Monday, April 20, 2020

Ship in distress

     The Fireman Joe column posted here Friday did not run in the paper Friday, which ran my column on Brian Dennehy instead (I assumed they were running both, which sometimes happens). It's running in print Monday. So rather than leave you high and dry, I thought I would share this tale, which I've been meaning to tell. 

      For the past few weeks, I've been highlighting posts from my visit to South America a year ago. They seem particularly timely, given how housebound we all are—I was supposed to be crawling around volcanoes in Taiwan in a couple weeks. But of course, now that isn't happening. Nothing much is happening, but a global disaster that is, in a strange sense, everywhere and nowhere.
    Not that I'm complaining, given the general suffering. The lucky should keep quiet.
     Yet, as I shared these stories—of Buenos Aires, the tango, birds, glaciers—a little voice was whispering, "But what about the encounter with the Venezuelan navy? The shots fired? The sinking ship? The vessel seized in port? When do you tell about that?"
     To be clear, I wasn't aboard the RMS Resolute when these things happened. But a person does form a bond with a ship—I do, anyway. I crossed the Atlantic more than 20 years ago on the New York Maritime College's Empire State, and still feel a kinship with her. For years, I kept a plastic card the captain gave me, with the ship's specs, its displacement and such, in my wallet, as a token. I might be the most mundane of desk bound keyboard jockeys, now. But I did once go to sea....
     So it was with more than causal interest that I read of the events of March 30.
     First, a bit of background. I sailed aboard the Resolute for a two-week cruise from Ushuaia, on the Southernmost tip of Argentina, up the Patagonian coast of Chile, to Santiago, asked aboard by my friend and former boss, Michael Cooke, who among his numerous accomplishments and distinctions is also a fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. The RCGS lent their luster to a tour company called One Ocean Expeditions, an environmentally woke cruise line that ran voyages to Antarctica, to the Northwest Passage. They invited him and he invited me.
     Everything was smooth and professional. Mostly. There was a bit of foreshadowing. Before the trip, One Ocean Expeditions were slow to cough up our airplane tickets, and I remember a few terse "So where are they?" conversations as the departure date neared. But the tickets arrived, we were whisked down to South America, the trip proceeded as planned.
     The boat was well-provisioned and properly staffed with chatty naturalists, eager program directors, acerbic bird experts. There were two photographers, a resident artist. Nobody grumbled about not being paid. But they weren't.
      "OOE basically led us along for months and months, always claiming that payment was just another week or three away and thanks for our patience, we can trust that we WILL get paid," one wrote to me, asking not to be identified. "So none of us took any action..."
      Some people took action. Stiffed contractors put a maritime lien on the ship in Halifax—the Guardian lays out the saga here, if you want details.  A trip to Antartica had to turn back because they couldn't pay to fuel the ship. Sobbing passengers who paid $20,000 for the trip of a lifetime were put ashore, out of luck.    
     Then last month, it got truly weird. Another lien held the ship in Buenos Aires. Those creditors were paid off, then the ship headed north, only to be accosted in international waters by a Venezuelan cruiser, the ANBV Naiguatá. It hailed the Resolute, and ordered her to heave to and be boarded. But the ship kept going, even when the Naiguatá put a few warning shots across her bow. Given the troubles facing that star-crossed country, I can't say I blame those sailing the Resolute.
     The Venezuelan craft rammed the Resolute, unwisely, not realizing she has a steel reinforced hull designed to ply polar waters. Funny, right? The Naiguatá was stove in and subsequently sank. What happened next is also under dispute. The Venezuelans says the Resolute steamed off, leaving the sailors in the water, in contravention of every tradition of the sea and naval warfare. The Resolute people say they lingered, to see the crew would be rescued by another Venezuelan vessel. You can find the entire controversy laid out here. There's also a jumpy, blurry video of the shots and the collision, released by the Venezuelan navy.
     And the moral of the story is? I'm tempted to say that Canadians with money can be no less vile than anybody else with money. But I knew that already, learned years ago from observing David Radler and Lord Conrad Black in action. 
     Maybe the lesson is, as I've said before, that it's better to be lucky than good. Michael and I sort of blinked at each other, via email, marveling at the thing. I can't speak for him, but the cautious suburbanite within me was glad we got our odyssey in before the hammer came down; glad we weren't left on the dock in Ushuaia having to make the long journey home with nary a glacier ogled. Though whatever shred of Jack London adventurer is hidden in my marrow felt a pang that we missed the action with the Venezuelan navy, which no doubt would have been quite the story to tell. 
     But only a passing pang. The reason we tell the stories of hardships is trying to redeem them somehow. It's still better not to experience them at all, if you can help it. Or if you are lucky. Anyway, for what it's worth, should any of this find its way to the crew we met on the ship: I'm sorry for your difficulties. You deserved better. 



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