated Person Ashore -- using his personal quad-band cellphone. (Azamara Club Cruises is owned by RCCL.) It is 2 a.m. in Miami. 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 country's northeast coast. 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's airports are 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 told he can use them 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, 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 including Facebook and Twitter, that the Quest is safe, 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 explains that a strong earthquake struck 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 OK.
"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 PA 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 steel, hinged covers that 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 crew in the bar and galley areas to make sure that their items are secure. Again, he explains that this is simply a precaution.
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 calls his wife to tell her that he and the ship are safe.
Along the Ring of Fire
The earthquake was reported to be felt as far away as Beijing, but neither I nor any of the other passengers or crew aboard the Azamara Quest felt it while in port in Nagasaki. Whether on ship or shore, none of us felt the slightest movement at the time of the quake.
I walked around the streets of Nagasaki for about 90 minutes after the quake occurred, and there was no apparent evidence that people were aware a major tragedy had struck their nation. People were still shopping, sitting and chatting in restaurants, handing out promotional flyers and otherwise going about their business.
As I walked up the gangplank about 5:15 p.m., one of the crew told me there had been an earthquake near Tokyo. There had already been one earthquake in Japan reported earlier in the sailing, which we were told might produce a 3-foot tsunami. We didn't hear (or feel) anything more.
The previous day, at a call in Kagoshima (also on Kyushu), I had seen its volcano, Mount Sakurajima, puff out a significant column of smoke and ash.
In fact, that entire day had had a geothermal focus -- I had gone on a "sand bath" excursion to Ibusuki, about an hour south of Kagoshima.
The sand along a resort beach in Ibusuki is naturally heated from below, and I joined about 24 others from the Quest to be buried in the hot sands -- it's billed as a health cure.
Seeing Mount Sakurajima send smoke and ash skyward on our way back to the ship, I had asked our guide how frequently that occurred. "About 500 times a year," she replied.
So although I had only been in Japan a day, I felt myself believing I was getting acclimated to being along the Pacific's "Ring of Fire." I was not initially alarmed when the crewman told me that there had been another earthquake.
But when I turned on CNN and watched video of the tsunami, it was clear something terrible was occurring.
I went to find the ship's hotel director to ask if I could go up to the bridge to observe what was going on and, when the captain had a moment, interview him about what implications the quake would have for a cruise ship in the region. Herbert called the bridge and said I could go up.
About 30 minutes after we were under way, the captain sat down with me and reconstructed the timeline of events as reported above.
Smith marveled over RCCL's emergency response team. "It's amazing" he said. "I've been at sea for 20 years, and this is the strongest, most professional team I've worked with."
Complications at sea
To get to Osaka, our destination when we set off from Nagasaki, Captain 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 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 of the Japanese ban on use of satellite communications within its territorial waters, they looked at routes that would keep them in international waters. To do otherwise was to sever their link with Miami, and they 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 1,400 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 of their 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.
Finding a replacement port not easy
There were many requirements that would need to be satisfied for a replacement port to be considered. The top priority was that it be in a position sheltered from the effects of any possible aftershocks.
It had to be within an area that would enable the ship to reach the port and stay there 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.
A circuitous exit
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., 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 Smith's mind. Earlier, he had asked hotel director 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.
About 3 a.m., Smith awakened another officer to come to the bridge. He checked to see if any important email had come in and returned to the bridge to review and approve a new northbound voyage plan.
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 toward 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 sail 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 PA 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.
Leaving the ship
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.
After the ship finished the immigration formalities, guests and crew sailed out of Japanese waters toward Busan, South Korea.
I was impressed with the crew's performance and how well RCCL's emergency response team appeared to work in this crisis. Despite the bureaucratic difficulties attendant to the post-quake situation, Smith displayed understanding and sympathy for the situation the Japanese were in, and was remarkably patient and steady in nature.
Referring to his employees, Azamara CEO Larry Pimentel had once 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.