`Semester at Sea' hits rough water with 2 McDaniel students aboard

Storm south of Alaska forces change of course

February 08, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Andrea Bock was awakened in the early morning hours by her bed being flung across the cabin, a telephone being ripped from the wall and the television tumbling about by the force of a 50-foot wave that lashed the ship she and hundreds of other college students had boarded days earlier.

The television came within inches of hitting her roommate's head.

Bock, 20, a junior communications and theater dual major at McDaniel College in Westminster, severely sprained her ankle as she and the other passengers hurried to put on their life jackets and rushed to the ship's center as the captain had instructed over the public address system.

"Sitting in the hallway, in this little area with 700 students, and you see them all saying their prayers, you go `Oh, my God,' " Bock said via her cell phone, recalling the fear as she realized the severity of a storm that hit them just south of Alaska.

Bock, of Newark, Del., and a fellow McDaniel student - Meghan Ambra, 20, a sophomore studio arts major from Concord, N.H. - boarded the MV Explorer Jan. 18 with 659 other students from 237 colleges as part of the Institute for Shipboard Education's study abroad program. They were joined by 90 faculty and staff members, family members and 14 nonstudent adults.

Looking for an adventure, Bock had signed up for Semester at Sea, an educational excursion that was scheduled to stop in 10 countries.

She hadn't bargained for a 1,000-mile wide storm in the Pacific just as the tour was getting under way.

Almost immediately after setting sail from Vancouver, British Columbia, the ship found itself in stormy waters.

Stephen Ambra of Concord, N.H., said his daughter Meghan had been sending him e-mails that as early as Jan. 19 indicated "the seas are tremendously rocky."

By Jan. 26, the storm's battering waves had knocked out communications equipment and the electronic control mechanisms to the ship's engines, said Paul Watson, spokesman for the Institute for Shipboard Education, based at the University of Pittsburgh.

"There was damage to navigational equipment on the ship's bridge caused by a wave," according to the institute's Web site. "However, the ship remains completely seaworthy and navigable."

Forecasts of continued severe weather prompted the ship's captain to change course.

After days of being tossed about by giant waves and 100-mph winds, the ship's passengers soon found themselves in the nearest port of call, Honolulu. There, the ship's damage is being assessed and repairs have begun.

"When the ship was coming into Honolulu, [Meghan] was excited to see terra firma," said Stephen Ambra, who went several days without receiving an e-mail from his daughter after the ship lost its Internet access.

He finally received a call from Meghan last Tuesday when she borrowed a satellite phone.

"She's fine, physically," he said. "She said people were initially quite frightened, but the staff was excellent."

For Bock and the others, the first leg of the trip was an unexpected adventure.

Bock recalls the 6 1/2 hours that everyone took cover in the ship's innermost hallway.

The Coast Guard had dispatched two helicopters to keep an eye on the vessel, according to the Institute for Shipboard Education's Web site.

The storm was rocking the ship at a 45-degree angle, reports indicated. Bock grew nervous when the crew separated the men from the women.

"They told us that we were not in danger, but that the policy [for evacuation] is for women and children to go first," Bock said.

"In all honesty, I was terrified," Bock said. "Have you ever seen the movie The Perfect Storm? Looking outside, it looked just like that."

South Korea and Japan have been dropped from the itinerary. On Thursday, students are scheduled to fly to Shanghai, China, then to Hong Kong and Vietnam. If all goes according to plan, the ship will meet the students in Vietnam next week and the group will pick up the original itinerary from there, the institute's Watson said yesterday.

Watson said two students have chosen to return home but that the remaining students seem to be taking it all in stride.

"Even though all this has happened, I have no regrets whatsoever," Bock said.

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