Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Titanic moment on the Danube

The Legend aground with its rescuing tug nearby.

If you are on a boat, a scraping-crunching sound that sends shimmers through the vessel isn’t something you want to hear.

But that’s what woke me from sleep at a little after 3 a.m. on Tuesday, May 28, on the Viking Legend river boat as it made its way between Linz and Melk, stops along the way to Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest.

I opened my eyes in time to see the TV in our small cabin flickered on and then off. Then quiet ensued and, ever the optimist, I fell back to sleep only to wake at 5 a.m. as is my custom. I wandered down the corridor to the foyer to get coffee.

I as immediately met by the concierge who instructed me to go back to my room and stay there until further word. He added the vague, unsettling comment that there had been a “problem.” Just then three officials dressed in dark blue uniforms adorned with illegible name tags and patches entered stage left.

So I went back to our cabin, which now seemed more like a cage. I stared out the window to find the shore about 20 feet away from the boat. I screwed up my courage to defy authority and popped up a nearby stairwell to peep over the upper deck, which had been cordoned off. A large tugboat was circling the Legend, seemingly looking for the best angle of approach.

The Legend, which is 443 feet long (one football field plus half of another),  was stalled cross-wise in the Danube channel, blocking it to all river  traffic.

Because most of the 189 passengers were presumably asleep, or were supposed to be asleep, no public address announcement was made. That was a sign that my worst “Titanic” fears were unfounded. We were not slowly sinking into the waters of the Danube.

By 6:30, the Legend was moving again, and all seemed normal—  until the big boat did a u-turn in the middle of the river and sidled up to a seawall landing in a small village that wasn’t part of itinerary. We would come to know Sarmingstein, Austria, better in the next two days. Vienna it wasn’t.

At breakfast, our program director informed us that the Captain would let us know more details as they become available. Meanwhile, until the authorities (those guys in blue uniforms) were satisfied that the boat was safe to carry passengers, we would be visiting the schedule tourist sites by bus (four buses, actually.). So we were bundled off to the Melk Abbey on a 45-minute commute.

Turns out that Viking also runs a bus line to supplement its boats and to take passengers on side trips. They also come in handy if a boat runs aground.

As long as the boat remained tied up in at the seawall, immobile, we could sleep on it. But until the authorities deemed the Legend safe, there would be not traveling aboard it.

The next day, the Captain, who spoke no English, informed the assembled passengers that a sensor had gone “kaput.” He even brandished a foot-long piece of sensor before assertively putting it aside.

The manager of the “hotel” (which is what the boat really is, a hotel adrift) joked, “Well there it is, ladies and gentlemen, ‘sensor kaput.’”

We were told that because of the failed sensor the electricity went out, which shut off the engines, which led the loss of steering, which resulted in the grounding.

But was this what really happened? The question spiced dinner-table conversations for the rest of the trip. Yes, the sensor was replaced and we actually cruised the river for one final night, arriving in Budapest late but by boat, not bus.

The table-top speculation was that human error was the culprit. Did someone fall asleep at the wheel? The sequence of hearing the loud crunch and then the TV flickering seemed at odds with the official explanation. And if the steering went out because of a failed sensor, how did we manage to get to Sarmingstein? Significantly, the tug didn’t push us there and the Legend somehow managed that 180 turn to dock at the little town.

Meanwhile, we might well wonder what those uniformed inspectors had to say in their official report. The incident did rate an item on the web site

At the end of the voyage, Viking asked us to evaluate “our experience.” If the evaluations were anything like ours (and I’m sure they were) they were frank in their disappointment.

One day after returning home, we received an e-mail from Viking expressing apologies and offering us $1000 each off a future Viking cruise.

We are considering our options, but taking another cruise isn’t at the top of the list.

P.S. Legend’s problems weren’t over after we left (we took the train to Prague—that’s another story)  All that rain resulted in flooding in Central Europe and high water on the Danube. The Legend wasn’t expected to return up river soon because the water level made bridge clearance too low for the boat to pass underneath.

“Nature kaput!” as the captain might say.

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Blogger John McCarthy said...

Lovely story, told with a wonderfully droll sense of humor (as usual).

~John McCarthy

10:01 AM  

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