As the news of the Costa Concordia tragedy in Giglio, Italy keeps coming in it overshadows all those longings for a wonderful cruise ship holiday for me. And it brings back memories. I’ve had some wonderful cruises — the Greek Isles on a small Greek ship, many cross-Atlantic adventures, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Harmony cruises in the China Seas, through the Panama Canal, in the Mediterranean. On three of the China Sea cruises I was a guest lecturer and that was great fun!
But since tragedy is overshadowing leisurely pleasure currently it is a sailing in 1969 that comes to mind. I’d been spending a great deal of time in Spain and suddenly I came to the decision it was time to change course and head home. But not a straight flight. I called my mother in Los Angeles from Barcelona and told her of my decision and asked that she book me passage on the S. S. Michaelangelo sailing for New York from Cannes in two days. And to please book me for one night in the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. I called to arrange for all the mail accumulating in London be sent special delivery to Cannes and booked my Barcelona/Nice flight. Then I packed and said my goodbyes.
I should mention that unlike most of the world I’ve never been ecstatic about the South of France. Charming Menton is fine but I prefer the Italian Riviera. Ah Rapallo and Portofino! Heaven!!! Arriving in Cannes I was shown a room in the Carlton hotel, where I’d been a previous guest, a perfectly miserable tiny room way in back with the bathroom down the hall, by an extremely rude bellman. In those days a woman traveling alone wasn’t always treated with great respect. I remember checking into the brand new Ritz Hotel in Lisbon once. The assistant manager took me to a lovely small suite and then informed me he would send a waiter up with the menu for my dinner in my room since women alone were not allowed in the dining room! Needless to say I dined elsewhere, angry as anything!
Well back to Cannes. I was finally given a decent room and bath. After requesting my mail I was told there was none. I calmed down and went out for a stroll and a light supper in a waterfront cafe. The reception there for a single woman dining alone wasn’t much better than Lisbon. The waiter couldn’t have been more rude. One sweet bus boy commented I wasn’t eating my dinner. Maybe I should get something else. I thanked him and said it wasn’t the food that had taken my appetite. And when I left it was the busboy who got a tremendous tip and I left one U.S. dollar next to my plate for the waiter. I didn’t want him to think I just forgot. I wanted him to know I remembered quite well!!!
Can’t say I had the best night’s sleep but I rose happily because I was leaving Cannes. A very nice bellman helped me this time and as we were going down in the elevator he said, “Mrs. Jackson we must pick up all your forwarded mail. A very large pile of it came from London yesterday morning.” He got a major tip too and I hope he bragged about it to the other bellmen!
The Michelangelo was a beautiful sight. Boarding was very pleasant. All the handsome Italian crew helped make the process pleasurable. My mother had booked me a lovely stateroom and even arranged floral bouquets since she was only one who knew about my departure. Even my Spanish friend didn’t know where I’d disappeared to. I dropped my purse on a chair, we didn’t have to carry our own bags then, and headed up to the top deck. It was beautiful and sunny and just enough breeze to keep the flags moving and make my hair swirl round my head. I was standing up there all alone looking at Cannes, quite pretty in those days from the sea before all the cheap apartment buildings took over. And I was thinking, “Goodbye Cannes. I had a rotten time with you. I’m going home!”
“Do you like our ship?” a very handsome Italian in white uniform with a couple of gold stripes on the sleeve asked as he joined me at the railing.
“It’s the first time I’ve sailed her but so far I certainly like what I’ve seen.” And I rather liked what I was looking at right then!
“Do you like your stateroom? What stateroom do you have?” he asked pleasantly.
My first thought was this wasn’t information I should be sharing with a stranger. But I told him. He turned white! “It’s alright Signorina. It’s alright. Everything was made good. You are safe there.”
And before he could explain his reaction newspaper headlines from the past flashed through my mind. Three years before — April 1966 — Rogue Wave hits Italian superliner Michelangelo while crossing the Atlantic to New York. The wave crashed into one stateroom so violently the stateroom was destroyed and the couple in it were killed instantly. It couldn’t be my stateroom. It was. He calmed down and explained that I was very safe now. That stateroom had been totally rebuilt and reinforced and it was the safest stateroom on the ship. And would I have dinner with him.
Well now, you don’t expect me to tell all of you everything do you! I will say as the trip progressed I was happy to have such a sturdy stateroom because we hit some very rough weather mid-Atlantic. Designer Lily Pulitzer and a couple of her children were on board and when the weather got really bad the Pulitzer family, a few hardy British types and I had the dining room and the movie theatre to ourselves. We were about the only good sailors on board except for all that good looking Italian crew.
Here safely at home I have just Googled a bit on rogue or freak waves and the Michelangelo incident. The first one recorded was off the West cost of Ireland on March 11, 1861. Preceding the Michelangelo being hit in 1966 the Captain Giuseppe Soletti had given instructions the morning of the accident to all passengers to stay in their cabins as the ship had encountered some very bad weather. He had switched to a more southerly route than usual to try to avoid the worst of it. One ship’s officer has reported: “The waves got ever more high and violent. And just at the end of one grand pitch THAT wave came up in front of us very suddenly. The ship that until that moment could ascend the waves threaded the prow into a frightening wall of water.”
The giant, freak, rogue wave was estimated to be about 18 meters high, tearing into the forward superstructure of the ship more than 70 meters away from the head of the prow. It was so forceful that extra thick windows on the bridge 25 meters above sea level were smashed. Soon after the accident the ship was able to rendezvous with a U.S. military vessel that had been in the area and American military doctors aboard were able to help the doctors on the Michelangelo. The very capable captain Soletti brought his ship safely, though limping, into New York where temporary repairs were made and ultimately she went back to Italy where the aluminum alloy sheeting that was destroyed by the wave was replaced with steel sheets. That’s why that handsome Italian officer said I was safer than anyone!
Kathleen Fetner, Technical Advisor and Friend