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Semester-at-sea rocked by a rogue

The 591-foot ship loses power when a 50-foot wave breaks over the bow

The 591-foot ship loses power when a 50-foot wave breaks over the bow

A rogue wave disabled a passenger ship in a 50-knot gale, giving 665 college students a scare as they set out on a semester-at-sea cruise across the Pacific to Asia, Africa and South America.

The 591-foot Explorer lost power 650 miles south of the Aleutian Islands when a 50-foot wave crashed over the bow and broke a window on the bridge. “The vessel took a freak wave,” says Jim Lawrence, spokesman for the Institute for Shipboard Education, a classroom-at-sea program academically affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh. The ship ran into gale-force winds and 20- to 35-foot seas Jan. 26, eight days out of Vancouver, British Columbia, and bound for Busan, South Korea.

The wave dumped a foot of water on the bridge deck, knocked out controls to Explorer’s two main engines, and shut down some electronic navigation equipment, says Lawrence. One engine was back up in 45 minutes, the other in several hours, he says. Meanwhile, the students and 62 faculty and staff donned life jackets and gathered in hallways as the stricken vessel rolled in the big seas, sending beds and furniture sliding across cabins and dumping shelves of books in the library.

The Coast Guard dispatched three HC-130 aircraft and an Alaska-based cutter to assist the Explorer if necessary. The agency reported that while trying to get the second engine back on line Explorer’s crew could just keep the ship’s bow pointed into the heavy seas. They used emergency steering to maintain course. Lawrence credits the quick recovery to the skill of Explorer’s captain, Buzz Radican, and chief engineer, Neil Carey, a former engineer on the Queen Mary.

Carey was in the engine room getting the power plant running again while Radican mobilized students, faculty and the ship’s 164 crewmembers to respond to the emergency. “They were back to normal engine operations in a couple hours,” Lawrence says. He reports no student had serious injuries. One crewmember was treated for a hip injury suffered in a fall before the wave, and a faculty member was treated for bruised ribs.

Classes aboard Explorer resumed within 18 hours, as cleanup began. Lawrence says so many students turned out to help clean up the library that there wasn’t enough room for them all. “This is just a great group of kids,” he says. “They’ve already had a tremendous experience, and the semester has just started.”

The ship diverted to Honolulu for damage assessment and repairs, arriving there Jan. 31. Lawrence says the semester-at-sea would continue.

ISE offers a for-credit curriculum while students are at sea and in field studies in the countries they visit. Cost is about $20,000 a semester. This ISE class was to visit Korea, Japan, People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil and Venezuela.

Explorer is a 25,000-ton passenger vessel built by German shipbuilder Blohm & Voss. Launched in 2002, the 28-knot ship has four engines and was designed for fast-cruising in the Mediterranean. ISE acquired Explorer in 2004. Lawrence says the ship doesn’t have to run at 28 knots as a school ship, so it uses just two of its engines. “It’s state-of-the-art,” he says.

Lawrence says he knew of no students who dropped out of the program after reaching Honolulu.