Rich memories; almost like a second trip

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Lower Falls, the biggest waterfall in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Photo: JH.

Thursday, July 8, 2021. A very warm sunny day in New York. Muggy too. The city definitely quieter traffic-wise. It’s vacation time historically. Even JH is off with his brother on a brief trip to Jackson Hole. It’s all an eye-opener to the city boy but especially the land itself. Yesterday he took in Old Faithful and part of Yellowstone, all of which was astounding and beautiful.

Town Square – Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

It’s basically no-news time this week in New York.  I’m not much of a traveler. Most trips I’ve taken across the oceans has been for business reasons, and occasionally as a guest with an invitation I could not resist. One of those, or rather there was two or three, had been trips to the Mediterranean, as a guest of friends on a wonderful yacht called The Big Eagle.  The following is my “dispatch” of the final days of one such voyage in 2001. Rich memories; almost like a second trip.

July 24, 2001: The Last Night of the Trip/The Glorious Moment at the Top of the Spanish Steps

The Big Eagle cruisin’.

The last night of our cruise we were anchored in Capri where the following day two of the guests were disembarking for a few weeks stay at the Hotel Scalinatella. From our ship a few hundred yards away was the shoreline dotted with white lights running up the hillside. Capri was alluring even just to the eye. And in the darkened distance, on the top of the steep cliffs, more lights from villas and hotels in the town; it was a magical, romantic sight.

The crew of the Big Eagle + 1.

That last night in Capri, the captain, Ed Featherstone and his first mate Christiana joined us for dinner on the upper deck. It was a beautiful warm evening. In the bay were two other large yachts — the Renegade, and Kisses — both bedecked with ropes of white lights as if there were parties going on. Between the climate, the allure of the island, and traveling on this storybook yacht, it was the ultimate luxury where the “reality” indeed seems real. For that moment.

At the dinner table with Captain Ed and Christiana gave us the opportunity to ask them about their travels and adventures aboard a great luxury yacht. The Big Eagle, the yacht we were cruising on, crossed the Atlantic from Miami every springtime. At dinner we asked them about those crossings of the Atlantic in springtime. 

“Did they ever run into difficult weather?” “Not really.” Because nowadays, the technology is so sophisticated that they can track the weather and avoid the storms.

However, Captain Ed did recount the time when, as the ship was reaching Gibraltar, a violent storm came up with waves that were twenty and thirty feet high, and they were seeing “green” crashing over the bow, with white foam washing up against the windshield of the captain’s deck.

The Big Eagle outside Bonnifacio.

I asked the captain if he were scared at that moment. “No,” was his answer. For as long as they rode with the storm, they were safe. “Had the engines conked out, it would have been a different story,” he added. Then they would have been “at the mercy of the sea.”

Just two weeks before this shipboard dinner, I’d seen a documentary on the Discovery Channel about the storm in the Atlantic in 1993 that caused floods and blizzards and death and destruction over a 2,000 mile area (the length of the Atlantic seaboard).

The final segment was about a container ship that had departed New Brunswick, Canada at the tail end of the storm and ran into trouble with the raging sea. Hearing Captain Ed’s remark at dinner about the danger of losing the motor, I was reminded of that horrifying scene with the ship in the north Atlantic in 1993.

Anchored in the port of Napoli.

The ship’s calls for assistance were met by a search plane marking the ship’s exact location (and video-ing it). The ship had begun to take on water from the 40 and 50-foot waves battering it. The rescue helicopters were unable to fly in because of the violent weather.

Finally, as witnessed by the video, the huge ship began to sink. Then it began to turn over and then it capsized. And then (all recorded on black-and-white videotape), very suddenly, its stern submerged with the bow pointing skyward and then … SWOOSH … it disappeared from the screen. With everyone aboard.

We all turned in by eleven shortly after dinner that last night on the Big Eagle. At that time of the evening there was a very gentle rocking of the boat by the restless sea, almost lulling, as we went to sleep. Then about two I was awakened by sharper rocking movements, and what sounded like banging on and scraping of the hull. I got up and looked through the porthole — nothing to see as the water was slapping up against it. I caught a momentary glimpse of the lights of two other ships in the distant darkness — both rocking like ducks in choppy waters.

Then there were more scrapes. And heavier banging. The imagination was taking over. Were we being invaded? Was some unseen enemy pounding on the hull in order to sink us in this increasingly rough sea?

Then I heard the ship’s engines starting up. And then the clicking/massive rattling /scraping sound of the anchor being lifted. Then I could feel the ship starting to move. Why were we moving? Two of the guests were to be disembarking in the mid-morning hours at that very spot. So where were we going?

The rest of us were to be transported over to Naples (about a hour and a half) where we would be met by a van to take us up to Rome.

With all that in mind, at that late stormy hour, I decided to go up on deck to get a better look at the state of the water. I was surprised that no one else had been awakened by the natural commotion. In the main saloon, where the lights were on, lamps, sculptures, and glass tops had been removed from their shelves and tables and placed on the carpet. One of the hands on board, a young Australian woman named Tanya appeared. She told me that three others were up with Captain Ed.

Up in the captain’s nest were the captain, his first mate, and three other passengers, all in their white terrycloth (ship’s) bathrobes, sitting on the banquette behind the captain, quietly anxious, looking out into the darkness before us. The storm had got so bad, the captain said, that they were risking being dragged and dashed upon the rocks at the foot of the cliffs. So we were looking for another spot. 

A few hundred yards out, we encountered other yachts coming from the opposite direction, looking for the same thing. The cabin was quiet except for the voices that came over the airwaves from other ships. All wondering where to go. Off in the dark distance were the long necklace-like lights of Naples.

The captain decided that the only way to handle the storm was to go with it. To Naples. An hour’s trip to its harbor. And who knew how long to find a place in the harbor. I went to bed. The crisis was over. In fact there was no crisis. Only the rich fears provided by Captain Ed’s story at dinner about the storm off Gibraltar one springtime past.

The next day we woke up to a bright sunny morning and the calm waters in the harbor of Naples. Beautiful Naples. Just beautiful to behold. Orderly, stately, Italian, Mediterranean, sprawling and settled into the soft hillsides. At noon the cars came to pick up us and our baggage and transport us to Rome.

And then on to Rome.

Part II coming tomorrow.

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