SKANEATELES — Right from the get go this cruise was different.
On the day before Super Bowl Sunday, Lisa and Dan Wiles — with extended family in tow — boarded the Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas cruise ship in the old navy yard in Bayonne, New Jersey. This was Dan Wiles' 12th or 13th winter cruise with Royal.
If you aren't sure who Dan Wiles is, he is part of the Mid-Lakes Navigation's Wiles family. He is captain of the double-decker, the Emita II. He's the sibling who is on the Erie Canal from April to October, looking out for the safety and comfort of his passengers, entertaining them with stories about the Erie Canal, talking about its place in history, piloting the boat and directing his crew.
“Yes, it truly is a bus-man's holiday,” Wiles said. “But normally on a boat, I'm making sure people are safe, happy and having a great time. On this type of vacation, I have a crew of 1,500 people looking out for me and my party.”
This is Wiles' story of a storm at sea, from his perspective as not only a passenger but also a ship captain. First things first, the Anthem of the Seas is a ship. Don't ever call it a boat, Wiles said.
It was launched on Feb. 21, 2015. It's the third-biggest cruise ship in the world.
“A smart ship, state of the art, about 16 decks with all the bells and whistles,” he said. "And it still had that new ship smell.”
He and Lisa were joined by her parents, Jack and Kathy Best, Lisa’s brother Joe Best, Uncle Bill Scanlon, and Dan's cousins Peter and Kathy Menzies.
As they were steaming out of Bayonne with 4,500 passengers, the 16-year Royal veteran captain, Claus Andersen, informed the 6,000 people aboard that there was a weather system building along the East Coast. His intention was to steam rapidly through it before it got big.
“Let's see how fast we can go,” Wiles recalled the captain saying. “I thought it was great, exciting. We were flying, doing about 22 nautical knots. Ships seldom cruise over 20 knots."
Traveling from Bayonne to the Bahamas in winter, the first day is often not the best weather wise. But, Wiles likes the idea of being able to drive to the dock and not have to deal with flying and all the waiting around that entails. He wants to get out on the water and even visit New York City either on the way to or home from the cruise.
Super Bowl Sunday was the first full day of sailing, and he acknowledged to being a little disappointed that he couldn't enjoy the outside decks because of rain and wind, but people instead gathered in a glass solarium, where one could still view the vastness of the Atlantic.
It started to get really rough with high winds and big waves, 30 footers. The water actually started sloshing around in the ship's pools, too.
The captain, or sometimes the cruise director, came over the air to update passengers about their progress. That is, until around 3 p.m., when the captain announced that everyone should go to their cabins and stay there. It had gotten more difficult to move about the boat at that time, Wiles said.
“We were on the 11th deck, which was different from passengers on the third deck who must have had water constantly sloshing over the portholes,” he said. “I was never in fear for my life. I was in fear for my comfort. Having built boats and piloted them in all kinds of weather, I was fine. And my wife and our collective family's sense of humor kept us going, but also right away the captain declared pay-per-view and the internet connections were free.”
Wiles said it was a good thing it was the Super Bowl, as it was the perfect distraction. So, people were in their rooms eating snacks and consuming beverages from their mini bars for dinner.
Each cabin's television has a station that broadcasts the position of the ship at all times, wind speeds and the air temperature. At one point, Wiles switched to this station and saw wind speeds of 137 knots, which is 150 mph. The forecast had been for 70 mph winds, so this was a significant difference.
The captain was riding down the coast with the wind at his back. As the winds gained force, about 125 to 150 miles off of South Carolina, the captain turned the ship around, in order to head into the wind. Wiles said when it becomes difficult to manage a ship, moving into the wind will stabilize the vessel.
But, to do this, the captain had to turn the ship around, and that proved to be the roughest part of the whole journey. The vessel did some serious rocking until it did get turned around and then stayed put — or in nautical terms, holding station.
After the passengers were sent to their cabins, the captain or cruise director gave hourly updates.
“By giving us free internet, which gave everyone access to shore and the news, and the frequent updating, the crew wasn't trying to hide the situation we were in,” Wiles said. “All along they were alerting us to their plans and sympathizing with our discomfort.”
Later into the night, the captain announced that the weather system was moving away and that he wasn't going to interrupt their voyage anymore that night and encouraged people to get some sleep.
“I slept,” Wiles said. “Got up the next morning and went in search of food. The galley had taken a real beating. People were out taking pictures and lining up at this Windjammer Cafe that hadn't been able to open on schedule. Keep in mind, the crew of 1,500 went through the storm too. The event brought out the best and the worst in people.”
Passengers from lower cabins had grabbed blankets and come to upper deck lounges to wait out the storm. Furniture was all over the place, with rumors of up to 500 deck chairs out to sea. There was broken glass everywhere, and there were ceiling tiles down with exposed wires hanging. It was mostly cosmetic. They hadn’t been alerted to any mechanical damage, but Wiles could hear the difference in the engines.
As the day moved forward, the captain came on the horn saying something to the effect of that being the worst night of his sailing career and that there was another storm system developing off of Florida.
“We've put you through enough, so we are going to steam back to Bayonne,” Wiles recalled the captain saying.
Then, he announced a one-hour open bar and that there would be a full refund for the cruise including tax, gratuities and parking costs on shore, and each guest will be given 50 percent of what they paid for the cruise toward a new cruise. In addition, any cost incurred because of having to change flights will be reimbursed.
Once the storm was over, the ship was up and running with most services and shows, except the pools and features that needed to be looked at before operating, such as the wave rider.
They were approaching Bayonne around 9 p.m. Feb. 10 when the captain announced that passengers had the choice of disembarking that night or in the morning.
“It was a beautiful night with the New York skyline sparkling across the water,” Wiles said.
And then he noticed the news helicopters in the air and the press set up on the shore, where 1,500 people chose to get off the ship as fast as they could. Meanwhile, 3,000 passengers stayed on board enjoying one more night on the water.
Wiles admired the way the weather event was handled and was disappointed in the media coverage, which centered on the most anxious customers who were the first to get off the boat when it landed and were met by the waiting news crews, who in turn were anxious to turn in these firs- person accounts of the voyage.
But, what about the Titanic? Had this captain risked the possibilities of sinking the ship?
“Giant cruise ships don't sink," Wiles said. "The Titanic was instead designed for transportation meant to move people from one point to another. A cruise ship is designed to entertain people on board. There is no comparison. The Titanic is Stone Age compared to the engineering from two world wars that has gone into the sea worthiness of today's cruise ships. Ship building has come a long way.”
By the next Saturday, Feb. 13, the Anthem of the Seas was cleared by the Coast Guard to set sail again, which it did with a full passenger load.
The Wiles fully intend to use their discount to take another cruise when their busy schedule permits. This last one wasn't the cruise Dan Wiles thought he had signed on for, but instead it was a different type of adventure on the high seas and that was all right by him.