Friday, February 15, 2013


Now that 2012 is in the past we can finally put behind us the multitude of documentaries, special reports and TV miniseries about the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It was a horrible tragedy and 1,514 passengers lost their lives that night of April 14-15, 1912, so it’s understandable that our fascination with the story seems to keep growing with each passing year.           
Of course I share an interest in the story of the Titanic and its passengers; who perished, who didn’t, and the various reasons why. But the people who really fascinate me are the ones who survived by missing the boat that day. The famous people who, for one reason or another, didn’t get on board that infamous voyage and no doubt lived to be very thankful.
Inventor Guglielmo Marconi, chocolate mogul Milton Hershey, financier J. Pierpont Morgan and Goodyear Tire founder Frank Seiberling, had all booked passage on the Titanic. For various reasons each one cancelled or postponed their voyage, thereby ensuring the safe future of candy, radio and rubber tires. Just think about that the next time you’re driving along the highway while listening to the traffic report and chomping on a chocolate bar.
One of the reasons I am captivated by their stories is that I had a similar experience back in 2007.  It also involved a cruise ship, an iceberg and a sinking, and I too survived by not being on board.
I had been offered a job playing piano aboard a tourist ship. Many of my friends have made great money entertaining aboard cruise ships, spending their winters sailing through warmer climes, playing in piano bars or performing in musical reviews common on such trips. However the M/S Explorer, nicknamed the Little Red Ship, was by no definition a luxury cruise liner.
Designed for sailing the waters of the Arctic and Antarctic, the boat looked more like a low-rent ferry than the Pacific Princess. To be fair it was intended for adventure tourism, taking a small group of 100 passengers across the Drake Passage and on to the South Pole.
As I contemplated accepting the contract, I had visions of experiencing the thrilling voyage of a lifetime. Me, a modern day Roald Amundsen or Robert Scott, albeit one who had to spend each evening entertaining passengers with sing-along versions of American Pie and Piano Man.
But think of the adventure! I planned to keep a journal and turn my experiences into a book. I even had the title ready: “Playing At The Bottom Of The World.”
A month before we were to set sail, my brother casually pointed out that the ship would have to cross the Drake Passage, the body of water that separates the southern tip of Chile from Antarctica, twice each journey. I was scheduled to make 8 trips, for a total of 16 attempts to navigate what is known as one of the roughest stretches of water on the planet.
I am not what one would call a good sailor. I get queasy on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World, so needless to say I was a bit concerned about tackling such an infamous expanse of ocean – particularly 16 times. I decided to do a bit of research and was horrified at what I discovered.
Articles with names like, “Waves Of Terror” and “Horror On The High Seas” did nothing to dispel my fears, but when I eventually stumbled upon video clips taken by other adventure tourists, my stomach started to do flips. Waves of up to 30 metres (almost 100 ft) tossed ships back and forth at 45-degree angles. And the trip can take up to 2 days!
My mind was made up – I couldn’t accept the contract. Let some other poor guy be squashed behind a rolling piano. Every musician knows the story of how the orchestra played “Nearer My God To Thee” as the Titanic sank. Call me a coward but my Musician Union card makes no mention of going down with the ship; that’s the Captain’s job. First to the buffet and first to the lifeboats - that’s the musician’s motto.
November 11, 2007 the M/S Explorer set sail from Argentina, without me, on a 19-day trip that was meant trace the route of famed British explorer Ernest Shackleton.
Saturday, November 24th I sat down with my morning newspaper and noticed to my surprise the M/S Explorer was on the front page. The headline blared, “CRUISE SHIP SINKS OFF ANTARCTICA.”
Apparently the ship had hit an iceberg that tore a 25 X 10 cm (10 X 4 inch) gash in the hull. While the initial damage was being examined it then drifted into a second iceberg. Its fate was sealed, certainly better than the supposedly watertight compartments in its hull. Thankfully all the passengers and crew made it safely off the sinking ship and into the lifeboats, where they drifted for 5 hours until a Norwegian vessel came to their rescue.
There were some subsequent reports that the story of the sinking didn’t make sense, as the M/S Explorer was specifically designed for navigating through ice. Of course the Titanic was also unsinkable, so it’s difficult to cast aspersions. The whole affair was eventually ruled an accident following an investigation by the good folks at the Liberian Bureau of Maritime Affairs.
Why Liberia, you may ask? A huge number of the cruise ships that rake in millions of tourist dollars annually are actually registered in Liberia, a small West African country where there is no minimum wage and less-stringent labour laws.  “Flags of Convenience” is what the industry calls it, which anyone thinking of booking a cruise might want to consider.
Even though I never got to write my book or play piano at the bottom of the world, I don’t regret my decision to decline the trip any more than Messrs. Hershey or Marconi probably did. For 5 hours in 2007 the terrified passengers of the M/S Explorer no doubt wondered if they would survive. If I want to experience that sort of terror, all I have to do is go on stage without rehearsing.