Friday, December 23, 2011

Code Oscar

After our long day of activities on Rangiroa, we all were on the ship, heading back to Tahiti. I'm not sure of the time, but I think I started doing my laundry around 4 or 4:30 p.m. and events unfolded shortly thereafter.

Dance class was happening in the video room, which puts what happened next between 5 and 6. Probably closer to 6 as the French meeting about the next day's agenda began happening in the middle.

Let's start with facts, what I saw firsthand, then move on to what witnesses told me.

FACT: I was in the laundry room, which is several flights down from where the dormitory is located on the restaurant deck. I was using the dryer—which takes forever—when something odd happened outside. Water sloshed all over the porthole. Here's a quick video of what the window looked like moments before the water sloshed all over--odd, I thought. The sea was still. Rogue wave? I wasn't sure. I shortly learned that the ship had made a tight, sudden turn to loop back to where we'd just been.

WITNESSES: The people in the dance class heard (not saw) arguing among the crew, then some calming down, then flaring back up, and what they were certain was a scuffle. Some reported seeing the off-duty non-passenger-related crew drinking, first at the BBQ then outside Reception. The dance class report was corroborated by others who also heard, but the drinking at the BBQ wasn't seen by many, though lots of people said they'd seen them drinking on deck near Reception. But it's not a hundred percent, while the dancers telling me they heard arguing IS reliable info.

SPECULATION: I can confirm that one of the crew appeared to be quite intoxicated at the arts festival, as he rode the barge back with me, and at one point whispered "beer," presumably meaning he and others had smuggled beer into the festival, which isn't allowed. This is not confirmation of anything except that maybe the guys who work on the ship like beer and sometimes drink surreptitiously. All I'm saying is some guys like to drink beer, which isn't really speculation.

FACT: I folded my laundry and walked up the stairs to the restaurant deck. I pushed open the heavy door to the deck—dorm residents must go outside and walk along the starboard side of the Aranui to get to the dorm. But lots of crew members were standing at the railing. That's unusual, so I stopped. "Dolphins?" I thought there must be something pretty good out there for the crew to be watching. No, it wasn't dolphins, nor was it good. "What is it?" I addressed the first crew member I saw. He said something to me in French, then said in English "Very bad." He shook his head and went back to staring at sea. That's when I realized one of the orange lifeboats was on the crane and being lowered.

Holy smokes. I've never seen an orange lifeboat being lowered, not in all the freighters I took in 2001, not ever. Now I realized something serious had happened.

The crane operator released the two hooks on the lifeboat simultaneously, and the boat landed in the ocean with a huge splash. The pilot had it going almost upon impact, and the lifeboat roared off into the distance.

WITNESS: "I didn't see the man go in, but I saw people throw in three buoys." These are the orange rings you see on boats. They have little lights that turn on upon contact with water. The point is not as much to save the person as to mark where they might be. A buoy travels at the same speed and in the same direction as a person.

WITNESSES: Many of the French people reported hearing this over the loudspeaker. "Code Oscar. Homme a la mer." I would have ignored this and don't know if I heard it or not. Yet another announcement in French wouldn't be something that would have registered with me.

FACT: I watched as several crew members pointed to the sea. They were pointing to the buoys and the man, whose head could just be seen bobbing up and down some ways off. I started shooting video as soon as I saw the lifeboat being released, and the two searchers in the back of the lifeboat picked up the man at 3:42 of the real-time video. I don't know how long he'd been in the sea before the lifeboat was launched. If you watch the video (edited down to cut out long stretches of jumpy video of the boat), you can see that he didn't have a lifejacket or buoy to support him, and that waves occasionally went over his head.

The lifeboat searchers picked up the man, then proceeded to pick up two buoys. They headed back to the ship, and by then we could see that the man was alive, though stretched out with his head on the lap of one of the searchers. The pilot of the lifeboat then stopped short of the ship and headed back out to pick up the third buoy.

He returned to the ship. The searcher at the back of the boat quickly latched the crane hook back onto the back of the lifeboat. The pilot had a hard time with the front hook, but then both were on and the crane operator raised the lifeboat out of the water and to the boat deck, back to its perch.

I couldn't see then if some people disembarked or not, but at this point, the boat was lowered one more deck to the restaurant deck, where a hinged steel gate was opened. Now the crew all urged us to get out of the way and clear the area. I couldn't see past the crew, so took my laundry and went into the dorm.

WITNESSES: Those on the decks right above said they saw the man walk out of the lifeboat shakily, sit down, and then start crying. I heard this from two eyewitnesses. So he was stunned but okay.

So that's what happened on the night of December 23rd on the ship. Now we're back into speculating—I imagine it's both the worst day of the man overboard's life, and his luckiest day. I did hear the next announcement, in which the names of several crew were read off and instructed to report in. In the dorm, we all wondered if they'd lose their jobs or if it was an attempt to sort out what had happened.

And yes, one of the names was the fellow who'd been so keen on the beer at the festival.


  1. I'm impressed that they got him. When I was on the RMS Saint Helena in 1998, they did a man overboard drill (involving a dummy), with the various officers trying to reach the dummy for the rescue. It was decidedly scary how fast the dummy drifted away from the ship.

  2. I was impressed too. I had always figured a man-overboard was a goner!