How I survived a sinking cruise ship

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In March 2019, Chaney Kwak was a freelance travel writer with a cushy writing assignment: He was traveling aboard the Viking Sky cruise ship on a 12-day jaunt off the Norwegian coast, visiting small towns and cities before making a scheduled arrival in Tilbury, a port near London. There were 1,373 passengers and crew aboard the ship. 

And then disaster struck. 

On March 23, stormy weather caused the ship to begin listing dangerously and taking on water amid 43 mph gusts of wind and waves that reached over 26 feet. Tables and chairs flew; a grand piano flipped over. And for about 27 hours, Kwak believed his death was, if not certain, a definite possibility. 

“I was pretty shocked by how calm I was,” says Kwak. “I was seasick, but once the evacuation started, I went into a Zen zone. I went back to my room and mechanically got completely naked and redressed myself in what I thought gave me the highest chances of survival. Then I put my passport down my underwear. As I was doing that, I thought my body might be found, and I wanted my body to be found. I was really calm and not sentimental.” 

His book, “The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruises & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship” (Godine), out now, recounts the entire crisis in a memoir that’s thoughtful, exciting, and often hilarious. (At one point, he checks Twitter and is appalled to find people tweeting “thoughts and prayers” at his own situation. As with most things on Twitter, it “quickly evolved into a cacophony of information and misinformation.”) 

The waves were too high to deploy rescue boats, so Norwegian rescue services used six helicopters over the course of 19 hours to make a collective 30 trips back and forth, rescuing 479. Ultimately, tow vessels were able to bring the ship back to the port of Molde, rescuing the remaining 436 passengers and crew of 458. There were no fatalities. 

Would he ever go on another cruise? “No. I see how convenient they are and totally understand why so many people find them appealing. But I always had a hard time reconciling what was going on downstairs with the crew. I sat on my butt the whole time and there were crew members who stayed up putting everything back together. It’s hard to be OK with that now that I’ve seen that.”

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